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

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!)

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.”

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

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

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

As to quality, shall we ask Napoleon?

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

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

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

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

“What in me is dark, illumin..”

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

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

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

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Daily Post.