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I have always had a fondness, when upon my travels about the world of the near-by woods and fields, for nipping a bit of a twig here and there and tasting the tart or bitter quality of it. I suppose the instinct descends to me from the herbivorous side of my distant ancestry. I love a spray of white cedar, especially the spicy, sweet inside bark, or a pine needle, or the tender, sweet, juicy end of a spike of timothy grass drawn slowly from its close-fitting sheath, or a twig of the birch that tastes like wintergreen.

I think this no strange or unusual instinct, for I have seen many other people doing it, especially farmers around here, who go through the fields nipping the new oats, testing the red-top, or chewing a bit of sassafras bark. I have in mind a clump of shrubbery in the town road, where an old house once stood, of the kind called here by some the “sweet-scented shrub,” and the brandies of it nearest the road are quite clipped and stunted I’m being nipped at by old ladies who pass that way and take to it like cat to catnip.

For a long time this was a wholly unorganized, indeed all but unconscious, pleasure, a true pattern of the childish way we take hold of the earth; but when I began to come newly alive to all things as I have already related—I chanced upon this curious, undeveloped instinct.

“What is it I have here?” I asked myself, for I thought this might be a new handle for getting hold of nature.

Along one edge of my field is a natural hedge of wild cherry, young elms and ashes, dogwood, black raspberry bushes and the like, which has long been a pleasure to the eye, especially in the early morning when the shadows of it lie long and cool upon the meadow. Many times I have walked that way to admire it, or to listen for the catbirds that nest there, or to steal upon a certain gray squirrel who comes out from his home in the chestnut tree on a fine morning to inspect his premises.

It occurred to me one day that I would make the acquaintance of this hedge in a new way; so I passed slowly along it where the branches of the trees brushed my shoulder and picked a twig here and there and bit it through. “This is cherry,” I said; “this is elm, this is dogwood.” And it was a fine adventure to know old friends in new ways, for I had never thought before to test the trees and shrubs by their taste and smell. After that, whenever I passed that way, I closed my eyes and tried for further identifications by taste, and was soon able to tell quickly half a dozen other varieties of trees, shrubs, and smaller plants along that bit of meadow.

Presently, as one who learns to navigate still water near shore longs for more thrilling voyages, I tried the grassy old roads in the woods, where young trees and other growths were to be found in great variety: and had a joy of it I cannot describe, for old and familiar places were thus made new and wonderful to me. And when I think of those places, now, say in winter, I grasp them more vividly and strongly than ever I did before, for I think not only how they look, but how they taste and smell, and I even know many of the growing things by the touch of them. It is certain that our grasp of life is in direct proportion to the variety and warmth of the ways in which we lay hold of it. No thought no beauty and no joy.

On these excursions I have often reflected that if I were blind, I should still find here unexplored joys of life, and should make it a point to know all the friendly trees and shrubs around about by the taste or smell or touch of them. I think seriously that this method of widening the world of the blind, and increasing their narrower joys, might well be developed, though it would be wise for such as do take it to borrow first the eyes of a friend to see that no poison ivy, which certain rascally birds plant along our fences and hedges, is lurking about.

Save for this precaution I know of nothing that will injure the taster, though he must be prepared, here and there, for shocks and thrills of bitterness. A lilac leaf, for example, and to a scarcely lesser degree the willow and the poplar are, when bitten through, of a penetrating and intense bitterness; but do no harm, and will daunt no one who is really adventurous. There is yet to be written a botany, or, better yet, a book of nature, for the blind.

It is by knowing human beings that we come to understand them, and by understanding them come to love them, and so it is with the green people. When I was a boy in the wild north country trees were enemies to be ruthlessly fought—to be cut down, sawed, split, burned—anything to be rid of them. The ideal in making a home place was to push the forest as far away from it as possible. But now, when I go to the woods, it is like going among old and treasured friends, and with riper acquaintance the trees come to take on, curiously, a kind of personality, so that I am much fonder of some trees than of others, and instinctively seek out the companionship of certain trees in certain moods, as one will his friends.

I love the unfolding beeches in spring, and the pines in winter; the elms I care for afar off, like great aloof men, whom I can admire; but for friendly confidences give me an apple tree in an old green meadow.

In this more complete understanding I have been much aided by getting hold of my friends of the hedges and hills in the new ways I have described. At times I even feel that I have become a fully accepted member of the Fraternity of the Living Earth, for I have already received many of the benefits which go with that association; and I know now for a certainty that it makes no objection to its members because they are old, or sad, or have sinned, but welcomes them all alike.

