If you destroy a neuron in the brain, it's finished forever; it won't regrow. If you damage neurons in your eyes or ears, both organs will be irreparably damaged. But the neurons in the nose are replaced about every thirty days and, unlike any other neurons in the body, they stick right out and wave in the air current like anemones on a coral reef . . . . Unlike other senses, smell needs no interpreter. The effect is immediate and undiluted by language, thought, translation.
—Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses
There are no words for the aroma coming up off this heap of basil leaves, six varieties picked just moments before this photo was snapped: sweet, Genovese, lemon, cinnamon, fino verde, and Osmin purple. In the garden, I like to run my hand through the patch and then put my face close, breathe in slow and deep, letting the scents fill me. I forget everything I know in such moments.
Especially pungent is the lemon basil, courtesy of two key compounds,
citral and limonene. Here's a molecular image of the latter, a colorless liquid hydrocarbon. It is likely of little interest to most people who catch a whiff of this glorious scent that these compounds, released into the air by contact, are drawn into the olfactory buds behind the bridge of the nose, which have evolved precisely for the purpose of receiving and interpreting the molecules. Better, perhaps, just to revel in the scent, though if you want to know more about the how and why, Ackerman's book is a great place to go.
It's truly a pleasure to pick the tender top shoots of basil, which intensifies the aromas. Deeper still is the task of rinsing and separating the bounty of leaves to be used in a fresh pesto sauce, a simple mix of basil, pine nuts, olive oil, garlic, and parmesan cheese. If you are efficient about it, the time from garden to plate can be as little as 10 minutes, and the flavors just pop on your tongue.
Ackerman's account above begins in the science of it all but finishes with something that for the gardener and sensuist is closer to spiritual—alogos, the old Greek term for that margin of experience in which intense sensory stimulation precedes "language, thought, translation." This, too, has its scientific basis. We can trace the way the brain receives sensory information and even calculate the time and manner in which we interpret it into language, thereby quantifying how long the state of alogos lasts.
I read A Natural History of the Senses shortly after its publication in 1990 and in the intervening two decades, it has been an consistent influence in my life—my writing life, to be sure, but it goes beyond that. The author moves methodically through all five of our senses, providing concise and piquant accounts of the scientific history of each alongside cultural and artistic references. It makes for fascinating reading. Again and again I've gone back to what I learned in this book, using it to teach, to write, to garden, to cook, and to live more in tune with my senses every moment.
"True magic inheres in the ordinary," wrote Ed Abbey. Indeed. I grow impatient, or worse, with people who bang on and on about metaphysics. I could spend the rest of my life absorbing everything I can through and about my senses and never get close to knowing it all. It's exactly what I intend to do, and so I have little time for windy speculation about imaginary beings and unknowable forces.
But wait, didn't I mention "spirit" above? I did. Spiritus, the Latin word, means breath, and has led to other words from respiration to inspiration, both of which I'd argue are not metaphysical but rather, physical. I like to respire, as noted above, deep in a batch of basil and let my olfactory sense do its thing. There's a moment of alogos before my brain finds words—is therefore inspired. It's all fundamentally and finally physical. That is my own working definition of spiritual.
Consider these tomatoes. I hauled in a large basket of them this morning—firm, juicy, sweet, and tangy. I plan to make a delicious and nutritious soup from them. It's a matter of taste, for sure, but also health. Research indicates that lycopene may help ameliorate cardiovascular disease and cancers of the lung, stomach, and prostate. It may also help prevent diabetes and osteoporosis. These tasty fruits are lycopene bombs. Isn't it a matter of course that our bodies have evolved to like tomatoes, since they make our bodies healthy. The fact that we can be inspired by tomatoes is a function of what follows alogos—a desire to put words to the experience of enjoying them visually, in the hand, in the mouth, as well as the scientist's desire to study their properties and understand how our bodies use them.
I've heard it said that plants have trained us to propagate them, so there's your proof. Our bodies like basil and tomatoes. We are healthier, and live longer lives, which assures we're around to grow these plants, to disseminate them. It all sounds like a plan to me.
And now, to dinner.