Friday, January 15, 2010

`If Everything Were Smoke'

Shortly after seven o’clock each schoolday morning I walk my 9-year-old to his bus stop around the corner, a route he likens to the knight’s move in chess. It’s still dark and usually we talk about something in the natural world – the cause of fog, why the sunrise is red, why we don’t see or hear robins and juncos at night. The darkness and drizzle, and perhaps our state of half-awakeness, lend a conspiratorial intimacy to our conversations. The best part is the final approach, the last 100 feet as we pass the house with a rose garden instead of a lawn.

The house is modest – a “rambler,” in local parlance – and painted the same pale blue as the first edition of Ulysses (I held one in my hands, in the rare books collection at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y.). This time of year, of course, the roses are cut back and offer no fragrance, but the air around them is scented with wood smoke. The owners have a woodburning stove – an appliance that carries a lot of self-righteous baggage in certain quarters, but one that generously perfumes the air for the entire neighborhood.

It’s a fragrance with a brief intensity, like the smell of ground coffee as you open the can or the first briny-fishy whiff of the ocean. You smell it, breathe deeply to smell it again, and it’s gone, faded like a drug though the craving remains. Years ago I wrote a newspaper story about olfactory science and cited favorite smells. A naturalist said he was partial to the fragrance of a newly opened cottonwood blossom, saying it smelled like “freshly pressed laundry.” Many people praised new-baked bread, and an old lady said she liked the smell of slate sidewalks after a rain. I’m partial to the lemon-scented hand cream my wife uses, but the second inhalation is always a bit of a disappointment. Consider this gnomic fragment by Herakleitos, in Guy Davenport’s translation:

“If everything were smoke, all perception would be by smell.”

There’s something like pothead humor in this but also a more substantial suggestion – that we are customized for this world. We have five senses, not one, because the world is more than smoke. Even smoke is more than its smell. Michael and I use the wisp of smoke leaving the chimney as a handy anemometer. Under the right conditions we see, smell, taste, feel and hear smoke. Ask a firefighter. In another fragment Herakleitos/Davenport writes:

“Men who wish to know about the world must learn about it in its particular details.”

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