Wednesday, August 24, 2011

On the Heaven-Scented breeze....

I used to feel like blogging a large percentage of the time. I’d jot down ideas and later expand them into blog entries. But this summer I feel too private for that. I’ve turned inward and isolated myself (and my emotions) from others.

Part of that is that I feel somewhat unfocused a lot lately, and part is because I think I just put too much “out there” too often. But I think I am beyond that; for a while at least.

At night, many people in this community like to sit in their backyards and make bonfires. Part of this is to make smoke to keep the mosquitoes and blackflies at bay while part I think is the call of our ancestors who used to make open fires to cook food and for protection from predators. (Today the predators are other humans it seems) Frequently, the wood of choice is ocean driftwood, salty, pungent and somewhat unpleasant at times. Tonight however, someone is burning what smells to me like sugar Maple; sweet, reminiscent of the fires that used to burn in people’s stoves and furnaces when I was a child in New Brunswick.

This smell, along with the memories it triggered, got me thinking about our senses and how we use them and so in this entry, I will begin a series of blogs focused on our senses.

Smell, I think of all of our senses, can trigger so many memories, emotions, and sensations. Take the smell of a wood fire for example. Where I grew up, fires were used primarily for heat in the winter. Being a province rich in wood lands, our homes, were heated mostly by wood as were other buildings such as the “shack” at the skating rink where we put our skates on and occasionally thawed frozen toes and fingers; so to me, a wood fire brings back memories of winter with its sounds of snow crunching beneath our feet, the sight of the smoke from chimneys, sometimes laying flat against the rooftops, sometimes rising straight up to the heavens.

I can’t smell freshly cut grass without thinking of our little dead-end street in the early summer evenings. After the final meal, the men would head out and mow the lawns while the women washed the dishes and got the youngest of the children ready for bed. As we grew, the boys of the households became the mowers of the lawns while our fathers did other, more meaningful things, like smoke cigarettes and drink tea. Yet, even today, several hundred miles from that street, I have only to smell freshly cut grass and I am back on my street, in my village, in my family home.

Food smells are also a great trigger. Coffee made in an old-fashioned percolator can nearly always drag me back to my aunt Ruby’s house on a Saturday morning. (It’s odd how a certain smell can be associated with one certain place even though the smell itself is more universal) Bacon and eggs in a cast-iron frying pan takes me to the cottage, affectionately known as “the Camp” or “The Doughboy.” (No idea where that came from) Turkey and the trimmings will forever be Christmas day with Mom and Dad. Apple pie is generally associated with a favourite restaurant of long ago. French Fries and cotton candy are of course a Carnival.

Growing up, I spent a lot of time in the forests surrounding our village. Fir, spruce, cedar, and pine trees were constant companions and I knew their scents intimately. I knew also the scent of spring, of the earth returning to life after a long, cold winter. I am familiar with the pungency of the decomposing leaves in autumn. The scents of animals; skunks (of course) bears, the wild cats and foxes all hold a place in my memory and even my heart.

More recently is the ocean, and while it pretty much surrounds me, there is one place that comes to mind when I smell the salt air. It is a short walk from this very house and I spent a lot of time there when I first came to this area. It has no real significant meaning to me other than I always remember it as being where I truly came to know the sea.

There can be unpleasant and frightening smells too: The smell of a burning old building, coated in coal dust, will forever remind me of the day I nearly lost my life in a fire that took all things musical from me. The smell of a forest fire still touches me with dread, such is its fury and uncertainty.

Gasoline, motor oil, and grease, all remind me of special people and places. My father worked for many years as a delivery man for Esso, and so always smelled of petroleum products. My cousin was handy with wrenches and always had a car or two on the operating table. Later, some of my high school buddies had less-than-reliable cars and so were frequently working on them to keep them going. Being inside those cars, the smells associated with them were ever-present.

The places I have performed throughout my musical career generally had distinctive smells. Many smelled of stale beer and cigarette smoke, but they all had something else as well. Perhaps it was the cleaning products that were used (there is one that always reminds me of school too) or the cologne of the bartender;

Which brings me to people scents. I can go some places and know if a certain person is already there or I am aware when they arrive, just by the smell of the air. People, even those who don’t use scented products all have a characteristic scent. Granted, it sometimes requires a certain level of intimacy to get close enough to notice, but it is there. I have encountered it during embraces and it is often very much the way their homes smell as well. One home I visited always smelled of apples, and the inhabitants did too!

What smells or odours remind you of good times and great people? What turns you off? What brings up unhappy memories or frightens you? I’d love to hear from you.

~Still Wandering…


  1. Absolutely. Scientists do agree that scent is the sense most closely connected to memory. I have many, as well, but one of my favourites is gentle and simple : if I break open a new package of Crayola crayons, I am instantly transported back to being 5 years old, on the first day of school ... it's wonderful!


