Pink is Deep

garden books by Louise Beebe Wilder

A selection of garden books by Louise Beebe Wilder

Louise Beebe Wilder has a lot to say on the subject of pink. The writer (in this house, the beloved writer) of Color in My Garden and later, The Garden in Color, is something of an authority.

I read her words on the subject of pink with a mingling of modern amusement (thank our snarky age of disbelief) and respectful awe.

There is a chapter on ‘Rose Pink’, but her chapter entirely devoted to the strangely unloved ‘Magenta the Maligned‘ is not to be missed. If you’re a gardener, or even an artist who works from, and is inspired by, color, there are some eye opening opinions here.

Besides, perhaps, the mysterious ‘puce’, made famous by Georgette Heyer’s books, (oh, the intrigues of a ‘puce sarsinet’)….. I had never known a color to be so despised. Apparently it is the undertone of purple that causes the problem? The problem described by Wilder as:

‘the horror of great masses of magenta phlox and tiger lilies…’ planted in old ladies’ gardens…

At any rate, ‘rose pink’ is beyond reproach in the June garden, whereas ‘magenta’? Viewed with suspicion and distrust. There is not much that raises the ire of a pleasant writer such as Louise Beebe Wilder, but she certainly vents against those, as she terms it, ‘the sins of our nurserymen who try to pass off magenta as rose pink’.

As you can see, strong terms are used against this shade of pink.

The pictures I have chosen to accompany this post are ones I took just yesterday, from my own garden. Pink is very much the color of the season around here, and I would like to think we are all innocent fluffiness in our pink associations. Nothing ‘horrible’ or ‘tasteless’.  I would like to think that Wilder would have felt safe having tea in my garden, and highly approved of this color; it is closer to what she would call ‘rose pink’, than the virulent magenta.

But in case you’re curious about the magenta prejudice from other gardeners, here are a few quotes from Wilder’s book:

‘Nearly every writer upon garden topics pauses in his praise of other flower colors to give the despised one a rap in passing.’ [the ‘despised one’ i.e. magenta]

Mr. Bowles: ‘That awful form of floral original sin, magenta.’

Gertrude Jekyll: ‘Malignant magenta’.

Mrs. Alice Morse Earl: ‘usually so sympathetic and tender toward all flowers, says that, “even the word magenta”, seen often in the pages of her charming book, “makes the black and white look cheap.”‘ — From Color in My Garden

So there you have it. Who knew? Pink is deep.

A Mortal Big Notion

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“I’ve only lived here a day, but I like it so well I’ve a mortal big notion to buy the place.” — from The Girl of the Limberlost

I love the idea of having a mortal big notion. Today we might use the expression, ‘I had a radical idea’. Perhaps one could also call the idea that we could learn something today from a prim Victorian lady botanist ‘radical’. Because I just had to laugh when I sat down to my blog this week and read over some of the prompts I’ve missed.

Zing. Edge. Superhero. Radical. Clearly, WP wants to jazz up our posts. Electrify our ideas. Infuse a bit of life into our prose.

Meanwhile, I have been immersed in the late Victorian world and ethos of Gene Stratton-Porter and Frances Theodora Parsons. Exciting, eh? But think about this: While these women may not resonate in history as superheroes, and what they wrote may not seem current–as to that I am not always convinced that being ‘current’ and ‘relevant’ are that exciting, unless you are watching bees pollinate–I was just reflecting yesterday on a recent study from Stanford University:

‘In the study, two groups of participants walked for 90 minutes, one in a grassland area scattered with oak trees and shrubs, the other along a traffic-heavy four-lane roadway. Before and after, the researchers measured heart and respiration rates, performed brain scans and had participants fill out questionnaires.

The researchers found little difference in physiological conditions, but marked changes in the brain. Neural activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex, a brain region active during rumination – repetitive thought focused on negative emotions – decreased among participants who walked in nature versus those who walked in an urban environment.’

This makes total sense to me, and I’m glad to know the data can finally catch up with what the inimitable Mrs. Frances Theodora Parsons wrote back in 1901.

