I spent about an hour today walking around my parents’ land. I was taken by surprise when I grabbed the leaves of a sumac tree and inhaled. I guess I’ve never really stopped to smell a sumac tree. It smelled like a warm lightly salted tortilla chip. It was a pleasant smell, one which struck me as familiar but took me a few seconds to identify.
On my walks, I often take time to smell and taste the various leaves and fruits throughout nature. I tend to only do it in places I know are not sprayed for pesticides for obvious reasons. Today I tasted warm early blackberries. Just as the flavor of wine or beer is muted with refrigeration, so is the taste of a ripe blackberry picked from the bramble. My parents have what seems like acres of blackberries which are beginning to ripen.
As I began to recall smells of my past and value of familiar tastes and smells, I searched out these flora on the land. The floral smell of my grandmother’s southern magnolia, the the sweet smell of honeysuckle growing on the fence, and the candy-like taste of sourwood leaves always connect with me on a nostalgic level.
Once, I was at a beer festival and tasted a very hoppy beer named the Herculean. I cannot tell you the brewery or the IBUs, but I can tell you I was immediately transported back to the smell of green pecans in early fall on the edge the yard. The bitter and nutty smell of this tree was pleasant in that small taste of beer. Another taste which brought back a memory was a red wine at Grassy Creek Vineyards on a rainy day. The small taste of what I believe was a Chambourcin brought me back to fireworks, black powder, sulfur, and the fourth of July.
So many memories and experiences are tied up in the smell and taste of the plants around us. Recently, in the nature club I lead at church, I taught children to chew sourwood leaf and pull the sap from a honeysuckle. I recently showed my niece and nephew how to chew on sassafras leaves that have a light root beer taste.
There are many more tastes and smells in nature we can bring up. We can speak of the memories and experiences we tie to those experiences. We can speak about why these experiences are important. We can teach others to appreciate the tastes and smells of the natural world (obviously in a safe way, we will not be tasting poison ivy).
Using the smells and tastes of nature, particularly in Christian education can be transformative if we don’t simplify the experience, but allow for imagination and creation. Smell and taste are strong tools for memory recall. Bringing memories forward allows for an engaging of these memories with new people. What does it mean that I tasted pecans in a beer, am reminded of the fourth of July in a wine, shared an experience of honeysuckle with children who want to learn about nature?
In working out these experiences, sharing them with a group, we allow for people to communal share memories and connections to place. In doing so, it allows for a reconnection to a place and the imagination to creatively engage place and each other. While this may seem nostalgic at first, the rekindling of connection and experience allows for a pulling forward of those experiences into a new space and perhaps into the creation of a new future. Fireworks are celebratory, pecans remind us of the holidays of the fall, blackberries in the hot summer lead to ideas of refreshment, and honeysuckle opens up the rethinking of a flower into simple joy.
These are not well written lesson plans and pedagogical masterpieces, but I see within these pedagogical glimpses, something which leads us beyond a nature education which teaches us that we use trees for paper and that Jesus talked about grapes. Sure, we need to talk about both of these things, and many more, but we must go deeper. Tying sycamore and cedar into the spiritual and the creative is our goal. A simple factual lesson without a goal is as helpful as the stirring of the senses and the experience of new life.