Sunday, May 4, 2014

Smelling My Way Through a Spring Evening Bike Ride

Ever since the weather has decided to stop being all cold and wintry and awful my bike has been wanting to be ridden. She just leans against the mantle and stares at me longingly as I sit in my chair. See, doesn't she look sad and lonely?

But today I decided to change all that.

After being somewhat-to-mildly productive on various projects throughout the afternoon, and after cleaning up my apartment this evening, I pumped up the tires which had gone flat over the winter, and once the Pacers-Hawks game got over I went for a ride. It was around 60 degrees out with a light breeze, mild humidity and only a few clouds so the stars were out. In other words, a perfect night for a bike ride. I was just cruising around generally enjoying life, when I was hit with the overwhelmingly wonderful smell of lilac blossoms. I got to thinking about the amazing of the smell of lilacs and the many memories associated with it, like playing in the huge lilac bushes behind Grandma Turner's house with cousins Ashley and Suzy, or running around in the backyard of Grandma and Grandpa Anderson's Sandy house playing "No Bears Are Out Tonight" or "Mother May I" or "Statues" on Sunday afternoon, or just walking around BYU and stopping to smell the random lilac bushes planted around campus. As I was reflecting on these happy memories that had been triggered by the smell of lilac blossoms, I decided that I wanted to pay attention throughout my bike ride to the various other smells that I encountered. So as I rode I would periodically pause for a moment to jot down the smells I smelled.

And so without further ado, the list in order of engagement with my nose:

- lilac blossoms
- fresh-cut grass
- marijuana smoke
- barbeque
- campfire smoke
- musty garbage
- sweat (from me)
- B.O. (not from me)...(but really, I checked. It wasn't me)
- popcorn
- watermelon
- cigarette smoke
- canal water 
- earth (by that I mean what your hands smell like after working in the garden all day)
- mulch/compost/manure (less earthy and more poo-y/decomposed green matter-y)
- post-sneeze mucous (you know, the aftersmell of a sneeze born of the leftover snot that didn't make it out) 
- mint (of the spear variety possibly?)
- laundry detergent
- amusement park-type chlorinated water (not just any chlorinated water smell, but the kind you smell when you ride a log flume-type ride a la Splash Mountain or, well, the Log Flume)
- hot dogs (not roasted hot dogs or cooked hot dogs, but the smell of hot dogs when you first open a package)
- french fries 
- playground asphalt
- new tire rubber
- chicken coop (feed + straw)

(Quick note about the list, I only listed each smell once, even though I smelled distinct versions of several of these smells several times.)

As I consciously paid attention to the smells I was smelling, I realized something. Almost without exception, I didn't see the source of the smell. I say almost, because I saw the lilac bushes, I saw the garbage, and I saw the cigarette smokers. But more often than not, I saw nothing. I never saw a watermelon. I never saw a canal. I never saw a laundromat or a washing machine, I never saw a grill or a fire or a single hot dog. And I certainly didn't bike past any amusement parks with log flume rides. And yet, though I never saw what produced these smells, they were a very real aspect of the reality of my bike ride. They may have even been complete fabrications that my olefactory senses made up. Maybe I didn't actually smell french fries, but there was a smell somewhere in the vicinity that was close enough to french fries that my smell-receptors in my brain interpreted the smell particles as french fries and told me that they were french fries. ...And now I want to go to McDonalds, dang it.

When I realized that I was thinking that I was smelling things that I probably wasn't actually smelling but that I thought I was smelling because my brain didn't have any experience identifying and classifying these smells, it was like the world opened up before me. Rather than seeking out smells that I had experience with and could easily identify, which I had only ever been doing unconsciously, my nose seemed keener to pick up on smells that weren't easily recognizable and which cause some minor confusion in the smell-processing centers of my brain. It wasn't a headache-inducing confusion or anything like that, but rather a curiosity-inducing confusion. A new world was opening up to me. As I started consciously seeking out these new and strange smells, I came to another realization: there was always something there for me to smell. Before I had been riding my bike under the assumption that there was no smell until I came into contact with familiar or particularly strong smells, which passive smelling led me to ignore a wide variety of smells just because they were strange or subtle. But when I actively tried to smell any and all smells, they were everywhere. There wasn't a stretch of North Lafayette neighborhood street that didn't have a smell of some sort.

