Smell Memories

The recollection of memories triggered by some kind of smell is called olfactory memory, and it‘s tied to the bond between a child and its mother. The idea is that newborns are still unaccustomed to their senses, but can still relate to a sense of smell and, therefore, easily return to their mothers, for whom they see as the one and only constant in terms of protection and nutrition.

In this, smell becomes a sense of closeness. The bond between mother and child is literally one of “place.” As newborns, there was a point in which it was the only place we ever knew. The connection is strong and nearly unbreakable.

July 2020: Smell Memories

  • “Narcolepsy” — Ben Folds Five
  • “Pecan Pie” — Golden Smog
  • “Next of Kin” — Lucy Dacus
  • “Phoney Phranchise (Domino Remix)” — Del the Funky Homosapien
  • “For My Upstairs Neighbor (Mums the Word)” — El-P
  • “Nothing Better (Styrofoam Remix)” — The Postal Service
  • ”Gates of Steel” – DEVO
  • “Overwhelmed” — Mato Wayuhi
  • “Non Photo-Blue” — Pinback
  • “At Last” — Neko Case
  • “Broke a Couple of Rules” — Dan the Automator
  • “Brainstorm” — Gang Starr
  • “Wake Up” — clipping.
  • “I Wanna Destroy” — EMA
  • “I Zimbra” — Talking Heads
  • “Forever Got Shorter” — Braid
  • “Let‘s Be Friends Again” — The Toms
  • “Lisa” — Don‘t Stop or We‘ll Die

The nostalgia and longing that resurface after smelling, for example, melted crayons, or book must, are deeply rooted in this sense of “place,” and they help contribute to our idea of closeness. For those who can smell, we all seem tied to some kind of foundational scent — a marker that floods us with meaning.

For me, it‘s the smell of warm terpenes.

Terpenes and Lawn Mower Oil

Terpenes are chemical compounds, most often found in conifers. As summer heats up, the terpenes in most mountain evergreen trees also warm, producing an unmistakable smell — a mix of evergreen branches and the cold air of the mountains, buoyed by a light breeze, punctuated by ozone.

I returned to that smell last weekend, in the Black Hills. Every morning I woke to a cool breeze. I inhaled deeply. I smelled the mountain and its trees. I felt peace; I always felt peace.

Smell memories aren‘t always specific memories. Sometimes, instead of remembering a specific time or moment, you‘re delivered a kind of general circumstance. The smell of bus diesel doesn‘t remind me of a specific bus trip; instead, that smell brings me back to my first few days in London, back in 2000 – not a specific location, but the entire trip, flooding back at once in fragmented pieces; the Tower of London, Victoria bus station, the internet cafe where I stopped to send an email and, inexplicably, checked the results of a recent wrestling pay-per-view.

The smell of warm pine trees brings me an amalgamation of summers spent in Jackson, where my grandparents lived. It‘s the first thing I‘d smell when I walked it outside, and it‘s the last thing I‘d smell as I turned in. It was mixed into every scene; with my windows open, it blended with the dust of the windowsill; in the garage, it blended with the smell of folded cardboard.

And while last weekend brought the pine forest in bunches, it went above and beyond. There‘s always more to smell; there‘s always more to remember.

It brought the smell of an active garage, where we would fill our float tubes to head down the creek — a smell that brings me back to time spent at my grandfather‘s small engine repair shop during the summer, of exploring the inner technology of a gas-powered carburetor. This weekend‘s trip to Lake Sylvan brought the smell of fresh blacktop, a smell memory that brought to mind fragments of moments sitting in the back seat of a Buick Century as we drove across two states.

As the world burns, and as my faith in justice struggles to stay afloat, I find myself searching for moments of simplicity. Of reverting back to times when things felt less volatile; some old Nintendo games, or mid–90s Braid songs. I‘m thankful that the mountains shared a bit of their spirit. It was impactful.

A Deep Inhale

Last summer, during a trip to Colorado, I jokingly reminded my kids to smell the mountain air. I‘d ask them to inhale deeply. Smell the warm conifer. Fill their lungs with terpene.

I get into my head too much, these days. This weekend, despite being surrounded by trees, I would sometimes forget to inhale. But I had help: Sierra, nearly 13 years old, took on the daily reminders. I didn‘t need to joke about inhaling, because Sierra was there to do it for me, a welcome reminder that even our most annoying lessons are received. That there will always be someone to take up the mantle.

The mountain air is fueled by nothing more than organic matter — the trees, the dirt. To my kids, it‘s just a funny thing dad does. For now, at least — someday, it may become a coping mechanism. Someday, in the future, whenever the wave of life swings back below the X-axis, when it feels as though the bad guys are winning, they will have their own olfactory memory to retreat into.

A callback, nostalgia, delivered through the air. Each smell providing some kind of respite, each memory reminding them of where they‘ve come from. That despite growing up, they still have that past. Beautiful, all their own, in the face of everything that‘s come along since.

This was lovingly handwritten on July 31st, 2020