Scent, Emotion, and the Outdoors

Camp sunsetThe cool, damp air blowing through my kitchen window smelled of water and cut wood, soil and evergreens, reminiscent of morning at the lakeside camp we go to in New Hampshire. I instantly felt a mix of joy and longing, then thought about the journey ahead to the camp this summer. That journey is fifteen hours by car. At the end, the pavement gives way to gravel, then dirt, and the trees close overhead so suddenly it is as if they snapped shut. We plunge into cooler, shaded air: forest air. The car fills with cries of, “We’re here! We’re here!” And with that, we pass through the old, rust-red gate. The must of the forest, herbal and woody, sharpened with the mineral scent of the lake just yards away, fills my lungs and brings me joy. Stress lifts – the stress of job and home and the daily routine and the long drive. I have reached the place where I am most able to relax. Thoughts of this journey, and the feelings that preceded those thoughts, started when I inhaled the scent of the air gusting through my kitchen window one late spring morning in Michigan.

Recently, my family returned from a camping trip to Tahquamenon Falls in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. As we viewed the upper falls, two hundred feet wide and nearly fifty high, we felt the cool mist prickle against our cheeks. The scent of water was everywhere – in the mist of the falls, in the moist soil by the riverbank, and rising from warm river stones. Even as I was fully present to the impressive and beautiful view of the falls, the scent triggered a surge of anticipation for the New Hampshire trip still to come. I thought about the camp dock, and the beach, and the resin oozing from hemlocks and trapping daddy long-legs that venture into it, looking for a taste. I pictured the rust-red gate and sitting with friends under the trees. I felt almost like I was there.

When we arrived back at home from Tahquamenon and spread our wet tent to dry, the scent of the warm fabric took me to previous camping trips, some long past. This time, the emotional trigger of my sense of smell jarred other sensory memories, especially those of night sounds in the woods – a barred owl asking “Who cooks for you?” in a riverine campground close to home, the click-squeak of bats flitting amongst the trees at dusk, footsteps near our tent that sounded like something big wandering in the wee hours but turned out to be a raccoon, rain pattering against the taught fly as a shower passed overhead, the sharp crack of pine logs in a campfire sending sparks flying toward the shadowy treetops.

Our sense of smell is both immersive and transporting, because it is a gateway to emotion. The olfactory system connects directly to our limbic system, an emotional center of the brain. The cortex, where much of our cognition happens, comes later in the pathway. When we respond to a scent, feeling precedes thinking. So, I feel joy when exposed to certain odors before I can identify the smells or even name what I associate with them. When that happens, just after the joy first leaps within me, I find that I look around for what I might be smelling, and I think about associations with that smell – sights and sounds and adventures I have had.

We collect these sensory experiences as we encounter the world, sorting them, filtering some out, cataloging others. On another recent trip to the Upper Peninsula, my friend and I were nearing our destination in the Les Cheneaux Islands region when a warm, spicy, evergreen smell poured in through the car vents. “Do you smell that?” I asked. “Is that the trees?” He inhaled deeply and then said, “It’s the cedars.” And I knew, as my excitement mounted about reaching our destination, that I would now associate the cedar scent with that place and time and the fun we would have on that trip.

I had a similar experience as I took in the rich, fresh scent of balsam fir in the Presidential Range of the White Mountains. Hiking there with a friend a few years ago, I wondered what the smell was. As if he read my mind, he said, “Smell that? It’s balsam fir.” The scent recurred only now and then on the trail, riding sudden wafts of warm air. During that long, challenging day of hiking, I think we both found it invigorating, something we looked forward to as we ascended the rocky trail amongst the trees.

When I was a child and one of my brothers was a toddler, he had a scratch and sniff book. Most of the scents were pleasant or neutral, but one page had a small, scratchable picture of a skunk. I was both repelled and drawn by it – I couldn’t help scratch and sniff it once in a while, and then I’d shake my head quickly, as if to shake the smell out of my nostrils. When a friend’s mother came to the house and was looking for a moment at the book, I pointed to the skunk and wrinkled my nose, saying, “That one stinks.” To my amazement, she scratched it, sniffed, and smiled. “I like it,” she said. I’m sure I looked incredulous as I asked, “You do?” She replied, “Yes, I do. It reminds me of wonderful places I’ve been, special trips I’ve taken, so it’s a happy smell for me.”

A happy smell. A scent that triggers joy and positive associations. The smell of lilacs in the late spring as I walk through the neighborhood. The scents of cut wood and woodsmoke, evoking campfires and winter evenings by the fireplace as snow falls softly beyond the windows. The musty odor of rich, dark soil in a freshly dug garden. The smell of shampoo in my children’s hair as I lean close to kiss them goodnight. The warm smell of my wife’s cheek – I can’t describe it; it’s just her, and I know it. And, of course, the scents of the forest and lake at the camp in New Hampshire. Each of these scents, and so many more, trigger happiness and contentment, or a sense of wonder, or calmness, or longing, or sometimes all of these feelings. And after the feelings come thoughts and memories and yearning.

For me, outdoor smells prompt the strongest, most positive feelings and associations. When I am hiking, camping, or even just walking in the woods, I am not stretched thin by stressors great and small, and my time is not in demand. I live more in sync with the rhythms of the day. I am able to relax and attend and explore. And for that time, that span of days or weeks or sometimes mere hours or minutes, I am most open to experiencing the world through the windows of my senses.

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