This is the fifth and final installment of Nina MacLaughlin’s Novemberance column, which has run every Wednesday this month.
Some weeks ago, before the first frost, before the days got dark in the late afternoon, I took a walk in an unfamiliar place. The dirt trail gave way to a narrow planked walkway flanked on both sides by high grass and brambles. It smelled like late fall, that earthy vinegar stink of rotting leaves. To breathe in the damp and leafy woods-floor smell is to breathe in decay. It’s the fertile, fecund smell of compost, of farms, hay, ammonia, manure; there’s the fermenting yeasty tang of beer. It’s the smell of humification: a word that sounds more like the process of making someone. It’s a brown-red smell, deep and dense and fungal.
I walked with someone who knew about plants, who’d tug at branches and look at the underbellies of leaves and show me what he knew. I felt lucky to learn, and tried to pay attention. The boardwalk footpath lead deeper into a boggy place, and the silence seemed to densify around us, and we tread with lighter steps. On the planked path he paused. “Sphagnum moss,” he said, pointing to a mound. I told him I did not like the word sphagnum, that it sounded like something you suffer from. “Feel it though,” he said. It was good advice. I crouched and pressed my palm into the moss. It was cool and damp and feathery, with a cushioned give, welcoming and soft. I wanted to lay my face in it, my whole body, to let the entire weight of me get absorbed into this cooling cloud of plant. Read More