The Breath of the Year

The Breath of the Year — Some morning in early spring, when the snow still lies heavily on our hillsides, you have by chance opened a window and inhaled the first fragrance which tells you winter is over. ’
The pleasant chill in the air still binds all less ethereal odors in their winter prison-house. But late in April or early in May, when the hidden bonds have all been loosened, and even the fast-running brook calls out the fresh scent of the mossy stones in its channel, then, if you stand in an open meadow, and give yourself up freely to the full delight of the wakening earth, you will become aware that it is neither delicate blossom nor singing bird which adds the last enchantment to the moment, but the wonderful blending of every shy and vague scent in the world. You cannot rudely extricate one or another from the harmony.
The willows by the stream, in a green haze of unfolding buds, are shedding their yellow pollen even now, and the bees know it, though we may be too dull to guess the source of this heavenly sweetness.
The sweet-gale has already put forth its hundreds of little brown cones, which we often overlook in their unpretentious plainness, though we cannot brush by them so carelessly that they do not retaliate with reproachful fragrance. But even their flowers are worth looking at, particularly the tiny crimson tufts of pistils, which do not grow on the same plant with the sterile catkins. They remind us of the blossoms of their first cousin, the sweet-fern, whose sterile tassels are already in bloom, and add almost as much perfume to the air as their leaves do later in the season. A still nearer relative of the sweet-gale is the bayberry, but this has not yet opened, and it seems to me that its chief virtue lies in its leaves, though that may be because my own senses are obtuse.
Sassafras and benzoin are already in full flower, along the borders of the woods. Now why should good-sized trees bear such tiny blossoms? You will not find the flowers of either sassafras or benzoin unless you look for them. But everybody looks for sassafras for
the sake of the spicy bark and delectable leaves. The “ honey-yellow flowers ” of Benzoin odoriferum have given it not only both its botanical names, but the common ones of wild allspice and spice-bush. Who can tell us why Benjamin-bush and fever-bush have been added to its aliases?
If we are happy enough to be in the region of trailing arbutus, that enchanting odor, rising through the pine needles under our feet, dominates all others. We can find the blossoms by the sense of smell alone, as Tennyson can find wild English violets in the dark.
Mr. Higginson notices an “ indescribable fresh and earthy scent ” in the little hepatica, which is the earliest flower to welcome the spring, opening its blue eyes among the dead leaves lying on some sunny slope.
Still early in May, as we wander through the woods, we detect a bittersweet breath in the air, from the pendulous racemes of the white long-petalled flowers of the shadbush. When the breeze sweeps by, there is a snowstorm of blossoms on the ground beneath it, just as there is beneath the cherry-tree — its near relation — a little later. There are several of these rosaceous plants, whose clusters of white blossoms suggest each other, and whose odors all hint at the sound and healthy flavor of wild black cherry.
By this time the holy-grass is nodding its brown_ tassels in the meadow. You miss the full richness of its fragrance, perhaps, till after it is mowed. This is the grass which on saints’ days is appropriately strewn before church doors in the north of Europe. Why should it also be called Seneca grass, or indeed vanilla grass, for the odor is not like that of vanilla ?
The most pervading sweetness of our meadows in May and June comes from the sweet-scented vernal grass, whose internal structure allies it to the holy grass, though it is much less beautiful, bearing merely a stiff green spike, relieved a little, however, by its glistening feathery white stigmas when in full flower. Here, handsome is that handsome does, for nothing could be more inconspicuous than this “ flower of flowers,” and the lens reveals to us that even from a botanical point of view it is imperfect. Let George Mai'Donald or Mrs. Whitney deduce a moral.
And now the fragrance of unrolling ferns grows and grows upon the delighted sense, till all the woods are filled with the sweetness of the light fronds of the hay-scented fern. But the ferns are not fully opened before June, and there are other tones in the scale of May.
There is the healthful tonic (no pun was intended) of the bitter dandelion; the spiciness of the balm of Gilead, which can metamorphose a dusty street into Araby the blest ; and the richness of the lilac, which two poets so different as Walt Whitman and T. W. Parsons have given a place in the foundations of our consciousness.
What perfect words can I find for the loveliness of the white violet, which from every fine purple line upon its pure petals and every clear curve of its leaves to the shy sweetness of every breath is a marvel of simple beauty ? Some people do not know that our common purple violet has any fragrance, but the elect know it. When it grows under apple-trees, I have sometimes noticed that it is so “interpenetrated with the light and fragrance its neighbors shed.” that the breath of the apple-blossoms survives in it even after I have taken up the sod and carried it home.
Now, who knows the secret of the violet? A recent scientific writer has shown cause for the belief that. in virtue both of its color and its shape, it is one of the most highly organized of flowers; and Leonardo da Vinci was willing to bend the mighty genius which had mastered all the art and science of his time to the task of making those wonderful studies of the violet still to be seen in Venice. We all feel its mysterious kinship to other forms of beauty which Miss Larcom expresses in A Puzzle of Spring : —

“ For the bluebird’s warbled note
Violet odors hither flung,
And the violet curved her throat
Just as if she sat and sung.”

