Sunday, June 24, 2007

The Sound of One Nose Smelling

Between Monterey and Big Sur there is a Zen Monastery. Guests are welcome between May and August, to hike, meditate, eat vegetarian and soak in the natural hot springs. But no electronic devices are allowed. No laptops, Blackberries, Ipods, none of that sort. It’s a great place to turn the world off. Let it go. Give it a rest.

It’s a fantastic opportunity to tune up one’s senses, hearing, sight, smell. Lately, there has been a bit written on the wine Supertasters, reviewers and critics. There is also a strain of Super Smellers, those whose olfactory sensitivity is in uber-drive to the rest of the folks on the planet. It is something I am fascinated with. As a child, my father proclaimed I was a nose that a little boy grew around. It got better as I grew up.

Some of my high school classmates called me eagle beak, banana nose, the Schnozz; those are a few I haven’t forgotten. But I am not bitter. I have had the last laugh, My heightened sense of smell has helped me in my career and passion, on the wine trail.

Almost 20 years ago I read a book, Perfume, by Patrick Suskind. In the book a young man was born who had an enormous capacity for scent. The author described, in almost excruciating detail, the level at which this character could perceive aromas in his world. He was being trained as a perfume maker, and would be considered the greatest in the world (it’s a fictional account). But one passage, in which this boy could smell certain smells from blocks away, blew my mind. For the next few months I would sit in a sales room, a restaurant, an airport, and open my sense up to “see” what I could pick up. It was incredible. Perfumes, body scents, fabric, food, combustion, rotting, vegetal, they were all there. I could pick up a perfume from 20 feet away. My game would be to try and guess the maker. I got pretty good.

At another Zen monastery many years before, on an assignment, a monk warned me of getting attached to any sense, part of their training. At the monastery in Big Sur, while it is a bit freer in allowing one to open up to that kind of experience, one is still reminded to not become too attached to any worldly thing. I copy.

The walk to the coast, through the pine forest, with the resin of the tree and the balmy breeze off the ocean, reminded me of an afternoon in Iraklion, on the island of Crete. A run this week, in my neighborhood, picked up a scent of some kind of vegetation that transported me back 40+ years, to my model car days. Some resin, a dusty aroma and bam, I was 12 again. Too bad I didn’t have those 12 year old legs to get me up the hill I was facing.

There are exercises to heighten you sense of smell. And you can prepare your nose to become more aware and sensitive to the aromas around you.
Take a look at this picture, what kind of smell does it bring to you? A hot, fresh, steaming fried apple pie, with cinnamon. You’re sitting in your aunt’s parlor, and she brings a plate of these fresh from the kitchen miracles. What do you smell? How old are you when you recall this smell? Where in the world are you?

Or how about this one, the fish market in Venice? It could be one of many sites around the world, summer is starting, it’s 11 O'clock in the morning, starting to get hot. There are sardines and anchovies nearby, the swordfish and the tuna are also close. They were swimming in the ocean in them morning and now they sit and wait for their transformation. What do you smell? Is it pleasant, or do you have a problem envisioning the aromas in you mind? At this point, you know, its all in your mind.

And that is really an important part of the olfactory sense. We humans like to enlarge our experiences. We aren’t as lucky as the beagle, whose nose has about 200 million scent-receptor cells. A human's nose has about 5 million. The beagle is the super-smeller. We can, however, elaborate with words.

Want to learn more about wine? Grow roses, or visit rose gardens. I have a few that I have gone back to over the years, this one from my alma mater in Santa Clara. I have learned as much from the roses as I did from some of my professors. Honestly.

This is not a big mystery; the wine trail is filed with teachers all along the way. One only needs, from time to time, to turn off the electronic devices and step out into the world. It is one of the ways to learn how to become a super-sleuth in the scent sector. Or you could check into the Zen monastery for a stay.

Further reading
The Nobel Prize for mapping the sense of smell

That Makes Scents - An olfactory lab activity


bart said...

It is indeed incredible how a certain smell can be a blast from the past. I just loved to read this post.

And indeed, as you can practice your handwriting, your running, you can also practice your nose. On a walk I tend to smell on plants. Just take a small piece and rub it in your the palm of your hand and smell. And, for that matter, go even a step further and taste it (but be aware of the poisonous plants ;-)).

Ann said...

It occurs to me that some of my most pleasant and incisive memories are of my grandparents' West Texas house. My family used to visit in the summer. There was the smell of the garden: earth, dill, tomatoes, snap dragons. The basement: dank and musty, with fabric, wood and paper that had collected, held and processed decades of dampness. The kitchen. Ah, the kitchen, with its aromas of flour, baking bread, a certain saltiness from pickles in brine, scents of baking powder and spices, cookies and pies baking. The garage was a combination of dirt, old, old wood, metal and axle grease. Besides the kitchen and garden, my other favorites was the damp, grassy, acrid smell of a summer storm building in the distance.

Anonymous said...

The smelling sense is heavily overlooked I think, it's the first sense that we develop in mother's womb, the first things that we perceive with senses are the soup and guts of our mother, with little experience and no memories of senses we are forced to Imagine what all the chemicals are good for.
That is another skill of the nose which I see neglected, it's the primary sense of all life on land and there is a reason for that, our instincts can guess, quite accurately actually, how healthy or risky foods or chemicals are, it can indeed be trained but nowadays is mostly connected to past experiences and usually sticks to the library coming with those experiences, it can go far beyond however, smell on pepsi for instance and notice how the instinct tells you to be cautious it can be dangerous deadly even, smell on a cookie and get a vision of how the crops that make it did grow well, smell on opium perfume and notice it's lively pattern, how it goes in deep and straight, coming from the sea, notice how the consume of it would create a nice bubble of alpha waves in the brain which last for a while, or notice the smell of burnt petrol everywhere in the air and feel the effort needed to create that sensation of warmth mobility and safety, the analyzing happens so instantly I'm not even sure how much experience and training it needs to function accurately with unknown substances, if we didn't know our food was safe we'd better be smelling on it before trying ingestion so much I can say, and even when knowing the risks and that it's safe it can make for quite a sensation which shapes our inner picture of the world in its current state.
A lot of things are going on there which aren't fully comprehended yet by science but why not do some testing and experimenting with it and open up to letting smell give us an idea of future and chemical reactions which we can hardly express in words or numbers.

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