Fragrance in Childhood Literature-Dune Boy The Early Years Of A Naturalist by Edwin Way Teale

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Dune Boy The Early Years Of A Naturalist by Edwin Way Teale


The sun pressed its heat on his back; poured its heat
on the ancient shingles around him. The smell of a pitchy
tanarack tree was strong in the air. Mud-dauber wasps
droned past on blurring wings, going and coming in then-
labors beneath the eaves. The countryside lay still in the
heat of the midsummer morning.

This structure was far more than a storage place for
rye and wheat and hardware. The granary was also a
Rainy Day Club where Gramp and I foregathered and
where he smoked his pipe and mended bits of harness
and told me enthralling stories of his own boyhood.
At such times the air would be filled with a delicious
variety of odors. The smell of the fresh rain pelting into
the hot, dry dust outside the doorway would be mingled
with the aroma of Cramp's corncob pipe, with the odor
of paint and tar and axle-grease. Innumerable other olfac-
tory ingredients contributed anonymously to the whole.
But one predominant ingredient was far from anonymous.
This was the all-pervading mousy smell which filled the
interior of the old building.

After the excitement of delivering the strawberries was
over, Gramp and I would ride slowly back down the sand-
road in the direction of Lone Oak. At Lewrey's store we
would pull up and tie Deck and Colty to the iron pipe
which ran through four heavy posts. Then we would enter
the cavernous interior. Crossing the threshold was like
entering some Valhalla of the sense of smell. Our nostrils
were assailed by a thousand and one odors mingling to-
gether the mysterious smell of spice and coffee, com-
modities from tropical lands, of coal oil and sugar and
cheese and crackers and vinegar and overalls and rubber
boots. Saws and axes hung in a corner and shelves held
everything from bolts of calico to lamp-chimneys packed
in excelsior.


On winter nights a trip down cellar after apples or
cider was an olfactory adventure of the highest odor. The
smell of the kerosene lamp mingled with the delicious
odor of stored fruit, the earthy smell of the potato bin,
the heavy scent of the pickle-kegs, the hundred and one
other perfumes of this storehouse of food.

On my orchard hillside, beneath a darkening sky, I
used to race about, breathing in the fresh lake-smell
which came with the wind, climbing among the tossing
branches of the cherry trees. Great winds from the north-
west, booming through the trees, found a response in my
nervous system. In this emotion I imagined myself for
many years peculiar and alone. Then I came upon John
Muir's account of a great night storm in a western forest
in which he relates his intense delight in climbing among
the trees as they bent like bows under the buff etings of the
wind. Here was a kindred spirit, one who knew as I knew
the joy of battling amid the pounding surf of the air.

Lying under the low ceiling in the little room at the
head of the stairs, I would breathe deeply of the delicious
kitchen-smells and wriggle with delight at the prospects
of the morrow.

By a sense of smell alone I could have followed our
progress on that journey. First came the odor of hot,
dry dust; then the heavy, acrid smell of the swamp; then
the penetrating, unforgettable aroma of the duneland
pines; and finally that stirring freshness, the breath of
the great inland lake.

From earliest memory scenes around me impressed
themselves deeply on my mind. Certain landscapes, to-
gether with the sounds, the smells, the activities of the
moment, are still vivid after a lapse of decades. There is,
in particular, one Lone Oak moment which has returned to
me innumerable times.

A still winter day was drawing to its close. Gramp and
I had driven home from Michigan City with a bob-sled
loaded with coal for the parlor stove. As we carried it
into the cellar, a bushel-basketful at a time, our shoes
squeaked on the hard-packed snow. The sunset, over
Gunder's Hill, faded slowly into twilight in that perfect
stillness which fills the air on certain nights of silent cold.

These piles of periodicals lay in shadowy heaps around
me. The smell of old paper and dust was heavy in the air.
Through a process of natural selection, the piles furthest
back in the dim recesses of the attic were the most ancient,
those near the door the most recent. It was among the
former that I made the most interesting discoveries. There
were Ladies Home Journals dating back long before the
advent of Edward Bok. There were old copies of Harpers
Magazine, The Youth's Companion, McClure's Magazine,
Everybody's, and one periodical whose name I cannot
remember which devoted whole pages to paintings of
birds.

