A bun by any other name

There’s so much out there, isn’t there? Things that most of us would never bother think much about in a normal day can suddenly come flooding back replete with memories and emotions. The smell of wood smoke can transport me to a little village deep in the Rocky Mountains with its chimneys each colouring in the sky with white squirrel tails; freshly baked bread takes me to our next-door neighbours’ window in pre-flood Winnipeg where, if I stood on the little clothesline platform adjacent to the stucco walls of the house, I could just see in through the partially raised window in the white-haired old lady’s kitchen where she would always have a little bun ready for my outstretched hand…

But of course, smells can be more subtle, and ones that involve complex mixtures of many different components can be difficult to identify, although may still seem familiar somehow. Some buildings have a scent that, once entered, suddenly seems strangely appropriate -although not necessarily pleasant. Frequent travellers often talk about some cities that are identifiable by their particular melange of odours -a heritage, it would seem- perhaps something worth preserving, if that were possible.

Smell is important -it is one of the first senses that allow mutual identification and bonding between mother and baby. Specialized olfactory sensory neurons inside the nose connect directly to the brain. In fact, one such area in the brain -the anterior olfactory nucleus- serves both smell and memory and there are circuits that also connect it with the hippocampus (disorders of these seem to be common with Alzheimer’s disease).

One of the reasons that there is such a divide between digital screen readers, and paper book advocates has been said to be the pleasure of turning pages -both the sound and the feel of the paper that are just not the same as swiping a screen. But I wonder if much of it boils down to the smell of the book that is missing from, say, a digital tablet or Kindle.

I, too, am balanced precariously between the two media. Digital is far more convenient for travelling, and yet when it comes to pleasurable reading, I find it more difficult to bury myself in a screen than in the pages of an actual book. Perhaps this is an age thing -I was reading paperback novels long before digital technology captured the world- and even though I concede that the fonts and format have attempted to duplicate the paper pages, something is still missing. Until I happened across an essay in BBC Future on the value of smellscapes, I must admit that I didn’t appreciate the roll that smell might be playing: https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200108-why-preserving-certain-scents-is-important

Miguel Trancozo Trevino, writing for the BBC, suggests that the smells of ordinary life, from traditional pubs to old books, are part of our culture and heritage -and many of them are in danger of being lost. And yet, it’s one thing to declare a building, a monument, or a wilderness park a heritage site, and take steps to preserve it, but how in the world could you ever preserve the smell of even an old book, say, let alone a city? And for that matter, why would you even want to?

There have been attempts to preserve the smell of particular perfume scents, of course -but that is more a matter of duplicating known chemical recipes than, well, trying to deconstruct the odours of Bond Street in London, or Times Square in New York. ‘“The proposals made by cultural heritage spaces such as galleries, museums, historic houses, are mostly focused on the sight,” says Bembibre [Cecilia Bembibre, a researcher at the UCL Institute for Sustainable Heritage]. “The engagement they propose tends to be visual. [With] some exceptions, the stimulation of senses, like the objects that can be touched or smelled, is reserved for children.”’

Still, how do you even start to preserve smells? Well, ‘One method involves exposing a polymer fibre to the odour, so that the smell-causing chemical compounds in the air can stick to it. Then Bembibre analyses the sample in the laboratory, dissolving the compounds stuck to the fibre, separating them and identifying them. The resulting list of chemicals is effectively a recipe for the scent…

‘Another method separates and identifies the compounds directly from the gas sample – an approach commonly used in the perfume, food and beverages industry, as it allows volatile odour-active compounds to be identified. A third way is to use the nose itself, either by asking panels of people to describe certain smells, or by asking expert “noses”, who may be perfumers or scent designers.’

Of course, there have been other attempts to recognize and help to preserve intangibles of that sort -Bembibre is not toiling away in isolation. ‘In 2003, Unesco adopted a convention to safeguard intangible cultural heritages, which includes social practices, oral traditions and performing arts.’ But, alas, not smells… Some countries, though, have made attempt to recognize the value of odours. ‘In 2001, Japan’s environment minister classified the country’s top 100 best-smelling spots, which included both natural and cultural sites. Later, in 2016, the Koç University’s Research Center for Anatolian Civilizations in Istanbul opened the exhibition “Scents and the City” to explore 4,000 years of civilisation through its smells.’

And others, like Kate McLean, are attempting to create sensory maps. ‘Her goal is to create “smellmaps”. These maps aren’t limited to geographically distributed smells. They can also include changes over time, comparing the morning and afternoon odours of the streets in Shanghai, or focus solely on the summer smells of Le Marais, Paris. McLean also considers smells of the past, creating a smellmap of the famously pungent Widnes, Lancashire, an old manufacturing town.’

Still, why bother? Well, because there are people out there like ‘Alex Rhys-Taylor of Goldsmiths University, who specialises in the multisensory experience of urban space. “I would say, through my research, that you can learn a lot about a city’s economy, a lot about its culture, through the sense of smell.”’ And, ‘While it might take some time to create a smells archive, Rhys-Tylor suggests that the eventual process should keep in mind a social class diversity, and avoid preserving only the scents of privileged spaces… [T]he smell of a pub “full of smoke and men and beer spilled on the floor and disinfectant coming out of the toilets”, [is] an example. “That is a very important collection in terms of the social history of the city,”’

I have to say that when I was initially introduced to the idea of a smell archive, I never dreamed there would be others who felt the need to actually do it. Once again, I suspect it’s my age, or even a declination of my olfactory prowess, and yet at the beginning, I wondered if the whole process was -what?- of questionable value? We all bring to our noses, unique developmental experiences, genetic differences, and, frankly, preferences. And at any rate, the things producing the odours evolve over time, so those who can remember, say, the smoky, disinfectant pub smell are themselves time-limited as are the memories and emotions associated with it. The ‘smells archive’, it seemed to me at first, might end up as simply a curiosity serving less and less purpose as time passes and different smells arise.

But, you know I find myself relieved that there are people out there who are motivated to spend their time and effort trying to preserve different smells, just like I’m appreciative of those who seek to recreate ancient music authentically, or who actually care whether a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. The world would be a duller place without someone like the poet Kahlil Gibran feeling the need to hope that ‘…you could live on the fragrance of the earth, and like an air plant be sustained by the light.

Smell can also be a metaphor… can’t it?

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