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.”
In 2019, I wrote about coming back home and how my daughter said, “Oh yeah, this smells like home. Like earth.”
Living outside has made my nose more attune to different types of scents: rain, decay, floral, animal, and yes, earth.
I wrote about scents triggering memories and how a fun activity with kids is to ask them what things smell like. My son used to say that cinnamon buns smelled like “happy.”
I ended the post with this:
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?
Today, in 2023, yes, the smell earth reminds me of home…and belonging.
Smell is a potent wizard that transports you across thousands of miles and all the years you have lived. The odors of fruits waft me to my southern home, to my childhood frolics in the peach orchard. Other odors, instantaneous and fleeting, cause my heart to dilate joyously or contract with remembered grief. Even as I think of smells, my nose is full of scents that start awake sweet memories of summers gone and ripening fields far away.― Hellen Keller
- 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.