I stand in the midst of the forest, beneath a shower of leaves. It’s as though a treasure chest has been tipped from the sky, spilling its glittering riches. The woodland surface is woven in a pattern of copper and gold, stitched with the sharp shadows of trees. Sunlight pours into the hollows as if they were bowls, filling them until they brim over, pooling about the woods in a deep and mellow glow. I look up into the canopy and it could be a chandelier of lit leaves, swaying from the ceiling with a breeze.
Mistle thrushes rattle through the high branches and a pair of delicate treecreepers climb adjacent trunks, racing each other to their tips. A deep silence takes their place when they’re gone. This solitude of mosses and frayed lichens, of beeches rising high into the sky and fungi fingering slowly through the earth, calls me back every autumn, beckons me from my desk to climb up into its arms and be held there. To be a part of the relinquishing, the letting go. To see the forest shed leaves like flakes of old paint – though a few of them will hang on, stubborn and tenacious as memories, to see out a cold and snowy season alone on the trees.
I breathe in the wild autumn riches. All the smells of the wet and fallen leaves rise like mist off a lake, mingled with the rain-soaked earth, rotting wood slumped in a dell, a glade of dying ferns. They have such a particular and knowable aroma, these autumn woods. A persuasive odour that carries a distinct and melancholy edge. I’m reminded of other autumns by their scent, of heaped leaves and long smoky walks, a collection of unrelated impressions colliding into one. But scent has the capacity to call up stronger, more specific, associations as well.
Whenever I see them, I stop to smell roses, leaning forward to take in all that they hold. And with the first fragrant air that passes into me I’m in a garden with my grandfather. He’s risen from his chair in the house, where he would sit with a newspaper and magnifying glass, eventually pencilling a mysterious x on a grainy image of footballers playing without a ball. I don’t know if he ever won any of the ‘Spot the Ball’ competitions he used to mail in, having taken his time to judge from the position and angle of the players on the pitch the exact place he expected the invisible ball should be, but that didn’t stop him from trying, week after week, to divine the presence of an imperceptible thing. He taps ash from his pipe and shuffles to the garden, where the roses he’s tended and nurtured for years are in bloom, all compressed by the brief English summer into a wild explosion of scent. I stand beside him, and while cars and buses roll past on the busy road, the lingering scent of roses hangs heavy in the air, as invisible and elusive as the ball suspended somewhere in the photograph that my grandfather has folded and tucked in the wing of his arm.
Scents can trigger specific memories, to people and places, moments and events. They can elaborate a complex and immediate shape to distant happenings, sometimes long forgotten and deeply buried. The olfactory bulb, the structure responsible for the perception of odours, is a component of the limbic system, an area of the brain closely associated with memory and feeling. Along with having access to the amygdala, the brain structure which processes emotions, the olfactory bulb is also connected to the hippocampus which, in part, is concerned with associative learning, and crucial to the encoding of memories. In a sense, the olfactory bulb – our immediate cognitive connection to the world of scent – is nested beside the very structures that form the heart of our remembering. Our brains forge a link between a scent and the experience of it, often when we first encounter a particular aroma, a response which becomes conditioned and twined forever in our minds. Which is why so many of our most compelling scent memories return us to our childhoods.
I imagine this neural system as a map, traced with the routes of our remembering. It’s crisscrossed with rough tracks and roads that fan out across the past, the wild byways and overgrown lanes that led us here out of youth. We journey along these paths, spun backwards like a wheel over the accumulated tracery of our time on this planet. Scents bestowing memories; paths bringing our lives back to us.
When I breathe in a salt sea I’m suddenly on a shore with my uncle. Not the smooth and seductive coasts of the Mediterranean, whose scents pull other memories in nets from the depths, but the heaving North Sea, where the smells of seaweed and bladderwrack blend with the raw and briny wash. My brother and I are young, and back from Canada on summer holidays in the English port town where I was born. Uncle Harry has taken us crabbing, searching the vast archipelago of rocks at low tide. In the salt pools brim miniature marine worlds. Creatures caught out by the retreating sea find solace in these pockets of water left behind. There they bide their time, stowing away in remnant shelters to await the returning, rising rush.
