Smelling Winter

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.

Holi Daze

It’s pretty white out there. For many parts of the eastern United States it has been a season of snow on snow on snow (why does that sound familiar?). The wisdom back in old white Wisconsin was there’d be three snows on the crocuses. This year the crocuses have remained buried, even in New Jersey. Judging from the number of people not driving, it looks like most people had a snow day yesterday. The color white has often been treated as a symbol of purity in various religions, but today is also the celebration of Holi, a Hindu festival of color. I’m no expert on Hinduism, but I do find the concept of a day of color to be immensely appealing. Anthropologists trace its roots to some fertility festival, but the fact is, we could all use some color right about now.

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Winter technically lasts, in this hemisphere, until the vernal equinox. Religions around the world have festivals to celebrate this slow turning of the seasons, and the lengthening of days. A long while back I wrote a little book on the holidays. In it I tried to find the basis for various holiday colors. We all know red and green clash, but when we see them together we think of Christmas. Black and orange make a standard Halloween combination, and red by it self suggests St. Valentine, while green alone gives St. Patrick his identity. A more recent addition is black and silver for New Year. Easter, coming in the spring, however, is a celebration of color. We don’t dye the eggs just one hue—it has been a long winter and we celebrate its close with a burst of color. Even the staid old Episcopal Church reverences the liturgical seasons with distinct colors. In other words, colors mean something.

Years ago a friend recommended Jasper Fforde’s Shades of Grey (this was before Fifty Shades of Grey took over the world). It quickly became one of my favorite novels. It’s all about color. Apart from a few years under the influence of a friend with a strong personality, I’ve always been a subdued haberdasher. I tend to wear understated colors because I don’t like people commenting on the way I look, or, even for that matter, looking at me. I enjoy public speaking, but having someone single me out on the street or the bus has always felt distinctly uncomfortable. Still, I think we may have lost something that Holi has retained. Color exists to be celebrated. And shared. It is so important that commerce and trade apparently stopped last week to figure out the color of a certain dress. I may not be a Hindu, but I think I might wear my brightest shirt today to welcome color back to the world.