Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Detecting Smell

I have not read any of the newest tomes on scent detection, and there are several in circulation at the moment. I've read Luca Turin's 'Secret of Scent' and have to be honest and say that while I find the study of smell fascinating, this book left me wanting something a little . . . different. I guess I wanted a 'how-to' manual on scent detection. And less chemistry.

While I consider my nose to possess average sniffing abilities, I have learned to better listen to my nose. Yeah, listen. Okay, maybe that's the wrong word.

I've learned to consciously sniff the air ~ everywhere I go. I've always done this in close proximity to plants, even years ago when I wasn't knee-deep in aromatics and hoping to become a perfumer.

I distinctly remember an incident which occurred several years ago, when my big boys were still little boys, and we'd taken a day-trip to Monterey, California. While walking around the historic Cannery Row, I subconsciously brushed my hand through the the plants we passed, then cupped my hand over my nose to inhale the scent. There was rosemary, lavender, sage ~ herbs in abundance growing along the sidewalk in planter boxes ~ that scent, combined with the smell of the sea, provide an olfactory profile that is distinctly 'Monterey'. What I remember best about this particular trip was walking along, dipping my hand into the plants, sniffing and suddenly realizing I was walking alone. I turned around, and there was my family about three yards behind me, watching. Then one of the boys, I don't remember which one, shouted, "Why do you do that? You're embarrassing us! You look like a crazy lady when you do that!" Like that wasn't embarrassing.

Well, I didn't stop doing it. And maybe I am a crazy lady, so what? I considered the ritual a valuable olfactory lesson. Still do.

There are certain things one does not need to train the nose to detect ~ car-struck skunk, for example. Carrion. Poo. Halitosis. Sweaty feet. Stale perspiration. They have a way of making themselves known.

Years ago, when I was a girl, my mother babysat two little boys who lived a few houses down from ours. Every afternoon, after the little boys' mother returned from work, I would walk them down to their house and deliver them to her. Upon walking into the house, I would be struck by the overpowering odor of burnt maple syrup. I could never quite figure this out, how someone's house could smell like burnt syrup. Then one day I told my mother about the smell in their house and she shook her head and said, "It's not syrup. It's pee. Old, stale pee in their mattresses." This left a scent impression in my mind that even today I cannot shake. As much as I love the scent and flavor of real maple syrup, every time I smell it I am reminded of those little boys and their mapley smelling, pee-stained mattresses.

Consciously smelling things makes a huge difference in how I interpret the world. Sometimes it is strange what I pick up on the air that other people don't, or what my grandson, for instance, can detect that I cannot. He once sniffed a bottle of gifted ruh khus and proclaimed, "Tea!" Initially, I didn't get that particular note from the ruh khus, but after his little non-biased review, I definitely 'got it'. He also called Vietnamese oud, "Gicky mud." Got that, too.

For years I mistook the scent of mountain misery for the scent of manzanita. It wasn't until very recently, when I attempted to tincture manzanita leaf, that I realized it was the wrong smell, not the one I associate with what I refer to as 'my mountains' ~ the Sierra Nevada mountain range from Sacramento to Bakersfield. Nope. It was kit kit dizzee, aka mountain misery, which held the scent I so love, and, I as I recently learned, my husband abhors.

We get used to smells, I think, and after a while we tune them out. Not those overpowering smells, the skunks, carrion and the like, but the every day smells of our homes and the people we love. We should probably open up a little, take in all the smells and refine our sniffing abilities, so we don't miss anything.

1 comment:

  1. I love the smell of kit-kit-dizze as well.

    ReplyDelete

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