In­dulge a ne­glected sense of scent and sen­ti­men­tal­ity

Sunday Territorian - - SUNDAY -

SHE’D been want­ing to make gin­ger­bread men for weeks.

‘‘ But you don’t like the taste,’’ I sighed, try­ing to jus­tify the bronze medal par­ent­ing I’ve long dished out to my se­cond child — even though her elder sis­ter al­ways got the gold.

‘‘Well I might now,’’ she said. ‘‘Now that I’m 10.’’

So we melted and sifted and kneaded and tasted, pro­duc­ing a tray of gin­ger­bread men and women that I like to think re­flects our equal op­por­tu­ni­ties house­hold rather than her fas­ci­na­tion with fash­ion­ing bis­cu­ity boobs.

And then a lovely thing hap­pened: as our Di­ver­sity Coun­cil- ap­proved gin­ger­bread baked away in the oven, the smell of golden syrup and spice wafted through the house.

The el­dest, more in­clined to her own com­pany, wan­dered in and sat nat­ter­ing at the kitchen bench. Then a friend drop­ping off a book stayed for a cup of tea be­cause, ‘‘I imagine this is what Nigella’s house smells like, well, without the al­leged drugs’’.

I don’t love Christ­mas — so much ex­pec­ta­tion, so much po­ten­tial for dis­ap­point­ment — but I adore how it smells: mince pies; man­goes; brandy; the pleas­ing night be­fore combo of cham­pagne and Sel­lotape.

Smell — it’s the most prim­i­tive, evoca­tive but over­looked of our senses even though we breathe in an av­er­age of 23,040 times a day.

Re­cently I’m notic­ing it like never be­fore hav­ing spent the best part of the last year chained to my desk writ­ing a book. As a treat I burned or­ange blos­som-scented can­dles but oth­er­wise it was just me and the faint aroma of my singed brain.

But then Novem­ber came and I was fin­ished. I started to run again, rev­el­ling not just in the phys­i­cal but the spring scents of gar­de­nia, hon­ey­suckle and star jas­mine.

Food that I’d shov­elled down months ear­lier was now savoured and in­haled: a roast chicken; tomato and basil salad; white nec­tarines like those that grew in the gar­den of my­child­hood home.

I know pro­po­nents of mind­ful­ness sug­gest fo­cus­ing on some­thing vis­ual, like the petals on a rose, but there’s some­thing both calm­ing and trans­port­ing about a scent. Of all the senses, smell is the most hon­est.

Of course it was a smoul­der­ing, Her­mes-scented French­man in his li­lac-in­fused sa­lon ( I may be fan­ta­sis­ing slightly) whose writ­ings led to the ‘‘Prous­tian phe­nom­e­non’’ link­ing smell and mem­ory. Mar­cel Proust de­scribed a char­ac­ter vividly re­call­ing mem­o­ries from child­hood af­ter smelling a tea-soaked madeleine cake.

Mel­bourne- based neu­ropsy­chol­o­gist Kylie Ladd ex­plains: ‘‘The ol­fac­tory bulb is part of the hip­pocam­pus, the area of the brain re­spon­si­ble for emo­tion and mem­ory, so that’s why smell pro­duces such pow­er­ful rec­ol­lec­tions.’’

Smells, more so than dates, mark the three dis­tinct ages and stages of my life: chlo­rine, lemons and the ex­quis­ite scent of daphne flower and I am back in pro­vin­cial New Zealand; CK One and I am in love in Lon­don; sea salt, bar­be­cued sausages and breast milk and I am sprog­ging in Syd­ney.

‘‘Smell is a po­tent wiz­ard,’’ said He­len Keller, ‘‘that trans­ports you across thou­sands of miles and all the years you have lived.’’

But I won­der if we’re los­ing it, the abil­ity to be awak­ened and soft­ened by this most sub­tle of senses.

Tech­nol­ogy has com­man­deered the vis­ual and au­ral and is pump­ing it out in ever more height­ened for­mats whether via YouTube or Grand Theft Auto. Shop­ping is done via pick and click, the sen­sory process of stroking and smelling now re­dun­dant in our bold new on­line world.

Porn, too, is rapidly re­plac­ing the need for real live touch and smell.

In­deed, I sus­pect when they do en­joy a hu­man con­nec­tion the young are in­creas­ingly as­saulted by the syn­thetic stench of tan­ning creams, eye­lash glue and cheap eau de cologne rather than the gen­uinely erotic cas­so­lette, the French word used to de­scribe the scent of per­fume mixed with nat­u­ral body odour.

Re­mem­ber Al Pa­cino in Scent Of A Woman? Olivier Martinez in Un­faith­ful? The pro­tag­o­nist in Pa­trick Suskind’s Per­fume? They’d be ap­palled.

Her­met­i­cally sealed in our faux-scented houses, stim­u­lated by a plethora of screens and eased of our stress in sani­tised spas and re­sorts, we’re de­prived not just of smell, but of life.

In Delhi last year the nose jolt from in­cense, chai and ex­cre­ment made me feel more alive than I had in years, a re­minder of Rud­yard Ki­pling’s ob­ser­va­tion that ‘‘the first con­di­tion of un­der­stand­ing a for­eign coun­try is to smell it’’.

There is much plea­sure to be gained from a keen sense of smell. More sex, for a start. Re­search last year re­vealed those with no sense of smell were more so­cially in­se­cure and had fewer re­la­tion­ships than those in per­fect ol­fac­tory or­der.

Grief, too, is pro­cessed through smell. I’ll never for­get a wid­ower telling me that com­fort came from bury­ing his face in his dead wife’s silk scarf.

New­born ba­bies, a morn­ing af­ter rain, cof­fee, ap­ple strudel, forests, freshly washed hair, sheets dried in sun­shine — how many of us linger to in­hale? But we should. Not just for the small, quiet plea­sure of it but be­cause our scent-strewn mem­o­ries are the path­way to who we once were.

The scent of gin­ger­bread at Christ­mas re­minds us that smell is the most evoca­tive but over­looked of our senses

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