On Monday and Wednesday evenings I walk Josie around the circumference of the fields and the park while Rowan has soccer practice. This twice-weekly walk is my spring and fall ritual, a welcome break from our normal neighborhood route.
Josie is part beagle, which means she’s sniffy. That girl can snuff out a single Goldfish cracker half buried in the grass from twenty feet away. It used to irritate me that she stopped to smell so much. I considered our walks a chance to burn some calories after sitting at my desk for five or six hours straight. I aimed to break a sweat, or at the very least, elevate my heart rate.
Josie, on the other hand, partakes in our evening constitutional for one reason only: to explore the smorgasbord of smells. Scent is how she sees and experiences the world. It’s her delight. Once I realized smelling was the highlight of Josie’s day, I gave in. I let her nose dictate our path. Now I stop when and where she stops. I walk again when she has had her fill of a particular scent.
Last Thursday, Josie’s nose led us into a grove of Bradford pear trees on the far side of the park, and while she stopped to digest a particularly intriguing scent, I admired the white blossoms above my head. Pear blossoms stink, you should know – to my nose, like an unseemly combination of manure and decaying animal, although others suggest they smell like dead fish. My son Noah guesses that the stink attracts flies, which then buzz off with a generous dollop of pollen on their hairy bodies. It’s the species’ ingenuous though putrid way of ensuring its survival. Though the smell is unpleasant, as long as you don’t breathe through your nose, it doesn’t diminish the beauty of the trees, their lush blossoms so dense that from a distance they look like newly fallen snow clumped on limbs and branches.
As I stood in the cool shade beneath the canopy of blooms, something caught my eye – a tiny, colorful tag twirling and spinning in the breeze. Once I spotted this tag, I immediately began to see others. Dozens of them in primary colors clung to string which draped the pears’ lower boughs like Christmas garland, all the way around the entire circumference of the grove.
I stepped closer, tugging Josie along with me. On each tag, in black Sharpie cursive, were words — Love. Thank You. Life. Love you. And names – Sarah. Jennifer. Ryan. Dave. All around the trees, these simple words of gratitude and celebration, these names of people I didn’t know, clung to the branches, hidden, pirouetting in the dappled sunlight. You would never see them just walking by on the path. You had to step into the dim grove and stop with your face nearly immersed in the petals.
I followed the string like a trail through the grove. It seemed the garland had been there awhile. It broke off here and there, leaving gaps, the end of the string fluttering, then resumed again a few branches later. As I read the tags I wondered about the story. There was a story there for sure, perhaps many stories behind those names and sentiments written in delicate black ink. Hands had written those words, threaded the tags onto the string, strung those words around the lowest boughs of the pear trees. Perhaps the garland had been threaded through blossoms and branches as a celebration, perhaps as a memorial. Perhaps both.
Josie grew bored with my garland marveling, and I finally gave in to her tugging. As we stepped out of the grove and into the bright sunlight, I felt a sense of awe and gratitude wash over me. I had stumbled upon a secret garden, a sacred place, and received a message. I had stood still, recited the names of people I don’t know, and gratefully accepted it all as a mysterious and unexpected gift.