Scent, Senses, and the Sciential Rose

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‘All seasons, and their change; all please alike.’ Milton

The roses of June are now gone.

We’re moving rapidly through July, with all its over-blown, heat saturated splendor. Soon this blog will be checking in with the seasonable Mr. White of Selborne to see what he’s doing with his whortle-berries in late July of 1781.

But that’s for later. Now it is still roses, a book by Diane Ackerman, and a Curious Word courtesy of Charles Lamb (‘sciential’).

The garden, where I took these pictures, is Heirloom Roses, of St. Paul, Oregon.

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Heirloom Gardens is no ordinary rose garden. It’s a wonderful resource for the rose connoisseur. For one thing, space isn’t really an issue. There are acres of roses to be seen in their display gardens. For anyone with a garden of normal proportions, who has ever wanted to see an old rambling species rose take over a pergola, or allow the mighty Kiftsgate to swathe an entire evergreen in its thorny embrace, you know that space is an issue. Few gardens have the room to indulge the passionate rose enthusiast with all the abundance of shape, size and drapery the world of roses can boast.

Rosa moschata, species rose

Rosa moschata, species rose

Thus, it is exciting to see species roses allowed to be all they can be.

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This giant climber is almost identical to the Kiftsgate climber, but its name tag was too obscured to see.

I say that in all sincerity. It really is exciting. ‘Here be fountains’, cascades, waterfalls and mountains of roses. The air is perfumed with a fragrance that the likes of Cleopatra might have worn.

The digital memory of my rose garden tour is now stored on, and perilously afloat, what I call the If and Ineffability of iCloud data storage. Download-able at any moment, and lose-able more often than that.

Just as precariously, the memories of my June rose adventures are now packaged in little quivery bundles of ephemera I house in my neurons. The wafting esters of scent, the tactility of petals, the rustle of sound as I moved my dreamlike tread over freshly mowed lawn; these impressions have been shelved in my mind alongside the enormous database of other neurons of memory.

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Fragrance, though, is the great fixative of memory. Scent fixes memory to an emotion and pins us to that place in time. It is the download button for instant retrieval of data, and an instant rush of accompanying sensations.

What is fixative? It is a term used in the perfume and fragrance industry. Every famous, lingering scent has a fixative. These began as natural substances—often animal derived, such as musky civet oil— that will preserve and stabilize that which is volatile. Fragrance on the skin can be volatile, as the accompanying look in the eye may well be. But the fragrance can be released into the air where it will dissipate quickly unless it is given staying power with a fixative.

In A Natural History of the Senses, Diane Ackerman wrote:

‘Nothing is more memorable than a smell… [they] detonate softly in our memory like poignant land mines, hidden under the weedy mass of many years and experiences. Hit a tripwire of smell, and memories explode all at once. A complex vision leaps out of the undergrowth.’

Ackerman is called ‘the finest literary interpreter of science and nature’, and for good reason. Her work, A Natural History of the Senses is my go-to book whenever I want scientific answers to questions I never thought of asking, and poetic descriptions I never thought of writing.

Another great thinker, Virginia Woolf, wrote, in her ground-breaking work A Room of One’s Own:

‘We think back through our mothers, if we are women.’

This, in the light of current science and the unfolding mysteries of mitochondrial DNA, is a potential powerhouse of possibility. ‘A complex vision leaps out of the undergrowth…’

For surely there is a dimensional quality to scent and fragrance that goes far beyond the physical aspects of touch or sight. There is so much in the physics and neuroscience of smell that scientists still don’t understand. It is likely that our mothers, and all the mothers of distant mothers who stretch back through the centuries, loved roses.

Is it possible that our own deep inhalations takes us back through those centuries of memory? Some roses are centuries old. We may not realize the process that is at work every time we take a breath, swill it through our own essence, and exhale it ‘gently altered for having known us‘; but our inner selves remember moments most vividly through the medium of scent.

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Diane Ackerman, not surprisingly, would reference Marcel Proust, ‘that great blazer of scent trails through the wilderness of luxury and memory’, as an example of a writer who captured ‘flights of comprehensive remembrance’ based on the power of a chance encounter with a smell.

Ackerman writes evocatively of the Song of Songs–The Song of Solomon–’the most scent-drenched poem of all time’.

She relates her adventures tagging Monarch butterflies, studying Indonesian flying foxes in Texas, and interviewing that brilliant prodigy of noses, Sophia Grojsman— “For a world-class nose on a deadline she seems relaxed and alert”.

She takes us on an imaginary tour to the boudoir of an ancient Egyptian beauty, mixing and applying her fragrant unguents in preparation for a dinner party.

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And of course she writes about roses. In all of this she gives forth her observations and understanding in the most lyrical prose. It’s a beautiful book to read, whether you are strolling a rose garden with a parasol or striding about the Giza plateau in a pith helmet.

