Scent of Memory

“Smells are better than sounds or sights For making your heartstrings crack./

They start that awful voice ‘o nights that whispers ‘Old man, come back.’/

And that is why the big things pass, but the little ones remain:/

Like the smell of the wattles near Lichtenburg/

Riding in, in the rain.”  (“Lichtenburg” Rudyard Kipling)

For reasons only known to my warped mind, a faint whiff of diesel exhaust carried on crisp morning air makes me think of Vienna. You would think that, say, fresh-baked pastries on the breeze, or the scent of riverbanks and new-mown grass would be more appropriate cues, but no. Diesel exhaust on the morning breeze makes me think of Vienna.

Many memories cue onto scents. Despite what Proust wrote about, flavors don’t carry those links for me, only scents. Rich cinnamon on the breeze summons distant grass fires and small airports in the western Great Plains, surrounded by native grasses that bow and hiss as the hot afternoon winds dance past. The sour smell of cottonwood leaves conjures up afternoons in late October and early November, listening to the calls of thousands upon thousands of wild geese and ducks along the Missouri River. A hint of muddy decay filters into that memory, and I can see myself and my sibling in our bright-colored parkas trotting through the woods along the riverbank, leaving tracks in the soft almost-mud of the trail, our parents just far enough behind to give us an illusion of adventure.

Hot motor oil summons the coughing roar of big, air-cooled engines. They chuff and splutter before surging into life, engines older than my parents, hung on airframes rebuilt so often that only the data plate and throttle levers still belong together. And laughter and calls of warning, beware of propwash and pilots blind to what might be in front of them as the S-curve back and forth, snake-dancing their way to the runway.

Pine smells are mountains. Cold breezes and tickles of hints of hidden snow. And desert rose summons rain, cascading out of high-based grey clouds piling up and spilling off the San Juan mountains to drench the Colorado Plateau and mesa Verde. veils of rain trail across the broken land, beyond the banks of dark-leaved desert rose. Desert rose and wet soil, the gift of the two o’clock rains of the summer monsoon. A cold trickle tickles the back of my neck, a memory in scent and touch.