Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Magnolia blossoms

Magnolias are blooming on my street. Big, waxy, voluptuous petals. Color and smoothness of ivory. Pistils inside the flower form a fruit the size of an avocado pit. The blossoms smell like a department store perfume counter – all the cheap and expensive scents rolled into one unsubtle, obvious odor.

By my tastes they’re best enjoyed at a distance, on the breeze.

The magnolias put me to thinking on my walk today. The blossoms create a certain place here for a certain time. A southern place, the word pronounced with extra syllables.

Thus, there is the place while the trees flower, and then the petals fall, and the place is different. It looks different, smells different.

Moreover, the place, the zone of blossoms, moves like an advancing army across the land. I imagine magnolia flowers, beginning south of here and at lower elevations, marching north and uphill, into mountains, and farther north, until there are no more magnolias and the flowers are spent.

Imagine a map in a botanical book: there is the shaded area on the map where magnolia trees grow, their botanical range, and then there is another temporary, somewhat darker zone that passes over the larger zone like a shadow of late spring and early summer. A moving map.

What if we thought of place not by the visual landscape but by scent? A blind writer might do this, describing places and routes not by visual cues but by olfactory events.

The shape of such spaces is not only contingent on season, but also on breeze. When the air moves it takes a place that was here and moves it there, and then onward, until so many other odors have mixed in that the smell is changed and is something else entirely.

So just as water (and wind in its time) erode topography, the breeze erodes the olfactory space, moves it around, blows it downwind.

That sort of smelling place is structured differently from the topographic and cartographic spaces most of us are used to thinking about.

Because I was walking with my dog (a beast, though sighted, moved by her nose), it occurred to me that she occupies an olfactory world, scented spaces: and this fact explained why, though I proceeded along the sidewalk in more or less a straight line, she wandered and zigzaged. Her space is almost never organized by the visual sidewalk but by breezes and stormwater flows, the meandering paths of rabbits, cats, and other dogs.

A pile of leaves raked up by a gardener contains for her the impressions – and thus the space – of an entire yard.

The curb at the bottom of a hill holds the damp news of a whole neighborhood.

This realization, that space and place might be configured differently for different people (and dogs), depending on their senses and interests, got me thinking: what of sounds, tastes, touches?

What about intuitive, or imaginative, places?

Perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself.

My dog, Rita, found something that smells good beneath the magnolia tree that I’ve been taking a picture of, and has now begun to dig. And it's not for fallen blossoms.

This brings me back to earth.

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