Fragrance in Nature Literature-The Beech Woods by Duncan Armbrest

The beech woods : how the neighbour learned the many secrets of a Canadian woods

Farther along the path the dogwood
was a bower of white, and its strong
perfume filled the air, blending with
that of the flowers beneath and the
apple blossoms which came floating to
the woods from the orchard near by.
The mandrake with its umbrella-like
top crowded the open side of a little
knoll and the budding bellwort grew
thickly about. A brave jack-in-the-
pulpit stood facing a company of tril-
liums, some white, some red, and all
attentive, while a cluster of violets near
by listened with rare humility. Some-
where unseen, perhaps Pan was play-
ing the music of this woodland service
— who knows?

Autumn had come again to the
woods, brushing the trees and fields
with its wonderful colours, swinging
its magic incense in the air, flooding the
day with golden light, starting the
subtle hum of music, and investing all
the tranced hours with a touch of
romance. Yet above the contentment
and the hush, greater than the attrac-
tion of colour, more luring than the
opalescent light, was this spicy incense
of the Autumn air. Magical and mys-
terious is the potency of these pungent
odours, so different from those of the
Spring, and yet the call to the woods
is the same. Perhaps the flowers of
the Autumn have a more lasting and
stronger perfume than those of other
seasons, and grow more abundantly, if
not in such a rich variety. The yellow
goldenrod is everywhere along the
fence rows and in the open, sharing
the ground with the fragrant purple
aster. And there is the old-fashioned
everlasting with its old-fashioned re-
dolent aroma, a flower of the dying
year. These, added to the spicy scent
of burning leaves, would seem to form
a foundation for all the Autumn odours
that haunt the woods.

One afternoon early in October the
Neighbour felt the call to the open and
rambled across the fields, climbed
through the rail fence in the lane, and
stopped for a moment to gaze upon the
scene that lay before him. Autumn's
gorgeous pageant stood waiting in the
mellow golden light. The polychrome
of colour went rippling across the face
of the woods in waves and splashes of
russet, green, aureolin and red, while
the wild barbaric flame of the giant
maple rose above the canopy of trees
like the sceptre of an Autumn king.
Out in the fields a solitary hickory
stood in livery of gold, cherry clumps
were brushed with rusty yellow, and
lowland ash turned a purplish tint.
From horizon to horizon the panoramic
pageant stretched in richest splendour
and softly disappeared in the smoky
haze of the dim distance. The lazy
drone of insect music was borne in
upon the senses, and the lonesome call
of birds came from the etherical wastes
above. This was a day when Nature
seemed to softly doze, and dozing
dream of heaven, and dreaming wake
to find it true.
The Neighbour sauntered down the
lane toward the gap, passing fence cor-
ners crowded with goldenrod and
others a purple glow of asters. How
sweet the asters smelled, these " Asters
of the Wood,'' with their beautiful con-
trast of colours. There seems to be
nothing that just can fill the place of
these sturdy flowers, so rich in colour
and perfume.

All the fragrant flowers of Autumn
appeared to congregate in this favoured
place. In the hollows and all about
the roots of the pine stubs that bor-
dered the woods at this spot ferns
spread their luxuriant fronds. From
little tufts still green as in the early
Spring they ranged to giant stems four
feet high and the dying under-leaves
cast their woody fragrance in the air,
adding to the indescribable diffusion of
odours so impelling at this wonderful
season. Creeping up the hill and
crowning its crest, the pearly white
everlasting held the flank of this wild
garden, and the dying leaves of the
wild strawberry, reminiscent of early
Summer, gave a ruddy glow from their
lowly bed. The Spring, so rich in
flowers and fresh with reviving life,
seemed not to be compared to this riot
of colour and perfume. Across the
creek, beneath the beeches, standing
along the sloping bank, the beech-drops
thrived in tall brown ranks. This
parasite plant draws its sustenance
from the roots of the beech tree and
develops two forms of flowers on its
tall stems. At the top of its forking
branches the tubular magenta flowers
with purple stripes appear, and lower
down the little flowers like buds sit
close upon the upright stems and never
open. Not far along the creek bank a
few surviving plants of ginseng show
their gaudy red berries. Its roots are
shaped like the human body, and much
medicinal value is attached to them by
the Orientals.

In the hollows of the creek a white
mist hung, and dimly through it, like
gray ghosts, tree trunks showed their
many forms. Not a breath was stir-
ring, and perfumes without number lay
cradled in the air in unseen strata of
variable depth. Here by a stump, where
the sweet white violets grew, the air was
heavy with their delicate perfume. The
strong woody odour of the ferns floated
in the hollows where they filled the
spaces with luxuriant green. By the
lane and on the strawberry-covered
knoll, or in the hollow of the creek,
the subtle scents, still undiffused, hung
above their magic source. When pass-
ing through these invisible strata of
the Morning air, one had a sense of
walking in a fairy garden where rarest
flowers grew in countless numbers,
each redolent of the ambrosial attar of
the gods.

