Scent and Memory

THE SMELL OF SEAGRASS matting takes me to Cornwall, to the house on the cliff. A house that we rent every summer, starting when I was nought to when I was twelve. The dining room has scrubbed timber doors, latched – you pull a piece of string, knotted at the end, to open them. Books with faded cloth covers line the lounge room – Daddy-Long-Legs, I Capture the Castle. Floors – the ones I remember – are slabs of slate the colour of terns’ wings. I’m in a showroom in Sydney and I’m in a whitewashed house at Treyarnon Bay. I smell the sea pinks on the clifftop, feel the grass that’s tough enough for Atlantic storms, taste the Kelly’s ice cream, feel the chunks of ice in it on my tongue, hear the seagulls – those musical Northern Hemisphere seagulls.

Time traveller, place traveller. You’re in the same, and a different, body.

Why is it that a smell instantly and accurately transports? Other senses are lazier. I was watching a Tiny Desk Concert six weeks ago and one phrase in a song reminded me of someone, another song, from a long time ago. I played it twenty times, maybe more, trying to remember. Yesterday it came to me – the subway singer at Christopher Street. I used to miss my train so I could listen to her. My sound memory isn’t impressive – I still have one of her CDs. That’s how I remember her voice.

When the wind’s blowing the wrong way, you can smell the cow manure, says a friend I’m staying with in Gippsland. Please blow in my direction, wind, let me remember our mushroom farm. On Guy Fawkes Night the bonfire, in the field away from the sheds, would be as high as a house. Catherine wheels nailed to trees, sparklers spelling our names in the night. Cow manure delivers me the smell of spent fireworks, the warmth of damp sheds, the sight of mushrooms, bright white, the size of frog spawn.

Why is it that only some smells carry us? Why do some take us to places we don’t care about, or have forgotten, or never think about otherwise?

Smell is the least flashy sense. It’s swallowed by taste; it’s smothered by sight, drowned by hearing, ignored by touch. It acts as taste’s helper, a second thought. That’s what we think, anyway, but apparently the human nose can recognise one trillion smells. Far more than previously thought, say scientists. They thought we could only smell 10,000. Only 10,000 – so modest in their estimations. Perhaps we can smell more than a trillion, they now believe. Are there a trillion sights to see, a trillion sounds to hear, a trillion tastes to taste, a trillion surfaces to touch? What is a trillion anyway – it’s different, depending on where you live, but does that really matter? A million million or a million million million. If you were into betting, you’d go with the lower figure. A million million million might be pushing it.

I ask my mother if any smell brings back the house on the cliff to her. It doesn’t. I ask my sister. It doesn’t.

A baby apparently recognises the scent of their mother before they’re sure of the sound of her voice or the contours of her face. Blindfolded and with plugs in my ears, would I still be able to pick my mother from a line-up? At what point did I stop being able to? Why do babies need to know – what do they do with the information?

Daniel Shipp. Anosmic 01, 2022. Pigment inkjet print.

A smell is made up of molecules light enough to swirl around on currents. A smell is a cloud that gets swept up into our noses, flicks switches and trips sensors to become sweet or repulsive, oniony or sour. What happens if those molecules are miles away from switches or sensors – are they still a smell, or are they just molecules? A smell is a mist, a fog, a soup all around us. And sometimes, inexplicably, it becomes a straight line, an arrow, a laser beam skewering the past. A stairwell in Sydney takes me to a village hall in England. I have no idea what the smell is. I couldn’t begin to describe it to you. I have no words – if I had a dictionary with a trillion words, I might find it. The smell of a stairwell, the smell of a hall, that’s all I can say. The smell of a Brownies meeting – Brown Owl who was Mrs Bedford from across the road. The chants, the Brownie brown, the toadstool, the circle – having to join hands. The girl next to me doesn’t have a hand. Her wrist is as round and smooth and cool as a doorknob.

We describe the world around us in endless detail. We have no trouble talking about what we see, the music we hear, the food we taste; we can map in our minds the skin – the bodies – we touch. But we stumble over smell, can only come up with clichés. So inadequate.

I lend my neighbour a hat for her trip to Moscow and St Petersburg. Felted wool; easy to put in a suitcase; fits over the ears. I bought it in New York – it worked for Manhattan winters; for Russia, I’m not so sure. But it was perfect, my neighbour tells me. She says every time she put it on, she could smell my house. I sniff it. I smell nothing.

If you’d asked me as a child – why would you? – what the whitewashed house on the cliff smelt like, I would have said the sea. And crab shells and sea urchins. And tar, cleaned off our shorts with cotton wool soaked in white spirits. Never seagrass matting – I don’t remember where that was now. Was it even there? It’s such a mystery – does anyone know why we remember the smells we remember? Does everyone remember? What does it do to us, to be unconsciously and elusively tethered to a past?

Post cover image caption: Daniel Shipp. Anosmic 02, 2022. Pigment inkjet print.

A NOTE ON THE IMAGES ACCOMPANYING THIS STORY: I have undiagnosed anosmia (no sense of smell). With no knowledge of the physical sensation of scent, perhaps I’m well-placed to imagine it in visual terms, in part because my efforts will never feel insufficient. I do not know what I am missing. Apparently, scent can operate as a shortcut to visceral moments in the past that embody place, time and other specific details. I experience this, too, except that lighting conditions are my trigger. The photographs in the series Anosmic speak to the ungraspable effect that light has on me, something ephemeral that is only ever ‘almost there’. They are unrepeatable moments created in my camera using various materials selected for the way that they distort and transmit light.
– Daniel Shipp