Fragrance in Nature Literature-The roll of the seasons; a book of nature essays ([1913]) by G.G. Desmond

The roll of the seasons; a book of nature essays ([1913]) by G.G. Desmond

Already the twenty-mile circle from Charing Cross
is nearly starless, and it needs a two-hours' journey
to take a skilled topographer to a wood or covert-
side, where the primroses are at peace. Here the
unimaginative male person rests and inhales the
subtle perfume of a fine day, listens to the upward
carol of the lark, watches the blusterous humble-bee
questing for a hole in which to build, and goes
home, saying no more than that he has seen the
primroses.


THE sun shines as it scarcely has done since Easter,
making a visible incense of heat ripple up from the
whole garden, sending the swallows almost out of
sight in quest of their prey, causing certain vegetation
to crack audibly as it is twisted or strained by the
unwonted temperature. But the sharp " snip, snip "
that comes from the wooden frame of the cucumber-
bed is neither the complaint of an overstrained twig
nor the crackling of a crane's-bill pod discharging its
seed. A wasp, brilliant in new black-and-gold, is
there, biting the fibre into short lengths to make
communal paper for the extension of the nest.


The honey in
our new hive and all the pounds consumed in the
preparation of wax and the feeding of five or ten
thousand grubs came from the apple blossom,
snatched thence in a feverish ten days' foray. The
apple blossom is gone, so will the hawthorn blossom,
now pouring its sweets into the hive, so will the
fragrant horse-bean, the white clover, the raspberry,
and all the other delights of summer. Carpe diem !
is the instinct of every summer thing, whether it be
treasure or pleasure that is to be made sure of.


In their wise way our hive-bees know all about
the keeping of honey, and pollen too. The honey is
not just bucketed and sealed, but fanned and warmed
and cooled, fermented with the right, but not the
wrong, fermentation, preserved with a dash of formic
acid, and sealed just in the right condition. We hope
there is joy in these chemical niceties, but surely
there is joy in the gathering of the honey-flow. The
under sides of the green lime boughs are a mass of
golden stars that beckon you from the sunshine into
the indigo shadows, out of the dry sunlight into the
moist fragrance of honey temples, out of what breezes
may blow into a calm that is soon made musical with
humming. Every leaf seems to have become a bell,
a fuzzy bell that drones without clangour, that echoes
with each stroke. It cannot have been " immemorial
elms " in which was heard " the murmur of innumer-
able bees." The elm's wind blossoms are of February.
There is no midsummer music to be compared to
that of the lindens when the bees have got their
blossoms. All the long morning and all the long
afternoon they hum there as though there was
nothing else than to sing to sleep the drone whose
hammock is slung there. Unseen, each one slips
away to the hive ; unnoted, each empty one takes
her place. Only the blossoms hang there all the
time with their lazily offered golden reward.

Everything is new in May, for the upholstery is
everything. The yew and box have smoked with
pollen, the pines are fragrant far beyond the dreams
of last year, and the tide of flowers is coursing over
all the fields.


Call them flowers or not, we
cannot enjoy our garden without the rain of long,
green catkins with which Garrya elliptica covers its
brilliant evergreen at Christmas. And we are glad
to see from the window, though not strictly in the
garden, the soft silver buds that the willows and
sallows are turning into gold for the ecstasy of the
bees. Those who are for the spring stimulation of
brood cannot have sallow catkins too near the hive,
and, for other reasons, if they were not so common
in the woods, most gardens would be proud to have
a bush of them for spring flowering. The same or
even more is to be said for fragrant colt's-foot or
winter heliotrope, whether we have seen it in our own
woods or sheeting a glacier's bank in Switzerland.
Earliest of them all, it is a most grateful blossom ;
far too rarely found in gardens ; not merely a pleasure
to the eye but, with the exception of " winter-sweet "
(Chimonanthus fragrans\ delicious Berberis bealii,
almost the only winter flower that is scented. So
winter heliotrope, last but not least of the blossoms
here set down, shall bloom in our garden while the
garden lasts.


