A Geography of Smell

by Briggs Nisbet

Every February when the purple-leaved plum blooms, I recall my childhood. I don't have to see the flowers to know that they have burst open, clustered like pink popcorn on the dark limbs of the trees. I just sniff the air to draw in the thick aroma and experience a sudden displacement as if I had blinked and gone back in time. It is a peculiar scent -- sweet but with a dry muskiness. A friend once described it as the smell of tortillas and I realized it was the smell of corn he was recognizing. Corn tortillas. Cornbread. Corn fritters.

When I was a child the flowering plum was the smell of spring. A false spring, it would die as soon as the frothy pink began to brown and the blackish-purple leaves appear. Another month would pass before the bare brown hills would be knee-deep in grasses and the wild mustard in bloom. The mornings could still nip at your face and walking to school my exhaled breath rose like smoke. A filmy white dew carpeted the grass yards fronting each house on Cowper Street and I would pretend to skate across the lawn ice, leaving trails of bright green behind me.

When the first scent of plum blossom hits my nostrils, it is as if an alarm goes off to wake me from my winter dreaming. It is not just spring, it is every spring. It is the block of East Meadow Road where plum trees lined the sidewalk in front of Fairmeadow Elementary School. It is the red top corridors where we waited each morning for the classroom door to open, boys in one line, girls in another. It is after the puddle sailing and creek flooding time and before the marble and kite seasons. Soon it will be time to look for meadow lark nests in the fields of mustard along Middlefield Road. The scent of flowering plum is a geography of my childhood.

There is an irony to the presence of the decorative plum trees on the streets of Palo Alto. It occurred to me after searching for the botanical identity of the tree in a gardening encyclopedia. Not a native tree, Prunus blireiana is the product of botanical engineering, that is, a cultivated hybrid. Crossing the purple-leaf plum Prunus cerasifera 'atropurpurea' with the Japanese flowering plum Prunus mume, an enterprising horticulturalist created a tree with all the charm of the orchard and none of the trouble of fruit -- a perfect suburban tree. The oddity is that these faux plum trees decorate streets that wind through what was once the most prolific plum producing region in the world.

A hundred years passed from the first planting of plum orchards in the Santa Clara Valley and the setting out of plum- less plum trees along the streets of Palo Alto in the 1950s. In that time nearly everything that could identify the people or the town had changed. This change could be measured in numbers of people or altered landscapes but these methods lack the detail that could inform us of much more.

A list of commodities is a handy thing for a geographer. Say I want to know what was happening in the burg of Lexington, Kentucky when, in 1815, the local newspaper declared it would soon be "the greatest inland city in the western world." Civic puffery aside, this landlocked commercial center then was, along with Pittsburgh, one of the two largest towns in the West. But a brief look at their respective economies conjures remarkably different scenes for each. For Lexington, bucolic visions accompany the words "hemp, grain, tobacco, cordage, bagging, and sail." For Pittsburgh it is enough to list one commodity -- iron -- to see the smokestack skies and churning engines of the Industrial Age. For Santa Clara Valley at the southern end of San Francisco Bay, at mid-nineteenth century that list included gold, quicksilver, wheat, and dried plums.

Dried plums? I can wonder what motivated an enterprising horticulturist to create a plum tree without plums, but there is little doubt that a Frenchman, riding into the former Mexican pueblo of San Jose in 1856 bearing plum tree seedlings, sniffed profits in the sweet air. Variously described as a miner, an agriculturalist and a nurseryman, Louis Pellier, has no other mention in history than that of introducing California to the prune.

These are the bare facts, culled from several sources shelved on the bookcase I fondly refer to as "The California Collection." Seven shelves and as many subjects -- natural history, field guides to flowers, insects, birds and reptiles, native cultures, agriculture, social history, geology and deserts -- plucked from the used book sections of Berkeley bookshops and mailordered from catalog remainder lists. My habit of collecting books on California began over a decade ago when, as a graduate student in geography, I lucked into a part-time job writing a guidebook to the California coast.

The project required me to research everything there was to know about 1100 miles of the North American continental edge and write about it. I discovered strange topics that, I insisted to the editor, absolutely must be included. Ophiolites, for one, and gender relations among the Chumash, for another.

This being a reference to natural and historic features of the coast, native flora and fauna were included along with the origins of each coastal hamlet and major port city. But the editor balked when I wanted to include the Pleistocene pygmy mammoth on the list of "species of interest" for the Santa Barbara County coast.

Where would you see a pygmy mammoth in Santa Barbara! she demanded.

You wouldn't, I countered. It's extinct.

We can't put an extinct elephant on the species list! she shouted (editorial decisions were occasions of frequent drama).

You put dead white men all over the place, I yelled back, frustrated.

And it was true, the guide was littered with the names of any two-bit real estate speculator or local bigwig that had ever subdivided a parcel of coastal land. I wanted the elegant and more attractive fossil to get its due. The editor relented, finally, and she purged some of the dead men, too.

What I needed now, however, was a guide to prunes. It occurred to me that a slim volume sitting on the top shelf might have the information I wanted. The book, I remembered vaguely, had been required for a geography class for which I had spent several weekends knee-deep in marsh mud, digging up what I hoped would prove to be evidence of pickleweed plants buried under four feet of sludge. This deluge had been deposited as a result of hydraulic gold mining operations a hundred and forty years earlier. I never got around to reading the textbook, perhaps because of the title -- Plants, Man and Life. I opened the index to "p" and there waiting for me was a history of the plum. I settled in for a little research.

The origin of our common plum lies in the Neolithic age where two wild species self-hybridized -- a feat not often accomplished in nature, according to my textbook. The wild offspring, propagating somewhere in the southern Baltic or northern Mediterranean, was cultivated millennia later by denizens of the city of Damascus, an ancient node on the trading network of the Mediterranean. Sometime in the Middle Ages this Damascus or damson plum arrived in merry England where it made its way into the kitchen orchards of the country estates. (The peasants and workers would not have known its succulent delights, their daily fare being unleavened bread, mutton and barley ale.) The Romans, I suppose, could have carried a plum pit with them to the fortress town, Londinium, but it seems more likely the Crusaders of Richard the Lionheart, returning to the gloomy isles of Britain with the luxuries of Byzantium, the silks and spices, oils and hammered steel, also brought with them certain delicacies of the marketplace -- dates, olives, peaches, apricots and plums, dried and perhaps salted to keep on the long journey.

The aroma of dried plums. Still a sleepy hamlet in the 1950s, San Jose was the destination for the harvests of local peach, apricot and plum orchards that increasingly abutted the groves of woodframe houses. In late July or August, driving past the packing plant yards on our way to Gilroy or Santa Cruz for a family outing, a sweet and musky perfume would tweak our nostrils, and out the car window, across the railroad tracks, on huge wooden trays stacked ten feet high, the plums and apricots shriveled slowly in the dry heat.

The family car, a hulking lozenge of chromed steel and wool upholstery, Dad at the wheel and Mom beside him, two heads poking out the rear windows, in a sense carried us from the 19th century into the 20th as we passed the canneries and railyards of Industrial Age San Jose and headed south on the freeway, past the Lockheed plant parking lot, into the Age of Aerospace.

Copyright 1995
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