We riddle the crabs from dark crevices with fire pokers, unveil them beneath a bloom of green seaweed, scooping them in gloved hands to drop in a bucket where they cluster and crowd at the bottom. Steadily our bucket grows heavier, and my brother and I haul it over the slippery rocks, led on through this exciting, watery world by our uncle, adding to our doomed hoard as we go. Ahead of us, past the next bank of barnacled rocks, we see a shark splayed grey on the sand. It’s still young, only a few feet in length, and bruised purple and blue about its head. Washed up and pounded by the sea against stone; the same sea that sustained it. I watch my Uncle Harry lower a hand to the shark’s side. He touches the creature with only a thumb and three fingers, just like my grandfather when he shows me the roses, both having lost their little fingers in accidents at work, so there’s just a nub at the edge of their hands. I touch the sleek grey skin after him, mimicking what he does, and stare into the shark’s bloody eye.
I’m back in the forest, beneath a sky of leaves. They tumble and float like our experiences, some settling within reach, others rising on a wind to be carried off and never seen again. Summer’s green and unfolding promise is gathered about me in deep reefs, all faded and fallen. I’m reminded of other autumns while I’m here, whole seasons of scattered moments like these leaves in a beech wood, the myriad subtle notes that compose a life. We never know when any of them will be carried with us, catching a ride in an upturned cuff or on the bottom of a boot, taken unknowingly along on one of those paths that make up a map of remembered things. Years may pass before we find that leaf again, still clinging to our clothes. Only with time can we learn what memory will sift from these moments.
There are a few changes around here that some of you may be aware of. And for those who aren’t, just to let you know that I’ve changed the Notes from Near and Far URL address back to its original (julianhoffman.wordpress.com) if you’d like to update your bookmarks or blog links. The other address, julian-hoffman.com, is now being used for my new website, Words, Images, which I’ve recently put together. Along with a bit more information about my book, The Small Heart of Things, due out next year, there are some audio recordings and a gallery of landscape and wildlife images. There’s also a place to sign up for a newsletter for updates on the book as it makes its way towards publication. Please let me know if there’s anything else you’d like to see there. Thanks for reading!
26 thoughts on “The Shape of a Scent”
gorgeous. Thank you.
Thanks, Ian. Much appreciated!
This is so well written, Julian that I smell all these scents with you and delight in your use of language – “riddle crabs” what a wonderful phrase! I particularly was struck by the description of your grandfather’s roses. I feel as if I know him, too. Have you ever read “The Emperor of Scent,” by Chandler Burr? It’s a biography of Luca Turin, the man who wrote the bible of perfumes and who believes scent is a vibrational sense, the same as hearing and sight.
Delighted you liked this, Cheryl, and thanks for your generous compliment. It’s nice to know you felt a connection to my grandfather through this. I wasn’t aware of The Emperor of Scent so thanks for introducing it to me. I’m fascinated by your mention of scent as a “vibrational sense” and look forward to delving into that more. Best wishes and hope this finds you well,
Superb photography, beautiful prose.
Thanks kindly, Adam!
The memories elicited by a scent can be so compelling.
Yours are so beautifully told of your uncle and grandfather and times past …
Breathing in deeply my friend. I’m breathing in deeply.
So true, Sybil, your use of the word “compelling” to describe memories triggered by a scent. It’s as if they wash over us like a wave.
Thanks ever so much for your lovely comment, and best wishes from here.
A treat as always Julian. Love the juxtaposition of ‘in the moment’ and the time travel experiences invoked by scent.
Many thanks! I love that those journeys are instantaneous, sending us back years or across continents with the slenderest of scents.
Absolute delight! Both visual and the write….couldn’t agree more that scents bring back memories in truckloads.
Thanks kindly for the lovely comment and for taking the time to read. Delighted you liked the post, and I love the image of truckloads of memories!
Marvellous – a treat to read and a superb exploration of the subtle link between memory and remembered scents, often much overlooked in the literature of place.
Thanks, Laurence. I find myself drawn as much by the scents and weather of a place as by its landscape or geography, the very moods that lend, for me, so much meaning to specific terrains. Delighted you enjoyed this tour through scent and memory, and thanks for the perceptive comment.
A good piece, thank you! Bit of a double wammy that – reading a piece about the scent maps of our lives – and then “spot the ball”! I´ve not thought of that for years and how my mother religously filled it out every week in the Liverpool Echo – the study of the photo, basic ballistics, the angle of the head, line of sight, how the foot was placed, an exact science. Which led, if I´m not mistaken, to years of effort without even a near miss!
Thanks Julian for that memory!