  2. Growing up in rural NB was really idyllic in some ways, wasn't it? Yur article reminds me of so much.
    Speaking of school cleaning products, do you remember that distinctive-smelling stuff -- chunkier than a powder, more like lint -- that janitors sprinkled on the floor before sweeping? That would bring back years of memories for me. Susan W.

  3. Susan, that is the very product of which I was speaking. It was called "Dustbane" and they used it to keep the dust from becoming airborne when they swept the hallways. Another thing they did in our school was spread sawdust with some sort of oily smell on the hardwood floor in the gym to keep it from getting scratched during dances. I always loved that smell.

  4. Oh, this is so timely, given I just went to an absurd amount of bother to obtain two bars of apple cider and cardamom scented soap from Papersac! Nothing else will do.

    I love scents, and am dismayed by the "no scents" movement. I know that fragrances bother some people, but I just feel our lives are much poorer without some lively or pungent scents. I always liked Bonne Bell's "Fresh Lemon", and the smell of glycerin and rosewater.

    In natural smells, I love the smell of hay - reminds me of my childhood visiting my uncles and aunts and cousins on their farms in Blomidon. Also the odour of cow and horse manure and just the smell of horses - I love horses and it also reminds me of the good times I had with my friend Margot and her three horses when I was a teenager.

    A natural fragrance I'll never forget is the rich smell of ripe apples, inhaled while I rode my bicycle through the low-lying dykeland between Port Williams and Canning on a chilly fall morning. There were acres and acres of orchards there when I was a university student at Acadia.

    I love the smell of puppies, and the fresh animal smell behind a [clean] dog's ears . . .

    The smell of the sea too, summer mornings on Bon Portage Island when I was a graduate student working at the research station there.

    Another smell attached to my childhood is the combination of male sweat and woodsmoke I associated with my maternal grandfather and uncles, farmers and woodsmen who dropped by my grandfather's kitchen for a cup of tea and a visit with my mother (we lived 'away' and were rarely seen) and father and us kids. For better or worse, I have always been instantly attracted to and trusted a man who smelled like them! (and no, my ex-husband did not, although my current fiance does!).

  5. Yes Shelley, I barely scratched the surface of the scents that bring the magic into my life. There is a place on the Nashwaak River where I used to go as a youth, and the vegetation there is like nothing I have smelled anywhere else. Combinations of smells, a new smell carried on the wind, or the lack of that sense when our sinuses are congested with a cold... All very meaningful.

  6. Lonnie - I agree scent is a very powerful sense to evoke memory.

    On one occasion I was taken back quite surprisingly by scent. When we first came here our finances were kind of sketchy and so I only bought very cheap soap, but one day there was a special for bars of Ivory Soap. Which I bought. It was not until several weeks later that I open the bar of soap to use it, and memories of my maternal grandmother came rushing into my mind. I hadn't realized that she used this type of soap, but it was what she (and her kitchen) always smelled like. It was a very powerful memory. She had passed away about 25 years before-hand, but I could picture her vividly.

    My grandfather always smelled of "the farm". And I loved that smell. I can still picture the farm in my mind, the lane, and the barns. The rows of corn. And the animals: cows, calves, kittens and of course Laddie, the border collie who followed my grandfather everywhere. And of course the hay, the wonderful smell of the hay.

    Some of the other things listed here have bought other memories to mind. Dustbane reminds me of when my Dad used to sweep the basement with it.
    One of the houses we lived in had hardwood floors and I liked the smell of the wax my Mom used on it. You had to buff it with a floor polisher.

    Cinnamon buns and fresh bread reminds me of my Mom who baked when we were at school, and to come home to these scents was just wonderful.

    Wood fires in combination with bacon and eggs reminds me of the days we would go camping and have breakfast cooked when a wood fire was hearing water, and breakfast was cooked on a coleman stove. The smell of the inside of a tent in the early morning when it starts to warm up also reminds me of waking up in a tent.

    Perfume can remind you of certain people.

    There are also scents that don't evoke memories, but are just pleasant smells.

    I love the smell of leather.
    Of the woods in the fall.
    The smell of spring about to break free of winter.
    Even the smell of freshness in winter, not on a windy day but on a day that the air is still, and you can smell pure white.
    A salt laden breeze from the ocean reminds me of places I have been.
    Freshly cut cedar.
    The smell of sheets and towels when they have been hung out on the line.
    Vanilla, the kind used for baking, not the perfume.
    I love the smell of onions cooking in butter.
    A forest of pine (evergreen) has a different smell than maple.
    The smell of freshly mown hay.
    We have been given us so much to appreciate...

    Thanks Lonnie for the chance to have my own re-memories. Barb

  7. Ah yes, the onions. Once a matriarch of a farm family said when her husband and sons came home fro the fields at the end of a day of hard labour, she would have an onion frying on the stove. As long as they smelled that when they came through the door, they would wait forever for the rest of the meal because the onion scent would mean dinner was on its way.

    The scents and memories I wrote about are but a shallow few of the incredible associations I have in my mind. I think I could write a book just on that alone.


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