Fragrance in Nature Literature-The Jonathan Papers by Elisabeth Woodbridge Morris

The Jonathan Papers by Elisabeth Woodbridge Morris

After luncheon and a long, lazy rest on our
log we went back to the stream and loitered
down its bank. Pussy-willows, their sleek sil
ver paws bursting into fat, caterpillary things,
covered us with yellow pollen powder as we
brushed past them. Now and then we were
arrested by the sharp fragrance of the spice
bush, whose little yellow blossoms had es
caped our notice. In the damp hollows the
ground was carpeted with the rich, mottled
green leaves and tawny yellow bells of the
adder s-tongue, and the wet mud was sweet
with the dainty, short-stemmed white violets.
On the dry, barren places were masses of saxi
frage, bravely cheerful; on the rocky slopes
fragile anemones blew in the wind, and fluffy
green clumps of columbine lured us on to a
vain search for an early blossom.


Very old and very, very unprogressive is
the farm itself. There is nothing on it but
old apple trees, old lilac bushes, old rocks,
and old associations and, to be sure, the
old red house. But the old rocks, piled on the
hillsides, are unfailingly picturesque, whether
dark and dripping in the summer rains or
silver gray in the summer suns. The lilacs
are delightful, too. In June they send wave
upon wave of fragrance in through the little
windows, penetrating even to the remotest
corners of the dim old attic, while all day long
about their pale lavender sprays the great
yellow and black butterflies hang flutteringly.
Best of all is the orchard; the old apple trees
blossom prodigally for a brief season in May,
blossom in rosy-white, in cream-white, in
pure white, in green-white, transforming the
lane and the hill-slopes into a bower, smother
ing the old house in beauty, brooding over it,
on still moonlight nights, in pale clouds of
sweetness. And then comes a wind, with a
drenching rain, and tears away all the pretty
petals and buries them in the grass below.
But there are seldom any apples; all this
exuberance of beauty is but a dream of youth,
not a promise of fruitage. Jonathan, indeed,
tells me that if we want the trees to bear we
must keep pigs in the orchard to root up the
ground and eat the wormy fruit as it falls ; but
under these conditions I would rather not
have the apples. The orchard is old; why not
leave it to dream and rest and dream again?

What that strange sweetness of the early
spring is I have never fully discovered. The
fragrance of flowers is in it, hepaticas,
white violets, arbutus, yet it is none of
these. It comes before any of the flowers are
even astir, when the arbutus buds are still
tight little green points, when the hepaticas
have scarcely pushed open their winter
sheaths, while their soft little gray-furred
heads are still tucked down snugly, like a
bird s head under its wing. Before even the
snowdrops at our feet and the maples over
head have thought of blossoming, a soft
breath may blow across our path filled with
this wondrous fragrance. It is like a dream of
May. One might believe the fairies were pass
ing by.

For years I was completely baffled by it.
But one March, in the farm orchard, I found
out part of the secret. I was planting my
sweet peas, when the well-remembered and
bewildering fragrance blew across me. I
sprang up and ran up the wind, and there, in
the midst of the old orchard, I came upon an
old apple tree just cut down by the thrift of
Jonathan s farmer, who has no silly weakness
for old apple trees. The fresh-cut wood was
moist with sap, and as I bent over it ah,
there it was! Here were my hepaticas, my
arbutus, here in the old apple tree! Such a
surprise ! I sat down beside it to think it over.
I was sorry it was cut down, but glad it had
told me its secret before it was made into
logs and piled in the woodshed. Blazing in
the fireplace it would tell me many things,
but it might perhaps not have told me
that.


And so I knew part of the secret. But only
part. For the same fragrance has blown to
me often where there were no orchards and
no newly felled apple trees, and I have never,
except this once, been able to trace it. If it is
the flowing sap in all trees, why are not the
spring woods full of it? But they are not full
of it; it comes only now and then, with tan
talizing capriciousness. Do sound trees ex
hale it, certain kinds, when the sap starts, or
must they have been cut or bruised, if not by
the axe, perhaps by the winter winds and
the ice storms? I do not know. I only know
that when that breath of sweetness comes,
it is the very breath of spring itself; it is
the call of spring out of winter spring
grass.

I bring back from it a memory of sunshine
and grass, bird notes and running water, the
broad realities of nature. Nay, more than a
memory a mood that holds a certain
poise of spirit that comes from a sense of the
largeness and sweetness and sufficiency of the
whole live, growing world. Spring grass
the rare fragrance of the spring air is the
call. The Yellow Valley holds the answer.