Kew is early in its crocuses and daffodils, and well
planted with early blooming exotics ; but the traveller
knows some more rugged and exposed countries that
beat these fat and sheltered gardens at many points
in the matter of homely well-established flowers. In
the hills whence came many of the limestone boulders
of the Alpine garden, some of the things that here
are just straggling into spare blossom are in full
luxuriance. That is especially so with the white
arabis, called by the cottagers, " snow on the moun-
tain," and by some, more affectionately, " welcome
home husband though never so drunk." It would be
hard to pick a dozen sprays in the Alpine defile, but
the writer has seen it this week on its mounds in
cottage gardens, or hanging from cottage walls into
the road, as white as the sheets that are hung out
to dry on washing day. And in gardens where it is
almost the only joy, its tenancy equal to that of
almost the oldest inhabitant, the flowering currant
can be seen among the hills in full blossom, though at
Kew the bunches are no more than pink catkins peep-
ing from the young leaves. Just so did the cottager's
" fair maids of February " come up for him in their
white-skirted thousands earlier and more abundantly
than in the gardens of Royal Kew ; and so did the
ancestral mezereon cover itself with pink fragrance on
cold clay and on harsh stone brash as early as did its
battalions on this warm sand. One would think that
these old-favoured flowers had a special delight in their
owners who live and sleep so near them, and came up
early for love.

The cottager's bees are out this sunny morning, as
they have been on favourable occasions for a week or
two past. They have found, however little, seemingly
nothing to do beyond buzzing round as though
wondering why they had been called. But the first
yellow crocus is open this morning, and a bee has been
seen to dust herself in its pollen. We may imagine
that the first precious point of honey has been taken
back to the hive, and communally regarded much in
the light of a nugget found in a hitherto unexplored
range of country. One crocus-cup is not enough to
justify the activity of forty thousand bees. They
must fly more than a mile, however, for the next
blossom the fragrant butter-burr, whose big leaves,
aptly called by the French pas (Cane, covered half an
acre of wood-bottom last summer. The lesser celan-
dine, which is beginning to star the banks of the lane,
does not appeal to the hive bee, nor has she learnt to
collect pollen from the hazel catkins. But very soon
the " palm " blossoms of the willow will be the centres
of bee commerce, and gooseberry blossoms usher in
an unbroken supply of honey-bearing flowers.

Tender as the young nettles are, there is none but
man to hinder them as they spring up among the
hard, dry stems of last year. They are at liberty
to choose their own time and place, and they elect to
begin the year early. These spring things refuse to
take the risks that the soft summer blossoms cheer-
fully face. The game of producing millions that a
hundred may survive is all very well for June, but
it will not do for March. Even the modest violet,
that delights us with its scent, most probably uses
the distinction as a means of keeping away some-
thing hungry. The primrose, on the other hand, is
good eating, as may be seen by adventurous roots
nibbled short off. But, numerous as primroses have
already become, their numbers are as zero by com-
parison with what they will be a month hence. It
is only the erratic primrose that blossoms before
Lady Day, while better protected flowers put out
their whole bloom in this blusterous month of March.

THE windows of heaven are opened, and, instead of
the deluge that is usually associated with the well-
known words, a flood of thrilling warmth is poured
down. The scent of sunshine climbs on the breeze
and enters every room in the house, so that long
before the garden is reached we know that spring is
warmly kissing the earth. Daisies are wide open on
the lawn, the gravel path is warm to the touch, a
slight shake of the box sends the pollen flying from
its myriad flowers. Lastly, it is Gossamer Day.
This decided rap of Spring has called out the first
really successful draft of its army. The little spiders
have responded en masse, and, in the few hours since
high dawn, have spun the world over with glistening
threads to catch the sunbeams, which run along them
in orange and violet, or translate their patternless
mass into white mist. And now that the warm earth
is sending up a current of expanded air, the little
aeronauts are launching themselves by thousands,
and setting their invisible prisms at all angles in the
open sky.

While the sun shines the music continues. We hear
it far away in the wood where we have gone to see the
early humble-bees sucking the sallow blossoms ; they
hear it in the farm-house dairy, and know it for an
undoubted token of spring, and incidentally as an
earnest of much food for the ducks ; the ploughman
hears it as he turns his team, and though he mentions
it to no one at the day's close, it may be true that it
makes his heart rejoice. Perhaps it is truer still to
say that he feels it than that he hears it. It is part
of the same sensation as the drifting scent of larch
blossom, the palpitating up-current of air from the
heated stone wall, the thrill of spring warmth through
the densest clothing.


