Autumnal Odors by Charles C. Abbott


Autumn in North America

AUTUMNAL ODORS
By Charles C. Abbott, M.D.
Author of "Travels in a Tree-Top," "Clear Skies and Cloudy,"
"The Birds About Us," etc.
THE two senses only of sight and hearing will not always suffice when we ramble out of town. I have tramped from dawn to dark with a noted naturalist, who only exclaimed, from time to time, "See that colored leaf!" or " Hear that bird!" and never once referred to the odor-laden air. No one loves the autumn-leaf better than I do, or appreciates more the merits of a meadow-lark. I have seen the hill-sides one vast sheet of gold and crimson, yet the day was not given wholly to color; and listened to many a lark's exultant song, yet the day was not given wholly to music. Seeing and hearing much, we are all too apt to be content, and forget that we have missed much if the sweets of the scattered leaves and withered weeds have been disregarded. It matters not how commonplace the surroundings, breathe through a bruised hickory-leaf, and you may linger the while in Araby the Blest.
When sunshine follows rain, even in midwinter, the matted oakleaves in the woods send out a subtle odor that revives our memories of many a summer day, a medicinal, tonic odor that dissipates dulness and stimulates every sense,—so that the birds sing more distinctly, the horizon is more sharply limned, and if perchance we startle some crouching creature in its lair, the hunter-instinct is all alive within us, and we are as light-footed as when children and as eager to give chase. The leaves of autumn are nature's drug-shop, supplying a balm to the nerves of those who are weary of the town.
When certain animals announce their near presence in their peculiar way, we are likely to remember our noses, but such gross exaggerations of the heavy-laden air, like all other excesses, are but nature emphasized, and we have then to exercise common sense—a rare art—to realize the necessity for all that has occurred. The fact still remains: no charm of the outdoor world exceeds the odors that faintly tinct the frosty air.
I recently chose a favorable day and went odor-hunting. It was no childish whim nor aimless undertaking. What in the minds of many is the freak of a fool may have weightier purpose than the crowd wots of. I have always known sweet birch and sassafras, spice-wood and pennyroyal, but these are but four of a full four hundred. Delightful as are the odors of oak and hickory, they must yield to the walnut, and all give place, perhaps, to the white crowns of balm or dingy clusters of aromatic yarrow. The long, narrow knolls that divide the wide marsh meadows, and that only the greater floods shut out from view, appeal at present to neither eye nor ear, but stoop low and sniff the damp air that rests upon the dead grass, and these same knolls will prove something very different from what you supposed. So doing, you discover the Spice Islands. All your life you thought them in the far-off Indian Ocean; but here they are, too, in the valley of the Delaware, as they are, also, in the valleys of all our rivers.
One of those so-called ignorant old men, from whom I learned much of the little that I know, long ago, as he put it, "sent my nose to school," and I have never ceased to be grateful. So this bright November day, as I walked among the trees and then to clustered shrubbery, I gathered withered leaves and dragged to the light the skeleton of many a weed that had had its day, and not a leaf or withered blossom but still had an odor all its own. A few did not recall the bloom of summer days. The chemic action of frost had wrought a change in these, but never one that was not pleasing.
Suggestiveness ever plays a happy part when dealing with odors, and if a leaf or root tells of the swamp, how quickly comes the picture of what such a place really is. At once we see the handiwork of nature in a playful mood, when weeds and water, quicksand and clay, gnarly roots and giant vines, the dark cypress and stately cedar, mammoth elms and graceful liquidambars, mingled in tumultuous disarray, go to make a swamp. A swamp, indeed! and equally true, a rambler's paradise. Well may the nostrils be filled with the pungency of calamus, cohosh, and water-hemlock, that such pictures of waste places may rise up before us. The odors that veil artificiality and restore nature are worthy our consideration. Poor, much-maligned swamps, with their foul, miasmatic odors! This the familiar cry, but why speak so disdainfully of them? Were we not so hopelessly saturated with civilization, many a noxious odor, as we now think it, would be salubrious and sweet. It is well to be civilized, but not to the point of smothering every trace of the savage. A dash of man's primitive condition acts to-day like the pinch of salt that makes savory our dish of meat.
