If asked to name the smells we miss most, an anosmic Top 10 would be fairly predictable. It would include things like the aroma of freshly brewed coffee, or the cooking smells of food. Bacon in a frying pan was my nose’s favourite hors d’ouvre. Parents would likely bemoan an inability to smell their kids, especially babies. And those in relationships quickly become aware of losing something of their other halves. I soon realised how my partner’s body smell – a kind of odour genome – was so personal, intimate and ultimately, reassuring.
Yet as the years pass, I am increasingly conscious of what is arguably the Biggest Missing of all – experiential loss. Beyond what we try to make of our lives, a great deal of what we call fulfilment is characterised by our experiences of the world around us. The role of smell, while subtle, is often central to experiences which are, by definition, sensory. Smell is life’s mood music. And ours has been turned off.
I miss how the bookshelves in my study once greeted me with the musty yellow of a million words. In my favourite old pubs, I miss what the interiors once shared: impregnated by centuries, the walls, beams and furnishings let me drink in their history by nose as well as mouth. When backpacking, I miss what the seasons leave unseen: the light, sparkling air of spring’s renewal, the rising, burnt umber of summer earth, the damp, moulding goodbyes of leaf litter in late autumn. Last thing at night, I miss the soporific, comforting freshness of clean bed linen.
Importantly, smells needn’t be pleasant to bring meaning. On match days at my football club, my nose misses the heated excitement, the sweaty anxiety from thousands of supporters, swirling as a heady, air-born cocktail, captured beneath the overhanging roof of the stand. Once home, this pungency would send me to the shower and my clothes to the laundry. Yet these are the real-time odours of pitch battle.
Are you aware of experiences that don’t quite cut it like they used to? Get in touch if there’s anything you’d like to share.
I’m thinking now about that smell of summer earth…..it always took me back to a childhood spent outdoors during school holidays. I’m told that memory is indebted to smell more than any other sense, so is there a double whammy here? When scents disappear, it’s not just the present that is diminished, but random-access memories returned from experiences past.