Beautiful Fragments: A Walk With John Muir

‘Nature is ever at work building and pulling down, creating and destroying, keeping everything whirling and flowing, allowing no rest but in rhythmical motion, chasing everything in endless song out of one beautiful form into another.’ 
John Muir

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Today I went on a wilderness walk and took John Muir –– in the form of his Wilderness Essays –– with me. As I couldn’t travel in his exact footsteps of a hundred (plus) years ago, scrambling up and down the lofty peaks of the Sierra Madre mountains like a nimble mountain goat, I hoped he wouldn’t mind traveling in mine. IMG_7776

One could dream of possessing the wild and ardent heart of an explorer like Muir, but not everyone has his sturdy limbs and vigorous constitution.

Or, for that matter, his taste for epic perambulations.

Remember, this is the man who walked from Indiana to Florida in 1867; a journey that he chronicled in his book A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf:

‘My plan was simply to push on in a general southward direction, by the wildest, leafiest, and least trodden way I could find.’

As I prefer an even simpler plan— to find the ‘leafiest’ route by slightly more trodden paths and shorter distances—this walk with John Muir is more of a meander through the curated specimens and well delineated paths of my favorite arboretum and botanical garden.

Still, those curated specimens are magnificent; the ground, though slightly more cultivated than Muir’s wild travels, is still dank and rich with the exquisite perfumes of decay.

Even as the old year passes on, the signs of renewal are everywhere.

‘Every leaf seems to speak.’

Because of the seeds, and only because of the seeds—such fascinating art forms—can we take pleasure in these broken, decaying, crumbling fragments of beauty in nature. No other season offers us this thrilling dichotomy of experience; the mix of keenest pleasure tinged with melancholy.

‘How little note is taken of the deeds of Nature! What paper publishes her reports? …. Who publishes the sheet-music of the winds, or the written music of water written in river-lines? Who reports the works and ways of the clouds, those wondrous creations coming into being every day like freshly upheaved mountains? And what record is kept of Nature’s colors – – the clothes she wears – of her birds, her beasts – her live-stock?’

[– John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir, (1938)]

Musically, I find this dichotomy is best expressed in the lush harmonies of the Russian composers. Rimsky-Korsakov is particularly exciting… His Scheherazade suite is music composed to story; it is completely, utterly dramatic in scope. The folk tales he drew from are likely well known by most, but at its heart the suite also tells the story of autumn: exotic color, drama, tireless but brilliantly cunning artistry, and finally, after the frenetic winds of sturm und drang, a long, peaceful night where beauty can at last sleep. Survival assured.

It is difficult—no, impossible—to imagine John Muir wandering his philosophical pathways attached to any sort of earbuds or mp3 players, as he would certainly want to be tuned in to the rhythms of the forest, the reverberant songs of birds in lofty branches, and the delicately nuanced rustles from the undergrowth. Therefore, I kept Rimsky at home on this trip.

“Not blind opposition to progress, but opposition to blind progress.” 

As a Pacific Northwest native, when I think of John Muir, I think of the west coast, and his efforts to conserve the natural beauty of our rugged wilderness areas. Names like the Sierra Club, John Muir Trail, Muir Woods National Monument, Muir Beach, John Muir College, Mount Muir, Camp Muir and Muir Glacier; all suggest the story of his many successes.

But John Muir’s youth had been spent on a farm in Wisconsin, now a historic landmark. Through the visionary camera lens of Charley Makray-Rice, on her blog The Road Less Paved, I was recently reminded of this earlier, and very important, legacy of John Muir in Wisconsin. I hope you can visit her lovely blog and enjoy her photos, as well as the Sierra Club link to more information that describes Muir’s boyhood home, and the early influences that helped to shape his passionate love of nature.

John Muir could linger in the mountains for days, weeks, even months, and often packed no more food than a few chunks of bread. He knew how to survive on little, and where that little was to be found. Therefore it is interesting to note what precious articles he did pack along with him, if it was not to be food. On his ‘thousand mile walk to the Gulf of Mexico’, Muir carried in his pack small volumes of the poems of Robert Burns, Milton’s Paradise Lost, the New Testament, and a blank journal for recording his own thoughts. (Oh, and a plant press.) This was certainly not traveling light in the literary sense. Muir would find that, in the resonant chambers of the deep woods, one is better able to listen for the deep soundings of thinkers through time. Later he would write of his discovery that

the poetry of the Bible, Shakespeare, and Milton was a source of inspiring, exhilarating, uplifting pleasure.’

