On Smell   Leave a comment

One of the unusual, if minor, aspects of Dorothy Day’s autobiography The Long Loneliness is that she includes early on, scent memories.  It may seem like a small detail in light of the book’s main subject —  her coming to consciousness as a Catholic and social activist. Still the fact that she mentions  smells at all  signals to me an extraordinary individual, one acutely aware of her surroundings.  Perhaps it is through her heightened sense of perception that she came to conversion.  Dorothy Day remembers the odor of a friend’s house in Oakland that smelled of fresh shingles, an odd scent for a child to remember.  Later, after the great earthquake, the family moved into an apartment in Chicago. Young Dorothy was eager for some contact with nature. She remembers the scent of the sweet clover that fringed the cement-paved yard that was her playground. She gathered bunches of it to dry and stuff in pillows.  She remembers the smell of fresh popped popcorn watching from behind a window a sidewalk vendor pour butter and shake salt over the hot kernels. When her father’s job improved and the family could afford to move into  a house, Day describes it thus: “To draw the curtains at night on a street where people bent against the wind, and where a steady whirl of snowflakes blurred the outlines of trees and shrubs, and made the trees black against the heavy gray sky, and to turn to a room where a fire glowed in the basket grate and a smell of fresh bread filled the house–this was comfort, security, peace, community.”

For most, our sense of smell is the weakest way we perceive the world. Friends react differently to the power of the odor Blanca emits in her late night effort to attract whatever it is that will pollinate her. Some can’t smell it at all. Others choke on the heavy pollen dust they inhale. If I noted that the fragrance she issues into dark night  is comprised of  benzyl salicylate, would that bring you any closer to enjoying that musky sweetness? To say it smells like a combination of gardenia, jasmine and Casablanca lilies is only  a rough approximation.  It’s a heavy scent that lingers in the nose even after I’ve walked away from her. Sometimes I can almost taste it. Once I  thought I smelled it the next day, long after her blossoms had closed and she sat quietly, flowers hanging like curtain tassels, bedraggled. The memory of a party stirred up by the sight of your dress hung limp over a bedroom chair?
Carol saw some  cereus-scented products for sale on line. Bath salts. Perfumes.  Candles. Would we really want to be doused in such a fragrance? Perhaps  if your name were Cleopatra, or Aphrodite. But for the rest of us, it might be a bit much. Turned out these products were fashioned after another type of blooming cactus native to the hot deserts of Arizona. The fragrance creator had “memorized” the scent of the flower. Astounding! He could reproduce the scent without using the actual flower.

An unexpected bonus this season: the tropical rains that showered us, remnants of Hurricane Earl brought a late season drink to the many parched plants in the garden. One result, a hosta I’d wanted to do away with but didn’t, sprouted a long-stemmed lovely white blossom. When I bent near it to retrieve a pot that had blown off the deck railing, I was stunned by her elegant fragrance, one I’d never noticed before. Oh no!! How to describe this one? Lighter, younger than Blanca’s; a girl to her womanly ways. Something like lily-of-the-valley, fresh and watery. And I don’t even know her name. Fragrant hostas, anyone?

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Posted September 14, 2010 by Canio's in environment, gardening, Uncategorized

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