I work on a beautiful campus. You don’t believe me? Take a look:
Lots of trees and green open spaces. The buildings . . . well, they’re buildings. To be honest, I don’t really pay much attention to a building unless it has medieval connections. So much for American architecture.
I’ve enjoyed walking around campus this summer, taking much needed breaks from my window-less office to get some sun and fresh air. I tend to follow the same route each time, and I enjoy noticing things that I’ve missed on previous passes. This is my favorite part of my walk:
It’s not particularly beautiful, but what I love about it is the smell. See that pine tree along the path? It’s one of many, and they’re up on a hill, which means that each time I walk by, the breeze fills my nostrils with the scent of pine. And each time, I’m reminded of hiking in Vermont years ago.
When I graduated from college, my parents’ gift to me was a summer-long hiking trip with my father. We chose to do the Long Trail, which runs the vertical length of the state of Vermont, beginning near Williamstown, Massachusetts, and ending at the Canadian border, for a total of 273 miles.
I had spent previous summers hiking in Wyoming, Tennessee, Virginia, New Hampshire, New York, and a variety of other areas within the continental US, but this would be my longest continuous hike. I still vividly remember that first day. We had parked near the trailhead–the shelter where we would stay that night was just a few miles in–and once we set up camp, my dad hiked back down to move the car to a more permanent spot. That left me in the forest for a few hours. What do I remember from that first day? Lots of noises. Strange rustlings, eerie creakings. I knew it was just chipmunks and squirrels foraging and the wind blowing through the trees, but it was still spooky, and I found myself wondering what I had gotten myself into that summer.
But the uneasiness quickly passed, and the summer progressed. And I’m glad that I persisted. The view from Mount Mansfield (Vermont’s highest peak at 4,393 feet–yeah, I know, it’s just a baby compared to the Colorado 14ers) was spectacular, and once we had finished the trail, we stopped at Mount Cardigan in New Hampshire, and from its summit, we could see the entire line of peaks we had just spent the summer climbing (and the blueberries along the trail were ripe and plentiful–yum!).
My favorite parts of the trail that summer, though, were not the spectacular vistas (of which there were many), but rather the deep forests through which we walked. I don’t have any pictures of these places, but they are etched in my memory. Thick, rugged trees holding up dense canopies, and underfoot, layers upon layers of pine needles and velvety moss. Thin rays of light illuminate the surroundings just enough that you have no real sense of what time it is. And the air. So still, yet so . . . pungent. Full of life. And the intoxicating smell of pine. Not the oppressive, menacing forest of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Mirkwood. Far from it. But rather, a step back in time, as cliched as that may be. A timeless place.
A religious place.
I love cathedrals. Whenever I manage to travel to Europe, I have two objectives: visit a castle and visit a cathedral (or other old church). I love the history, and I love the stillness. The vertical lines of the architecture. This summer, I visited Fountains Abbey, founded in 1132 by Cistercian monks:
The abbey was abandoned in 1539 when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, but the ruins and the surrounding landscape were stunning. Had I not been pressed for time, I would have lay beneath those monumental beams for hours. Yet these masterpieces of human artifice, which seek to reach to the heavens themselves, are nothing compared to those ancient forests just below the treeline in Vermont (I’ve stumbled across a few places in Colorado that reminded me of Vermont, but just a few–the mountains here are called the Rockies with good reason!).
I think some of my preference for copses over cathedrals stems from my childhood. I have a distant memory of a church service held in the woods–whether it is real or due to a painting by my grandfather, I’m not sure. Summers were spent in the mountains whenever possible, and like my father before me, my idea of getting away from it all is to go to the mountains.
As a result, I find myself drawn to descriptions of forests in medieval literature. Two that immediately come to mind are the following:
The Awntyrs Off Arthur (late 14th – early 15th century)
Then durken the dere in the dymme skuwes,
That for drede of the deth droupes the do.
And by the stremys so strange that swftly swoghes
Thai werray the wilde and worchen hem wo.
The huntes thei halowe, in hurstes and huwes,
And till thaire riste raches relyes on the ro. (53-58)
Whenever I teach this poem, I’m always struck by the sound in these lines. The hard stops of /d/ that evoke the deer as they are driven into the depths of the forest (King Arthur and his hunting party in pursuit), interrupted by the fricatives /s/ that accompany the stream of water that suddenly splashes across the page.
Or this excerpt from the fifteenth-century ballad “Robin Hood and the Monk”:
In somer, when the shawes be sheyne,
And leves be large and long,
Hit is full mery in feyre foreste
To here the foulys song,
To se the dere draw to the dale,
And leve the hilles hee,
And shadow hem in the leves grene,
Under the grene wode tre. (1-8)
This is a much more peaceful moment, one where the forest is bursting with fertility and bird song. When Robin and his men appear, they are not threatening or disruptive; they are as much at home in the forest as are the deer that they illegally hunt.
