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Living in Season Newsletter

Living in Season
The official newsletter of the School of the Seasons
Volume 2, Number 7
April 22, 2004 Earth Day


  • Welcome
  • My Season: The Thirteenth Outside
  • Feedback Loop: Tree Stories
  • Living in Season: The Scent of a Flower
  • In the Library: Emperor of Scent
  • Holiday Packet: May Day
  • Signs of Summer
  • Event: Take Back Your Time Day Conference
  • Copyright
  • Subscribe - Unsubscribe

Welcome to my periodical newsletter featuring ideas for bringing the beauty of the current season into your life. If you enjoy this newsletter, please forward it.

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My Season: The Thirteenth Outside
You might have noticed that I disappeared for an issue. I was unexpectedly offered an opportunity to return for a week to Hedgebrook, the retreat for women writers on Whidbey Island.

It had been six years since my last stay at Hedgebrook and it was wonderful to return, especially to recognize how much I've grown and changed as a writer. That's partly due to the nurturing atmosphere of Hedgebrook where each writer is housed in a beautiful cottage, fed three delicious meals (made with local, organic foods) a day, and given complete freedom to do whatever her writing process requires. In the evenings, all six writers in residence met for dinner at the Farmhouse where we shared stories about our lives and our writing.

My first full day there was April 1st, which was the Thirteenth Outside this year, thirteen days after Noruz (Persian New Year) when Persians leave their homes before sunrise and don't come back until it sets, leaving windows and doors open to the fresh air of spring and the spirits that are free to roam the empty rooms on this one day of the year.

I spent the morning holed up in my cottage, all the windows latched, my schedule by my side, trying to herd my words into little corrals marked "Research" and "Things to Do." Finally, the trill of a bird lured me outside to a bench looking out over a pond of dead reeds, which moved incessantly, to and fro in the chill breeze. Overhead the sky was sky blue and filled with cotton puff clouds. At first I thought they weren't moving
but it was just that I had to slow down to see them move, measuring their progress by the tips of the trees. I sat a long time before I saw the glimmer of water at the base of the dry reeds, the color of emptiness, quivering.

I wrote the following haiku:

sit still long enough
and water becomes sky
the wind breath

For more information about Hedgebrook see www.hedgebrook.org

Feedback Loop: Tree Stories
The I'm still getting great responses to my treehugger essay in the previous newsletter. My friend and webmistress Joanna told me the Hawaiian word for "tree" is: kumulã'au , meaning "teacher-plant." Joanna learned this while creating the Teacher card for her Gaian Tarot deck which features a wise man sitting under a magnificent cedar tree. See the card here.

Hedgebrook was also great because it gave me the chance to hug many trees. My favorite was the cedar in front of my cottage. It felt like holding a lullaby; the tree gave off a shushing, wave-like energy. I also tried the Douglas fir in front of my cottage but it was too lofty to pay much attention to me. The flowering apple tree in the garden seemed to light up with joy when I touched it. My theory is that orchard trees are more like pets-they're used to humans and respond more quickly to our presence.

Unfortunately, my internet connection didn't work at Hedgebrook, so I was unable to read or respond to email. I think I am caught up on sending email packets, and only a week behind on sending out the snail mail orders but I'm over four weeks behind on answering personal emails so if you wrote me and haven't heard from me, please be patient. Mercury retrograde isn't helping.

Living in Season: Secrets of Scents
It's the time of the year when walking down the street in Seattle, I pass through clouds of fragrance, all the strong scents I associate with summer, like privet and lilacs. I can recognize the strong musty aroma of a flowering hawthorn a half a block away, and pause, scanning the horizon for a tree drooping with branches of densely-packed blossoms which always remind of me a chenille bedspread.

But some my favorite flowers have the most elusive smells. A few years ago my friend Richard taught me to smell the irises and I've been an iris-sniffer ever since. Then at Hedgebrook, one of my fellow writers, Kiesa Kay, alerted me to the improbable but wonderful fact that tulips also have scents. In my (limited) experience, the pink ones smell sweet (I'm tempted to say they smell like bubblegum but I might be confusing the scent with the color), the red ones rubbery and the purple tulips spicy.

Irises are still my favorite, however, perhaps because the scent is so subtle and so obscure. As with tulips, you have to put your nose down into the cup of petals to inhale the fragrance. (Don't worry-unlike lilies, the irises will not stain the tip of your nose with pollen). But don't be surprised if people give you very strange looks-very few people seem to know that irises have scents.

Two years ago I made a pilgrimage to Schreiner's Iris Gardens, outside of Salem, Oregon, with a friend. What an incredible experience! As we got out of the car in the parking lot, we were enveloped by the sweet, sensual scent of irises, wafting in from the fields where the new hybrids were opening their blossoms. In the nearby shop, single stems of irises were displayed in vases, each one labeled with its fanciful name. (Somewhat like pedigreed animals -- and the analogy is apt as these flowers compete in shows for prizes -- the names often allude to their ancestors, e.g. Magical Glow, from the cross of Fireside Glow and Good Show.)

Beyond the shop, visitors strolled through an immaculate display garden, admiring the shapes and colors, the frills and falls, of the irises in bloom. But to my amazement, not a single person was smelling the irises, not even when encouraged to do so by my good example. The Schreiner's catalog does mention fragrance when describing the flowers but it clearly is a secondary feature for most iris lovers who linger over details like wide ruffled falls, well-branched stems and tangerine beards.

