Seasons of Smells

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Seasons of Smells

September 25, 2012

People often ask the hypothetical question, "would you rather be blind or deaf?" I'd rather be neither, but if I absolutely had to pick one, I'd choose blind, hands down. I value my sense of hearing above all others. I guess it makes sense, me being a musician and all. Music has a power to transport me through time and space. Looking at a picture from my childhood can give me nostalgia, but hearing music from my childhood does so ten times more. And yet, there is a sense that is even more powerful than hearing in this respect (for me, anyway). It's smell. Certain smells have the power to take me anywhere at any time. I remember reading somewhere that the nerves that carry smell impulses to your brain are connected directly with the long term memory centers, whereas all other senses have to be processed through the cerebral cortex (the thinking part of the brain). So smells can trigger old memories instantly and powerfully. I used to think that this effect was stronger in me than in other people, but everybody seems to think that way about their own feelings, so I'm probably wrong. Anyway, some smells are better for me in this respect than others. I used to love the smell of gasoline as a kid, but for some reason it doesn't smell as good now. I'm not sure if it's the gas that's different or me. As a substitute, I quite enjoyed the smell of dry erase markers

Not the fumes, mind you--just the smell.

When playing an old Nintendo game, I almost always take a whiff of the connectors when I'm done. I've learned that smell is ozone, which is not so good for you. Oh well.

If there is a unique aspect regarding my experience of smell, it's that I strongly associate certain smells with certain times of year. Some are fairly obvious, like the smell of wildflowers in spring, but some are more peculiar to myself, such as the musty smell of a wooden window frame when it is first opened after several months of being closed. You might expect that I would associate school-related smells with the fall, but those are mostly spring smells as well. I think it's because spring offers the first promise of summer, and school is most palpable when you don't want to be there. Also, I student taught in the spring, and that experience left a big mark (a good one). The vocational building at Berkeley Springs High School (that's D building for you young'uns) always smelled like my elementary school in Baltimore. I'm not sure exactly what the smell was (I think it might have been a cleaning chemical), but regardless, every time I walked into that building, for just a split second, I was a little kid in Baltimore again. Years later, when I worked at BSHS as a sub, the feeling was just as strong.

To me, there are two basic seasons: Shorts and Pants. I do a lot of driving, so when I have short sleeves on, I wear sunscreen on my left arm almost every day to keep it from getting too tan.

Aah, the sweet smell of summer.

When the weather warms up enough to put away the pants and break out the shorts, and when I get the first sniff of sunscreen out of the bottle, that's when summer begins. Insect repellent has a similar effect, though not as strong. It reminds me simultaneously of visiting my Aunt in Massachusetts, and Assateague Island (don't visit Assateague without lots of deet--seriously, the mosquitoes are as big as the horses). I think the smell of the ocean is a powerful summer smell for a lot of people, and I'm no exception. It's Ocean City, down near the inlet, and Trimper's Haunted House. As a kid, I used to get up in the middle of the night when I was too hot to sleep, and stand right in front of the air conditioner, letting the cold air blow against my face. I still love the way air smells as it comes out of an air conditioner.

Obviously, autumn is the smell of dry (or rotting) leaves, but unfortunately it's also the smell of stinkbugs, as they begin their assault on your house. Every fall, Berkeley Springs holds the Apple Butter Festival, and they cook a huge kettle of apple butter in the town square, the odor of apple butter and wood smoke permeating the whole town. For me, it's also the way a musical instrument case smells. That mixture of brass, wood, oil, felt, and spit always reminds me of the beginning of the school year when I would open up my old concert baritone horn case after an entire summer of marching with a school-owned baritone. The most intense fall smell is the inside of a pumpkin when you cut it open. I've loved carving jack o' lanterns since I was a kid, and the scent of one is so special to me that I wait until Halloween afternoon to carve mine so the smell hits me at just the right moment. That smell is Halloween for me.

Of course, a plastic pumpkin full of candy works pretty well too.

As days grow shorter and colder, one of my favorite smells is that of burning wood (our fireplace is one of my favorite features of our house). The holiday season brings with it a veritable cornucopia of scents that bring my childhood rushing back to me. One of the strongest is the way a fresh cut Christmas tree smells when it's standing in the living room, especially when it's covered with dusty old ornaments that my brothers and I made in first grade, sculpted of play-doh and baked in the oven. The scent (and obviously the taste) of chocolate oranges and candy canes--even though the candy canes tend to stick around the house well into summer. Model trains are probably my favorite winter scent; it's a similar smell to Nintendo cartridges (plastic, metal, and ozone). One year in high school, I tried keeping a permanent HO scale layout in my bedroom, but I gave up after a few months. It took up too much space.

...And I did want to have a girlfriend eventually.

Though it's not powerful, snow does smell beautiful. There's also something strangely satisfying about the smell of dust burning off a baseboard heater when you first turn it on.

My mom has told me that every time she hangs a new shower curtain, she feels like she's a little girl opening a box with a new doll in it, because of the smell of vinyl. Smells are like that. They're a time machine. A time machine capable of transporting us all back through our own Seasons of Smells.

You need to imagine Morgan Freeman saying that last line with dramatic music playing in the background.

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Copyright 2012 Peter J Hopkins. All Rights Reserved.