Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Sense of Smell

"At four in the morning, in summertime,

Love's drowsiness still lasts...

The bushes blow away the odor

Of the night's feast."
Rimbaud, Alchemy of the Word

They say blind people can hear better than sighted people, or if not better, they can focus and understand what they’re hearing better. So, when I started to lose my hearing, I figured I was going to be compensated by a gradual ramping up of my sight: perhaps into galactically hallucinatory levels. Instead, I can’t see to thread a needle any more.

I was compensated however by developing hyper smell. It’s like a radioactive anteater bit me. (I say anteater because they have this long snout, so it’s like they must be able to smell ants at 100 anteater paces.) Unlike my mediocre gardening skills, my mad sense of smell could beat up my mother’s sense of smell.

During those lately fleeting moments of consciousness, it never starts to amaze me when information is conveyed to my brain by my senses of smell: like having a conversation without words.

My unasked for superpower is a mixed blessing, which I guess is pretty typical of superpowers. My flights of olfactory abandon take me to the fathomless deep space of the atom, with electrons spinning around it to make the logo of the old Disneyland’s old Tomorrowland. (Kind of funny how Walt got that wrong. Instead of flying around in our jetpacks or sliding along a motorized walkway, we’re texting our Swiss bankers for account updates via the cloud.)

So instead of offsetting my superpower like I would have in my younger days - by buying stuff I don’t need to comfort me – I am trying to use my super powers only for good, by planting a garden for smelling. You can buy stuff to please your eye. You can work with the Internet to find music that only you can appreciate deep within your genome. (You know, like how some song lyrics seem to be a confidential message addressed to you alone in the world. If that were so, the soundtrack to today would be the lyrics to the song Mahna, Mahna, Mahna, but that’s for another post.) But you can’t easily surround yourself with good smells. I don’t count the entire aisle of the supermarket that is filled with multitudes of “air fresheners” that purport to bathe your rooms in aromas of mountain glens, freshly cleaned laundry, or cinnabuns.

This morning I took a walk through the backyard still fresh from a day of soft overnight rain, and I smelled the flowers. I mean I really smelled the flowers.

There was the white rose, moments away from burning out in a solar flare of blown rose: full, filled with dew. It exuded a scent of melting mountain snow and with faint finish of charcoal fire, and the damp whiff of high thread count cotton.

To me, there is a world of difference between the honest essential oil fragrance of say, lavender, and the oily chemical lavender with an undertone of burnt toast. All floral and herbal smells are like that to me. Only the genuine essential oil smell pleases my nose; never the synthetic poser fragrances that always leave an olfactory aftertaste of petroleum products and wet cardboard.

The blue flower spikes on the white sage, smell somehow like green tea, with a tincture of sweet sage and a pinch of the honey from of adjacent sweet white alyssum. The heavy dew doesn’t just wake up these smells, it kicks them out of bed and onto the floor, tangled up in a pile of sheets.

The flowering ornamental quince flowers don’t seem to have a fragrance so much as they seem to wear an olfactory trench coat that permits only a faint trace of scent to escape - like something you can remember so clearly you can almost smell it - a lingering smell that combines night-blooming jasmine and spicy lemon verbena, combined with an earthy smell something like ripe blue cheese.

I don’t generally garden with flowers, preferring the scented herbs and other fragrant plants. I have a lemon area that includes lemongrass and a lemony vetiver grass, lemon verbena, lemon thyme and, of course, a dwarf Meyer lemon variety that might actually produce lemons this year. A trip through my yard before the morning dew evaporates is an olfactory delight.


Annie in Austin said...

Since your superpower demands herb smells, Weeping Sore, I wonder if you would like the plant called Mexican Mint Marigold. (Tagetes lucida)It's touted as a substitute for tarragon but I just like the way the scent releases when you brush against it.
Your soft, fresh, rained-on yard sounds wonderful. Maybe a schnoz like Durante's could catch scent from the flowers in Austin this year, but the air is too dry for me to do it.

Annie at the Transplantable Rose

Martha in Michigan said...

Despite dire warnings from J&R, I let Creeping Charlie, gill-over-the-ground, ground ivy, Glechoma hederacea spread across my yard. Its tiny purple flowers are intricate and lovely up close, but mostly I love the spicy smell when I mow the lawn. As they told me, though, it has become a real pain through aggressive spread. Still pretty and spicy, but I'm generally at war with it in my garden beds now. It's always something.