Breath in its scent, and you start to remember things you didn’t know you’d forgotten.
Robin Wall Kimmerer
Imagine sitting in the grass on a warm springtime evening. As the sun slowly sinks deeper, humid air rises from the ground. Suddenly the air seems almost tangible with a buttery nuance. It carries an intense fragrance that appears to come from nowhere, and yet its strength is downright physical: violets marry hyacinths.
When I smelled Mother-of-the-Evening (Hesperis matronalis) for the first time on a May dusk in 2020, it came like a shock and a revelation at once. Why had I not noticed these old-fashioned plants between the English roses in my garden the weeks before? Meanwhile, they were almost as tall as me. In April I had even crafted some of their violet flowers with inked paper. Why couldn’t I perceive them in their entirety, with all my senses, until that particular evening?
I hesitated, pondered: Something had gone wrong with my perception during these weeks. I felt alienated from nature as if separated by a glass wall. I could hardly distinguish those plants from the silk paper I used for my art. The situation appeared to me like a metaphor for our modern way of dealing with nature. We no longer feel this creature tree in the product paper. We use it mostly like other products of natural origin: unconsciously. We repress that our dealings with non-human beings influence the fabric of life, stretch it, tear holes in it, often crumple it carelessly.
On this May evening in the pandemic spring, the situation became rather eerie. I took another breath of these lilac flowers to make sure that I was not mistaken.
Mother-of-the-Evening smells of violet meadows and fields of hyacinths. As a top note, the spicy, slightly bitter freshness of carnations wafts through the air, peppered by hoary stock perfume. There are vanilla and fruity sweetness, memories of sweet alyssum and a childhood in old cottage gardens.
I was so overwhelmed by the floral abundance of scents, the discovery hit me almost existentially: I had not recognised losing my sense of smell and taste until that moment! On that day, the plant had given me back a part of my universe, a part of myself.
Later I learnt that the loss of these senses could have been an atypical symptom of COVID-19, the new pandemic, feeling like a dystopic abyss. The spring of 2020 was the time of the great horror in Eastern France when heavy military helicopters and planes rushed over our house day and night to take the most severe cases abroad.
At the end of March, our hospitals looked like they were in a state of war: There were no more beds available and no more ventilators. We had no masks, and they tested only the sickest for coronavirus. With each passing day, more dystopia leaked into reality. Suddenly we seemed to lose not only our connections to nature but also to our human-made environment. The ground under the feet felt like quicksand.
Nevertheless, we still had no idea how deep this existential abyss would become that separated us from an illusion of a predictable life. While we alienated ourselves from nature long before, the pandemic hurt our sense of belonging even deeper. However, at the same time, the crisis deepens our longing for reconnection, for becoming a part of nature instead of being an abusing narcissist.
After the first lockdown, people rediscovered nature like never before. When it was forbidden to walk more than one kilometre radius, we began to yearn for parks and meadows, forests, beaches or mountains. People walked to nature places as if on a pilgrimage.
I began to sit with Mother-of-The-Evening every day, breathing (again) deeply, learning to live in a very different world. Her beauty helped me to endure dystopia. Meeting daily and even talking to the plant, she showed me her personality as good friends reveal themselves. Does she, therefore, have so many nearly magical names in different languages?
Since she changed my view and thus my life, I call her Sweet Lady Violet and “she” because she has become more than just a “plant” for me. She became my friend, companion and teacher. When she hibernates invisibly, I wonder how one-dimensional we humans are, when we elevate ourselves above nature. We are just lint in the fabric of life. All the fluff together is what makes nature so fascinating.
Sweet Lady Violet has a headstrong and contradictory character: She never grows where human gardeners wish but wanders through the whole garden, following the tracks of animal gardeners like mice and bugs, exploring fresh soil. Spreading her fragrance in the blue hour of twilight when the nightingales sing, she is a queen of the darkness, filled to the brim with light and perfume. She is not the only one.
In my book about Romanesque Black Madonnas, I described the pilgrimage to another dark queen, the descent into medieval fear. On their way to the subterranean crypt, where Notre Dame de la Nuit lived – the Virgin of the Night – the pilgrims had to confront the shadows.
Imagine you leave the sunlight and natural landscapes, diving into an artificial blackness. Confronting your fears, you notice that your eyes slowly adapt to this Otherworld: Darkness is never really black. In the narrow passageway, there is an afterglow from the candles burning inside the crypt. Only the grey veil of a world-in-between separates you from your destination.
Looking into the womb-like cave, you need only one breath, one step over a ritual threshold on the ground, the blink of an eye, and suddenly you stand close to the Black Madonna. She is a majestic queen sitting on a throne. Awhile you are completely blinded. The gloominess turns into an Ali Baba cave, for medieval churches were full of colours and the dance of lights on precious metals.
Around you, there is the glitter and glimmer of golden reliquary shrines encrusted with precious stones. Candlelight blinks on vessels on the altar, rubies and emeralds.
Like a child discovering a treasure, standing in front of the dark lady, your amazement grows. Her eyes in the blackened wood are luminescent coloured spheres of glass. They attract your gaze, almost devour it, throw it back. You take a step back from the abundance of light, remember the darkness before, feel alienated and look for support from a pillar beside her. It shows the Green Man, her companion. Bathed in the candlelight and scent of incense, you discover lianas and plants coming from his mouth, branching out around you, nature-like, intertwining the Otherworld and the enlivened world. Reconnection cannot be manufactured; it is a gift to those who open their heart and senses to the fabric of life.
Petra van Cronenburg is a writer, journalist and paper artist. She lives in the Northern Vosges Nature Park in Eastern France and works at the intersection of art and ecology.