Fragrance in Literature-The Shirley Letters from California Mines in 1851-52, by Louise Amelia Knapp Smith Clappe

The Shirley Letters from California Mines
in 1851-52, by Louise Amelia Knapp Smith Clappe

I have had rather a stupid time during the storm. We have been in the habit of taking frequent rows upon the river, in a funny little toppling canoe carved out of a log. The bridge at one end of our boating-ground, and the rapids at the other, made quite a pretty lake. To be sure, it was so small that we generally passed and repassed its beautiful surface at least thirty times in an hour. But we did not mind that, I can assure you. We were only too glad to be able to go onto the water at all. I used to return loaded down with the magnificent large leaves of some aquatic plant which the gentle frosts had painted with the most gorgeous colors, lots of fragrant mint, and a few wan white flowers which had lingered past their autumnal glory. The richest hothouse bouquet could never give me half the pleasure which I took in arranging, in a pretty vase of purple and white, those gorgeous leaves. They made me think of Moorish arabesques, so quaint and bizarre, and at the same time dazzlingly brilliant, were the varied tints. They were in their glory at evening, for, like an oriental beauty, they lighted up splendidly. Alas! where, one little month ago, my little lake lay laughing up at the stars, a turbid torrent rushes noisily by. The poor little canoe was swept away with the bridge, and splendid leaves hide their bright heads forever beneath the dark waters.

The weather here for the past five weeks has been like the Indian summer at home. Nearly every day I take a walk up onto the hill back of our cabin. Nobody lives there, it is so very steep. I have a cozy little seat in the fragrant bosom of some evergreen shrubs, where often I remain for hours. It is almost like death to mount to my favorite spot, the path is so steep and stony; but it is new life, when I arrive there, to sit in the shadow of the pines and listen to the plaintive wail of the wind as it surges through their musical leaves, and to gaze down upon the tented Bar lying in somber gloom (for as yet the sun does not shine upon it) and the foam-flaked river, and around at the awful mountain splashed here and there with broad patches of snow, or reverently upward into the stainless blue of our unmatchable sky.

You have no idea, my good little M., how reluctantly I have seated myself to write to you. The truth is, that my last tedious letter about mining and other tiresome things has completely exhausted my scribbling powers, and from that hour to this the epistolary spirit has never moved me forward. Whether on that important occasion my small brain received a shock from which it will never recover, or whether it is pure physical laziness which influenced me, I know not; but this is certain, that no whipped schoolboy ever crept to his hated task more unwillingly than I to my writing-desk on this beautiful morning. Perhaps my indisposition to soil paper in your behalf is caused by the bewildering scent of that great, glorious bouquet of flowers which, gathered in the crisp mountain air, is throwing off cloud after cloud ("each cloud faint with the fragrance it bears") of languid sweetness, filling the dark old room with incense and making of it a temple of beauty, like those pure angelic souls which, irradiating a plain countenance, often render it more lovely than the chiseled finish of the most perfect features.

O Molly! how I wish that I could send you this jar of flowers, containing, as it does, many which, in New England, are rare exotics. Here you will find in richest profusion the fine-lady elegance of the syringa; there, glorious white lilies, so pure and stately; the delicate yet robust beauty of the exquisite privet; irises of every hue and size; and, prettiest of all, a sweet snow-tinted flower, looking like immense clusters of seed-pearl, which the Spaniards call "libla." But the marvel of the group is an orange-colored blossom, of a most rare and singular fragrance, growing somewhat in the style of the flox. This, with some branches of pink bloom of incomparable sweetness, is entirely new to me. Since I have commenced writing, one of the Doctor's patients has brought me a bunch of wild roses. Oh, how vividly, at the sight of them, started up before me those wooded valleys of the Connecticut, with their wondrous depths of foliage, which, for a few weeks in midsummer, are perhaps unsurpassed in beauty by any in the world. I have arranged the dear home blossoms with a handful of flowers which were given to me this morning by an unknown Spaniard. They are shaped like an anemone, of the opaque whiteness of the magnolia, with a large spot of glittering blackness at the bottom of each petal. But enough of our mountain earth-stars. It would take me all day to describe their infinite variety.

