Okay. Think about some of the stories or novels you have read.
“…smelled like an old tennis shoe..,” “…smelled like nothing so much as a dirty, wet dog..,” “…smelled sour…as if the old man hadn’t bathed for days…”
Ick! None of that sounds all that appealing. But, for the life of me, I have a much harder time remembering written passages about things that smell nice. Flowers or cakes or anything much except maybe “the clean smell of rain.”
So, if I assume that you are curious about what I think is joyful about smell, tennis shoes and sour old men aren’t much of a commendation for smell. And rain is…well, it’s commented on with some frequency. Then comes back again my early comment about joy being slow food, a savored thing. And my other comments about contentment and satisfaction.
The fact of the matter is that I am not nearly the gardener my sisters and brother are. My mother is also a good gardener. Let’s just say that I “soldier on.” But, even with that anemic depiction, I know what I love the very best about gardening — the smells. I love the smell of dirt (or, more correctly, soil…freshly turned soil). And of peat moss. And of grasses — cut and uncut. I have savored these things since the time I would go and sit in the yard while my parents pruned shrubs or planted new flowers. And, I liked the nursery, too. All those smells like bone meal or plant food!
There are some wild plants that have a very distinct smell that I associate with certain times and places. I don’t remember those times or places, but if I smell that plant and a smile comes to my face, I know I have found a moment of joy. And, truthfully, I don’t always want my memories to be specific down to the last detail. There’s something special about just the vague memory and the association with the smell. I don’t know if I would say that about other senses and the memories associated with them.
Smell is a different kind of response and it brings about joy in a particular way. I once wore a perfume consistently for about three years while dating a certain man. After the relationship was over, I could no longer wear that perfume. I still loved all the citrusy smell, but it conjured up memories I didn’t want to have stirred up. I suppose it was no longer a thing of joy. Until I reclaimed it more than 10 years later. Now it’s just citrus — but really yummy citrus!
Perhaps of all the smells I can think of, there is one very pungent smell that always brings me a sense of being well. I speak a lot of spending summer vacations at my grandparents’ home. This was yet another thing I associate with that time. My grandparents did not have air conditioning. They had 15-foot ceilings and ceiling fans and great ventilation. But even with that, summer nights were hot and humid and sometimes, despite that, outside was better than inside.
So, many of us would go out on the front porch and down to the end of the walkway, where three concrete steps descended into the street, the yard having sloped down a good three to four feet. We would generally congregate in a tumble around those steps and the cool, cool St. Augustine grass. Our bare feet rested on the hot pavement, our derrieres in the grass. Then the wind picked up that specific smell and blew it towards us as the truck came rattling by, its container of chicken wire at least six to eight feel high. It was full of cotton headed for the gin. And, the air smelled of the burning cotton bolls. I have no idea how much cotton was harvested in that region of the state at that time, but certainly enough to make it worthwhile to have a gin close by. It is seldom that I smell the burning of bolls anymore. But there is a huge feeling of contentment when I do catch a whiff of that in the air. I don’t think I can say that it’s because it brings back some sense of ease that things really haven’t changed all that much.
Things have changed a lot, really. But sense memory — and in this case, the sense of smell — is perhaps more primitive and therefore more capable of revealing to us joy through a continuum. Smell, I suspect, is enhanced by memory. Much in the way perfumes are layered potions, smell may bring joy through its ability to build upon itself and catalog our inmost feelings when we find something to bond with them and arouse them. And this happens time upon time upon time, layering smell and memory to create a fusion of joy.
In all things I wish you peace.