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.

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?

It Was a Very Good Year

When I was fifty eight…

No, I’ll stifle my first impulse to write my own verse to this old song. But I have given no small thought and reflection here lately to the events of the past year–remembering mostly while driving, my mind wandering its own roads with hands on autopilot.

I’ll spare you the long list of personal victories and defeats of 2006, but say only that thankfully there seem to have been more of the former than the latter. I suppose it is no great surprise that the most tangible goal accomplished, a material embodiment of a resolution kept, is the book. Most everything in it was already written this time last year, but getting it finally done, between covers and delivered is certainly one large milestone on the greater sweep of recent years.

We look back on things accomplished now and realize, had we not done that then (like undertaking the restoration of this old house, for instance, when we were 51) we never would have been able to pull it off today. Portals of possibility open briefly, and we step through them, or hang back, and the die is cast.

What windows to potential change for the better will come along in 2007? And will we be receptive, responsive, and willing to do what it takes to make them realities?

But now the days grow short
I’m in the autumn of the year
And now I think of my life as vintage wine
from fine old kegs
from the brim to the dregs
And it poured sweet and clear
It was a very good year

The Party Balloon

The orange balloon pulled at the thin pink ribbon that tethered it to the green mailbox, the party done and nothing to celebrate.

The sun rose, lighting just the tops of tallest trees and I untied the child’s toy from its hitch, moved back into the clearing to let it go where it would with space to rise free of the branches of maples and poplars by the house.

There had been the barest whisper of wind on the banks beside the creek at first light and from there, the orange teardrop rose vertically, slipping gracefully through the bare limbs outside the back door, drifting north up behind the little white house on a gentle slant into rising sun–itself an orange ball with a blue planet tethered to it.

Fifty feet above the silver metal of the roof, invisible waves pushed down, tossed and jostled the thin rim of elemental air in the undertoe of the surging wave, lurching, twisting, uncertain which way to go–pulled, tossed, lifted and swirled, the ribbon traced the erratic scribble of an alien hand.

At 100 feet, the golden dot was released, let go from the hold of the chaotic swirl that bedeviled its rise, found hints of the persistent northerlies, still bobbing and lurching a little along what would be its final course southeast.

At 200 feet, the struggle calmed above the level of the upwind ridge, a barrier like a snow fence that drops winds down our valley like drifts, crazy, erratic and weak.

And at 250 feet the tiny speck of gold lifted above the rim of our hollow, into the sun, out of the turbulence, its tail gone stiff behind it, rushing with certainty, driven above the bowl that holds home by the great blow of arctic air pushed heavy down from Canada.

Then on, no wavering, no ripples, no looking back. And at the rim of the distant ridge, it cleared the treetops as I knew it would and disappeared.