A few days ago, I was walking down the street when suddenly I was suddenly transported to my grandparents’ house. I wasn’t there physically; my grandparents lived a few hundred miles away from where I was standing and sold that house over a decade ago. In my mind, however, I was instantly transported there. It was a smell that sent me to that happy place.
I don’t know what the smell is, and it’s one I’ve been hunting down for years. There must have been a plant growing in my grandparents’ garden that released that distinct scent. Whenever I get a whiff of that smell, no matter where I am or what is happening, I am suddenly at that house. I’m playing with my sister and dog in the backyard, looking at the fish in the pond, and pulling up the mats on the back patio to look for the bugs and slugs that live underneath.
Smells have always had a way of unlocking memories. Each season has a distinct smell that reminds me of precise points of my childhood. When the smell of damp, falling leaves hits for the first time each year, I remember sitting on my parents’ back porch, in a costume, eagerly waiting for trick-or-treating to begin.
The crisp smell of a night-time snowfall sends me back to my high school’s outing club, where we would wander through the woods on winter nights with the biology teacher as his hounds chased racoons up trees. I can almost hear our footsteps crunching through the snow and feel the cold wind on my face.
When I ask students to name our senses, or ways we explore the world, smell is usually not the first one that comes to their minds. While all our senses are vital to how humans interact with our surroundings, smell is sometimes overlooked. It is not seen to be as vital as our other senses, such as sight and sound.
I often catch myself viewing smell as a bonus sense. I notice pleasant smells, like good food, flowers, and that special smell the first rain has after a long dry period. When I encounter odors that are not so pleasant, I find myself wishing I could just turn off my sense of smell so the unpleasantness could be more easily ignored.
This sometimes leads me to the false thought that our sense of smell is not really necessary. Unlike sight or sound, I feel like I could navigate the world just as easily without my sense of smell. This inspired me do some research and find out just how important smell is. I realized the only reason that it didn’t seem necessary was because, in our modern world, smell is only really vital in important and potentially dangerous situations that we don’t encounter very often. Without it, I couldn’t tell if food was burning in the oven or if there was a gas leak.
However, before many modern amenities made smell a slightly less necessary sense, it was just as vital as sight, sound, touch, and taste. Early humans relied on their sense of smell to find food and tell if that food was safe to eat, alert them to the presence of predators, to find water, and much more.
In the natural world, smell is even more important. Many animals have a much more developed sense of smell than humans. They use smell to find mates, mark their territories, and to keep away potential predators. In the animal world, smell is the main form of communication. In some cases, such as in moles and other animals that live underground, smell is the primary way they interact with the world and find their way.
In humans, smell is no longer as important as it once was, but it is still special in its own way. While it is not quite as necessary for our survival as it once was, the sense of smell is linked strongly to memories and emotions in ways our other senses are not. There have even been a number of scientific studies done to determine why smell triggers memories more than other senses. I don’t have the knowledge to fully understand and explain the scientific reasoning, but I believe from experience that it is true. There’s a certain type of magic that happens when a smell triggers a long-lost memory, and when that happens, I make sure to savor it.
Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. ACNC is located just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are open from dawn to dusk and birds of prey can be viewed anytime the trails are open. The Nature Center is open from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. daily except Sunday when it opens at 1 p.m. More information can be found online at auduboncnc.org or by calling (716) 569-2345.