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“Sweet as Eden is the air

And Eden-sweet the ray.

No Paradise is lost for them

Who foot by branching root and stem,

And lightly with the woodland share

The change of night and day.”

For these many years, since I have lived here in the country, I have had it in my mind to write something about the odour and taste of this well-flavoured earth. The fact is, both the sense of smell and the sense of taste; have been shabbily treated in the amiable rivalry of the senses. Sight and hearing have been the swift and nimble brothers, and sight especially, the tricky Jacob of the family, is keen upon the business of seizing the entire inheritance, while smell, like hairy Esau, comes late to the blessing, hungry from the hills, and willing to trade its inheritance for a mess of pottage.

I have always had a kind of errant love for the improvident and adventurous Esaus of the Earth. I think they smell a wilder fragrance than I do, and taste sweeter things, and I have thought, therefore, of beginning a kind of fragrant autobiography, a chronicle of all the good odours and flavours that ever I have had in my life.

As I grow older, a curious feeling comes often to me in the spring, as it comes this spring more poignantly than ever before, a sense of the temporariness of all things, the swiftness of life, the sadness of a beauty that vanishes so soon, and I long to lay hold upon it as it passes by all the handles that I can. I would not only see it and hear it, but I would smell it and taste it and touch it, and all with a new kind of intensity and eagerness.

Harriet says I get more pleasure out of the smell of my supper than I get out of the supper itself.

“I never need to ring for you,” says she, “but only open the kitchen door. In a few minutes I’ll see you straighten up, lift your head, sniff a little, and come straight for the house.”

“The odour of your suppers, Harriet,” I said, “after a day in the fields, would lure a man out of purgatory.”

My father before me had a singularly keen nose. I remember well when I was a boy and drove with him in the wild North Country, often through miles of unbroken forest, how he would sometimes break a long silence, lift his head with sudden awareness, and say to me:

“David, I smell open fields.”

In a few minutes we were sure to come to a settler’s cabin, a log barn, or a clearing. Among the free odours of the forest he had caught, afar off, the common odours of the work of man.

When we were tramping or surveying in that country, I have seen him stop suddenly, draw in a long breath, and remark:

“Marshes,” or, “A stream yonder.”

Part of this strange keenness of sense, often noted by those who knew that sturdy old cavalryman, may have been based, as so many of our talents are, upon a defect. My father gave all the sweet sounds of the world, the voices of his sons, the songs of his daughters, to help free the Southern slaves. He was deaf.

It is well known that when one sense is defective the others fly to the rescue, and my father’s singular development of the sense of smell may have been due in part to this defect, though I believe it to have been, to a far larger degree, a native gift. Me had a downright good nose. All his life long he enjoyed with more than ordinary keenness the odour of flowers, and would often pick a sprig of wild rose and carry it along with him in his hand, sniffing at it from time to time, and he loved the lilac, as I do after him. To ill odours he was not less sensitive, and was impatient of rats in the barn, and could smell them, among other odours, the moment the door was opened. He always had a peculiar sensitiveness to the presence of animals, as of dogs, cats, muskrats, cattle, horses, and the like, and would speak of them long before he had seen them or could know that they were about.

I recall once on a wild Northern lake, when we were working along the shore in a boat, how he stopped suddenly and exclaimed:

“David, do you hear anything?”—for I, a boy, was ears for him in those wilderness places.

“No, Father. What is it?”


And, sure enough, in a short time I heard the barking of their dogs and we came soon upon their camp, where, I remember, they were drying deer meat upon a frame of poplar poles over an open fire. He told me that the smoky smell of the Indians, tanned buckskin, parched wild rice, and the like, were odours that carried far and could not be mistaken.

My father had a big, hooked nose with long, narrow nostrils, I suppose that this has really nothing to do with the matter, although I have come, after these many years, to look with a curious interest upon people’s noses, since I know what a vehicle of delight they often are. My own nose is nothing to speak of, good enough as noses go—but I think I inherited from my father something of the power of enjoyment he had from that sense, though I can never hope to become the accomplished smeller he was.

I am moved to begin this chronicle because of my joy this morning early—a May morn-ing!—just after sunrise, when the shadows lay long and blue to the west and the dew wa still on the grass, and I walked in the pleasant spaces of my garden. It was so still... that birds afar off could be heard singing, and once through the crystal air came the voice of a neighbour calling his cows. But the sounds and the silences, the fair sights of meadow and hill I soon put aside, for the lilacs were in bloom and the bush-honeysuckles and the strawberries. Though no movement of the air was perceptible, the lilacs well knew the way of the wind, for if I stood to the north of them the odour was less rich and free than to the south, and I thought I might pose as a prophet of wind and weather upon the basis of this easy magic, and predict that the breezes of the day would be from the north—as, indeed, they later appeared to be.

