The Twilight of Our Year

IMG_6346 ‘Awake, O north wind, and come, thou south;

Blow upon my garden that the spices may flow forth.’ [Song of Solomon]

Autumn is a season of nuance, subtle ambiguity, blazing contradiction, and ultimately, simple nostalgia. What if you could distill all of the complexity of our beloved penultimate season into a fragrance? A fragrance that might linger beyond us, as if to say:

“I was here.”

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Some claim it has been done; perfumeries tout their autumn inspired creations as heady with ‘floral and wood notes, base notes of diamond dust and melancholy’;  Jo Malone’s Wood Sage & Sea Salt Cologne smells of ‘brisk windswept walks along the coast, trees and cinnamon’, and DKNY City Lights promises ‘a dry down of warm musk and spicy cardamom’.

If autumn was a perfume that I might devise from personal experience, it would open with a fresh burst of vibrant top notes, spiced with sharp, zinnia-like warmth, followed by a wistful sub-text of aromas that bring to mind Aunt Flo’s dill pickles and Grandma’s sweet chow chow. Subtle dark notes would then follow at their leisure; they hint of melancholy, rise slowly in the heart in old Tennysonian rhythms, and linger long in shadow as do the deep perfumes of ancient forests.

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If autumn was a perfume that was also a poem, we would surely choose to lose ourselves in Paradise Lost, the most lushly evocative poetic imagery to come from the pen of John Milton.

‘Now gentle gales,  

Fanning their odoriferous wings, dispense  

Native perfumes, and whisper whence they stole  

Those balmy spoils.’ (Paradise Lost; Book IV)

The actual word ‘fragrance’ was created by Milton. Yes, really. Even the description of Milton’s linguistic prowess brings a new word to our vocabulary: neologist.

According to John Crace of ‘The Guardian’ :

‘Milton is responsible for introducing some 630 words to the English language, making him the country’s greatest neologist, ahead of Ben Jonson with 558, John Donne with 342 and Shakespeare with 229.’

[For further on this, see The Curious Word for one of his creations that didn’t stand the test of time]

Besides the necessity of creating new words that could express the power of his genius, Milton infused animate life into words that were already in existence but languishing in obscurity—words such as odoriferous and ambrosial. He also coined the evocative phrase ‘roseate dews’, used in tandem with ‘breath of morn’.

For Milton, all parts of the day in Paradise emitted fragrance. When he wrote Paradise Lost, he was blind, and therefore his other senses became heightened. From those aforementioned roseate dews of morning to the ambrosial night of wafting scents, his prose has so many allusions to fragrance that the effect is thrillingly sensuous. By the way, that is another word creation of Milton: sensuous.

Scholars have debated what, exactly, Milton meant by ‘roseate dews’, but we are closer to understanding what he meant by ‘ambrosial night’. It is a curious fact that many varieties of blooms reserve their fragrance to themselves during the day, then during the growing twilight, slowly open to emit a fragrance that is sometimes delicate, but can quite often be rich and heady. These night-fragrant varieties are called vespertine flowers, and in years long past they used to provide a gentle way of marking time.

Mirabilis jalapa…commonly known in this country as four o’clocks, would be just one example. In France they are called belle de nuit, ‘beauty of the night’. This plant opens its flowers in early twilight—for some just at tea-time—emits a rich fragrance through the night, then closes up again in the morning.

Today it is the digital sterility of square numbers on clocks without hands or faces that mark our passing moments, whereas in days of yore a flower could gently suggest that it was time to go to bed. Or in China, a certain scent wafting through the kitchen window might be the signal to begin making the rice. History is full of such stories. Other blooms give off scent the whole night long, to perfume our dreams, then discreetly disappear with the rise of the sun.

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In her classic book The Fragrant Garden, Louise Beebe Wilder writes:

‘The true vesper flowers, those that withhold their sweetness from the day and give it freely to the night, are rather a curious company. Few have any daytime attractions, being either sad of hue, brownish, grayish or dull violet, or if white, as many of them are, seeming to lose countenance before the searching eye of the day, to drop and become dull and lusterless. But with twilight comes an extraordinary change. As if touched by a magic wand they lift their heads and become lovely, flooding the night breezes with a message of irresistible sweetness to the night moths whose visits they must experience…’

Wilder mentions the other intriguing aspect of the vespertine flowers: most of them are white. What might appear lackluster by day transforms into surreal beauty by moonlight. Vita-Sackville West was the first to popularize the idea of planting a ‘moon garden’—white flowers only, and foliage chosen in silvery, gray green tones—one that would convey an aspect of quiet luminosity under the light of a full moon. So many of the plants that are perfect for this are, not surprisingly, ones that also enrich our olfactory senses only as the sun sets and the moon rises.

