Drinking Monarch Nectar, AKA Milkweed (Asclepias), Essay 12 of #52essays2017

On the day of the hydrosols tasting with Cathy Skipper and Florian Birkmayer (offered through New York Institute of Aromatherapy), my daily hallucinations were painted blue, an electric blue that did not want to let go its hold on my visionscape. In recent years, I’ve found that strong scents can change my visual palette almost immediately, but somehow that blue day would not give way except for the neon orange of the orange blossom and then the glorious yellow orange of the milkweed that burst through towards the end of the evening.

The way it worked was that each new hydrosol was spritzed into our wine glasses and mixed with a little filtered water. Then we all smelled and sipped and free-associated, allowing the mystery hydrosol to elicit thoughts, feelings, images and yes colors too.

To be honest, it was hard for me not to feel a little competitive. As a blind person, I want my nose to be best, but, as a person new to aromatic aesthetics, I realize this is ridiculous. For several of the hydrosols, I was sure what they were and I was correct, for a bunch, I had ideas of what they were, but having been derived from plants I’d never met before–black copal and palo santo for example–I was nowhere close, and I hate to be wrong!

After the first three I finally relaxed and allowed my mind to wander a bit and not get too hung up about being right. One cool moment was guessing #8 Beeswax correctly, but I had an advantage since, being enrolled in Skipper’s Hydrosols course at The School for Aromatic Studies, I knew that such a thing was possible. That was certainly one of my favorites, as it exhibited a strong distinction between its taste and aroma–the smell reminded me of the spirit of the plants that sustain the hive, while the flavor tasted of the building material itself, a glossy waxy sensation that was almost chewable.

Birkmayer encouraged us to think synesthetically, which in the case of #9 penetrated and offered a joyous blast of yellow orange. I did not know what it was, but I liked it. I was so entranced that I neglected my notes, so unfortunately I cannot refer back to words from the moment to explain the flavor, also it was number nine, so Alabaster–who was gracious enough to accompany me on this odd little tasting adventure–and I were a bit slap happy. We’re not yet persuaded by the concept of vibrational aromatherapy, but our heads were surely buzzing by that point in the evening!

For some of the hydrosols, we were encouraged to imagine an animal. People were not guessing the correct animal for this one and so Birkmayer mentioned butterflies and then I knew and said, “Milkweed?” And I felt justified in all my orange and yellow associations.

The common name milkweed derives from its milky nectar that can trap some nonnative insects, but
Linnaeus, that taxonomist of all taxonomists, apparently named the genus asclepias after Asclepius, the Greek god of healing. Why? I wonder. Milkweed is a new world plant, likely brought back to Sweden by one of his students flung out to all corners of the world to collect new species for Linnaeus to inspect and name. Perhaps he did so because he learned that some natives of the New World used some species for healing, but so many plants have medicinal uses, this seems too easy an answer.

Asclepias speciosa, from which our hydrosol was distilled, is also known as “showy milkweed” because of its flamboyant flowers. It is the special food of the monarch butterfly.

The recognition of the monarch nectar brought me back to the Santa Cruz grove where the monarchs winter. I wrote a poem about seeing those butterflies, which I often visited during my years at UCSC (Go Slugs!).

How many times did I take my friends and family to the little Eucalyptus grove by the ocean, only to be disappointed by the cold and nearly inert clusters of monarchs clinging to the trees for warmth, but for a few flying bravely. The foreign eucalyptus grove and the beach at Natural Bridges are an easy walk but worlds apart.

Once, with a forgotten companion, I saw them fall from the sky mating in the warm afternoon sun. They dropped in our hands and flew apart and I believe it was all not a dream, though the memory has that quality of unreality that sometimes makes me doubt.

 

*This is essay 12 of #52essays2017, written with all four senses and remembered sight. You can read #11 “Melissa Officinalis (or Lemon Balm): Booze and Botany and monasteries Oh My!” here*

 

INWARD VISIONS: Helen Keller Defends her Sense of Beauty

[These thoughts on aesthetics, understanding, poetry, beauty and the senses come from Keller’s 1908 book The World I Live In. “Inward Visions” is Chapter 9. You can read Chapter 6 on Smell HERE. The text has been hyperlinked, gently edited for apparent scanning errors and the odd British spellings Americanized.]

