Saturday, November 20, 2004

The Cartography of Smell

Yesterday afternoon when I was trying to describe the smells of the books I'm currently reading, I remembered the passage from Diane Ackerman's beautiful book, A Natural History of the Senses where she laments the fact that we have so few words to describe certain smells. Here's the passage:

If there are words for all the pastels in a hue- the lavenders, muaves, fuchsias, plums, and lilacs- who will name the tones and tints of smell? It's as if we were hypnotized en masse and told to selectively forget. If may be, too, that smells move us so profoundly, in part because we cannot utter their names. In a world sayable and lush, where marvels offer themselves up readily for verbal dissection, smells are often right on the tip of our tongues- but no closer- and it gives them a kind of magical distance, a mystery, a power without a name, a sacredness.

What is the smell of the seasons? The other day, walking to work, I caught a hint of the freshly cut pine being used to decorate the flower beds along the Magnificent Mile and found myself suddenly transported. But where's the word for it, something succinct, that descibes this? It's a smell bound to all sorts of heady associations, an accumulation of intimate memories. The smell of December, of Christmas is bound up in the smell of pine- and when I smell it I'm suddenly 5 years old and lost in the idiot glee of gift opening- or I'm in my early 20's sitting in my parents living room with no other lights on then those on the tree- or its the present and I'm standing on a street corner where all the hustle and bustle seems to suddenly ebb and I'm lost in reminiscence. Ackerman calls these "aromatic memories." I like that.

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