Fragrance in the Writings of Mabel Osgood Wright

Fragrance in the Writings of Mabel Osgood Wright

As darkness limits the range of the eye, the senses of ear and nose grow keener, and the denser night air intensifies both sound and perfume. If you should start in quest of the little screech-owl, that seems to call from the cedars near by, you will need magic boots to take you across the wet meadows before you will find him; and the cloying fragrance that envelops the porch in reality comes from the beds of hyacinths down in the garden.

The autumn night has few voices, and fewer perfumes. There are no pond frogs, and the hylode's peep is exchanged for the dryer chirp of crickets. The whip-poor-will is gone and the night-hawk also; the owl remains persistently and mingles his infrequent hooting with the cries of wild ducks and geese signalling the way to salt water; while the essence of decaying vegetation is the only perfume.

The woods and lanes are astir with the mysterious whispering of the opening buds; the grass has grown deep in the fields, and hides the fading violets, saying as it closes over them: "Sleep softly, I will protect you." Ceres, who has been a laggard for weeks, has suddenly awakened to her duty, as if Pomona, anxious for her harvest, had roughly shaken her. The garden is blazing with a flame of late tulips; bizarres, byblooms, flakes, and parrots, with fringed and twisted petals. The primulas show many hues, from gold to deepest crimson with a yellow centre, and mingle their perfume with the various Narcissi, the double, whose blooms rival the Gardenia, the trumpet major, and the pheasant's eye,— the poet's Narcissus. Masses of lilies-of-the-valley are straggling into the full sunlight, in spite of the tradition which makes them hermits of the shade. Branches of amethyst lilacs hang over the gray stone wall, and as they sway to and fro, the bees, laden too deeply with honey, fall drowsily to the ground. Pear and cherry and plum blossomed together this year, and the ground is still powdered with a wealth of their corollas.

The twilight lingers, yearning for the rosy dawn. The breeze, laden with heavy odours, dissolves upon the earth in dew. The ox-eye daisy bends to the encircling grass, sighing: "He loves; he loves me not." From the hedge, the coral trumpets of the honeysuckle declare its sweetness, and the jewelled humming-bird pauses before it vibrant. The wood thrush ceases its song, and next the vesper-sparrow; one final ripple from the bobolink, a whistle from the chat, and then a veery, and the booming frogs alone disturb the silence. A night-hawk wheels, and low in the west the slender crescent moon yields precedence to Venus, the evening star.
In the still garden, from a bed of emerald leaves, slowly unfolding, perfume-clad, a queen comes forth, the first June rose. The brown moth, flitting, bears the news through the garden, fields, and lane. The fireflies signal it across the swamp, and perching in a tree, remotely sociable, his own breast flushed with joy, the grosbeak murmurs it all through the night.

Small pointed cedars and young oaks mix with the undergrowth, and the tall staghorn-sumach, broken away to make a path, hedges it, offering delicious greens to our bouquet, — the dull green, red-stemmed leaves and the lighter panicled flowers, the whole blending with slender vines of the frost ■ grape. The ground becomes moister, tall lady-ferns and cinnamon Osmundas wave with the heavy sway of palms, and a perfume unlike wood odours, dense, tropical, suggestive of Gardenias or bridal stephanotis, steals on the questioning sense. A few steps further and a mass of white conceals the bushes, and we find the swamp azalea, called viscosa, from the viscid honey of the flower. In runnels by the roadside you may often meet this bush, broken by cattle or by the careless passer, with the blossoms browned by heat; but here in the rich muck, screened from the fierce noon sun, it grows unscathed and opens flower by flower in all perfection.

And the old tree murmurs: "Rest is the summer song of noonday." The breeze revives, and the shadows, drawn in by noontide, drop to eastward; a fragrance wafts from the moss tufts and guides us to its giver, — the dainty pipsissewa,— growing in bunches and masses, sprouting from creeping rootstalks, with a stem of madder-lined dark leaves with creamy veinings, crowned by waxy white flowers, their petals reflexed, having flesh-coloured stamens and a willowgreen centre. This is the last of the spring tinted and scented flowers that carpet the woods, thriving in its shadows. Who can describe its perfume? It is a combination of all the wild, spicy wood-essences, refined and distilled by the various chemical changes from the autumn-dyed leaves to their mould, that rears the flower in its bosom. From a heap of slowly crumbling brown leave's, the Indian pipe protrudes its ice-white, scentless flowers, that blacken at the gentlest touch, and though of the pipsissewa's clan, they are a parasitic growth.

On the land the trees, now in full summer leaf, bend low, and the drenching dews distil the scent of the mown fields. Between the sea and land lie the marshes; here and there men have essayed to build a dike to keep them from the sea, or pile a road to traverse them. Always the sea transcends their work, and pushing, swallowing, has kept its gardens to be a thing of dreams, a picture in twelve panels like the year.