Steaming up from the drying earth
the pungent odours of dead leaves and
moss arose, filling the air with the very
essence of Spring. This is the indomit-
able call of the out-of-doors. It is not
the light of the morning, nor the length-
ening of days, nor the call of the first
robin which awakens the Spring unrest,
but the magic breeze that floats in at
the open window, laden with memories
of a glorious green earth. This is the
potent incense which awakens the
ancestral vagabondage of man and
drives him out to seek the healing of
the sky and fields and woods.

Each season had its changing moods
and its variable nights. The hope of
Spring or the bloom of Summer cannot
approach the Autumn Night of rare
aromas and enchanting moonlight. The
woods were wrapped in calm repose,
yet seemed to pulsate in the soft flood
that bathed) all objects and hung above
the far horizon like a bridal veil. From
the new-sown wheat fields the scent of
burning pine came floating through the
air, and the glow of burning stumps
marked the border of the new-ground.
On these nights the quavering voice of
the little owl echoed across the fields
and was answered in the neighbouring
woods by another plaintive call. All
through the hours of shimmering light
these soft voices answered back and
forth, adding a magic touch to the
romantic Night.

Along the path beyond the big chest-
nut, where here and there splashes of
sunlight illuminate the bark of the
leaning beech and fall on a bank of
green moss, a scent more luring than
anything else at this time of year is
first encountered. The path leads us
half-way into the open to meet the dis-
tiller of that delicious scent, and here
they grow — wild strawberries hiding
in luscious clusters, ripe and red in the
grass among the stumps of the clear-
ing. A hatful of these delicious beau-
ties is worth travelling many miles to
obtain, and the fun of gathering is no
small part of the pleasure, for as each
hidden cluster is discovered there is
always felt that instant thrill of sur-
prise, and the welcome given the bearer
of such a hatful is most spontaneous,
to say the least, especially if they are
the first of the season.

Summer had now brought its last
migrants to the Beech Woods and
flowers of the season had come to re-
place those of the awakening days of
Spring. The grass has grown longer
in the hay field and the young* clover is
now a mass of red and white. The days
soon followed when the song of the
mower thrilled the morning hours and
often far into the dusk. The sweet
scent of the new-mown hay floated to
the woods at evening, mingling with
the scent of ferns and flowers.

The woods were washed and the
leaves shimmered and sparkled with
the water drops still clinging to them.
In the great battle just passed the
woods had lost one of its number, but
not a beech, for the beech tree is im-
mune to lightning. Over near the
eastern fence a tall pine had been
struck and cut clean in two, and the
whole upper part thrown some dis-
tance from the remaining stub. Great
chips lay strewn about and the scent
of fresh pine filled the air.

Thus the season waned through sun
and shower and frost toward Novem-
ber's end. Then came a day of lan-
guorous quiet with golden dust floating
in the aromatic air and horizons veiled
in blue haze. Indian Summer had come
to cast her magic spell for a brief sea-
son upon the brown fields and leafless
woods. These golden days of almost
Summer warmth were welcomed by all
the little creatures of the woods, and
birds appeared that might have been
building new homes under the tropic

Thus the season waned through sun
and shower and frost toward Novem-
ber's end. Then came a day of lan-
guorous quiet with golden dust floating
in the aromatic air and horizons veiled
in blue haze. Indian Summer had come
to cast her magic spell for a brief sea-
son upon the brown fields and leafless
woods. These golden days of almost
summer warmth were welcomed by all
the little creatures of the woods, and
birds appeared that might have been
building new homes under the tropic

On these nocturnal rambles he learned
the habits of the wood mice, with their
large eyes and long, delicate ears —
beautiful little creatures they were.
He studied the stars that winked
through the lattice of the trees or
watched for the strange lights that
used to rise and hang over a low wood
to the south. He learned the meaning
of each Night sound that came to him
in these silent watches. The baying of
a pair of hounds away up the hill came
faint and far to tell of the wise little
cottontail eluding its pursuers. The
pungent odours of the forest were
known in time, but best of all he grew
to understand the wind that came
when trees were bare and sighed or
moaned or whispered gently by his
feet. Under the great arches were
heard the harmonies of the ancient
wood sighing for its vanished tribes,
moaning for its lost people.

Who has not climbed to some hill top
where the great mellow winds of Spring
blow down from heaven, or stood upon
some river marge, or, passing by the
forest's edge, caught the sweet wood-
odour of the newly-born season and,
breathing deeply of the vivifying air,
felt the wild impulse to run away?
Away anywhere would do, just to be
moving somewhere with mammoth
strides and heart as light and carefree
as a ten-year-old; away from the pro-
saic, everyday things of life, and go
search for the land of Arcadia. This
is the primal instinct following us
down through the ages, from cave to
tepee, from tepee to hut and from hut
to apartment. It is the ancient germ
of restlessness which rouses us, even
as it did the nomad, eons and eons ago.
A voice from the pond awoke, and
was joined by another and another.
As the nights became warmer a perfect
oratorio of praise ascended along the
creek and far back to the dark pools
of the woods. The clear musical voices
of the toads, tremulous and sustained
in their calls, drown all other voices
of the night and continue even after
the dawn. They are true harbingers of
Summer warmth.