One does not need to be a scientist to understand a fascinating truth regarding our sense of smell:

When you breath in a fragrance—whether sweet or putrid—the smell enters deeply and directly into the nexus of the brain. Like an arrow shot from the hand of an expert marksman, it is sure of the bullseye every time.

Why is this significant? In the case of the other senses, the information that we take in through the eye or ear, must pass through various check points and time delays before making it to the command center of the brain.

Thus people who learn something, or experience something, while fragrance is consciously or unconsciously present, are more likely to remember the accompanying emotional context, because of the immediacy of the experience. Your brain forges a link. You remember, because of the emotion.

The neurons in the nose are directly responsible for this vivid firing of impulses shooting through to the emotional command center of the brain. Did you even know you have neurons in your nose? (“No,” you respond faintly, suddenly remembering you have an appointment for a root canal that you are anxious to get to on time. Like not. Never. Stay with me, here…)

So how important are these neurons? They are replaced about every thirty days! This is what makes our olfactory neurons unique. I was amazed when I learned this.

“Yes, Virginia, this really is a significant factoid.”

If you destroy a neuron in the brain, that’s it. Poof. Gone. It is not coming back. (and believe me, I know–I’ve destroyed a few.)

If you damage neurons in your eyes or ears, both organs are irreparably damaged.

Yet the neurons responsible for our olfactory senses, our impressions…our memories…are replaced every thirty days.

Clearly, we were meant to smell, and remember.

According to the BBC article on ‘Why Smells Can Unlock Memories‘:

‘Memory research has shown that describing things in words can aid memory, but it also reduces the emotion we feel about the subject.’

Hmmm. Interesting. That is why the days of autumn are so often described as bittersweet. They evoke a feeling we cannot put into words. But perhaps that is just as well. Perhaps this twilight of our year is best remembered in fragrance.

Autumn, whether poem or perfume, gives us one breathless pause ‘in diamond dust’ before rushing us onward. In that one celestial moment of synchronization—when day and night are balanced in perfect cadence—our internal clocks are reset. We are ready to keep time with the vespertine flowers. Ready for the long, slow drift into a freefall of fading color. The strange angles of slanted light capture us with a kind of optic poetry, altering our view of ordinary life.

The zinnias and blazing maples are soon muted; the base notes of the forest floor are calling.

Underneath our feet we feel the diminishing crunch of fallen leaves, and experience the wonder of a universal memory shared by all children who are old in experience.

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The twilight of autumn is upon us.

‘I was there.’

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(This is the final segment of my series on fragrance; the first two were here and here. I hope you enjoyed it!)

Days of Pith and Marrow

“I beg of you a thousand pardons, but these vegetable marrows, they have driven me to the edges of barbarity!” (Hercule Poirot, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd)

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Perhaps it is the generous abundance of zucchini in circulation at this time of year that reminded me that the fastidious detective Hercule Poirot was once driven to madness by ‘these vegetable marrows’.

If your kitchen has been taken over by things that resemble large green gunboats, if your refrigerator door can’t quite close without oozing vegetable drippings, giantzrunif you’re afraid of clowns, dolls, and monstrous life forms, if you can’t enter your garden without hacking through groves of giant zucchinis, if you see your neighbor approaching with a suspicious paper bag that surely contains yet more of the fibrous offerings, you might feel like escaping into a good book for relief.

But I warn you, the zucchini is lurking there, too.

Skeptical? For starters, this lowly garden vegetable has aroused scorn, revulsion, fear, outright reverence, become a catalyst for romance, harrowing revenge, towering rage, is dismissed with contempt, and was finally championed by a British culinary maven who rescued it from obscurity, treated it like an eggplant and dusted it with cheese.

