Friday, July 13, 2012

`A Singular Sweet Scent in the Air'

Some smells are ambiguous, suggesting something edible but almost repellent, like strong cheeses. This is particularly true in other people’s houses. Is that cooking or sewage? Should I savor it or breathe through my mouth? Once as a reporter in Indiana, I accompanied police and volunteers on a search for a missing man. It was a bright autumn day and we walked through plowed fields, apple orchards and woodland. The air was fresh and alive with pleasant smells until another scent seeped in and a nearby searcher found the missing man’s body slumped against the trunk of a tree. I had smelled decomposition before but the gradual transition from apples and goldenrod to rotting flesh was jolting and, like many smells, is preserved in olfactory memory. 

Last weekend in the garden I smelled a musk-like scent, almost unpleasant but dubiously appealing. It was something in the soil, a rotting smell but drily rotting, redolent of minerals and decaying vegetation, not flesh. I localized but never found out what it was, and four days later, after much rain, it had vanished. Smells, like half-remembered pieces of music, sometimes nag at me, eluding identification. Here is Thoreau’s description of this phenomenon, from his journal entry for Sept. 12, 1851: 

“When I got into the Lincoln Road, I perceived a singular sweet scent in the air, which I suspected arose from some plant now in a peculiar state owing to the season, but though I smelled everything around, I could not detect it, but the more eagerly I smelled, the further I seemed to be from finding it; but when I gave up the search, again it would be wafted to me. It was one of the sweet scents which go to make the autumn air, which fed my sense of smell rarely and dilated my nostrils. I felt the better for it. Methinks that I possess the sense of smell in greater perfection than usual, and have the habit of smelling of every plant I pluck. How autumnal is the scent of rip grapes now by the roadside!”

Thoreau’s quest to identify the seasonal scent reminds me of the enigmatic parable  he weaves into the conclusion of Walden (for a possible solution to it, see Guy Davenport’s “The Concord Sonata” in A Table of Green Fields, 1993):

“I long ago lost a hound, a bay horse, and a turtle-dove, and am still on their trail. Many are the travelers I have spoken concerning them, describing their tracks and what calls they answered to. I have met one or two who have heard the hound, and the tramp of the horse, and even seen the dove disappear behind a cloud, and they seemed as anxious to recover them as if they had lost them themselves.”

Sometimes, especially when he’s not harping on politics, Thoreau seems more alive than most people, his senses sharper and more acute. That’s when I like him most. Here’s another journal entry about smell, written just thirteen days after the one quoted above:

“Some men are excited by the smell of burning powder, but I thought in my dream last night how much saner to be excited by the smell of new bread.”

1 comment:

Roger Boylan said...

And then stray woodsmoke streaks through the air and I'm back, instantly, on the forested slopes of Mont Voiron, outside of Geneva, where even in the late 20th century, and only a few miles from the city's boulevards, there lived woodsmen and foresters in small huts, as their ancestors had since the Middle Ages, tending the forest. Having seen them, I feel, indeed, that I've seen the Middle Ages....sorry to go on like this. But the subject of olfactory association is vast.