Down Nature's Paths

November Woods and Memories

I WAS delighted when my hostess at Kingfield, Tennessee, suggested a Sabbath afternoon walk. As we passed along the woodsy paths, suddenly I stopped and sniffed the air intently. "What is it?" asked my friend, noting my excitement.

"Nothing yet," I said, "but a memory—the memory of a fragrance, the breath of the November woods, something I haven't smelled since I was a child. There must be witch hazel growing close by."

Soon we found it. Nothing else is like it. Once its fragrance has filled the nostrils of a child who lives in the woods, it is never forgotten. Such an elusive, thin, light sweetness would be lost among the airs of spring or the more robust aromas, of the hot season. But in the autumn woods there are two fragrances that are the soul (the "breath") of the season: the fragrance of falling leaves and the scent of witch-hazel blossoms found in rich abundance.

Let us pay a loving tribute over the graves of the goodly leaves. They are the banners of unselfish service all summer; they are shining and fragrant in their dying; they enrich the world in their death. They are like godly personalities, lovely and pleasant in life, not divided from beauty in death.

But there is nothing dying about the witch hazel. It seems exuberant with life the year around. Too large to be a shrub, it is too small to be a tree. It can't stand still long enough to be a tree. It must send up multiple stems instead of one trunk. And these strong, flexible stems bend vibrantly before storms (but more so when children ride them for "horses"). It must be a little different in everything. Its leaves cannot be folded into equal halves; they are irregular at their bases and sometimes wider than long.

But it is in its flowering and seeding that witch hazel is most alive. When even the leaves lie in sodden graves under fall rains, witch hazel lights its candles. Its long wands are crowded with tiny flowers set three or four to a cluster, each with four strap-shaped petals. The petals are not sedate, but are as curled and wavy as though perpetually dancing in miniature breezes. And lest the eye miss its pale gold sunshine, it sends forth the sweetest flower breath I know to ravish the attention to its loveliness.

Then when its lover bends to enjoy its sweet savor, it may shoot him square on the cheek with a shiny black seed fired with an audible pop from last year's seedpods, ripening beneath this year's flower clusters. No dropping its seeds for witch hazel! No idle waiting for wind or animal to carry them! It fires them off. Witch hazel shots have been measured as much as forty-five feet.

So there is something thrillingly alive about the witch hazel around the calendar. God is a lover of life and beauty, or He would never have set the golden witch hazel blossoms under November's black skies.