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.

The Day the Trees Fell Down

fallen tree original exposure

Not long after the trees came crashing down in our neighborhood, and roof shingles peeled away and went swirling through the air, and property, but not people — thank goodness not people — was crushed under tons of fresh, wet wood, city and utility workers descended on the scene to wrangle the mayhem back into order as neighbors all around poured out of their houses. Two of these neighbors ordered pizzas, and after they were delivered, they thrust slices toward anyone who passed by. A tired city forester at first declined the offering, but with a little prodding, he gave a sigh of happiness, shook his head ruefully, chuckled, and gobbled down the slice. Everyone on the block looked at each other with wide eyes filled with wonder and relief and dismay.

Our street became a major thoroughfare, the only open connector between two arteries. The city bus rumbled past, diverted from its route, a first for us in over a decade of living here. A stream of traffic to rival that in any big city crawled along. As drivers crept by our house, inevitably speaking on their cell phones — “I’m gonna be late;” “Every road is closed;” “You gotta see what’s happened in this neighborhood!” — their eyes grew wide upon seeing the 40-foot tree stretched across our driveway and front yard, topmost branches poking at the door and windows of the house. Then, the drivers spoke rapidly into their phones, gesticulating while they reported to someone near or far what they had just witnessed. The tree’s roots, massive and torn and jutting crazily from clods of wet earth, faced the street. Some people sat or stood on the trunk or clambered onto the tangle of roots, posing for pictures. Though I understood their revels, I also hated them a little bit as I surveyed the damage and wondered where to start.

Mostly, though, I thought about how lucky we were that the tree had fallen at exactly the right angle to miss most of the house. It had peeled away the side of a gutter as easily as you’d bend a beer can, and it had knocked a planter askew under the front windows, but it hadn’t crushed the place, though it could have.


After the tree was removed.

I had trouble taking my eyes off of one thing. Our basketball hoop lay mangled under the tree. Metal parts had been sheared by the force. Its base was torn and partially flattened, the backboard cracked, the rim bent. And it was that, more than anything else, that reminded me how close we had come to tragedy. Our kids play basketball out front a lot, so much so that our daughter’s response to the demise of the hoop was, “Oh nooooo! That’s our best toy!” If they had been playing when the wind came, they would have been killed.

When the storm hit, I was at work, arguing in court in another county, but neighbors described it as sudden, flying in from the southwest without warning. One described her friend urging, “Let’s get inside” only seconds before the wall of 75 mile-per-hour wind barreled in and a tree crashed down where they had been. She said that had it not been for her friend seemingly sensing a shift in the air and acting fast, she may well have been killed. Usually her son would have been with her outside. She wondered aloud whether he would have heard and obeyed the warning quickly enough as the storm roared in.

And so I looked at that basketball hoop over and over again, even as I worked with friends to cut away small branches so I could get into the house, even as dear neighbors invited us down the street for dinner in a lovely, burden-lifting gesture, and even as gawkers did as gawkers do. “What if?” went through my mind. “What if? What if?” Would our kids have had time to get away if they had been playing basketball in the driveway? They have played there in nearly all weathers. Before the wall of wind came, the weather wasn’t that bad, people said. Would it have kept the children inside, where they would have been safe? Or was it all too calm beforehand, and all too sudden when the storm broke?

The city foresters, masters of chainsaws and winches, took our fallen tree away before dark, dragging it into the maw of a massive chipper that reduced it to mulch in a roaring, grinding minute. The basketball hoop lay forlorn and demolished in the front yard, giving the place a junky look. That evening, as the light faded and the sky mellowed toward indigo splendor, I took a walk around the neighborhood. Some fallen trees remained; where they had been removed, the earth that had once held them was riven and disrupted into lumpy mounds of damp soil. The small garage of the house behind us lay under a tree, the building twisted and shoved off its slab and looking like it could collapse with a light touch or breath of wind. Around the corner, a massive tree limb lay on a neighbor’s front lawn. It had missed the house and even the cars parked below. Some of the bark was peeled away. Underneath was yellow-tan, raw wood. Its surface appeared silky smooth and shone in the dying light, nature’s perfection revealed. After staring at it for a while, I could not help but caress it, marveling that it felt as smooth as it looked.