Colin once followed the track of every field-mouse, scented the birds when neither human eye nor ear could detect them, crossed the country straight, leaped ditches, swam streams, but now grown old he waits until the bars are dropped, pretends he does not scent the trails he may no longer explore, and trusting us to choose an easy way, follows, looking up and rubbing his soft ears against us, his great brown eyes mutely confident; turning to man, to his dog-brain a god, to spare his age. Now wading deep in a maze of grass, weeds, ferns, we press through the unkempt lot to a great band of trees, and from them toward the heated body comes a wave of coolness, grateful as a refreshing draught to the lips or as music to the heart.

October comes in with a day of palpitating heat, like August. Heliotrope blooms in the garden, and Jack roses, who open their carmine lips in wonder, when told by the monk's-hood that it is not June, and that the grasshopper sparrow brought news from the
north that the peabody-bird had started. A humming-bird yet darts about the arbour; but be ready, for eastward and northward there are high winds; the sea-smell is sharp in the nostrils, and in spite of the warm yellow light on the pastures, the surf sends a warning note from the shore.

The hawk has gone and the birds are singing once more, the water thrush, and the warbling vireo, and down the road the cattle saunter homeward from the pasture, and the orchard fragrance comes retrospectively, like a refrain that lingers in the memory.

Here are the roses, here and everywhere; they will almost leap into your arms. Fill your basket, your hat, your upturned gown, and still there will be enough to strew the ground with fragrance. They are not prim, set, standard trees, pruned like parasols, but honest bushes, hanging branch over branch, with clean leaves and lavish bloom. Ask General Jacqueminot for half-closed buds, his flowers flatten too soon in the open sun. Will you have darker? Here are Dr. Dombrain, Xavier Olibo, dressed in velvet, and Prince Camille Rohan, in crimsonblack, and double to the heart. You may have pink ones too. No rose is half so much a rose as the great deepcupped pink.' Here is Paul Neyron, but he opens back too wide. Gloire de Margottin has a better shape, and Anne de Diesbach is a perfect globe. Will you have blush pink? Here are Captain Christy and the Silver Queen., Will you have buds? Here are pink and white moss-buds, and still another, without a single thorn, whose petals are the hue of some rosy, curled sea-shell. For pure white clusters we must beg of Madame Plantier, who vies in purity with the Coquette des Blanches. Pass by that Persian yellow; its saffron disks smell badly, and gather instead the eglantine, for its leaf is even sweeter than the flower.

There are no fences here; where they were once a living barrier has sprung from their decay, and willows luxuriate. Tall sumach bushes follow up the line, then hickory saplings, silver birches, and choke-cherry trees, with here and there a group of sassafras or young maples, while wild grape vines bind the whole into a leafy wall, and freight the air with the fragrance of their blossoms. Meadow-rue sends up its foamy-tipped stalks above the pink milkweed whose globes are food for butterflies, and glowing wild roses, crimson more than pink, from the deep, strong soil, powder the blundering bumblebees with gold pollen On every side, broad cymes of white elder flowers reflect the light, and roughfronded brakes line the path.

Back of the rye field, a round knoll is topped by blooming chestnut trees. All the light and fragrance of the day is meshed by their feathery stamened spikes, and sifting through the mass of restless leaves, it refracts and breaks in countless tints. Romping all down the hill like jolly Indian babes, are troops of black-eyed-Susans, gay in warm yellow gowns. Perched on the road bank, nod blue campanulas, one of a tribe of half-wild things that escaped from gardens to beautify the roads and fields; only they strayed away so many years ago, that they seem completely merged in their surroundings and quite to the manor born.

The end of day. Sounds soften as the wind, their messenger, dies away; heat lessens as the sun gathers up his shafts before disappearing; dew glistens as the coolness holds down the moisture; then a twilight interlude of shadows. Shadows that roll ground ward, cloud shadows drifting through the sun smoke, clasping the horizon with their clinging fingers; shadows of evening melody, shadows of pine fragrance, until all the shadows gather to line the sky arch and make it night.

What wonderful pictures the moon sketches in black and white! she is the universal artist. In winter she etches on a plate of snow, biting deeply the branch shadows, retouching with twig dry-point all the bones of things, Nature's anatomy. In spring, she broadens her work to a soft mezzo tint, and then on to india-ink washes and sepia groundings. First, the outlined catkin, then leaf forms; next, simply draped branches, and then to complete, though rapid, compositions. The May-fly then hums every night among the wood-fragrant flowers of the lindens, the grass has grown high, the wind-flower hangs its closed petals, and the scouring-rush, strung with dewdrops, equals the diamond aigrette of an empress. The moon-pictures deepen and expand as the shadows grow more dense, until they become intelligible, impressionistic, and truth telling.