Last week I rode on horseback to a beautiful bar called The Junction, so named from the fact that at that point the East Branch of the North Fork of Feather River unites itself with the main North Fork. The mule-trail, which lies along the verge of a dreadful precipice, is three or four miles long, while the footpath leading by the river is not more than two miles in length. The latter is impassable, on account of the log bridges having been swept away by the recent freshets. The other day two oxen lost their footing and fell over the precipice, and it is the general opinion that they were killed long before they reached the golden palace of the Plumerian Thetis. I was a little alarmed at first, for fear my horse would stumble, in which case I should have shared the fate of the unhappy beeves, but soon forgot all fear in the enchanting display of flowers which each opening in the shrubs displayed to me. Earth's firmament was starred with daphnes, irises, and violets of every hue and size; pale wood-anemones, with but one faint sigh of fragrance as they expired, died by hundreds beneath my horse's tread; and spotted tiger-lilies, with their stately heads all bedizened in orange and black, marshaled along the path like an army of gayly clad warriors. But the flowers are not all of an oriental character. Do you remember, Molly dear, how you and I once quarreled when we were, oh, such mites of children, about a sprig of syringa? The dear mother was obliged to interfere, and to make all right she gave you a small brown bud, of most penetrating fragrance, which she told you was much more valuable than the contested flower. I remember perfectly that she failed entirely in convincing me that the dark, somber flower was half as beautiful as my pretty cream-tinted blossom, and, if I mistake not, you were but poutingly satisfied with the substitute. Here, even if we retained, which I do not, our childish fascination for syringas, we should not need to quarrel about them, for they are as common as dandelions in a New England meadow, and dispense their peculiar perfume—which, by the way, always reminds me of Lubin's choicest scents—in almost sickening profusion. Besides the above-mentioned flowers, we saw wild roses and buttercups and flox and privet, and whole acres of the wand-like lily. I have often heard it said, though I cannot vouch for the truth of the assertion, that it is only during the month of January that you cannot gather a bouquet in the mountains.

The scene was indeed striking. The green-garlanded hills girdling Rich Bar looked wonderfully beautiful, rising with their grand abrupt outlines into the radiant summer sky. A platform reared in front of the Empire, beneath the banner-tasseled pine, and arched with fragrant fir boughs, made the prettiest possible rustic rostrum. The audience, grouped beneath the awnings of the different shops, dressed in their colored shirts,—though here and there one might observe a dandy miner who had relieved the usual vestment by placing beneath it one of calico or white muslin,—added much to the picturesqueness of the scene. Unfortunately, the committee of arrangements had not been able to procure a copy of the Declaration of Independence. Its place was supplied by an apologetic speech from a Mr. J., who will, without doubt, be the Democratic candidate for state representative at the coming election. This gentleman finished his performance by introducing Mr. B., the orator of the day, who is the Whig nominee for the above-mentioned office. Before pronouncing his address, Mr. B. read some verses which he said had been handed to him anonymously the evening before. I have copied them for your amusement.

I think that, even among these beautiful hills, I never saw a more perfect bridal of the earth and sky than that of Sunday, the 11th of July. On that morning I went with a party of friends to the head of the ditch, a walk of about three miles in length. I do not believe that nature herself ever made anything so lovely as this artificial brooklet. It glides like a living thing through the very heart of the forest, sometimes creeping softly on, as though with muffled feet, through a wilderness of aquatic plants, sometimes dancing gayly over a white-pebbled bottom, now making a sunshine in a shady place, across the mossy roots of the majestic old trees, and anon leaping with a grand anthem adown the great solemn rocks which lie along its beautiful pathway. A sunny opening at the head of the ditch is a garden of perfumed shrubbery and many-tinted flowers, all garlanded with the prettiest vines imaginable, and peopled with an infinite variety of magnificent butterflies. These last were of every possible color, pink, blue and yellow, shining black splashed with orange, purple flashed with gold, white, and even green. We returned about three in the evening, loaded with fragrant bundles, which, arranged in jars, tumblers, pitchers, bottles, and pails, (we are not particular as to the quality of our vases in the mountains, and love our flowers as well in their humble chalices as if their beautiful heads lay against a background of marble or porcelain,) made the dark old cabin a bower of beauty for us.