June 1, 2018

Under the Linden Tree

Have you ever enjoyed the smell of linden trees in late spring to early summer? Sweet, heady, totally overwhelming with their aroma, in the Northeast of Italy these majestic trees—also known as lime trees (though with no connection to the fruit) or basswoods—usually blossom between the end of May and the beginning of June. Every time it’s the same wonderful olfactive experience. Only God knows how much I love this time of the year! The scent is so strong that you can smell it hundreds of yards away—actually, the odor is more pronounced further from the source! As soon as you get out or open the windows to let in the light of the day or the cool air of the night, the gentle and pervasive smell of linden trees spreads everywhere and reigns supreme. It’s something magical, it’s a kind of urban miracle that transforms the town into a scene that wouldn’t look out of place in a fairy-tale.

Walther von der Vogelweide
Not for nothing in China, the linden is named the tree of forgetfulness because its energy is soft, gentle and it offers the sensation of warmth and peace. It’s also interesting that in the Hellenic period of Egypt, the masks of the sarcophagus of Fayoum were made of linden wood—which proves the sacred nature of this tree since ancient times—and that in the mythology of Ancient Rome, it was a symbol of marital love and fidelity in the couple. In turn, in Slavic mythology the linden was considered a sacred tree—in Polish folklore, the belief still exists that the linden tree planted in front of a house protects the family from the evil spirits…—while the Germans considered it as a sacred tree of the lovers because it had the capacity to give fertility and prosperity.

The linden tree also appears as a romantic symbol in medieval poetry. For example, there is a medieval love poem called Unter der Linden (“Under the Lime Tree”), which is one of Walther von der Vogelweide’s best-known pieces. In it, a naïve, common-class girl rejoices in her love experience under the linden tree, the crushed flowers still showing the place where the couple had lain. I’m quoting it because I think this is an appropriate way to celebrate the linden tree.

1. Under the lime tree
On the heather,
Where we had shared a place of rest,
Still you may find there,
Lovely together,
Flowers crushed and grass down-pressed.
Beside the forest in the vale,
Sweetly sang the nightingale.

2. I came to meet him
At the green:
There was my truelove come before.
Such was I greeted —
Heaven's Queen! —
That I am glad for evermore.
Had he kisses? A thousand some:
See how red my mouth's become.

3. There he had fashioned
For luxury
A bed from every kind of flower.
It sets to laughing
Whoever comes upon that bower;
By the roses well one may,
Mark the spot my head once lay.

4. If any knew
He lay with me
(May God forbid!), for shame I'd die.
What did he do?
May none but he
Ever be sure of that — and I,
And one extremely tiny bird,
Who will, I think, not say a word.

[Modern English translation by Raymond Oliver]

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