Reflections on smell and life


Reflections on smell and life

Saturday was a gorgeous day. That sort of spring day that offers lots of hope – a secret glimpse of summer to come. On Friday night I headed up to Bury St Edmunds where my parents live, in a small village called Horringer. My sisters and I had travelled to spend the night there (just younger brother Arthur missing), as a surprise for my father’s 80th birthday.

He’s not been well for a while now, so this anniversary has a special poignancy. We ate together on Friday evening and the following morning went for a walk at Ickworth House, a National Trust property whose driveway is 200 metres away from my folks’ house. It was indescribably beautiful.

We were walking past the front of the house and suddenly I smelled something. It was a flowering viburnum. My father has always gained a lot of pleasure from smell. For as long as I can remember he’s been fascinated by plants and gardens, and his special interest is in aromatic plants. Is this obsession with smell something that I’ve picked up, that has then shaped my career choice?

The flowers of viburnum look very similar to those of jasmine, and the smell is sort of similar: it has some real bass notes to it, and quite an intensity. We stopped for a while and took it in. Smell is such an underrated sense, one that we only really value if we have it impaired or if we lose it. Its absence is usually keenly felt. But I also think it is a sense that we can develop, and by focusing on it more it can be a source of great pleasure.

Could working with olfaction in creative ways ever be considered art? I think the complexity of smell – we are only able to discriminate a few separate odours in a mix, and we desensitize and cross-adapt with prolonged exposure to specific odorants – would present challenges for an artist who wanted to work with it. Plus the different thresholds we all have, and the fact that smells diffuse – these factors would necessitate careful design of smell art.

Beginnings and endings. We focus a lot on beginnings in our society and we do them well, but we are less good with endings. The result? Loss leaves us all at sea. We feel that we are the first ones ever to experience it, and when things end no one knows quite how to respond or what to do, because we have so little structure for dealing with endings. But the end is part of the beginning. Everything is finite and we need to integrate the end with the present. And nothing is ever really lost, or wasted. Saturday was a special day, and it is now banked. It meant something.


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