Isabel Bannerman’s latest book on fragrance in plants and gardens reminds us that we have lost a great deal, often imperceptibly, and though this brings a certain sadness, we can at least enjoy the remembrance of things lost and more greatly appreciate what we still have. Scent Magic was the author’s previous wonderful book on this topic, a collection of personal memories, garden and plant observations and a exquisite selection of how some of our greatest writers had tackled the elusive wording needed to describe scent and fragrance evocatively and effectively. Scent Magic was a triumph and this latest publication a further gem of horticultural literature, an exquisite collection of quotations from great writers organised by month, each introduced with a passage from the author and all beautifully illustrated by her unique plant photographs.
Osbeth Sitwell’s description of Italian gardens might well be applied to this book, “created for rest in cool surroundings, for idleness and sauntering and imaginative thought…” It is a book which regularly brings the reader to a halt; it halts the rush of life, it invites reflection and remembrance, it evokes associations and memories. It reminded me of those plants we all have in our gardens, those special plants which are beyond price for they came by the kindness of friends, and each time we come to them we are brought back to special times and cherished people.
It has struck me that the majority of the literary quotations contained in the book are quite dated; very few are contemporary, for a reason the author refers to regularly – there is less fragrance/scent in our lives than was the situation generations back. Fragrance has been lost, has been masked and destroyed by pollution, and is no longer here for us. The chemical discharges of the industrial world interact with the scent molecules of plants – and of birds, plants, insects etc etc – and make them far less effective and obvious. Scent has been killed! Those who wrote prior to the Industrial Revolution generally described the fragrance of their setting in great detail while modern writers do not and this is simply because scent was more obvious previously while nowadays it is not. It has been, at least, masked by the chemistry of modern life and our life experiences are the poorer for that. We may not have noticed it, as we have grown up in this environment, but Isabel Bannerman’s will surely alert the reader to what we have lost and to the value of what remains. It is a most gentle and persuasive appeal for the conservation of one of the great joys of life.
Although the author set out to bring together a collection of quotations – and they are wonderful – I must say that it was her own writing which most appealed to me. Her introductions to the monthly chapters form a uniting narrative running through the book and are both informative and thought provoking. The literary quotations are widespread and varied and there will certainly be something to please everybody. Two, what I will call “quirky” quotations appealed especially to me: Alfred Lond Tennyson’s ‘Who Can Say’ and Reginald Farrer’s comment on snowdrops:
Who can say
To-morrow will be yesterday?
Who can tell
Why to smell
The violet, recalls the dewy prie
Of youth and buried time?
The cause is nowhere found in rhyme.
And, ‘In A Yorkshire Garden’ Reginald Farrer wrote of the snowdrop: ‘The snowdrop gives me chilblains only to look at it – and the very sight of a snowdrop will always make me hurry to the fireside. Was there ever such an icy, inhuman bloodless flower, crystallised winter in three gleaming petals and green-flecked cup?’
[The Star-Nosed Mole, An Anthology of Scented Garden Writing, Isabel Bannerman, Pimpernel Press, 2021, Hardback, 144 pages, £20, ISBN: 978-1-910258–45-3]