Nature and the Soul, Explored Through Photography

Making Scents of Things

Stepped outside this morning and smelled autumn in the air. Not the recognizable smells of burning leaves, pumpkins rotting on the vine, baskets of mums or ripe apples in the orchard…something indefinable, but palpable.

My grandmother had no sense of smell.  We all had our laughs when we’d bring her handfuls of silk flowers in a bud vase and she’d sniff them instinctively, put water in the vase and stick it in her windowsill so the flowers could “get some sun.”  The laughter died, however, when we realized that Grandma LolaMae couldn’t detect when something was burning on the stove or when the milk in the fridge had gone sour.  In those moments, the value of the sensory cells of the nasal cavity became very apparent.

Olfaction (smell) is basically our ability to identify something by breathing in the odor produced when microscopic amounts of a substance evaporate. In nature, this is a vital survival tool, thus most vertebrates have more olfactory nerve cells than do humans. It’s interesting to see how this plays out…for instance, mule deer have scent glands on their hind legs, near the hooves, so fawns can sniff them and recognize their moms.  On the roof of snakes’ mouths are receptors that smell and taste the pheromones that their forked tongues collect.  Zoos in the U.K. discovered, in 1994, that when their keepers wore perfume or aftershave, it often started a sexual riot in the big cat and monkey exhibits!  This was traced back to the use in commercial scents of an animal extract called civet and a simulated version of deer musk: scents animals use to signal attraction to one another. Because of the surge in lasciviousness these scents evoked, the Basildon zoo was forced to post this request to zoo-goers: “Would any visitors wearing strong perfume or aftershave please stand well back from the animals.”  Well, YEAH!

In humans, scents are often closely tied to individual memories….for instance, for me the smell of freshly tilled soil evokes

recall of the mounds of gladiolas my mother used to plant…row after row of black Illinois dirt turned and patted, pitted for a bulb to be placed. In summer, an extavagant display of stiff stalks emerged like colorful soldiers standing at attention, decked in multi-hued uniforms. I liked the glads because they were ABUST with blooms, sprouting out all over as though the stalks had sprung leaks, too much color built up for the stems to retain without spewing them forth from every vein.

The smell of muddy water sends me back to a spring when the rural road I lived on flooded, washing corn fields over it.  My brother Tim and I delightfully participated in the surrealistic and unusual event of “swimming in the streets.” I can’t smell a mud puddle without time-traveling back to that.

Words seem to conjure generic mental images, whereas scents evoke highly event-specific, intimate visuals.  Try this experiment:  When I say “ocean,” does your brain conjure a generic ocean scene?  It’s likely.  But if I say “the SMELL of the ocean,” you’re likely transported to a particular day on a particular shore when in a particular moment you breathed deep and were acutely aware of the salt brine in the warm breeze, the smell of ancient waters, fishy nets, the rust and wet wood of planks and piers, the coconut scent of suntan lotion.

Breathing in the autumn smells this morning, I recalled an idea I’m fond of that I once read in Diane Ackerman’s book,  A Natural History of the Senses. She writes: “Etymologically speaking, a breath is not neutral or bland – it’s cooked air; we live in a constant simmering. There is a furnace in our cells, and when we breathe we pass the world through our bodies, brew it lightly, and turn it loose again, gently altered for having known us.”

I wondered this morning, as I stepped out and took a big whiff of autumn, what and who I was breathing in….the cells of dead ancestors, the bones of expired animals, the microbial remains of trees from ancient forests?  How does it change me, this molecular cauldron of scent and cells?  How do I alter it, as I boomerang it forth to the world?  Is it affected only by science, or by that magical mixture of science and Spirit?  I may be unlearned, still I think I know…


Here are some “smells” that are certain to evoke a strong reaction, maybe even a memory or two…Let your brain play with each of these for a moment!

Lasagna, hot out of the oven…Magic Marker…Chlorinated Pool…Puppy breath…Pine Forest….

Nail Polish…A new book…Starbucks…Road kill…Sex and Sweat…Singed hair…

Top of a baby’s head…New box of crayons…Fresh-baked bread…Play-Doh…

New plastic shower curtain…Lilac bush…Campfire…New car smell…Patchouli or Sandalwood…

Vicks Vaporub…Pink school erasers…Leather…Firecracker that’s just exploded…

Cigars…Clove cigarettes…Gasoline…Jasmine or Plumeria…

What are some of YOUR emotion or memory-evoking scents?  Feel free to start a dialogue!


6 responses

  1. Bob Korpella

    An interesting list of scents. Some evoke happy memories, others painful lessons, a few have been so long ago I’m certain I don’t recall them accurately. But scents do play a central role in human thought, recognition, recollection.

    Hickory burning in a wood stove is one of my memory-evokers. So is the sandy, sweet aroma of a river. Sharpies, pipe tobacco, and the fresh box of crayons you mentioned, hyacinths, newly mowed hay.

    August 24, 2010 at 6:53 pm

    • Bob, newly mowed hay evokes SNEEZES from me, LOL! And yet it’s a homey, nostalgic scent. My mother is famous for the ribs and chicken she smokes in a big brick B.B.Q. pit, and that aroma literally makes my mouth water. It’s amazing what myriad emotions and even physiological responses certain scents induce.

      August 24, 2010 at 7:10 pm

  2. Laura Pfeifer

    2 of my favorite memory evoking scents are cinnamon raisin cookies (my late grandmother’s recipe, of course) and freshly mowed alfalfa (the home I grew up in was surrounded by an alfalfa field). WONDERFUL, very calming childhood memories.

    August 25, 2010 at 1:26 pm

    • I’ve read that smelling cinnamon can boost brain function and memory, Laura, not to mention it’s ability to help regulate blood sugar and as a powerful antioxidant…all that aside, it’s just SUCH a “homey” scent, made all the more poignant, I’m sure, because of your grandmother’s recipe (which, btw, I wouldn’t mind owning) 🙂

      August 28, 2010 at 9:12 pm

  3. Intended to get back before now…when you speak of smells it does bring up memories, vivid ones…I grew up in Ft. Worth, Texas…north of the Stockyards…so we won’t discuss those, but the other two are just as strong and involve my dad….the smell of the climbing red roses he planted everywhere we lived and the leather sweatband in his cowboy hat I kept for years. He was “cowboys and roses”

    September 2, 2010 at 3:18 am

    • “Cowboys and roses” – that’s a wonderful combination, Cecelia! The smell of leather always makes me think of horse saddles, and of the palomino we owned when I was a child, as well as the twin pinto ponies named “Rip” and “Tear,” who used to follow me around the yard and pasture like puppy dogs 🙂 I LOVE to walk into leather stores! I’m happy you have such good memories of your dad!

      September 3, 2010 at 5:03 pm

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