Wherever we look we can find catkins full of
powder, either now or very soon. The brook is
one continuous line of alders, and now along their
whole length a yellow glow of new catkins gleams
through the black old cones that have been their
feature through winter. Shake the yew or the box
on a sunny morning, and you will be rewarded with
just the same puffs of smoke that came from the
nut branch. Soon the ash, the oak, and many other
trees of the roadside or the garden will be puffing as
vigorously, though the first primrose will distract our
notice, and we shall not see them. But every one
will discover when the larches take up the firing.
The air will be heavy with the scented particles, and
the glowing red tips of the sweeping lower branches
will get attention at the expense of every flower of
the field.

The larch captures us by the most material of the
aesthetic senses, the nose, the vestibule of the stomach.
There is no spring delight keener than the scent of
the larch when it is in bloom. We have declared
the presence of the larch and other conifers to be
health-giving, only, it seems, because we can smell
the good that they are doing us. Possibly they are
good because they make us sniff our lungs full
occasionally. Perhaps the actual particles, whatever
they may be at other times, and especially the pollen
grains in spring, do us some good, may even feed
us through the mucous membrane. There is no food
quite like pollen. So the bee finds, which on pollen
does the greatest work of its size of any creature
living, and so we believe the chemist finds when he
analyses this richly nitrogenous substance. It may
be because in spring the whole atmosphere of the
world is full of assimilable nitrogen from the stamens
of the wind flowers that a more learned generation
than ours ordained the Lenten fast.

IT is a narrow, winding street, with house-cliffs three
times as tall as the way is wide, and an average of
four people abreast jostling on a two-yard pavement.
There are three or four up-river towns that can fill the
specification, and we need not say which one is this.
There is blue sky overhead, and as we turn a corner
we come suddenly on a basket of mimosa and daffo-
dils standing in the sun. Still later, the odour of
them reaches us a hot, enlivening scent of pollen
and honey, both of them manifestations of sunshine.
Dingy houses all round, rent, as it were, with this
glory of pale gold emitting the very glory and com-
fort of paradise. And, hanging before the golden
blooms, two eager bees, free merchants in this world
of marketing, hesitating in so rich a world as to which
cup to enter and pillage. The blooms are from
Scilly, and the bees from some garden up there and
down there beyond the houses that seem to end the
world.

WITHIN the village, where the road winds under the
hill before climbing the shoulder, the celandine is
now in full glory. Axle-high, all along the side of
the road, the dark, glossy leaves are starred with the
polished blossom, and a little maiden, free from the
fear of motor-cars in this quiet and ill-metalled lane,
is gathering them into a golden handful. Children
like their flowers in leafless bunches primroses or
celandine or violets pressed one by one into a palpable
hoard of blossom and a solidity of scent. Their
mothers please them by finding a crock to put the
bunches in, and at this time of the year every cottage
will show upon the dresser one or other of the
favourite spring flowers. Afterwards, when flowers
are everywhere and of many kinds, less notice is
taken of them. One would think that the spring
flowers would be exterminated and the summer
species far more common, but even the violets that
are for a week or two sought far and wide, at last
bloom unheeded all through the village street, to
come up just as abundantly again next year.