I went from clump to clump of the lilacs testing and comparing them with great joy and satisfaction. They vary noticeably in odour; the white varieties being the most delicate, while those tending to deep purple are the richest. Some of the newer double varieties seem less fragrant—and I have tested them now many times—than the old-fashioned single varieties which are nearer the native stock. Here I fancy our smooth Jacob has been at work, and in the lucrative process of selection for the eye alone the cunning horticulturist has cheated us of our rightful heritage of fragrance. I have a mind some time to practise the art of bur-bankry or other kind of wizardy upon the old lilac stock and select for odour alone, securing ravishing original varieties—indeed, whole new gamuts of fragrance.

I should devise the most animating names for my creations, such as the Double Delicious, the Air of Arcady, the Sweet Zephyr, and others even more inviting, which I should enjoy inventing. Though I think surely I could make my fortune out of this interesting idea, I present it freely to a scent-hungry world—here it is, gratis!—for I have my time so fully occupied during all of this and my next two or three lives that I cannot attend to it.

I have felt the same defect in the cultivated roses. While the odours are rich, often of cloying sweetness, or even, as in certain white roses, having a languor as of death, they never for me equal the fragrance of the wild sweet rose that grows all about these hills, in old tangled fence rows, in the lee of meadow boulders, or by some unfrequented roadside. No other odour I know awakens quite such a feeling—light like a cloud, suggesting free hills, open country, sunny air; and none surely has, for me, such an after-call. A whiff of the wild rose will bring back in all the poignancy of sad happiness a train of ancient memories old faces, old scenes, old loves—and the wild thoughts I had when a boy. The first week of the wild-rose blooming, beginning here about the twenty-fifth of June, is always to me a memorable time.

I was a long time learning how to take hold of nature, and think now with some sadness of all the life I lost in former years. The impression the earth gave me was confused: I was as one only half awake. A fine morning made me dumbly glad, a cool evening, after the heat of the day, and the work of it, touched my spirit restfully; but I could have explained neither the one nor the other. Gradually as I looked about me I began to ask myself, “Why is it that the sight of these common hills and fields gives me such exquisite delight? And if it is beauty, why is it beautiful? And if I am so richly rewarded by mere glimpses, can I not increase my pleasure with longer looks?”

I tried longer looks both at nature and at the friendly human creatures all about me. I stopped often in the garden where I was working, or loitered a moment in the fields, or sat down by the roadside, and thought intently what it was that so perfectly and wonderfully surrounded me; and thus I came to have some knowledge of the Great Secret. It was, after all, a simple matter, as such matters usually are when we penetrate them, and consisted merely in shutting out all other impressions, feelings, thoughts, and concentrating the full energy of the attention upon what it was that I saw or heard at that instant.

At one moment I would let in all the sounds of the earth, at another all the sights. So we practise the hand at one time, the foot at another, or learn how to sit or to walk, and so acquire new grace for the whole body. Should we do less in acquiring grace for the spirit? It will astonish one who has not tried it how full the world is of sounds commonly unheard, and of sights commonly unseen, but in their nature, like the smallest blossoms, of a curious perfection and beauty.

Out of this practice grew presently, and as it seems to me instinctively, for I cannot now remember the exact time of its beginning, a habit of repeating under my breath, or even aloud, and in a kind of singsong voice, fragmentary words and sentences describing what it was that I saw or felt at the moment, as, for example:

“The pink blossoms of the wild crab-apple trees I see from the hill.... The reedy song of the wood thrush among the thickets of the wild cherry.... The scent of peach leaves, the odour of new-turned soil in the black fields.... The red of the maples in the marsh, the white of apple trees in bloom.... I cannot find Him out—nor know why I am here....”

Some form of expression, however crude, seemed to reenforce and intensify the gatherings of the senses; and these words, afterward remembered, or even written down in the little book I sometimes carried in my pocket, seemed to awaken echoes, however faint, of the exaltation of that moment in the woods or fields, and enabled me to live twice where formerly I had been able to live but once.

It was by this simple process of concentrating upon what I saw or heard that I increased immeasurably my own joy of my garden and fields and the hills and marshes all about. A little later, for I was a slow learner, I began to practise the same method with the sense of smell, and still later with the sense of taste. I said to myself, “I will no longer permit the avid and eager eye to steal away my whole attention. I will learn to enjoy more completely all the varied wonders of the earth.”

So I tried deliberately shutting the doorways of both sight and hearing, and centring the industry of my spirit upon the flavours of the earth. I tested each odour narrowly, compared it well with remembered odours, and often turned the impression I had into such poor words as I could command.