My favorites among irises are the purple ones, the darker the better. They have the most intense scent, which reminds me of violet pastilles. Not surprising, since the chemical formula for Ionone, discovered by two German scientists in 1893 reproduces the scent of violet and is also present in orris (iris) root. The blue irises are also nice but as you move away from the colors of the original irises to the colors developed by breeders, the scents become somewhat strange and unpleasant. I find pink irises the most repulsive-they remind me of burnt rubber, and yellow is only faintly better.

Except at Schreiner's, I've never seen irises offered for sale as cut flowers, perhaps because the scent becomes cloying. As Lindsay Bond Totten explains in an article on fragrances in flowers, the initial sweet fragrance (the "top notes") are followed by a base note that can be overwhelming, especially in strongly scented flowers like lilacs. We bought an armful of cut irises before we left Schreiner's and by the time we had driven back to Seattle the scent, trapped in a small, sun-warmed car, was overpowering.

Irises have another serious flaw as cut flowers: as they wilt, they turn into puddles of slimy, rubbery goo. I find this transformation rather fascinating, despite the way the substance strips the finisfrom my piano. It reminds me that irises are composed of chemicals, apparently ones as powerful as varnish remover. The scents produced by flowers are also chemicals, know as pheromones: volatile, organic compounds that serve as chemical communication signals and sexual attractants, as in humans.

Even more fascinating is the discovery that decay is the secret to scent in flowers. Have you been disappointed, as I have, in the disappearance of fragrance in flowers? I'm always shocked when I'm in a florist shop and sniff roses or carnations with no scent. That's because flower breeders are developing flowers that last longer. David Clark, an associate professor of environmental horticulture at the University of Florida, found one of the key elements of scent in the petunias he studied was ethylene, a ripening hormone and gas, that causes flowers to wilt. Get rid of the ethylene and they last longer but have no scent.

So now he and other scientists are trying to figure out how to get the scent back into flowers, without losing the longer shelf life. They've tried adding genes (for instance, they've cloned genes that smell like roses from tomatoes) and are also creating sprays that can be applied to flowers. Soon, according to Clark, you will be able to have your long-lasting flower and choose between scented and unscented versions.

Doesn't that sound ridiculous? It reminds me of the current obsession with plastic surgery in the media. I love knowing that the very enzyme that causes flowers to decay also releases their scent, which gives me a whole new persepctive on aging and its relationship to distilled essence.

Homework: If you'd like homework for this week, here it so. Go forth and smell the flowers. But be warned. Iris-sniffing is addictive and can lead to the squandering of money on expensive plant materials.

Resources and References:
Schreiner's Gardens:
Penko, Christine, "UF Researchers Putting Scents Back into Flowers,"
UF News, Feb 13, 2003,
Totten, Lindsay Bond, "Fragrant Flowers for Your Garden," Home &
Garden Television, www.hgtv.com/hgtv/gl-flowers-plants/article/

In the Library: Emperor of Scent
The Emperor of Scent: A True Story of Perfume and Obsession by Chandler Burr, Random House 2002/3

At the end of the year, I always create a list of books I've read and then choose my favorites. For 2003, the Emperor of Scent was at the top of my list. I've already mentioned it in an earlier newsletter but I thought I'd promote it again since it's now out in paperback, and includes supplemental material: discussion questions for your book group and an interview with the author. It's the story of Luca Turin, a scientist with a passion for scent, who collects antique perfumes, helps perfumers create new fragrances, and develops a new theory about how humans smell. The descriptions of fragrances are divine, like this snippet from a review of Rush by Gucci: "Thanks to the milky lactone note, it smells like an infant's breath mixed with his mother's hair spray. . . .What Rush can do, as all great art does, is create a yearning, then fill it with false memories of an invented past…"

Holiday Packet: May Day
"May Day is rich in customs, perhaps more so than any other day of the year." So says the Oxford Companion to the Year. If you are interested in learning about some of these customs, order my May Day packet, an illustrated portfolio of over 30 pages which includes:

  • Ancient traditions of Floralia, Beltane & May Day
  • Instructions for creating a Maypole and dancing around it
  • Recipes for May wine and other traditional May Day foods
  • Special May Day divinations and songs
  • The language of the flowers
  • Ideas for May Day gifts.

$9.00 + $3 shipping/handling. Please allow 10 days for delivery. An email version is also available for $7. It will be sent to you as an attached Word file within 24 hours. Order in our Store.

Signs of Summer
I'm enjoying all the scents of summer in Seattle: the intense fragrance of lilac, the musty aroma of flowering hawthorn, and the sweet woodruff, which when dried releases a pleasant scent of vanilla and hay.

Another sign of summer: the trees are scattering pollen all over the streets. In my neighborhood,
the sidewalks beneath the maples are a bright chartreuse, while underneath the pine trees there are circles of gold.

If you've noticed any signs of the season where you live, send them to me and I will post them on my website.

Event: Take Back Your Time Day Conference
I'm going to be traveling to Chicago for the first national Take Back Your Time Day Conference at Loyola University from June 10 to June 14. My friend and the conference promoter, John DeGraaf, talked me into going by promising I can teach a session with Jay Griffiths, whose marvelous book about time, A Sideways Look at Time, I envy. I'm also looking forward to meeting Arthur Waskow, whose writings on the Jewish holidays I've always admired. If you're interested in hanging out with a bunch of time activists and other people trying to change the way Americans view and use time, check out the conference information at:

Copyright ©Waverly Fitzgerald 2004.
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