‘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.”
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.
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.
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.
The twilight of autumn is upon us.
‘I was there.’
(This is the final segment of my series on fragrance; the first two were here and here. I hope you enjoyed it!)