I often wonder what my dog smells, when we’re out walking. Dogs have a sense of smell fourteen times stronger than that of humans, yet Mischa will stick his nose as far up against a scent as possible.
Scent and the sense of smell used to be a huge part of my life. I became fascinated with perfumes and essential oils in my late teens, then later trained as an aromatherapist. I honed my sense of smell to a tool of great accuracy and sensitivity. But now, constant low level clogging of my sinuses makes it hard. I still try, but my sense of smell is often a matter of memory rather than an acute part of my day to day experience.
And yet, scent still plays a strong part in my sense of place. As Marcel Proust found, our sense of smell is directly linked to memory, and a simple scent can take us to a very different place and time.
The scent of meadowsweet tea brewing in autumn or winter takes me back home to Eskdalemuir in the height of summer, when our whole valley is awash with its scent. Conversely, remembering a place can bring a scent strongly to my nostrils. Picturing the valley in summer brings the intense mixed scent of clover, meadowsweet and willow herb, to me, like honey on the warm air.
This is true even with memories from decades ago. Remembering my great-grandmother’s Herefordshire kitchen brings with it the sharp smell of sterilised milk and what I can now think can only have been souring cream or buttermilk. The memory of taking myself outdoors to her chemical loo brings with it the sweet, cloying, blue scent of disinfectant.
And then that scent itself takes me on a journey, to the portaloos at Glastonbury in 1993. So many other scents crowd in with the memory of that place: moist but drying earth; mouth-watering frying doughnuts; sweet woodsmoke from the endless campfires.
Even though my sense of smell is dulled, I still work at noticing and storing scents of place and time. My memory is in even worse shape than my olfaction (there may even be a connection, who knows?) so I soak up as much as I can. The caramelising smell of the damson jam I made last week, when I didn’t quite follow the recipe; the artificial floral scent of freshly polished speaker cabinets; the fresh, wild scent of damp grass on the lawn at our current home; the smooth, musky scent of my leather shoes last year when they were new; the soft, warm, slightly sharp scent of Mischa’s fur. All of them are like index cards to memories, to places, and how they felt.