They say smell is the most evocative sense. One whiff of wintergreen and I’m crouched on a hot track, my legs rubbed with Cramer’s Atomic Balm, awaiting the gun. Something Pavlovian happens, and my respiration and heart rate rise.
Yet we have no good word for the inability to smell. You can be deaf or blind, but, if you can’t smell, you are “Olfactorily challenged” or a term no one knows. And smell earns no place as a learning modality either. Visual and auditory and even tactile learners can look down on the kid who has to smell handouts to remember their contents.
Smell doesn’t rate.
Sniffing out prey isn’t necessary in the modern world, and we’re so beset by artificial fragrances our noses are too befuddled and fouled to smell a mate. Smell’s association with taste can’t help its reputation much either. Smell and taste don’t work. They enjoy themselves too much and too often. They sit like slackers among the productive, useful, and sane.
Memory is another problem. When I try to recall the scent of wintergreen, a steel fish swims up. No words can ensnare it. As soon as I smell wintergreen, I’ll know it, but, in the meantime, it lives in the memory that recalls the next song just before it starts or gets me somewhere I remember but can’t map. The action that recalls smells hides in shadowy unconsciousness—constant, seldom heard or seen.
Yesterday I walked into a strange aroma and jumped back to walking into the cafeteria at Highlands Elementary on my first day of school. My madeleine was some special variety of frozen beef patty on a steam table, probably cheap, probably cooked badly, undoubtedly unhealthy. Instantly I was the lonely boy who wished to go home and eat with his mom. I was unsure how to make friends and how I’d answer if asked if I’d made one. Some great space opened and filled with lost feelings.
It was magic, a time machine. And then I thought, something must be wrong with our lives. Where have our noses gone?