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A Garden of a Forebear’s Five Senses

By Daniel Hubbard | September 25, 2011

I’m not a great gardener but I always enjoy gardens. Sometimes gardens are simple beds of flowers but they can also be carefully thought through botanical spaces with rock walls, trellises, and paths. Some of my favorite memories of historical homes, castles and palaces are the formal gardens and private parks sometimes found there. They can be intricate or they can seem almost natural. They can be perfectly groomed or use wildness as part of their design.

One of my favorite types of garden is the “Garden of the Five Senses.” That kind of garden is supposed to go out of its way to give something special to each of our faculties. It requires some creativity to make good use of that constraint. It also forces the visitor to remember to use all the senses, not just sight and perhaps smell as one usually does in a garden. Everyone in the garden should feel obliged to use every sense to experience it. Even sight and smell ought to be stimulated in unusual ways so that we are reminded of them and not take those normal garden senses for granted. For some extra sights, the garden might be designed to attract butterflies. For extra smells, unusual herbs  might be mixed among the other plants. For sound there might be  a fountain, wind chimes or flowers for hummingbirds. There would be something special.

Sometimes I like to use the metaphor of the garden of the five senses to help me put flesh on the ancestral bones or put detail into the story part of a family history. Every document, photograph even the occasional surviving object can be examined for clues about the senses. If a military record says “suffered from exposure after a night in a swamp,” it isn’t just a medical condition but coldness and dampness and perhaps even a good, strong stench that can be drawn from those words. The garden in this case isn’t constructed but rather reconstructed. Nevertheless, getting all five senses to play a roll is the same. Deciding what one sense comes into play isn’t always possible. A steam train racing down the tracks was certainly a sight. In the early days it was a shocking sight for many. It was also sound– chugging and whistling away. My father has reminded me that a steam train was also a smell to be remembered. If you were unlucky you learned the feel of warm ash being blown over you as well.


There are many obvious ways to try to see what a person of the past might have seen. Are there old pictures that show them and the people and places they knew?

County histories can have wonderful nineteenth century drawings of farms and pioneers’ cabins. They might describe a place or a view in vivid detail.

Maps can show the topography, vegetation or the path of the railroad. Town maps might show where buildings once stood.

The metes and bounds from a land record can tell you something of how the edges of a forebear’s land appeared. A historic building or replica of a ship might give you some ideas.


What languages might an ancestor have heard buzzing around them in busy streets or on a visit to the neighbors? Ask the census!

What music might an ancestor have heard or played? Was there a village band? How did that odd instrument sound? Find some recordings! Browse old sheet music.

A map of the period might show if an ancestor would have heard the rush of a rapids long since dammed or the whistle of a riverboat.

A science museum once let me hear the sounds that a coal mining ancestor might have heard. I especially remember the sound that comes from mixing a faulty lamp with air too full of methane.


This is an elusive sense for the family historian. Have any old recipes been handed down? Perhaps a cookbook from the right time and place can give some clues.

What was the local produce? Often local was all there was. A county history might tell you what was grown, raised, hunted or fished many decades ago. An agricultural census can do the same. What a fisherman and a dairy farmer might taste on any given day could be very different. What was that ancestor’s occupation?

A letter or diary might mention a favorite food or just what the author happened to have eaten before sitting down to write.

Were your ancestors Germans or Greeks or something else? Different people chose to eat differently.


The smells that might have been part of our farmer ancestors’ lives might be waiting to be found in the agricultural censuses. A Sanborn map can point out that a westerly breeze might have filled an ancestors home with the odors of a bakery just down the street or a paper mill down the road.

Sometimes an old description will leave you in need of help. A mention of “sugar camp” should fill your nose with the scent of sap being boiled down to maple syrup but only if you check what it was  that sugar camp meant.

On the frontier people often needed to do it themselves or do without. What was the smell of soap being prepared?

An ancestor of mine can be found in the census as a house painter. Long before the odor of latex were the scents of linseed oil and turpentine.


Touch might be the hardest sense of all to connect with an ancestor’s life. At an open air museum you might discover the feel of homespun linen or the heavy tools of a blacksmith. The sensations one gets from carding wool is another bit of touch that our modern hands are no longer accustomed.

Heirlooms and family treasures often feel different from things of more modern vintage. The feel of heavy, old rag paper is not at all the feel of modern newsprint. When we expect to touch cloth of cotton or nylon and instead touch a weave made from horse or even human hair, it can be an odd sensation.

Perhaps an ancestor would have known the feel of a schooners rigging or the warn handle of a butter churn or axe. A probate record might tell you what things they owned and held every day in the years before they passed away.

All the Senses

In these days of sensory overload it can be refreshing to shut down our own senses for a while, read an old document and let it inspire you to imagine someone else’s long-ago sensory impressions. Some will be familiar, some unfamiliar but together they will be different. Documentation isn’t just for filling the family tree.

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