In a few minutes we are beyond the range of the
violet-pickers. Our own fingers itch with the pre-
historic impulse to pluck, as, one by one, the hand-
some white blossoms peep out from the herbage.
Surely nothing is more tempting than these. The
tense curl of the petals makes the light glance and
darken with the tenderest, yet crispest, of shading.
They seem carven rather than shaped, but carven
from a material far finer than ivory, and with tools
that no man could wield. The white phlox of sum-
mer is something like them. No coloured surface
can play such miracles with the light. It is as
though nature were still a tyro in colour, but had
reached perfection in black-and-white. Some of our
sweet vjojets are purely pallid. They seem rather
less than robust by comparison with those that have,
at the edge of the lower petal, a dash of pink, to
make the white face whiter, but of a less bloodless
white. The purple violets of the sweet species are
few and far between, scarcely one in a hundred, but
here come great bunches of the dog-violet, twenty or
thirty perfect blooms upon a root, and all heaped
above the leaves in an inflorescence that takes the
world by storm. The honey-guide lines are much
more plainly marked in this species, and we frequently
see a bee come to them, while the sweet violets, for
all their scent, are unvisited. Their traffic is, doubt-
less, with the moths by night, and that is why the
white variety is so much more abundant than the
purple. It must be noted, however, that after this
glad season of blossom is over, the violets, sweet and
scentless, produce quite inconspicuous flowers, and
from them an abundance of seed. Is the blossom,
then, purely an act of rejoicing at the return of
summer, a piece of holiday-making, after which comes
stern business ? There are many deductions, egoistic
and otherwise, that man is at liberty to make from
this inscrutable habit of the violet. And there is the
experiment yet to make whether the seed from a full
blossom will produce stronger plants or more aesthetic
plants, or in what way differing from the progeny of
a petal-less flower on the same root.

Just as the rainy days were days of drought,
so the first day of sunshine, without wind, acted like
a shower on ploughed land and garden, wood and
meadow. Stomata opened ; transpiration tubes began
to act freely ; streams of vapour ascended, swirled
round the roots, pierced and vitalised the crust, drove
through the grass, hung in the placid air, made the
lambs gambol again in a field of flowers. It was like
the end of the long wait for the cleansing eruption of
a Turkish bath. We had begun to think it would
never come, but a turn of the temperature broke an
age of stone, and brought us the fulj, luxuriance of
May. The fool's-parsley has leapt waist-high, the
hawthorn has broken out into scented lather, the
dandelions are a cloth of gold, the woods swim in
blue leafy June is announced.


In the upper fields, however, summer has smothered
all trace of autumn. The may, for which we have
waited through almost the whole of its name-month,
is now everywhere, creaming the hedges and the tall
trees, beneath which rabbits skip, and breaking out
in all sorts of unexpected places on solid wall-like
stumps, where shoots of verdure are nibbled as soon
as they appear. The air is full of the scent of the
may and full of the hum of its myriad patrons. A
pheasant comes flying down to the grass, and as
soon as he alights is swallowed in its innumerable
blue shadows. It is a miserably poor year of grass,
but these hill meadowsseem perfect revels of luxuriance.
Under the upstriving fescue and foxtail, all manner
of flowers in bloom make the senses reel with their
variety and their beauty. The pink clover is coming
out ; showers of little golden cogs proclaim the hop
trefoil ; moneywort has trailed yards of tangle along
the hollows, and is now punctuating them with double
golden goblets. Bird's-foot is preparing great masses
of orange and crimson ; yellow archangel lights
unexpected candles ; purple orchids, cool and solid,
stand contemptuously in the midst of striving grass.
Red rattle has on its cap of liberty ; purple vetches
rise on invisible wires ; veronica looks up blue as
Mediterranean skies.

THE jungle of the mowing-grass might hold anything,
from the young foxes that we know are not far off, to
a wolf or a tiger or a snake far larger than the grass-
snakes that alone have the right to chase frogs in it.
On the other hand, it presents a convincing picture
of brilliant, scented peace, from the blue shadow
under the beech tree where we sit, to the mid- field
in the sun, gay with marguerites, ragged-robin, plumed
sorrel and crimson vetch over which the butterflies
hang and play in company with the ascending vapours
of a hot day.

UNDER the footbridge the stream runs dark, then
plunges sparkling over a sill of brown stone into a
pool some five feet below. Where the ripple of the
fall ceases, the water becomes clear as glass, and
we can see everything that is in the pool. The
everything seems nothing except brown stones in
the shade, growing into orange stones in the sun-
shine, with wreaths between them like very faint
smoke to show where the water runs. A stranger
would say there was nothing whatever in the strea'm
but water running its barren way to the sea. The
roots of the willow-herb are bathed in it, and a
mighty luxuriance shoots up. It is crammed now
with thousands of flowers in freshest, brightest pink,
starred with light yellow pollen masses. The faint
scent of "codlins and cream," like apples gently
cooking, makes the way of the bridge very delight-
ful. Willows and alders faithfully mark the course
of the stream far below, for water is water the whole
world over ; bees and butterflies come to the willow-
herb and hemp-agrimony ; and a band of long-
tailed tits swing in the alder close over the pool, but
in the pool itself there is no life.


