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Nature's Seasons: Winter Scents
One of the significant differences between winter here on southern Vancouver Island and those other areas of the continent covered by winter ice and snow is its seasonal aroma. The only winter smells I can recall from my years living in the Great Lakes Basin came from human sources: wood burning in fireplaces and stoves; the stench of auto exhaust rising above the idling vehicles in driveways up and down the street.
But here in Victoria and the surrounding countryside, a variety of winter scents are apparent. The aroma of wet cedar engulfs me as I walk along the chip trails in parks and wild lands. When I walk along the winter beach, the smell of the sea surrounds me, frequently enhanced by storm waves breaking just offshore and wafted to me on the saturated gales.
Not all of the natural odours of the season here are as pleasant, however. When I walk the trails of Goldstream Park, the sweet smell of wet cedar is jolted from me as I near the river by the strong stench of rotting flesh emanating from the spent remains of hundreds of salmon, their life cycle ended after spawning in the river shallows.
Winter smells are more prominent here because the air and ground temperatures remain relatively warm and usually above freezing, the air is humid and the air pressure generally low. Such environmental conditions are more conducive to the release of those molecules that elicit reactions from our nasal receptors, our olfactory cells. In contrast, the freezing of surfaces and the cover of ice and snow lock in most potential smells. And those not thus locked in remain close to their source.
If the conditions outdoors are not conducive to exciting the sense of smell during the winter, the winter indoor environment enhances our exposure to a wide range of smells. For me, some of my strongest memories are linked with winter scents: burning logs in the fireplace, baking cookies, a roasting holiday bird, the Christmas tree, wet woolen mittens, bread rising and baking, a pot of coffee, frying bacon.
Of all our senses, the sense of smell can engender the strongest reactions, particularly those psychological senses of anxiety, dread, nostalgia, love and spirituality. In his book The Re-Enchantment of Every Day Life, Thomas Moore links smell and spirituality through agents such as garden: "One powerful convergence of spirituality and sensuality in a garden lies in the aromas and smells, first of the earth and then of flowering plants. The sense of smell not only conjures up memory, as is well known, a primary activity of the soul, but is intimately implicated in the spiritual life."
Scientists tell us that humans are capable of detecting over ten thousand different odours. Detecting them is one thing, trying to describe them is another -- often the best we can do is to name a smell after its source: rotten eggs, lilac blossoms, banana, vanilla. And often a smell is really a potpourri of several separate fragrances acting in concert.
Diane Ackerman in A Natural History of the Senses tells us: "Smell is a mute sense, the one without words. Lacking a vocabulary, we are left tongue-tied, groping for words in a sea of inarticulate pleasures and exaltations."
The myriad varieties of smell can, however, be categorized into a few primary olfactory groupings: musty, resinous, foul, acrid, minty, floral and ethereal. But like the variations of colour from the primary ROYGBIV spectrum, odours can be mixed to produce any number of variations. Smells define our self-image and our image of others; they stir sexual passions, spur our memories, warn us of dangers. Smell combines with the primary taste groups to give us a blend that defines our appreciation, or dislike, of each food and dish.
I remember reading a suggestion for meaningful but simple gifts -- giving the gift of scents. The writer advised filling spice jars, vials and tins with objects that would stimulate the memory through fragrance: pine needles, wet beach sand, vanilla extract, apple and spice. She gathered these and others, placing them in a row of small glass jars and brown tins on a convenient shelf in a room frequented by curious visitors who are encouraged to open each and enjoy. From her private collection, she got the idea to customize kits of memorable smells for gifts to friends and family.
For example, a jar labeled "Northern Forest" would be filled with dried pine and/or spruce needles. When opened, it emits a scent that brings back memories of days spent walking in the woods. A whiff from the tin marked "Pacific Shore" containing grains of salty sand brings a flashback of times strolling, digging, and splashing on the coast. One minty sniff from "Summer Garden" containing mint leaves and other herbs and another from "Fields of Color" containing dried, crushed flower petals conjure up summer scenes in an instant.
As I walk along the forest trail, my foot stirs the fallen leaves, exposing some soil below, and the scent of damp earth and rotting leaves rises. Immediately my mind jumps back thirty years and half a continent away. I am walking through the local woods on Thanksgiving morning toward my home. When I reach the house, and open the door, my vision is momentarily taken from me as my glasses steam over as the humid kitchen air contacts the cold lenses. At the same time, my sense of smell is overwhelmed by a flood of aromas: a roasting turkey; cut garlic and onions, steaming cabbage; clove and pumpkin; sage and thyme. What better way to end an invigorating walk on a crisp, late-fall morning than be greeted by the promise of a day filled with family love and great food. The fragrances of the kitchen speak to me. And my heart soars!
Nature's Seasons: Winter Scents by Keith C. Heidorn, PhD . ©2000, All Rights Reserved.
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