The Life of the Senses

O for a life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts! (John Keats)

We have been a walk this morning, Lola and I. She was reluctant to go, for it is very warm and very humid, owing to the near-ceaseless rain we’ve had the past several days. (Hubby tells me that ‘several’ is any number between three and seven, and I believe him.)

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But this morning I was determined, so I seized her before she could crawl into any one of her numerous hidey-holes around the house (behind chairs, under the bed, behind the sofa) and thus evade me. She is twelve years old, very soon to be thirteen, and she doesn’t like either hot weather or wet – but she needs her exercise and it had been three days. You see how I’m attempting to acquit myself for what some might consider cruelty to my dear little dog.

We followed a path along by some rolling fields, a government-run ‘experimental’ farm where they do strange things with seed potatoes, wheat and barley. In early summer the fields are a brilliant, buttery yellow with thousands of dandelions and once, several years ago, I rode past on my bike and the fields were redolent with blooming canola flowers. This morning the rain was a steady dripping between the fir and spruce trees, each individual drop pattering onto the carpet of fallen needles underneath my feet. I was listening to Susan Hill’s The Bird of Night, the narrator’s voice a synaesthetic accompaniment to the scent of the forest and the falling rain. I trailed my free hand (the one not holding the leash) along the wet heads of some sweet vernal grass, the water rolling in beads down my wrist and arm.  It was a delicious sensation.

 

We came upon a field of wild lupins, purple and pink, magenta, pale cream, and white. Their scent, perhaps coaxed out by the rain, was gorgeous. I picked a huge armful as we went, bending low to break the plants close to the root. I wanted extravagant long stems that would arch out of the vase I intended to put them in. The colours were so vibrant I couldn’t stop looking at them; I wanted to drink them in, consume them. They were intoxicating in their absolute perfection.

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The natural world inspires a kind of mania in me. I must indulge my senses. I have to smell the flowers, get wet in the rain, inhale the salt sea air, ford the icy November stream in my bare feet (I’ve done this), walk into the wind, squish the mud between my fingers… I remember once when I was little, maybe six or seven, I went for a walk in the woods with my father. He showed me some small white berries growing near a snowbank; we ate them, standing underneath a fir tree dripping wet snow on our heads. They tasted of chewing gum, of wintergreen. In the summertime we went into the woods near our house and picked sun-warmed wild blueberries as big as Concord grapes and ate them walking home, savoring the rampant flavour bursting on the tongue. In November, once the frost had touched them, my mother and I picked lingonberries (here they are called partridgeberries), a kind of wild cranberry, dark burgundy and full of a fragrant, piercing juice that made our mouths pucker. lingonberry

Author Flannery O’Connor said that fiction and human perception begin at the same place. A writer’s perception of the world is conveyed to the reader through avid description: what something feels like, what it tastes like, what it sounds like. A field of wildflowers bursts upon the retina. The scent of coffee, wafting past us on a city sidewalk some humid July morning, sets in motion a creative cascade that, if allowed to flow interrupted, eventually tumbles into story. The plash of individual raindrops into a solitary puddle in the middle of an empty forest is a transformative experience. We have to stop and look. More than that, we have to train ourselves to see. These lupins that I picked this morning won’t last beyond a day or two before they wither. The memory of them will last much longer. The colour and the scent of them will infuse the things I write. I stopped and saw them. I allowed them to flood my senses.

I was locked out of my house one night because I stayed out in the garden far too long, lying on my back and looking up at the stars. Similarly, a late-night drive along a rural Mississippi road under an absolute carpet of stars is an image I will never forget. Unless I’m standing knee-deep in the flow of life, I’m missing everything. If I’m missing everything, there’s nothing to inspire me and inform my work. I cut those lupins and I took them home with me. I need them. I need to see their colours. I need to make things with them.

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