Fragrance in the writings of William Beebe

And these were but the first of the flowers; for when the brief tropic twilight is quenched, a new world is born. The leaves and blossoms of the day are at rest, and the birds and insects sleep. New blooms open, strange scents pour forth. Even our dull senses respond to these; for just as the eye is dimmed, so are the other senses quickened in the sudden night of the jungle. Nearby, so close that one can reach out and touch them, the pale Cereus moons expand, exhaling their sweetness, subtle breaths of fragrance calling for the very life of their race to the whirring hawkmoths. The tiny miller who, through the hours of glare has crouched beneath a leaf, flutters upward, and the trail of her perfume summons her mate perhaps half a mile down wind. The civet cat, stimulated by love or war, fills the glade with an odor so pungent that it seems as if the other senses must mark it.
Although there may seem not a breath of air in motion, yet the tide of scent is never still. One's moistened finger may reveal no cool side, since there is not the vestige of a breeze; but faint odors arrive, become stronger, and die away, or are wholly dissipated by an onrush of others, so musky or so sweet that one can almost taste them. These have their secret purposes, since Nature is not wasteful. If she creates beautiful things, it is to serve some ultimate end; it is her whim to walk in obscure paths, but her goal is fixed and immutable. However, her designs are hidden and not easy to decipher; at best, one achieves, not knowledge, but a few isolated facts.
Edge of the jungle
By William Beebe

The air blows cool and damp on our faces, and we long for the keen power of scent of a dog. Even to our dull nostrils every turn of the road is full of interest. A swamp, thickly starred with dainty spider-lilies, comes into view, and we inhale draughts of sweetest incense; Easter Sunday is at hand, and the very wilderness reminds us of it.
With every breath of air the great palm leaves flick myriads of drops to the underbrush below, with a sound as of heavy rain. The trunks are black and soaked, and there is not a dry frond for miles. A sudden curve brings another loop of the river into view, with a foreground of scuttling crabs and mangrove seedlings. Here a wave of coarse, salty, marsh smell fills our lungs — not stagnant, but redolent of the distant sea; the smell that makes one's blood leap. The next quarter-mile is covered with lilies again. From their perfume we enter a zone of recently cut grass — and the incense brings to mind northern hay-fields and the sweetgrass baskets of the Indians. What new pains and pleasures would be ours could we possess the power of scent of some of the "lower" animals!
Our search for a wilderness
By Blair Niles, William Beebe

All about our feet, and in many other places around our camp, grew clumps of the little club-moss, known as the Resurrection Plant. We had often seen it sold in New York and wondered where its home could be, and here we found it, clinging in thousands to the scanty film of parched earth in the crevices of the boulders and cliffs. Each plant is like a little incurved ball of arbor-vitce foliage, dry and brittle, but when placed in a spring or a pool of water, it opens wide its little array of leaves, which, in a day or two, turn from brown to green and send forth a spicy perfume. A bucket of water thrown among a multitude of these plants awakens into a brief greenness every one upon which it happens to fall; but soon, unless kept moist, the little leaves close and return to their parched condition —the little brown fists are clinched again.
Two bird-lovers in Mexico
By William Beebe


All odor evaded me until I had recourse to my usual olfactory crutch, placing the flower in a vial in the sunlight. Delicate indeed was the fragrance which did not yield itself to a few minutes of this distillation. As I removed the cork there gently arose the scent of thyme, and of rose petals long pressed between the leaves of old, old books—a scent memorable of days ancient to us, which in past lives of sedges would count but a moment. In an instant it passed, drowned in the following smell of bruised stem. But I had surprised the odor of this age-old growth, as evanescent as the faint sound of the breeze sifting through the cluster of leafless stalks. I felt certain that Eryops, although living among horserushes and ancient sedges, never smelled or listened to them, and a glow of satisfaction came over me at the thought that perhaps I represented an advance on this funny old forebear of mine; but then I thought of the little bees, drawn from afar by the scent, and I returned to my usual sense of human futility, which is always dominant in the presence of insect activities.
Edge of the jungle
By William Beebe

