Just Nosing Around

Shit HappensI can hardly wait to see what this turns out to be.  “Smelling the Music”?  I had to walk away from this one for a couple of days, but then the phrase, “There’s music in the air” came to me.  I read somewhere that our capacity to perceive and differentiate smells was critical in our evolution.  These days we’re still using it, but not giving it enough credit.  According to Wikipedia there are all kinds of pheromones from food, to trails, to sex that affect our behavior whether we know it or not, or like it or not.  I think that one of the reasons that smell doesn’t get enough respect is that it isn’t about anything tangible.  Whereas sight, sound, taste and touch seem more real, more demonstatable somehow.  Smell is so subjective.  If you don’t believe me just talk to any wine lover who can wax rhapsodic about grassy and buttery and leathery and ….  And they will go to war over this stuff.  I think it is because, potential snobbery aside, celebrating a very personal experience. Certainly a lot of animals have what I’m told is an amazing sense of smell.  Dean Koontz has written stories that rely on the point of view of a dog and his smelling ability.  So, what about us?  Is this just something we’ve let wither away for lack of respect and attention?  And, how does this apply to the music of life?  I know I could rant on this using metaphors of/for smell,  but it is not metaphors we need here it is the living experience.  So, what is the living experience of smelling music?  First thought: a baby’s diaper.  If that isn’t part of the music of life then I don’t know what is.  Fresh baked cookies.   A lot of my happiest music smells are associated with food.  But, then there’s fresh cut grass.  The smoke from fireplaces and camping.  At some level isn’t it interesting how much money gets spent covering up smells?  “You stink?”  That’s not something any of us wants to hear, but “What’s that cologne you have on?”, that’s ok.  It wasn’t that long ago that cultures around the world would offer up burnt offerings hoping to appease and influence the gods and goddesses with the smell.  As close as we come these days is the BBQ in the backyard where we make our offerings to the good life by pretending to be primitive.  As I read this over I begin to “smell a rat”.  I’m missing something.  Maybe a piece of it has to do with the way smells can so easily transcend boundaries.  They, like the Holy Spirit and my old friend the Trickster, are no respecter of artificially drawn lines.  Good smells and bad smells find a way in.  No wonder we try to cover them up.

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13 Comments on “Just Nosing Around”

  1. Tigerman Says:

    OK, I can’t keep this to myself any longer. Break these into paragraphs, godammit. Your thoughts are dense, you know what I mean. So let them breathe.
    YFS, W

  2. Radish Leaf Says:

    Loved your observation, “The BBQ in the backyard [is}where we make our offerings to the good life by pretending to be primitive.” Also, I like the new look of your blog. Nice lead photo of a painting – somehow I suspect that wheelbarrow contains what used to be called “horse apples”, but dried now and beyond much “music”. Sometimes “silence” is the better choice!


  3. I think the eye has been overdone to the exclusion of the rest of the senses. What about the taste of an idea, the smell of an image–your piece is profound and delightful to read–the sound of an attitude.
    In James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen Daedelus and his crony buddies are gabbing on the steps of Trinity College Dublin. Stephen makes some remarks on Aquinas on aesthetic arrest. His clown buddy, Cranley then puts his hands in his pockets, jiggles his groin and exclaims: “That idea, Stephen, has the scholastic stink!” A round applause for the stink of an idea, the fragrance of a thought, the scent of an image—good work Allen.

  4. Mama Bat Says:

    Ask kids about this. Some brains frequently experience “sensory cross-over.” My daughter used to smell colors. I thought education trained it out of her, but this verbally erudite, intellectually-oriented kid has chosen interior design for career. The non-verbal experience is still strong for her.

    My father taught me that smell is one of the most accessible ways spirits from other dimensions can reach us. Spirit guides frequently arrive with a beautiful aroma.

    Juxtiposed with this is what is currently being taught by those experienced with PTSD in returning military personnel: Backyard bar-be-cues are triggering–the smell of burning meat overwhelms them with PTStress.

    The problem with this post is that it’s too dependent upon words. When will communication technology accommodate a broader sensory experience?

    • allenkoehn Says:

      Mama Bat – Thank you for these reflections. Yes, we forget that smells, like all the other senses, can evoke painful memories. As for the limits of words I can but agree. Before I hit “Submit Reply” I’m going to pause and take in – through my nose – a deep breath and see what music comes then. ak

  5. Laurie Kingsley Says:

    The smell of wet pavement during the first rain of the season makes me automatically drive more carefully because the road surface is more slippery, the smell of scotch on my father’s breath made me automatically wary, the smell of my dog’s feet automatically calms me…”automatically” in these cases because my response bypasses my neocortex and goes straight to my limbic system (maybe I have the neuroscience wrong, but you get the idea). It has refreshingly little to do with thought, and reminds me how little “thinking” has to do with my animal experiences. I have a friend who lost his sense of smell as a result of a viral infection and has become quite depressed. Now I wonder whether neuroplasticity would permit other areas of his brain to step in and pick up this function? Thanks for blogging…and also thanks for letting me know when you post a new installment!

    • allenkoehn Says:

      Yeah, wet dog. That’s one that resonates. How many of our decisions are based on these experience that bypass the prefontal cortex? Malcolm Gladwell in “Blink” says that the brain processes 40 Billion – with a B – bits of data every second. And that on a good day we might be aware of 2 or 3 thousand. And we think we’re in charge.

  6. Devorah Says:

    Finally joining the conversation here, after having overcome some of the chaos involved with moving from Southern to Northern California (a stepping over of important thresholds, ones that are fundamentally real and not metaphorical divides to me).

    But for this week, I’m visiting my best-friend-for-thirty-years in Houston. It’s been raining here today, and lightning sizzled up in the middle of the afternoon. So of course I had to go outside and expose myself to water and electricity. And in the stepping out from the protection of the porch’s overhang I was immersed both in the present moment’s scents of ozone and newly wet pavement and the black tang of slicked oak leaves and drawn back to a score of visits over the decades to this city to see this friend. And drawn forward too to future moments when other people will be here to be dissolved by these smells and I will be in some other place, or in no place at all.

  7. Josh Says:

    Dense thoughts, like dense smells, are some of the best kind. (But being dense? Not so great.) Open up those paragraphs like Tiger Woman says. And keep ’em coming. It’s such a nice way to keep your brain and your fingers limber at the same time.

    Mmmmmmmm. Is that bacon?


  8. I have always found it fascinating that I have an extremely strong aversion to my sister’s natural smell and also that I have never been in love with a man whose smell I didn’t adore. We relate to people so deeply through smell and I can only imagine how it affects those relationships on levels beyond what we cognitively recognize. When I go to church, I sit on the end of the pew at the aisle and when people I like walk by I breathe in their wake. It connects me with them more deeply than the chat we’ll have during coffee hour.

    • allenkoehn Says:

      Jennifer – Thank you for sharing your perspective. I think you speak for many people who have the strong sense of, not just smell, but an almost animal sensitivity. I hope you get that this is a compliment!


  9. Well, yes, from you, I do take it as a compliment! 🙂


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