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smell: an ethnography (of sorts)

The one thing we can’t easily re-capture is the smell of a space or a moment. This morning as I was doing dishes, I thought (for just the briefest of moments) that I could smell the rich aroma of fresh char cooking on a stove, and I was instantly pulled back to happy memories with good friends.

Once while walking down a city street I thought I could smell caribou cooking and my mouth began to water. Once in the Arctic I swore I could smell prairie roses emanating from nowhere outside a church.

There is something so powerful about smell. About the smell of home, or of a place you hold dear. This morning it rained, and then a neighbour cut their grass. For the first time this year, I could smell spring: wet, green, expectant, musty. Like all the smells that had settled into the earth over the winter were being mixed up like layers of water in a lake. Like nostalgia, or those emotions that certain memories evoke that you can’t quite classify as joy or sadness — just a familiar, bewildering feeling that settles into your bones — smell is elusive, seductive. Comforting, awakening.

I dream about the smell of the river valley in June. You know what I’m talking about — the fresh wild roses mingling with that crisp, green almost menthol aspen scent that sighs out of the forests. I used to ride my bike around for hours in the river valley in early June just so I could breathe that deep into my lungs. Clear out the winter that had settled inside of me and pour liquid prairie medicine into my soul.

I like to pack moccasins in my suitcase when I travel, so that when I open it in a new place, I will be greeted by the smokey, comforting smell of moosehide. It’s my small way of honouring my ancestors as I continue on this nomadic path that life has taken me on.

I like the smell of a freshly lit cigarette, even though I don’t smoke. For me I guess it evokes the 80s and a time when smoking was an everyday kind of thing. I don’t miss cigarette smoke, though. Just that fresh note of a newly lit one on the air. Maybe it’s a rebellious part of me that revels in it — the idea that to smoke today is a subversive, politically incorrect act. The minute people catch that first whiff of a cigarette they go on the defensive, ready to tear the smoker apart. I feel like a traitor just for enjoying that intoxicating hit of it in the air at a park or on a sidewalk.

I think about how we are robbed of smells. When the air is too polluted from industrial exhaust to let the subtle, precious prairie smells caress us. I have started to have more breathing problems as I grow older, and I wonder how much of that is a result of living in a province that blithely pretends it doesn’t have an air pollution problem. I wonder if our children will be able to smell the smells we are blessed with today.

When we talk about geography and land and home and reclaiming space, we usually don’t talk about smell. It’s there, implied in the stories we tell, in the memories we hold. But it’s not elevated like sight or sound or even touch. It’s hard to capture in any of the media that exist today, to share with someone in Toronto or Paris or Buenos Aires. If someone were to ask me what’s so special about Edmonton, I’d drag them down into the river valley in June, or over dewy grass in the middle of a short August prairie night. Get them to breathe deeply. Let the smells of our city whisper their stories. Let the smells linger with that crisp sunlight that hits the city at 3 on a January afternoon or the sound of a fierce lightning storm cracking over a city park. All of that intangible beauty that we carry around inside of us, that grows to define us over time.

As I sit over here, thousands of kilometres from home, I start to catalogue all the smells I miss. Hot summer pavement hit with the fierce, angry drops of a July thunderstorm. Backyard fire pits. Bannock baking on a friend’s stove. The smell of donuts being baked at the Safeway early in the morning wafting through commuter traffic.  Wild roses. Cool April morning air. Fallen aspen leaves carpeting the earth near the water’s edge. Even the horrible smells — the unmistakable manure scent that wafts over Belgravia/campus every so often — have a place in our olfactory history. Tarmac melting in a heatwave.

I’ll hold onto these phantom smells for now, and seek them out eagerly when I do finally get to wander the city streets again.


4 thoughts on “smell: an ethnography (of sorts)

  1. Hey Zoe – funny you should mention it. Rode my bicycle by the UofA farms today on my way home. I have to say – the strong whiffs of manure made me feel good…..

    Posted by NDR | April 24, 2013, 10:51 pm
  2. Really enjoyed this post, as it resonated with me considerably. I grew up in Winnipeg, and it wasn’t until I moved to Edmonton in the late 70s that I began to realize that I missed certain smells, and of equal importance, certain sounds that I realized were endemic to where I lived and grew up. To this day, I still miss them all. Like the way hearing a song triggers an immediate emotional and memory response, certain smells and sounds do exactly the same thing. This can also apply to taste. I deeply miss the taste of my Hungarian grandmother’s Dobos torte and some of my mother’s cooking as well. I can taste these foods and dishes in my mind.

    I found your blog because I was reading the list of Yeggies nominees. Congratulations to you, Zoe.

    Posted by Randy Reichardt | May 1, 2013, 1:05 pm
    • Hi Randy,

      Thanks for this lovely comment. It’s amazing how we become so embedded in our environments, and how they can affect us on so many tangible and intangible levels. By the way, Winnipeg is one of my favourite cities in Canada.

      (and thanks for the congratulations!).


      Posted by zotofoto | May 3, 2013, 4:58 pm

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