Sometimes, there’s a place where the grass and the sage, pine and cottonwood, rocks and scrub and a cactus or two — maybe piñon and mesquite and yucca and so forth — they all get together and make up this kind of mildly intoxicating existence.
Little breezes ruffle and shift the scents around, or the wind really kicks up and does its best to rearrange your day.
Mostly these areas aren’t burdened with an overabundance of trees or houses. You can see the horizon. You can breathe in deep and feel your mind flatten out. Memory and time stop fighting each other. Your worst enemy might be a fence or two.
I don’t generally have anything against concentrations of trees or houses — or people, for that matter — but I need to be out in the wide angle, out in the open kind of wild.
You can see the storms coming. Hear the wind searching. Feel the thunder roll. See the lightning crack. You can see the sun breaking in yellow through the mist or dying red in the clouds, and you can look at it all coming and get ready.
You can give yourself to it. It’s like getting ready for church or mass. Like a wedding or a funeral.
Things in the land and things in us consummate and die all the time. Out there you can see it, know it for what it is.
Note: a version of this article previously appeared in the Winter 2019 issue of Mélange Magazine.
The storm-dampened scents of Dauphine Street gave way to something old and familiar as I opened the front door of the used bookstore.
Here in the heart of New Orleans, as in all places I visit, I’d inevitably found myself seeking out such places. Without a particular itinerary, and driven by multiple cups of chicory coffee, I found myself somewhat regrettably using Google Maps to suss out the oldest and most promising of these shops.
The smell embraced me immediately as I entered. If you’ve ever been around old books for any length of time, you know what I speak of. It’s somewhere between the dust and age of old houses and a bottle of vanilla in a woodshed. In these places, worthy treasures are never guaranteed; the calming scent of nostalgia certainly is.
Nostalgia, in this case, being the simple chemical reactions that physically occur in books as they age. As time passes, the wood pulp in a book’s pages breaks down into various organic compounds. Lignin, which makes up a generous portion of the pulp, produces acids, which in turn dismantle the pages’ cellulose. This process produces vanillin, benzenes, and hexanols, contributing vanilla-, almond-, and floral- and organic-like smells to the book itself.
This is partially what makes up what some lovingly refer to as biblichor, or “the smell of old books”. By comparison, the recently rained-on street mentioned earlier was imbued with petrichor, or “the smell after rain”. Ichor, the Greeks said, is the fluid that flows in the veins of the gods.
Given that it’s generally the hardcover books made between the 1830s and 1980s that used the pulping and adhesive processes necessary to produce what we consider biblichor, you’ll find less and less of it in volumes printed after the late 50s (when the paperback craze started to take off). Only in recent history have we begun to use materials and processes that deny the production of the scent of nostalgia.
Scent, as we know, is the most powerful accessor of memory- but also of imagined memory, of that nostalgia. You can feel it, in these old shops and old locales. Your mind, after skipping through your own memories, feels as though it’s touching the edges of others- of memories not your own.
There’s something nearly indefinable about old bookshops, something that draws many of us in, I imagine, without a specific purpose in mind. It goes beyond mere charm. This must be one of the reasons we seek them out, for what in the modern age affords us the rare luxury of true purposelessness?
That lovely lack of purpose, I suppose, lands right alongside the lure of the historical- history that can, in these places, end up being far more personal than a tour or museum. When we’re led by a guide (or by ourselves) to tours or museums, it’s with the purpose of encountering something enshrined- something important.
When we find ourselves wandering into a used bookstore, antique store, or the like, it’s not only the apposite lack of purpose that entices us, but the other side of the historical coin- things forgotten or discarded. Things left behind. The unimportant. While monuments widen our gaze within past ages, the trinkets and relics of the individuals from those ages do far more to transport us, and in turn, to ground us.
