“In the greenhouse, my grandfather and me. Smells of summer.” – Martin Stephenson.
Is it the gentle aroma you get after a warm summer shower on dry soil? (Also known as Petrichor).
Is it the subtle waft of a perfume from a passerby that transports you to forgotten time and place?
Is it the smell of fried onions, or grilled bacon, that dances on your tongue?
My sense of smell isn’t the greatest, I don’t think, I mean I’ve never had it tested so it might well be as good or as bad as anyone else, but as I don’t tend to remember smells, and don’t tend to use them the way I use imagery and words as a way to remember things, it’s fair to say that my olfactory system is one of the lesser appreciated.
Or perhaps it’s because I take it for granted.
But then isn’t that the same for all of the wondrous things our bodies can do, things we barely notice from day to day, until they start to fail (I write this with a suspected hernia, so perhaps my awareness of failing bodies is a little heightened).
Yet it is my sense of smell that I pay the least attention to, my eyesight and hearing seem so much more important in the grand scheme of things. With those two, you have a sense of their slow erosion, the quiet failure of hearing, the blurred vision that older age brings. But those shortcomings are only made real by the knowledge of how you were before.
Is there a way to train your sense of smell? Do sommeliers and aromatherapists go on training courses for this? Are the senses even something you can train, or is an inherent part of their existence down to the fact that they are natural abilities, the effectiveness of which ranges from person to person?
And what would happen if you lost your sense of smell? I know it is linked to how we taste so that would be the most obvious sensation, one which is most frequently given life when you have a bad cold, but what else would we lose?
I think the associated memories would be the biggest loss, the knowledge that a certain flower, or the sea air in a particular part of the world, would no longer trigger emotions and bring those we miss back to us for a fleeting moment, I think that would be the biggest loss of all. Standing on the shore of the Mediterranean after my mother-in-law passed, walking the corridor of the nursing home when my Gran left us.
Of course it is fitting that our senses carry such power, and the more you pay attention to this the more you see it throughout every day. Tomorrow, try and notice how many times people comment on the way something smells, it’ll surprise you.
And the more I think on this, the more I realise how many memories are only heightened by our sense of smell, how the best moments in life are made all the more vivid in recollection; the warming comfort of the first time I held my niece as a baby, the sanctuary and care of the nape of the neck of the one I love. These things are made all the more important and vital the more senses we can attach to them, and it only takes the tiniest scent of them to bring them flooding back into view once more.
Such a powerful sense. I hope it never leaves me.