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Scents and Sensibility

Forty years ago. It’s early autumn and I’m sitting behind my boyfriend on his motorscooter. We bump along a dirt road winding through the mountains of central Pennsylvania.

“Stop!” I yell suddenly.

The scooter slides to a halt.

“I smell New Jersey tea,” I say as I hop off and rush through the shrubby mountaintop understory.

My boyfriend follows more slowly, a bemused smile on his face. I quickly sniff down my quarry, break some fern-like leaves off a small shrub, crush them, and inhale appreciatively.

“Smell this,” I tell him. “Isn’t it wonderful?”

“I can barely smell it,” he answers.

Despite our obvious incompatability, we marry, and Bruce still tells the story of how I tracked down New Jersey tea by using my nose.

“Only it wasn’t New Jersey tea,” I remind him.

What my Dad had always called New Jersey tea turned out to be the aromatic shrub sweetfern that forms low, mat-like thickets on dry, sandy, sterile soils.

Forty years later, in early November, Bruce and I walk through our forest which is infused with the fruity scent of witch hazel blossoms.

“Isn’t that a wonderful odor?” I ask him.

“I can barely smell it,” he answers.

Some things never change. After forty years I should know better. Apparently my olfactory area, in the upper end of each nostril, is a much deeper yellow than Bruce’s, because the deeper the yellow, the keener the sense of smell. Furthermore, since sense of smell is emotional rather than intellectual and more intuitive than logical, my logical, intellectual husband should expect to have a duller nose than his emotional, intuitive wife.

No matter. We both have only five million olfactory cells compared to a sheepdog’s 220 million. Yet, with a little practice, humans can learn to discriminate between hundreds of different odors. Back in 1752, the great Swedish taxonomist, Karl Linnaeus, in his Odores medicamentor, divided odors into seven classes: fragrant, goaty, ambrosial, foul, nauseating, aromatic, and garlicky. But one person’s “fragrant” is another’s “ambrosial” as writers who try to describe how something smells have discovered.

Perfume makers have their own descriptive terms for scents. In one survey they claimed to have discovered what scents appeal to women based on their hair color. Blonde women like fresh, stimulating odors such as mimosa and hawthorn. Redheads prefer exciting smells like orange blossom and honeysuckle. Raven-haired women choose the sultry odors of orchids and magnolias.

Then, there are brunettes, like I used to be before my hair turned gray. We love every fragrance from “soothing” lavender to “intoxicating” violet which explains why, when I am outside, I am led around by my nose. Like the Andaman Islanders in the Bay of Bengal east of India, odor marks the passage of time for me. They name the seasons of the year after fragrant flowers in bloom at the time. This calendar of scents reminds me of my own yearly ritual of tracking down old, familiar odors and discovering new ones.

“Ah, those fugacious universal fragrances of the meadows and woods,” Henry David Thoreau wrote in his journal. “How much excited we are, how much recruited, by a great many particular fragrances!” Which is why, in early spring, I sniff along the trails like a bloodhound, happy that the long, almost scent-less months of winter are over. No odor is more ambrosial to me than a thawing earth.

On an early April day, I kneel on the wet, mossy trails, almost prostrate like a religious petitioner, and inhale the faint, fragrant odor of trailing arbutus or walk down the hollow road to smell the tiny, yellow blossoms of common spicebush. Also called “wild allspice,” its blossoms, twigs, and bright red fruits are redolent of the spices Columbus sought when he accidentally discovered the New World. Later, pioneers dried its fruits and used them as a substitute for allspice.

Odor is known to evoke memories. “Smells are surer than sights or sounds to make your heartstrings crack,” Rudyard Kipling once wrote and the reason why I rush to smell the first opening daffodil. I am a small child again who, entranced by the cherry yellow flowers, has picked all the daffodils but one in our yard. Or the young girl who dreamed of getting married in a church smothered in daffodils.

The smell of peonies is even more poignant to me, evoking happy memories of Memorial Day in Mahanoy City. Early in the morning, my grandmother cut huge bouquets of peonies from her yard in Pottstown, put them in containers of water, and packed them carefully in the trunk of our pale green, 1940 Oldsmobile. Then my parents, my grandparents, my three siblings and I squeezed into our car and traveled to the “coal regions.”

The graveyard was on a mountaintop above the city, Protestants on one side, Catholics on the other. It was always cool in the mountains, the air crisper and brighter. To a child from the flatlands of southern New Jersey, those mountains seemed stupendous.