But in neither text does the forest take on any religious dimension. For that, we’d need to turn to another favorite, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Gawain must find the Green Knight, in the mysterious Green Chapel, within a year to meet the demands of a contest. Gawain must travel through treacherous landscapes:
Þay bo3en bi bonkkez þer bo3ez ar bare,
Þay clomben bi clyffez þer clengez þe colde.
Þe heuen watz vphalt, bot vgly þer-vnder;
Mist muged on þe mor, malt on þe mountez,
Vch hille hade a hatte, a myst-hakel huge.
Brokez byled and breke bi bonkkez aboute,
Schyre schaterande on schorez, þer þay doun schowued.Wela wylle watz þe way þer þay bi wod schulden (2078-84)
They go by banks and by braes where branches are bare,they climb along cliffs where clingeth the cold;the heavens are lifted high, but under them evillymist hangs moist on the moor, melts on the mountains;every hill has a hat, a mist-mantle huge.Brooks break and boil on braes all about,bright bubbling on their banks where they bustle downwards.Very wild through the wood is the way they must take . . .
And þenne he wayted hym aboute, and wylde hit hym þo3t,
And se3e no syngne of resette bisydez nowhere,
Bot hy3e bonkkez and brent vpon boþe halue,
And ru3e knokled knarrez with knorned stonez;
Þe skwez of þe scowtes skayned hym þo3t.
Þenne he houed, and wythhylde his hors at þat tyde,
And ofte chaunged his cher þe chapel to seche:
He se3 non suche in no syde, and selly hym þo3t,
Saue, a lyttel on a launde, a lawe as hit were;
A bal3 ber3 bi a bonke þe brymme bysyde,
Bi a for3 of a flode þat ferked þare;
Þe borne blubred þerinne as hit boyled hade. (2163-2174)
And then he gazed all about; a grim place he thought it,
and saw no sign of shelter on any side at all,
only high hillsides sheer upon either hand,
and notched knuckled crags with gnarled boulders;
the very skies by the peaks were scraped, it appeared.
Then he halted and held in his horse for the time,
and changed oft his front the Chapel to find.
Such on no side he saw, as seemed to him strange,
save a mound as it might be near the marge of a green,
a worn barrow on a brae by the brink of a water,
beside falls in a flood that was flowing down;
the burn bubbled therein, as if boiling it were.
There’s a lot of scholarship on this grassy mound as the Green Chapel, so I won’t go into that, but consider this harsh landscape. Just as cathedrals sought to raise their walls to the heavens, so too do the hillsides here. This chapel even has its own baptismal font. But like the other two passages I’ve offered above, while there is much to take in aurally, from the onomatopoeia in Awntyrs to the explicit presence of birdsong in “Robin Hood and the Monk,” there’s no indication of smell. That sense which evokes distant memories for me of my time in Vermont is absent in these medieval accounts. Why?
I’ve been reading through Paul Freedman’s book Out of the East: Spices and the Medieval Imagination (2009) this summer, and one of the many things that I’m taking away from it is the emphasis on smell. Freedman writes, “Medieval people were impressed by wonderful smells rather than the absence of any scent . . . . a panoply of unpleasant smells was no doubt unavoidable in everyday life . . . [such as] excrement, animals, sickness, sweat, dirt, the effects of such noxious enterprises as tanneries or smelters. It is precisely because of this inevitable familiarity with awful odors that people in premodern societies were entranced with beautiful smells” (81). As a result, spices were in great demand in part due to their aromas, and one of the markers of sainthood was a pleasant smell emanating from the corpse after death. If you travel to the city of York, you can partake in the Jorvik experience in which a Viking town is recreated–down to the very smell! Several Old English poems–The Panther, The Whale, The Phoenix–describe fantastical creatures with strong smells.
But why don’t the forests of Middle English literature smell? Why is there no commentary on the crispness of the air? The earthy aroma wafting up when the leaves are disturbed underfoot? Did medieval people ever experience the forest as a cathedral? Earlier religions–especially those practiced by Germanic and Celtic peoples–worshiped trees, but with the arrival of Christianity, many, if not all, of the sacred groves would have been destroyed. Perhaps, given the prevalence of incense used in medieval church services, they were so accustomed to associating the aroma of incense with a religious experience, and so they would have no call to link the forests with such. But since medieval people appreciated pleasant smells, was it just that the forest odor did not appeal to them? I know one thing for sure–I’m going to keep an eye out for any olfactory details in the next Middle English romance that I read.