‘The ideal hobby, it seems to me, is one that keeps us in the open air among inspiring surroundings, with the knowledge of natural objects as the end in view.

The study of plants, of animals, of the earth itself, botany, zoology, or geology, any one of these will answer the varied requirements of an ideal hobby. Often they require not only perseverance and skill but courage and daring. They are a means of health, a relaxation to the mind from ordinary cares, and an absorbing interest.’ —From How to Know the Ferns by Frances Theodora Parsons

Frances Theodora Parsons

Frances Theodora Parsons

‘Courage and daring’, indeed! I love her books. (She also wrote as Mrs. William Starr Dana; more on her to come in a future post) accordingtoseasonbookcoverShe is authoritative, opinionated, and thoroughly readable. Parsons is a strong woman, and no fading violet, to borrow a Victorian era expression. She has not the nuanced charm and silky expressions in her nature writing, such as that employed by Louise Beebe Wilder, but this real-time eager woods explorer had a rugged approach matched with feminine spirit that might have been a bit like The Girl of the Limberlost when she was young.

‘She plunged fearlessly among bushes, over underbrush, and across dead logs. One minute she was crying wildly, that here was a big one, the next she was reaching for a limb above her head or on her knees overturning dead leaves under a hickory or oak tree, or working aside black muck with her bare hands as she searched for buried pupae cases.’  — The Girl of the Limberlost, by Gene Stratton-Porter

Written in 1909, this passage is from Gene Stratton Porter’s classic. She is not read so much today because people are squeamish. Not squeamish about rummaging around in dead, mucky leaf detritus for buried pupae cases, but because sentimental stories that highlight romantic ideals or values are out of favor. Stratton-Porter’s passion in writing was to chronicle the natural world, but it was her romances–nature with a generous side-helping of fiction–that secured her fame.

accordingtoseasonoldbookFrances Theodora Parsons had a simple remedy for stultified, closed minds:

‘I thanked my stars I had not fallen under the stultifying sway of cards. Much the same gratitude is aroused when I see men and women spending precious summer days indoors over the card-table when they might be breathing the fragrant, life-giving air, and rejoicing in the beauty and interest of the woods and fields.

All things considered, a hobby that takes us out of doors is best.’

To which Gene Stratton-Porter would add:

‘The world is full of happy people, but no one ever hears of them. You must fight and make a scandal to get into the papers. No one knows about all the happy people. I am happy myself, and look how perfectly inconspicuous I am.”

The Limberlost journey is a journey of happiness. To get lost in the swamp, is, in Porter’s world, ‘to find oneself’.

Read good books. Get outdoors. Enjoy the natural world. Take walks and then more walks. If you see someone approaching with a brain scanner and a questionnaire, run. Photograph mushrooms. Keep a journal. Sketch (rather badly). Think about writing more. And then write more. Watch bees pollinate. As radical as that sounds, it’s a time honored recipe for a lot of fun and a continuing supply of happiness. I should know. Look at how perfectly inconspicuous I am.

(writers take note: both of these late Victorian era ladies wrote books that are still in print, and have gone into multiple editions and reprints)

Eternity Was in That Moment

‘Each hour of the day sets free some lovely thing.’   —Louise Beebe Wilder

Seeds are life in miniature.

Not miniature like an atom, of course, but the kind of miniaturized beauty I can hold in my hand. Perfectly designed, yet diverse in shape and form, I can feel the texture, marvel over its simple complexity, delight in the ingenuity behind it, and finally, with wild abandon and seeming carelessness, scatter these fractionary bits of wonder to the four winds, knowing the future of color, bloom and fragrance has just been set aloft.

Seeds are a time capsule in miniature. Travel back in time via seeds. If you save seeds from your own harvests, you can give your senses a trip through the ages. Heirloom seed cultivating gives you a chance to savor the sort of cucumbers that a Roman emperor once fancied, or to smell the perfume that Cleopatra once had strewn about her rooms.