The essential taste of the cherry and peach and all their numerous relatives is, in variation, that of the peach pit, so that the whole tribe may be easily recognized, though it was some time before I could tell with certainty the peach from the cherry. The oak shoot, when chewed a little, tastes exactly like the smell of new oak lumber; the maple has a peculiar taste and smell of its own that I can find no comparison for, and the poplar is one of the bitterest trees that ever I have tasted. The trees—pines, spruces, hemlocks, balsams, cedars—are to me about the pleasantest of all, both in taste and odour, and though the spruces and pines taste and smell much alike at first, one soon learns to distinguish them. The elm has a rather agreeable, nondescript, bitterish taste, but the linden is gummy and of a mediocre quality, like the tree itself, which I dislike. Some of the sweetest flowering shrubs, such as the lilac, have the bitterest of leaves and twigs or, like certain kinds of clematis, have a seed that when green is sharper than cayenne pepper, while others, like the rose, are pleasanter in flavour. The ash tree is not too bitter and a little sour.

I give here only a few of the commoner examples, for I wish to make this no tedious catalogue of the flavours of the green people. I am not a scientist, nor would wish to be taken for one. Only last winter I had my pretensions sadly shocked when I tasted twigs cut from various trees and shrubs and tried to identify them by taste or by smell, and while it was a pleasing experiment I found I could not certainly place above half of them; partly, no doubt, because many growing things keep their flavours well wrapped up in winter. No, I have not gone far upon this pleasant road, but neither am I in any great hurry; for there yet remains much time in this and my future lives to conquer the secrets of the earth. I plan to devote at least one entire life to science, and may find I need several!

One great reason why the sense of taste and the sense of smell have not the same honour as the sense of sight or of hearing is that no way has yet been found to make a true art of either. For sight, we have painting, sculpturing, photography, architecture, and the like; and for hearing, music; and for both, poetry and the drama. But the other senses are more purely personal, and have not only been little studied or thought about, but are the ones least developed, and most dimmed and clogged by the customs of our lives.

For the sense of smell we have, indeed, the perfumer’s art, but a poor rudimentary art it is, giving little freedom for the artist who would draw his inspirations freshly from nature. I can, indeed, describe poorly in words the odours of this June morning—the mingled lilacs, late wild cherries, new-broken soil, and the fragrance of the sun on green verdure, for there are here both lyrical and symphonic odours—but how inadequate it is! I can tell you what I feel and smell and taste, and give you, perhaps, a desire another spring to spend the months of May and June in the country, but I can scarcely make you live again the very moment of life I have lived, which is the magic quality of the best art. The art of the perfumer which, like all crude art, thrives upon blatancy, does not make us go to gardens, or love the rose, but often instils in us a kind of artificiality, so that perfumes, so far from being an inspiration to us, increasing our lives, become often the badge of the abnormal, used by those unsatisfied with simple, clean, natural things.

And as a people deficient in musical art delights in ragtime tunes, so a people deficient in the true art of tasting and smelling delights in ragtime odours and ragtime tastes.

I do not know that the three so-called lesser senses will ever be organized to the point where they are served by well-established arts, but this I do know—that there are three great ways of entering upon a better understanding of this magic earth which are now neglected.

I think we have come upon hasty and heated days, and are too much mastered by the god of hurry and the swift and greedy eye. We accept flashing pictures of life for life itself; we rush here and rush there and, having arrived, rush away again—to what sensible purpose? Be still a little! Be still!

I do not mean by stillness, stagnation not yet lazy contentment, but life more deeply thought about, more intensely realized, an activity so concentrated that it is quiet. Be still then!

So it is that, though I am no worshipper of the old, I think the older gardeners had in some ways a better practice of the art than we have, for they planted not for the eye alone but for the nose and the sense of taste and even, in growing such plants as the lamb’s tongue, to gratify, curiously, the sense of touch. They loved the scented herbs, and appropriately called them simples. Some of these old simples I am greatly fond of, and like to snip a leaf as I go by to smell or taste; but many of them, I here confess, have for me a rank and culinary odour—as sage and thyme and the bold scarlet monarda, sometimes called bergamot.

But if their actual fragrance is not always pleasing, and their uses are now grown obscure, I love well the names of many of them—whether from ancient association or because the words themselves fall pleasantly upon the ear, as, for example, sweet marjoram and dill, anise and summer savoury, lavender and sweet basil. Coriander! Caraway! Cumin! And “there’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance; pray you, love, remember,... there’s fennel for you, and columbines: there’s rue for you: and here’s some for me—” All sweet names that one loves to roll under his tongue.

