When someone speaks this phrase they are often indicating that something stinks and they don’t know where it’s coming from. Perfume, fabric softener, and all the strangeness of the cleaning products aisle also come to mind. Our sense of smell is literally attacked by modern fragrances. It’s no wonder that new Wilderness Awareness School students, when beginning the process of opening their senses, have trouble. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve encountered who have an incredibly hard time using their nose. Their experiences ranged from, “I can’t smell anything” to leaving blanks in their inventories. While people were growing leaps and bounds with their owl eyes and deer ears, dog nose was getting only a brief mention upon reflection.
Culturally, we aren’t taught to develop our sense of smell. Yet, as many of us know, smell is an incredibly potent sense. It can transport us back in time, in a visceral way. This is because the nerves in our olfactory system are directly wired to the limbic system in our brain. The limbic system is the place of memory storage as well as where moods and emotions are regulated.
When we smell something, the molecules enter our body through our nasal passages and bind to receptors up there. Every sixty days those neurons die, however our body replaces them with the same information, without having to smell the smell again! And this allows us to remember the smell and the event that happened when we smelled it.
Whenever I smell Western Red Cedar in the air I am transported back five years ago. I would leave the Snoqualmie Valley to go swing dancing in Seattle and every time I returned home, I’d smell the cedar in the air and feel so happy I lived in a place that smelled naturally fragrant. I can literally see and feel myself getting out of my Subaru in the darkness and breathing in the air.
If you are one of the many people who have trouble smelling our world, here is my suggestion; smell everything!
I first heard this from Tom Brown at my Standard Class at the Tracker School. Smell everything. Back then I was earnest and didn’t snicker at the thought of this. I simply did it. I smelled bark, stones, and the air. I smelled my food and tried to guess what was in it. I followed scents upon the wind to their sources. I smelled paper, clothing, and yes, even my own armpits. And now, my sense of smell has improved exponentially. For instance, one morning on my way into a yoga class I smelled popcorn. I questioned the woman in front of me, “Did you eat popcorn this morning?” She responded with a quizzical expression that yes indeed she had eaten popcorn, but not since last night. The smell still clung strongly to her black fleece sweater.
Imagine yourself as a bear species of your choice. Bears have incredibly poor eyesight, but powerful noses. A dog’s sense of smell is 100 times better than a human’s and a bear’s is 2100 times more powerful!
So, smell everything. Smell the air when it rains, when it snows, in the summer, spring and fall. And if you can’t smell anything, don’t worry; just keep doing it. The old adage, practice makes perfect, is true here. Before you know it you’ll be giving your friends and family what my friend Sol and I call the Smell Report. And the funny thing is, you won’t be able to help yourself, it will just come naturally. Good luck and send me your stories. I’d love to hear what you discover.