Sometimes New York smells like pancakes and maple syrup; sometimes it smells like cheap, burning fuel; sometimes it smells like water drying on asphalt; sometimes it smells like sage. This last scent is what I search for. It’s the smell of home, of green growing things, of spring in rural Texas, of wide open pastures, of water on the ground and dust in the air.
You can catch the scent at the Botanic Gardens, on a breeze in Central Park, in the community garden above the Fort Hamilton Parkway. It grows in the yard of a brownstone down the block. The woman who lives there is a concert pianist, and she practices at odd hours. Sometimes I’ll stop under the pretense of hearing the music float out her open window, but really I’m pausing to breathe in the sage. It spills out between the black iron bars and onto the sidewalk. The scent is stronger when it rains, which is funny to me, because nothing makes me feel farther from home than the rain in New York. The endless drizzle here makes me wish for a Texas storm—the hard crash of heavy rain that’s gone in an instant, sweeping the sky clean.
Last month, my parents sent me a photo they took of an April field—red firewheels, yellow daisies, and blue mealy sage. The image of wildflowers fresh in my mind, I went looking for sage. I could have sworn I found it growing on the High Line, but a dear friend—one who teaches children to grow vegetables and knows infinitely more about plants—corrected me. “That’s not sage,” she said. “That’s a butterfly bush.”
But does it matter? I’m not searching for the actual plant so I can pluck it, or dry it, or use it for its healing properties—to ease anxiety, digestion, or redirect bad energy. I’m searching for a memory, a feeling. Maybe what I’m looking for is a combination of things—honeysuckle, cedar, silver moon roses. Maybe the sage reminds me of something solid that has no name, something that belongs in two places.
When my parents came to visit, I showed my mother the neighbor’s garden and the plant I was sure to be sage. “I don’t know,” she said, pressing the light green leaves between her fingers. “This might be lavender.”
We ate that evening at a fancy Brooklyn eatery and had sage-flavored ice cream for dessert.
It was delicious. It did not remind me of home.
Now it’s June—spring with a breath of summer. There are roses at the Botanic Gardens, wild garlic in the community green space on 16th street, and blooming linden trees along the park. But it’s the sage I hope for.
It brings me back to a pasture that smelled of earth and clean air, a place that also smelled like cows and mossy creek water, a place I drove to and from with the windows down and the stars at my fingertips.
This last week it rained, and I paused beside the neighbor’s front yard. I inhaled the scent of the sage/lavender/butterfly bush and thought of home. I rested my hand on the black gate and pretended it led to the high pasture where my parents snapped a photo of wildflowers. The music floated through the iron bars, the air was heavy, and I breathed in.