January sent me to isolation. In February anxiety boiled over, leading me to an aggressive and charged March. It helped me socialise again. The beginning of April was reflective, and I began to desire a change in my life: relationships, work, location, state of mind, and ways to play. As May nears, I feel these changes consolidate themselves in my ability to be patient, prepared, present, sure, but ready. How exciting to think that the middle of the year is yet to come.
In the first collection of passages, I mentioned collecting magazines to the point of obsession. It’s hard not to collect. If not something physical, something to keep in the mind. Philosopher, fragrance blogger and curator, Liam Sardea, and I had a conversation recently about conscious experiences as either physical or “something beyond” the physical. It made me wonder of our abilities as alchemists. Or, magical thinking. Survival aspects of our nature. This enquiry brings me to the first passage in this current collection where Ruby Wax, in ‘A Mindfulness Guide for the FRAZZLED, (Penguin Life, 2016)‘, goes into a 6-day mindfulness retreat. On day three she smells a rose “…making sure no one is looking and decide to do my walking up and down near it so that, when the wind is right, I can get smacked in the face by that smell. Every time I pass it, I get a hit. The next day the rose is dead and there’s no smell. I think there’s a lesson in there… I’m not sure what. No, I know: the lesson is that all things die, so don’t depend on them.” She returns to the spot just to “check and smell it.” It lives on in that place beyond.
Here are smell descriptions I’ve collected from some of the books I’ve read this year:
“Whenever you stroll through a eucalyptus grove you are engulfed in a unique smell, acrid and spicy and a little bit soapy too. What you are actually sensing is an airborne chemical that is created and released by the trees, a “volatile organic compound,” or “VOC” for short.” (An antiseptic that keeps the trees healthy if it is wounded to prevent infections).
“I left Atlanta knowing more than I had when I arrived. To this day, I need only close my eyes to summon the smell of a crushed sweet gum leaf, as pungent as if I were holding it in my hand.”- Lab Girl by Hope Jahren (Fleet, 2016).
“His mother used to smell of shampoo and their old house. She used to smell like her bed and her sheets, she used to smell of different cigarettes. She used to smell of beans on toast and bath time. But all he can smell now is Maureen’s air freshener, stronger than the smell of his mum and where they used to live.” – My Name is Leon, Kit de Waal (Penguin Viking, 2016).
“It was foully hot: the rancid sewer air could prompt a smile between two strangers in the street as they passed each other: can you believe we live here? It was like bile, and it was the scent of Mulberry Street that afternoon.” A description by the personal assistant to an international singer after being fired in New York City on her way back to London. – Swing Time, Zadie Smith (Hamish Hamilton, 2016).
“Many people situate themselves by sight; they marvel at scenic vistas, take photos, draw pictures, recall images. In this job I find my brain recording time and place in scent. I remember places by smell.”
Céline and Hervé Ellena, children of famed perfumer, Jean-Claude Ellena, questioned their father for scents of Madeleine cookies, clothing, snow, including what the smell of clouds were. He created them. Céline says, “When I was a child, he didn’t tell me about princesses; he told me about scents. We didn’t have Cinderella. We listen to his stories in perfume.” – The Perfect Scent, Chandlerr Burr (Picador, 2007).
“The grass, as she walked in, was just beginning to be wet from the moist night and the moon that earlier had shone so nicely on her elm and her cypress and her pines was curtained and faint in the mist – that mist that the Gulf breathed over Houston almost every night, as if to help the city sleep.”
Flap cuts his hand on his wife, Emma’s (Aurora’s daughter) teeth as he aims for her face. Patsy, Emma’s best friend, knocks on the front door. “She held the door open and Patsy swept in, smelling nice and looking wonderful, cheerful and happy. Their bedroom was also their living room, and the minute Patsy stepped into it she said, “I can smell blood.”
Turning down one of Aurora’s many suitors, Trevor – a veritable sea man, and ladies man, who blended the smells of salt, leather and spices – “…had always smelled better than any man she had known.” In the restaurant she got off her chair and sat on his lap, and “gave him a lavish hug and a nice kiss on the cheek and smelled around a little for good measure enough to last her for approximately six months.” – Terms of Endearment, Larry McMurtry (Simon & Schuster, 1975).