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The secret—the oh so marvelous secret—is held bound in these strange and lovely packets. For it is a secret, this life. We don’t understand it, we just benefit from it. A gift.

Seeds are eternity in miniature. They can freely distribute a sense of timelessness, and give regular infusions of hope. They are tiny powerhouses, manufacturing a future of food, color and fragrance. How fascinating is this miniature world—this little factory, really—busily working away unseen to our eyes! Or, to put it more mundanely, while we are doing dishes, driving to work, adding new batteries to our remote, or whatever else occupies our day, seeds are storing energy to feed us, wow us with fragrance, or dazzle us with color. Making us happy. All timed—all designed by a designer—to go off perfectly, in season, and sun or rain.

‘It is only to the gardener that time is a friend, giving each year more than he steals.’ — Beverley Nichols

In the world of design, there is always the underlying question—‘who did it first’? For design follows design. Biomimicry, biomimetics, call it what you will, it’s a fascinating subject.

Like seeds, ideas are nurtured, gathered, carefully stored, and passed on from one generation to another.

Do you know the Designer of this perfect gift? If you do, thank him. And share the bounty. Sow seeds of gratitude.


Additional notes:

For another example of a design and engineering marvel–the honeycomb–I loved this article.

Coming soon: Maurice on the Bee…

Quote credit in title: William Congreve

Moon Garden

‘Thoreau says it is necessary to see objects by moonlight as well as by sunlight to get a complete notion of them.’

My results to capture the lovely moon last night…looking more like the neighbor left his porch light on

Last night I toured my new garden space by the glow of the full moon. It was rising above the treeline, in all pale magnificence, and I hoped to absorb a bit of the silvered light that filtered down and transformed my ferns into fairy wands.

The lack of success in a fabulous tonal mood capture you can blame on my feeble photography skills, my iphone capacity, or the fact that the sweetly deafening symphony of the crickets disarmed my best intentions. (Have you ever tried to track down where crickets are chirping from? They are masters of ventriloquism!)

Gertrude Jekyll (1908) and Vita Sackville-West (writing in 1950) both popularized the idea of a ‘moon-garden’, or an all white and gray garden that would glow with luminosity by the light of the moon. And Beverley Nichols wrote in his Garden Open Tomorrow (1968):

“It has taken me over thirty years of tireless experiment to discover the glory of grey in the garden, to reach the stage where I can write that it now seems to me as important as any of the colours on the gardener’s palette, and maybe even more important.’

Yet no one wrote more compellingly about this subject than Louise Beebe Wilder.

garden books by Louise Beebe Wilder

A selection of garden books by Louise Beebe Wilder

Louise Beebe Wilder

In 1918 Wilder published what was to become her most popular gardening book, Color In My Garden. Her chapter entitled White Flowers in the Night Garden, is a masterpiece of evocative prose. In just a few well-crafted paragraphs, Wilder infuses about as much drama into a night-time walk in the garden as it is possible to have.

Re-reading this chapter, with the moon in mind, made me want to drop everything, rush out and begin to plant my night garden.

‘We are conscious of a powerful reserve in the graven beauty of the night garden. It gives us little, drawing into itself while yet it presses upon us with a curious impersonal insistence. Its stillness is more exciting than sound, and every small happening seems fraught with significance; the silent flitting of a moth, the delicate rush of a capricious breeze fixes all our attention.’

When Louise Beebe Wilder wrote of this garden, she was dreaming of the future. Her night garden had not yet been planted. Yet, as a seasoned gardener (and lover of color) she had spent many hours enjoying her garden by moonlight, and thus her comments have the note of authority.

‘And while we stand, held by the imperturbable personality of the night, the moon slips from her garment of clouds…lovely forms develop out of gloom and stand forth in ‘silvered symmetry’.

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All of this reminds me of Antinous. Let us step over for a moment to the giddily enthusiastic, slightly snarky, and utterly charming world of Beverley Nichols. If you have met him via his gardening books, then you have met Antinous.

