Catholic commentary on culture, media, and politics.

Monday, December 12, 2005

The most underrated sense

Our three-year-old and I went on a hike in the Placerita Canyon Park on Sunday. The airy smells of the mountain forest got me thinking about the sense of smell and how powerful it is. Norman Mailer said the nose is the writer's most important organ. I know what he means. Smells can reconnect you instantly to the past, can evoke memories -- or even abstract ideas -- with almost clairvoyant infallibility. You smell something and immediately you recall how you felt at that moment, even decades ago.

Think about the smells of the Christmas season: pungent pine, aromatic gingerbread cookies, sweet eggnog, and the homey scent of a crackling fire. Do they not bring you back to Christmases Past?

Smells that (I find) evoke strong past memories include: freshly cut grass; wooden planks that have been sawed with a table saw; Hai Karate cologne (I recently bought a 1969 bottle on eBay because my dad used to wear it); the smell of dry autumn leaves after you scrunch them in your hands; the damp moss on large rocks you find in the woods; cinnamon; newly fallen snow (yes, snow has a smell); Coppertone tanning lotion; gasoline; gym equipment; and brand new electronic products. They all bring me back.

What scents brings you back?


Anonymous justine said...

The inside of a guitar--seriously, my Dad had one that he would very occasionally pull out and play when we were kids. It was so special when he did. It wasn't until I was grown up that he told me he used to just strum the same couple chords and make up words as he went along. It's good to remember how much weight children can place on events that adults dismiss as insignificant.

4:06 PM

Blogger Patrick said...

I knew you were petite, but I had no idea you could fit in there. :-0

Seriously, come to think of it, my dad had a 1957 Gibson, and I do rememeber the smell of the burnished wood, slightly musty from being in storage, slightly polished smelling, too.

Lemon pledge, too.

Popsicles, too.

7:07 PM

Anonymous joe said...

The Ocean.

8:37 AM

Blogger Patrick said...

Yes! Also, the smell of new straw hats.

Hot beach sand.


New car small.

Bayer Children's Aspirin.

9:24 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

We were driving behind a paving truck on the interstate one day and my son, about ten at the time, said he smelled the beach. I had to think about it a minute before I realized he was referring to our walk to the beach from the beachhouse each summer, along the sun-baked roads.

10:04 AM

Anonymous joe said...

Babies fresh out of the bath. Johnson and Johnson Baby Shampoo.

12:31 PM

Blogger Patrick said...

Exactly what I'm talking about. Beautiful. That smell of tar from roofers brings me back to around age 11, I'm walking to school and I've got the George Harrison ballad "Something" in my head.

I wonder: if we are going to "see" God as He is, in heaven, and if all our natural senses will be purified and eleveated per our glorifed bodies....what will God smell like, so to speak? (I know God is pure spirit and hence theorectically "unsmellable") but Scripture doesn't hesitate to use the sense of sight as a metaphor for knowledge...or is it mere metaphor?

12:36 PM

Blogger terryvnd said...

After my father died in 1988 - I was 19 then - I found his electric razor. The unmistakably distinctive odor from the clippings from his beard brought him back more clearly than anything else.

4:23 AM

Anonymous me said...

The smell of grape soda makes me think of camping at Big Bear lake when I was 3 or 4 years old. I have a foggy image of a green ice chest filled with purple cans of grape soda but I can still remember that smell today.

6:45 AM

Blogger Patrick said...

I [heart] my readers!

7:22 AM

Anonymous Quintero said...


Your blog is looking great and I do enjoy your posts.

2:25 PM

Anonymous Shawne said...

A few weeks ago the night before our first real snowfall (in central IL) the air outside had the most wonderful smell. It smelled as if I was sitting in mass with incense burning. That incense, that strong! The air was still so it wasn't a smell drifting by, it was just there all around sitting in the air. Snow has a smell, just like rain has one.

1:11 PM

Anonymous Shawne said...

Also..Riverside, CA smells like 'goat' 11 months of the year. Yes, goat.

But in May when the orange blossoms are in bloom it is dreamy! The temp. is perfect and the air is so sweet. Orange blossoms are my fav. smell.

1:18 PM

Blogger Patrick said...

Shawne obviously has a classicly trained proboscus.

Goat, eh?

11:09 PM


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