ERROL CASTENS: Something smells sublime

By Errol Castens/NEMS Daily Journal

A few years ago my dad took a medication that robbed him of much of his sense of taste and took nearly all his sense of smell.
Since then, I’ve tried to become more aware of aromatic inputs, and I’ve come up with a list of those I’d miss most if they were suddenly gone.
Many are food- and drink-related: coffee, sage, cinnamon, tomatoes, basil, Chablis, bacon, mint, oranges, chocolate, vanilla, strawberries, peaches, fresh-baked bread, oregano, rosemary, garlic and grilled beef.
Some are floral: magnolia, gardenia, honeysuckle, rose, lavender and narcissus.
Others are seasonal: fresh-mown grass, really good garden soil, wood smoke and cottonseed oil.
A few aren’t readily categorized: gunpowder, leather, Play-Doh, pine and cedar, new cars, puppy breath and my wife’s perfume after several hours of wear.
A few aromas I enjoy in small, rare doses: cigar or pipe smoke, turpentine, rubbing alcohol, creosote, coal smoke and frying food.
Several smells (besides the obvious ones) I could happily pass up forever: nail polish, hair coloring, most cleaning products, gasoline and diesel, burnt clutch (one of earth’s most sickening smells), mildew, most perfumes, cigarette smoke, Sharpies, chlorine, nandina and sagebrush.
Despite our having only a fraction of the olfactory sensitivity of many animals, smell has worked its way into our culture.
Shakespeare gave us some of our most direct remarkable quotes about smell: “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” and “For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds; Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.”
We remind ourselves to use our noses to relax and enjoy life: “Stop and smell the roses.”
We also use aroma to motivate ourselves to action: “Wake up and smell the coffee.”
Laura Ingalls Wilder defended the honesty of sweat: “A man who works hard stinks only to the ones that have nothing to do but smell.”
I had assumed it was a recent scientific insight that the nose had power to trigger memories. Turns out Oliver Wendell Holmes knew it most of two centuries ago: “Memories, imagination, old sentiments and associations are more readily reached through the sense of smell than through any other channel,” he said.
Helen Keller, too: “Smell is a potent wizard that transports you across thousands of miles and all the years you have lived.”
I know one whiff of my first-grade classroom would instantly take me back to one of the happiest years of my life.
Bet you could breathe in some memories like that.
Contact Daily Journal Oxford Bureau reporter Errol Castens at

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