The word “smell” usually connotes something off, malodorous, unpleasant…we talk in the software industry about “code smells”. Amongst cooks and food handlers, “smell” is rarely used in the positive sense. Oenologists speak glowingly about “nose” and “bouquet” and “aroma”, but rarely about the plain old smell of the wine.
I like smells – the olfactory sense, perhaps the most unconsciously underutilized sense. Of course most of our sense of taste is actually predicated on our sense of smell; most people don’t know this, but I learned it early on from my father, who lost his sense of smell abruptly and unexplainably in his early teens.
The other day I took the kids to Vashon Island, aka the “Gem of Puget Sound”, a lovely, bucolic, and free-spirited community just 20 minutes by ferry from Seattle. The sun shone gloriously, the forested island shimmered green and glowing, but the smells of the day were the things I’ll remember.
First, at the ferry embarkation point, the cars pull forward onto a lengthy dock stretching out from shore until the water gets deep enough for the ferry to safely approach. We parked and jumped out and looked at the water, the beach behind us, the barnacles encrusting the immense and ancient solid wood pilings – but the smell! The smell of the sound, the salt water, the kelp and seaweed and subtle fishy smells, was overpowering. Even though I was born here and have lived in Seattle most of my life, I don’t get down to the actual salt water too often, and the infrequency means that the smell hits me like a blow, like something palpable, and I stand there and breathe deep through my nostrils, savoring the purity of the moment.
On the island, we stopped for breakfast at an old, homey converted restaurant called The Hardware Store – supposedly the oldest continuously-operating business on Vashon. The service definitely ran on island time, but the omelet that was brought out – filled with goat cheese, sun-dried tomatoes, and cilantro – smelled heavenly. Perhaps I was just in a good mood, or perhaps my sense of smell was already triggered to be on high alert, but the omelet filled my senses and was a perfect meal at the perfect time.
Afterwards we walked to a nearby bookstore and I savored that special smell that is reserved only for those bookstores that are old and/or stock secondhand books, as did this one. We bought a few, including a gem called “How to Behave and Why”, which I expect I’ll read to the kids a few times over the next month.
Then we drove south, past groves of trees and happy little homes to Jenkins Point, which is a mushroom-shaped peninsula nestled between Vashon and Maury Island. We combed the beach for hidden and not-so hidden treasures, and found crabs, jellyfish, some sort of worm (tube worms?), and clams. Hundreds of clams, who surprised the hell out of us by squirting water several feet in the air whenever we unknowingly stepped too close to their holes. It was a minefield of clams. Our lower extremities were soaked by the time we left and I haven’t heard so much squealing laughter from the kids in a long time. Again, the smells – particularly of the sun-soaked kelp, drying amidst the rocks – were overpowering.
Then to Point Robinson, recommended by the lady at the bookstore, were we stumbled onto the 2011 Low Tide Festival. A dozen or so marine biologists were on hand amidst hundreds of people, pointing out local fauna that had been exposed by the low tide. Enormous starfish, sea stars, crabs as big as your head, anemones, (more) clams, jellyfish, shrimp – it was smorgasbord of marine life. The biologists would put little flags in the sand next to the interesting creatures so we knew where to go. We made sand castles and smelled the sea air from the top of the lighthouse and ate hotdogs and lemonade and watched a Native American dance troupe put on a show.
Then back up north along the main (only?) road, to the Vashon Island Coffee Roasterie, where I found the sweet smells of newly-ground coffee; then back to the ferry terminal, and home. The kids and I walked around Discovery Park, where I breathed in the half-mossy, half-decaying-fern smell that I’ve come to associate with dense Northwest forests. My kids look at me a little funny when I stop and smell what’s around me, but they are learning. They are learning that there are many things to appreciate in this life, and many ways to discover them.
Then back to my apartment, where my son had the (not entirely unexpected) misfortune of jumping on the bed and falling off, backwards, onto his head. He cried, which he doesn’t do so much anymore, and showed me his head, and I rubbed it and put my nose in his hair and smelled him, and was transported back more than six years to the day I first met him in the Vladivostok Baby Home #2, when I also put my nose in his hair and smelled, deep and full, and he smelled of root vegetables and iodine, two smells I will always associated with him.
I wonder if the fact that my father lost his sense of smell before I was born made me more acutely aware of that particular sense. I wonder to what extent we are shaped by those things that make up our context, our circumstances – the presence or absence of certain things making more or less of an impact on our behavior, our desires, our subconscious evaluations of self and others. I wonder if my kids will someday take their own children to a beautiful island on a sunny summer day and breathe deep and smell the sea and be reminded of me.