Common Scents by George Merrill

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I have an acute sense of smell. It serves me well. If something in our fridge is suspect because it’s nested there longer than it should have, my wife immediately asks me into the kitchen to take a whiff to see if it’s safe. She regards my nose impeccable in such matters.

I suspect that many people have keen noses. I’m sure there are some who may never have given the world of smell a thought. They will, however, when they discover how quickly a particular person, place, a mood, yearnings, aversions, can all be recalled vividly by smelling an associated odor or scent. I’m always amazed how a whole chapter of my life can be retained by a particular odor. A whole life’s worth of persons, places, or events lie latent in my nostrils waiting to be coaxed into consciousness by a single whiff. It’s common to impute to smells a significance greater than the scents have of themselves.

I had a great aunt whom I visited as a child. I liked her. She was a grand looking elder with a great shock of white hair. She always immaculately clothed in flowered dresses. She smelled of Yardley lavender soap, or perhaps it was a perfume. Anyway, I loved the smell. It had a very alluring bouquet. She was frail and never went anywhere without her smelling salts. She let me snort her smelling salts once. My eyes teared up, the way they do when I smell ammonia. Strange that I think of Aunt Daisy when I smell ammonia or Yardley lavender, each essence possessing distinctly contrary odors, but both having endearing associations.

The hardware store has been one of America’s most venerable institutions. Only a few hardware stores have survived the assaults of big boxes like Lowes and Home Depot. Original hardware stores had uneven wooden floors and a distinctive aroma. What amazes me is the similarity regardless of when or where these hardware store may have been situated. In 1949, the smell of Riemann’s Hardware Store on Staten Island where I grew up, is the very same smell that I experience at Easton Hardware today. I’ve tried to diagnose the peculiar scent. I keep wondering what commodity is common to all hardware stores that gives them their distinctive odor regardless of time and place. I’ve never figured it out. One theory is fertilizer, but I’m not sure that’s it.

As a boy, each spring I’d go to the boatyard to caulk my sailboat. In the late forties and fifties, fiberglass boats had not gained a market and most all boats were made from wood. Caulking them was the spring ritual for all skippers. Caulking involved jamming oakum – a kind of cotton bunting – between the strakes along a boat’s hull to insure it was watertight. An oily substance impregnating the oakum had the most pleasing aroma. It was different from turpentine or acetone and to smell it made my spring. The smell bathed the boatyard the way magnolias in blossom will cast a scent over an entire landscape. With the advent of fiberglass in boatbuilding, the savor of oakum I’ve known has been lost to history.

The smell of the outdoors after a thunderstorm I’d describe as clean and refreshing. It’s as though the downpour was able to extricate any toxins that had accumulated in the air, leaving the atmosphere pure the way we feel after a shower. It is, sadly, only too brief an olfactory event – thunderstorms, I mean, not showering. Soon after the rain, the air assumes the ubiquitous smell of engine exhausts, our atmosphere’s staple in the post-modern world. Thundershowers, however short-lived, do offer respite, and an experience of what’s possible if we as a species had the will to address our abusive treatment of the environment.

As compared to our eyes and ears, human olfactory faculties play a far less critical role in managing our affairs. Biologist, naturalist and author E.O. Wilson claims that 99% of animal species, plants, fungi and microbes rely almost exclusively on chemicals called pheromones to communicate. Pheromones are perceived like scents; they issue specific information to kindred creatures. Allomones are emitted to send messages to other species, messages that would benefit the sender in some way.

Wilson writes how some female moths can send pheromones up to distances of more than a mile and when a potential suiter gets wind of it, he’s ready to make his moves. I suppose it’s a little like you or me receiving a scented love letter. It certainly clarifies the senders’ intentions and increases the recipients hopes, exponentially.

Ants can build mighty empires by a system of chemical scents, guiding and directing the activities of the entire colony by means of pheromones. Some plants, too, when being attacked by aphids, emit scents that alert their cousins down the line, which in turn, produce defense systems to fight the aphids’ assaults. It’s similar to the way antibodies neutralize our alien bacteria. It gives the expression, ‘raising a stink,’ a status that we don’t normally attribute to the phrase.

These chemically scented means of communication are highly sophisticated and prevail in a vast majority of the world’s creatures. Wilson considers human beings defective in this regard; he calls us “chemosensory idiots.” Does he think it’s such a big deal to be led around by our noses all the time? Not really. Wilson is making a statement about the awe he experiences as he explores one of the marvels of the natural world, in this case, trying to make sense of scents.

If there are any common scents left in the American experience I would guess there are two; the one is the smell of a roasting turkey at Thanksgiving. The other is the smell of a freshly cut Christmas tree when it’s first placed in the living room. Typically, the trees are firs – spruce or balsams – which give off a more aromatic smell than the loblollies here on the Shore.

The significance to us of a distinctive aroma is not something inherent in the turkey or the tree, but as their smells are tinctured by the warm recollections of the times we’d been together as families and friends.

Unlike other creatures, we have a wide window in how we interpret the scents wafting in the breeze. Only in rare instances does life or death depend on what we make of a smell. We are more inclined to stay safe by taking note what we see, hear or taste.

The rest of our planet’s inhabitants do just fine keeping their noses in the air.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist.  A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

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