Smells Like a Memory
Like many modern humans, somedays it seems I am almost entirely consumed by a losing battle with "bad" smells. We have all been indoctrinated by commercials where a visible breeze flows into a home from a field of flowers carrying happy swirls of everything good.
The real breeze on a farm is a mixed perfume of goat manure, herbs growing in the garden by the kitchen, the lawn just mowed, dog hair and pig musk which for years I fought with Febreze. I'm sure air freshener is far more dangerous to my senses than any "bad" smell, and to be honest I can't even say I enjoy the Linen & Sky or Meadows & Rain fragrances although I am a big fan of how fresh linen, meadows, and a rainy sky smell in their natural form.
Somehow in the the last 50 years, we have been brainwashed to believe that no smell equals status; a sanitized home is a sign that we have made it, that we have conquered nature and all its unmanagable assaults on our senses. But recently it has occurred to me that it is not just our sense of smell that we are providing with a clean (BLANK) slate, but our other senses as well. I have begun to think that maybe by banishing the real world of smells from our daily landscape, we also arrest our happiness which depends on all senses to craft the memories which anchor us. We are constantly barraged with temptations to adopt a goal of "living well" with all the elegance of Martha but none of the gritty and memorable fun of a down and dirty real experience. We have been tricked into thinking we can control our environment and too often give up the deliciously dangerous world of bee stings, mud and manure.
This summer spend a day in the mall, then another on a farm. I can bet which one your brain is more likely to store away and revisit on a cold winter day. I can't remember a single day I've spent at the mall, although I often comment that I wish my house smelled like Origins and always inhale deeply while passing Abercrombie. These shops smell great, but these manufactured scents are not connected to my life or memory bank and 50 years from now it will be the smell of manure and hay that will take me back to hours spent waiting for the birth of a new goat kid or piglet. Those "bad smells" will work their magic like no other can.
In an August 2011 editorial in Cook's Magazine, Christopher Kimball wrote, "One experiment asked participants to sniff 10 common household odors and then to identify them; most correctly matched up fewer than half. Perhaps that's because our brains are given such lousy material to work with; laundry detergent doesn't make much of an impression...As a kid in Vermont, however, I collected unforgettable memories: the aching cold of a swimming pond, the sweet smell of fern dappled wetland, a good snort of wood smoke drifting through the first cold October evening, the wet vanilla and caramel steam from a sugarhouse, the scent of a workhorse-all dried sweat, heat and manure-and afternoon light filtered though spider-webbed, fly-specked windows of the dairy barn. There was nothing between sensation and memory: the senses smashed headlong into the mind, burying deep, leaving immutable patterns of smells, sights, sights, tastes and sounds.
The modern world, however, filters the pleasure of living through infinite layers...Unhappiness steps through the door when we find ourselves removed from the world, from the shock and pleasure of the five senses."
So the next time company swings by I will not rush around with a bottle of air freshener but instead will welcome them into the kitchen (which will likely smell like cheese curd) and the barn (which will smell like manure) and perhaps this will be my gift to the visitor and myself...a good stiff wiff of a simpler time, not too far out of our reach if we are willing to step into the wonderfully messy world. Maybe these "bad" smells are an excellent legacy after all.
"When nothing else subsists from the past," Proust wrote, "after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered...the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls...bearing resiliently, on tiny and almost impalpable drops of their essence, the immense edifice of memory."