Since the time worn cliché has become more of dictum that resembles ‘call your Mother’.… We shall, instead, linger in our perambulations and breathe deeply of Milton’s roseate dews.

But go ahead and call your mother.

‘For we think back through our mothers if we are women’….said Virginia.

(began here, and to be continued)

 

No Ordinary Doll Head

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Kewpie with CarlyleThe DPChallenge is… Leftovers.

‘For this week’s writing challenge, shake the dust off something — a clothing item, a post draft, a toy — you haven’t touched in ages, but can’t bring yourself to throw away.’

You may wonder why I keep Kewpie around. But if laughter is good for the body, Kewpie’s head has done wonders for mine. I like to think of her as a leftover smile. True, she gets dusty, sitting on her shelf. (she prefers a spot next to Thomas Carlyle, as Sartor Resartus is her favorite book).

Sometimes she scares our dinner guests, who might be unsuspectingly browsing the library. But as so few people read Carlyle these days, Kewpie usually escapes detection.

I ask you, how can you throw out something that loves chocolate, fresh flowers, and warm hats?

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Kewpie

 

How can you throw out something that primps like a teenager?

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Sometimes she’s painfully aware that she resembles a butternut squash. And then we definitely don’t throw her out.

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Sometimes the smile fades a little. Just briefly. It’s hard to be the embodiment of mirth when you lack…well…everything but the mirth.

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Once, when relaxing by the fire, she looked very tempting, and was almost eaten.

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But other days she puts her Carmen Miranda on and sings without a care in the world.

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She’s notorious for trying to sneak a slice of zucchini bread when no one is looking.

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Life with Kewpie is never dull. How can you toss out a leftover smile?

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All That Resonates

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“It’s a piano.”

It was one of those upright monstrosities many of us remember. Full of creaks and groans, with ivory keys like aged teeth, all tobacco stained and chipped. The toothy, gapped leer it gave me upon entering the house was more interesting than fearful. It took my dad and a few of his bulky friends powered by pizza and beer to move it into its prized location. The new arrival took up precious real estate in a shabby living room that was already bulging with the paraphernalia of five boisterous children.

I loved it instantly. (I should mention that I was only four years old at the time, but that is an age when impressions are formed with astonishing vividness.)

It had Presence.

It emanated something new. Something of old worlds and ancient wisdom, of gnarled hands and craftmanship, and somehow…the singing of stars. Naturally I could articulate none of this at the time. I only sensed within it an innate power to do something wonderful.

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It was a thing, but such a mighty thing it was. We couldn’t afford it we didn’t have space for it the dining table had to be moved to accommodate it no one in our family could play it but its greatness had just been heaved, shoved and groaned into place against the wall. And my father was smiling. The tough ex-Marine ex-boxer ex-dancer of uncommon grace was smiling with pure joy.

Something significant had just happened. My father rarely smiled with pure joy.

At first, there was cacophony. When piano keys are struck by eager childish fingers, much more happens than a frightening eruption of noise. There are amazing vibrations. I could feel this curious phenomenon because I had squeezed my little four year old body between the back of the piano and the wall.

As the instrument was for my older sister at that point no one was interested in me or my reaction to it. No one noticed I had disappeared in to the piano. I wanted so desperately to understand this new thing. I pressed my flushed, excited cheek against an old wood rib at the back and let the piano twang into my head. It resonated thunder, and was horribly out of tune. What did I know? What did I know of vibrational energy? Or of tight bundles of string tension that can exceed twenty tons? Did I know that piano strings must be made from the toughest steel; not only because they endure constant high tension, they are subject to repeated blows? What did I know?

In the late nineties scientists discovered a black hole that was singing. That was the best description they could think of for the sonorous pulse it had been emitting for millions of years. We could detect this ancient ‘singing’ only recently, and it was in something like the key of B flat. Is there an echo here of Pythagorean music of the spheres? Do the planets and stars form a type of celestial clockworks that chime out colossal tones?

My next piano, like my teen years, was a product of the seventies. Newer was supposed to be better so we bought a lusterless Kimball, of no particular vintage or story. It was just new. It possessed a particle soundboard of indifferent quality. I have no idea what sort of wood it was. Nothing exciting ever happened on that piano. Still, it was an important box with strings. I kept playing, wondered about boys, wrote some bad poetry, and started to explore Bach. And somewhere the empty spaceless voids were still singing while no one listened.

Then I married. Even in the honeymoon of sweet distraction, I knew something was terribly wrong. One month went by, then two. A sickening dread came to me, but I knew. I had to confess. I had no piano. I had to have the singing box with strings.

My father had just died. On the dance floor. He simply dropped out of my mother’s arms. In mid step. And that was that.

Anguish lingered in slow motion aftermaths. A small inheritance of possibilities rippled past. I took my share—oh the hateful money.

