Harper’s (August 2013) has an interesting article by Beau Friedlander, “A Brief History of Scent.” You’ll need a subscription to read the article (or ask to borrow my copy), but you can also listen to Friedlander on Brian Lehrer. The cogent points for my brief comments: some odors are universally offensive at a primal level; odors become related to time and place in very individualized ways; odors are linked to memory, but the linkage is not simple, and neither are the barrage of odors we encounter in some situations. (He also points out what I think every time I go to a big city, or even see them in the movies—“this place really stinks, in a permanent, embedded sort of way.”)
Here are some brief associations from my permanent olfactory travels and memories, which feature large in my mind, but rarely (if ever) get verbalized.
Dense, wet (alkaloid-rich) vegetation smells like adventure, relaxation and itching from insect bites. From many jungle treks in Belize.
Iron-rich red dust smells like brine, thirst and despair. From the Rann of Kutch after the 2001 earthquake.
Intense, blinding sun smells like salt water, limestone, pine, oregano, and sweat dripping into plant-lacerated legs. From surveying Greek coastlines.
Concrete, rebar, and helicopters smell like death and decay under a hot, rainy Mediterranean sun. This is from the 1999-2000 earthquake surveys. It took years for me not to recoil from this. I still smell it, just not as strong, and the recoil is gone.
Yellow-grey dust and limestone, without a vegetation overlay, smell like isolation, exercise, oatmeal, and an undercurrent of risk. From Oman; this is a different smell than Mediterranean limestone, which always comes with plants. The risk undercurrent is new, from our Musandam expedition. But we always ate a lot of oatmeal in Oman. Hey, is that Simon Donato, of Stoked Oats fame, in toe shoes?