The February 10th newsletter of Chapter 16, a website celebrating Tennessee literature, was titled Paying Attention. Editor Maria Browning writes that, to her mind, February is “the most fickle month of the year in Tennessee,” with shifts between the stirrings of spring and days of snow (or, worse, ice).
She continues, “Wardrobe challenges notwithstanding, this is a wonderful time to pay attention to the ever-dynamic natural world.”
Her suggestion for some inspiration led me to read “Eleven Ways of Smelling a Tree” by Sewanee writer David George Haskell. As Browning notes, the piece at Emergence Magazine is a collaborative effort, with musician Katherine Lehman and art by Studio Airport.
I’ve recommended Haskell’s The Forest Unseen in the past as a delightful book written by a scientist with the soul of a poet. “Eleven Ways of Smelling a Tree” has the same observational mix and magic. Haskell opens his piece with an ode to the American Basswood.
“Harlem, New York City
We crack the windows on summer’s first warm days. I taste diesel smoke, acid and oily. The fumes rise from the bus stop directly under the fourth-floor apartment. The odor sinks to my gut, a thin sheen. The ice-cream truck across the street runs its generator all day, into the night. Its exhalations cling high in my nose, a bitter sinus-cloud. Then, one morning in June, honey and wild rose reach through the window. Combustion odors flee. A hint of lemon rind rolls close behind.
All week, the street air is drunk on basswood flowers. The knots inside us loosen.
The tree is a giant, rooted in a roadside park across four lanes of gunning engines from our window….Herbalists and biochemists agree: tinctures and teas made from the flowers or leaves of basswood and its sibling, linden, soothe our harried nerves. The tree lays a calming green hand on anxiety’s brow, tranquilizes the neural pathways of pain, and weaves its aromas into the fractures in our central nervous systems. We breathe the tree, no longer dis-eased….
Another favorite among the eleven is Haskell’s description of the Ginkgo* (Sewanee, Tennessee; Vintage: circa 1930):
“The tree, a giant ginkgo planted in the early twentieth century, holds up a middle finger to college quadrangle aesthetics. I love it for its defiance. Here is messy fecundity on full display, an affront to the mown, suppressed conformity of the tidy campus lawns….
As I walk under the tree, I think, too, of the melted stone and metal of Hiroshima. The first and often the only life to grow back after the nuclear blast were ginkgo trees at the temples. Deep roots and physiological resilience carried the trees through a calamity that killed all else. Ginkgo’s ability to withstand assault also accounts for the tree’s presence on polluted city streets. The tree weathers the chemical and physical assaults of urban life and is a favorite of urban horticulturalists. Ginkgo is now mostly a species of the street, its roots sunk into sidewalk openings in Tokyo, New York, and Beijing….”
This gift is full of wonderful surprises. (Have you ever thought about the tree you are smelling in your gin and tonic?) Do yourself a favor, and click through to experience Haskell’s work. And when you finish, take the time to click through to “The Aromas of Trees: Five Practices,” which, as Maria Browning notes, will help deepen your own observations.
More to come…
*Also check out the blog post from the Sewanee Herbarium on “When a Ginkgo is No Longer a Ginkgo.” I believe you will enjoy the transformation seen on campus each year.
Installment #21 of The Gap Year Chronicles
Image of the Ginkgo tree after it sheds its leaves at the University of the South at Sewanee (photo credit: Sewanee Herbarium)