Life is Smelly

ID-1005419The world smells different than it used to.

At least, I think it does.

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve had to consciously breathe through my nose to keep my mouth from hanging slack involuntarily, causing passers-by to deduct IQ points from my imaginary total. For the longest time, I never understood the term “mouthbreather.” Was that bad? Was I doing something wrong? There are still moments when I catch myself breathing in and out through my throat and wonder how many passing Freuds have already diagnosed me.

Until I took my first hit of Afrin as a rebellious young 8 year old, stuck in the doldrums of a summer cold, I never knew what I was missing. My eyes, and my nose, were opened to a world of scents. I was overwhelmed by a crashing wave of hot pavement, sweet grass and leaves, and heady tree trunks. I had smelled it all before, but never so much, so soon, so all at once.

I breathe through what feels like cotton balls, on bad days. My dad had the same problem, growing up. A doctor took a hammer to his deviated septum while he was still awake, and his nose never quite looked right again. He spent his time in the hospital bed swallowing blood from his battered nasal cavity, and later giving it back to the hospital into a bedpan.

So the only thing I could do was go for round two, for my dad. And to breathe through my nose like a normal person.

The last thing I remember before going to sleep after the surgery was eating french fries and watching old, fuzzy Nancy Drew movies in the hotel room my parents chose to board us in, should something bad happen on that first night. It was outpatient surgery, and I was clearly fine, but they still worried like parents often do.

The first thing I remember after going to sleep after the surgery is being wheeled in to a hospital room, cold and shaking uncontrollably, unable to gulp enough air in my lungs through my mouth, no longer caring if anyone saw. I found out later I had vomited up blood all night, and no amount of water or proverbial chicken soup could or would stay in my stomach. My body dehydrated itself trying to get rid of the unnatural amount of blood coming out of my nose.

Even months later, after the doctor had carefully pulled 4 feet of what he called “nasal tampons” out of my nose and, I thought, out of my brain, I found I still couldn’t smell properly. Things went back to normal. My noise and my mind felt stuffy.

But after an obligatory moping period, I closed my eyes and opened my nostrils. I found the silver lining.

If I open my nostrils wide and breathe deeply, I can smell everything. I could always smell, just not as well as everyone else. You see, my brain has no time to acclimate to scents, to get used to them, to forget them. Scents are memories for everyone. People accidentally take in scents and create memories. I inhale on purpose.

Books smell like long nights and warm blankets, and sun on the grass smells like hot summer days and dust in my socks. Scorching asphalt and oil smells like the wind in my hair as I ride my bike down Mansfield street to a small gas station, tastes like salty jerky dip I’d spit out later when the salt started to sting my lips.

And it makes me wonder– what did the world smell like before? Before pavement and progress and people? I love the acrid smells of a city, although not near as much as the cool scents of a stream next to shade trees. Still, has the world changed too much? Will it ever smell the same again? What did it smell like, what does it smell like, far far away from the heat rising up from roads and tailpipes and skyscrapers?

The daydreamer in me wants to believe it’s incredible.

But I guess cows shit in every era.


Photo Credit: Federico Stevanin,


2 thoughts on “Life is Smelly

  1. Smell is a weird one for me. I seem to have a terrible sense of smell because I cannot smell most things at all. I’ll be cooking and my dad will be choking from the garlic smell one room away and I’ll not be able to smell a thing! But then there are some scents that I can smell powerfully and those I seem to really relish just because I can actually detect them.
    The idea you touch upon at the end is “Scent Ecology” I guess and it’s something I’ve never really thought about. I have thought about “Sound Ecology” quite a bit though, because I’ve had more cause to deal with the idea I suppose. I first came in contact with the idea when I visiting composer spoke to us of his work which consists of a lot of soundart almost always concerning itself with sounds he vividly remembers being a part of his life but which do not really exist in our current time, like milk hitting a bucket as a cow’s milked by hand, or the sounds of a city street on a sunny day when owners of caged birds, of which there were far more back then, would place the cages outside their front doors to grant the birds fresh air and of course the street would be full of twittering and chirping. It’s something I’ve thought of more and more since then because the world of sound seems to change surprisingly quickly. Already in my thus far brief lifetime there are sounds I can think of which have “gone extinct” and been replaced with others. I’ve never thought of smell from this point of view though but I’m pretty sure it’s probably the same story.

    • That’s so interesting. I had never heard of the term “sound ecology” let alone “smell ecology” before. Though, it seems like an apt term for it. I think cows milked by hand still exist somewhere, so that sound may still yet be on the endangered species list. I wonder if now, scent is even more endangered. Sound can be captured with today’s technology, and replicated much easier than a smell. Interesting to think about.

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