He came, with heavy tread. We sat down,
and looked out over the twinkling swamp.
The hay had just been cut, and the air was
richly fragrant. The hush of night encom
passed us, yet the darkness was full of life.
Crickets chirruped steadily in the orchard
behind us. From a distant meadow the purr
ing whistle of the whip-poor-will sounded in
continuous cadence, like a monotonous and
gentle lullaby. The woods beyond the open
swamp, a shadowy blur against the sky, were
still, except for a sleepy note now and then
from some bird half -a wakened. Once a wood
thrush sang his daytime song all through, and
murmured part of it a second time, then sank
into silence.

Lately, I chanced upon such a garden. I
was walking along a quiet roadside, almost
dusky beneath the shade of close-set giant
maples, when an unexpected fragrance
breathed upon me. I lingered, wondering. It
came again, in a warm wave of the August
breeze. I looked up at the tangled bank beside
me surely, there was a spray of box peep
ing out through the tall weeds! There was a



"ESCAPED FROM OLD GARDENS" 109

bush of it another! Ah! it was a hedge, a
box hedge! Here were the great stone steps
leading up to the gate, and here the old, square
capped fence-posts, once trim and white, now
sunken and silver-gray. The rest of the fence
was lying among the grasses and goldenrod,
but the box still lived, dead at the top, its leaf
less branches matted into a hoary gray tangle,
but springing up from below in crisp green
sprays, lustrous and fragrant as ever, and
richly suggestive of the past that produced it.
For the box implies not merely human life,
but human life on a certain scale: leisurely,
decorous, well-considered. It implies faith in
an established order and an assured future. A
beautiful box hedge is not planned for im
mediate enjoyment; it is built up inch by
inch through the years, a legacy to one s heirs.
Beside the gate-posts stood what must once
have been two pillars of box. As I passed be
tween them my feet felt beneath the matted
weeds of many seasons the broad stones of the
old flagged walk that led up through the gar
den to the house. Following it, I found, not
the house, but the wide stone blocks of the old
doorsteps, and beyond these, a ruin gray
ashes and blackened brick, two great heaps
of stone where the chimneys had been, with
the stone slabs that lined the fireplaces fallen
together. At one end was the deep stone cellar
filled now with young beeches as tall as the
house once was. Just outside stood two
cherry trees close to the old house wall so
close that they had burned with it and now
stood, black and bare and gaunt, in silent
comradeship. At the other end I almost
stumbled into the old well, dark and still, with
a glimmer of sky at the bottom.

And the garden is mine now mine be
cause I have found it, and every one else, as I
like to believe, has forgotten it. Next it is a
grove of big old trees. Would they not have
been cut down years ago if any one had re
membered them? And on the other side is a
meadow whose thick grass, waist-high, ought
to have been mowed last June and gathered
into some dusky, fragrant barn. But it is for
gotten, like the garden, and will go leisurely
to seed out there in the sun; the autumn
winds will sweep it and the winter snow will
mat down its dried tangle.


I know one such a royal one even among
huckleberry patches. To get to it you go up



134 THE JONATHAN PAPERS

an old road, up, and up, and up, you
pass big fields, newmown and wide open to
the sky, you get broader and broader outlooks
over green woodland and blue rolling hills,
with a bit of azure river in the midst. You
come out on great flats of rock, thinly edged
with light turf, and there before you are the
"berry lots," as the natives call them,
rolling, windy uplands, with nothing bigger
than cedars and wild cherry trees to break
their sweep. The berry bushes crowd together
in thick-set patches, waist-high, interspersed
with big "high-bush" shrubs in clumps or
alone, low, hoary juniper, and great, dark
masses of richly glossy, richly fragrant bay.
The pointed cedars stand about like sentinels,
stiff enough save where their sensitive tops
lean delicately away from the wind. In the
scant herbage between is goldenrod, the earli
est and the latest alike at home here, and red
lilies and asters, and down close to the ground,
if you care to stoop for them, trailing vines
of dewberries with their fruit, the sweetest
of all the blackberries. Truly it is a goodly
prospect, and one to fill the heart with satis
faction that the world is as it is.


