The Nature of Scent

Words by
Samantha van Egmond
| April 7, 2014

Most of us have experienced that spine-tingling moment when, triggered by a passing scent carried on the wind, memories of childhood come rushing back so vividly they startle. At best you’re left feeling warm and nostalgic, at worst with a reminder some moments are better forgotten.

‘The human sense of smell is closely involved in emotional life: intoxicating pleasure in the aroma of a wood fire, of a garment, of skin. The pain of the lingering fragrance left by those we have lost.’

 Jean-Claude Ellena — Perfume: the Alchemy of Scent

The idea that smells can trigger powerful, emotional memories goes back to the Proustian phenomenon, a theory named after French writer Marcel Proust who proposed that distinctive smells have more power than any other sense in helping to recall distant memories. In his novel À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time), Proust describes a character vividly recalling long-forgotten memories after smelling a tea-soaked Madeleine biscuit.

Smell is our oldest and quickest sense. Before sight or hearing, creatures evolved to respond to chemicals around them through smell. How is this connected with memory? The part of the brain responsible for processing smells — the olfactory bulb — is next to a part of the brain called the hippocampus. Sitting deep within the brain, this is the convergence point for information arriving from the rest of the cortex. People with damage to the hippocampus have difficulty remembering what has happened to them, and although there are still questions unanswered, the proximity of the two sheds some light.

Our environment, natural and manmade, contains a multitude of smells, constantly changing, disappearing and emerging at any given moment and place, affecting our thoughts, emotions and memories in many powerful ways. A current exhibition at London’s Royal Academy of Arts entitled, ‘Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined’, allows visitors to experience their surroundings with their bodies and senses rather than being a purely visual encounter. (Anyone who has visited Tasmania’s MONA Museum will almost certainly recollect the ‘poop machine’.) Sensory researcher Kate McLean creates smell maps, used by ‘smell walkers’ who explore cities and sniff out all the fascinating and individual smells each has to offer.

Nature, furthermore, offers smells that change with the seasons. A childhood spent in country Australia smelled of mangos, tangled vines of heady jasmine, cow manure, rose bushes, moss, smoke from bonfires and bushfires. My favourite, clichéd as it is, was the smell of rain hitting hot earth after a long summer day, hanging thick in the air long after the sun went down. Any one of these smells can take me back — outside of my control — to a day, a moment, a place; lying on the hot trampoline eating oranges, looking up at the clouds until the first drop of rain touches my skin. The smells, sounds and critical detail are more vivid than any a song or photograph could conjure.

Most scents originate from nature — flowers, fruits, herbs, leaves and lichens — whose raw materials are distilled to extract fragrance.  Hundreds of years ago this was the only way perfumes were made, however with the birth of modern perfumery at the end of the nineteenth century — with technological progress replacing older craft-based methods — chemists sought to understand nature and mimic its complexities.  While the industry faces a scarcity of precious supplies, more of nature’s scents are produced in a lab. Perfumers continue trying to recreate smells that evoke positive memories of childhood — freshly cut grass, chocolate chip cookies, ocean spray and warm log fires — however the very essence of nature, and therefore the authenticity of the moment connecting us with our world, is lost.

Juniper Ridge, a wilderness fragrance distillery based in Portland, Oregon, do things the old-fashioned way. Walking forgotten trails, camping in canyons and rising early to forage for pines, herbs, mushrooms and other raw materials to make their perfumes and colognes, they prefer to take an olfactory snapshot of a place and put it —quite literally — into a bottle instead of recreating it from synthetic materials. The first time I came across Juniper Ridge fragrances was in Ojai Valley, California, and every time I smell sage I am transported to golden mornings sipping kombucha tea at the Rancho Inn.

New York-based D.S. & Durga is another nature-loving company making perfume and cologne in small batches from raw materials, blending oils, resins, and plant extracts and drawing inspiration from herbal wisdom and native ritual medicine. The scents tell stories of ‘prospectors, gentry, trailblazers, frontier women, drawing rooms, workbenches, cowboys –— fragments of half remembered legends, movements, events, and foreign lands’.

While modern day perfumes and ‘smells of the city’ do trigger vivid memories, it is perhaps the aromas of nature that most powerfully evoke the simple and bittersweet joys of childhood. Glorious afternoons spent in sunlit backyards, helping grandma in the garden, taking picnics and swimming in the river, there are few, if any, synthetic scents that could compete with what Mother Nature has already provided.

American author Helen Keller — whose sense of smell was said to be so refined that she was able to distinguish roses (and even mushrooms!) from one another by their scent alone — noted the connection between scent and memory in her 1908 novel, The World I Live In. The smell of fruit reminded Keller of her childhood home in Alabama, evoking memories of both joy and pain that we can all relate to.

‘The odour of fruits wafts me to my Southern home, to my childish frolics in the peach orchard. Other odours, instantaneous and fleeting, cause my heart to dilate joyously or contract with remembered grief. Even as I think of smells, my nose is full of scents that start awake sweet memories of summers gone and ripening grain fields far away.’

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