The purpose of these walks is to acquaint myself and my nose with the smells of whatever environment I’m in, to pay more attention to these smells, beautiful or not, and to attempt to describe them. Think of them as meditations based on the sense of smell.
As many of you already know, my partner Olly Technic and I moved away from the big smoke of Melbourne, Australia, one year ago, to the outskirts of a tiny town in rural Western Victoria. Around our house is a (hopefully extinct) volcanic landscape, which consists mostly of tree-free paddocks full of sheep, rolling hills and the occasional cow. We are lucky enough to be able to get a 360-degree view of both the mountains and the sky here, with its ever-changing cloudscape and weather.
Today I wanted to do a simple local smell walk, so Olly and I walked up the road nearest the house, and stopped and sniffed pretty much anything we could find. Olly was busy making sound recordings as the grass was making the most amazing rustling sounds in the strong wind today, so all smell observations today are mine.
The first thing I notice when we walk out the back door is a subtly poopy, animalic smell emanating from the septic tank. Thankfully we don’t notice this smell too often, but it is a very windy day, so I’m not surprised. As we round the corner of the house, I notice the fuchsia in full bloom and stop to smell it. Surprisingly, it’s almost scentless: there’s a faint smell of generic green plantiness about it, but otherwise it’s not remarkable at all.
Next to the fuchsia is a lily plant. I’m not sure of the variety, but it smells sweetly heady and buttery, and almost a little tropical. It reminds me a bit of a frangipani flower. The smell is quite soft – I have to put my nose right in close to the stamens to smell it.
As we walk down the driveway I notice a subtle, yet persistent undercurrent of sheep manure and the smell of dust underfoot. I stop to smell a particularly attractive grass plant. It smells dry, a bit like cut hay, but perhaps not as sweet.
Out on the road, I come across a plant that looks like Broom or Gorse. In spring it is covered with beautiful, deep yellow flowers, but these have all gone now. The leaves aren’t as spiky as they look. I crush one and sniff. It has a smell like that of a generic, crushed green leaf; there’s nothing particularly unique about it.
Something makes me sneeze for a few minutes. While my nose settles down, we keep walking and as we approach a large field on our left, we are overwhelmed by the sweet, strong smell of a harvested grass crop. We saw the farmer harvesting this crop several weeks ago, and it has since dried out with the warmth of the sun. They’ve also allowed the sheep and cows back in to feed on the leftover grass stalks. The smell of sweet, dry hay is very strong and is tickling my nostrils. I realise that this is what made me sneeze a few minutes ago.
The ticklish smell of harvested grass dominates as I walk alongside the enormous field, until I am overcome by the foul smell of a dead and decaying sheep by the side of the road. The smell is repulsive and reminds me of rubbish bins that have been left out in the sun for days, with that slightly fishy aroma that rotting flesh seems to always give off. The smell is making me recoil and is turning my stomach, so I move on.
I spot a thistle bush with purple flowers on it, so I go over to smell. The flower smells dry, grassy and savoury. There’s nothing overtly sweet or typically “floral” about it.
As we keep walking we notice a field full of sheep on our right. These are the same sheep that normally keep us company round our house, but earlier this week they were moved to this field by the farmer. The warmly comforting and animalic smell of lanolin from the wool of the sheep hovers on the air, and I can still smell the sweet, dry harvested grass crop from the field on my left, at the same time.
Fossicking around on the other side of the road, Olly Technic points out a fox skull. It’s beautifully preserved and has been here for quite some time. It’s very clean and I pick it up and lean in to smell it. This is the most surprising smell of today’s walk. I expect to smell something like bone, but instead the skull smells like petrichor. It’s elemental, and the bone matter must have absorbed the very elements that it’s been exposed to for perhaps years. It’s watery, warm, faintly sweet and clean smelling. I never thought I’d enjoy smelling a skull!
We walk on and finally get to a row of trees. These are old conifers, some are dead, most not. The pine needles grow out of the branches in ball-shaped clumps and both open and closed pine cones are on the branches. The needles themselves smell of nothing when intact, but when broken emit a subtle, fresh scent that smells equally of crushed green leaf and pine. It’s not particularly camphoraceous, as pine can be, but is just fresh, green and lovely.
The closed cones have no smell that I can detect, but those that are older, dried and open smell like wood, impregnated with the aroma of the crushed pine needles. It’s dry and aromatic and I wish I could bottle the smell.
A piece of chunky pine bark provides the most beautiful smell of the day. It’s woody, which is no great surprise, but it also has the most amazing sweet smell, a little like maple syrup. It’s sweet, dark, and rich. I have to place my nose right against it to smell the sweetness, but when I do I keep inhaling it deeply with every breath.
It’s amazing what you can discover on a smell walk. The most unassuming walk up a dusty country road has provided some incredible and surprising finds today, from flowers that have little or no smell, to skulls that smell of petrichor and tree bark that is redolent of maple syrup. It’s been another fun and revealing exercise in mindfulness and an education for my nose.