“At no other time (than autumn) does the earth let itself be inhaled in one smell, the ripe earth; in a smell that is in no way inferior to the smell of the sea, bitter where it borders on taste, and more honeysweet where you feel it touching the first sounds. Containing depth within itself, darkness, something of the grave almost.”
― Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters on Cézanne
This year I bought a Christmas tree. I skipped the effort last year for reasons I no longer recall. It’s a bit of an indulgence for someone who lives alone, but I feel the $50 was well spent for my Noble fir, mainly because of the smell. There is something about that pine smell that brings a bit of the forest into your home and nourishes me mentally. When I was growing up, my father was allergic to pine trees, so we never had a real tree. My one set of grandparents would have a live tree that my father stayed away from and that tree was something I looked forward to visiting every year because of the smell.
Smell appears to be the most closely related sense with memory. An ongoing study of smell and memory at Brown University seems to support this hypothesis. The two-phase study shows that aroma has a more powerful response than visual cues. So compelling is the research that Dr. Herz who lead the study wrote a book about her discoveries. In 2004 the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to Richard Axel and Linda Buck who unraveled the enormously complicated process that takes place when we inhale molecules in the air and convert those into neurological responses that trigger emotions and memory in the brain. It is still unclear how precisely the linkage works with emotions and memory related to smell, but we know it is connected to the amygdala, the part of the brain associated with our feelings. Smelling is essentially mainlining memories and emotions.
What fascinates me about smell is how much it is underutilized by us in our 21st-century lives. Even art has barely scratched the surface of exploring smell. I suspect this in part because art is often shown in galleries or museums that don’t wish to expose their spaces to odors. If you’ve ever walked by a Yankee Candle store, you probably understand this resistance. In 2010 the artist Federico Díaz created LacrimAu a sculpture specifically aimed at smell. Visitors enter a sealed plexiglass cube and place an EEG band on their head to measure their brainwaves. The brainwaves are processed using a custom algorithm, and specific fragrances are piped out of an orifice in a large 24 k gold teardrop. People who experienced the art installation often got overwhelmed by the smells they encountered.
The artist Sissel Tolaas is currently traveling the world to map the smells of cities to add to her catalog of 6,500 smells she has amassed. In the past, she has made Limburger cheese from the bacteria captured from David Beckham’s shoes and recreated the smells of the First World War for the German Military History Museum. We know when we travel that different places and people have different smells. New York City has a very different smell than Los Angeles. It’s this ribbon of unique cultural gatherings where food, waste, and infrastructure mesh to form a distinctive smell profile. Whenever I smell Bougainvillea, it immediately reminds me of my time living in San Diego. Pine reminds me of the Catskill mountains in New York where I lived until age five. To this day, the smell of rancid grease immediately invokes the unpleasant job I had during a summer in college where I was required to clean a bus garage grease pit. It’s one of the few things to guarantee a gag reflex in me.
Smells are essential to how we taste our food or whom we are attracted to. They form the background of our emotional landscape. Aside from enhancing our eating experience and making us more palatable to others, smell is another way of connecting with the world around us. You absolutely should slow down and smell the roses. It takes time to smell, to pull the air through our nostrils and let it resonate with us. It keeps our minds vibrant by engaging us with our surroundings. Recently scientists discovered a test for Alzheimer’s disease using peanut butter. Apparently, the closer to the nose the peanut butter has to be, the more likely you are to be exhibiting the early signs of the disease. It’s further proof of our deep link between smells and memory. I look forward to testing this on my brother who finds the smell of peanut butter repulsive.
We have five senses for a good reason. Utilizing our full array of senses, including smell gives us a more robust relationship with our world. There is an entire naturopathic field dedicated to what is called aromatherapy as a means to reduce stress. Most of the science supports a theory that our personal relationship to smells is what makes any aromatherapy beneficial, not any direct corollary between the particular smell itself and our personal well being, but the smell relationship is what matters. So much of our lives now have been reduced to smell neutrality, or worse, deliberate smell manipulations. We’re not allowed to wear colognes or perfumes in the workplace, and when we go to stores to shop subversive odors are piped through the vents to evoke memories that will get us to buy more. Let’s take charge of our smelling and engage the world more directly. Take the time to get close to pine trees, cheeses, and other humans to remind yourself of the richness that is the world you live in. The next time you walk by a flower or even a trash can, take a moment to absorb the smell, even if it’s unpleasant. The richer our experiences in life the better equipped we’ll be to navigate it. When we mute our sense of smell we’re muting our memories and our emotions. Smell isn’t just a thing, it’s a deeper connection to our surroundings and our past, and the deeper mysteries of the world.
“How did these organs of plant sex manage to get themselves cross-wired with human ideas of value and status and Eros? And what might our ancient attraction for flowers have to teach us about the deeper mysteries of beauty – what one poet has called “this grace wholly gratuitous”? Is that what it is? Or does beauty have a purpose?”
—Michael Pollan, The Botany of Desire