Pennyroyal: The Smell of Winter

image copyright Fred First

I know, as recent landscape shots here go, this is a drab little composition–notable neither for color or form. But if posting this non-descript image leads you to discover Pennyroyal, you will share with me one of my deepest emotional connections with these mountains: the smell of winter.

While this “winter” so far is the exception, most Januarys offer little in the way of either color or fragrance. As I describe this in Slow Road, the olfactory landscape–the aromasphere–is a barren place, unless you go looking, or rather sniffing, for the smells of winter.

Along Nameless Creek, on the briskiest days of the cold months, there’s always a spicebush twig at hand to scratch and sniff. And along the Middle Trail, if you know where to look, you can find a stem of yellow birch (or sweet birch) whose inner bark when revealed by a thumbnail scratching staggers the winter walker to another realm of perception–a kind of smelling salts to wake us from our hibernation inside our wraps of wool and down.

But for me, it is Pennyroyal that sends its musty minty tendrils deepest into that place where winter fragrance and memory live together in a way that only smells preserve. This particular plant carries an emotional weight so powerful it made me cry once upon a time.

In 1989, we had left the mountains and moved back to my home town of Birmingham. I was fully immersed in 14 hour days of physical therapy classes and labs, as absorbed in obligation and unreachable to myself as I have ever been, with a singlemindedness of purpose that comes when we know that, if we look down from our precarious balance in all we’ve taken on, we will surely fall.

In a rare moment, I slowed down enough one day to pull from the shelf near my desk a book other than a textbook. It was an old favorite of mine: Maurice Brooks’ book, The Appalachians. It opened effortlessly to a page marked by a pressed plant: pennyroyal from back home–from a place, a time and a personal identity I could barely remember.

I lifted the flattened sprig from between the pages, and crushed a small whorl of drab brown flowers between my fingers, and inhaled, and was undone. How fully and effortlessly it carried me back to place I had made myself pretend had never existed.

So often back home in the Virginia we’d left perhaps forever, I had secretly plucked the dry inverted candelabra of a plant from a stony bank of a favorite trail and later hidden in my cupped hands, and stuck it under one of the kids’ noses. “What is it?” I asked them, pop-test fashion.

They always responded with the name of a bird or salamander or such, just to pretend they couldn’t be bothered to remember such silly lore. But they remembered: the sense of smell and power of memory will see to that. And I remembered as I put the pressed plant back between the pages of that book with tears in my eyes.

So for you, should you discover it now that you have seen it, this plant may offer only a pleasant aromatic instant. For me, Pennyroyal embodies the southern mountains in its chemistry and its magic, and this is just part of the thousand words in the worth of this simple picture.

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2 thoughts on “Pennyroyal: The Smell of Winter”

  1. Your beautiful description of your relationship with pennyroyal reminded me that I recently read that we’re all born with synasthesia.

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