Nothing so attracts and holds my imagination as the fact of the virgin North American continent as the amazed Europeans first saw it. Here was “a plain wilderness as God first made it,” in the words of John Smith. It bespoke Eden itself, a beautiful land already planted, in which all possibilities might be realized.

Most tantalizing was the thought of it all, the very scent of it, from over the horizon at sea. For three centuries, European explorers plying uncertainly in Atlantic waters far from the sight of land repeated a certain moment: they smelled on the west wind the distant flowering forest.

Columbus wrote of his 1492 exploration, “There came so fair and sweet a smell of flowers or trees from the land.” Europe had nothing like it: richly mixed hardwoods all in flower, from the salt coast to the distant interior plains. John Cabot smelled it, too, from the sea off Newfoundland. Ciovanni da Verrazano was a hundred leagues off the North Carolina shore when he smelled the great woods—”the sweetest odors.” Raleigh’s settlers, approaching the continent on which they would plant the first English colony, smelled the blossoming land off the southern coast: they “felt a most dilicate sweete smell, though they saw no land.”

The first permanent colonists found that the New World not only smelled good, it was, for the most part, edible. Those early years in Jamestown were rough, and many people starved. Still, they found the energy to pass down to us what might be called “First Bite Narratives.” (I have all these accounts from John Bakeless’s wonderful book The Eyes of Discovery.)

The Virginia colonists described with wild enthusiasm the enormous strawberries they found—”foure times bigger and better”—and the grapes, and the beach plums. They heartily approved the grand edible nuts of the hardwood forest, the chestnut, walnut, and hickory. But these were mostly old bites. Their first bites were apt to be less enthusiastic. Wild cranberries they dismissed: “they differ not much from poyson.

Jimson weed they should have dismissed. Later colonists tried a salad of boiled Jimson weed, which reportedly made them insane for eleven days. William Strachey was apparently the first colonial wretch to hazard a summer persimmon. He received what John Bakeless described as a “botanical shock.” ”They are harsh and choakie,” Strachey wrote, “and furre in a man’s mouth.” Another bold persim-mon-biter wrote, “It will draw a man s mouth awry with much torment.”

The best of bites, and the worst of bites, was attempted much later, in 1638. One John Josselyn, Englishman, walking near Scarborough, Maine, tried to bite into a hornet’s nest. He thought it was a pineapple. By the time the hornets got through with him, his friends found him unrecognizable.

Poor John Josselyn. He had a much better time in this peculiar new world when he first saw lightning bugs: “I thought the whole Heavens had been on fire seeing so many sparkles flying in the air.”

                                         Annie Dillard, Adjunct Professor of English,

                                         Wesleyan University. Author of Pilgrim at

                                         Tinker Creek and Encounters with Chinese Writers.

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