By the way, I haven’t yet run out of steam on the topic of scents. . . more discussion following my chart the aroma-factor in literature.
Consider, the three things a scent can do: signify a place, bring back memories, and instigate an emotional response.
Readers though are removed from the actual olfactory experience so must imagine the smell from the words we read. It helps to have experienced the smell being described and also to be able to recall the scent (or imagine it, or at least know the appropriate emotional response).
A writer could read about a smell and then write from what he has read, but it’s nice to be able to come up with your own quirky descriptions based on your own smell-experience.
I have been trying to pay attention to scents and odors—name or describe them—but this is not going well. Sometimes I don’t notice or don’t take notes. I go into a butcher shop and there is definitely a familiar smell but what are the words?
I have looked back through five years of my journals to see how I wrote about smells. What I found was that the few times I actually referenced a smell it was as a side-comment. The smells I noted were smells that were either surprisingly strong or seemed (to me) to be out of character to the place and time:
Forest fire smoke
Moist forest soil shaken through a screen at an archaeology dig
Plastic someone was burning with their garbage (acrid and chemical odor)
Cigarette smoke in the Frankfurt airport (having arrived from the US)
The licorice scent from simmering caraway seeds
The mixed smell of forest vegetation and insect repellent
The sulfur and salt scent of a geyser
I hoped to find in my journals the fragrance of flowers, the sweet smell of clothes dried outdoors, the delectable aromas of fruit and vegetables, spicy food cooking, salt-laced ocean mist, and humid earthiness of the rainforest. I also didn’t find mention of the smell of alpine slopes, the North Slope, the Arctic ocean, or fresh mowed grass. Why?
I begin to think that noticing and writing the smells you encounter takes discipline, or perhaps living mindfully (and carrying your journal with you all the time, and writing in it).
In one of my journals though, I did find myself inside the forest:
“My view changes as I walk. Better than watching a film. I feel. The moist stickiness of summer, insect hum, the skin prickles, sweet vegetation aroma mixed with chemical repellent odor. The forest engulfs me like a dark green cave, lively and damp. Water droplets suspended along the pipe-like stems of watermelon berry, an understated forb. I sit on the damp ground, glad to be wearing rain pants, look up at the droplets suspended tentatively along the narrow leaf, each water drop holding a tiny reflection of the forest—like I’m in my own movie, my eyes the camera, summer recorded in the film of my brain.”
Watermelon berry (Streptopus amplexifolius) is a common forest plant in southcentral Alaska.
Photo: Katie Eberhart personal photo library.