The Scent of Winter

The Scent of Winter January 17, 2017

One of my strongest memories of winter from childhood is what it smelled like. Growing up in Missouri, our winters were often bitterly cold–temperatures routinely dipped into the single digits–and so dry that I spent months with chapped lips. I remember calf-deep layers of snow on the yard, fluffy powder covered in a thin ice crust that crunched when I stepped on it with my hand-me-down moon boots. I remember the yellow sun shining down from a brilliantly blue clear sky and setting the landscape in tiny diamonds.

But it was the smell that preceded the snow that I most remember. Pale brown like cinnamon, like clay-packed soil covered in rime, like a dried oak leaf with tannins solidified by frost. It reminded me a bit of bitter chocolate, the sharp scent untempered by the sweetness of sugar, dry powder hitting my scent receptors. I felt the scent rise up from where the chilled air met the frozen, hard ground, and within hours the snow would arrive.

Ever since I moved away from Missouri, I have tried in vain to find that scent again. Here in the Pacific Northwest, we get snow much less often—though Portland has gotten hit with an unusual three major snow storms just since the beginning of December. The most recent began last week and resulted in the greatest snowfall in almost forty years; today and tomorrow the snow that hasn’t been turned to gray frozen layers in the streets is to be covered in one more sheet of ice.

I managed to escape the snowstorm last week, heading up Route 30 to my studio on the coast just an hour before the snow began in earnest. But once again I could smell it coming, and again when the coast got a light dusting. It’s a different aroma, to be sure; our winters are wetter, even when the air is cold. The humidity and warmer temperatures mean ice is a greater danger here than back home. We don’t get dry-powder snow, but wet, heavy stuff perfect for lobbing snowballs.

The moments before the snow here smell like the pale blue-gray of a winter sky, shadows the color of old steel swingset pipes, and the sharp tang of ice. There’s just a hint of rain in it–a few degrees more and we’d get a good soak instead. Back home, the aroma was like biting through the skin of a firm apple, crisp and tight. Here it’s softer, the consistency of frozen blueberries–no snap, just a soft, cold, sweet crush between the teeth.

Scent is one of the most primitive of our senses; it’s part of how we intake chemicals in our environment and test them for edibility and safety. But as we animals have evolved into more complex beings, we’ve given scent more nuance. Mammals like dogs and horses have keenly honed senses of smell and can pick up signals we would never know were there. But what we lack in tightly packed olfactory nerves we make up for in imagery. It’s how I can describe scents in terms of colors and sensations.

But it’s also why scents hang on in our memory long after the experience is done. When we smell something we haven’t experienced in years, decades, it all snaps back in our mind as though it were yesterday. Memory may be a fickle thing now and then, but occasionally she gives us the gift of the past. Not always a pleasant gift, mind you, but at times she delivers solace and soothe.

I don’t know when, or if, I’ll ever get to smell that cinnamon-colored, bitter-chocolate winter again. But its intensity taught me to pay attention to aromas, to catalog them and keep them in my mind. So I remember the winter scent of childhood, but I also learn to love how winter smells here among the firs and rivers, too.

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