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Parkhurst: ‘What the smell? How did you recall that?’

January 24, 2013

Every morning when I let my beagle mix dog out of his kennel, he runs past me and makes ever larger circles beyond the pen. He is not looking for a fire hydrant. With his nose barely off the ground, he finally picks up the scent of a rabbit and lets out a long bawl as he heads off down the hill toward the creek.


He has no idea what a rabbit track looks like; even if I attached a picture on the door of his kennel, he would have no clue. The scent of a rabbit is hard-wired to his brain. Not so with us humans, or if it ever was that way it disappeared long ago. We must learn by experience what smells good and what does not or what spells danger and what’s OK.


I cannot think of an animal whose nose is not next to its mouth. Just before we put something in our mouth, we inhale its aroma. We have all lifted a glass of milk to our mouth but stopped at the last moment because our nose told us the milk has soured.


Nearly every experience we have with our nose is recorded in our brain for instant recall. If you were walking through a field in the dark and suddenly smelled the strong odor of a skunk, you would immediately know what it was and move out of the area.


When I was a freshman in college, I attended a bachelor party where I was expected to act like a “man.”  I bought a pint of Jim Beam whiskey for the occasion. It was my first experience with hard liquor and I drank too much, way too much. I was deathly sick for the next three days. Today, years later, the smell of bourbon makes me reel back and feel nauseous.


Judy was cleaning out my hunting clothes from the mud room to take downstairs. (I never allowed her to wash them.) Suddenly she picked up the odor of chewing tobacco. Calling her sister, she inquired: “Did Granny chew tobacco?” The reply was, “Of course she did, why do you think she always carried that can around with her?” Never having thought about it before, that odor was implanted in Judy’s mind and reawakened by the smell of tobacco in my hunting jacket.


I was 9 years old when the plant below the apartment where we lived caught fire. I stood helplessly outside watching the black smoke pouring out the window of my brother’s and my bedroom. The apartment wasn’t destroyed but all our belongings reeked of that awful, rancid smoke. My mind races back to that morning whenever I smell that same smell. On the other hand, whenever the smell of wood smoke wafts past my nose, it reminds me of the many fun times had sitting around a campfire on a gravel bar or in the woods somewhere.


Who hasn’t taken a deep breath to smell the grass in a fresh-cut hay field, or the first blooming of flowers in the spring? Last fall as I was splitting wood for the winter, the smell of oak locked up in the dry wood came rushing out. It always takes me back to the summer when I worked in the wood shop at Parkhurst Manufacturing Co. Back then, the truck bodies and pickup racks were all made of wood. All the stakes were fresh-sawn native oak. They had to be blanked out, planned, trimmed and drilled. The whole area was full of that aroma that I still enjoy today.


You might say that the whole animal kingdom revolves around the sense of smell. Without it, all the four-legged creatures in the wild would disappear in one generation. Fortunately for us humans, this act has taken on a more civilized approach. Women put on perfume and men adorn cologne to attract the opposite sex — smell still has a great effect.


Many times the brain paints a picture of an event to further identify a particular odor or smell. In this way it is much like dreams, some are good and some bad. The sense of smell kick-starts our bodies into action: Ever wake up in the night and smell smoke? Or you may not think you are hungry but when you smell biscuits baking in the oven, suddenly your appetite is ravenous.


Take a deep breath and smell the roses.