Trees to Thoreau to Terroir



Lately I have been noticing a lot of connections between things. I think about one thing and while researching it I run across other interesting things and these things often connect back to something else I had been thinking about.

Well, a couple of posts back (Silent Skies) I was hanging around a wood pile watching the evening deepen and I commented about the unique scent of the fresh cut logs:

“To me locust wood has an earthy, mossy, slightly sweet, and almost but not quite musty scent. It reminds me of the wonderful sweet perfume of the flowers that cover the tree in white raiment each spring only it is muted and mixed with the dark richness of the soil that feeds the tree’s inner life.”

At this same time I happened to be reading “The Essential Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson”. I got down toward the end of the book and there is a reprint of Emerson’s memorial address on the death of Henry Thoreau. He makes this comment about Thoreau:

“He thought the scent a more oracular inquisition than the sight – more oracular and trustworthy. The scent, of course, reveals what is concealed from the other senses. By it he detected earthiness.”

Interesting. I was just thinking about the scent of wood and the earthiness that could be detected in it. So I thought I would look into just what makes earth (dirt, soil, mould) smell like it does.

We have all smelled it even though we might not know what causes it. The smell you get driving past a freshly plowed field, or the smell of the soil when you dig a hole to plant a tree or a rose bush in the garden, or the scent on the air after a summer downpour (smells like worms).

That scent is caused by a chemical called geosmin and it is produced by bacteria in the soil called actinomycetes. No one is quite sure why the bacteria produce this compound or why humans find it to be pleasant. However, I did run into this interesting tidbit – this type of “friendly” bacteria can act as an antidepressant leading the researchers to wonder whether we should spend more time playing in the dirt.

This lead me to an article about how bacteria in the soil alter the makeup of certain fragrance oils. The investigators found that they could alter the fragrance by controlling the bacteria and what they are fed and reached this conclusion:

“This finding may go some way to explain why the properties of the Vetiver oil change significantly depending on the environment in which it was grown.”


At this same time I was also trying to come up with a title for an upcoming show of my photos. I want something that isn’t too strictly defining yet points toward the idea that nature can and should be appreciated wherever it is found and not just when it is located in far off national or global scenic hot spots. Something along the lines of the recently coined word “locavore” that describes someone that prefers locally grown foods to those shipped in from thousands of miles away.

This path lead me through tangled vines of related words like autochthonous, indigenous, propinquity and foreign words like the latin proximum, the japanese ma, and finally to the french word terroir. Terroir brought me back to the soil.

Terroir seems to translate to something like “a sense of place” or “a taste of the soil” or as one author put it; somewhere-ness. It is a quality imparted to a crop, wine in particular, by the locale in which it is grown. So some might say that part of what makes a great french wine great is that it comes from grapes grown in France, on a particular vineyard in France, and maybe even on a particular section of a particular vineyard in France.

Terroir is a complex and controversial concept in the wine world. I find wine making fascinating, but my taste buds are much too crude to appreciate the subtleties involved. I can’t argue the pros and cons. I just liked the idea that places have a taste.


In Silent Skies I also wrote:

“Each species of tree has its own unique scent just as each one has a unique grain pattern, color, and texture. I’ve heard that veteran woodworkers can identify species of wood by smell alone just the way oenophiles can identify vintages. If you think about it, wooden barrels figure prominently in the making of many wines and the type of wood used is critical to imparting just the right flavors and aromas.”

This was before I learned about terroir. Maybe the scent of the wood, like the taste of a wine, not only depends on the species of tree, but also on the plot that reared it. Maybe locust wood from near my home has a slightly different scent than wood from say Pennsylvania – I’ll bet that it does.


P.S. Another tidbit I found was that geosmin is often implicated (along with other compounds) in “cork taint” a taste that destroys otherwise good wine.

P.P.S. Another quote from Thoreau where he seems to confuse his senses:

“I put on some hemlock-boughs, and the rich salt crackling of their leaves was like mustard to the ear, the crackling of uncountable regiments. Dead trees love the fire.”


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7 Responses to “Trees to Thoreau to Terroir”

  1. eyegillian Says:

    What a fascinating post! Thanks for the information about geosmin – I love the smell of the woods and damp earth, and I have always found that being in the forest is relaxing.

    The concept of terroir could extend to the sense of place — not just the taste or scent of a particular tree or food grown in the soil, but the difference between the way the woods smell here in Ontario and back (in my home province) of New Brunswick. I’m sure it’s not just due to different species of trees and fungus, for example, but also the soil itself, which of course has ingredients of all those growing things in the form of hummus. Hmmm… I wonder if biologists (soilologists?) test the chemical and organic compounds of soils and compare their content. Might be interesting to see that information mapped.

  2. lookingforbeauty Says:

    Connections! Very interesting.
    You could extend the taste testing of terroir to cheeses as well. I lived in France for a while – the number of different variety of cheese was mind-boggling. It accounts for soft cheeses like Camembert and Brie being so different although they are made in the same manner; and within the Brie Department (the name of an administrative district from which the cheese takes its name), different locations will produce cheese of different taste and aroma. Canadian “Brie” made by the same process hasn’t the same taste nor smell at all.
    Congratulations on your photographic exhibition. I wish you well with it, and hope you sell lots; not that the commercial side of it is critical, but it gives you a very welcome affirmation that your audience has found resonance in your work.
    These photos are just lovely.
    And just what is that funny, scrunched up, wrinkly, rusty, coloured thing on the left of the picture? Is that a leaf too?

  3. forestrat Says:

    Thanks guys.

    I was surpised to find that some people don’t hold with the terroir idea. It seems pretty obvious to me that the soil in which a plant grows should in some way effect its flavor – especially if we expand the meaning beyond just the soil makeup to things like the amount of sunshine and air temps and all the other factors that go into growing things. The definition is a little vague so maybe that is where the rub comes.

    That wrinkly thing is orange-ish thing is a bit of fungus that has taken a beating from some freezing temps. I have another shot from a little further back that shows more of them. I find fungi wildly diverse and fascinating although I don’t know as much about them as I should.


  4. flandrumhill Says:

    I think the soil has been a source of mystery and wonder to human beings ever since God created Adam from the dirt.

    What you said about ‘the idea that nature can and should be appreciated wherever it is found and not just when it is located in far off national or global scenic hot spots’ reminded me of what Mother Teresa said about practicing kindness. She thought too many people were fixated on loving others on the other side of the planet instead of in their own families and local communities. Whether we look at nature or our fellow human beings, we don’t have to go far to find something or someone worthy of our awe and loving kindness.

    The colours and textures in the leaf photos make me wish I would have spent more time laying down on the ground just looking at the leaves this fall, instead of raking them.

  5. fencer Says:

    What a great new word and concept! Terroir….

    Sometimes I think everything is epistemology…. how do we know the world at all. The “taste of a place” gets beyond the surface of things.



  6. forestrat Says:

    Flandrum, although we had a pretty good autumn color-wise around here, I seem to have only taken photos of brown and yellow ones. I’m not sure why that happened. Too late now – snow and below freezing temps are predicted for the rest of this week and into next.

    Hey fencer, ever hear of synesthesia? It’s a condition where a person’s senses cross chatter. So they see numbers, letters, or shapes as certain colors. Sometimes they envision different months of the year in different colors. Maybe Thoreau was hinting at this with his “mustard to the ear” comment.


  7. Heartburn Home Remedy Says:

    Hey, cool tips. I’ll buy a bottle of beer to that man from that chat who told me to go to your blog :)

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