Rants & Essays
Scent of Memory
By Roger B. Swain
NOW AND THEN, EVERYONE SHOULD TAKE A MOMENT TO SNIFF
SCENT OF MEMORY
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
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.