What’s That Smell?

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

It was raining. I could smell it on the air that penetrated my dreams as it floated through my bedroom window this morning. I knew it even before I heard the misty raindrops’ gentle flutter on the leaves, the sound that I so often mistake for the chatter of birds—a huge flock—waking in the oak outside.

The scents always snag me when I walk out the door in the morning, scents so numerous, changing as I make my way down the path toward the stream, scents I can’t even begin to evoke on paper. They’re so much more than the words: floral, fecund, fresh…

Today the morning smells remind me of times when I have spent the night in a tent and woken up in the woods. They make me feel free somehow. They make me feel adventurous. They make me ridiculously happy. They make me think I must pull my tent from the attic and put it up in the back yard, just so I can wake up outdoors and smell the morning.

Because there’s something so indescribably magical that floats in this morning air. Something that pulls me. Something I long for. Something that never seems to be satisfied. Something that makes me feel blessed.

I don’t always heed this pull, though. In fact, in the last little while, I haven’t surrendered to any of the urgings of the ineffable. But here I am now, back on track—most days at least—walking in the woods in the morning, rain or shine. And, oh, it smells divine!

Aliens in the Woods

On my way down the path this morning, I thought about that conversation I had at the Mexican restaurant not long ago with friends, a neighbor family. Dave said he had decided to wage war against the invasives in our woodland neighborhood.

I’m with him. I’ve worked hard to rid my property of ailanthus and honeysuckle and autumn olive and poison ivy and grapevines gone wild. I’ve yanked, chopped, and yes, poisoned these invasives and have achieved a reasonable amount of success on my little half acre.

Japanese stiltgrass still plagues my property, though. And while I enjoy wine berries on my granola freshly picked in season, these briary bushes are, nonetheless, trying to take over my lawn and gardens. And just beyond that human demarcation of ownership, poison ivy is threatening, reminding me that this imagined truce we have—you stay in the woods and out of my yard, I’ve told these threatening leaves, and I won’t whack at you—is tenuous.

Dave has done this on his several acres at the top of the hill too, but he wants to do more. He wants to extend this war beyond his borders. He wants to eradicate these species, get rid of them from the entire neighborhood.

So here we are, this bunch of Quakers, sitting around eating burritos and quesadillas, talking about annihilating aliens. Going to war. It’s ironic.

Now sitting next to the stream, deer have appeared. They snort behind me, trying, I imagine, to rid my scent from their nostrils in this, their native habitat. These are creatures I would also like to get rid of, I suggested to Dave, railing against these Disney-cute critters for chewing away all the flowers on my azalea bushes and hating them for eating that one, most exquisite, most hopeful showy orchid I stumbled upon in these woods last week.

Dave tells me he has considered getting a bow. He says it’s not illegal to hunt on your own property. Not with a bow. And who would know?

But this song is going through my head: Gonna lay down my sword and shield…study war no more. And I wonder how far this Quaker peace testimony extends. Are we obliged to make peace with plants and animals too? Is there a way to negotiate with these species, talk to them like I did with the poison ivy? Is there some other way to come closer to balance with olive and kudzu and bittersweet and white-tailed deer, these forms of life that are changing our native landscape into a place that feels destroyed by foreigners?

Which leads, I now see, to the quagmire of immigration.

Oh, Lord! I do so love the song of the wood thrush in the woods in the morning!

Showy Orchids in the Woods

Showy orchid - cropI have started to come to the woods in the morning again. It’s been a long time since I wandered down that worn path to the stream where I sit and soak in the sounds, the smells, the sensations of the woods. It feels good to be back in the out-of-doors in the spring. The air is finally warm, and so sweet I can taste it. A wood thrush sings from a branch nearby. The sound of the stream is like music too. This is my happy place.

Spring has been a long time in coming this year. It snowed in mid-April—eight inches!—and the temperature hasn’t gotten much above 50 degrees. As I cleared the winter detritus from the path on my way down to the stream, I scanned the ground for signs of spring wildflowers, though I didn’t expect any; it feels too early, too cold, not quite spring enough for spring wildflowers.

So I was shocked when I rounded the bend in the trail and, right there next to the path, there was a clump of oval basal leaves and a stalk with lavender and white flowers. A showy orchid!! It’s the thing I long to see every spring, this rare, beautiful vision. It made me ridiculously happy!

This flower is endangered, which makes me feel very lucky that there are at least a few specimens in my woods. In an environment that is threatened by climate change and invasive species and other destructive human interference, even this one, lone plant—the only flowering orchid I could find—gives me hope.

So imagine my horror when, three days later, I returned to the woods and found that this thing that brought such joy, this one remaining orchid in my woods, was gone, eaten by a deer! That herd of white tails that roam this housing development, eating away all of the azalea blooms in my garden, the English ivy and hostas and daylilies and impatiens and coleus and even the mint in a pot on my back patio last summer, these voracious herbivores are my nemesis. And now they have taken that one ecstatic blossom, that one hopeful sign that Mother Nature is still holding on. I was devastated beyond words.

Smelling a Skunk in the Woods

I smelled a skunk today.

skunkI was sitting there in the woods staring at the water sluicing over a little rock slide in the stream, bubbles forming in the eddy at the bottom, swirling in circles, joining together, then—pop!—disappearing. I was musing about the Jack-in-the-pulpit that grew next to the path, how I’d seen its brilliant red berries there amid the detritus of the forest floor long into the fall until they were finally buried in leaves and I decided not to keep excavating them. Perhaps the poor plant did need to go to sleep.

Then I became aware of that particular piquant scent.

I looked around, but saw nothing. Which doesn’t mean there was nothing there, of course; the forest has a way of hiding things, I know. There’s an opening among the roots of the fallen tulip poplar next to where I sit. It’s possible, I suppose, that someone was hiding out in there for the winter.

More likely the critter came by in the night and left its calling card, I thought. Maybe that was who left those wet prints on the Bridge to Terabithia that I noticed as I crossed that plank over the marshy spring this morning. Maybe it was just passing through, long gone by now. The scent wasn’t so strong really, was it?

The metaphor of smelling a skunk stuck with me, though. As I watched those bubbles dancing in the eddy, that odor made me think about intuition, how too often I don’t pay attention to those nagging feelings that prickle in the back of my mind, thoughts that something is not quite right here, not what it seems, not what I want. I thought about how too often I have ignored that voice inside, found ways to explain away the unwanted notions. And I thought about how often hindsight has reminded me that perhaps I should have paid more attention.

And then, there in the woods, that scent wafted by again.

I couldn’t see anything, couldn’t identify the source, couldn’t rationalize this experience with some observable fact. But I knew I needed to leave, needed to get out of this place that might suddenly turn ugly, knew it in that deep, intuitive part of me.

As I climbed back up the path, across those planks I call the Bridge to Terabithia, past that place where the Jack-in-the-pulpit will grow again come spring, I was grateful for that smelly critter, for that tangible reminder to listen when my gut says pay attention.