Later, we had a splendid dinner at my great Aunt Mary’s house that featured homemade bread, cut thickly and spread with strawberry jam. Other cousins of my Dad’s crowded into Aunt Mary’s small row house and if we had time, we would drive up to “The Vulcan” above the city where my Dad had been born on a snowy night in January and where some of his uncles and cousins still lived.

Except for my 87-year-old Dad, all the elders are gone now, and yet, when I smell peonies, I see and hear them clearly. Smell, as Helen Keller once wrote, is indeed, “a potent wizard that transports us across thousands of miles and all the years we have lived.”

Here on our mountain I have lived for thirty years, making a study of natural odors. One thing I have noticed is that certain kinds of odors seem to repeat themselves in unrelated plants. One is wintergreen, chemically known as methyl salicylate. Both the twigs and bark of black and yellow birches smell and taste of wintergreen. So do the leaves and red berries of the small, evergreen plant known as teaberry, checkerberry, or wintergreen.

Another repetitive natural scent is that of anise or licorice which I can smell faintly in the crushed, fern-like leaves of the dainty, spring wildflower sweet cicely, although the roots are apparently more strongly scented. One of the goldenrods, sweet goldenrod (Solidago odora), is primarily identified by the anise-like odor of its crushed leaves.

I am particularly fond of many members of the mint family, each of which has a different odor. Native mints include such wonderfully aromatic plants as American pennyroyal, the lemon-scented horse-balm, and the “knock-your-socks-off” mountain-mints. Those mints brought over from Europe have also gone wild such as spearmint, peppermint, gill-over-the ground or ground ivy, and catnip. As an added bonus, the leaves of all of those mints, except horse-balm, can be used to make tea.

In May and June I go from one giddy scent to another as first the air is permeated with apple blossoms, then lilacs, then wild azaleas, then dame’s rocket, all of which are wholly pleasing odors. The acrid, cloying smell of blossoming wild black cherry trees in late May overpowers all other scents in the forest while the fruity odor of hay-scented ferns wafts from the powerline right-of-way.

The catlapa tree flowers in June have a cloying odor similar to wild black cherry flowers, but the sweet scent of blossoming wild grapes is pure heaven.

Then there are the roses, both the native pasture rose and the alien multiflora rose. For days the air is saturated with the scent of roses drifting up from the valley where whole pastures have been taken over by multiflora rose bushes. Although farmers hate them, those of us obsessed by roses, as the Romans were said to be, appreciate the rose-scented breezes of early June.

Even the hot, humid days of summer that spawn thundershowers are ambrosial to my nose. I stand outside before a storm begins, sniff the air, and say, “It smells like rain.” Only I learned recently, from Jerry Dennis’s delightful book It’s Raining Frogs and Fishes, that I’m actually smelling oils “given off by plants and absorbed in the soil, where they blend with earthy odors. The oils and the odors,” Dennis says, “are released into the air when the relative humidity at ground level increases to more than about 80 percent. Because humid air transmits odors more readily than dry air, we are made more receptive than usual to the heady, musky scent of the air.”

Another writer, Gilbert Klingel, author of Inagua: An Island Sojourn, who was camped out on a remote Caribbean Island, was so intrigued by a strong, pungent odor close to the ground, reminiscent of locust flowers, that he crawled in the moonlight in search of the smell. On the way he encountered a host of other odors, the “rich hay smell of beach grass, the dry parched aroma of sun-caked earth, the musty reek of dead leaves and rotten wood.” After an overwhelming olfactory experience “hundreds of …strange perfumes that I did not know existed,” he traced the original smell to a “stunted tree from which hung thousands of tiny blossoms.”

While I have not yet crawled on the ground in search of a strange scent, I do discover new ones every year. My latest were the ripened-apple scent of crushed mayapple blossoms and the faint, sweet odor emitted by an entire blackberry shrub.

Certain smells can decrease stess and increase alertness according to researchers at Yale’s Psychophysiology Center and the New Age practice of aromatherapy apparently works for many sick people. What works best for me is walking in an autumn woods on a wet day just after the leaves have fallen. Is there any scent that relieves stress and evokes more happy memories than that?

2 thoughts on “Scents and Sensibility

  1. Hi

    I know exactly what you mean about scent bringing back memories. I worked in Prague for a while and walked to see the old castle, just some of the walls and the church left. The grounds were filled with Mock Oranges and the perfume filled the air. I have my own planted and when in flower they always take me back to that visit.

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