‘Antinous is the only statue in my garden. Even if I wanted more statues, I should never be able to have them, because Antinous is so beautiful that he would put all the other statues to shame. They would fold their grey marble arms over their faces, and drift away, to hide in the woods.IMG_1075

My Antinous, I feel, is of a different class. He is very beautiful, in himself. He once stood in the garden of an old house in Bedford Square. He was covered with grime and his limbs seemed stained eternally. I saw him first after lunch on a grey day of February.

Was it joy or sorrow that I was to read in those silvered features?…But always he kept his secret — he remained a white and lovely enigma against the fathomless curtains of the night.’

Of course not all of us can have a cool marble statue that stands, luminous and otherworldly, in our small urban gardens. But we can plant white pools of flowers, if we have a bit of space, and give the moon a chance to exert its transforming power.

Or, as Louise puts it: ‘to release us from the stricture of the dark.’


Side note:

Reading Beverley Nichols, and his fixation with his garden statuary, gave me pause. Although thoroughly enjoyable to read about, I really wonder if it is true, as he claims (in A Thatched Roof) that he single-handedly was responsible for the expensive introduction of electrical power to the tiny hamlet of Allways. And all because he wanted a light to shine perpetually on Antinous. True? Does anyone know?

I have been a bit fascinated with garden statues, myself… or at least photograph them a great deal… see yesterday’s post here.

We’ll Always Have Pomerania

‘November 11th.—When the gray November weather came, and hung its soft dark clouds low and unbroken over the brown of the ploughed fields and the vivid emerald of the stretches of winter corn, the heavy stillness weighed my heart down to a forlorn yearning after the pleasant things of childhood, the petting, the comforting, the warming faith in the unfailing wisdom of elders. A great need of something to lean on, and a great weariness of independence and responsibility took possession of my soul; and looking round for support and comfort in that transitory mood, the emptiness of the present and the blankness of the future sent me back to the past with all its ghosts…… [Elizabeth von Armin]

The library at Elizabeth von Arnim’s home

One does not need to live in the past to benefit from the past. A garden represents the best parts of our collective selves. In this well-designed tapestry of living things, past, present, and future are all equally represented. There is a comforting continuity in the slow drift of seasons, in the growing softness of the springy turf underneath, and the ebb and flow of the leafy canopy above. One season nourishes the next; death is but renewal. Even as one season ends, there are sure signs of the next to begin.

Leaves come and go, birds scatter their seeds, structure remains. There is a purpose here that is being worked out. This purpose speaks to us in comforting whispers as we walk. Outside, in a garden, is always looking in.

Some say ‘time began in a garden’, but it is really eternity we sense. Something beyond our mere framework of time. Purpose. Paradise lost; Integrity restored. Our DNA–each of us unique–does not exist to be a mere leaf that gets crushed underfoot. We do not drift through life just to provide compost for the next generation. There is more to us than that. A garden renews this conviction.

My stroll through a favorite local public garden, my reset button, for a stormy November day was surprisingly more colorful than I had anticipated. Though the stroll was in the somber present, I felt very much a part of a meaningful past.

The weather was just as ‘Elizabeth’ described above; gray, heavy, with soft dark clouds hung low. Who was Elizabeth? Ah, thereby hangs a tale.

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The book for my dark November day stroll is Elizabeth and Her German Garden.  (I will be lavishly quoting from this book. If you have read it, you know why. If you haven’t read it, these aren’t spoilers, and I hope you will be intrigued enough to discover it for yourself.)

Elizabeth’s garden, begun sometime before 1898, was anything but public at the time. Nor was she really Elizabeth. Nor was she German. And the ‘German’ garden was actually in Pomerania, which is now Poland.

The charming author of this jumbled flowerbed of contradictions is famous as Elizabeth von Armin. Born Mary Annette Beauchamp, though sometimes known as Alice, most often went by the nickname May, and briefly was called Countess von Arnim-Schlagenthin and Countess Russell…making her more appellative rich than even George Eliot.

