Why scents matter

Why scents matter

A few years ago, I heard a strange but memorable interview with a man who lived for a short time as a badger.

I’m a podcast addict and this particular story was from Podcast King, Ira Glass, from This American Life (episode 596 if you’re interested). Charles Foster, a biologist, veterinarian and lawyer, dug a hole and slept underground for days on end. He was led by a deep curiosity about animals physical experiences which had plagued him since childhood. To me, his more intriguing insights were descriptions of scents. Because badgers are blind, Charles made the decision to wear a blindfold which brought into sharper focus his sense of smell. In a few days, he was able to map the woods he was in by describing trees and the trails of the creatures around him.

During his interview, he described the ‘unlocking magic’ of rain, which created ‘a better sort of music’ from the scents around him. His analysis of his time as a badger is charming and brought home to me how primal this experience of smell is. We are so unaware of so many aromas we encounter because we are not in tune with our surroundings.

By day, I’m a primary school teacher and each week I get to use my skills as a candle maker to run a craft group. Each group I have had been entirely different, but one thing stays the same. When I ask a room of five to twelve-year-olds what their favourite smells are, I always get caught off guard by how specific their answers are.

Some recent examples from this terms group are: 

“Rain on a hot road”, “My grandmas house”, “The beach”, “My Dad’s work uniform when it smells like petrol”, “My mum’s soap”, “The smell of campfires and fireplaces”.

If you ask a room full of adults this question, you may get similar answers, maybe a few involving wine, coffee or other foods. But when it comes down to it-I bet those smells are at some level attributed to places or people they love.

Some of my earliest memories are based around a smell, but these are always centred around a place or person.

Some examples are:

The smell of roses takes me to my grandmother’s house where I spent hours in the garden with her while she told me all their names (Double-delight was her favourite)

The smell of campfires, which brings memories of a friends farm, the bonfires we had and playing spotlight and other random games late into the night with our flashlights

The smell of burnt toast reminds me of my housemate, Leah. She had an endless battle with the toaster settings and regularly blackened her bread (this was her one and only flaw as a housemate)

So this week, live like a badger! Jokes-sort of...

Just try and be aware of your surroundings and try to enjoy the scents of something different. Notice the ways they change from place to place and mindfully bask in the memories evoked by a familiar smell. Do particular smells remind you of someone special?

Let us know a smell that brings you to somewhere or someone special.


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1 comment

My husband (your dad) always thought it strange that I thought of Athens, Greece with nostalgia when I smelt a certain combination of car/bus exhaust fumes. It stemmed from my days as a young teenager waiting for the school bus. It was not so much that it was a nice smell but it certainly evokes memories of those days. More pleasantly, the smell of Jasmine on warm nights reminds me of walking through the Plaka and happy times in Athens. Totally agree, smell and memory are strongly linked.

Jean Tibballs

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