I bought a piano. A cherrywood console of consolation. A box of rich warm tones.

Now the city apartment had The Box. Impassioned, liquid sonorities flowed out on to the street; I turned grief into sound.

The power of the box was at work.

I could dispel a crowd of pot smoking thugs by playing Rachmaninov louder than their angry babble; a cluster of loitering latte-sippers would coalesce on the street below while listening to a Chopin nocturne drift out our opened windows. I could play my father’s smile and give a call out to anti matter in the frightful void in case it was listening.

In time we moved to a small town, into a vintage house that sat within view of the resonant sea. There were gardens and scented roses, and always the sound of the sea. For my piano, I ‘inherited’ a wonderful old blind tuner and his faithful Labrador. My piano was never better cared for, and my acoustics had never been so sublime.

The stage was set for something exciting to happen.

It started with a want ad, and a bit of casual conversation over white wine and margarita shrimp.
“Did you see the ad for the Steinway?”
“Oh yeah. Crazy.” Said I. “Like a dream but not. You don’t dream about things like that.”
“We should go look.”
“Why?…I don’t want to.”

I didn’t want to look. Who wants to get a glimpse of perfection only to have ‘access denied’?

I looked. I was overcome. Of 1879 vintage, it sat and glowed in innumerable shades of incandescent beauty. Of old worlds and old woods; of grain and resonance not just any tree of yesterday possesses. And the strings…almost six feet of big, shining percussive potential that rippled out to the murmuring ocean and returned in lilting waves.

Its current home, when I first saw it, was a concrete garage; reminiscent of an abandoned airplane hangar that had become a glue factory for castaway piano relics. There was only one tiny wood stove for warmth, and it was surrounded—guarded by—several chain-smoking ex-cons. The experience was as incongruous as seeing an aging diva trapped in a dumpster.

We brought her home. The diva. The chain smoking ex-cons expertly moved her and lovingly set her up. (they were a motley crew of soulful music lovers, as it turned out). For the how of the rescue, I refer you to my Ways and Means Committee.

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Home–where there is always a piano, lots of books, and plentiful dog toys

But with this new piano came my next tuner—a slouching hulk of a gentle giant who played Debussy, Brahms and Chopin with the delicacy of a puff pastry. His tiny dog Minuet accompanied him every time he came to tune, and, when he was finished, he would play Clair de Lune while I stroked Minuet’s silky ears.

In the garden roses bloomed and baby deer frolicked.

I’m not exaggerating. I’ll even mention Charlie, my dog. He loved music. Absolutely loved it. Sitting at my feet while I played, looking much like this. This was Charlie’s signature pose. Sometimes he would place his big clumsy paw on my foot that worked the damper pedal. His sighs and snufflings of contentment became part of the resonance.

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Must I leave this picture? Yes, I must, for then came darkness and so much that followed is blank.

Strange hands, lifting hands, then my own hands resting awkwardly on hospital sheets. I recognized none of them. My ears rebelled against the ugly beeps of monitors; chronic, cankered beeps that I couldn’t shut out. Unnatural sounds that formed a hateful chorus from a Greek tragedy chanting “die”.

The music went silent. The piano movers came and I was not there. That was the good thing. I was not there to watch it go. But I was going, too. It didn’t matter.

Somewhere anti matter was singing in deep booms of awful reverberation.

If the sound from the singing black holes is just now reaching us after millions of years, where did my sounds go? The sounds from the old upright in the sixties and the Kimball and the cherrywood console and big diva from 1879 that reflected back the flickering light of the ocean…are they still resonating? Have they reached another type of sounding board, where the old songs, the old laughter, is still being heard?

Light did return. So did the music. The hands regained some, but not all, of dexterity. Music came back to the inside of my mind. I gradually awoke to a new reality. I had lost Rachmaninov, Chopin, and so much more, but something of their sounds were still there. I could still play. I was still a flushed and eager four year old with my body pressed against the sound board.

The Box with strings, however, was different. It was so very different. There was no replacing my beauteous 1879. But I went and sampled pianos; the replacement options. I played by inches. Life came back by inches. I went for as many inches as I could. Why not? I finally found one that was just right. Lovely crystalline tones.

She’s a vintage beauty from 1920, with a ‘story’. Story is important when you’re trying to fit a 5’9” mahogany box of sound in a cramped living space. Our new life. Life. What a sweet resonance that word has.

I play gratitude now, along with memories of other music. I play in the key of B flat. Usually minor. Gratitude is always in a minor key, for gratitude can only come at a price. That is my key. Mine and the black holes in space.

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Our home in the city is four stories up. There are tops of trees outside the window, and when I play, the birds sing in answer.  A flock of finches will begin to gather–perhaps a few sparrows– there are certainly twitters in little undulations aplenty as the music begins. The chickadees hang upside down from a limb and peer inside with a sweet curiosity that makes my heart ache for their innocence.