I settled down comfortably under the yel
low-top, and instantly I realized what a pleas
ant thing it is to be a landmark. For one
thing, when you sit down in a field you get a
very different point of view from that when
you stand. Goldenrod is different looked at
from beneath, with sky beyond it; sky is dif-
ferent seen through waving masses of yellow.
Moreover, when you sit still outdoors, the
life of things comes to you; when you are
moving yourself, it evades you. Down among
the weeds where I sat, the sun was hot, but the
breeze was cool, and it brought to me, now
the scent of wild grapes from an old stonewall,
now the spicy fragrance of little yellow apples
on a gnarled old tree in the fence corner, now
the sharp tang of the goldenrod itself. The
air was full of the hum of bees, and soon I
began to distinguish their different tones
the deep, rich drone of the bumblebees, the
higher singsong of the honeybees, the snarl
of the yellow- jacket, the jerky, nasal twang
of the black-and-white hornet. They began
to come close around me; two bumblebees
hung on a frond of goldenrod so close to my
face that I could see the pollen dust on their
fur. Crickets and grasshoppers chirped and
trilled beside me. All the little creatures
seemed to have accepted me all but one
black-and-white hornet, who left his proper
pursuits, whatever they may have been, to
investigate me. He buzzed all around me in
an insistent, ill-bred way that was annoying.
He examined my neck and hair with unneces
sary thoroughness, flew away, returned to
begin all over again, flew away and returned
once more; but at last even he gave up the
matter and went off about his business.

I know our swamp
as a hippopotamus might, or to stick to
plain Yankee creatures a mud turtle. It is
a very swampy swamp, with spring holes and
channels and great shallow pools where the
leaves from the tall swamp maples scarlet
and rose and ashes of roses sift slowly down
and float until they sink into the leaf mould
beneath. I have favorite paths through it as
the squirrels have in the tree-tops; I know
where the mud is too deep to venture, where
the sprawling, moss-covered roots of the
maples offer grateful support; I know the
brushy edges where the blossoming witch-
hazel fills the air with its quaint fragrance; I
know the sunny, open places where the tufted
ferns, shoulder high, and tawny gold after the
early frosts, give insecure but welcome foot
ing; I know too well indeed the thickets
of black alder that close in about me and tug
at my gun and drive me to fury.

Winter does some things for us that sum
mer cannot do. Summer gives us everything
all at once color, fragrance, line, sound
in an overwhelming exuberance of riches.
And it is good. But winter Ah, winter is
an artist, winter has reserves; he selects, he
emphasizes, he interprets. Winter says, " I will
give you nothing to-day but brown and white,
but I will glorify these until you shall wonder
that there can be any beauty except thus."
And again winter says: "Did you think the
world was brown and white? Lo, it is blue
and rose and silver nothing else!" And we
look, and it is so. On that other evening, in
the fog, the world had been all gray black-
gray and pale gray and silver gray. On this
evening winter said: "Gray? Not at all. You
shall have brown and gold. Behold and mar
vel!"


Forgotten and as I lie in the long grass,
drowsy with the scent of the hedge and the
phlox, I seem only a memory myself. If I
stay too long I shall forget to go away, and
no one will remember to find me. In truth, I
feel not unwilling that it should be so. Could
there be a better place? "Escaped from old
gardens"! Ah, foolish, foolish flowers! If I
had the happiness to be born in an old garden,
I would not escape. I would stay there, and
dream there, forever!


The belated postman s buggy, with pre
sumably a postman inside it somewhere be
hind the sheathing of black rubber, drove up,
our mail-box grated open and shut, and the
streaming horse sloshed on. Jonathan turned
up his collar and dashed out to the box, and
dashed in again, bringing with him a great
gust of rainy sweetness and the smell of wet
woolen.


After a few miles we turned off the main
highway to take the rut road through the great
marsh. The smell of the salt flats was about
us, and the sound of the sea was growing
more clear again. A big bird whirred off from
the marsh close beside us. "Meadowlark,"
murmured Jonathan. Another little one, with
silent, low flight, then more. "Sandpipers,"
he commented; "we don t want them." The
patient horse plodded along, now in damp
marsh soil, now in dry, deep sand, to the hitch-
ing-place by an old barn on the cliff.

It still seems so. But of all the dream the
most vivid part more vivid even than the
alarm clock, more real than my tumble into
wetness is the vision that remains with me
of mist-swept marsh, all gray and green and
yellow, with tawny haycocks and glimmer
ings of water and whirrings of wings and whis
tling bird notes and the salt smell of the sea.