On our drive back from the airport, as we approach the road to our house, we turn of the air-conditioning, and open the windows.
It has just stopped raining and the leaves are many shades of green with a a shine on each of them, as if each one were made of plastic. I take a deep breath in and the air is thick yet rich with freshness.
My daughter speaks the words I am trying to formulate, “Oh yeah, this smells like home. Like earth.”
Smells like earth.
Smells are one of those phenomena that are difficult to describe with words, especially if the person you are describing a smell to has never smelled that particular scent before.
Imagine describing how a rose smells or the smell of cookies baking in an oven.
In A Natural History of the Senses, Diane Ackerman describes this challenge of smell:
When we see something, we can describe it in gushing detail, in a cascade of images. We can crawl along its surface like an ant, mapping each feature, feeling each texture, and describing it with visual adjectives like red, blue, bright, big, and so on. But who can map the features of a smell? When we use words such as smoky, sulfurous, floral, fruity, sweet, we are describing smells in terms of other things (smoke, sulfur, flowers, fruit, sugar). Smells are our dearest kin, but we cannot remember their names. Instead we tend to describe how they make us feel. Something smells “disgusting,” “intoxicating,” “sickening,” “pleasurable,” “delightful,” “pulse-revving,” “hypnotic,” or “revolting.”
Do you remember the first time you smelled a newborn baby or your child after a day outside in the sun? What about that smell of a ripe melon? Or a car full of adolescent teens after playing beach volleyball all afternoon?
Some smells evoke repulsion to some and absolute pleasure to others. Take the fruit, Durian, for example. It is both coveted and disdained. The search for it at certain times of year have people using their noses to literally “sniff out” the trees while others dread this time when the scent wafts through the jungle.
Smell can reveal the truth of a situation. When we were hiking in the Redwoods of California, there was a forest fire just north of us that was under control but the smoke filled the forest. When you look at this picture, it seems as though I placed a filter or there’s an elegant mist covering the forest. Nope it’s smoke. I needed to hike to see Cathedral Redwoods. Despite protests, we did it. But I can still smell the smoke.
A fun activity is to ask a young child to describe smells. My son had described the smell of cinnamon buns coming out of the oven as smelling like “happy.” When my third daughter was four, I remember her standing on the porch watching dark clouds roll in and as if to agree with the appearance of the clouds, “It does smells like thunder and lightning.”
I remember my children would shove things under my nose and say with delight, “Mama! Smell this!” And I would hesitantly lean over, having been burned before by rotten items left in the fridge that needed to be verified before eaten. When the first time one of them smelled the root of Queen Anne’s Lace, the recognition spread slowly across their face. “Mama, it’s smells like a carrot!”
Smells also trigger memories unlike any other sense. The smells of cilantro and the jasmine flower trigger memories of my grandmother. The back of my husband’s neck remind me of the moment I fell in love. For my husband, and for most Filipino adults of our generation, Vick’s VapoRub still conjures nostalgic childhood memories.
I wonder what scents and memories exist for my children. I know that cinnamon and ginger signal happy Christmas memories for one daughter. They tell me how certain smells remind them of people – their grandparents, their sister who loves fragrances.
In a number of tribes, “the word for ‘kiss’ means ‘smell’ – a kiss is really a prolonged smelling of one’s beloved, relative, or friend.” – Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses
Ackerman also writes about Helen Keller’s had a gift for smell and how Keller observed that smell was “the fallen angel” of the senses. She was able to recognize “an old-fashioned country house because it had several layers of odors, left by a succession of families, of plants, of perfumes and draperies.”
Did the house we lived in for a decade have “our smell”? Did our family scent overpower the other “layers of odors” of the people that lived there before us? I wonder if we went back today, almost three years later, would I smell a trace of us still there?
Or will the smell of earth, like my daughter’s remarks, remind me now of home?
- Describe with detail, using luscious vocabulary, one of your favourite smells and one of your least favourite smells.
- Journal about one smell that triggers a memory.
- Paint a smell.
- Copy a quote on smell or any of the above quotes.
I made this today using only objects found in nature, in my home. It smells exactly the way it looks.