I continued to record the various smells that I could identify, or at least that my brain was telling me it was identifying, but the more I encountered these alien smells and the more I tried to identify and categorize and know the unknown of these smells, I realized that my smell vocabulary is really quite weak. I was probably unable to pin down a solid 80% of the smells I smelled tonight. I'm inclined to think that a fair amount of the smell I encountered tonight was a mixture of smells, when made identification more difficult, but the whole enterprise fascinated me all the same.

I've decided that my dependence on vision as my primary means of sensory engagement with the world has left my other senses much much less developed. So I'm going to start trying to develop my olfactory sense. I'm going to actively try to smell more of the world (not in a creepy way or anything, just, you know, regular smelling just with more focus) and make conscious knowledge of the smelly side of the world. And I'm going to keep doing it until my sense of smell is so keen that I can "see" the world equally well with my nose or my eyes.

Ok that's probably ridiculous, but wouldn't that be cool? To be able to close your eyes and have your nose be sensitive enough to the smells all around you and your brain trained enough to gather and interpret those smells that you could get around town? It'd be incredible. It'd be like Toph in Avatar, only with my nose and sense of smell instead of my feet and sense of touch. Yeah, like that.

So here's to more bike rides and to better figuring out this whole world of smell to which I seem to be "blind."

*lifts and drinks a glass of milk in a toasting fashion* (because milk is the best drink ever. First milk, then Gatorade.)


  1. I've always had a fairly sharp and sensitive sense of smell, meaning I can pick out smells that many other people can't. Smells have always been one of the senses that affect me the strongest; some smells have even made me sick, or they can help me feel better, emotionally and physically. But now I'm wondering if part of my keen sense of smell is because I'm more aware of smells too. I love the different distinct smells that places have, often a combination of various parts of that city, but there is also a unique individual smell, much like each home or person. Also, when I think of certain places or cities, I often think of the smell, and the memories of smells are really really weird, kind of like a taste memory, but it's more complex than that. I know what it smells like, but how do you describe it to others? For the record, London has my favourite city smell. It smells old and modern, fresh and scrungy, wet and like clean laundry, but there's something else there too. If someone were to blindfold me and drop me in London, I would know it by the smell. It hits me every time I've been there.

    Anyway, those are some late night ramblings... Just to let you know, you are not a Lone Smeller.

  2. Whole milk or 1%? Anyway, the sense of smell is a very interesting one. If I had to give up one of my 5 senses I think it would be that one. However, Bretts grandpa was serving a mission in Armenia and went to the Dr for a cold or something and she stuck these two big q-tip things drenched in who knows what up his nose and it killed off his sense of smell and TASTE! He hasn't been able to taste for like 10 years! Sad, I know. Back to the point--smelling is a good thing-fresh bread, Brett's cologne (TMI?), and of course as mentioned, lilac bushes. Nothing can top the scent of a lilac bush.

  3. Your quest for a better nose has re-inspired me to do the same!

    The first thing to inspire me to smell better was the book Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Suskind. An interesting read, but it also helped me realize how many smells are out there that I ignore. The main character doesn't care if it is a good smell or a bad smell, he just wants ALL the smells. He even goes in to a cave at one point to simply live with his memory of collected smells. I've sometimes tried to be non-discriminatory with smells but it doesn't always work out. This in turn has caused me to question why we abhor some smells and are drawn to others. Do the bad smells signify to us a danger and possible contaminants and thus we avoid them? Do the good smells mean things are safe? Things to continue pondering on.

    Thank you for sharing of your olfactory outing!