The earthy, dank underworld of the Giant Cucurbita pepo takes us everywhere from love scenes in literature, to fear and loathing amongst authors, and to the real truth behind why we hate Mrs. McGregor.

Tough, tasteless, pithy–yes. But this denizen of the late summer garden is anything but dull.

Agatha Christie must have had a fine distaste for marrows. Readers of Agatha Christie’s novels will remember that Hercule Poirot was at one time happily planning his retirement from solving crimes. His new hobby was to put his considerable ‘little gray cells’ to the matter of how to make the vegetable marrow taste, well–good. The response of his friend Dr. Burton?

“Vegetable marrows? What d’yer mean? Those great swollen green things that taste of water?”

The plan, however, went horribly awry, and in the mystery The Murder of Roger Ackroyd Poirot is forced to concede defeat. The marrows have won. They are still watery and tasteless. He, the incomparable Hercule Poirot, is powerless against them.

Poirot hurls them from his garden in a fit of rage.

“Now I give up on you…!” he screams in fury. “You shall torment me no longer. I will KILL you!”

The unsuspecting Dr Sheppard is out in his garden next door, and becomes an innocent bystander to this episode.

‘I am rather fond of gardening. I was busily exterminating dandelion roots when a shout of warning sounded from close by and a heavy body whizzed by my ear and fell at my feet with a repellent squelch. It was a vegetable marrow!’

One simply has to be fond of a writer that uses phrases such as ‘repellent squelch’.

The garden marrow is pondered with a similar sense of horror by UK garden writer Alex Mitchell:

‘I’m haunted by a giant cucurbit. It was a courgette when we went away, but the next three weeks saw all three helpful holiday waterers casually sidestep it in favour of plums, runner beans, raspberries and tomatoes (yet more ammunition for my dossier “No one really likes courgettes that much, if they are honest”).

‘As anyone with even the merest passing knowledge of vegetable-growing knows, a courgette that is ignored will get its revenge. It does this by transmogrifying into a marrow monster, a bloated green airship of vegetable matter that laughs in the face of culinary invention and lurks sinisterly in the undergrowth, giving you a little shock when you do the watering.’ What does one do with this beast?’

Read more of Mitchell’s wonderful article, and his time honored solution to his problem.

In this statement— ‘no one really likes [them] that much, if they are honest’— Mitchell echoes the sentiments of renowned food writer, M.F.K. Fisher. That lovely wordsmith of the kitchen writes, in An Alphabet for Gourmets:

‘[The] zucchini, the nearest decent gastronomical counterpart to those overgrown pithy garden monsters called vegetable marrows in England.’ 

Fisher does offer a recipe for a zucchini frittata, but with this interesting sidebar comment:

‘… which will be honestly but very indelicately loathed by anyone honest enough to confess to a basic loathing for zucchini.’

Hmmm. What an interesting array of adjectives we are accumulating for a humble garden vegetable. Loathsome? Repellent?  Monstrous? Haunted? Sinister? Watery? Swollen? Tasteless? Transmogrified? (I particularly love this last creative choice).

At the very least we have here a complex and contradictory cucurbita. It’s a vegetable that is actually a fruit. A fruit that is treated like a vegetable. And we’re just getting started.

Charles Dickens has been known to employ the use of marrow throwing in his literature. Only this time it is for romance and we are, along with the cucumbers, marrows and other vegetables, ‘wafting mellifluously’ over garden walls.

Yes, it is true love that calls to the curious cucurbit and gives it immortality in literature, in Nicholas Nickleby

‘where the most divine charms’–here he kissed his hand and bowed again–‘waft mellifluousness over the neighbours’ gardens, and force the fruit and vegetables into premature existence….’

At any rate, the impassioned elderly suitor to Mrs. Nickleby begins hurling his overwrought projectiles into the Nickleby’s garden as a maddened declaration of love…

‘…..when a shouting and scuffling noise, as of an elderly gentleman whooping, and kicking up his legs on loose gravel, with great violence, was heard to proceed from the same direction as the former sounds; and before they had subsided, a large cucumber was seen to shoot up in the air with the velocity of a sky-rocket, whence it descended, tumbling over and over, until it fell at Mrs Nickleby’s feet.

