scenting a city

marble stairs, Swiss Cottage

I've been doing a lot of walking in London because I get a better feel for a new city that way, a sense of how neighborhoods fit together and where the money both is and isn't. On foot, we notice things that would never be seen from a car window when forced by the limiting physics of human locomotion to slow down. Walking, if we remain open to the experience instead of hurrying to and mentally planning for the next appointment, can be a kind of meditation, requiring us to be present, if only to avoid jutting tree roots or speeding cars, but also providing the opportunity to see and smell and hear and touch and even taste (plucking a stray blackberry?)—to use all our senses and feel genuine wonder at the intersections of nature and humanity, for good and ill.

curving brick alley, Hampstead

jasmine against painted brick wall

One day last week I turned into a narrow alley in Swiss Cottage, heading up to Hampstead, and was struck motionless by the scent of jasmine draped over a brick wall, just after a light misting rain, with the sun cutting through the clouds and the leaves still dripping. The same thing happened one memorable evening a month ago on a neighborhood stroll nearer home in Queen's Park at dusk: the smell of jasmine was so poignant I backtracked and turned my face up to the leaves, inhaling deeply, (hoping for no spiders) and not caring who was watching. And the same has happened with honeysuckle and wisteria hanging from a trellis or roses tipping over a fence. Fragrant flowers are the natural perfume of a city, dabbed onto the pulse of a entryway or the vein of a sidewalk, meant to combat the wafting, less appealing odors of sewers, garbage bins, and car exhaust.

jasmine overhanging alley, Hampstead

jasmine vines (?) around door frame, Hampstead

Translated, this means more people should be planting their gardens—whether urban or rural—with not only ornamentals and edibles but common fragrant vines to climb up a column next to a door or wind up and across an arbor, or kitchen herbs to line a pathway. Trudging home each evening up a path to the scent, say, of honeysuckle or lavender is a perfect sensory way to trigger the brain into beginning release of the day's stress and transitioning to the safe harbor that a home should be.

honeysuckle bush, Queen's Park

Like music, fragrance is linked in the brain with memories. Honeysuckle for me is connected to the house my family lived in when I was in my twenties and home for visits; a honeysuckle bush grew near the front door, scenting the entrance. Jasmine, on the other hand, is forever tied to my memories of India during a trip one college summer. So the jasmine vine my Portland roommate and I inherited from a neighbor and planted next to our mailbox a year ago is linked for me with India and that kind, quiet neighbor (Bill) and now with the gardens of London. (Jeff says our jasmine is blooming profusely this summer, unlike last, when we rescued the unhappy plant from a shaded, root-bound pot, its new blooms and scent something I look forward to upon my return.)

jasmine gate, Hampstead

Planting fragrant flowers is a perpetual gift to self, to family, and to one's neighbors and community members who may stop in or pass by—and equally to the ever-present bees, who won't bother us if we don't bother them during their focused, hardworking pollen collecting. Planting cuttings of fragrant herbs like lavender and rosemary can be practically free, while buying nursery vines of honeysuckle, wisteria, or jasmine may prove worth every penny for years to come.

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