It smelled like licorice. In South Park and later in East San Diego, my friends and I found the lacey, pale-green bushes of anise in the canyons and alleys. The wild places. It became the smell of secret adventures, the scent for exploring paths down into the canyons which were also filled with pampas, Mexican lavender, chaparral and stands of giant bamboo. When we kids explored after a rain, we came upon Lilliputian meadows of sweet-smelling new green grass in the spongy soil. We smelled the wetness of tiny waterfalls slipping over boulders and gone next week. We made dusty-smelling hideouts among ceanothus, pygmy and fan palms, long vines of nasturtium that rolled down the canyonsides like water.
But we could never hide in the anise: tall as a grownup, it waved light and transparent in the breeze. At certain seasons of the year, we’d find black and yellow-patterned caterpillars clinging to the swaying matchstick-sized branches. We would pick them off and watch them cross our palms, dropping their feet like pistons one after the other.
We kids puzzled about the anise. Nobody knew its name. It smelled like food and spread its light green wherever it grew, but adults didn’t seem interested. They never planted it in their yards. So it was ours. We could run our hands over it and then have the peppery-sweet smell on ourselves. If we made our way through a large stand of it, we smelled like licorice on our necks, the sides of our faces, our forearms. (Parents never smell their children when they come home, do they? If they did, they might learn where their children have been exploring -- from a sagey scent, a piney scent, the smell of anise.)
When I grew up and found out anise’s name, I felt disappointed to find out that it sits tamed and unremarkable, ground to a powder on the spice shelf at the supermarket. Better for it to be the mysterious smelltrack of wild places.
- Anitra Carol Smith