It is legend that, some twenty-five hundred years ago, a ruler of Babylon (or was it Niniveh?) commissioned a wondrous garden, terraced up from the flat plains between the rivers of the Fertile Crescent. Its levels were built of huge slabs of stone, elaborately carved and supported by high vaulted colonnades. Huge amounts of soil were transported to create hills and fields in this garden many, many feet above street level. Sundry species of trees, shrubs, flowers and herbs were brought in to plant its winding paths. Using giant corkscrew pumps, thousands of gallons of water were moved against gravity on a daily basis to keep the garden lush and green. The ancient historians named it one of the seven wonders of the world, and marveled at this oasis, high above the incessant bustle of the city, smoothed with endless marble and steeped in a deep, seductive fragrance from the constant bloom of aromatic plants.
It is also said that it was in fact the queen who, longing for her homeland in the rich, flowering hills of the north, had pleaded with her husband for a retreat that could remind her of her younger days, of her family, and of what brought her joy. Watching her languish in the hot, humid, noisy city at the heart of his kindgom, he met her request in grand style - and her Hanging Gardens have been the stuff of myth ever since. But while some may wonder at the choice of such a garden to appease the restless spirit, it makes perfect sense to me: a retreat of roses and jasmine, lavender and linden is the perfect prescription not only for bringing a quiet respite in the middle of a hectic life, but also for re-inspiring and re-awakening the joy and creativity of childhood. Furthermore, the fact that it was literally floating above the day-to-day activity of the city serves as a fitting metaphor for the scented garden itself: a time apart, uplifted, serene.
Think of the last time you received a bouquet of flowers, or brushed past a patch of mint in a field, or simply stood in the deep part of a forest and smelled, just smelled, the earth, the spruce, the moss. Chances are you experienced a moment where you lost track of your responsibilities, your desires, your plans and just existed in the fragrance. If even for a second, you tapped into a very primeval state of being: it is childlike, flowing, and free. In such a state, it is difficult to be judgemental, anxious, rigid, sad, or angry - and this may be why we so often give gifts of scented flowers when we want to nurture an atmosphere of love, understanding, and joy.
This fact may also underlie the nearly universal practice of burning scented plants, resins, and oils to alter the "energy" of a room or space: it clears the mind, sets the stage for creative, spiritual work, and attunes us to the present moment. Cultural rituals have harnessed the power aromatic plants hold over us and have embedded their use into the peak times of our lives: at birth and death; during marriage celebrations; as a cornerstone of purification ceremonies; during the dark, wintry months when the light is low; as part of meditative practice. Perfumery and aromatherapy have long recognized the power scent has on the human spirit - even real estate marketing suggests that a home, when appropriately scented, may put prospective buyers in a relaxed, comfortable mindset. In the ancient world, a thousand years before the Hanging Gardens were built, priests in the old stone temples along the Nile were mixing kyphi, the sweet and spicy incense sacred to the pharaos.
But the Egyptian ceremonies didn't only involve smoke and scent. Often, the priests leading the rituals would also ingest a good amount of kyphi, powdered and dissolved in wine, as a sort of primitive herbal extract. Here the truest power of scented herbs is revealed: when they are ingested, their action is magnified and lasts much longer. The smell may awaken us, bring us into the present moment, and help us flow through change more gracefully: but once the aromatic plants enter our bodies, their volatile constituents first relax our bellies, then disslove into our bloodstream and reach all of our internal organs. If there is underactivity in an organ or tissue, fragrant plants can "wake it up" (think of ginger, or peppermint). Conversely, if a tissue is overly tense, aromatic herbs "loosen the knot" (like fennel seeds after a huge meal, or lavender oil during a massage). Net result: a more balanced state of internal tension. Since forever, herbalists have called many of these plants “nervines”, loved the scented brews they yield, and prized them as stress-tamers, tonics for the nerves.
More modern research gives us two interesting pieces of information to help understand how this works: first, the chemicals in highly scented plants (specifically, their volatile oils) have the ability to alter the way smooth muscle contracts, depending on its current state of tension. Smooth muscle is found in the lining of all our hollow organs - lungs, gut, bladder, and uterus - as well as in the heart and blood vessels. Plants that affect smooth muscle can thereby affect how we perceive our internal state - and anyone who has experienced a spasming, crampy belly knows what a dramatic impact this can have. It is fascinating to note, however, that the place in the brain tasked with assessing this "internal state" is exactly the same place most affected by the perception of smell itself! The limbic system, a complex of brain structures known for its processing of emotion and its ability to guide "executive function" (our ability to flow through tasks efficiently and productively), is where all of this information is integrated. Aromatic plants thus have a dual effect: their smell immediately awakens and engages the limbic system, and if consumed, their chemistry helps adjust internal tension, removing the distractions that keep us from the present moment. When they are ingested, clinical research always shows the same results: more balanced mood, more restorative sleep, better attention, and an ability to move through challenging tasks more smoothly (and joyfully).
If you are seeking respite from the demands of the modern world and the bustle of the city, the scented garden and incense-filled temple may well be the answer. But fragrant herbs are the way to take your garden with you, to suffumigate your own internal temple. There are so many options available to help with the milder cases of restless or despondent spirit: sedatives for anxiety and insomnia, stimulants for apathy and sluggishness, narcotics to escape, concentrated extracts of botanicals like kava or St. Johnswort, and designer drugs for depression and the mental malaise of today's life. Unlike all of these, aromatic herbs are not strongly mind-altering, are safe and non-habit-forming, and quite easy to grow and use! They are part of a very old toolkit available to humans, and many animals before us, to enter more fully into the flow of life. When led by scent, we follow a path through a garden where intuition and emotion, more than analysis and control, dominate the landscape.
For now, happy Full Moon, happy First Harvest. Our gardens are in fullest bloom. But since I so often turn to these gifts during the darker months of the year, when night is deep and one can't often see the path to brighter days, I leave you with the words of Margared McKenny, recalling her own garden on a January dawn:
"The snow still lies upon the ground,
And yet I feel
The shadow of the scent of flowers;
Breathless the firs against the gray -
So still the air
That hung upon a bare rose spray
Are drops of rain
Left there by midnight showers -
Black head atilt
Whistles the first love-notes of the year."