Category Archives: smells

A strange forest bathing.

I was surprised to become personally involved with the tree thinning work here at the lake.  My second morning here, after my sister had arrived to spend a day with me, we got a knock at the door from one of the leaders of the fire safety project here in our cabin community. She wanted to review with us the recommendations from the primary agency toward the goal of “fuel reduction” and of making us a “Firewise Community.”

Fifteen workers from outside have joined dozens of property owners in the effort. Weeks ago many of us cabin owners had begun to cut small trees on our own lots and haul them to the roads, to increase the efficiency of the work crews who would join us this week, consisting of two state conservation agencies and a tree service.

If I had known further in advance about this project, I would have timed my visit to avoid it, but now I am really happy it worked out this way. Normally I am the least involved of us siblings in everything regarding our cabin because I live at such a distance compared to them.

But after Nancy was handed a can of orange spray paint, she and I walked around the property to decide on and mark trees that could be easily sawed down by a couple of our fellow residents who were about that business. And we had a consult with the tree service guys about the beautiful tree that features in several of my photos over the years, that unfortunately is one of those that poses a great fire risk by snuggling up to one side of the house.

Until recently, lot owners in our little group of cabins were forbidden to cut trees even on our own property. The expectation was that eventually permission would be given on a case-by-case basis. For many years there has been controversy about how to manage national forests and disagreement among government agencies; increasingly people understand the need to minimize wildfire danger by reducing fuel in the form of crowded forests, dead trees, and thick underbrush.

It was decided that they would take down that tree, and within a few minutes it was lying on the ground and being de-limbed.

While the chain  sawyers were working in front of our cabin, the noise and the exhaust fumes pretty much overwhelmed the senses. The last minutes of our big tree’s life, it was trembling under the repeated shocks of the hammers against wedges that had been squeezed into the initial cut. Nancy and I were standing off to the side taking videos. Then, down it came, and after a while the tree cutters moved on, the fumes dissipated, but the cut trees continued exhaling the last breaths of their essence.

The workers must necessarily be housed and fed by the property owners during this week that they are helping us, and a feeling of camaraderie was palpable. Workers and residents alike, nearly all of us have ties going back generations to small Central Valley communities, and many had been infused with a love for the mountains and the land by our parents and grandparents.

Usually when I am up here, I meet one or two of the other “summer people,” and am frustrated because I never get to know them and often forget their names. Rarely am I around for a work day, and as I most often come in September I miss many of the people who have stopped using their cabin when school starts. This week was different, and I’ve had the chance to talk with people from all the four parts of the group that has formed for this short project.

One cabin up the road is the sort of work center for the crews, and every night whoever wants can join them to eat and sit around a campfire. While I was there for a few hours last night we were often chatting about the wildfires that even now are blazing in the foothills below here, where several cabin owners have their first homes. Cell phones were often used to check for updates, especially regarding the brother of one of our company, who sent a photo of  the dark smoke billowing just behind his house.

When by the light of my little flashlight I walked away from the  smell of the campfire and back to my cabin, I immediately entered an atmospheric bath composed of those aromatics I’d enjoyed in smaller doses earlier. It was some kind of therapeutic essential oil experience! My musings since have prompted me to read about just what makes that heady aroma, and I found an article about Forest Bathing, and speculation about how the chemicals in tree sap are good for you: Terpenes and Health.

The piney scent of the forest is intensified when hundreds of trees are cut down and fed to ravenous chipping machines. The molecules of tree begin to be released as soon as the logs and branches are pushed in, and after the chopped up tree is spat out at the other end of the chute, the emanations continue for hours and probably days.

The products of all this chipping are left in piles along the roads, and there were several of these tall mounds along my path home last night. This morning several more had been deposited along the road in front of my cabin. They won’t be there long; one resident has equipment to take the chips away, and we have plans for using them right here in our mountain neighborhood.

This afternoon the weather I’d been wishing for arrived: claps and booms of thunder woke me from a nap, and soon a downpour of rain was clattering on the roof. And through the window wafted another, more humid dose of piney medicine. This highlighted experience of the trees and their yummy healthfulness seems like it might be an added reason to get myself to the mountains more often in the future, and practice forest bathing. But I won’t be disappointed at all if the aromatics in my bath are from trees still alive, with their roots intact and their branches in the sky.

 

Walking in foggy time.

I did it – I went back to the beach all on my own, only about three weeks after that last trip. Because I didn’t arrive until the afternoon, and I could only afford to spend a couple of hours at the most, I thought that time pressure would make the minutes fly.

Sea Rocket

But somehow, the opposite happened. Time swelled to be as big as the ocean; it was as vague and undefined as the fog. I walked and walked, lost in it, and when I checked my phone, I couldn’t believe how little of my allotment I had used. So I walked some more….