Look at the bank where the sun, peeping through, has touched the moss; there is saxifrage, and here are violet and white hepaticas, pushing through last year's leaves; lower down the wool-wrapped fronds of some large ferns are unfolding. The arbutus in the distant woods is on the wane, a fragrant memory. At the shady side of the spring are dog-tooth violets; and on the sunny side the watercourse is traced by clusters of marsh-marigolds, making a veritable golden trail. On a flat rock, almost hidden by layers of leaf mould, the polypody spreads its ferny carpet, and the little dicentra — or Dutchmen's breeches, as the children call it — huddles in clumps. The columbines are well budded, but Jack-in-the-pulpit has scarcely broken ground. On the top of the bank the dogwood stands unchanged, and the pinxter flower seems lifeless.

The great stone chimney had a hearty breath which needed no aid from chimney pots or tiles, and sheltered a tribe of swallows, who, poising high, dropped to their nests, then whirled aloft again like wind spirits. The well, with its long sweep, stood close to the back porch, a corner screened by hop and grape vines, where women sat and sewed of afternoons and talked with neighbors who stood leaning on the fence. Here the young people came from the garden with rose leaves in their aprons, and their mother took down the big blue jar, that" grandfather brought from China" and caged in it the sweets in fragrant potpourri, reading the rule, meanwhile, from her grandmother's book: "Take of June roses just about to fall, two parts. Shake them well free from dew, and add of new-blown buds two parts; of rosemary and lavender flowers and leaves take one part. Place in a jar with layer for layer of salt, and cover until the salt has drawn the juice (three days will do), then add some fresh rose leaves every day, and stir and mix them well. When you have filled the jar with well-steeped leaves, add ambergris, gum benzoin, allspice and cassia buds, a grain or two of musk, and four vanilla beans broken in bits. Of oil of jasmine, violet, and rose, add each an ounce to a full gallon jar."

Again the undergrowth changes, and grows bolder. Great bushes of meadowsweet appear,— the wild white spirea salicifolia, — burr-reeds, and flowering sedge, with thickets of spurred jewel weed, and feathers of the late meadow rue. Parting the tall weeds, we pushed through, and the odour of peppermint, crushed by our tread, rises about us; butterflies hover in flocks above the purple milkweeds, and the river glistens between the sallows. It is not a great stream carrying a burden of traffic, but a sociable, gossiping sort of a river, bearing the small tattle of mill-wheels, hidden in byways and corners, bringing down some bark from the saw-mill, or a little meal-foam from the grist-mill; scolding the pebbles, but growing silent as it passes the pools where the pickerel, like motionless shadows, hide under projections. In a bit of curled bark, drifted into a shallow, a song-sparrow bathes, and chirps an answer to the babbling water. If he would, he might tell us the story of the river. We sit on the bank and watch as he preens and spatters and flies to a brier, warbling with a heaving breast, his heart-beats keeping the rhythm, until the meaning of the river is blended in his song. Ben half wades, half swims in the water; Colin renews his youth at the fresh draught he laps, while down the river races to the willows: —
"Sing willow, willow, willow."

The fragrance of the Virgin's lilies pierces you through and through; the honeysuckle odour clings and overwhelms the heliotrope until the mignonette seems almost a stimulant by contrast. The rose-bed scatters scented petals, and the buds of yesterday relax the grip of the green calyx, only waiting for the sun's expanding touch.

An herby odour rises from the path, and in a space of less than twenty steps, sweet mint, catnip, wild thyme, yarrow, camomile, and tansy yield a bunch of simples, such as once hung on the rafters of every country garret, ready to be brewed in teas for various aches and pains. History, even in science, still repeats itself, and the peppermint, steeped into the tea that Lydia Languish might have sipped for the vapours, is now distilled and ministers to the nerves under the name of menthol, and the leaves of winter-green, that gran'ther chewed for his rheumatics, still pursue the same complaint, wearing its Latin name, Gaultheria. But do not let us talk of ills and medicines in mellowing summer-time, when the sunshine draws stagnation from the blood and clears its channels. To-day let the world slip, and let us live in a summer reverie.

When October comes, the farmer promptly takes out his air-tight stove and plants it in his sitting-room, putting therein a fire of coals to stifle out what life remains in him after the summer toil. When early twilights, more than the cold, draw the household around its hearth-heart, the logs piece out the scant day with their treasured surplus of sunlight. Nature draws out and gratifies each sense with colour, perfume, heat, and all the while the wood juices whistle a little tune, learned long ago in sapling days, from the peeping marsh frogs. When pine cones add their incense to the flames, with it returns the forest perfume, and if we close the eyes, the thoughts go springward to pink-pouched cypripedes and hermit thrushes.
The friendship of nature: a New England chronicle of birds and flowers
By Mabel Osgood Wright

