Olfactory Memories

I’ve always been impressed with how powerfully connected the nose is to the brain. For example, when my parents divorced I resided with my father while my sisters stayed with our mother in a distant city. Years later one of my sisters was visiting and I gave up my bed to her. As soon as she put her head down she sat bolt upright and hugging the pillow declared it to be hers. She’d recognized her childhood security-pillow from its familiar, albeit years-removed, musty odour. Her being as attached to it as Linus Van Pelt to his blanket, it’s not surprising that I never laid head on that pillow again.

I frequently experience vivid memories triggered by my sense of smell. Every time I smell freshly hewn wood, I either recall the many torturous hours that I spent on the drop-sorter or green chain in the sawmill of my youth; or the years spent felling and bucking trees in British Columbian forests. The smoke from burning leaves, grass or wood elicits memories of battling forest-fires or mopping-up slash-burns. When I get a whiff of diesel exhaust my mind returns me to operating thundering locomotives pulling thousands of tons of freight through a lonely mountain pass while others slept the night away.

I suppose it’s not surprising that the majority of my olfactory-triggered memories are work-related since I spent such a large proportion of my waking time performing those tasks. What is surprising is that the odours trigger pleasant memories when I consciously know that many of the experiences themselves were unpleasant (to put it mildly). My father has always said that memory has a way of filtering out the bad ones and leaving the good ones intact. I suppose one could relate that to the axiom that “time cures all ills.” My experience tends to corroborate that theory.

I experience one recurring olfactory-triggered memory that is more of a compulsion than not. It happens yearly around this same time. I began to experience it a couple of days ago as I walked across the University of Saskatchewan campus. The distance from my parking lot to the College of Law seems like at least 10 miles so I have plenty of time to think and reminisce while I walk. On that day, and every day since, crisp autumn air has assaulted my nostrils. And those odours of decaying leaves and drying grass always call to the hunter within me.

If I were in BC I would most likely already have had a moose in the freezer. That is a satisfying event for any hunter, but it has not been the foremost motivation for me to go hunting for many years. Meat in the freezer is more of a valuable by-product of my hunting experiences. All year I look forward to going hunting for the peace and quite of being alone in the woods with nothing but wind, water, and animals as my companions. That annual week or two in the wilderness secures my sanity for the coming year and is the buoy that I aim for when life’s ocean becomes stormy and overwhelming. Like Linus and his blanket, or my sister and her pillow, the solitude of the wild is my security.

This year, and for the next several years, I will have to be content to remember hunting in the outdoors of BC. Luckily for me, autumn smells the same in Saskatoon as in Prince George and olfactory-triggered memories are powerful indeed.

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