This remarkable appearance was succeeded by another of a precisely similar description; then a fine vegetable marrow, of unusually large dimensions, was seen to whirl aloft, and come toppling down; then, several cucumbers shot up together; and, finally, the air was darkened by a shower of…..vegetables, which fell rolling and scattering, and bumping about, in all directions…..

“It seems designed to attract our attention, mama,” said Kate.’

Like Agatha Christie’s Poirot, Dickens creates a scene of madcap mayhem with a cannonade of marrows. Curious, is it not?

While on the subject of marrows as projectiles–and apparently a favorite one with British writers–we have the misadventures of the Flopsy bunnies in Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies. This story, in which the youngest baby bunny, the very picture of innocent curiosity, is knocked almost unconscious by an airborne rotten marrow, could stand up to any of the Grimm’s Fairy Tales for sheer horror.Flopsy Bunny

To be presented with such a contradictory admixture of warm and fuzzy narrative, poisoned with the shrilly evil invectives of Mrs. McGregor, along with threats of being skinned alive and made into a coat— this was pretty harrowing stuff.

But we’re all adults now, and, while hurling them at innocent bystanders with fury—or lovestruck passion—is clearly an option, we know that the time honored solution to an over-abundance of the vexing cucurbit is that of quietly and furtively giving them away.

This seasonal social phenomenon is commented on by Miss Read, the author of many books that chronicle English village life. Here, in Village Diary, she writes

‘Marrows, alas, are arriving in a steady stream at the back door….

I can see that I shall have to start digging, under cover of darkness, and inter the unwieldy monsters.’

There is a baffling sort of etiquette implied here; a passive-aggressive generosity that Miss Read ponders, as do we. One can give away their ‘unwieldy monsters’, but the recipient of this gift would be considered quite rude if they passed their bestowal on to someone else, leaving them with no other alternative but to bury them ‘under cover of darkness.’ In this the humble vegetable marrow begins to resemble the strangely enduring, logic-defying, quasi-popularity of fruitcakes.

What a world of social impropriety this vegetable-that-is-a-fruit thrusts upon us.

Both writers Miss Read and Angela Thirkell introduce a unique component into the War Between the Sexes in their novels: marrow carving.carvedzucchini

Miss Read wrote, in the story of Emily Davis, of the tyrant Mansfield Back —‘not bad looking in a florid, massive fashion’—and how the daring little Miss Emily got her revenge by carving the word ‘Bully’ into Manny Back’s prize marrow. (He was devastated, and justice was done.)

Angela Thirkell, in her popular novel The Brandons, heats things up nicely in the tranquil garden at Stories whereby Mr. Turpin’s prize-winning marrow provides a coy metaphor for young love:

‘[Mr. Turpin] led the way towards the rich bed of manure where sprawled his beloved vegetable marrows. With a threatening gesture he jabbed his fork into the ground, stooped, and with infinite reverence turned the fattest marrow gently on one side. On its under surface, in mis-shapen letters, was too plainly visible the word HILARY.

“That’s my name!” said Mr. Grant.’

“I thought it would be nice for you to have your name on a prize marrow,” confessed young Delia Brandon…rather ingenuously.

Cucurbita pepo strikes again.

In Barbara Pym’s novel Jane and Prudence–where even the title conjures up the sound of tea cups clattering and the faint odor of mothballs clinging to the table linens–we have a safe flirtation made ever so slightly dangerous by the introduction of a ‘magnificent’ marrow.

“What a fine marrow, Mr. Driver,” said Miss Doggett in a bright tone. “It is the biggest one we have so far, isn’t it, Miss Morrow?”

Miss Morrow, who was scrabbling on the floor among the vegetables, mumbled something inaudible.

“It is magnificent,” said Mrs. Mayhew reverently.

Mr. Driver moved forward and presented the marrow to Miss Doggett with something of a flourish.

Jane felt as if she were assisting at some primitive kind of ritual whose significance she hardly dared to guess.’

Matronly romance at its sizzling best. And the iconic symbol of a giant marrow to thank for it. Did you notice— in these last two examples— that some form of the word reverence is used?

Not so with A.A. Milne. The creator of Winnie the Pooh loved his vegetables, and even thrills to the subject of celery:

“There is a crispness about celery that is of the essence of October. It is as fresh and clean as a rainy day after a spell of heat.   It crackles pleasantly in the mouth.”