October 5th: While driving home May Sarton wanted to write a poem about silence being the language lover’s know. When she arrived home she shivered in isolation, “and must face again and try to tame the loneliness. The house is no friend when I walk in. A smell of stale tobacco, unopened windows, my life waiting for me somewhere else, asking to be created again.”
October 6th: “Yesterday I weeded out violets from the iris bed. The iris was being choked by thick bunches of roots, so much like fruit under the earth. I found one single very fragrant violet and some small autumn crocuses. Now, after an hour’s work as the light failed and I drank in the damp smell of the earth, it looks orderly again.” – Journal of a Solitude, May Sarton (W.W. Norton & Co. 1973).
As Nicola gets her ozone sauna treatment for cancer, Helen, and her scepticism, remains quiet. “I held my peace. Morning sunshine fell into the room through the high window. The ozone smelled delicious, very subtle and refreshing, like watermelon, or an ocean breeze. I sat on a chair in the corner and pulled the lid off my coffee.” – The Spare Room, Helen Garner (Text, 2008).
Sarah Hall was a recommendation. This short story book packed a punch as her writing, and her characters’ sensuality gets under the skin. Her abundant smell descriptions for a small book excited me because of her generosity with them, without skipping on the other senses.
Butcher’s Perfume: As Kathleen’s holiday ends she discovers in her friend’s farm shed the slow butchering of a horse. “A dead horse was lying on the ground between the metal cattle chocks. The ground was slick yellow-brown, like concrete covered in piss and diarrhoea. I stepped closer, in under the gable, and a stink rose.”
The Beautiful Indifference: An ailing writer meets her lover in a hotel room. Hall offers many clues about her life in this story, stringing us to read the lines deeper. “The smell of his wet hair was one of her strongest memories now. Like the feeling of deep humiliation for injuring the junior-school pet rabbit. Like the unsealing gash on her mother’s cheek where the hospital orderlies had caught her with a metal instrument while wheeling her to the morgue. Bracken burning on the moors.”
Bees: A woman breaks up with her partner and moves from the “slow machinery in the black fields, livestock cropping the tufts, your once vernacular scenery” north to the “ornate, sooty, modern” London. In the city, she discovers a legion of dead and dying bees. Perhaps a metaphor for all that has ever existed in her. “You memorise noises, chimes, electrical thrums, the euphonic character of the place. And smells: the stale pavement, body odours, doorstep musk, green ponds.”
Remembering their sex life through the “smell of silage and diesel in the farmyard, the feel of him butting behind you, increasingly minimal in his inquiry, complaining if you weren’t wet enough, pulling out and moving it into a tighter place. A bonny pair: that’s what they called you. Best match of the town.” It makes me think of the grieving process, and all that plays, buzzes, in your mind.
The Nightlong River: Magda, Dolly Carter’s best friend, is dying. Dolly and her friends hunt mink cats one night to sew Magda a cape, to keep her tiny body warm. “And the night welcomed me, gave me senses. I was struck by the ability of the river to ferry odours on its back. It seemed to enhance everything it touched: the mineral stones of its bed, the wet shag of the dogs when they went swimming, the bark of sour thorn trees whose roots sipped at the shallows. Sometimes I imagined I could, like the dogs, detect the waft of mink through the ferns. I knew that binary scent of blood’s soft iron and glands secretion.” How rich is that?! – The Beautiful Indifference, Sarah Hall (Faber & Faber, 2011).
Currently, I am reading Why We Love and Lust, Dr Theresa L. Crenshaw (HarperCollins, 1997). She writes of chemical contact communication, through smell, caused by pheromones, and how that affects us. Nothing new there, but it is one example of how our hormonal system (eg. endocrine) influence behaviour through the sexual stages, and relationships.
One more read –
“I confess that I still have a shirt that belonged to this man I have written about, hidden among sundry ragged shirts from my past. He mailed it to me when I first moved away to graduate school. It held his smell for years.” – An essay by Steven M. Phelps on aeon.co. about the brain and touch.