Early Summer Scent-scapes

She drew her hands together flat on the table and, gently pushing her elbows out, she slowly bent forward, mimicking the deep, formal bow made to guests by the host of a tea ceremony. ‘The fragrant zephyr,’ she said, ‘is one of the great Tea words of the early summer season.’ I had been looking at a print on an envelope, one of those evocative paintings in the simple classical sumi-e style, of green leaves. Under the hanging branch, just so, were written, at a slight slant, the kanji characters 薫風. We felt, magically, laying our eyes on that scene, hearing that word, a balmy breeze and picked up, didn’t we, a faint and fleeting scent.

Lately, I’ve been surfacing from the deeps earlier than the sunrise and indulging in an hour or so of floating gently on the waves of waking . . . that deliciously loose, natural, ungrasping state. It is still cool then, refreshing. Through the open door it’s good to drink in the air. I hear the little birds chittering; the barks and parps of early crow conversation and sometimes a chorus of laughter erupts from the cranes who live over the canal in the Garden. Without trying, I want to memorise the prayer of this soft and purposeless pleasure, to return to it once the tightness and hurry and grasping of the day stake their claims and occupy me.

On an early Sunday walk recently, a strong, sweet, distinctive smell enveloped my senses. It took a few moments for me to register exactly what it was . . . fig! Of course, summertime figs! My eyes cast about following my nose and found a little orchard of about nine bushes. Along the bamboo-bordered path, among knotted shrubs and overgrowth was growing wild, a riot of sweet jasmine. The sun was peeking over the horizon, the fragrances then were heady. Into dark green shade I happily tramped, soaking in its particular earthy, mossy delights, heightened yet by a touch of gold warming up and releasing the bitter-sweet of cedar resin. In the evenings these days with the windows open I have noticed for the first time sandalwood wafting in from the trees in flower over the way.

Remember your first whiff of citrus blossom of the season? The ancients thought this a kind of elixir of life (too!) and dispatched voyagers to the Land of Eternal Youth to collect. In the 5th Imperial Collection of 1086 (no, that’s not a typo*), an anthology which contains about 1120 poems, we find particular praise for the hana tachibana, a kind of citrus tree that sprouts white, sweet-smelling, five petalled blossoms around this time of year. The old Japanese tea-masters who cultivated an intimacy with nature, extolled this flower in poetry, and drew attention to the transports between scent and word and memory.

“If it were not for the hana tachinbana in this world,

what could we use as the linchpin for memories

of days gone by?”

“The hana tachibana has begun to bloom . . .

Its scent makes me recall with yearning

the sleeves of someone I loved

many years ago.”


* Chado the Way of Tea: A Japanese Tea Master’s Almanac. Sasaki Sanmi, (trans.) Shaun McCabe. (280)

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