Smell Walk No. 1


Photo of dog’s nose by Piotr Grzywocz

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.

Tuesday Evening: 6:45 pm. En route to the compost bin.

I start my adventure in smell walks today with a short walk from my kitchen to the compost bin. Living in the country on a large sheep farm, I’m subjected to all kinds of smells that I never encountered in my city-dwelling days. I decided that it would be interesting enough, therefore, to start by exploring the smells immediately around my house. Today I will describe the smells that I notice while taking out the compost.

First, I inhale the aroma of the bowl of organic scraps that I want to take out to the bin. It contains banana skins, rotting strawberries, mint tea and eggshells. It is musty, sour, fermented, mouldy, sweet, sulphurous and savoury all at once. It’s not a pleasant smell: it’s confused and contradictory, but it is interesting.

Down the hall I walk, and through the laundry, where towels are going round in the dryer. I associate the smell of washing so closely with the concept of cleanliness, so I’m not very objective about what I’m actually smelling, other than something that has become, to my nose, generically “clean-smelling”. Today I pay a bit more attention. As the towels are still quite wet in the dryer, I’m getting a smell that’s a bit like the smell a steam-iron gives off, crossed with a slightly toasty smell; a little like a vanilla cake cooking in an oven, far off in the distance somewhere. It’s a bit sweet, a bit toasted, and warmly wet.

As I open the back door, a blast of fresh, cool, evening air greets me. I deeply inhale the sharp green smell of grass, acres and acres of it, mingled with the faint scent of soil and sheep manure. It’s crisp, earthy and slightly animalic, all at once.

Past the rose-bush I go, towards the compost bin. It’s only just in bud, so the flowers themselves are disappointing and don’t give off much aroma. I have to crush a leaf to smell it – it’s green, fresh and watery and a little like cucumber. Next, I pull out a weed and shake the soil from it: the loosened soil smells of warm patchouli, chopped raw mushrooms and humus. It’s delightful and forms a counterpoint to the vegetal smell of the freshly plucked weed roots.

A fresh peppermint leaf offers much olfactory delight, but I have to break it to really smell it. It’s more complex than I’ve ever noticed before, now that I’m properly paying attention. It smells earthy, zesty, spicy and cool. It also smells a little bit like cedar wood, and there is a surprising sweetness to it. I can’t resist eating it, and when I pop it in my mouth and chew, the aromatic oils dissolve and deliver the pepperiness that this variety of mint is known for.

I round the corner of the path and lift the lid off the compost bin. It reeks of ammonia from the cat litter that is decaying in there. It’s repulsive, off-smelling and foul! I empty my bowl of waste from the kitchen into it, and notice the sweet, acidic smells of banana and strawberry mingling briefly with the ammonia of the cat’s urine. But it’s too much; it’s making me physically recoil. I put the lid back on.

We have a septic tank next to the compost bin, but I detect no fecal wafts from it today, even when I go up close and inhale. Disappointed, I look around for something else to smell and spot some sheep’s wool on our wire fence. The sheep stick their heads through to eat our lawn, and little tufts of wool often remain on the wire afterwards. I pluck off a couple of pieces and hold them to my nostrils. Ah… that comforting, sweet, warm, animalic smell of wool! It’s just like a cosy woollen jumper, but in its raw state, combines with the faint aroma of waxy lanolin and dirt. It’s beautiful and I take it inside with me so I can keep smelling it.