John Muir

He was also an enthusiastic reader of Emerson and Thoreau, and was keenly in heart harmony with Thoreau when the latter wrote….“Sympathy with the fluttering alder and poplar leaves almost takes away my breath.”

When John Muir wrote of ‘beautiful fragments’ that he encountered in his nature wanderings he waxed particularly enthusiastic about the majestic evergreens and conifers. It was something he wrote about Pinus lambertiana that got my full attention:

‘No lover of trees will ever forget his first meeting with a sugar pine.’

That, my friends, struck me as a call to action. I love trees. I have been raised in the deeply wooded Pacific Northwest, yet cannot remember if I have ever ‘met’ a sugar pine. Certainly not in the way Muir did. If I had, how could I have forgotten it? Not to mention that, when it comes to seed pods, sugar pines produce the longest cones of any pine. Their native habitat is also higher, quite a bit higher, than my usual route encompasses.

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Clearly, my seed pod journey must continue. I’ll just have to pack a few slices of bread, a plant press, and a little light reading.

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!)

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

the young summer of plenty

 

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Today’s book and garden tour finds us in a tucked away garden in Multnomah Village, with a vintage 1945 copy of Flora Thompson’s memoirs: Lark Rise to Candleford.

The garden is one of my peaceful pleasures in the midst of the city—it sits snugly in the backyard of Jacqueline’s Found and Fabulous’ of Multnomah Village, full of soothing fountains at every turn, romantic statuary, and the most pristine of plantings.

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This is one of the best garden destinations in town. Not to be missed is the interior of the house–a charming old 1910 bungalow–a shop that offers a variety of expertly curated goods for home and garden.

Lark Rise to Candleford, Penguin edition

Lark Rise to Candleford, Penguin edition

Now for the book: Every bit of Flora Thompson’s beautifully voiced memoir of growing up in rural England is a delight to read, but my seasonal choice for this garden tour is the chapter titled ‘Summer Holiday’.

The account places us sometime in the 1890’s, and it is when little Laura and her younger brother, Edmund, are allowed to take their first walk–without an adult–to go visit their cousins at Candleford. They travel a distance of eight exhilarating miles over summer dusty country lanes.

‘They—[Laura and her brother]—knew every slight rise in the fields and the moist lower places where the young wheat grew taller and greener, and the bank where the white violets grew and the speciality of every hedgerow—honeysuckle, crab-apples, misty purple sloes, or long trails of white bryony berries through which the sun shone crimson as it did through the window at church…And they knew the sounds of the different seasons, the skylarks singing high up out of sight over the green corn, the loud, metallic chirring of the mechanical reaper…and the rush of wings as the starlings wheeled in flocks over the stripped stubble.’

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What a beautiful world Thompson recalls for us. It is though she has–in memory–the equivalent of perfect pitch. The only other poetic chronicler of youthful days I know of to equal her is Laurie Lee.

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Thompson published her first memoir, Lark Rise, in 1939. It faithfully recorded a pre-Great War vanished world—her childhood spent as Flora Timms in Oxfordshire, daughter of Albert Timms, stonemason. Two sequels followed quickly, as the public was hungry to remember What It Had Been Like Then:  Over to Candleford (1941) and Candleford Green (1943). (My 1945 London Reprints edition of tiny print and fragile paper has all three bound together.)

Attempts at biography have been many, but the reality was that Flora was an intensely private person. What we know of her, and indeed, what she wanted us to know of her—was chiefly from the luminous accounting of the young girl—‘Laura’. The timing of this memoir is significant, and particularly poignant, as it covers the decades both before and after the Great War. What a difference in worlds!medFlora_Thompson

An interesting distinction is made by the author between an English hamlet, and a village. The hamlet of Lark Rise is where Laura’s gently impoverished family lived, and the nearby village of Candleford is where her cousins lived in slightly better circumstances, and, socially speaking, in a richer, more varied world.