In the open spaces of the earth, and more than anywhere in this conservatory of unblown odors, we come more and more to appreciate and envy a dog's sensitive muzzle. Here we sniffed as naturally as we turned ear, and were able to recognize many of our nasal impressions, and even to follow a particularly strong scent to its source. Few yards of trail but had their distinguishable scent, whether violent, acrid smell or delectable fragrance. Long after a crab-jackal had passed, we noted the stinging, bitter taint in the air; and now and then the pungent wake of some big jungle-bug struck us like a tangible barrier.
The most tantalizing odors were the wonderfully delicate and penetrating ones from some great burst of blossoms, odors heavy with sweetness, which seeped down from vine or tree high overhead, wholly invisible from below even in broad daylight. These odors remained longest in memory, perhaps because they were so completely the product of a single sense. There were others too, which were unforgettable, because, like the voice of the frog, they stirred the memory a fraction before they excited curiosity. Such I found the powerful musk from the bed of leaves which a fawn had just left. For some reason this brought vividly to mind the fearful compound of smells arising from the decks of Chinese junks.
Along the moonlit trail there came wavering whiffs of orchids, ranging from attar of roses and carnations to the pungence of carrion, the latter doubtless distilled from as delicate and as beautiful blossoms as the former. There were, besides, the myriad and bewildering smells of sap, crushed leaves, and decaying wood; acrid, sweet, spicy, and suffocating, some like musty books, others recalling the paint on the Noah's Ark of one's nursery.
Jungle night
By William Beebe

Few birds were here and no humming of insects was audible. The steaming air was so heavy with pungent earth and swamp smells that one imagined that all low sounds were deadened and lost. Here and there a dry hummock rose from the swamp, covered with short lawn-like grass and great running vines of convolvulus. From one of these a Boat-billed Heron flew up, with a croak. Another parody of Nature and this time on our Night Heron! In voice, actions, and flight this tropical bird is an exact copy of our large-eyed nocturnal heron, but its broad, flat bill is as different as is the bill of a gannet from that of a pelican.
Two bird-lovers in Mexico
By William Beebe

Wherever a ledge or a more gentle slope gave foothold, luxuriant vegetation crowded it; gigantic Agaves, or Century-plants, variegated with white, starred the walls; purple-leafed orchids, and now and then a dangling tangle of Night-blooming Cereus, the spiny stems looking like nothing so much as colonies of monstrous hydras, tentacled and budding. Where the drip and splash of ice-cold springs were heard, mosses and ferns abounded, delicate maidenhair, with fronds two and three feet in length, forming arrowheads of filmiest green against the black moist cliffs. Saxifrage (etymologically, if not botanically) lit up the glades with myriads of white stars, filling the whole air with sweetest fragrance.
Two bird-lovers in Mexico
By William Beebe

It might have been that the light breeze brought with it some subtle evidence of land close ahead, some familiar Eastern fragrance which heralded the presence of a native village, with its palm trees rising dark and splendid above a row of thatched huts, and its fishing canoes drawn up like a black battalion along the water's edge. For, in the early morning a blue mist that lay close to the horizon took form and contour, becoming a white shore behind which distant trees showed in an opaque emerald border against the sky. This had the quality and unreality of a mirage, and the appearance of each successive detail seemed only to bring new elements of fiction into the illusion.
THE GATES OF THE EAST
BY C. WILLIAM BEEBE

The jungle was bright with flowers, but it was a sinister brightness—a poisonous, threatening flash of pigment, set off by the blackness of the shadows. Heliconia spikes gleamed like fixed scarlet lightning, zigzagging through the pungent air. Now and then a bunch of pleasing, warm-hued berries reminded one of innocuous currants, but a second glance showed them ripening into swollen, liver-hued globes which offered no temptation to taste. One tree dangled hideous purple cups filled with vermilion fruits, and not far away the color sequence was reversed. A low-growing, pleasant-leaved plant lifted bursting masses of purple-black, all dripping like wounds upon the foliage below. Many flowers were unrecognizable save by their fragrance and naked stamens, advertised neither by color nor form of blossom. I despaired of flowers worthy of the name, until close by my foot I saw a tiny plant with a comely, sweet-scented blossom, grateful to the eye and beautiful as our northern blooms are beautiful. The leaf was like scores lying about, and I realized that this was a sproutling of the giant tree. Nothing but the death of this monster could give the light and air which the little plant needed. It was doomed, but it had performed its destiny. It had hinted that much of the beauty of the jungle lay far above the mold and stagnant water. And then I remembered the orchids high overhead. And the realization came that the low-growing blooms needed their glaring colors to outshine the dim, shadowy underjungle, and their nauseous fumes to out scent the musky vapors of decay.
Jungle peace
By William Beebe

