One of the stories I recently read had a character commenting on the smell of a place. Although humans can’t rival many other mammals and some birds for sense of scent, smell is a keen reminder of location. It is also one of the more personal aspects of the senses. We get nervous when people start talking about smells. We all know, however, that places have their own fragrances. Home smells a certain way. You always notice it going home from college, where the dorms have their own smell. When I was visiting campuses as part of my editorial expectations, I returned to Boston University School of Theology. Apart from the main corridor of 745 Commonwealth avenue appearing smaller than I remembered, the smell was so familiar as to be overpowering. I hadn’t been there for at least a couple of decades, but my brain remembered it well.
I trust science. I also think science can’t explain everything, particularly in the life of emotions. One of the natural limitations of science is the data with which we have to work. We have limited input. I remember in chemistry class in high school we worked with chemicals that replicated scents. The particular ethyls used to reproduce fruit scents were similar only by suggestion. I remember thinking the banana combination only smelled like bananas because it was suggested to me that it did. Smell is a complex world, and we know many animals do it better than we do. Dogs, bears, even mice, know more of the world through their noses. I suspect Fido knows home primarily by its smellscape. We, the “masters” tend to miss a lot. And that makes me wonder what science might be missing by our limited sense of smell.
If there is a supernatural world, I wonder what it might smell like. We’ve all known someone whose dog wouldn’t go into a certain room, or who reacted to something we couldn’t see. Perhaps Fido couldn’t see anything that we couldn’t but could smell it. I often think that when dogs are tested humans try to understand their visual acuity because that’s how we experience our world. Dogs, however, experience their world through scent. We could stand to learn quite a lot about this planet we inhabit if we could somehow access the smells that we simply lack the capacity to reach and analyze. We are only beginning to scratch the surface.
We’re experiencing the January thaw around here. This isn’t a scientific thing, of course, and it doesn’t happen every year. We had snow before Christmas, but it didn’t linger too long. We’ve had cold days since, but none so bad that I couldn’t jog a couple miles over lunch. The ground has started to freeze but much of the grass is still green. The changing seasons are largely olfactory to me. You can smell fall and spring coming. I’m not talking about burning leaves in autumn or the first hint of magnolia in spring. No, I mean the aroma of the earth. Stuck indoors as we often are, we’ve been conditioned to think our sense of smell is under-developed and therefore unimportant. Overall, however, humans don’t rate too shabbily in the nasal range. We don’t experience the aromatic realm as much as dogs, vultures, bears, or mice, but our sense of smell is vitally important.
Not only does smell tether us to memory, it also influences moods. Studies done on those deprived of scent by disease or accident indicate higher levels of depression. All of us know how vital scent is to taste. We don’t appreciate, I suspect, how the aroma of our earth can inspire us. Yesterday as temperatures crept into the 60s, I stood outside breathing deeply. It was only in my back yard, and the clouds were low and gray. Spring clearly came in the gusty air. I know that the bulk of winter lies ahead. January’s only just tuning up, and February has us in its sights. The aroma of spring will once again be frozen to await release in more timely fashion. I’ve been feeling chilly since October, layering up and reluctantly bidding goodbye to the scents of autumn. Winter’s sterility has begun, but we’re being teased just now by a nature that likes to remind us who’s really in charge.
As I grow older, I’m hoping I’ll learn to smell winter. My nose spends too much of it feeling cold, and when I wrap my face in a scarf, I have only my own breath to breathe. What is the odor of winter? The faint hint of smoke from a neighbor’s chimney? The briny tang of a freshly salted roadway? The pine of a newly cut Christmas tree? Outdoors there’s life throbbing, pulsing slowly beneath the chill. Even after the great ice ages, it was ready and eager to reemerge. Today I smell spring in the air. It’s not yet here, and won’t be for some time. Scent is ever only temporary but today there’s yearning in the air.