The powerful persuasiveness of scent

Smell is a potent wizard that transports you across thousands of miles and all the years you have lived.    
                                                     Helen Killer

It’s a grey Sunday morning. I am content with a pot of chai, soulful music in the background accompanied by the sound of rain falling to earth to quench my parched and neglected gardens. I sit at my desk watching a colourful parrot suck sweetness from the golden Grevillea outside my window and I have the scent of Indian sandalwood incense floating in the air around me.

While in India I picked up a copy of Diane Ackerman’s A natural history of the senses. It’s a tantalisingly rich book. From the very first line I was drawn in and felt myself blissfully sinking into the heady world of sensory delight. Ackerman tackles smell first. She calls it the mute sense because “it is almost impossible to describe how something smells to someone who hasn’t smelled it.”

Reading more about smell last night I was intrigued that the author had a similar experience to one I have had, and I will get to that shortly. Being sensitive, smell has always played a large role in my life, even before I could comprehend and articulate its power.

The smell of my grandmother’s house signalled safety and love to me.  It was a smell I never grew tired of.  Her powdered cheek, camphored linen cupboard and simmering braised steak were olfactory sources of contentment.

The moist, dank smell of undergrowth and dirt on the forest floor combined with the freshness of eucalypt or pine needles is a reassuring, grounding smell.  The spray of the ocean on a light breeze can raise my spirits. Fresh mown grass transports me to summer afternoons of my childhood, when the day was ending, and the mosquitos were just coming out to play.

A particular spray deodorant repulses me.  I return to whole days of morning sickness where that smell permeated the rooms I lived in.  Chemical fragrances burn my eyes, irritate my skin and the lining of my nasal passages. I prefer now natural scents whether in the world or captured and bottled.

Scent enhances our experience of life. The waft of a roast dinner in the oven is a prelude to a satisfying feast.  Inhaling the aroma of a glass of red wine or a good scotch before imbibing, readies the taste buds and enhances the experience. I am sure babies smell so good to make us want to take care of them.  Smell protects us also. Foul, putrid, acrid smells warn us something is not right.  They prompt action, either to remove the offending item, or remove ourselves.

I had an unusual experience last year related to smell and memory. I had been attending a spiritualist church to reconnect with that part of myself that I had to hide in my marriage.  One night at circle we did flower readings. We each brought along a flower without revealing it to others and put it in a basket. The basket was handed around and we took a flower out and did a reading for the person whose flower it was. Richard (not his real name), got my flower.

Richard was 100 percent accurate in everything he said. He picked up that my heart was racing like crazy. He said it wasn’t a health issue but that it was terribly strong and that he could feel it. He held out his hand and it shook. He was overwhelmed. He hadn’t felt that connection before. He also knew instinctively it was me.  He looked directly across the circle and spoke to me.

My heart had been racing for three days before that meeting. It was so strong my clothing fluttered with its strength. I thought I was going to have a heart attack. Richard wanted to talk to me that night and find out more. In that moment of speaking with him I realised we had met before. I remembered his smell. His breath. I usually remember people’s faces. There was a flicker of visual recognition but so slight I almost missed it. The smell got me and instantly, in my mind’s eye, I saw us at a healing centre. Then he said I should be healing and asked what healing work I did. Turned out we both did the same healing work. We had the same teacher. That’s where I thought we’d met. He had a vague recollection of meeting.  It wasn’t until weeks later we realised our timelines didn’t match up. Was it a future projection or a past life remembering?  I don’t know but the feeling of knowing was strong and convincing.

Then, like the author of my book, I had another experience that turned me away from someone.  Ackerman writes,

“I once started to date a man who was smart, sophisticated, and attractive, but when I kissed him I was put off by a faint, cornlike smell that came from his cheek.  Not cologne or soap.  It was his subtle, natural scent, and I was shocked to discover that it disturbed me viscerally.”

I met a witty, intelligent man who is great fun to hang out with. We share many similar interests with enough differences to make things interesting. We had been out a few times and had a hoot. One day he kissed me and I mentally and energetically recoiled. There was a smell about him I had not previously detected.  Like Ackerman, I knew it was not a layered scent of soap or aftershave.  What was of particular interest to me was how this played out.  Despite all his strengths I did not in my heart feel the connection he felt to me. I didn’t know how to bring it up and so had avoided it.  The smell was a sign to take action.  We had a frank conversation and I was able to convey how much I enjoyed his company and would like to continue as friends without an intimate physical relationship with him.  He agreed, and we have continued to be firm friends.

There are scents I wish I could bottle and sink deeply into as the mood arises; like the smell of India, the scent of ripening stone fruit on the wind in Tanunda or the smell of a lover and our lovemaking that lingers on my body when we part.  Odours and scents have a powerful persuasion over us, they can transport us to a time and place from our past, repel us and draw us in and lull us.  Smell is the mute sense.  It is so very hard to describe and convey to others because of the uniqueness of each smell and also, I think, because of how they make us feel.

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India, you have infiltrated my senses

…to be wrapped and cradled in an enchanting scent upon your skin is a magic all on its own…― C. JoyBell C.

I have the smell of India in my hair. I’m unwilling to wash it out. It’s warm and intoxicating. It’s a musky dry smell of sun-baked clay, of dusty books, of sandalwood and a hint of rose. There are remnants too of mouth-watering street food with notes of coriander and tamarind. A touch of smoke from wood fires and the breeze of mountain air linger still.

Oh India, I wore you on my skin and in my hair for, but a moment and you have infiltrated my senses and lodge now firmly in my memory. I am infused with you. Swathed thus I will draw upon these cues to ferry me back to you, until I walk again on your surface and among your people.