On Black Rock Mountain


Stretches of the Tennessee Rock Trail are steep as it climbs up and over Black Rock Mountain in Northern Georgia. The ribbon of deep brown soil is cross-hatched by exposed tree roots rubbed glossy by the soles of hikers’ shoes. It is spring, but brittle fallen leaves, silvered and curled with age, still litter the ground. The trail has the directness of other eastern trails I’ve hiked. There are few switchbacks. When it is time to go up, it just goes up.

The damp air, scented with moist earth and wet stone, hangs about the mountain’s flanks and drapes itself across our shoulders like a friendly arm. Clouds stretch northward in varied shades of gray, diffusing the light into an indistinct wash. Looking out at the vast, layered jumble of the Blue Ridge Mountains, I am reminded of how ancient the Appalachians are. They are weathered, lumpy rather than jagged, rounded by time. In the distance lay the Smokies, nestled in the mists, beckoning.

The trail crosses the Eastern Continental Divide, which is marked by a large sign. The children and I straddle the line, grinning, as if each of our feet is now pulled in a different direction like the rivers of the region. On one side, streams run to the Mississippi and then to the Gulf of Mexico. On the other, water flows to the Savannah River and the Atlantic. The elevation here is about 3,600 feet, high for Georgia.

As we hike, we catch a quick glimpse of the road just beyond a section of wooden fence on which hangs a large sign that commands us to “Stay on Trial.” The road itself is a reasonably unobtrusive strip of asphalt that shows some age, fine cracks running through it like lines on a weathered face. The trail takes us right up to the fence, then turns abruptly away to head back across the mountain, back into the woods. The road recedes in space and in our minds. I notice no noise from it. Whether that is due to the lack of traffic or the sound being blocked by the humped ridges of the mountain, I cannot say.

Throughout the hike, I am amazed at how much trillium there is. They are unlike any I have known. The flowers are a rich, deep red, like port wine, surrounded by three small leaves of green blushed with red, which are in turn set upon a base of large, variegated leaves marked by patches of dark and light green. The trillium are often joined by bloodroot, their funny, hand-like leaves waving in the breeze, some of the bobbing stalks topped with open, white flowers, others with swollen buds.

A multigenerational family hike moves along at varied paces. The children race ahead, then return, like spiders leaving the web on threads and pulling themselves back again. On some of their forays, they perch on large, rough boulders, taking pride in scrambling up the rocks and leaping down again. We hang back from them, letting them have their space, their chance to explore without the feel of watchful eyes. My wife and her folks and I walk most of the time in an extended line, my wife and I mindful of the children ahead and their grandparents behind. We all join together and chat happily at some times and are separate and silent at others, enjoying the sounds of the wind and our shoes crunching on the path and the fresh, spring leaves rustling and twisting.

On this cool, damp day on the trail, it is just our little party and the birds, which twitter on the mountainside and dance on tree branches. After the first short stretch of the hike, we do not see another soul.

Spinning the Cranks

Cycling through the natural world

A short, smooth stretch of what is otherwise a poorly paved road allowed me a break from watching for ruts and potholes. I biked under a clear, deep blue sky, and the trees wore the rich, darkening green of summer. Frantic cawing drew my eyes up to my right, and I saw three shining crows wheeling wildly through the air above a tree. Then I saw the raptor. It beat and spread its powerful wings, accelerating and slowing, rising and falling, squared off in a duel against the crows. I could not tell as I passed whether the crows were trying to force the raptor into the huge evergreen or working to chase the bigger bird away from it. I also couldn’t tell what sort of raptor it was, thanks to its frenetic dance with the crows and the glare of sunlight against its feathers as I rode by. Elijah would know, I mused, thinking about my nine-year-old son, who loves birds of prey above most things.

As I rode on, I thought about the fact that had I been in a car, I would have missed seeing the arial duel. I had heard that these things happened from time to time but had never seen for myself. And though I would not have known that I had missed anything if I had zipped by in a car — radio on, windows up and shutting out the world or down so that the roar of the wind drowned all other sound — I felt a pang of regret for all that I must miss as I drive.

