Scents were fragrantly permeating the air as I strolled through the forest. And I was reflecting on words. Words to describe my senses.
My senses other than sight.
We depend on sight over all of our other senses. And while our brains are processing each moment in a billion different ways, we usually think in terms of what we see. Whether things are light or dark. Colors and shapes. Whether things are bleary or brilliant or dazzling or dingy. Radiant, shimmering, flashy, glistening, streaked or tarnished. So many descriptors.
An exception seems to come with Autumn. When Fall arrives people often speak of the smells of the season. Those scents which bring comfort and warm feelings inside. That internal warmth that seems to compensate for the decreasing temperatures as Helios shifts its radiant energy to the southern hemisphere.
But as I think about my other senses, I find myself struggling for the words to describe fragrances.
It’s easy to describe the sight of the leaves turning. Almost an entire rainbow of reds, yellows, oranges, golds, browns, purples, and greens mix in the branches. Some trees and vines distinctively turn one color almost instantly. The Hickories are a solid golden yellow. The Dogwoods, early on, turn to a deep purple. The Virginia Creeper, blood red.
Only a few leaves are making their gravity-driven flights at the moment, but enough leaves are falling to produce that characteristic sound. The crunching and rumbling beneath our feet making it impossible to glide gracefully through the woods undetected.
No longer can we sneak up on the deer that are upwind, and that flock of Wild Turkeys scatter quickly as I enter the boundary of their keen hearing.
There are many words for different sounds.
In Autumn, the trees seem to be full of Robins and Jays and Starlings, perhaps gathering for their migration. Only too soon to be replaced by our winter inhabitants. The Chickadees, Juncos, and Tree Sparrows. Their distinctive sounds change as with the seating of a new orchestra.
But apart from the many sights and sounds, what is that unique smell?
I mean if you look for help with a word search, you’re likely to come up with all the inside scents of Fall. Those produced by us. The smells of pumpkin and spices from a freshly baked pie. Or the smell of a cinnamon stick and some nutmeg sprinkled into a cup of hot coffee. Perhaps with a dash of vanilla, or maybe you turned your coffee Irish, with that extra shot of whiskey – phenolic, tarry, grainy, and heavy.
But what of the outside?
Specific smells, except maybe for flowers, seem to lack a unique vocabulary. You can say I smell the smoke from a campfire and light up that correlative memory in another person, but just what words can be used to identify that particular scent?
I smell the loamy soil. It seems the Earth has tried on a new deodorant. It’s not what I would call pungent, but it is different than the summer fragrance. And I’m not sure the words “earthy” or “loamy” quite capture its essence.
We can refer to the decaying leaves, or even the scent of burning leaves, but these are adverbs for describing the action of the leaves. What they are doing. Where is the word to describe that particular smell?
Words like pine, lemon, musty, skunky, balmy, acrid, floral, and putrid seem to capture the essence of certain smells, mostly florals, but where are the words for the many scents encountered in wide-open landscapes? In the wilderness? At the change in seasons? Why does Autumn smell different?
How do you describe it?
One website I checked described the smell of snow in chemical terms, “nitrogen dioxide, formaldehyde, nitric acid, dimethyl sulphide and sulphate and methanesulphonate to be exact.” But those words don’t convey any type of scent to me. You’d have to work in a laboratory to recognize those. Except, perhaps, for the word sulphide which imparts the smell of rotten eggs. I’ve never detected a hint of rotten eggs in fresh snowfall.
I like the word “redolence” or “redolent.” But this word only describes the existence of a fragrance.
While I can’t quite put my finger on it, there is something truly different, and in a way magical, about the scent of this season.
I also, to my own surprise, seemed to recognize the smell of the small town I grew up in many years ago – recognized it when I passed through on a trip to visit buried ancestors.
Our bodies are amazing, and yet remain a mystery even to ourselves.
There is something to this, even if I lack the words to describe it. The brain makes its associations, fires up its neurons to light up many memories of times gone by. Another rotation of the Earth has set the solar clock to shortened days, cooler temperatures, and brought on a transplanted array of familiar scents.
So how would you describe the bouquet of this season?
Photo: Have to love the reflections in the lake of the trees showing off their Autumn plumage 🙂 And below, another version “electrifying” those many colors.