Rants & Essays

Scent of Memory

By Roger B. Swain


It was a game we played as teenagers on August nights - seeing who could bicycle home in the dark with no flashlight. On the long, narrow country road, it was not automobiles or walkers that we risked running into, but the unforgiving trunks of paper birches and fir balsams. Yet what was risky at first became an easy stunt as the weeks rolled by, most of us learning to ride the thin ribbon of warm tar and packed sand to our respective beds.

On clear nights, you could steer by the stars. It was easier, though, to navigate by your nose. If you breathed deeply, you could tell where the firs were by the scent of the needles and the pitch oozing out of their trunks. You could sense the edge of fields, a change to the aroma of crushed, hay-scented ferns or grass drying on a freshly mowed softball diamond.

While individual driveways were easy to miss, there was no missing the houses themselves. In this summer community in the northern woods, even in mid-August, wood smoke poured from every chimney.

This is a world whose odors are as rich and varied as its sights and sounds, but when you have to gulp your air, there is no time to savor it. Living in the fast lane means being chronically short of both time and breath. You might as well try listening to music wearing earmuffs or look at art from behind dark glasses.

Stand still a moment and hold your nose up. As the wind swings round, it brings first the smell of salt marshes, then chimney smoke, farmland, woods, then the sea again. There are the bruised leaves of pennyroyal and pine; the fruit of fox grapes, wild strawberries, ripe quince; the twigs of spicebush and sassafras.

Some scents are inescapable, like the smell of a skunk. Others take a bit of searching, such as the leathery odor of castoreum left by beavers on the small piles of mud they heap up to mark their territory. If you smell where a honeybee stings you, you will detect banana oil.

At first every odor is a new one: but patterns begin to emerge as new scents remind us of old ones. Smells, in fact, are powerful releasers of memory. Sometimes it takes only a single aroma, a slight whiff of something once encountered, to bring back entirely a moment of one's past. I have only to crush fir-balsam needles and sniff their boreal fragrance and I am a teenager again, careening happily toward home.