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August 30, 2004

Star jasmine

[Another old one, of which I was reminded this afternoon. 1997.]

There are some scents that are first sensed with something other than the nose. The hypothalamus, perhaps. The pancreas. The soul. One moment you're fumbling in your pocket for the keys to your truck, full of your friend’s warm tea and mentally continuing the conversation you’ve put off for the evening, stumbling over the dark curb in the California night, and then suddenly the flow of your thoughts tumbles over a precipice you didn't know was there. It's an odd feeling, this emptying out with no warning, and you are startled, and then the jasmine wafts from nostril to brain and disappears. The star jasmine is the faintest of notes in the air, and yet something made damn sure your brain was quiet just in time to notice it.

Changed, you start the truck, and the scent is fully gone by the time you've driven a block, but the memory stays plastered to your brow, and that memory is almost as strong as the scent was.

Scent is next to impossible to pin down.

It can be simulated. There's no real reason vanillin should smell any different from vanilla extract. Roses have been bred so methodically that a cheap rose perfume actually smells more like a rose than most hybrid teas do. (In this age when attar of roses is rarely found outside the Arabian Nights, it's unlikely that many see this as an atrocity. Nowadays, who can tell a damask from a dog rose by scent alone? Or even from a dog?)

Scent can even be tamed. Anyone can plant a pot of sage or basil or lemon verbena in the sun, tear off a leaf when whim dictates, crush the thing to her face, and inhale deeply. Ease, in this instance, does not reduce value. We don’t spend enough time smelling the things around us that smell good. Everyone should keep a pet scent or two around the house, if only to counteract the barrage of malodor that daily assaults us.

But some scents resist taming. You can stick your face right into the plated bark of a Jeffrey pine, or nuzzle up to a rockrose, and get an idea what they smell like, but their true scents will come to you only when your back is turned. To know the true scent of the rockrose, one must pick the perfect time of the right day, then approach the plant without knowing it, and stop short by at least six feet. Then the plant's resinous redolence will fumigate your brain, leaving nothing in the crevices but wrinkled warm dry thought.

The scent of star jasmine is tamable, after a fashion. You can almost plant it without meaning to. Billows of its trite, pallid flowers line respectable bungalows' walkways from Ensenada to Portland. The plants are slightly less difficult to maintain than concrete painted green. Star jasmine withstands heat, drought, winter muck, territorial dogs and soccer balls. It is dismissively referred to, by gardeners in search of more rarefied pleasures, as a landscape architect plant: one of that stolid tribe of flora that performs equally well in sun or shade, disease or health, and can thus be used as a kind of landscaping hardware. Plant such a species, and you can be assured that no environmental vagaries will smudge the clean lines of your design.

The perfume of star jasmine is, at first acquaintance, as unimpressive as the plant that bears it; sweet, on the edge of cloying. It holds a slight overtone of stonefruit, but nothing marked, and conversely nothing subtle enough to be compelling. Your basic bloom. Lilies of the valley possess more refined a scent. Tuberoses far surpass star jasmine in sheer olfactive amplitude. Freesias' essence is so much more compelling than that of star jasmine as to be nearly psychoactive. At the length of a nose, star jasmine is just another nice flower, pleasant for the aged and other people with impaired olfactory nerves, certainly suitable for growing in acre lots as fodder for the perfume industry, but otherwise unremarkable.

But tonight.

There is a combination of time of day, and time of year, that fixes the scent of star jasmine in the air as a good mordant fixes dye in cloth, conveying a certain complexity of hue that completely changes the character of the color. It empties the brain of anything except olfactory readiness. Then scent. And then the flood of images that scent spurs.

And you are again at the end of your first Californian summer, not noticing the closing out of each day's light a bit earlier. The earth tilts away from the sun, the noon sun crosses the equator heading south, and you are broke, so you walk home from work in the dark. You walk past the manicured lawns with their two-inch edger trenches, past the riot of unfamiliar subtropical flowers, past the pastel bungalows and browning head-high fennel, and then that scent trickles past your brain for the first time. It's an unexceptional moment. You don't notice it until the next year, as early rains threaten and you take the recycling back through the alley and the by-now familiar scent comes to you, prompting the evening the year before to play back in its entirety.

And almost every year after you go through this, the ignorance of the seasons and the creeping up of an unremembered memory and the floral reminder, and each year the thought is the same. "What month is it?" And calculation comes slowly, and it puts together a date in September, after the fog, just as night becomes longer than day but before the rains cool the tomato-ripening heat.

The scent of star jasmine fixes you to the time of year like a butterfly to a board. You wonder how you could have forgotten, again, that you live on a sphere that tilts and spins, exposing you to changes in light and temperature that your grandfather knew without thinking. You breathe deep, trying to replay the first surprised waves of memory. It never works after the third breath. You stand stunned at the intensity, the complexity of feeling, the memory of fear and new freedom and sweet, sweet certainty long ago lost. You swear for the fifteenth year that you'll write these feelings down before they fade.

Eventually you do, but the words on reading seem pale, lifeless things, more the tame florets of tame star jasmine. Little of the wild night scent remains.

Posted by Chris Clarke at August 30, 2004 07:06 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:

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Nice one Chris: thanks for clawing around in the archives for this. I had no idea it was such a "landscape architecture" plant.

Posted by: Pica at August 31, 2004 07:02 AM
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oh chris, how do you do it? this is so lovely as to be nearly painful! how do you do it?

Posted by: Anne at August 31, 2004 09:55 AM
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I could give you a hug for writing this. :)

It's not just beauty on the page, it's truth. I don't know whether it's recognition or realization that make your paragraphs speak so forcefully. I suppose it doesn't matter: all I know is that I'll be breathing more deeply tonight. Thank you. Again.

Posted by: Siona at August 31, 2004 09:40 PM
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Jasmine is a reluctant houseplant, and unfortunately that's the only way I've ever smelled it. Nevertheless, I have heard enough hymns to its scent from my Damascus-remembering father-in-law to make me give him plants several times; they always die, eventually, but it makes me so happy to watch him smell the blossoms, close his eyes, and remember. A beautiful piece, Chris.

Posted by: beth at September 2, 2004 02:01 PM
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