Photograph by Misty Ladd

Scents

Something about the rich changing smells of nature both comforts and exhilarates me. I cherish aromatic memories, and I am fascinated by the way we humans like to bathe ourselves in herbs and flowers. We want to luxuriate in sensory remembrance, and also tell anyone we encounter that we’re as tantalizing as blooming nature. We want to conjure up a season of ripeness, the sexiness of flowers sticky with nectar, the gushy succulence of fruit. Some of the richest scents don’t ooze from flowers, but from leaves and bark, and even the atmosphere itself. I love the smell of spring in the air at the end of winter, a delicate, fertile, world-in-bud smell.

All winter I wait for the magnolia and wisteria to bloom. The flowers of the wisteria smell slightly Easter lily-ish with a hint of new car leather. I like to stand with my nose against a cascade of wisteria, inhaling its heady perfume for as long as possible before my nose quits and refuses to smell it anymore. My technique with the magnolia is similar. I have a large old Chinese magnolia with brandy-snifter-shaped pink flowers. Although it only blooms for a week or two, it’s an otherworldly spectacle. At some point each day I walk straight into those flowers, pressing my face into a thick mask of petals, and then breathe slowly and deeply, enjoying their gentle scent of vanilla and warm candle wax.

I begin each summer day in earthly paradise, tending my roses, which take over an hour just to deadhead and preen, because there are 120 bushes in several beds, and I raise them organically. I admit, that’s a lot of roses, but my therapist friends assure me that it’s only obsessive if I count them each day. While florists’ roses rarely smell (they’re bred for color and shape, sacrificing scent in the process), many of my garden roses ooze a perfume heavy as gold ingots, elaborate, intoxicating, and cunning. What pollinating bee or human could resist them? While tending, I admire them like an acolyte, listen for wren hatchlings, watch the sun seeping up through the woods, enjoy the rustle of tree leaves, and try not to let anything so clumsy as thought intrude. I find these morning hours restorative as meditation.

I’ve planted a peppermint patch in such a way that I have to walk through it whenever I want to turn on the garden hose. Then a cloud of peppermint—as much vapor as scent—washes over me, almost always catching me by surprise. In these garden ways, I greet nature each day with a sensory banquet and renewed wonder.

 

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Diane Ackerman is a poet, essayist, naturalist, and the author of two dozen highly acclaimed works of nonfiction and poetry, including The Zookeeper’s Wife, A Natural History of the Senses, and The Human Age. Ackerman has received a P.E.N. Henry David Thoreau Award for Nature Writing, honorary doctorate from Kenyon College, Guggenheim Fellowship, Orion Book Award, John Burroughs Nature Award, Lavan Poetry Prize, as well as being honored as a Literary Lion by the New York Public Library.

Comments

  1. Before retiring I worked as a consultant & pedagogical guide in early childhood programs. I encouraged outdoor spaces to be designed with surprise scents, so when a thrown ball goes astray it might land on a patch of mint, sage, or thyme. Little willow branch tunnels for hiding in can be planted with a covering of honeysuckle, evergreen clematis or jasmine; witchhazel or daphne could announce the promise of spring. Teachers tend to think their role is to get kids to remember rules, numbers, announcements. I remind them olfactory learning gets stored in the brain’s long term memory. To paraphrase Mary Oliver, “What do you what little ones to remember from their one wild and precious childhood? Thanks, Diane, for helping us remember.

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