Publicity still from the 1919 film Deliverance about Keller's childhood. The fictional Helen is at far left of the group and her three playmates are gathered behind her. They look on as Helen holds a kitten; several other kittens can be seen amid a pile of straw at left.

ACCORDING to all art, all nature, all coherent human thought, we know that order, proportion, form, are essential elements of beauty. Now order, proportion, and form, are palpable to the touch. But beauty and rhythm are deeper than sense. They are like love and faith. They spring out of a spiritual process only slightly dependent upon sensations. Order, proportion, form, cannot generate in the mind the abstract idea of beauty, unless there is already a soul intelligence to breathe life into the elements. Many persons, having perfect eyes, are blind in their perceptions. Many persons, having perfect ears, are emotionally deaf. Yet these are the very ones who dare to set limits to the vision of those who, lacking a sense or two, have will, soul, passion, imagination. Faith is a mockery if it teaches us not that we may construct a world unspeakably more complete and beautiful than the material world. And I, too, may construct my better world, for I am a child of God, an inheritor of a fragment of the Mind that created all worlds.

 

There is a consonance of all things, a blending of all that we know about the material world and the spiritual. It consists for me of all the impressions, vibrations, heat, cold, taste, smell, and the sensations which these convey to the mind, infinitely combined, interwoven with associated ideas and acquired knowledge. No thoughtful person will believe that what I said about the meaning of footsteps is strictly true of mere jolts and jars. It is an array of the spiritual in certain natural elements, tactual beats, and an acquired knowledge of physical habits and moral traits of highly organized human beings. What would odors signify if they were not associated with the time of the year, the place I live in, and the people I know?

 

The result of such a blending is sometimes a discordant trying of strings far removed from a melody, very far from a symphony. (For the benefit of those who must be reassured, I will say that I have felt a musician tuning his violin, that I have read about a symphony, and so have a fair intellectual perception of my metaphor.) But with training and experience the faculties gather up the stray notes and combine them into a full, harmonious whole. If the person who accomplishes this task is peculiarly gifted, we call him a poet. The blind and the deaf are not great poets, it is true. Yet now and again you find one deaf and blind who has attained to his royal kingdom of beauty.

 

I have a little volume of poems by a deaf-blind lady, Madame Bertha Galeron. Her poetry has versatility of thought. Now it is tender and sweet, now full of tragic passion and the sternness of destiny. Victor Hugo called her “La Grande Voyante.” She has written several plays, two of which have been acted in Paris. The French Academy has crowned her work. The infinite wonders of the universe are revealed to us in exact measure as we are capable of receiving them. The keenness of our vision depends not on how much we can see, but on how much we feel. Nor yet does mere knowledge create beauty. Nature sings her most exquisite songs to those who love her. She does not unfold her secrets to those who come only to gratify their desire of analysis, to gather facts, but to those who see in her manifold phenomena suggestions of lofty, delicate sentiments.

 

 

 

Am I to be denied the use of such adjectives as “freshness” and “sparkle,” “dark” and “gloomy”? I have walked in the fields at early morning. I have felt a rose-bush laden with dew and fragrance. I have felt the curves and graces of my kitten at play. I have known the sweet, shy ways of little children. I have known the sad opposites of all these, a ghastly touch picture. Remember, I have sometimes travelled over a dusty road as far as my feet could go. At a sudden turn I have stepped upon starved, ignoble weeds, and reaching out my hands, I have touched a fair tree out of which a parasite had taken the life like a vampire. I have touched a pretty bird whose soft wings hung limp, whose little heart beat no more. I have wept over the feebleness and deformity of a child, lame, or born blind, or, worse still, mindless. If I had the genius of Thomson, I, too, could depict a “City of Dreadful Night” from mere touch sensations. From contrasts so irreconcilable can we fail to form an idea of beauty and know surely when we meet with loveliness?

