Here, in Cochrane, Alberta, we live in sight of the mountains. I am thrilled every time I look out the window to see them looming up in the west, so close by. In June there can be skiffs of snow on their peaks where it is still as cold as winter and in canyons where the sun can only touch the white carpet for a short time each day. Yet here, in the foothills, the buds and blooms of spring are bursting open and along with that I can sense the smells of nature awakening on the prairies.
It starts with the smell of poplar sap early in May, if the weather permits. Then the blooms of the May Day trees and the crab apple trees planted in groomed yards appear. But in early June, when there are no more surprises from frost in the night, a smouldering scent permeates the air in the valleys and draws of the foothills, just like it does in the coulees of the prairies. The smell reminds me of the contrasts one tastes, moment by moment, when eating sweet and sour meatballs or sweet and sour soup. One moment the taste is sweet, but then it changes and the sour taste comes through. This scent is also at one moment sweet, but in the next moment pungent, then both seem to mix into a unique odour that is not fragrant, but still pleasant to me.
It was about twenty-five years ago that I started paying attention to this smell, mostly, because, like the poplar sap smell, it reminded me of my childhood. It should have been obvious, but as I explored where the scent was coming from I searched everywhere, even sniffing small flowers at ground level. Walking through the bushes one day, when the scent overpowered my nose, there was nothing around but the shiny silver leaves of the Wolf Willow bush. I went over to one, sniffed, and there it was. I found the source in the willow’s tiny yellow flowers, almost completely hidden by the leaves. The bush is insignificant in stature, yet it can’t help but be core to anyone’s memory of the prairies.
Some people will call the bush a silverberry, but not those who come from the Canadian prairies. Wallace Stegner named his book about his childhood in Whitemud*, Saskatchewan, ‘Wolf Willow’, and in it he describes his ‘rediscovery’ of the scent and the bush, which was not unlike mine.
It is with me all at once, what I came hoping to re-establish, an ancient, unbearable recognition, and it comes partly from the children (playing) and footbridge and the river’s quiet curve, but much more from the smell. For here, pungent and pervasive, is the smell that has always meant my childhood.
But what is it?..........The whole air smells of it, outside as well as in.
I pick up a handful of mud and sniff it. I step over the children (on the bridge) and bend my nose to the wet rail of the bridge. I stand above the water and sniff. On the other side I strip leaves off wild rose and dogwood. Nothing doing. And yet all around me is that odor that I have not smelled since I was eleven, but have never forgotten – have dreamed, more than once. Then I pull myself up the bank by a gray-leafed bush, and I have it. The tantalizing and ambiguous and wholly native smell is no more than the shrub we called wolf willow, now blooming with small yellow flowers.
It is wolf willow, and not the town or anyone in it, that brings me home.
From ‘Wolf Willow’ by Wallace Stegner
Published by Penguin
*We know it today as Eastend, Saskatchewan