The things seen now, and not seen in the daytime,
may seem a small thing. Not so the sharpening or
extra gratification of the other senses. Is it because
the eye is working at a lower focus that the scents of
night are far more certain than those of day, or is it
that the moisture and the velvet of night keep them
in a thicker stream and purer ? Surely, not only is our
best smell of autumn the nutty odour of fallen leaves,
most companionable now, but we perceive, as though
for the first time, that there is one smell of elm,
another of the tan of oak, another of hazel, another of
maple, whereas in the day we can scarcely tell the
difference between larch and beech. And here, at
the foot of a clay bank, is the reek of leaves fast
turning to mud, and here in the grip is the trail that
a fox has left in the air, and through it there comes
from the orchard side the acid message of the cider
they made a good month ago. The must from which
they squeezed every drop of juice lies there in a heap,
perhaps for winter fuel, and even three months hence
we shall get that acid smell on a favourable night,
though it is not there, or passes unheeded, by day.

So here are some of our next year's apples in
this pot of tangle-foot " grease," with which we
draw impassable barriers round the trees. There are
others in this roofed box, which any one knows now
at sight for a bee-hive. Out of every million blossoms
that the trees exhibit next April, some very few
would be fertilised in an insectless world by the
wind. Others the few early humble-bees would
pollenate in their blundering, industrious, but irre-
sponsible way, sometimes carrying willow dust to an
apple blossom, sometimes hawthorn pollen to a pear.
In certain parts of Normandy the girls cut branches
of blossom from one tree, with which they beat
the others, till out of the scented, beautiful confusion
arises the fertilisation of a thousand blooms, that
would else go barren. That would, indeed, make
a beautiful picture in our humdrum English Georgics,
the girls in white robes, their faces as bonny as the
apple blossom, their laughter as sunny as the scattered
petals.

Even the life of the tree is a ferment, and goes on
for a while without assistance from the earth. The
sycamore in the brush-heap is sprouting just as much
as the tree from which it was cut in autumn. The
little catkins of the yew and the box have grown, not
so much by force of this year's awakening as in ac-
cordance with the programme laid down and provided
for last summer. The sun stirs them before the roots
need be waked. The million grains of pollen in each
of them have evolved from a mass smaller than any
of them, have hardened and dried so that the smallest
shake sets them flying in the air. They are not millions
of perfectly shaped carven spheres, as the micro-
scope would have it, but just one of the scents of this
balmy day. To the gnats dancing above the yew
they may be whirling stones that cannot be avoided
and must be endured. To the waiting stigmas of
their own kind they are as oxygen to hot iron, the
thing that is thirsted for, and whose touch is destruc-
tion and change. Then they are myriads of stately
trees that would in a short time clothe the whole
country farther than we can see if it were not that
thousands of other forms have each the same ambition.
Out of their unspeakable war comes the peace of an
English landscape.

Most of the lower slopes of our Alps, however
steep, are claimed by the industrious Swiss as
meadows. The clashing torrent is tapped at points
in its wild descent, and sent zigzagging in gentle
rivulets across and across the slopes. On the right
day the channels are opened, and slopes that have
been dry all the winter are watered at the roots. Up
comes the whole medley of flowers that do duty for
grass, and the rich ranks of which will be laid twice
in heavy, odorous swathe before the summer ends.
Wild rhubarb follows the wettest lines ; lilies, ane-
mones, and strange purple grape-hyacinths, with vivid
heads of long, aimless filaments, jostle one another
without the intervention of grass. Geraniums, cam-
pions, and vetches revel together without the faintest
notion of precedence. Spring crocus opens the ball
and autumn crocus closes it, but instead of slowly
thawing to the social impulse one by one, the whole
concourse dances from the opening bar till the end.