Reflections: 80 posts

The Memory of a Mulberry Tree

Not long ago I posted a photo of mulberries to my Facebook page and by the end of the day I had scores of comments and emails filled with the mulberry-related reminiscences. I was surprised how many people had a mulberry tree as part of their childhood. Reading the comments, I too tasted the mulberries of Esfahan and Israel, climbed the tall trees in Romania and Texas and made jam in California. In sharing stories, we made our own Silk Road spanning the mulberry memories and the globe. It also turned out be quite a cosmopolitan tree with the Eastern roots. It’s called tuta in Aramaic, tut in Persian, Arabic, Turkish, and Hebrew, duda in Romanian. In Ukrainian, it’s either called tut or shelkovytsa, the silk tree berry.

In my part of Ukraine mulberry trees are ubiquitous. They’re a reminder of the old history: of the manor estates of the Poltavan gentry and of the silk farms established as part of the Five Year plans by the Soviet government. Both the gentry and the five year plans are long gone. The mulberries remain. The berries cover the sidewalks in indelible ink stains and scent of fermented, overripe fruit hangs in the summer haze.

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The Promise Of a Blossom

Out of my window I can see a rose bush. This is my Ukrainian window, of course, because out of my Belgian window I see the Mondrian-like grid of buildings, the pale ribbon of the skies, and in the distance, the red tiled roofs that reveal the Nordic roots of Brussels, a town with a Gallic accent. If I peer hard enough, I can see my neighbor’s roses across the street, but having one’s own rose bush is infinitely better, and for a part of the year, I have that pleasure.

The rose bush is awakening slowly, and as I take a break from writing and look out of the open window, I see that each day the buds look fuller. At first, they are hard and green, like unripe cherries. Then, they swell, and I can catch a glimpse of a dark pink petal. Observing the flower opening is like watching a butterfly break out of a cocoon and spread its wings. For this reason, the French word éclore that means both to open and to hatch is so appropriate for describing the opening of the buds. The promise of a new bud is a promise of changes, beauty and even magic. The kind of everyday magic that nature offers generously.

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Late May : Scent Diary

The musky warmth of peonies heated by the sun. The spicy bite of a walnut leaf. The milky greenness of a raw walnut that leaves brown stains on my fingers and a scent of aged wine. The caramel sweetness of first strawberries. A green apricot sprinkled with a bit of salt–a childhood pleasure and a taste of fresh almonds and grass. The ripeness of sprouted onions found in the cellar, the ripeness, dust and sulfur. The pharmacy cabinet smell of yarrow. The pungent blanket of mulch. The vertigo-giving freshness of a sudden storm. The bitter honey and lemon peel of elder blossoms. A late May afternoon.

You can write about anything you wish in this thread, including your favorite poetry. For those who would like to use the Scent Diary to sharpen their sense of smell, I will give a short explanation. As I wrote in How to Improve Your Sense of Smell, the best way to do so is to smell and to pay attention to what you’re smelling. It doesn’t matter what you smell. The most important thing is to notice scents around you. It’s even better if you write it down. So please share your scents and perfumes with us.

Photography by Bois de Jasmin

Lilac Chronicles

When Asya, my great-grandmother, traveled, she always came back with a sapling wrapped in damp newspapers. Asya’s doctor prescribed for her mineral water treatments for her chronic kidney ailment, and she often went away to take cure. But I rather think that she was on a mission to collect as many flowering plants as possible. Once back, her suitcases thrown on the bench in the yard, she went into the garden–still in her heels and hat–and planted the drooping seedlings. Some wilted, but many took root, filling the air with their fragrance–roses, carnations, lilies, jasmine.

Asya’s favorite plant was lilac. She brought them from every trip, from every visit to a greenhouse or a flower market. When I can’t fall asleep at night, I often imagine the path into Asya’s garden flanked by two tall lilac trees that bend towards each other. I count the lilac varieties and try to remember their scent, but usually slumber overtakes me before I get past the tenth bush.

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The Fragrance of Old Things

Walking around the old châteaux in the Loire Valley, I kept cataloging the scents–damp stone, varnished wood, fading lilies, old tapestries. In the Château de Saché where Balzac used to stay for prolonged periods of time, the damask upholstery of the chairs heated by the morning sun gave off a waffle like sweetness, while the green cabinet in the Château de Chenonceau, out of which Catherine de Medici ruled France for 30 years, had a salty whiff of driftwood. Though the former residents of these places are now ghosts–just names in history books, monuments, symbols, it seems through these scents that they linger still, in the shadows.

Old things, things touched by many hands, things bearing marks of time, always drew me. It seemed that they might have their own spirits. Years later when I had the chance to spend time in Japan, I realized that this idea was less fanciful than it seemed, and the whole system of Shinto beliefs is based on the idea that everything possesses a spirit. A place. A tree. A stone. A writing pen.

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