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Blog: On Health. On Writing. On Life. On Everything.

Smell Of May

May 30, 2012

Tags: order, advantage, amine, animal, aroma, attar of rose, aurora, Austin - David (born 1926), baby, bearded iris, bee, birth, blooming, bordello, Bradford pear, brain, brothel, bush, business, cadaverine, California, camp, carnation, chemical, chestnut - edible, child, Christmas, cooking, corymb, dead body, depression, digging, DNA, emergency room, evolution, fall, February, fertility, flower, fragrance, garden, gathering, genetic, grub, helix, heritage, holiday, housing, hunger, impregnation, intercourse, June, learning, life-giving, linden, Mary Rose, May, Memorial Day, molecule, mother, Nature, odor, olfactory, papoose, peony, perfume, perishing, pink, plant, pong, pregnant, putrescine, Pyrus calleryana, reproduction, rhododendron, rhubarb, root, rose, scent, scientist, season, semen, September, sex, shelter, smell, smelling, snowball viburnum, sperm, spermidine, spermine, spring, summer, survival, strive, teaching, The Smell Of May, tree, viburnum, Viburnum dilatatum, wasp, whiff, Wikipedia, winter, wood

May makes me giddy. On Memorial Day we did a long walk, me with my nose up in the air all the while, sniffing. My idea is (no scientific proof – it’s just my private hunch) that if we are smelling flowers all spring and summer and fall, we prime our brains to get through winter without depression.

That statement exaggerates, but it contains a kernel of truth. I put my nose into any flower I encounter (careful not to be stung by wasps and bees because I had some unfortunate wasp encounters a few seasons ago, one of which landed me in the emergency room).

Roses are already blooming for a while, earlier than usual. My David Austin rose “Mary Rose” is the sweetest thing; the old attar of roses must have smelled thus. The peonies’ fragrance lies heavily over the yard; whites have a stronger fragrance than pink and red ones. Linden trees bloom in the summer they soil cars parked underneath with sticky sap but give off an addictive sweet odor: I can’t wait for it. Snowball viburnums fill May evenings with their perfumes sometimes so cloying, it reminds me of a bordello (even if I have only a vague idea about a real brothel). Bearded iris and rhododendron mostly have to make up in showiness what they lack in scent. The little carnations look modest when you look down on them, but their peppery aroma is bold and assertive.

One plant pong stands out though - the unmistaken whiff of human semen. Wow! It comes from Viburnum dilatatum. The viburnums are mostly known for the perfumy, showy snowballs, some faintly tinged with an aurora pink. Viburnum dilatatum however means business: This sturdy bush with white feathery corymbs gives off the plain smell of sex. Isn’t that what the flowers and the bees are all about? Impregnation, reproduction.

But – why would a plant use the human odor?

I don’t know the answer, and I also don’t know which chemicals produce this familiar scent – do you know? I used to think that it was the DNA (the helical molecule that transmits our genetic heritage). But a scientist who works with it, says DNA has no odor to speak of - and he should know. Wikipedia claims some amines like putrescine, spermine, spermidine and cadaverine are responsible for semen’s unmistakable odor. Spermine and spermidine sound just like it - but putrescine and cadaverine? Don’t they sound more like emanating from dead bodies than from the fluid that carries life-giving sperm?

Whatever chemicals are involved, I remember the same smell from rhubarb in bloom (which will happen in June in my garden), and from edible chestnut in the South. In California, people complain about the fragrance of a notorious tree, called Bradford pear (Pyrus calleryana) – but I have not sniffed it personally.

Why plants are doing this, namely using OUR fragrance? Dunno. All I can say that the fragrance talks to me – meeting me at a point I understand from experience. Ultimately, of course, it means that Nature uses the same molecules in plants, animals and humans. We are not extra or outside from Nature – we are part of her. Once a scent worked for her during evolution, she recycles it. In prehistoric times, spring was also for humans the time of be fertile and to become pregnant. Having a child born in late winter made sure that the mother got still some rest in the winter camp, but then could carry her small child around (in a papoose, for instance) when she went on her next spring duty: gathering fresh shoots from emerging plants, digging roots and grubs, gathering wood for cooking.

A baby born in February could learn walking during the next winter camp, and was ready to toddle behind with the next spring move. Does Nature with her scents conspire to make us want to have intercourse at a time expedient to give a child the best possible start? Nowadays, with sheltering housing and ample food all year round, these small advantages mean nothing anymore; during those years of hunger and strive, they might have made the difference between perishing and survival.

Nowadays, most babies are born in September, which has nothing to do anymore with survival advantage – only with what we did during last Christmas holidays. I have to say that I like the idea that Nature tries to nudge me into bed with someone – right now. Preferably my husband.