Given this melange of potential misinformation, what sort of book awaits us? Picture a neglected, ancient schloss buried in the deep mists and outer reaches of countryside near the Baltic Sea, surrounded by ‘a vast, rambling, derelict garden’…the author a vibrant young independent countess who longs to break away from Berlin social life and create her own peaceful, flower-filled haven…

Of course I would love this book! Abandoned gardens? Old, stately homes? Independent heroines of quirky disposition? Yes!

Her narrative is at times pertly irreverant and hints of ‘spoiled rich girl’, yet at other times she is endearingly honest and searching. Viewed within the stilted context of her times, her writing style is quite refreshing.

‘To most German Hausfraus the dinners and the puddings are of paramount importance, and they pride themselves on keeping those parts of their houses that are seen in a state of perpetual and spotless perfection, and this is exceedingly praiseworthy; but, I would humbly inquire, are there not other things even more important? And is not plain living and high thinking better than the other way about? And all too careful making of dinners and dusting of furniture takes a terrible amount of precious time, and — and with shame I confess that my sympathies are all with the pudding and the grammar. It cannot be right to be the slave of one’s household gods, and I protest that if my furniture ever annoyed me by wanting to be dusted when I wanted to be doing something else, and there was no one to do the dusting for me, I would cast it all into the nearest bonfire and sit and warm my toes at the flames with great contentment, triumphantly selling my dusters to the very next pedlar who was weak enough to buy them.’

This made me laugh. I was raised with similar feelings about dusting—my mother certainly wasn’t a Countess but she would have admired ‘Elizabeth’s’ sentiments very much. Mom infinitely preferred dancing over dusting.

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I found many simpatico moments with this book that brought an amateur, dreamy-eyed hopeful to a garden that had been abandoned and overgrown for decades.

‘If you have to have neighbours at all, it is at least a mercy that there should be only one; for with people dropping in at all hours and wanting to talk to you, how are you to get on with your life, I should like to know, and read your books, and dream your dreams to your satisfaction?’

Oh, that is so like ‘Allegra’. When I wrote my first short novel, A Garden for Allegra, my heart and mind was infused with the gardens and quaint prose of Louise Beebe Wilder. (1878-1938) Wilder wrote non-fiction with endearing titles as Adventures in My Rock Garden. She is known for her famous garden at Balderbrae in Pomona, New York. This garden, the scene of some of her most exquisite prose and flowery efforts, was planted circa 1914.

I have written more than once of ‘Louise’ in these pages. I have all of her books, and they are treasures in my library. How often, in my mind, I have been in her garden, or—after working a long day in my own garden—sat down with a pot of tea and opened one of Louise’s books to find out how I should manage my wayward sweet peas, or how to curb the ‘tender tufts’ of campanula that are in danger of becoming ‘too riotous’. Like a trustworthy grandmother, she could always deliver a homely bit of wisdom, albeit backed by the stiff spine of cultural refinement, as one might expect from one who could claim descendancy from the Stuart line of kings. I sat at her fireside, so to speak, and listened intently as she explained:

“Adventure is of the mind—a mental attitude toward everyday events wherever experienced. One does not have to sit through the long night of an antarctic winter with an Admiral Byrd to know this, or to explore uncharted airways. Adventure may be met with any day, any hour, on one’s own doorstep, just around the corner; it may lurk in the subway, on a bus stop, in the garden.”

Oh, dear Louise–what would you write today? Perhaps she would feel, more than ever, that we should find noble adventures in the working of a garden, and that our minds and motivations would be the richer for it.

“Ever a season ahead of us floats the vision of perfection and herein lies its perennial charm.” – Louise Beebe Wilder

Even as I was immersed in the adventures of Louise’s garden, her gardening and writing contemporary Elizabeth von Armin was also working steadily on the other side of the Atlantic.

People often recommended von Armin’s books to me, and they couldn’t quite believe—after reading A Garden for Allegra—that I hadn’t read any Elizabeth von Arnim. Truth is, while I was writing Allegra, I hadn’t even heard of Elizabeth who is not really Elizabeth. I had not heard of her lovely German garden that is actually in Pomerania. I had only heard of Louise from Pomona.