Thanks, Charles, for such a wonderful comment. I’ve read it a few times now and laughed each time I get to the bit about “basic ballistics!” It’s so true what you’ve written about the precision and science of spot the ball aficionados. If it wasn’t for my grandfather, the whole competition would have probably passed me by in life. Great to hear that it nudged a little memory for you as well. Thanks for the great comment, and delighted you enjoyed the post.
A “scattering of moments” and our “memories sifting them” over time… Beautiful… Makes me mull over some of life’s moments that I treasure, and the many more moments that are now lost to me… So strange how some fragments of our life-stories remain with us while others are sifted out… An intangible mystery. Thank you.
Thanks, Amanda, for your kind and generous words. It’s continually fascinating what is held in memory and what is not, the process of storing those moments you “treasure” and those that are lost. When I’ve been reminded by old friends of certain events and significant days that I shared with them I wonder how I could of ever forgotten them. Even the treasure is sometimes lost!
For Proust it was a madeleine, for you roses. On certain mornings here in Austin (Texas), I go out and the scent of the air takes me back 50 years to mornings on Long Island (New York) when I would leave my house to walk over to the school bus stop.
I must try a madeleine one of these days, for experience’s sake, and maybe even memory’s. Love that simply scenting the air can send you to the far side of the country and a morning half a century ago. Wonderful! Thanks for sharing, Steve.
Stunning writing, as ever, Julian… From start to finish, packed with images and associations that unroll a beautiful journey. I love the magic carpet ride of words through a ‘sky of leaves,’ swooping into memories of childhood and days washed by the sea. The connections you make between memory, scent and ‘Spot the Ball’ in attempts ‘to divine the presence of an imperceptible thing’ are absolutely inspired!
Your memories of your grandfather and his roses connected with so many of my own memories of childhood days. I often feel like I’m a child of the era of the rose – my grandparents’ and parents’ gardens (and almost everyone’s garden in our street) were filled with them. Like you, whenever I breathe in the scent of a rose, a myriad of associations – of people, place and time – unfold. Roses remain special favourites of mine for that very reason…
Thank you for this wonderful read through falling leaves and layers of time,
As ever, Melanie, thank you for the wonder that is your comment. I’m humbled by your words. Fascinated by what you mention regarding the “era of the rose.” It hadn’t really occurred to me that it might be part of a wider phenomenon, but while back in England this summer I noticed with dismay that the people who now live in what I knew as my grandparents’ home before they died had torn out all the roses at some time in the last decade. In their place was a dull and stultifying lawn, close-cropped and barren. All the abundance of the roses – their colours, shapes and scents – was gone. Although I was aware of feeling a personal loss as my father and I walked past the house, I also knew that the row of gardens all looked similarly shorn of their beguiling plants that I remember so clearly from my childhood. Maybe, as you say, there was an era of the rose, and in its place now an age of the lawn. I’m curious as to how their respective memories would compare.
Just beautiful, so many images to return to here. The portrait of your grandfather is particularly moving – I felt a sharp jolt of emotion from such a tender remembering. Thank you
Thanks ever so much, Selina, for your generous words. Remembering my grandfather is a great joy for me, so I’m delighted that the telling spoke to you as well. Deeply appreciated, and hope you’re enjoying the winter Pennine woods and moors!
I think you could write about cardboard and I would be fascinated by the material within your first paragraph. Your rich and productive imagination provides such evocative associations, similes and metaphors that draw personal mental pictures like the canopy as the only chandelier I’ve ever known. I can suddenly see “smells rising like mist off a lake”. Your creative verbs, “stitched” and “riddled” compel me to see the familiar in a new way or allow me to experience the unfamiliar more fully. Connecting the scent of roses to the “invisible and elusive”, suspended ball is nothing short of brilliant.
Having said that, reading this post is a somewhat bittersweet experience for me. I have a poor memory and somewhere along the way of my scattered life I seem to have lost those olfactory connections, or at least the fuse they light is too damp to burn through. I can smell and sometimes scents evoke feelings and even a very fleeting sense that I should remember something, but sadly, that’s where it ends. Memories evoked through other means rarely appear as fully-fleshed as yours of your garden moments with your grandfather, or crabbing with your uncle.
Rather, I’m often the unsuccessful predator of those memories that “tumble and float like our experiences”, and are “catching a ride in an upturned cuff or on the bottom of a boot” while I grasp at most as they rise “on a wind to be carried off and never seen again”. I wish my memories were as “tenacious” as those stubborn leaves.
Perhaps my olfactory bulb is substandard or there’s a short in the connection to my hippocampus and my experiences have all along been incorrectly encoded.
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