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Do You Smell?

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Do you smell?

The aromas of life surround you. Do you smell them?

What is it about an odor that can take us back, transport us somewhere different? A subliminal scent registers deep in the brain, evoking connotations of time and place. Do you remember those smells?

The pungent acridity of freshly cut grass and the distant earthy wafts of freshly spread manure arouse memories of a childhood spent in a suburban town encroaching into the countryside. My nose fondles the familiar scents as precious childhood souvenirs.

Wherever I am, the scent of a warm spring rain causes me to linger. That smell—that particular scent—is the essence of my aromatic association with home. The warm humidity of spring rains coat my nostrils, embracing them in a comfortable caress. The very sensation of humid air is far removed from the arid climes where I’ve spent the last three years. Nostalgia overtakes me whenever that sensation of the rain presents itself.

I was always told that the smell of spring rain comes from the worms. But the scent of worms alone could never do justice to the depth of the aroma. The scent is fundamentally deeper than that, nothing less than Petrichor—from the Greek words petra for rock and ichor for the blood of the gods. The fragrance of earth pours forth from the bedrock. The scent of spring rain is none less than the blood of the gods flowing through the ground.

The earth comes alive during spring rains. Soil microbes thrive in the warm, damp soils of spring, producing geosmin, the scent of the earth itself. Again a Greek construction, geosmin combines the words for the earth and the word for smell. Over winter the earth’s biotic community slackens its pace of life. Metabolic excrement accumulates in the soils, waiting to be flung into the air upon impact by rain. Spring rains re-awaken the soil microbes from winter dormancy, releasing even more of the distinctive geosmin fragrance. This is the smell of life emerging once again from the slumber of winter. Do you smell the very scent of life stirring?

I’m in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area right now. I’ve never been to this place before, but the scent brings me somewhere familiar. Is it the smell of the northwoods forests? Pine, spruce, fir, birch and aspen, all mixing their pheromones together in a melody of fragrance. Spring fecundity spreads through the air. Prolonged exposure to the scent of these northern forests registers deep in my mind. Yes, I have been here before. Not the Boundary Waters specifically, but to this place in general. The scent here is as much about where I am physically as about where I’ve been emotionally before. I ruminate with the old familiar smells. Comforting, inherently wild but familiar enough to feel homey and lived-in. Yes, I have smelled that before; yes, I have been here before.

The aromas of life surround you. Do you smell them?