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[– John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir, (1938)]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

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.