How glad I am that I finally made the acquaintance! I thoroughly enjoyed the enthusiastic honesty of ‘Elizabeth’ as she eagerly plotted her garden;

‘May 10th.—I knew nothing whatever last year about gardening and this year know very little more, but I have dawnings of what may be done, and have at least made one great stride—from ipomaea to tea-roses….

Luckily I had sown two great patches of sweetpeas which made me very happy all the summer, and then there were some sunflowers and a few hollyhocks under the south windows, with Madonna lilies in between. But the lilies, after being transplanted, disappeared to my great dismay, for how was I to know it was the way of lilies? And the hollyhocks turned out to be rather ugly colours, so that my first summer was decorated and beautified solely by sweet-peas…

How I long for the day when the tea-roses open their buds! Never did I look forward so intensely to anything; and every day I go the rounds, admiring what the dear little things have achieved in the twenty-four hours in the way of new leaf or increase of lovely red shoot.’

What the dear little things have achieved’….that is pure Louise-speak, in the quaint, post-Victorian cant. It would have been wonderful had these two women ever met. Perhaps they did.

In the interior of ‘Elizabeth’s’ book, however, we come to quite another kind of garden. This was when I became most intrigued; as though a voice, in the midst of happy chatter, suddenly drops to an intense whisper. We strain our ear to hear every nuance.

When the narrative comes to the month of November, ‘Elizabeth’ longs to revisit the garden of her past. The mystery of where it is and how she gets there she leaves to the reader to solve. We only know that:

‘It was a complicated journey, and lasted several hours.’

She must have been traveling, not only by train, with her soon-to-be-soggy simple lunch of sandwich and pear, but by time machine, as well. For clearly she was going back in time. We know from the scraps of her actual history that she was born in Australia and raised in England. So where was this childhood garden, this intensely personal place, this now slug-infested arbor where once her Grandfather sat in kingly isolation, drank his coffee, intimidated the mosquitos, ‘and could have been a great man’?

‘The arbour had fallen into great decay, and was in the last stage of mouldiness. My grandfather had had it made, and, like other buildings, it enjoyed a period of prosperity before being left to the ravages of slugs and children, when he came down every afternoon in summer and drank his coffee there and read his Kreuzzeitung and dozed, while the rest of us went about on tiptoe, and only the birds dared sing. Even the mosquitoes that infested the place were too much in awe of him to sting him; they certainly never did sting him, and I naturally concluded it must be because he had forbidden such familiarities.’

‘Although I had played there for so many years since his death, my memory skipped them all, and went back to the days when it was exclusively his. Standing on the spot where his armchair used to be, I felt how well I knew him now from the impressions he made then on my child’s mind, though I was not conscious of them for more than twenty years. Nobody told me about him, and he died when I was six, and yet within the last year or two, that strange Indian summer of remembrance that comes to us in the leisured times when the children have been born and we have time to think, has made me know him perfectly well.’

‘It is rather an uncomfortable thought for the grown-up, and especially for the parent, but of a salutary and restraining nature, that though children may not understand what is said and done before them, and have no interest in it at the time, and though they may forget it at once and for years, yet these things that they have seen and heard and not noticed have after all impressed themselves for ever on their minds, and when they are men and women come crowding back with surprising and often painful distinctness, and away frisk all the cherished little illusions in flocks.’

What beautifully written, insightful, and personal words. The impulsive November garden visit in the cold mist gives the feeling that it was transplanted from another place, and certainly from real memories. There is an authenticity to the narrative as it becomes quickly more agitated and bitterly nostalgic. Suddenly the mood of light-hearted fanciful gloss is gone and we are living scenes unedited, straight from the author’s memory.

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‘Then the place was unchanged. I was standing in the same mysterious tangle of damp little paths that had always been just there; they curled away on either side among the shrubs, with the brown tracks of recent footsteps in the centre of their green stains, just as they did in my day. The overgrown lilac bushes still met above my head. The moisture dripped from the same ledge in the wall on to the sodden leaves beneath, as it had done all through the afternoons of all those past Novembers.’

