MARTHA SEZ: ‘Everyone has a signature body odor’

More than any of our other senses do, smells evoke memories. We don’t have words for smells; instead, we label each one according to its individual source. Cedar, for example, or kerosene. Turpentine. Ocean. Aging and COVID are two causes for diminished sense of smell, a sense that is sorely missed.

We can picture the way something looks and recall how it sounds, but we can’t bring a smell to mind by thinking about it. If we smell something, even in a dream, then it is real. We might mistake one odor for another, but we can’t simply imagine it.

Peonies — I love the lushness of their petals and the shapes and colors they come in, but most of all I love the way they smell. Why would a horticulturist want to breed a scentless flower? It’s hard these days to find a scented peony, petunia, primrose or pansy. The Victorians prized flowers for their scent, as Shakespeare did. “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

As our dogs let us know every time we go on a walk together, human noses are less efficient than dog noses. In fact, scientists estimate dogs to be from 10,000 times to 100,000 times better at smelling than humans.

In the words of James Walker, former director of the Sensory Research Institute at Florida State University: “Let’s suppose they’re just 10,000 times better. If you make the analogy to vision, what you and I can see at a third of a mile, a dog could see more than 3,000 miles away and still see as well.”

Dogs’ noses are built along a more complicated design plan than ours are, and more of their brain capacity is devoted to identification and analysis of smells. Don’t even try to lie to your dog about where you’ve been or who you were with.

Detection of sex pheromones is of course very important to dogs. It is to us, too, although we may not be conscious of it.

The smell of lilacs, mixing memory and desire, is the heart of springtime. Not in April here, however. More in May, or even June, some years.

Roses do the same thing for Japanese beetles, which is why those sex bait traps work as well as they do. They contain pheromones as well as an essence called geraniol, one of the ingredients in the smell of roses. Very clever strategy.

Like other clever strategies for controlling nature, however, it has its limitations in actual practice. For one thing, Japanese beetles smell the traps from miles away, and come flying in from outlying areas. Once they arrive in your yard many of them go straight to your rose bushes, so that you have even more Japanese beetles delirious with pheromones and high on geraniol partying down in your garden than ever. As a long-time Keene Valley resident once told me, it is better to hang the sex bait traps on your neighbors’ property, thus luring the pesky beetles away from your own roses.

A smell you can’t identify may trigger a whole raft of long-forgotten memories. Occasionally a combination of smells suddenly reminds me of the way it felt to be a 16-year-old in County Down, Northern Ireland, and my husband said certain smells in conjunction with temperature and humidity vividly brought back his experience in Vietnam when he was young.

We grow accustomed to the odors that we commonly live with, so much so that we are not even aware of them. The smell of tobacco used to be omnipresent in American life, and we didn’t even notice if we or others smelled of cigarettes. Now I can smell the smoke from a Marlboro when a smoker is way down the block. It’s kind of nostalgic.

Everyone has a signature body odor, individual as a fingerprint. Dogs recognize this, and people in love do too, holding onto the T-shirt, hat or jacket of their beloved. Some say friends and lovers are unconsciously attracted to each other by scent.

From childhood on, we collect and categorize smells. Baby powder, warm milk, Juicy Fruit gum, whiskey, Old Spice after shave, Blue Grass cologne, Chanel No. 5 perfume, new mown grass, gingerbread, balsam, Clorox bleach, a Crayola crayon melting on the dashboard, peanut butter … there are thousands. Maybe, with everything else we have to deal with, it’s just as well our sense of smell isn’t as good as our dog’s.

Have a good week.

(Martha Allen, of Keene Valley, has been writing for the News for over 20 years.)

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