I didn’t lose the sense of smell with COVID-19. But I’m now aware that detecting (and recognising) smells is both a privilege and a skill. One that I neglect. I wish, vaguely and ineffectively, that I could hone my pathetic sense of smell.
I was briefly in a wine club, and the sense of taste, as you know, is largely dependent on the sense of smell. So I was doomed. This wine is nice. This wine is not nice. This wine is too sweet, too acid, too much like cat piss. That’s pretty much as far as my education as an oenophile advanced.
Can I blame repeated surgical procedures to remove and replace and hitch and mutilate parts of my nose? I don’t think so. It was ever thus.
It’s true, my sense of smell exists but it is feeble. How about you?
Anyway, I gave mine a workout the other day. I paid attention to some of the smells that hit me during the day.
First I go past a large pot on our stairwell. Two plants looking more like weeds are my heroes: the only plants that grow here without any direct sunlight or rain. I bend down and rub the leaves and sniff the one shy little flower. Very satisfying! But what does it smell like? I have no idea. But I know what I like.
A raspberry bed is thriving in our street, but the centrepiece is a potato flower. I know it’s a raspberry bed. Therefore I smell raspberry leaves.
Broad beans smell itchy and lumpy. That’s all I can say.
I brush past this bush with no name. (Planties, what is it?) Its scent leaps up, grabs me by the nose and twists. Ouch.
At last, a scent I recognise! But I only know it’s ti kouka flowers because of context. I know they send out their divine sweet scent at dusk in spring. That’s been happening in our neighbourhood for two or three weeks. That means a ti kouka (cabbage tree) is in bloom somewhere. It could be far away, because this scent travels. (It can’t be from the tree in the photo above, because it’s daytime and those flowers are still in bud.)
The cupboard under the kitchen sink should be pungent with the smell of cleaning materials, vege scraps in a bucket, and today, one cat. But I’m darned if I can smell a thing. I would hate my apartment to start smelling of cat. Sometimes I get a whiff from Ursula’s bed/bathroom porch, and I do recognise that smell. Open windows and a squirt from a can temporarily annihilate the smell.
Science and exhortations about the sense of smell
Of course I googled and found plenty of writing. The science interests me and the idea of paying attention attracts me. But apparently smell walks are a thing. We are earnestly exhorted to walk 1.5 km with a notebook and map everything that we smell. Sorry, never gonna happen. However, I found it a delightful challenge to switch my attention from the visual to the olfactory.
- What the nose knows — the science and business of smells (Harvard, 2020)
- Scent in motion — using smells in public transport to calm stress (Frontiers, 2021)
- Unlocking the mysteries of smell, our most unappreciated sense (APA, Speaking of Psychology, 2021)
- Exercise: smell walk (Ellen Mueller, Walking as Artistic Practice, 2022?)
- Take your nose for a walk and come to your senses (Aerate, 2021?)