We took our meals at the delightful El Sanatorio, where one finds a haven of good American cooking in a land of beans and fried unleavened corn-cakes. The two-storied patio was always filled with flowers, great geraniums and heliotropes making the air fragrant by day; and the immaculate cereus blossoms pouring forth their perfume in the moonlight. During January and February the entire front of the building was a mass of purple Bougainvillea.
Two bird-lovers in Mexico
By William Beebe

All along the upper rim the sustaining structure was more distinctly visible than elsewhere. Here was a maze of taut brown threads stretching in places across a span of six inches, with here and there a tiny knot. These were actually tie-strings of living ants, their legs stretched almost to the breaking-point, their bodies the inconspicuous knots or nodes. Even at rest and at home, the army ants are always prepared, for every quiescent individual in the swarm was standing as erect as possible, with jaws widespread and ready, whether the great curved mahogany scimitars of the soldiers, or the little black daggers of the smaller workers. And with no eyelids to close, and eyes which were themselves a mockery, the nerve shriveling and never reaching the brain, what could sleep mean to them? Wrapped ever in an impenetrable cloak of darkness and silence, life was yet one great activity, directed, ordered, commanded by scent and odor alone. Hour after hour, as I sat close to the nest, I was aware of this odor, sometimes subtle, again wafted in strong successive waves. It was musty, like something sweet which had begun to mold; not unpleasant, but very difficult to describe; and in vain I strove to realize the importance of this faint essence—taking the place of sound, of language, of color, of motion, of form.
Edge of the jungle
By William Beebe

With two senses so perfectly occupied, sight becomes superfluous and I close my eyes. And straightway the scent and the murmur usurp my whole mind with a vivid memory. I am still squatting, but in a dark, fragrant room; and the murmur is still of doves; but the room is in the cool, still heart of the Queen's Golden Monastery in northern Burma, within storm-sound of Tibet, and the doves are perched among the glitter and tinkling bells of the pagoda roofs. I am squatting very quietly, for I am tired, after photographing carved peacocks and jungle fowl in the marvelous fretwork of the outer balconies, There are idols all about me—or so it would appear to a missionary; for my part, I can think only of the wonderful face of the old Lama who sits near me, a face peaceful with the something for which most of us would desert what we are doing, if by that we could attain it. Near him are two young priests, sitting as motionless as the Buddha in front of them.
After a half-hour of the strange thing that we call time, the Lama speaks, very low and very softly:
"The surface of the mirror is clouded with a breath."
Out of a long silence one of the neophytes replies, "The mirror can be wiped clear."
Again the world becomes incense and doves,— in the silence and peace of that monastery, it may have been a few minutes or a decade,—and the second Tibetan whispers, "There is no need to wipe the mirror."
When I have left behind the world of inharmonious colors, of polluted waters, of soot stained walls and smoke-tinged air, the green of jungle comes like a cooling bath of delicate tints and shades. I think of all the green things I have loved—of malachite in matrix and table-top; of jade, not factory-hewn baubles, but age-mellowed signets, fashioned by lovers of their craft, and seasoned by the toying yellow fingers of generations of forgotten Chinese emperors—jade, as Dunsany would say, of the exact shade of the right color. I think too, of dainty emerald scarves that are seen and lost in a flash at a dance; of the air-cooled, living green of curling breakers; of a lonely light that gleams to starboard of an unknown passing vessel, and of the transparent green of northern lights that flicker and play on winter nights high over the garish glare of Broadway.
Edge of the jungle
By William Beebe





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