Among the wayward, proliferate stacks of the old books I navigated around in Dauphine Street, I uncovered a 1961 printing of the Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran’s Sand and Foam, nestled in with several of his other works. One of Gibran’s trademark small, unassuming tributes to the meaning of language, art, time, and love, I found inside the cover that this particular volume had been gifted from one college student to another:
December 1962 Merry Christmas Brenda, Gibran says that the obvious is that which is never seen until someone expresses it simply. I hope these two books will help you see the obvious more clearly, as they have me. Best Wishes as Always, Gaye
On the following page, Brenda has marked herself as the owner of the book, along with an identifier of her residence at the time: Dorman Hall.
A bit of research shows that “Dorman Hall” was a dormitory at FSU in Tallahassee, built in 1959 after the Florida State College for Women converted to a coed institution in 1947. Researching the modern layout of FSU reveals that the original Dorman Hall was demolished in 2015; but a newer version has been built in its place.
I wonder if Brenda’s still around- happy, retired, perhaps writing a book of her own in her mid-70s. I wonder if she and Gaye remained friends. I wonder if she remembers this book, and whatever meaning it held for her.
Old bookstores make you wonder a lot of things, the least of which involve yourself and your place in the world.
Of course, with time being the great equalizer, this means that you’re as likely to find hidden treasures in one old shop as in any other. This would be proven to me somewhat humorously two years later, when someone pointed me to an even larger stack of old Kahlil Gibran volumes at a library sale in Hot Springs, South Dakota.
The territory of nostalgia is a mostly level playing field, no matter where you might find yourself. Whether it’s milk and coffee, old stone and fresh rain, or old wood and older books…
when driving with old music under slated smoke against the brushstroked horizon fading along mountains to the west as the sun-heat of the high desert reflecting off the scent of sagebrush gives way to a chill mist collecting on burnished sandstone and granite with small patches of veridian moss and lichen in the wild geometry of a late afternoon as amber light stretches out into a blanket under which nothing can harm us
(not even the future not even the past
[this is a good place to stop and get out the cameras] ),
our gaze sweeps the scattered domains of the earth, of the coyote and the elk and a railroad track not used in years;
soon, we will start thinking of good food and something cool to drink.
Softly now, as your soul sings in the depths of the dark.
Sweetly now, as we drink deep from the overflowing cup.
The ceiling fan spins light kaleidoscopic in the late evening, and the sheets smell like you, and my shirt is scented with dust and musk, and we trace each other’s tattoos and taste of each other’s wine and speak our stories into the air.
So lightly, as my fingers brush the back of your neck.
Elegantly, as your hand rests upon the rising of my chest.
Slowly, as thunderclouds growl and gather in the distance.
The hours after midnight are only for the nameless, the forgotten, the secrets, the lovers, the ascendant.
Carefully now, as I carve your name into the side of my heart.
miles have we moved with kinked-up backs and rough-cut hands,
years have we labored with tired hearts and aching minds,
through the burning suppression of the soul, shackled and shamed; pushing through this perdition, passing as penitent through this purgatory,
boots sticking hard in the festering swamp of solitude, or resting near the doorstop of the holy haven of solitude;
the once bright and shining, the sprout-seed, the storm-sailor floats now over the sifting wastelands, over liars, thieves, and kingdoms, over fates, feasts, and famines;
the final card is turned and it is Death reversed –
when you touch me,
the flowers of spring bloom upon my skin, the thunders of summer roll across my form, the winds of autumn whisper in my ear, the snows of winter pile upon my peaks;
when you speak, the earth is silent.
and when you look at me with eyes that have seen too much and not enough, eyes deep and clear against the world, eyes always horizon-bound, when you look at me with your eyes – wells of dreamwater fed by heaven’s rivers –
Does it fly full-out and free under the sun? Does it hide and whisper its dreamings in the dark? Does it drift in fitful slumber beneath the sea?
What voices, still, are carried on the horizon’s wind?
Where do they go?
And why, why is all this insanity very much like a coming home?
(does it even matter?)
Here, I’ll tell you a secret:
I have no idea.
But I think it’s very close
to whatever makes a horse dig its hooves hard into the ground, playing with the earth at the scent of rain, throwing out ripened patches of green grass to an evening blanket-sky burgeoned with pillars of midnight as the final spears of sunlight slip past the edges of thunderwaves forged in hearts of lightning.