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.

Wider Circles

Image copyright Fred First This may seem a small accomplishment to some, but the fact that Slow Road is now available via is a major milestone for my little project. The book is also on Barnes and Noble’s webpage, and others, perhaps.

This opens up a new means of getting the book before readers outside southwest Virginia even while I’ve only been reaching that audience in some small and limited way for about eight months at this point.

However, being qualified as a POD book, Slow Road will not routinely be shelved in the Shopping Mall Big Box Book Stores stores for people to pick up, peruse, and purchase. And of course, Amazon is all virtual, and the book will only be found by folks guided to the site by connections with other similar books, by tags, key words and getting the book’s site up from the low end of the rankings of the gazillions of books offered there.

Here’s where I would be most appreciative of your help.

Both Amazon and B&N welcome reader reviews. This would be especially easy to do for those of you who have in the past months been kind enough to write a short review of the book on your blogs–a matter of cut and paste. Please consider doing this, won’t you?

A thousand people have the book now. A dozen nice reviews that also mention other similar books would do wonders to make Slow Road Home visible to a wider readership.

So many of you have been a part of this sojourn since the early days. Thanks for hanging with me this far, and for spreading the word as many of you have done to your book clubs, family circles, workplaces and local bookstores. Please continue to do so as I am preparing my spring and summer calendar and would love to pencil in 4-5 engagements per month within 100 miles of home.

I do look forward to what lies ahead. If Slow Road can reach a little self-sustaining momentum via online sales, I will be able to focus more on some of the other things I’m excited about–both new writing and photography and the marriage of both. Perhaps more about that to come later this week.

And lastly, let me mention that if you want a first edition, fewer than 100 copies remain upstairs in the Very Back Room! Don’t delay! And a reminder: the book and a pack of Fragments Notecards (see Fragments sidebar) are still available for $25.

Review Slow Road Home at

Review Slow Road Home at Barnes and Noble

Trusted Space: Monday, January 15 Open House

Image copyright Rob Paterson“Everybody’s unhappy about the weather, but nobody’s doing anything about it.”

The ironic humor of this old nugget, of course, is that we know the forces that create weather patterns are quite beyond our control.

Some people believe the same thing about other aspects of our modern human existance: that this is simply the way things are and we’ll accept this bad weather of our culture, put on another coat, hide ourselves indoors and suffer through.

Rob Paterson thinks we can and should do something about the weather–about the ill winds that blow through our hospitals and corporations, our families and neighborhoods, and the way we think about growth and progress and community.

Where we shelter from this storm and grow whole again is in what Rob calls Trusted Space.

He will build the case that together, flowing with and not against nature’s rhythms and currents, we are about to change the way we live–the way we MUST live together–if we are to make it to the other side of the crippling fog of discouragement and collective confusion that typifies so much of modern western culture.

I’m first to admit I only know a small fragment of what Rob is prepared to tell us. But I must say, I think it will be an enriching tale to come for all us “hobbits” who participate in this epic as he unfolds if for us. And I know I am both honored and excited to be able to help in some small way by providing the photographic imagery to Rob’s Trusted Space as we move in and through it over the coming months.

Please join us.