No such plaudits for the lowly marrow, however, for he goes on:

Vegetable marrows are vegetables pour rire (for laughs) and have no place in any serious consideration of the seasons.’

Before we leave the topic of literature and the marrow as a completely mixed up metaphor, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Robert Plumer Ward. Someone should mention him. He was a nineteenth century novelist who has been forgotten, and for good reason.

A reviewer dismissed his novel Tremaine as ‘extremely dull’, and ‘a sort of literary equivalent of a vegetable marrow’.

The marrow as dull? This reviewer obviously hadn’t read Jane and Prudence.

Returning Cucurbita pepo to the culinary world, where some, like M.F.K. Fisher, doubt they belong, we have the considerable talents of Mrs. Beeton and Elizabeth David to consider. If the garden marrow was considered hopelessly watery, the resourceful Mrs. Beeton took the approach, in her recipe book of 1860, of fighting fire with fire. Or water with water, in this case.

 

MrsBeetonMarrowsHer recipe tells us to serve them up…”Dished on toast“? Oh, dear. Fast forward to 1885, and a certain ‘Wyvern’(aka The Eminently Hyphenated Colonel Arthur Robert Kennedy-Herbert) responds, in his cookery book ‘Culinary Jottings’:

‘Carefully avoid the awful English custom of serving marrows on sodden toast.’

Sorry, Mrs. Beeton. You are obviously of the English culinary school of thought that considers anything would taste good if served on buttered toast. While you won us over with your impressive chapter ‘General Observations on Quadrupeds’, you have failed us miserably as a guide in navigating the wild world of marrows. We leave you then, and move on to Elizabeth David.

Ah, Elizabeth David. That culinary diva did her own sort of heave-ho to the zucchini when she launched it–not over a garden wall, but into the popular consciousness of the sixties-era British cooking public with the publication of her book Italian Cooking. She became a hero in a culinary revolution, for

‘Elizabeth David liberated us from the tyranny of watery, stringy, rank tasting boiled marrow by writing enthusiastically about this expensive unknown Italian vegetable’…. The Oxford Companion to Italian Food

(It appears we can now add ‘tyranny’ to the list of marrow woes. The vision of Manny Back’s bloated prizewinner with the name ‘Bully’ inscribed into it suddenly rolls and tumbles into view.)

Yet what Elizabeth David did for the marrow was quite an accomplishment, first by cooking it small and calling it a courgette. Second, by insisting it be prepared as an aubergine, gratined, and sprinkled with cheese. What was she up against? A cooking and eating populace whose memories of the rationing of WWII and after were still fresh in their minds. No doubt it was considered wasteful and unpatriotic to the thrifty-minded Victory Gardeners to eat a vegetable before it had been allowed to grow to ten times bigger than its edible size. Why feed only two people from a vegetable when you could allow it to grow to the dimensions of a small Hindenburg and feed an army?

Elizabeth David is something of a rock star in my kitchen. But even she would have become impatient with too much ado about zucchini. I appreciate your patience in indulging my whim. As a thank you, I offer up a nice glass of wine and one of my favorite chilled salads with zucchini carpaccio. And please take that brown paper bag on your way out….

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(This is a revised and updated version of an article written previously by yours truly.)

The Smoke of Opinion: Another Look at Thoreau

 

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“No way of thinking or doing, however ancient, can be trusted without proof. What everybody echoes or in silence passes by as true today may turn out to be falsehood tomorrow, mere smoke of opinion, which some had trusted for a cloud that would sprinkle fertilizing rain on their fields.” – Walden

You asked: When was the last time a movie, a book, or a television show left you cold despite all your friends (and/or all the critics) raving about it? What was it that made you go against the critical consensus?

To go against popular opinion brings Henry David Thoreau readily to mind. He was a man who thrived on going against critical consensus. Yet it was Thoreau who gave me my first major reading disappointment. Yes, you, Thoreau. You who said, (and I remember it well):

‘Public opinion is a weak tyrant compared with our own private opinion.’ 

My reading tastes, and naturally, by extension, writing style, lean toward the older genre of literature. The previous generations had so much of interest to say, and in a way, they are still speaking. The Great Conversation is still ongoing if we but want to tune in. I learned this from my parents and grandparents, and grew up surrounded by old books.