Pausing on a dirt road ride / Joshua Kay

Pausing on a dirt road ride / Joshua Kay

Once, on a night ride with friends along the wonderful network of dirt roads just outside of town, we were spread side by side and chatting amiably under the moonlight when our voices were drowned out by spring peepers trilling in a wetland, unseen in the dark. We fell quiet, overwhelmed and mesmerized by the mighty sound of the tiny frogs. As we passed, I thought to myself, “This is why we ride our bikes out here at night.” A few minutes later, my friends took off on one of their traditional sprints to the next “stop ahead” sign. I didn’t join this one; I’m no sprinter, and I knew I would catch up to them anyway as they slowed and panted and laughed. Then we’d ride on together again under the moon and stars. I have driven that stretch of road in that season at night. From a car, I have never heard the singing of the frogs.

On Huron River Drive, which undulates and twists alongside its namesake northwest of town and provides our best road cycling, I can smell the river and wet stones, a mineral, almost metallic, smell. The tires are quiet on the pavement. If I’m going hard, then my mind is focused only on maintaining the effort and keeping my form. Pull up on the pedals, kick over the top, power through the downstroke, “scrape” the sole of your shoe through the bottom before pulling up again. Minimize upper body movement. Stay loose. When I’m spinning easy, my mind is calm with the rhythm of the pedaling: tick tick tick tick. Either way, I feel untroubled. In the breeze, hearing the sounds around me, breathing the air, inhaling the moist, earthy smells, and seeing the shining, wide river, I feel close to nature.

Riding along one stretch of the river road on a particularly mild, early spring day, I saw a broad cluster of purple crocuses tucked in the new, bright green grass in the roadside ditch. The violet beauties threw open their petals to the sun, their bright orange stamens glowing in the light. Had I not been on my bike, they would have remained hidden to me, a swath of beauty unseen in a ditch. I slowed to admire them. It was as if they were standing in formation and saluting all who would notice. Cars raced past.

Bikes are quiet. Riding the road, I sometimes inadvertently glide up to deer, and though they do depart when they finally notice me, it is with a nonchalance that suggests that they feel unthreatened. I have seen a cluster of wild turkeys skulking in the tall grass, lanky and lean and saurian, their sharp eyes glinting and scaly heads bobbing and twitching as I passed. There are wildflowers and weeping willows, small creeks flowing fast into the river, long-dead trees lying jagged and half-submerged, and just a small ribbon of road winding alongside. Riding on it, all of the sights and sounds and smells are accessible to me.

River roads are often beautiful. There is so much life along a reasonably well-preserved river, and the natural curves of the waterway and the roll of its surrounding land make for good riding. They make for good driving, too. There is a sign along our river road to notify drivers that it is a scenic route. Scenic though it is from a car, many of those drivers have no idea.

Ricker Pond reflections

Ricker Pond

Ricker Pond, Vermont / Joshua Kay

Sometimes sleeplessness is a good thing

To camp at Ricker Pond in Vermont, you need a good sleeping pad. The ground is stony, and you can’t clear the smallish cobbles.

So get a good pad. Join the talkative loons and numerous chattering brooks and wash of stars in the night sky. Breathe the Green Mountain air. Swim in the clear pond. Forget how hard you worked to get there. Don’t think about the days ahead in the next beautiful place. Just be fully present in this one. All that lies ahead will have its own time soon enough.

At Ricker Pond, I was reminded as my son slept next to me that young children travel in their sleep, as if their desire to explore doesn’t stop even when they’ve passed beyond wakefulness. That night, my 8 year old son shifted and turned, ending up by morning twisted in his sleeping bag. My wife and I remained squarely on our pads, as did our daughter, who is 11 and becoming less childlike by the week. The three of us looked orderly lined up in our parallel sleeping bags, while the boy finished the night with his legs across mine and his head in a corner of the tent. But he seemed to sleep well even as dawn came and the forest birds began to sing.

As usual on the first night of camping, I slept poorly, but I stopped minding that a few years ago. It gives me a chance to hear where I am. As all else goes quiet — my family, the campground, cars on a nearby road, my mind — the night sounds come alive. On Ricker Pond, the loons howled and laughed from dusk to dawn. Water rushed and trickled in the brooks. The wind whispered in the trees and rustled the fabric of our tent. Small animals scampered past. Nearly sleepless on the first night of camping, I was awake to my own wonder, at my most open and receptive, free to breathe and to listen.