Monday, August 17, 2015

`Scent of Thyme, the Deep Error of Sage'

Weeds flourish in the drought. So do oak saplings from last season’s acorns. Squirrels grow fat in the loblollies, gorging on pine nuts and dropping scales and stripped cones in the garden where I weed. The first smell I notice in the heat is pine pitch. Then rosemary from our bush, now community property as the neighbors harvest what they need at dinner time. The strongest scent is spearmint, cool and clean in the heat. In his journal entry for Aug. 16, 1856, Thoreau notes:

“What a variety of old garden herbs - mints, etc. - are naturalized along an old settled road, like this to Boston which the British travelled! And then there is the site, apparently, of an old garden by the tanyard, where the spearmint grows so rankly. I am intoxicated with the fragrance. Though I find only one new plant (the cassia), yet old acquaintances grow so rankly, and the spearmint intoxicates me so, that I am bewildered, as it were by a variety of new things. An infinite novelty.”
Thoreau is at his best when enjoying something, not when complaining or pontificating. Nice of him, the eternal know-it-all, to admit to his bewilderment. Good smells always come as novelties, as though for the first time – coffee, fresh bread, spearmint. Odd that Thoreau repeats in the next sentence “rankly” and “intoxicated,” almost an admission of same in so sober a man. He continues:
“All the roadside is the site of an old garden where fragrant herbs have become naturalized, -- hounds-tongue, bergamot, spearmint, elecampane, etc. I see even the tiger lily, with its bulbs, growing by the roadside far from houses (near Leighton’s graveyard). I think I have found many new plants, and am surprised when I can reckon but one. A little distance from my ordinary walk and a little variety in the growth or luxuriance will produce this illusion. By the discovery of one new plant all bounds seem to be infinitely removed.”
The blurring of natural/man-made boundaries is always a thrill, oddly encouraging. A few blocks from where I write, near a city bus shelter, a stalk of corn grows three feet tall in the crack between sidewalk and curb. On the sidewalk in front of a candle shop in Saugerties, N.Y., I once spied a healthy green pot plant growing waist-high, sharing a wooden flowerpot with marigolds. I felt as though I’d been let in on a secret. On the cover of C.H. Sisson’s Collected Poems (Carcanet, 1998) is a watercolor by Stephen Raw of the final stanza of “The Herb-garden” (Exactions, 1980):
“Herb-garden, dream, scent of rosemary,
Scent of thyme, the deep error of sage,
Fennel that falls like a fountain, rue that says nothing,
Blue leaves, in a garden of green.”

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