‘This was the place, this damp and gloomy tangle, that had specially belonged to me. Nobody ever came to it, for in winter it was too dreary, and in summer so full of mosquitoes that only a Backfisch indifferent to spots could have borne it. But it was a place where I could play unobserved, and where I could walk up and down uninterrupted for hours, building castles in the air. There was an unwholesome little arbour in one dark corner, much frequented by the larger black slug, where I used to pass glorious afternoons making plans. I was for ever making plans, and if nothing came of them, what did it matter? The mere making had been a joy. To me this out-of-the-way corner was always a wonderful and a mysterious place, where my castles in the air stood close together in radiant rows, and where the strangest and most splendid adventures befell me; for the hours I passed in it and the people I met in it were all enchanted.’IMG_7689

‘Standing there and looking round with happy eyes, I forgot the existence of the cousins. I could have cried for joy at being there again. It was the home of my fathers, the home that would have been mine if I had been a boy, the home that was mine now by a thousand tender and happy and miserable associations, of which the people in possession could not dream. They were tenants, but it was my home. I threw my arms round the trunk of a very wet fir tree, every branch of which I remembered, for had I not climbed it, and fallen from it, and torn and bruised myself on it uncountable numbers of times? and I gave it such a hearty kiss that my nose and chin were smudged into one green stain, and still I did not care.’

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There is even a little twelve year old girl that surprises ‘Elizabeth’ in her November garden. Pert, saucy, curious—and with the same disregard toward handkerchiefs that ‘Elizabeth’ herself had claimed as she stepped into the garden and felt like a child again..

‘As a Backfisch I had never used handkerchiefs—the child of nature scorns to blow its nose—though for decency’s sake my governess insisted on giving me a clean one of vast size and stubborn texture on Sundays. It was stowed away unfolded in the remotest corner of my pocket…’

Is she seeing a shadow of her young self in her garden?

“Why don’t you rub it off?” [asked the little girl.]

Then I remembered the throwing away of the handkerchief, and blushed again.

“Please lend me your handkerchief,” I said humbly, “I—I have lost mine.”

There was a great fumbling in six different pockets, and then a handkerchief that made me young again merely to look at it was produced. I took it thankfully and rubbed with energy, the little girl, intensely interested, watching the operation and giving me advice.’

‘Elizabeth’ even hears the call of the girl’s governess, and runs, just as she had when a child…

“So strong was the force of old habits in that place that at the words not allowed my hand dropped of itself from the latch; and at that instant a voice calling quite close to us through the mist struck me rigid.
“Elizabeth! Elizabeth!” called the voice, “Come in at once to your lessons—Elizabeth! Elizabeth!”
“It’s Miss Robinson,” whispered the little girl, twinkling with excitement; then, catching sight of my face, she said once more with eager insistence, “Who are you?”
“Oh, I’m a ghost!” I cried with conviction, pressing my hands to my forehead and looking round fearfully.
“Pooh,” said the little girl.
It was the last remark I heard her make, for there was a creaking of approaching boots in the bushes, and seized by a frightful panic I pulled the gate open with one desperate pull, flung it to behind me, and fled out and away down the wide, misty fields….’

She ends this scene with a brief aside that informs us she later finds out this little girl’s name is…what? You guessed it. Elizabeth.

Yes, this was the most interesting garden of the book. The real garden. The real Elizabeth.

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I enjoyed this book very much. She is an author worth revisiting—likely the next book to discover will be her semi-autobiographical work entitled ‘My Life With Dogs’. Yet another reason to feel a kinship.

And for you, friend, may the ‘strange Indian summers of our remembrance‘, always contain thoughts of spring.

The Schloss at Nassenheide, Pomerania


Additional notes:

If you would like to read more about Louise Beebe Wilder, see these posts:

The Twilight of Our Year

Shadow and Substance

In June She Reads Louise

Pomona: Bibliography for Louise Beebe Wilder here

Pomerania: Bibliography for Elizabeth von Arnim here

For more information regarding my works of fiction: here

 

 

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!)