Sometimes, we can take the world’s beauty for granted. We don’t notice these natural works of wonder that are in front of us every single day. Until we do. For writer Catherine Jagoe, it took a global pandemic to open her eyes to the trees that surrounded her in Madison.
I came to know them during that unreal, anxious first summer of the pandemic, when it seemed that all I did apart from commando-style grocery shopping and Zoom meetings in my basement was walk. Morning and evening, I did loops around our residential neighborhood, alone, with my husband, or with friends. One day in June, I stopped short in the street, interrupting my husband’s story to ask, “What’s that heavenly smell?” Puzzled, because we couldn’t see any source for the exquisite, subtle scent, I looked up. A big shade tree spread over us, with heart-shaped leaves and—when I looked more closely—sprigs of barely discernable blossom. I pulled one to my nose and inhaled. They smelled like orange-blossom and jasmine. The flowers were tiny, drooping clusters, the color of champagne, tattered and insubstantial as scraps of antique lace. I went home and looked up the tree. It was a basswood, a type of linden.
After that I saw basswoods and their cousins the little-leaf lindens on every street. I remembered noticing them before in May, when they drop thousands of papery, pale-green wings that pile up, thick as confetti, on the sidewalk. But in my thirty-five years in Wisconsin, I’d never thought to identify the tree or noticed them flowering.
On the day before the summer solstice, I paused under a massive linden that enveloped the sidewalk like a perfumed green cave. It was loud with humming, every floret being worked by insects. Lindens, I read that week, are sometimes called “bee trees” because pollinators love them. My favorite local honey has long been basswood, with its mild floral sweetness. It also happens that my favorite herbal tea is made from linden leaves and blossoms. It’s the tea that Marcel Proust was drinking with his famous madeleine, the scent that unlocked his memories of lost time.
Lindens have long been associated with love, fertility, peace and healing. In Greek mythology, they were the tree of Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty; in Roman, Norse and Germanic cultures, they symbolized marital love and fidelity. Lindens are so central to some European cultures that the months when they flower are named after them: the word for June in Croatian is lipanj (linden-blossom time); the Polish and Ukrainian words for July (lipiec and lypen) mean the same thing. I felt humbled that I’d only just learned when the lindens flower here in Madison.
I think more and more now about the generosity of trees—their beauty, scent, shade, nourishment, their slow wisdom, their endurance. I’ve begun to think of lindens in relation to the Midwest—calm, not showy, understated, with flowers that are discreet and easy to miss—and also married love, because it’s been on my daily walks with my husband that I met these trees, and my appreciation for them and for him and for this place we’ve made home has only grown and deepened over time.