Season’s Bliss

December 10, 2011

Tags: order, alms, Amnesty International, animal shelter, charity, caroling, Christmas, cook a healthy meal, cookies - gluten-free low-sugar, donation, gift ideas, gifts - named, gluten-free, Hanukkah, homeless, homeless shelter, holidays, knitting socks, Kwanza, neighbor, nursing home, people who have everything, poverty, Salvation Army, spare coins, sugar- low, toys - wooden, doll, board games

• Give your spare coins freely to homeless people
• Buy hat and mittens for a poor child
• Give to Amnesty International or another worthy charity; the one that gives most money to its clients and least to its CEOs is the Salvation Army)
• Visit a homeless shelter
• Knit socks for a soldier
• Take a child to a museum or a zoo – don’t buy anything to eat since the event is what you are showing the child
• Visit a nursing home, caroling
• Collect money and donate it to an, preferably not to the rich city organizations, but to a rural needy one
• Find inexpensive unusual gifts, preferably from Third-World places
• Wrap your presents in newspaper – or don’t wrap at all
• Cook a healthy meal for a neighbor who is house-bound
• Read a Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanza story for the children in
• For people who have everything already: Make named gifts to charities
• Bring toys to a collection place that serves underprivileged children; stick to old-fashioned wooden toys, dolls and board games
• Bake some gluten-free low-sugar cookies and serve them to every visitor this time of the year, including the mailman
• Come up with at least three more ideas than I did – and tell us!

The End of the Year in Maine

December 28, 2010

Tags: movement, food, order, artichokes, baking, balance, Beethoven - Ludwig van (1770-1827), Brendel - Adrian (born 1976), Brendel - Alfred (born 1931), cello, Christmas, cookies, cooking, cross-country skiing, Cutting For Stone, exercise, healing food, Maine, pesto, piano, red cabbage, sauerbraten, shoveling snow, skiing, The End of the Year in Maine, Verghese - Abraham (born 1955), writing

We are in the cabin, away from everything during the time we call between the years in German. Nowhere in the world do I sleep as deeply as here, nothing makes me so content than being here with my loved ones.

Not to sound too pollyannaish: The adjustment to being in such confined room is usually a loud affair for our family – we have to rearrange ourselves and our egos. But the result is good, and I think, lasting.

In the snowstorm, we got ten inches of snow (I just stuck a ruler into the snow on the porch). During the snow last night, we went for a walk along the beach, fighting the wind and swirling snowflakes on our way out, and having them nicely at our backs on returning.

In spite that I brought my equipment (the ancient three prongs- shoes), I haven’t been cross-country skiing yet because I get so much more satisfaction out of shoveling snow – a movement with purpose. Always change hands; for balance, one has to work both sides of the body, even if it feels a bit clumsier on one side.

Shopping is not celebrating the season - snow-shoveling is. And sitting in front of the wood stove, listening to Beethoven (my favorite at the moment: The complete Beethoven piano/cello music as played by the father/son team Alfred/Adrian Brendel), reading a book.

You think snow-shoveling is a chore, and you would rather go without? Imagine you couldn't do it because you were sick. You had to hire someone to do it, pay for it, and miss out on the exercise. How much you'd long for snow-shoveling then! What a desirable activity it would become!

During the holidays, the family didn’t mind eating my sauerbraten and red cabbage for three days in a row. They were actually looking forward to it – savoring it so much! I am a good cook but a lousy baker – don’t follow instructions well. But this year, my self-baked cookies came out right – the Florentines being the favorites of all times. Luckily, all cookies are nearly gone.

In the sauna, after three days of feasting (we celebrate on Christmas Eve), I noticed that I looked like a pink pig – and felt like one, too. But after one day with a light dinner (artichokes with pesto) and lots of outdoors activity, I am back to being my old self again. Artichokes are healing food for the liver - we all can use them after the holidays, I'd say.

All that is only the setting to tell you from where I am writing. What I really want is to share my present reading: Abraham Verghese’s Cutting For Stone. It is a medical novel, and surely I am biased as a physician, but I would award him the Nobel Prize for Literature – the book is that good! It spans three continents, giving us a flavor where we Americans come from – namely, the whole world. His observations of people and how they function (or not function) are deep and true. I wish I could write like that.

For a writer it is always upsetting to meet a book that is better than her own but I don’t care; I just care about that Abraham Verghese has written it - and that I am lucky enough to have found it. And I am not yet done: There will be a few days more of this exquisite pleasure!
Aspen eyes, by Peggy Peters

Iguazu Falls, by Xin Liu

Alexa Fleckenstein M.D. 2012, by Lolita Parker jr.

Tags - see also the non-captalized entries below!