I have not any great number of these herbs in my own garden, but, when I go among those I do have, I like to call them by their familiar names as I would a dignified doctor or professor, if ever I knew him well enough.

It is in this want of balance and quietude that the age fails most. We are all for action, not at all for reflection; we think there are easy ways to knowledge and shortcuts to perfection; we are for laws rather than for life.

And this reminds me inevitably of a mellow-spirited old friend who lives not a thousand miles from here—I must not tell his name—whose greatest word is “proportion.” At this moment, as I write, I can hear the roll of his resonant old voice on the syllable p-o-r—prop-o-rtion. He is the kind of man good to know and to trust.

If ever I bring him a hard problem, as, indeed, I delight to do, it is a fine thing to see him square himself to meet it. A light comes in his eye, he draws back his chin a little and exclaims occasionally: “Well—well!”

He will have all the facts and circumstances fully mobilized, standing up side by side before him like an awkward squad, and there’s nothing more awkward than some facts that have to stand out squarely in daylight! And he inquires into their ancestry, makes them run out their tongues, and pokes them once or twice in the ribs, to make sure that they are lively and robust facts capable of making a good fight for their lives. He never likes to see any one thing too large, as a church, a party, a reform, a new book, or a new fashion, lest he see something else too small; but will have everything, as he says, in true proportion. If he occasionally favours a little that which is old, solid, well-placed, it is scarcely to be measured to him as a fault in an age so overwhelmed with the shiny new.

He is a fine, up-standing, hearty old gentleman with white hair and rosy cheeks, and the bright eyes of one who has lived all his life with temperance. One incident I cannot resist telling, though it has nothing directly to do with this story, but it will let you know what kind of a man my old friend is, and when all is said, it would be a fine thing to know about any man. Not long ago he was afflicted with a serious loss, a loss that would have crushed some men, but when I met him not long afterward, though the lines around his eyes were grown deeper, he greeted me in his old serene, courtly manner, When I would have comforted him with my sympathy, for I felt myself near enough to speak of his loss, he replied calmly:

“How can we know whether a thing is evil until we reach the end of it? It may be good!”

One of the events I esteem among the finest of the whole year is my old friend’s birthday party. Every winter, on the twenty-sixth of February, a party of his friends drop in to see him. Some of us go out of habit, drawn by our affection for the old gentleman; others, I think, he invites, for he knows to perfection the delicate shadings of companionship which divide those who come unbidden from those, not less loved but shyer, who must be summoned.

Now this birthday gathering has one historic ceremony which none of us would miss, because it expresses so completely the essence of our friend’s generous and tolerant, but just, nature. He is, as I have said, a temperate man, and dislikes as much as any one I know the whole alcohol business; but living in a community where the struggle for temperance has often been waged intemperately, and where there is a lurking belief that cudgelling laws can make men virtuous, he publishes abroad once a year his declaration of independence.

After we have been with our friend for an hour or so, and are well warmed and happy with the occasion, he rises solemnly and goes to the toby-closet at the end of his generous fireplace, where the apple-log specially cut for the occasion is burning merrily, and as we all fall silent, knowing well what is coming, he unlocks the door and takes from the shelf a bottle of old peach brandy which, having uncorked, he gravely smells of and possibly lets his nearest neighbour smell of too. Then he brings from the sideboard a server set with diminutive glasses that have been polished until they shine for the great occasion, and, having filled them all with the ripe liquor, he passes them around to each of us. We have all risen and are becomingly solemn as he now proposes the toast of the year—and it is always the same toast:

“Here’s to moderation—in all things!”

He takes a sip or two, and continues:

“Here’s to temperance—the queen of the virtues.”

So we all drink off our glasses. Our mellow old friend smacks his lips, corks the tall bottle, and returns it to his toby-closet, where it reposes undisturbed for another year.

“And now, gentlemen,” he says, heartily, “let us go in to dinner.”...

As I think of it, now that it is written, this story bears no very close relationship to my original subject, and yet it seemed to follow naturally enough as I set it down, and to belong with the simple and well-flavoured things of the garden and fields; and recalling the advice of Cobbett to his nephew on the art of writing, “never to alter a thought, for that which has come of itself into your mind is likely to pass into that of another more readily and with more effect than anything which you can by reflection invent,” I leave it here just as I wrote it, hoping that the kinship of my genial old friend with simple and natural and temperate things may plainly appear.


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