Fire-bleeding leaves of the chokecherry tree in the late-day sun.
I was too slow in getting my camera to take a picture from the
ground, so I had to climb the tree with my camera to get these
images – and nearly lost my reading glasses (the LCD is too small
for me to see clearly, otherwise) on the way down.
Back in my office, I still smell the tree bark roughed into my skin
(and no doubt the tree still smells my skin roughed into it).
When I was growing up I loved climbing trees. It wasn’t just getting
to the top, though that was quite a thrill when the tree was tall
enough, and the top swayed enough. I also loved the feeling of
being close to the trunk in the midst of all the branches, hidden
from below in all the leaves. I felt lighter and more graceful off
the ground, drinking in the perfume of wood and sap, and the
breath of a thousand leaves…
I bet it would be possible to identify trees – living trees –
just by their smell. The difference between a jack pine and a
sugar maple would be obvious, of course, but I know a sugar maple
and a red oak don’t smell the same, and maybe cottonwood and elm,
too. If I got really good at it, maybe I could tell a silver maple
from a sugar maple, or a red oak from a bur.
The reason we don’t read about the smells of trees in any
identification guide is that we don’t have a good vocabulary
for describing smells – and no abstractions: Anything that has a
smell smells like something else. There is no smell detached from
its source, in the way that the color red is independent of any
particular object that is red.
But that lack of vocabulary, that lack of abstraction, could be a
good thing, too. Because of it, smells call for an intimacy that
sight alone cannot give, and reach a part of us beyond words,
where they can stay, untouched for years by our busy, restless,
conscious mind. No wonder smells evoke such strong memories.
No wonder they come back so pure.