In the small hours of this morning I got up and went outside to witness an amazing light show created by the irrespressible forces of nature. I may have mentioned this before but storms here in our part of Italy are extraordinary and this one had been building for well over a month of daytime temperatures up into the mid-30’s Celsius.
The impression of power is emphasised by the fact that there is little thunder as discharges seem to be more frequent between clouds high in the stratosphere than from earth to cloud (and back again). For reasons I cannot fathom storms seem to circle the house: though it might be that we are situated between two ancient craters one filled with the deep (150m) waters of Lake Bolsena that allow the build up of clouds of oppositely charged ions…
An occasion that is seared into my memory (though fortunately not literally) was a night where, when the house was surrounded with scaffolding, we were counting the time between flash and thunder to work out the distance from the house as a storm approached. With 330m/s taken as the velocity of sound in air, an interval of 3 sec is about a kilometre but we never got to the ‘waa’ for one since the lightning had earthed explosively through the scaffolding. Summoning up a confidence I did not feel “I said don’t worry we’re inside a Faraday cage.” Boy, is there a difference between the tingling reality of being that close and all those theoretical calculations (of scrotum numbing tediousness) that I once did on electric fields…
Back to the present and what assaulted the senses when I went out into a night with lightning every couple of seconds, a few clouds and many stars. It was the unmistakeable smell of hot ground suddenly soaked. As a kid I loved this and what we then called the smell of ‘ozone’ whereas it might be true that the electrical activity has made a few oxygen atoms join in threes (that slightly fusty/bleach smell of ozone you get from discharges in underground stations) this is much more – literally, the smell of the earth.
A few weeks ago Clay sent me a reference to a book he had come across that talked about forest smells and their importance. The Japanese term for it is the beautiful: Shinrin-Yoku: Wood Air Bathing. http://www.terrain.org/articles/14/maloof.htm. I thought it might be worth writing a post about the way smells have come to enhance my personal perception and enjoyment of nature and, in so doing, to encourage others to reveal how the olfactory senses act for them in appreciating nature. Smell is something not yet able to be captured digitally. But, if you can imagine it then it could come – someone somewhere might even be contemplating putting a micro gas chromatograph in a DSLR body…everything else is crammed in there after all!
Something has been tried though – remember that penchant for ‘scratch n’ sniff books for children at one stage ? Must admit it set my mind reeling on what one might call creative filth!
Now to that that smell of the earth petrichor: something my great friend Robert Mash first told me about. Mash has been the source of so much for me when it comes to biological knowledge; he has written extensively (and wittily) on dinosaurs (How to Keep a Dinosaur) and was listed as his most influential teacher by Lord Krebbs. Petrichor is the name coined in 1964 by two Australian scientists (Bear and Thomas) for the smell created by molecules in the ground and even in plant roots when rain hit them and they eventually hit your nostrils. The term is constructed from petros – Gk for rock and ichor – the fluid flowing in the veins of the gods. Like many smells some love it, some hate it…its principle constituents are an oil (that inhibits seed growth) and ‘geosmin‘ (literally ‘earth smell’) to which the human nose is incredibly sensitive.
Again, as part of one of many conversations with Mash I learned long ago about the connection between smell and memory: the olfactory bulb is part of the brain’s limbic system. This is a part closely linked to both memory and ‘feeling’ and is thus sometimes known as the ‘emotional brain’. I had often wondered why, as soon as autumn came I felt its arrival so strongly… and yes, it had much to do with the dread of going back to school and having to ‘waste time’ reading things that I did not choose and writing endless dictated notes. But the reaction was also stimulated by changing temperatures, the warming of colour temperature of the light but also those damp smells of autumn… How easy it is to trigger those deep-seated memories of childhood – the slightest waft of a the first smoke from a coal fire (sulphur, tars…) and I am carried back to being a three-year old in the Garw valley and other memories are released. Even now, leaves of Herb Robert (Geranium robertianum) crushed under foot as I walk take me back to playing in woodlands as a child…it was where I always seemed to be.
I have long had the habit of picking a few leaves of culinary and other herbs on a warm Mediterranean hillside, rubbing them between thumb and forefinger fingers and then, absent-mindedly putting them in my waistcoat pocket to forget about them. Months, even years, my hand dipping into pocket and touching those crinkly dried leaves releases smells of thyme, rosemary, oregano… and catapults me back to those hillsides. Those delicate fragrances of daffodils and narcissus in spring, much as I love them, evoke the sadness of visits to cemeteries, high on Welsh hillsides to put flowers on the graves of dead grandparents, a brother and then my father…
Lois has a much more developed appreciation of scents than I have and, intrigued by this, I have made a conscious effort to become more aware. In fact, females do have a better sense of smell – most males know the wrinkled-nose treatment for those ‘masculine’ odours that females do not find attractive (whatever the testosterone propaganda) and males just don’t notice. Lois grew up in a house close to the Thames and loves the smell of the river or of lakes …the dank odours of decaying vegetation: I love the ‘salt’ smell of the sea (rotting seaweed and worse on the S.Wales coast)…mix it with greasy fried onion and doughnuts and there is the fairground in Porthcawl, childhood idea of a treat!
Some people love the smell of petrol or a struck match: I do not… but there are various organic esters that I find tolerable that others do not. However, I definitely do not like the smell of shield bugs we get everywhere at this time of the year – here, in Italy, they are called stink bugs and their smell, when disturbed, with its slight almond overtones is of benzaldehyde. Someone had once spilled a bottle of it in the aged chemistry lab in Garw Grammar school a room where my dad had also carried out his volumetric analysis…probably he had handled the same flasks I was using! No kidding, after all I had been given his 6th form algebra text book on my first day in the lower sixth pure maths class! That organic chemical stink had never left the drawers into which it had trickled. Nowadays ‘health and safety’ would have closed the room down!
Sometimes I have wondered what it would be like to have one’s olfactory sensitvity increased to that of a cat or dog… just for a day. I certainly wouldn’t want to greet my friends in that traditional doggy fashion – with a ‘good sniff’, but I used to watch one of our cats who became a companion on my walks around the garden just gently tipping his head to create a slight breeze and catch whatever was on the air. Without becoming too anthropomorphic he really did seem to delight in it. A happy mog.
To what extent is scent an obvious or subliminal part of your own appreciation of nature – I would be interested to know since I have only recently become aware of how important it is to me and I am intrigued by how the peripheral things (smells, birdsong…) amplify our joy in nature. Please feel free to comment at length…or even a little.