I stand in the midst of the forest, beneath a shower of leaves. It’s as though a treasure chest has been tipped from the sky, spilling its glittering riches. The woodland surface is woven in a pattern of copper and gold, stitched with the sharp shadows of trees. Sunlight pours into the hollows as if they were bowls, filling them until they brim over, pooling about the woods in a deep and mellow glow. I look up into the canopy and it could be a chandelier of lit leaves, swaying from the ceiling with a breeze.
Mistle thrushes rattle through the high branches and a pair of delicate treecreepers climb adjacent trunks, racing each other to their tips. A deep silence takes their place when they’re gone. This solitude of mosses and frayed lichens, of beeches rising high into the sky and fungi fingering slowly through the earth, calls me back every autumn, beckons me from my desk to climb up into its arms and be held there. To be a part of the relinquishing, the letting go. To see the forest shed leaves like flakes of old paint – though a few of them will hang on, stubborn and tenacious as memories, to see out a cold and snowy season alone on the trees.
I breathe in the wild autumn riches. All the smells of the wet and fallen leaves rise like mist off a lake, mingled with the rain-soaked earth, rotting wood slumped in a dell, a glade of dying ferns. They have such a particular and knowable aroma, these autumn woods. A persuasive odour that carries a distinct and melancholy edge. I’m reminded of other autumns by their scent, of heaped leaves and long smoky walks, a collection of unrelated impressions colliding into one. But scent has the capacity to call up stronger, more specific, associations as well.
Whenever I see them, I stop to smell roses, leaning forward to take in all that they hold. And with the first fragrant air that passes into me I’m in a garden with my grandfather. He’s risen from his chair in the house, where he would sit with a newspaper and magnifying glass, eventually pencilling a mysterious x on a grainy image of footballers playing without a ball. I don’t know if he ever won any of the ‘Spot the Ball’ competitions he used to mail in, having taken his time to judge from the position and angle of the players on the pitch the exact place he expected the invisible ball should be, but that didn’t stop him from trying, week after week, to divine the presence of an imperceptible thing. He taps ash from his pipe and shuffles to the garden, where the roses he’s tended and nurtured for years are in bloom, all compressed by the brief English summer into a wild explosion of scent. I stand beside him, and while cars and buses roll past on the busy road, the lingering scent of roses hangs heavy in the air, as invisible and elusive as the ball suspended somewhere in the photograph that my grandfather has folded and tucked in the wing of his arm.
Scents can trigger specific memories, to people and places, moments and events. They can elaborate a complex and immediate shape to distant happenings, sometimes long forgotten and deeply buried. The olfactory bulb, the structure responsible for the perception of odours, is a component of the limbic system, an area of the brain closely associated with memory and feeling. Along with having access to the amygdala, the brain structure which processes emotions, the olfactory bulb is also connected to the hippocampus which, in part, is concerned with associative learning, and crucial to the encoding of memories. In a sense, the olfactory bulb – our immediate cognitive connection to the world of scent – is nested beside the very structures that form the heart of our remembering. Our brains forge a link between a scent and the experience of it, often when we first encounter a particular aroma, a response which becomes conditioned and twined forever in our minds. Which is why so many of our most compelling scent memories return us to our childhoods.
I imagine this neural system as a map, traced with the routes of our remembering. It’s crisscrossed with rough tracks and roads that fan out across the past, the wild byways and overgrown lanes that led us here out of youth. We journey along these paths, spun backwards like a wheel over the accumulated tracery of our time on this planet. Scents bestowing memories; paths bringing our lives back to us.
When I breathe in a salt sea I’m suddenly on a shore with my uncle. Not the smooth and seductive coasts of the Mediterranean, whose scents pull other memories in nets from the depths, but the heaving North Sea, where the smells of seaweed and bladderwrack blend with the raw and briny wash. My brother and I are young, and back from Canada on summer holidays in the English port town where I was born. Uncle Harry has taken us crabbing, searching the vast archipelago of rocks at low tide. In the salt pools brim miniature marine worlds. Creatures caught out by the retreating sea find solace in these pockets of water left behind. There they bide their time, stowing away in remnant shelters to await the returning, rising rush.
We riddle the crabs from dark crevices with fire pokers, unveil them beneath a bloom of green seaweed, scooping them in gloved hands to drop in a bucket where they cluster and crowd at the bottom. Steadily our bucket grows heavier, and my brother and I haul it over the slippery rocks, led on through this exciting, watery world by our uncle, adding to our doomed hoard as we go. Ahead of us, past the next bank of barnacled rocks, we see a shark splayed grey on the sand. It’s still young, only a few feet in length, and bruised purple and blue about its head. Washed up and pounded by the sea against stone; the same sea that sustained it. I watch my Uncle Harry lower a hand to the shark’s side. He touches the creature with only a thumb and three fingers, just like my grandfather when he shows me the roses, both having lost their little fingers in accidents at work, so there’s just a nub at the edge of their hands. I touch the sleek grey skin after him, mimicking what he does, and stare into the shark’s bloody eye.
I’m back in the forest, beneath a sky of leaves. They tumble and float like our experiences, some settling within reach, others rising on a wind to be carried off and never seen again. Summer’s green and unfolding promise is gathered about me in deep reefs, all faded and fallen. I’m reminded of other autumns while I’m here, whole seasons of scattered moments like these leaves in a beech wood, the myriad subtle notes that compose a life. We never know when any of them will be carried with us, catching a ride in an upturned cuff or on the bottom of a boot, taken unknowingly along on one of those paths that make up a map of remembered things. Years may pass before we find that leaf again, still clinging to our clothes. Only with time can we learn what memory will sift from these moments.
There are a few changes around here that some of you may be aware of. And for those who aren’t, just to let you know that I’ve changed the Notes from Near and Far URL address back to its original (julianhoffman.wordpress.com) if you’d like to update your bookmarks or blog links. The other address, julian-hoffman.com, is now being used for my new website, Words, Images, which I’ve recently put together. Along with a bit more information about my book, The Small Heart of Things, due out next year, there are some audio recordings and a gallery of landscape and wildlife images. There’s also a place to sign up for a newsletter for updates on the book as it makes its way towards publication. Please let me know if there’s anything else you’d like to see there. Thanks for reading!