A hamlet, in Laura’s case, consisted of about thirty cottages. Everyone who inhabited these cottages was of the same general income and outlook; poor but proud, simple in habits but clean and well fed from their own gardens and pigsty. Their means of life and brief entertainments revolved around the rhythms of nature.

‘In spite of their poverty,’ she writes, ‘they were not unhappy, though poor, there was nothing sordid about their lives. They had their home-cured bacon, their “bit o’ leanings” their small wheat or barley patch on the allotment; their knowledge of herbs for their homely simples, and the wild fruits and berries of the countryside for jam, jellies, and wine, and round about them as part of their lives were the last relics of country customs and the last echoes of country songs, ballads, and game rhymes. This last picking, though meagre, was sweet’.

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This chapter ‘Summer Visits’ is also a favorite because this is the occasion when Laura first discovers books. After they have arrived on their visit to cousins in the village of Candleford, Laura is once left alone in the attic where the children have been playing dress up in the old clothes they found there. Laura, in aged bridal finery, ponders her reflection in ‘the tall, cracked mirror’…

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‘But her own reflection did not hold her more than a moment, for she saw in the glass a recess she had not noticed before packed with books. Books on shelves, books in piles on the floor, and still other books in heaps, higgledy-piggledy, as though they had been turned out of sacks…That attic was very quiet for the next quarter of an hour, for Laura, still in her bridal veil, was down on her knees on the bare boards, as happy and busy as a young foal in a field of green corn….’

Oh, does that sound lovely! And rather familiar—although I can’t say ‘me and my olfactory receptors’ could ever be lost in a book while wearing bridal ‘finery’ made up of old, musty nineteenth century lace. Or carry–as did Laura–an ancient feather duster standing in for the bridal bouquet. Fits of sneezing ensure that one doesn’t stay lost behind a stack of books for too long. But that’s twenty-first century reality—what was I thinking? Back to the delights of Candleford:

“Laura’s a bookworm, a bookworm, a bookworm!” Amy sang to her sisters with the air of having made an astonishing discovery, and Laura wondered if a bookworm might not be something unpleasant until she added: “A bookworm, like Father.” 

via pinterest: Morau, Paul Charles (1855-1931)

via pinterest: Morau, Paul Charles (1855-1931)

After the heady discovery of Uncle Tom’s books in the attic—who I’m happy to say generously shares his books with the delighted Laura—there are boat outings on the river, taking their tea in the fields, and of course, more reading.

‘It was just as pleasant to take out their tea in the fields (Laura’s first experience of picnics), or to explore the thickets on the river banks, or to sit quietly in the boat and read when all the others were busy. Several times their uncle took them out for a row, right up the stream where it grew narrower and narrower and the banks lower and lower until they seemed to be floating on green fields…They had taken their own lunch, which they ate in the field, but at tea-time they were called in by the farmer’s wife to such a tea as Laura had never dreamed of. There were fried ham and eggs, cakes and scones and stewed plums and cream, jam and jelly and junket, and the table spread in a room as large as their whole house at home, with three windows with window seats in a row, and a cool, stone-flagged floor….’

‘Afterwards they straggled home through the dusk with a corncrake whirring and cockchafers and moths hitting their faces, and saw the lights of the town coming out, one by one, like golden flowers, as they entered.’

Jumping ahead in the book just for a fitting conclusion to our brief tour, we find a slightly older Laura, engaged in thoughtful reflections on many such summers of plenty from Lark Rise to Candleford…(oh, and not-so-surprisingly, there we have gossamer again!)

‘As she went her way, gossamer threads, spun from bush to bush, barricaded her pathway, and as she broke through one after another of these fairy barricades she thought, “They’re trying to bind and keep me.” But the threads which were to bind her to her native country were more enduring than gossamer. They were spun of love and kinship and cherished memories.’

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To read memoirs such as these, is to think deeply about what life used to be like, and what life could be like again. Oh if only we, as the human race, would spin enduring threads ‘of love and kinship and cherished memories’.

Can it be done? Yes. It will be done.

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)

 

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.]