Scent and Sensibility

Ahead of my car rolled the water truck. We haven’t had rain in a while, and in the still desert air, dust is the enemy. Without rain or a strong wind, dust floats in the air, too light to settle, too heavy to float away. In the dust lives a mold that causes a serious flu-like disease that has killed people and weakened even more. So all dust, anywhere must be sprayed down. So the water truck is ahead of me, spraying the streets of Mesa.

I can smell the wet streets. It is a distinctive wet-dirt, pavement, hot day smell. It is both dusty and sharp with gasoline and oil trapped in the pores of the street. The scent instantly transports me back to childhood summer. A thousand miles away, it smelled just like this when it rained or when a farmer drove past, his wet vegetables tracing a water line on the road.

\The sense of smell has the amazing ability to link us anywhere in our past, more realistically than any other sense. Perfumers make the most of it. Christopher Brosius, creator of CB I Hate Perfume, has created a group of perfumes that don’t so much create a scent as invoke memories. His Black March smells exactly like rich, wet earth turned over for planting in the Spring.

Demeter Fragrances has hundreds of flavors and scents (you can really only taste sour, sweet, bitter and salty, the rest is smell) you can use to transport you through memory.

So I was surprised when I tried on a scent called Li Altarelli, from the perfumer Stephanie de Saint-Aignan. Using the sample vial, I tipped it on my wrist, recapped it, gave my wrist time to dry, and sniffed, and smelled. . .nothing. I held my wrist away, took a few deep breaths, and tried again. Still nothing. Maybe a faint lemon waft.

Well, OK, I’d rather have it be nothing than a scrubber. I finished what I was doing, picked up my bag and headed out the door. As I turned to lock the door, I noticed an amazing fragrance, both fresh and cool. It had a hint of something else. My memory flashed to a childhood vacation on the Gulf Coast, and then, oddly, to a tarot card reading I had once in New Orleans. That scent had been sassafras, but I was not smelling sassafras. I sniffed the place I’d put the perfume, and suddenly a breeze was blowing off the ocean, and I could hear laughter and was filled with simple happiness. It was a memory that was lovely, but not mine. And it was connected to an old man in New Orleans whom I didn’t know.

The next day I tried the vial again. The scent took a while to appear, and this time is was a walk in the forest in which I’ve never been. I seem to be recalling memories I don’t have, or my mind is creating scent-images for me, based on bits and pieces of the fragrance. I have no idea why, but then again, I seldom question these things, just write them down and wait for the answer to be revealed.

When the vial ran out, I did something unthinkable. I ordered a full bottle of this magic stuff, expensive as it is, because I want to see where it transports me. What it creates in my mind through my nose. Whose memories I come up with, and where it takes me. When I find out, I’ll let you know, too.

—About the Blue Smoke image: it’s from cheekybikerboy at flickr, protected by creative commons

–Quinn McDonald is a writer and certified creativity coach. She is also a niche perfume lover, with a large collection of largely-unheard of scents. See her work at