What a new and wonderful world opened to me then! My takings of nature increased tenfold, a hundredfold, and I came to a new acquaintance with my own garden, my own hills, and all the roads and fields around about—and even the town took on strange new meanings for me. I cannot explain it rightly, but it was as though I had found a new earth here within the old one, but more spacious and beautiful than any I had known before. I have thought, often and often, that this world we live in so dumbly, so carelessly, would be more glorious than the tinsel heaven of the poets if only we knew how to lay hold upon it, if only we could win that complete command of our own lives which is the end of our being.

At first, as I said, I stopped my work, or loitered as I walked, in order to see, or hear, or smell—and do so still, for I have entered only the antechamber of the treasure-house; but as I learned better the modest technic of these arts I found that the practice of them went well with the common tasks of the garden or farm, especially with those that were more or less monotonous, like cultivating corn, hoeing potatoes, and the like.

The air is just as full of good sights and good odours for the worker as for the idler, and it depends only upon the awareness, the aliveness, of our own spirits whether we toil like dumb animals or bless our labouring hours with the beauty of life. Such enjoyment and a growing command of our surroundings are possible, after a little practice, without taking much of that time we call so valuable and waste so sinfully. “I haven’t time,” says the farmer, the banker, the professor, with a kind of disdain for the spirit of life, when, as a matter of fact, he has all the time there is, all that anybody has—to wit, this moment, this great and golden moment!—but knows not how to employ it. He creeps when he might walk, walks when he might run, runs when he might fly—and lives like a woodchuck in the dark body of himself.

Why, there are men in this valley who scout the idea that farming, carpentry, merchantry, are anything but drudgery, defend all the evils known to humankind with the argument that “a man must live,” and laugh at any one who sees beauty or charm in being here, in working with the hands, or, indeed, in just living! While they think of themselves cannily as “practical” men, I think them the most impractical men I know, for in a world full of boundless riches they remain obstinately poor. They are unwilling to invest even a few of their dollars unearned in the real wealth of the earth. For it is only the sense of the spirit of life, whether in nature or in other human beings, that lifts men above the beasts and curiously leads them to God, who is the spirit both of beauty and of friendliness. I say truly, having now reached the point in my life where it seems to me I care only for writing that which is most deeply true for me, that I rarely walk in my garden or upon the hills of an evening without thinking of God. It is in my garden that all things become clearer to me, even that miracle whereby one who has offended may still see God; and this I think a wonderful thing. In my garden I understand dimly why evil is in the world, and in my garden learn how transitory it is.

Just now I have come in from work, and will note freshly one of the best odours I have had to-day. As I was working in the corn, a lazy breeze blew across the meadows from the west, and after loitering a moment among the blackberry bushes sought me out where I was busiest. Do you know the scent of the blackberry? Almost all the year round it is a treasure-house of odours, even when the leaves first come out; but it reaches crescendo in blossom time when, indeed, I like it least, for being too strong. It has a curious fragrance, once well called by a poet “the hot scent of the brier,” and aromatically hot it is and sharp like the briers themselves. At times I do not like it at all, for it gives me a kind of faintness, while at other times, as to-day, it fills me with a strange sense of pleasure as though it were the very breath of the spicy earth. It is also a rare friend of the sun, for the hotter and brighter the day, the hotter and sharper the scent of the brier.

Many of the commonest and least noticed of plants, flowers, trees, possess a truly fragrant personality if once we begin to know them. I had an adventure in my own orchard, only this spring, and made a fine new acquaintance in a quarter least of all expected. I had started down the lane through the garden one morning in the most ordinary way, with no thought of any special experience, when I suddenly caught a whiff of pure delight that stopped me short.

“What now can that be?” and I thought to myself that nature had played some new prank on me.

I turned into the orchard, following my nose. It was not the peach buds, nor the plums, nor the cherries, nor yet the beautiful new coloured leaves of the grape, nor anything I could see along the grassy margin of the pasture. There were other odours all about, old friends of mine, but this was some shy and pleasing stranger come venturing upon my land.

A moment later I discovered a patch of low green verdure upon the ground, and dismissed it scornfully as one of my ancient enemies. But it is this way with enemies, once we come to know them, they often turn out to have a fragrance that is kindly.

Well, this particular fierce enemy was a patch of chickweed. Chickweed! Invader of the garden, cossack of the orchard! I discovered, however, that it was in full bloom and covered with small, star-like white blossoms.

“Well, now,” said I, “are you the guilty rascal?”

So I knelt there and took my delight of it and a rare, delicate good odour it was. For several days afterward I would not dig out the patch, for I said to myself, “What a cheerful claim it makes these early days, when most of the earth is still cold and dead, for a bit of immortality.”

The bees knew the secret already, and the hens and the blackbirds! And I thought it no loss, but really a new and valuable pleasure, to divert my path down the lane for several days that I might enjoy more fully this new odour, and make a clear acquaintance with something fine upon the earth I had not known before.


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