November 21, 2002

Scratch and Sniff

It is said that when we get old, we do not remember days, we remember moments.

It may be that there is something in this to explain our experience with smell that makes it so evocative and emotive: the smell of coal permeated everything, coal for the groaning dragon-throated furnace in your uncle's basement where you hid that day from you brother; and just a whiff of the smell of coal carries you back to that exact moment in your life. It is that moment that carries the nostalgic overtones you have bonded to that certain smell. Smell freezes time to a discrete point in our life, and permanently embeds a memory.

And yet, there are other realms of smell ... of buildings, of neighborhoods, even of cities... that are more global and diffuse, reminding us not of moments but of seasons in our lives, periods of years, epochs. I don't understand how smell asserts its influence on our deepest, most primitive brainspaces; but knowing is not important. I do know that we place too low a value on what our noses could tell us about the world, and perhaps this indifference impoverishes us of those moments in our lives at which, had we smelled more deeply, we would remember now more clearly.

It is in the context of the out-of-doors that I am most acutely aware of smells, general and particular, that call forth memories both of moments and of epochs. Outside of walls is where I spend my best hours and have some of my fondest reveries.

There was a time in my life when I tried to teach biology students the importance of taking in nature with the eyes, and with the heart, but also with the nose. It is my hope that this began for them a habit of 'crush and smell' that has enriched their memories of the woods and fields. It is good to imagine that they are now passing along this nose-centered way of seeing things to their children. If so, then I have taught a thing worth knowing.

Posted by fred1st at November 21, 2002 07:44 AM

I know exactly what you mean. Two smells in particular seem to heighten the memory of my childhood. Woodsmoke is one, but I'm not sure if that is due to my childhood camping trips or a wood-burning pot bellied stove in the kitchen of the first house I can remember. The other is the smell of lilacs. As a child, we had a wild-growing lilac bush in a vacant lot where I used to play.

Watch your dog sometime when you take it on a walk. Their olfactory senses clearly take them places totally out of our range of understanding.

Posted by: RightWingTexan at November 21, 2002 11:26 AM

I love the bit about the smell of coal. And how it's so strange that sometimes it's one very specific, exacting moment, and other times it just captures the general tenor/ambience of an entire period in our lives. Very nice. And I bet I would have *loved* being in your biology classes!!

Posted by: Artichoke Heart at November 21, 2002 11:29 AM

Well, there's at least ONE biology student who took the lesson to heart...

Posted by: Curt at November 21, 2002 12:12 PM

I found you through RWT. Your writing conjures up all kinds of memories for me. RWT's last entry was about the pre-Holiday decorating that Mrs. RWT has started. The first thing that came to my mind was the smell of food and cooking and colder weather(don't in California there is still a change in the air...more fresh, less smog). Your life in Virginia sounds a tad more peaceful and spriritual(it isn't spiritual unless you can experience nature with it) than L.A.'s pollution choked freeways.

Liked discovering your Blog.


Posted by: Peach at November 21, 2002 06:42 PM

Is it possible that scent is imprinted in a deeper way because, way back when, knowing where to find food was most essential to survival?

Posted by: MommaBear at November 23, 2002 09:11 PM

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