One of us lives on the east coast. One of us lives on the west.

One of us lives in a rural community. One of us lives in a city.

Both of us wander. Both of us witness. Both of us write.

This is a record of what we find.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Landscape of Scents and Memory Reposted from September 2012

I have been spending a lot of time lately thinking about smells. Like the familiar smells around the house that wrap around me as I go about my interior day; ginger peach tea, warm toast, ripe bananas, the lanolin in the wool rugs that hang on the wall, oiled wood, pear slices, sunlight through the linen drapes, warm cat, damp dog, a glass of wine, Dr. Brommer’s Peppermint Castile Soap, a closet full of shoes, feather pillows on a cool autumn evening. These are the smells of home, of comfort, familiarity, safety. Calming smells. Secure smells.

In the midst of all this smelling, a link in Tami Lewis Brown’s recent Through The Tollbooth blogpost “Writing A Book That Stinks Or How To Make Scents of Great Writing” led me to Kate McLean, a graphic designer who makes exquisite and evocative sensory maps of towns and specifically what she describes as, “Smell maps as cartographic portraits of sensory perception in the urban environment.”

McLean’s maps and research have inspired me to the point of obsession with making note and keeping track of the myriad of smells in my neighborhood. I have started a map. Well, a list that will soon become a map…

So, today, the first things that hit me when I walked out the door were the smell of salt water, a little fishy, wafting up from the Bay, spliced with burnt chocolate that is actually coffee roasting at Graffeo Coffee three blocks away. Add to that the astringent smell of dry leaves in the gutter. Other marks along the way included wet slate and strong detergent from the scrubbed down entry way of the apartment building down the street, fresh house paint, mown grass at Michelangelo park, dog piddle at most every street tree, the sharp metallic smell of cable turning in the cable car tracks, tomatoes at the corner market, warm sugar from Victoria Bakery, chlorine from the North Beach pool, lavender at the bocce ball court, rosemary from the potted topiaries in front of the Bohemian Hotel. My canine companion, Emma, picked up other smells; she checked her pmial at every tree trunk, trash can and building corner, while always keeping a nose out for forbidden street snacks—cracker crumbs, pizza crust, apple cores, spilled chow fun.

And after Tam’s blogpost last week on how different the world can be at different times of day, I am more keenly aware of the changing smells from morning to afternoon to night.

It was some years ago, when one of my writing teachers had me do a writing exercise using smell to try to access some of my elusive childhood memories, that I discover the incredible power of smell to evoke not only memory but the emotional content of memory. I later learned that scientists, psychologists, poets, novelists and perfumers have long made the indisputable correlation between the sense of smell, memory and emotion.  More than the other senses, it is the sense of smell that instantly conjures up specific memory of place, atmosphere and potent emotion.

For me, the scent of warm sun on a bramble of blackberries immediately transports me back to an afternoon when I was ten years old, standing at the end of a gravel cul-de-sac, wind rattling the leaves in the poplar trees, a September sun low in the sky, worrying that my best friend had a new best friend and that I would have to walk to school by myself now. To this day, blackberry leaves hold the melancholy scent of change and loss, loneliness and exclusion.

The musty smell inside an old book transports me to Shakespeare and Company in Paris in my early twenties; I had a cold, it was raining and there was a huge long-haired tabby dozing on the counter. For me this old book smell still conveys the feeling of safety and refuge, so far away from home.

The smell of wood smoke, damp stone and seawater will catapult me to a beach on the Olympic Peninsula where I was camping with my parents and sister, bringing along the other senses—the sound of the ocean waves rolling and crunching stone on stone, the taste of sticky sweet marshmallow on a willow stick, campfire flames dancing high, sparks popping and jumping in the black sky, the pilled inside of my sweatshirt pouch. The emotion it evokes is a sense of connection with family bound by the experience of nature—a strong sense of belonging.

When I write, I often call on the sense of smell to help me get to an emotion that’s hard to pin down. Need happy? Try thinking of a moment when you were happy and sniff around the memory—is that cake and lemonade, the rubbery smell of balloons, the distinct scent of stretched out crepe paper? Once you can smell it, can you feel it? How about scared? Try scorched pumpkin, damp earth and the glue smell from the inside of a Halloween mask.

What smells evoke vivid memories for you? Or is it the other way around—how do your memories smell?

Take Good Care,



  1. Mmmmm...

    Thanks for taking me along on your memories.

    I agree - scents are so crucial to my own emotional place - but I find them oh so hard to capture on paper!

    Your lists make me aware of the auditory component as well - simply naming the scents evokes a feeling.


  2. Yes! Just saying or thinking the word 'cinnamon' conjures up a feeling of cozy comfort, right? Did you check out Kate McLean's wonderful scent maps?

  3. Thank you for your so cool post,it is useful,i love it very much.please share with us more good articles.