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.


image copyright Fred First
Ann and I both noticed it as we rounded the curve of the pasture headed back toward the house in our morning walk: the old apple tree is leaning more than it has been. The hollow trunk gives way, its branches like arms reach toward Nameless Creek, as if in prayer, lifted up even as the old tree slowly lies down to die.

Underfoot Dog

image copyright Fred First
“Will want to be involved in all family activities” is the way Labs were described to us when we researched the possibility of getting our first one back in the early eighties. Oh how terribly right that species description was.

Sometimes, the togetherness is inspired by the hope of a dropped crumb or offered morsel from the kitchen counter (favorites: broccoli “trunks”, cabbage wedges and plain old dry dog biscuits). But more often than not, these dogs just must be whereever you are. And doing whatever it is that you are doing.

Yesterday, on a cold, blustery, not-so-good-for-photography kind of day, I worked for a while on the woodpile near the house, bringing armloads to store in the woodring and box on the back porch. The dog matched me one for one, each of my trips resulting in another odd piece that he selected for his own wood pile in the grass by the walkway.

At the end of the day, I had an armload of Tsuga-wood–smaller pieces, mostly (but he sometimes selects uncut lengths six or more feet long!) for the small stove in the family room.

If I could just teach him how to use that chain saw…

Wimpy Winter

image copyright Fred First

No, this isn’t from THIS so-called winter. We did get a skiff of snow yesterday, and there might be a trace of white this morning when the sun comes up. But so far, even though we’re 200% of normal moisture for the year, it hasn’t been in the form of ice or snow this time ’round. I was just wandering through my image archives (wondering how to make room on the hard drive for larger images to come) and liked this one.

Air Time
Thanks to Wilma Synder for reviewing Slow Road in her regular About Books segment on Wytheville Radio Station WXBX this Thursday. You can read her short review here.

If you have a Nikon camera (which the movie narrator pronounces Knee-Cone, I suppose, in the more Japanese-correct way) you’ll want to stop by and watch the tutorial that may introduce you to features of your camera you’ve forgotten about or never really understood. Their Digitutor (after you get past the name that conjures up all sorts of images for me) is really quite helpful for newbies like I will be to the D200, which by the way, arrives TODAY!

Did you hear about this November (but only recently widely public) UFO sighting at Chicago’s O’Hare airport? This BlogCritics writer wonders what gives with the failure to produce definitive answers, or to even ask the questions.

Print As Needed
My choice (thanks, Bob) to go with digital printing as my option for future SRH needs has given me the advantage of being able to have books available when needed without depleting my business bank account. So, I’ve managed to work on that outcome instead by ordering the camera and lens and letting the photography take center-stage, outlay-wise. Here’s a good overview of the economics of Print on Demand for any of you considering getting your book between covers.

Self-cleaning underwear?
Knew a guy in college who, instead of being bothered by washing his skivvies, simply gave them a spritz of Lysol every week or so. This clip is for him:

“Self-cleaning fabrics could revolutionize the sport apparel industry. The technology, created by scientists working for the U.S. Air Force, has already been used to create t-shirts and underwear that can be worn hygenically for weeks without washing.

The new technology attaches nanoparticles to clothing fibers using microwaves. Then, chemicals that can repel water, oil and bacteria are directly bound to the nanoparticles. These two elements combine to create a protective coating on the fibers of the material.

This coating both kills bacteria, and forces liquids to bead and run off.”

Gravity and The Flow of Things

image copyright Fred First
I left the feet of the tripod unmoved on the sandy bar beside Nameless Creek where yesterday’s image was taken. Turned ninety degrees, the lens pointed downstream to follow the flow of spring water south. Just beyond where the creek disappears in the middle of this image, it will curve gently to the left following the edge of the pasture back toward the house, then on north and east to join first Goose Creek before passing across our neighbor’s place, then Bottom Creek just beyond the Floyd County line. Together, they form the South Fork of the Roanoke River.

Crossing our little creek in my green rubber boots today, I stepped in water that last night seeped through dark crevices in bedrock underground. And a week from now, that same water will flow into the salty Atlantic by way of the James.

Having creeks in our back yard makes me feel a part of this predictable and regular cycle and of never-the-same-river transience and change. I can sit on the creek bank and think on these things for a half hour a few times each week and never tire of it. Where does it come from? Where does it go: time, memory, and Nameless Creek?

Finding My Way

Image copyright Fred FirstI have a place I hope to go and a vague map of how to get there, but I need your help.

Many people have been disappointed that Slow Road Home does not include the images–either based on their expectations from knowing Fragments, or to more casual browsers at places like my recent winery book table, seeing the full-color cover and sadly finding no color inside.

Whatever comes next in the way of printed matter will include color images. Now just exactly what form that will take is where I need some feedback. And I’m in the very early stages of this process so don’t even know what to tell you is on the menu. I do have some early ideas though.

Of course the images will come from Goose Creek mostly, from Floyd County exclusively. And there will be text that either seeks out an image after being written, or more likely, that springs from the images once they are brought home to be contemplated–much in the way I have been taking “ordinary” landscapes during the past couple of weeks and saying a few words about the where and the so-what of them (even though the writing is not terribly polished or for a book audience.)

The color-image book would also go back and select a few of the Slow Road pieces that already have images from my archives that I’ve used to illustrate those pieces in my “photomemoir” presentation.

It might be arranged seasonally, where one option for a part of such an arrangement would be to have 4 to 6 set camera points (here at home) with images taken from that exact camera position in each of the four seasons.

Another way to organize would be topically by chapters: the creek, the dog, the woods, the barn, nature, etc. (The image with this post, by the way, was taken facing south along the creek from just down on the creek from the place where this image you saw a few days ago was taken. Tomorrow, a view NORTH along Nameless Creek from the same tripod position.)

The book’s images and words should to tell a story, reach some destination, leave the reader with a sense of the whole of this little microcosm (both the outer and the author’s inner landscape). I should paint some of myself into the images and the narrative that goes with them. Just how to do that is what I’m thinking a lot about just now.

I just wanted you to know, and to think and feel along with me as I show you little bits of this process here from time to time. There is some kind of method to my haphazard madness–I just have to find out what that it is all about.