By the time the apple-blossoms have fallen, the air is pulsating with the balm of June. The buttercups have come before this, to be sure. but now they make a veritable “ field o’ the cloth o'gold,” with their “ million, million drops of gold among the green.” Did anybody ever try to make an attar-of-buttercups? This essence is entirely unique, and there is a softness in it which positively affects the senses like a gentle touch. But let no one try to imprison it in phials. It belongs to the wide country meadow and roadside.
Early in June the pretty false Solomon’s seal lifts its tufts of white blossoms above its shining green leaves. At the same moment the brilliant pink arethusa raises its beautiful head among the grasses in the swamp.
By this time the little pink heads of the mitchella are peeping through their handsome leaves, like an echo of our beloved trailing arbutus. which has still another echo by the end of June, when

“ Beneath dim aisles, in odorous beds,
The slight linneae hangs its twin-born head.”

And yet how much of the sweetness of these dainty things is due to that of the pines among which they grow, and which seem to enfold their slight perfumes in a kind of deep embracing fragrance! At the edge of the wood, the sweet-brier rose is now in bloom, and, for my part. I am a firm believer in the fragrance of other wild roses, let who will say nay. The strawberries in the meadows now appeal to us with color. form, odor, and rich juiciness at once. The lindens have opened their intoxicating blossoms, the grapevines fill the air with balm, the locust flowers contribute their spicy breath, the young hay lies on the lawns, and everywhere “ the south wind comes o’er gardens, and the flowers that kissed it are betrayed.”
Then, there are the clover fields. The very ponds are blooming with waterlilies, rightly named Nymphea odorata. And now the hillsides are magnificent with their wealth of mountain laurel, in whose aroma there is a hint of the ripening strength of the year. We shall get very few ethereal odors after this, in spite of the enchantment of July and August. We shall have the invigorating freshness of spearmint and peppermint and many more of their household ; but having once grasped a “ good that is good to eat,” we seem henceforth to be shut out of the sanctum sanctormn. of Nature. Middle age has come, and the illusions of youth can no longer throw a veil over our “too, too solid flesh.”
Now begins the direful reign of Roman wormwood, which drives half our countrymen mad. Then comes the over» powering Mayweed, and if we are so unfortunate as to live at the West, now is the time when the dysodia, or fetid marigold, makes life a burden. I confess there is something in the pungent yarrow and even in the more pungent tansy which satisfies certain longings of the olfactory nerve; but in spite of that the days of romance are surely over.
Over? Not while the wild bean twines around the bushes in the underwood, with its burden of perfumed purple blossoms; nor while the white clethra (sweet pepperbush) opens its clustering flowers in every dell. There is a fragrance about the horn-bean, too; but few people seem to know it.
The compositae now almost have the field to themselves; though the pretty but inconspicuous blue curls and the mock pennyroyal add an appreciable flavor of mint to the clear September
air, especially when we carelessly crush them under our feet.
There is a strong family likeness between the odors of flowers belonging to the same order, as well as in other characteristics. This is sometimes startling, and suggests large questions.

“ Flower in the crannied wall,
I pluck you out of the crannies, —
Hold you here, root and all, in my hand,
Little flower ; but if I could understand
What you are, root and all, and all in all,
I should know what God and man is.”

The vast composite family so illustrates this relationship of scent that we may almost describe the September air as the fragrance of the compositae. The Solidago odora is not the only goldenrod which contributes to the bouquet of this wine. All of us who love to be outdoors know when the air is full of the golden-rod, though we could not tell how we know. The purple asters blend imperceptibly with it, and the white everlastings, with their pearly, papery rays. Of course, the more obtrusive members of the family, yarrow and May weed and tansy, still hold their ground.
The thistles have a sweetish odor of their own, quite unlike that of their relatives, but the texture of their blossoms also differs from that of most of the other autumn compositae. Generally in September there is a certain pleasant vigor in the odors abroad in the air, which has little of the positive sweetness of earlier days, and which is due to the great mass of composite flowers in blossom. The sweetness which does mingle with this vigor comes from the ripening fruit, and is as different from that of spring as a shining red apple is different from a bough of apple blossoms.
In October, our thoughts are concentrated on the wealth of color. We hear no more birds, we gather no more fragrant flowers. Yet if some day we should lose the cool. slight breath of the
gorgeous leaves in our hands, or the fragrance of those we are treading upon, we should certainly miss the final charm of our ramble, though we might not know why; for this beauty of the old age of the year is as ethereal and impalpable as that of the spring-time.
The snow falls, and covers up the earth for its winter slumber. But we know one gentle secret. We know the
delicious scent of some of the dripping sphagnums in the deep woods during the happy days of a January thaw. Even in winter we have glad moments, when we are “lord of our senses five.”
So the year marches on in its eternal round, and from January to January again
Fragrance in its footing treads.”
The Atlantic, Volume 60