A Sense of Woodbine, Buttercups Rouses Memories
By Mattie Lennon
When I smell wild woodbine (honeysuckle, to you) I’m no longer an old bald, overweight eejit sitting at a computer. No. I am once again 6 years old, standing in a field with my mother on a June evening while buttercups grow profusely underfoot.
The smell of chalk dust and it’s 1952. And I sit in gap-toothed amazement in Lacken National School.
One whiff of creosote and it’s the early days of rural electrification and ESB poles are being delivered to West Wicklow by the lorryload. I could go on and on…
Olfaction or smell is our most evocative sense.
‘Ever noticed how your childhood home seems smaller than you remember it? When you bring that old cracked LP down from the attic and play it you’ll find that your memory has been playing tricks on you.
And maybe even the things you remember feeling…
The sense of smell is accurate. Animals rely on odors to locate food, recognize trails and territory and to find a willing mate.
The smell of new mown hay will do a better job on recapturing my childhood than the sound of the corncrake or the mirror-like surface of the Blessington Lakes, on a July evening.
But being “civilized” means we have lost a lot in the area of smelling. Our social behavior is not controlled by scent; or so we think.
Therefore we suppress our awareness of what our nose tells us. But despite our best efforts to become refined we haven’t lost it all. Mothers can recognize their babies by smell and newborn babies recognize their mothers the same way.
But I’m digressing. (As opposed to rambling, like I normally do.) I started off about the evocative power of smell.
French novelist Marcel Proust, in The Remembrance of Things Past, has put it much better than I can:
“When nothing else subsists from the past, after the people are dead, after the things are scattered … the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls … bearing resiliently, on tiny and almost impalpable drops of their essence, the immense edifice of memory”.
Not bad for a man that didn’t ever get the whiff of heather in Kylebeg.
When certain chemical substances attach themselves to receptors on our sensory cells it can transport us back in time. Anatomical studies show that the average human being can recognize up to 10,000 different odors.
It is of course difficult to describe any of the smells which emanate from our surroundings. Usually the best we can come up with is a crude analogy; “Like a Rose” or “You’d swear it was an old dry toilet.” We can say that something is a deep red or a light blue but there is no smell scale. Yet, somebody has decided that freshly cut grass smells a little like blood because they share a similar molecular structure based around magnesium (chlorophyll) or iron (hemoglobin).
An American company, Smell This, is now producing aerosols which emit the smell of everything from a campfire to wet laundry.
And the Gifted Hand in Co. Tipperary (phone: 011 353 67 41777) are selling a little package containing a small bit of peat and a little slate hearth. And once ignited that will bring you back. Whether you are in a highrise apartment in Sydney or a mansion in Dallas, if you come from rural Ireland, the smell of turf smoke will bring you back to your grandmother’s cottage.
I think it was Sir Sydney Nolan who said that all art is an effort on the part of the artist to recapture his or her youth. What better way to recapture those golden years than with a sniff? If the whiff of starched linen brings you back to that young one in a country lane on a summer’s evening or the aroma of almonds enables you to relive a perfect Christmas … fire away.
The International Society of Chemical Ecology is dedicated to the study of pheromones (pheromones are substances we can’t see and don’t consciously detect, yet strong evidence suggests that they are in the air all around us all the time). The reason we aren’t affected or influenced by all the pheromones in the air is that they aren’t meant for us. They are species-specific. These substances rule the animal world’s mating habits. And how often have you said of a relationship; “What does she see in him” or “They are unlikely bedfellows” Well the answer may be in the nose.
Dr. Alan Hirsch of the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Centre, in Chicago says: “Once we’re attracted to another person’s odor, even an odor below the level of conscious detection, a strong sexual and emotional bond is possible”. I wonder will scientists, some day, make a discovery whereby a smell will activate our recall button completely and ALL the relevant information stored in our subconscious will be recalled by, say, the smell of a dandelion? Who nose?