Perhaps because nature has had fuller sway, and I am more savage than my neighbors, I loved best to-day the most pungent odors that I found, and was disposed to roll on many a mat of bruised roots, like the kittens among catnip. Where the ground was wet from many a little spring, the earth itself fairly stung my nostrils. Nor was this all, for the real value of the sense of smell lies in what follows the first impression. The odor of food creates an appetite therefor; and so, too, the odor of the earth led me to consider the fulness thereof. Each new impression turned my attention to more tangible matters, even when I followed those faint, elusive perfumes that are wafted to and fro by the fitful breezes. Once there was the sweetness of honey, but I could find no bee-tree, and later the aroma of crushed grapes, and I wondered if some squirrel had this fruit among its stores. Think of a squirrel pressing grapes in mellow November sunshine, and drunk, perhaps, with the new wine. Surely nature's manifold odors are worthy of our regard when they stimulate fancy to this extent.
I found the damp lowlands varied, as tested by my nose, and where the pungency was most pronounced, there was life. An ammoniacal odor meant an abundance of low forms, as earth-worms, insect larvae, and many a wriggling creature that would not tarry long enough to be identified. I knew, then, the higher forms of life were not far off. We seldom find single links of the chain of life. Not every pretty hyla had taken to the tree-tops, and more than one frog leaped into the ditch as I walked through the dead grass. There was ice last night, but at noon to-day many a creature had recovered from its chill. Even flies danced in the sunbeams, and the aromatic air wooed many an autumn songbird to within my hearing. I crouched in the close cover of dead weeds, and soon had these birds about me. An over-staying cat-bird came to where I had torn up the grass and scratched for its food. Whitethroated sparrows came soon after, and lastly a Carolina wren, that meadow tell-tale, and chirped and fretted above me for no other purpose than to thwart my plans by warning every bird that came too near. Its interference was effectual, and I changed my position. Immediately the bird whistled, unmistakably, "I told you so! I told you so I"
And what now of the unsought odors that seek you and will not be denied? Such a one reached me as I neared the ditch, and my first thought was of the mud, now bare because the tide was out. Fancy rather than facts had now the upper hand. I began that idle dreaming so natural to an Indian Summer day that ends far oftener in the realms of fiction than in the domain of truth. As I walked, I could trace the one all-pervading odor to no single source. There was much decayed vegetation, but the frosts had sweetened it. The mud suggested nothing as I held it to my nose; no single plant gave any clue, yet the air was heavy with an unpleasing essence. Why such active distillation and where, I wondered. My imagination was happy if my nose was not, and not a possibility but was duly considered, but I was not disposed to be positive. This is dangerous, and will be until we have leaped all the fences that hem in the fields of knowledge. Suddenly the truth was made plain. On the bank of the ditch a trapper had been skinning musk-rats, and left their carcasses exposed. How very silly all my suppositions! Yet this should never be a source of sorrow to the








rambler. Pine-spun theories are more likely, in the end, to plague than please you, but they have their uses. It is wholesome discipline to find one's self mistaken. There is no other cure for rashness. The odor that I pondered over I attributed to every object in sight, and wrongly. I associated it with life, and it proved to be the effluvium of death. The lesson taught: the exercise of greater caution. Nature has the knack of teaching us not only the fact, but how not to forget it.
I did not face homeward till the day was done, for he misses much who neglects the gloaming. Now, if ever, one can dream and indulge his fancy to its full extent without danger of the shock of a sudden awakening. In the gloaming—there is music in the very words. As the darkness deepens, the upland fields, the intervening wood, and lowland marshes blend to a harmonious whole, and from it there rises a sweet, subtle odor that, while of the earth, earthy, is so in no mean sense. Our spirituality, of which we are so proud, would be less a figment of overwrought fancy if we tempered it more with the excellencies of this earth, which we so sadly underrate. The fragrance that now pervades the air is one of no distinctive feature. It is the blending of the activities of day and of every nook and corner of the land. It is the sweet breath of the sleeping earth, for now, with not even the hum of insects or chirp of drowsy bird to disturb it, the earth rests, nor awakes through the long watches of the autumn night.