My great grandfather, solitary farmer. Not sure if he would have been approved by Thoreau, or not...Thoreau said some pretty scathing things about farmers.

My great grandfather, solitary farmer. Not sure if he would have been approved by Thoreau, or not…Thoreau said some pretty scathing things about farmers. Grandpa Duncan is alone with his thoughts, though, which I’m sure Thoreau would have praised.

I enjoy many highlights from Thoreau today, but that was not always the case. It has been a long time since I picked up one of his books for a serious read.

‘For what are the classics but the noblest recorded thoughts of men? They are the only oracles which are not decayed…We might as well omit to study Nature because she is old.
To read well—that is, to read true books in a true spirit—is a noble exercise, and one that will task the reader more than any exercise which the customs of the day esteem.’ [Walden]

However, years ago, when I first took my mom’s beloved copy of Walden off the bookshelf and sat down to read, I was crushingly disappointed with this man—this self appointed lifestyle coach of the nineteenth century so often spoken of in reverential tones. He seemed to me to be pompous, cranky, smug, and terribly irresponsible.

His self-satisfied musings rang shrill in their efforts to convince. He contradicted himself. The old ways are best one day, then thumb your nose at ancient traditions as valueless the next day. On the third day, spend time with yourself as the best company in the world. But know this, he intones—at heart man is a social animal. ‘Believe me today for tomorrow I will have changed my mind’ he appeared to be saying.

What Thoreau had indulged in was luxury—taking time out from the rest of the world to read, write, think. ‘For I was rich, if not in luxury, in sunny hours and summer days, and spent them lavishly. Nor did I regret that I did not waste more of them in the workshop…’

And ‘procreation’ i.e. sex? ‘It dissipates, and makes one unclean…’ ‘Far better to be invigorated and inspired by nature.

Hmmm. This was beginning to sound like the ravings of a mad man indulged by his mommy.

And don’t even get him started on the reading of popular fiction. He likens it to a sort of daily baked gingerbread, fresh from the oven, read eagerly

with saucer eyes, and erect and primitive curiosity, and with unwearied gizzard‘.

Yes, Thoreau, you disappointed me. And I don’t even know what an unwearied gizzard is.

Even E.B. White, an enthusiastic Thoreauvian, admitted that Thoreau sometimes wrote as if “all his readers were male, unmarried, and well-connected”.

What did people see in this book?

‘How worn and dusty, then, must be the highways of the world—how deep the the ruts of tradition and conformity!’

My reaction, in some part, had less to do with my teenage spunk and umbrage than it did that I took exception to Thoreau’s dismissive comments about the working man. We all know the quote; ‘The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation’.

Thoreau crafted well, in pious prose, an image of the poor dullard slogging away in his intellectually deprived life while he put food on the table. Food that his slack jawed wife then slopped into the waiting mouths of his many children who swallowed it greedily like nestlings given a worm. Or words to that effect. Something like the literary equivalent of ‘The Potato Eaters’—only Van Gogh had a more respectful approach, if you can call it that, in his troglodytic rendering of the common herd.

The Potato Eaters, Van Gogh

I thought about my father—how deeply intelligent he was, how enthusiastic about life. He was a natural woodsman and fisherman, and how he would have loved to live in a little cabin in the woods, tend a garden, read, and fish. Especially fish. There was never a man more at peace than when he was standing hip deep in a stream, casting out.

But inner peace as a laudatory pursuit, self-fulfillment as an object in itself, being self-aware as though this somehow brought one in touch with an inner god—? Not sure Dad gave those ideas a lot of thought. Six children, and his own sense of responsibility kept him in a job and a lifestyle of domesticity and workaday worries. He made sacrifices.

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I remember putting Walden firmly back on the shelf, feeling protective of my father, and a bit angry with Thoreau. Thoreau with his hand built cabin and his peaceful fishing and his studies of ice and lazy pondering of a water bug from a quarter mile away; ‘Thoreau the Great’  who had been able to indulge himself in simple luxuries that my father would have loved.