"Did you find any signs of a chicken house on the place when you first came?" asked Maria, in a matter-of-fact tone, as if its location was the only thing now to be considered.
"Yes, there was one directly in the fence line at the eastern gap where we see the Three Brothers Hills," said Bart, "and I've always intended to plant a flower bed of some sort there both to hide the gap in the wall and that something may be benefited by the hen manure of decades that must have accumulated there!"
"How would the place do for the new hen-house?" pursued Maria, relentlessly.
"Not at all!" I snapped very decidedly; "it is directly in the path the cool summer winds take on their way to the dining room, and you know at best fowl houses are not bushes of lemon balm!"
"Then why not locate your bed of good-smelling things in the gap, and sup on nectar and distilled perfume," said The Man from Everywhere, soothingly.
"The very thing! and I will write Mrs. Evan at once for a list of the plants in her 'bed of sweet odours,' as she calls it." Then presently, as the men sat talking, Maria having gone into the house, our summer work seemed to lie accomplished and complete before me, even as you once saw your garden of dreams before its making, — the knoll restored to its wildness, ending not too abruptly at the garden in some loose rock; the bed of sweet odours filling the gap between it and the gate of the little pasture in the rear; straight beds of hardy plants bordering the vegetable squares; the two seed beds topping the furthest bit, then a space of lawn with the straight walk of the old garden running through, to the sundial amid some beds of summer flowers at the orchard end, while the open lawn below the side porch is given up to roses!

(Mary Penrose to Barbara Campbell) Woodridge, August 26. The heliotrope is in the perfection of bloom and seems to draw perfume from the intense heat of the August days only to release it again as the sun sets, while as long as daylight lasts butterflies of all sizes, shapes, and colours are fluttering about the flowers until the bed is like the transformation scene of a veritable dance of fairies!

Give me a bouquet of perfect wild rosebuds within a deep fringe of maidenhair to set in a crystal jar where I may watch the deep pink petals unfold and show the golden stars within; let me breathe their first breath of perfume, and you may keep all the greenhouse orchids that are grown.


I think I hear Evan laughing at my preachment concerning his special art, but the comprehension of it has all come through looking at the natural landscape effects that have happened at Opal Farm owing to the fact that the hand of man has there been stayed
here many years. On either side of the rough bars leading between our boundary wall and the meadow stands a dead cedar tree, from which the dry, moss covered branches have been broken by the loads of hay that used to be gathered up at random and carted out this way. Wild birds doubtless used these branches as perches of vantage from which they might view the country, both during feeding excursions and in migration, and thus have sown the seed of their provender, for lo and behold, around the old trees have grown vines of wild grapes, with flowers that perfume the entire meadow in June. Here the woody, spiral-climbing waxwork holds aloft its clusters of berries that look like bunches of miniature lemons until on being ripe they open and show the coral fruit; Virginia creeper of the five-pointed fingers, clinging tendrils, glorious autumn colour, and spreading clusters of purple blackberries, and wild white clematis, the "traveller's joy" of moist roadside copses, all blending together and stretching out hands, until this season being undisturbed, they have clasped to form a natural arch of surpassing beauty.

Your last chronicle interested us all. In the first place father remembers Mrs. Marchant perfectly, for he and the doctor used to exchange visits constantly during that long-ago summer when they lived on the old Herb Farm at Coningsby. Father had heard that she was hopelessly deranged, but nothing further, and the fact that she is living within driving distance in the midst of her garden of fragrance is a striking illustration both of the littleness of the earth and the social remoteness of its inhabitants.
Father says that Mrs. Marchant was always a very intellectual woman, and he remembers that in the old days she had almost a passion for fragrant flowers, and once wrote an essay upon the psychology of perfumes that attracted some attention in the medical journal in which it was published by her husband. That the perfume of flowers should now have drawn the shattered fragments of her mind together for their comfort and given her the foretaste of immortality, by the sign of the consciousness of personal presence and peace, is beautiful indeed.


"The singing of the birds, the hum of bees in the opening lilacs, and the garden fragrance blending with the Infant's prattle, as she babbled to her dolls, floated through the open door and made me drowsy, and I turned from the light toward the now empty fireplace.

In July and August you may safely let your eyes wander from the rosary to the beds of summer annuals, the gladioli, Japan lilies, and Dahlias, and depend for fragrance on your bed of sweet odours. But as the nights begin to lengthen, at the end of August, you may prepare for a tea-rose festival, if you have a little forethought and a very little money.

"Last night after dinner, when the men drew their chairs toward the fire, — for we still have one, though the windows are open, — and the fragrance from the bed of double English violets, that you sent me, mingled with the wood smoke, we all began to croon comfortably. As soon as he had settled back in the big chair, with closed eyes and finger tips nicely matched, we propounded our conundrum of taking three from two and having four remain.
The garden, you and I
By Mabel Osgood Wright