Believe it or not, I have the plant above, with the whitish leaves, in my garden. I bought it a the native plant nursery years ago, and knew it was a beach plant, but I’d never seen it before in its natural habitat. I recognized it immediately. I won’t worry about my plant anymore. It looks more spindly than these but otherwise … yeah. And I don’t know its name.

The sun never came out, but the air was pleasant. I wore a thin linen shirt, and carried my Teva sandals so that my feet could get the full sand experience. A girl spun cartwheels in the fringes of the incoming waves. Fathers with their children dug holes to catch the water. Bodies huddled like seals in driftwood teepees.

Coyote Brush
Bull Thistle

On my favorite shortcut road home I stopped many times to take pictures, and wished I could take scents. The masses of eucalyptus trunks and leaves exuded their distinctive aroma, which mixed with that of the cypress trees and the drying grass. Probably the coyote brush contributed to the heady perfume that was part of the afternoon’s fog on that particular hill.

Orange Bush Monkeyflower
Coyote Brush surrounded by Poison Oak surrounded by Coyote Brush

My app said that the little tree below was in the rose family. It had fruit looking like cherries, but didn’t resemble a cherry plum tree. I guessed it was a volunteer/escapee from an old farm nearby.

From the top of the hill I could look back and see just a bit of the bay and the hill above, through the fog and mist — and the barbed wire.

A wind came up and whished the slender eucalyptus leaves into a loud whisper, and they were still telling their secrets when I had to drive away. So I must go back soon for the rest of the story, right?

An unhappy affliction lifted.

IMG_2549One evening my housemate Susan baked a wonderful onion-and-potato dish, and as I walked through the kitchen I said, “Oh, my, that smells so good!” The next morning the cooking aromas were present still, and I didn’t think much about it, but the next morning…. What? How odd to have that smell hanging on. I tried putting some aromatic oil in the diffuser, but it made no difference. After a week I had figured out that this odor was not real; it was somehow generated by my own nose sending wrong information to my mind. When I researched the phenomenon online I found phantosmia, sometimes called an olfactory hallucination.

They say it can happen after a respiratory infection. I had recently (mostly) gotten over a cold and the flu. I was smelling a sort of burning-leaf scent. That’s the only thing I could think of to describe it, not that I am terribly familiar with that smell around here – but I was trying to come up with an imagination to match the fake sensation. It was there when I went to sleep, when I woke up, all day long, and when I drove to the next town for an appointment. I could taste my food, sort of, but the weird smell I was registering overpowered most other smells, so that tea was like water, and scented candles were unscented. The articles I had read say this condition “usually” goes away, but I’ve heard of people who have a permanently altered sense of taste, and that sounded like a terrible loss, so I hoped….

Also, I started taking zinc (my pharmacist friend’s recommendation) and Vitamin C, and doing more frequent saline nasal rinses (my doctor’s recommendation). After about ten days I thought maybe the odd smell was fading… and then one afternoon I returned from an errand and sniffed the evidence of my having roasted eggplant that morning – it wasn’t very pleasant, but it was a real cooking odor!

The next day, at church, incense, glorious and sweet and nothing like burning leaves. Thank you, Lord! The crowning delight was the morning I was a bit peeved at my building contractor, and without thinking why, I opened the front door, as though hoping to see a few construction guys driving up. I didn’t see anything out of the ordinary, but the scent of the daphne floated up and filled my nose and mind with its essence, welcome and true.

Walking with aromatics.

The first scent I noticed on my walk this morning was from the mown weeds, drying up and exuding the remembrance of new-mown hay, which I rarely encounter in my life these days.

There were conifers whose oils were being drawn by the warm sun into the air I breathed… and I forgot for a moment that I wasn’t camping in the redwoods with my family, walking on a duff-y path with gigantic trees towering on either side.

Just on the other side of the creek from the “hay,” was the soccer field with its green and rich scent I used to get once or twice a week, as I stood on the sidelines watching my children run kicking down that lush lawn.

And there were flowers hanging over from the back yards, honeysuckle and potato vine, and other flowering vines, all heady-sweet and making me wonder why I should ever think dessert was anything to satisfy.

I’m leaving this honeysuckle photo large because there seems to be a tiny long-winged fly hanging on to one yellow part right in the middle. Do you see it, too?

The most familiar aromatic of my walk must be the oaks, because they are ubiquitous in all the places in California that I have ever lived. I think these are live oaks, with their thorny leaves that cling to any concrete patio, etc. that you are trying to sweep them from.

I think those two pictures above, taken of two different trees, are both live oaks, but one has much more concave leaves than the other.

The last classic aromatic plant I passed before I left the path was roses, the little climbing pink and white ones that spill over the fence and pull me off the path to sniff them or take their pictures again and again. This morning I resolved to come back later with my shears — it’s only three blocks — to cut a few for the house.

“Let the field be joyful, and all that is therein: then shall all the trees of the wood rejoice…”