If this sounds like a scene from Snow White—well, perhaps. If you can imagine Snow White with a Steinway. And scars.

I am beginning to resonate again. And somewhere a black hole is playing in the key of Bb. It finally found me. It’s playing my father’s smile and the glint of light on the ocean. I’d like to think it’s playing for Charlie, too. He would love that.

Yes, it’s just a box, a wooden box on three legs. Inside it bears scars and strings of the toughest steel.

It’s the world to me.

[You asked me what is my most precious Thing (as in object), and I can tell you it's a piano.]

[And you asked me about my experience with a favorite instrument. This is the long version.]

 

 

 

 

So Strangely Stiletto

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A request for contrast from The Daily Post:

There is a delicate shell chandelier that hangs over the piano. It has a curious affinity for light, and as the light fades, dusk begins, and champagne is poured…it comes strangely alive. The transformation takes it from soft luminosity to a faint menace.

Perhaps the champagne was flat.

To offer further contrast to this newly disembodied atmosphere, there is even turgid, nonsensical poetry to be had after dinner:

Sweetly sings she
her song of sushi
while chandeliers of
light filled shells
chime and shimmer
as champagne sheens
and sparkle chills;
what shadows you 
oh, luminosity?

Truth in Exhalation

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Fragrance doesn’t lie.

Whether or not we are conscious of it, perfumes of one sort or another affect us on every level.

Perhaps you never think of perfume. You only think of bacon. It is the oily, sweet effluvium of bacon on the grill that bespeaks rhapsody to your heart. Perhaps it is the rose.

We associate that which is fragrant with pleasantness, and that of effluvia with unpleasantness. Your fragrance may be my effluvia. Even the dictionary asserts this is so.

Fragrance is essence and what is essence but truth?

Shakespeare told us so in Sonnet 54, and used the rose as his fulcrum; fragrance is truth, fragrance is the beauty behind the rose. When beauty fades as even the rose must, fragrance remains…“my verse distills your truth.”

In this context, then, truth is often effluvia.

Roses without scent are unloved, un-wooed… “they die to themselves.”

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That will not be our fate. All humans have an essence. We hear, smell, savor the rhythmic breathings of our loved ones…Each person’s scent is as distinctive as their fingerprint.

It is not the red rose that lingers in memory, but the fragrant one. It is scent that evokes memory and emotion. It is the oily, pungent power of scent that can drop us to our knees. Sometimes those memories will never die a ‘sweet death’. But they are truth. And still we inhale. For that is truth, too. We need to breathe. We need to remember.

What truth, what “sweet death” have we died for someone else? When we leave a room, when we end a phone call, when we shuffle off the mortal coil? Surely not the death of the Shakespeare’s ‘cankered rose’, for it leaves no olfactory trace; just a faint memory of dyed petals.

As to quality, shall we ask Napoleon?

“Don’t bathe”, wrote Napoleon to Josephine. Why? He wanted to enjoy her natural aromas. Who of us would think of preparing for a romantic encounter by not bathing for two weeks? Yet that is what Napoleon asked of Josephine. Culture, content, nurture—those things shape our views of exhalations. Odors emitted are opportunities, information and invitation. What Napoleon wanted was everything about Josephine. Nothing held back. He wanted her truth in exhalations.

Perhaps Josephine, with her passionate love for roses, exuded a sort of Chanel no. 5.

Can we think of Chanel no. 5 without thinking of Marilyn Monroe? Oh, what a curious, mighty example is she…in all her potent frailty. Fragrance as something we exude; an essence of personality that lingers long behind us. What Marilyn Monroe flippantly said she wore to bed—Chanel no. 5—has become as powerful an image of her as the diamonds she flaunted. No sparkle, no roundness of curve…just warm gusts of essence. We may have caught a whiff of this heady perfume as it wafted behind in the wake left by a Disgusted Rich Lady but for those who breathed it when exuded from Marilyn’s ardent skin? Truth.

Truth and innocence lost; John Milton used both odorous and odoriferous in the same strands of incandescent thought when he wrote Paradise Lost…oh he is fearless in imagery! He takes us on a sumptuous journey, fanned by ‘odiferous wings’ as we smell our way to our own paradise of assumptions.

“What in me is dark, illumin..”

Or, put another way; what oily pungence lurks, distill?

We find truth, when we read and we think and we choose to speak of what we have read and thought about. For we read of ourselves.

Thus we exude. We speak, we write. We affect. We find truth in our exhalations.

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Daily Post.…another great writing prod from the fearless team!

“Today is a free writing day. Write at least four-hundred words, and once you start typing, don’t stop. No self-editing, no trash-talking, and no second guessing: just go. Bonus points if you tackle an idea you’ve been playing with but think is too silly to post about….”