Summer's End: There is something about the decline of the season that drives us to linger and look, to examine things we might otherwise simply accept, even rejoice in. For me, one of those things, especially in the soft cool evenings of late summer, is the fragrance of Moonflowers (Ipomoea alba). This night-blooming cousin of the Morning Glory unfurls its blossoms at dusk to call out to night foraging moths, which locate flowers more by scent than by color.
Yesterday, i was sitting in the garden arbor as night fell and the Moonflowers began to unfurl. But did I sit back and enjoy it? No What occurred to me in a sudden fit of Baconian insolence was to determine the source of the prodigious fragrance. I plucked the blossom and touched it to the end of my nose. The fragrance was there, though less dense, less immersive than that floating on the dusk-risen breeze. I had expected the fragrance to be stronger up close, to overwhelm me the way chewing ten pieces of bubble gum used to when I was a kid. I was underwhelmed.
I thought about this as the evening deepened and the surrounding scent became stronger. Maybe when I sniffed it, I hadn’t put the proper part of the flower to my nose. It was too dark to see clearly, so I picked a flower and reluctantly took it inside. I decided to be systematic: I ran my nose along the edge of the bloom, as far as possible from the throat. Once picked, it had begun to go limp. It was now cool to the touch and moist… and not at all fragrant.
That eliminated the petals as the source of the scent, so I removed them, exposing the anthers and the stamens. I pressed them close to my nose, but there was only the faintest fragrance. I went out to my shop and selected the thinnest Xacto knife, determined to locate, by dissection if necessary, the source of my pleasure. I sliced and diced the flower, like a physicist turning up the super collider to cleave ever further into the heart of the universe, sure I would eventually find it.
I surveyed the Moonflower’s mangled corpse on the counter. I sniffed each of the parts again, more closely, more delicately. Where was it hiding? The only fragrance, now just beginning, was the light, rank odor of disintegration.
I went back to the arbor and sat quietly in the chair, giving my baffled mind a chance to relax. The scent of more opened Moonflowers settled in all around me. After a few moments, I rolled off the chair to my knees and followed the scent to one of the open blossoms, as if I were a dog. The fragrance was very strong all around, yet right at the throat it was, once again, a mere vapor.
I leaned back on my haunches and a new idea came to me: Stein's famous assertion about her home town “there is no there there.” That is, no one part of the plant is the source of the fragrance. Scholars would call the fragrance of the Moonflower an “emergent phenomena” that occurs when the assemblage of parts (the necessary parts, and just the necessary parts) come together in the right place (my arbor) at just the right time (dusk), driven by what poets call “the green fuse” and philosophers from Spinosa to Mathews term “conatus.”
I would offer that culture, and the unique character of a place, are emergent properties of a particular time, a particular place and a particular past. What puts the there in there. We are always immersed in it, but if we look too close, we lose what is essential to the experience of it.
A slightly different version of this essay was published as one of my columns Agri:Culture in Fluent Magazine (fluent-magazine.com)