Well, now it is time to forgive the young man. For that is what he was—Thoreau was young and idealistic, both foolish and incredibly wise. We forget that fact at times, when we read the writers from a long ago age. They were often younger than we are now. But still we look to them for wisdom. In the case of Thoreau, when he lived the experiences at Walden Pond, he was only 27. He was just trying to ‘find himself’, as the saying goes. He hadn’t learned to temper his deep understanding, his ‘knowingness’ with empathy, as yet, but how much better off people would be if they lived by a few of his dreams.

For he also said, “Who knows but if men constructed their dwellings with their own hands and provided food for themselves and families simply and honestly enough, the poetic faculty would be universally developed…?”

Now that is something to strive for. A deeply felt happiness that not just a few, but all could enjoy. In that case, ‘the mass of men’ could lead lives of quiet inspiration. That, I believe, is what Thoreau dreamed of.

I have my mom’s old prized copy of Walden in my own collection. It has beautifully rendered engravings and thick, creamy paper that give a bit of resistance when you try to turn the page. Very nice.

I’m giving Thoreau another go.

“Every generation laughs at the old fashions, but follows religiously the new.”   ―  Thoreau

Scent, Senses, and the Sciential Rose

‘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)

 

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.”

old roses

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.

Shadow and Substance

From Louise Beebe Wilder's rock garden, 1928

From Louise Beebe Wilder’s rock garden, 1928

 ‘…that each of us should feel free to express himself–his most extravagant, whimsical, ardent, honest self; to work out his own theories and bring his bit of earth to what seems to him its finest and fittest expression.’ Louise Beebe Wilder

It’s still June in the year 2014, but a freakish hailstorm has just flattened everything beautiful and blooming within a few miles of here.

Orbs of ice that fell by the billions from the skies...

Cute little orbs of ice that soon became epic when they fell by the billions from the skies yesterday

I think that’s what they mean by ephemeral.

So let’s ditch the current spring of shattered bloom, (although I have some lovely delphiniums to tell you about later) and travel back in time with me to 1909. It’s the month of April, and we are in a place called Bronxville. Bring along your Thoreauvian ‘sharp eyes’.

“I like to borrow Thoreau’s sharp eyes when looking at many things.” Louise Beebe Wilder

We’re going to visit one of the gardens created by Louise Beebe Wilder; a garden that no longer exists, like today only more so.

IMG_0911There is a shadow of a woman just barely visible in this garden, and the fragile poppies she tended have left their vibrant stain on the grasses now left to grow wild.

Her beloved magenta blooms have softened their harsh stridence, their after-image lingers now in the faintest wash of pink. Roses long faded still perfume the air.

via Wisconsin Historical Society

via Wisconsin Historical Society

Think of any popular gardener since the beginnings of our picture taking age, and you almost always can find their image captured somewhere. Be-hatted and be-smocked, wielding trug and trowel, dappled in shadows or squinting in bright sunlight….gardeners most like to be photographed in their gardens.

Elizabeth Lawrence

Elizabeth Lawrence

Not so Louise.

Either her physiognomy was a carefully guarded secret, or she was as shy of publicity as she was eloquent about her poppies.

My library contains many an old gardening book that I have squirreled away, and I dearly love the vintage magazines with their catchy covers and newsy articles on gardens of olden days. Though most of my garden reading is of the actual paper kind (laced with toxic mildew effluvium ensuring that they can only be read in a well-ventilated room) the digital type has definitely come into its own in my house, as well.

Thus I was delighted to realize that the cover of the April, 1909 issue of American Homes and Gardens, pictures the home of Louise Beebe Wilder.

Featured home in this 1909 issue--The Wilders of Bronxville, NY

Featured home in this 1909 issue–The Wilders of Bronxville, NY

Better than that, the magazine takes you on an inside tour of the home, and better than that? They take you outside to tour the gardens…and that is where we find Louise.

The Wilder home

A bit of pre-history to our time travel…(“no worries…a slight disorientation is common for readers of these posts”)…When Louise Beebe Wilder married in 1902, it was to Walter Robb Wilder, Esq., an up-and-coming young architect.

Initially, the growing family had two homes—one at Balderbrae in the country, and the other, a ‘suburban’ home in Bronxville, near New York city.

When the magazine American Homes and Gardens did a feature article in 1909 on the Wilder’s second home in Bronxville, NY, the feature was to be, not just the house, but the talented architect who designed it—Walter Robb Wilder.