 

Here is a sonnet eloquent of a blind man’s power of vision:

 

 

THE MOUNTAIN TO THE PINE

 

Thou tall, majestic monarch of the wood,

That standest where no wild vines dare to creep,

Men call thee old, and say that thou hast stood

A century upon my rugged steep;

Yet unto me thy life is but a day,

When I recall the things that I have seen,–

The forest monarchs that have passed away

Upon the spot where first I saw thy green;

For I am older than the age of man,

Or all the living things that crawl or creep,

Or birds of air, or creatures of the deep;

I was the first dim outline of God’s plan:

Only the waters of the restless sea

And the infinite stars in heaven are old to me.

 

I am glad my friend Mr. Stedman knew that poem while he was making his Anthology, for knowing it, so fine a poet and critic could not fail to give it a place in his treasure-house of American poetry. The poet, Mr. Clarence Hawkes, has been blind since childhood; yet he finds in nature hints of combinations for his mental pictures. Out of the knowledge and impressions that come to him he constructs a masterpiece which hangs upon the walls of his thought. And into the poet’s house come all the true spirits of the world.

 

It was a rare poet who thought of the mountain as “the first dim outline of God’s plan.” That is the real wonder of the poem, and not that a blind man should speak so confidently of sky and sea. Our ideas of the sky are an accumulation of touch-glimpses, literary allusions, and the observations of others, with an emotional blending of all. My face feels only a tiny portion of the atmosphere; but I go through continuous space and feel the air at every point, every instant. I have been told about the distances from our earth to the sun, to the other planets, and to the fixed stars. I multiply a thousand times the utmost height and width that my touch compasses, and thus I gain a deep sense of the sky’s immensity.

 

Move me along constantly over water, water, nothing but water, and you give me the solitude, the vastness of ocean which fills the eye. I have been in a little sail-boat on the sea, when the rising tide swept it toward the shore. May I not understand the poet’s figure: “The green of spring overflows the earth like a tide”? I have felt the flame of a candle blow and flutter in the breeze. May I not, then, say: “Myriads of fireflies flit hither and thither in the dew-wet grass like little fluttering tapers”?

 

Combine the endless space of air, the sun’s warmth, the clouds that are described to my understanding spirit, the frequent breaking through the soil of a brook or the expanse of the wind-ruffled lake, the tactual undulation of the hills, which I recall when I am far away from them, the towering trees upon trees as I walk by them, the bearings that I try to keep while others tell me the directions of the various points of the scenery, and you will begin to feel surer of my mental landscape. The utmost bound to which my thought will go with clearness is the horizon of my mind. From this horizon I imagine the one which the eye marks.

 

Touch cannot bridge distance,–it is fit only for the contact of surfaces,–but thought leaps the chasm. For this reason I am able to use words descriptive of objects distant from my senses. I have felt the rondure of the infant’s tender form. I can apply this perception to the landscape and to the far-off hills.

Helen Keller on Smell, The Fallen Angel

[“SMELL, THE FALLEN ANGEL” is Chapter SIX of The World I Live In (originally published in 1908), a magnificent book that tells of sensations beyond seeing and hearing. It is also the book from which I took the heartbreaking preface that ends Helen Keller Tries To Tell You Her Story. This has been gently edited for apparent scanning errors and the odd British spellings Americanized. 

 

Helen Keller, with full dark hair and wearing a long dark dress, her face in partial profile, sits in a simple wooden chair. A locket hangs from a slender chain around her neck; in her hands is a magnolia, its large white flower surrounded by dark leaves.
Helen Keller, Los Angeles Times, 1920.

FOR some inexplicable reason the sense of smell does not hold the high position it deserves among its sisters. There is something of the fallen angel about it. When it woos us with woodland scents and beguiles us with the fragrance of lovely gardens, it is admitted frankly to our discourse. But when it gives us warning of something noxious in our vicinity, it is treated as if the demon had got the upper hand of the angel, and is relegated to outer darkness, punished for its faithful service. It is most difficult to keep the true significance of words when one discusses the prejudices of mankind, and I find it hard to give an account of odor-perceptions which shall be at once dignified and truthful.