During the preceding days, when I had been digging
potatoes with the smell of hot dry dust in my nostrils
and the weight of the burning sunshine on my back I
had dreamed of this moment: of opening the screen door,
of entering the cool, dim interior, of pulling back a chair
with the faint, complaining screech of metal on tile, of
looking over the printed menu, of weighing all the virtues
of all the concoctions, of always deciding on the same
thing a wintergreen soda and of that final blissful
moment when with its pink foam rising like sunset-
tinted clouds the soda was set before me. All now be-
came an actuality.


I knew the interior of this square graystone building
almost as well as I did the fields of Lone Oak. With a pile
of returning books under my arm, I would enter the quiet
building filled with the mingled, mysterious smell of old
leather, stored books, and piles of magazines and pa-
pers. On one wall there was a case containing thirty-three
mounted butterflies, the first that I had ever seen, and I
used to stand fascinated by their shapes and colors. The
librarians there were always kind to us and few buildings
in the world have meant more to me than this gray store-
house of learning and adventure.

But more vividly than any of these associations, the
images of Lone Oak surroundings are joined with books.
Merely the titles of some of those entrancing early volumes
When Wilderness Was King,, The Green Mountain
Boys, The Deerslayer, Barriers Burned Away, Wings of
the Morning are sufficient to bring back the crying of
the whippoorwills, the smell of the kerosene lamp, the
fluttering of moth-wings along the lighted window-
screens, as Gram read on and on during those long-ago
summer nights.

The starting of the book remains a vivid recollection.
Gram was ironing in the kitchen. The house was redolent
with the rich smell of beeswax which she occasionally ap-
plied to her heated iron. I was hunched over the dining-
room table scribbling with a pencil on a pad of lined
writing-paper. At the top of the first page I had placed the
words: "TAILS OF LONE OAK/' and, under it, the magic
notation: "Chapter I/'

For two winters wood from the old oak fed the kitchen
range and the dining-room stove. It had a clean, well-
seasoned smell. And it burned with a clear and leaping
flame, continuing unlike the quickly consumed poplar
and elm for an admirable length of time. Like the old
tree itself, the fibers of these sticks had character and
endurance to the very end.

This outfit was used for burning designs into wood. A
glass container filled with wood-alcohol supplied fuel. A
rubber bulb pumped up air-pressure and fed the alcohol
to a metal point to keep it red-hot. In the days that fol-
lowed we all tried our hand at burning floral and bird
designs in the tops of boxes and on the flat surfaces of
smooth boards. The smell of alcohol and wood-smoke
filled the house for hours on end. This outfit, together with
my carving set which left evidences of its use in the form
of chips and shavings on the kitchen floor provided the
most amusement for indoor hours during succeeding days.

He recalled flying through the smoke of the Gary steel
mills and coming out into the wonderful air of the dunes.
It was rich with the scent of sweet ferns or "a sort of
Indiana heather." Welcomed by an enormous crowd
and a white flag waved vigorously, he and Beckwith
Havens landed at Michigan City. "The storm that had
been threatening all afternoon/' he wrote, "broke on us
with terrific fury. The beach was cleared in an instant
and we began the fight of our lives to keep the old boat
from starting on a cruise over the sand dunes. At first we
had two volunteers. But after getting soaked they re-
signed in favor of one small boy"

But there was, in the dune country of my day, much to
see and much to enjoy. I was out-of-doors from morning
until night, running barefoot and in overalls, a straw-hat
protecting me from the midday sun. Capable of tre-
mendous enthusiasms, I was like a dog that has lost the
scent darting first this way, then that. One day I would
be head over heels in one activity, the next day just as ex-
cited about another. Undoubtedly I led my grandparents
a merry chase. They rarely knew what was coming next.
One time they would discover me making a harness out
of binding-twine for a baby calf; another time I would
have plans all worked out for devoting the whole farm
to cabbage and shipping trainloads to Chicago. I remem-
ber how vividly I could see, in my mind's eye, a puffing
locomotive and a long line of freight cars stretching away
to the horizon and a banner on each carrying the sign:
"Lone Oak Cabbages/'