But this is 1909, and Walter is married to a very special woman who isn’t famous…yet. Louise’s first book is being lived, but not written. She is still gardening, raising children, and jotting down copious notes. The article ‘The Artistic Expression of the Small Country House’ makes no mention of the wife of the architect. Instead, he lauds the designer of the home, and states:

‘[The house is] ‘a unique expression of the architect’s character and taste. It shows…marked individuality, and is essentially the creation of a cultured and artistic mind requiring congenial surroundings.’

Louise certainly knew a thing or two about ‘congenial surroundings’, and one gets the feeling that it is Louise who is giving the interview and tour. She certainly didn’t write the article…

‘The ceiling is stuccoed…in a very effective manner.

The fireplace is the feature of the room.

The furniture is very black-brown.

The color scheme is most delightful.’

The pictures of the interior show very charming, cottage style rooms, but the lackluster description hardly seems worthy of the house of a woman who would later inspire gardeners nationwide with her vivid and articulate Colour In My Garden; the woman who wrote:

“We are haunted by visions of exquisite colors in perfect harmony…the prettiest blue border I ever saw was one wherein a few Nasturtium seeds had been accidentally dropped, and between the elegantly aspiring stalks of Larkspur and Anchusa one got little sparkles of flame and saffron and buff that endowed the blue flowers with a shimmering spirit that would certainly not have been theirs without those unbidden companions.” (Louise)

Although her name is never mentioned, Louise’s charismatic presence–as it would later be described–is everywhere felt. As the magazine writer labors on to extol the design of the concrete balustrade, our attention is irresistibly drawn to…

‘…a pergola with stucco piers. Over this was trained a large grape vine, forming a dark green background for the beds of bright colored annuals and perennials, the sides being [en]closed with lattice and covered with vines for the same purpose.’

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There is our first glimpse of Louise… sitting on the concrete balustrade.

The caption reads:

‘Rough stone steps covered with masses of growing vines lead from the middle garden to the entrance to the house.’

All this about ‘masses of growing vines’ on the rough stone steps, and a pergola ‘covered with vines’ reminds us that Louise would later devote an entire chapter in a future book to ‘Green Draperies’. She would write about the need for luxuriance when it came to the softening aspect of vines:

‘Many a crude and unsightly object is brought into harmony with its surroundings through the kindly tact of some gracious climbing plant. No need to emphasize the charm of vine clad arbors and porches, of green-draped walls and gateways, which do so much toward giving to our gardens the appearance of permanence and livableness so much desired. But perhaps it is a little needful to speak of the fact that the chief factor in this charm is luxuriance.…’ (Louise Beebe Wilder, from My Garden, 1916)

Continuing with the ‘house’ tour, we are now led along to the workshop (noting the elegant use of space) and have it pointed out to us that ‘rugosa roses frame the entrance, a mass of shrubs at the further corner of the house, and a border of peonies, nasturtiums and perennials along the top of the drive wall.’

Again, we are reminded from our reading of Louise that she particularly loved the rugosa rose:

“Honeysuckle and loose white rugosa rose make a delicious combination and possess a delicate poetic beauty.” (Fragrance in the Garden, Louise Beebe Wilder)

Leave it to Louise—Even something as utilitarian as the workshop will be draped in poetic beauty.

The writer of the article makes a further, focused attempt to direct our attention back to the house, and how the drive complements the approach, but soon enough we are back at ‘the rose garden, a line of lilacs…dwarf crabs and other flowering trees. At each corner are large triangular beds filled with perennials.’

Oh, and remember the vine-draped pergola? There we see her; gazing out upon the woods beyond, where the hand of man has not been visible. We are reminded of Louise’s words, where she decries the unnatural, tortured use of evergreens in the suburban landscape:

“There seems little evergreen wisdom abroad in the land.” (Adventures in my Garden and Rock Garden)

Louise Beebe Wilder enjoying her pergola, and the unspoiled woods beyond

Louise Beebe Wilder enjoying her pergola, and the unspoiled woods beyond

So there you are, Louise. We heard you, now we see you. At least a glimpse.

And we are assured that gardens will outlive the ravages of time (or even of ice projectiles) by fixing their sweetness upon our memories.