In my experience smell is most important, and I find that there is high authority for the nobility of the sense which we have neglected and disparaged. It is recorded that the Lord commanded that incense be burnt before him continually with a sweet savor. I doubt if there is any sensation arising from sight more delightful than the odors which filter through sun-warmed, wind-tossed branches, or the tide of scents which swells, subsides, rises again wave on wave, filling the wide world with invisible sweetness. A whiff of the universe makes us dream of worlds we have never seen, recalls in a flash entire epochs of our dearest experience. I never smell daisies without living over again the ecstatic mornings that my teacher and I spent wandering in the fields, while I learned new words and the names of things. Smell is a potent wizard that transports us across a thousand miles and all the years we have lived. The odor of fruits wafts me to my Southern home, to my childish frolics in the peach orchard. Other odors, instantaneous and fleeting, cause my heart to dilate joyously or contract with remembered grief. Even as I think of smells, my nose is full of scents that start awake sweet memories of summers gone and ripening grain fields far away.

The faintest whiff from a meadow where the new-mown hay lies in the hot sun displaces the here and the now. I am back again in the old red barn. My little friends and I are playing in the haymow. A huge mow it is, packed with crisp, sweet hay, from the top of which the smallest child can reach the straining rafters. In their stalls beneath are the farm animals. Here is Jerry, unresponsive, unbeautiful Jerry, crunching his oats like a true pessimist, resolved to find his feed not good–at least not so good as it ought to be. Again I touch Brownie, eager, grateful little Brownie, ready to leave the juiciest fodder for a pat, straining his beautiful, slender neck for a caress. Nearby stands Lady Belle, with sweet, moist mouth, lazily extracting the sealed-up cordial from timothy and clover, and dreaming of deep June pastures and murmurous streams.

The sense of smell has told me of a coming storm hours before there was any sign of it visible. I notice first a throb of expectancy, a slight quiver, a concentration in my nostrils. As the storm draws nearer, my nostrils dilate the better to receive the flood of earth-odors which seem to multiply and extend, until I feel the splash of rain against my cheek. As the tempest departs, receding farther and farther, the odors fade, become fainter and fainter, and die away beyond the bar of space.

I know by smell the kind of house we enter. I have recognized an old-fashioned country house because it has several layers of odors, left by a succession of families, of plants, perfumes, and draperies.

In the evening quiet there are fewer vibrations than in the daytime, and then I rely more largely upon smell. The sulfuric scent of a match tells me that the lamps are being lighted. Later I note the wavering trail of odor that flits about and disappears. It is the curfew signal; the lights are out for the night.

Out of doors I am aware by smell and touch of the ground we tread and the places we pass. Sometimes, when there is no wind, the odors are so grouped that I know the character of the country, and can place a hayfield, a country store, a garden, a barn, a grove of pines, a farmhouse with the windows open.

The other day I went to walk toward a familiar wood. Suddenly a disturbing odor made me pause in dismay. Then followed a peculiar, measured jar, followed by dull, heavy thunder. I understood the odor and the jar only too well. The trees were being cut down. We climbed the stone wall to the left. It borders the wood which I have loved so long that it seems to be my peculiar possession. But to-day an unfamiliar rush of air and an unwonted outburst of sun told me that my tree friends were gone. The place was empty, like a deserted dwelling. I stretched out my hand. Where once stood the steadfast pines, great, beautiful, sweet, my hand touched raw, moist stumps. All about lay broken branches, like the antlers of stricken deer. The fragrant, piled-up sawdust swirled and tumbled about me. An unreasoning resentment flashed through me at this ruthless destruction of the beauty that I love. But there is no anger, no resentment in nature. The air is equally charged with the odors of life and of destruction, for death equally with growth forever ministers to all-conquering life. The sun shines as ever, and the winds riot through the newly opened spaces. I know that a new forest will spring where the old one stood, as beautiful, as beneficent.

Touch sensations are permanent and definite. Odors deviate and are fugitive, changing in their shades, degrees, and location. There is something else in odor which gives me a sense of distance. I should call it horizon–the line where odor and fancy meet at the farthest limit of scent.

Smell gives me more idea than touch or taste of the manner in which sight and hearing probably discharge their functions. Touch seems to reside in the object touched, because there is a contact of surfaces. In smell there is no notion of relievo [relief], and odor seems to reside not in the object smelt, but in the organ. Since I smell a tree at a distance, it is comprehensible to me that a person sees it without touching it. I am not puzzled over the fact that he receives it as an image on his retina without relievo, since my smell perceives the tree as a thin sphere with no fullness or content. By themselves, odors suggest nothing. I must learn by association to judge from them of distance, of place, and of the actions or the surroundings which are the usual occasions for them, just as I am told people judge from color, light, and sound.

 

From exhalations I learn much about people. I often know the work they are engaged in. The odors of wood, iron, paint, and drugs cling to the garments of those that work in them. Thus I can distinguish the carpenter from the ironworker, the artist from the mason or the chemist. When a person passes quickly from one place to another I get a scent impression of where he has been–the kitchen, the garden, or the sick-room. I gain pleasurable ideas of freshness and good taste from the odors of soap, toilet water, clean garments, woolen and silk stuffs, and gloves.

I have not, indeed, the all-knowing scent of the hound or the wild animal. None but the halt and the blind need fear my skill in pursuit; for there are other things besides water, stale trails, confusing cross tracks to put me at fault. Nevertheless, human odors are as varied and capable of recognition as hands and faces. The dear odors of those I love are so definite, so unmistakable, that nothing can quite obliterate them. If many years should elapse before I saw an intimate friend again, I think I should recognize his odor instantly in the heart of Africa, as promptly as would my brother that barks.

Once, long ago, in a crowded railway station, a lady kissed me as she hurried by. I had not touched even her dress. But she left a scent with her kiss which gave me a glimpse of her. The years are many since she kissed me. Yet her odor is fresh in my memory.

It is difficult to put into words the thing itself, the elusive person-odor. There seems to be no adequate vocabulary of smells, and I must fall back on approximate phrase and metaphor.

Some people have a vague, unsubstantial odor that floats about, mocking every effort to identify it. It is the will-o’-the-wisp of my olfactive experience. Sometimes I meet one who lacks a distinctive person-scent, and I seldom find such a one lively or entertaining. On the other hand, one who has a pungent odor often possesses great vitality, energy, and vigor of mind.

Masculine exhalations are as a rule stronger, more vivid, more widely differentiated than those of women. In the odor of young men there is something elemental, as of fire, storm, and salt sea. It pulsates with buoyancy and desire. It suggests all things strong and beautiful and joyous, and gives me a sense of physical happiness. I wonder if others observe that all infants have the same scent–pure, simple, undecipherable as their dormant personality. It is not until the age of six or seven that they begin to have perceptible individual odors. These develop and mature along with their mental and bodily powers.

 

What I have written about smell, especially person-smell, will perhaps be regarded as the abnormal sentiment of one who can have no idea of the “world of reality and beauty which the eye perceives.” There are people who are color-blind, people who are tone-deaf. Most people are smell-blind-and-deaf. We should not condemn a musical composition on the testimony of an ear which cannot distinguish one chord from another, or judge a picture by the verdict of a color-blind critic. The sensations of smell which cheer, inform, and broaden my life are not less pleasant merely because some critic who treads the wide, bright pathway of the eye has not cultivated his olfactive sense. Without the shy, fugitive, often unobserved sensations and the certainties which taste, smell, and touch give me, I should be obliged to take my conception of the universe wholly from others. I should lack the alchemy by which I now infuse into my world light, color, and the Protean spark. The sensuous reality which interthreads and supports all the gropings of my imagination would be shattered. The solid earth would melt from under my feet and disperse itself in space. The objects dear to my hands would become formless, dead things, and I should walk among them as among invisible ghosts.