This week, guest contributor Georgia Wilkins shares a story in which she imagines a new use of technology to connect us to one another through our sense of smell, and ponders the magic of smells to both transport us to another time and place, and bring us deeply into the present moment.
Here’s Georgia’s story…
Photo by Georgia Wilkins: Sea smells in Tofino
“It may be that smells move us so profoundly, in part, because we cannot utter their names. In a world sayable and lush, where marvels offer themselves up readily for verbal dissection, smells are often right on the tip of our tongues—but no closer—and it gives them a kind of magical distance, a mystery, a power without a name, a sacredness.” ~ Dianne Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses
I don’t often dream of technology or how it will change our lives.
When I’m in the city, I see how cell phones allow us to withdraw, prevent us from engaging in spontaneous connection. We forget so easily to be in that place, in that moment. I play around with this by leaving my phone in my bag and keeping an open posture: eyes up, shoulders back, arms uncrossed. It’s rare at these times that I won’t meet eyes with someone, begin to chat, sometimes leading to a new friendship. Or, maybe, I notice a funny sign or a crow collecting sticks. These fleeting interactions and discoveries allow me a curious kind of peace, by reminding me of the people and creatures – eccentric, compelling, big-hearted – who roam our planet. When we open ourselves to connecting with the beauty around us, it often comes. We can be in the present moment.
I do still spend time on my cell phone – especially these days, while living and working at the quiet Tofino Botanical Gardens, where the phone is a bridge from the gardens’ stillness and from my solitude to my dear friends and family and the wider world.
When I do leave my phone behind to refresh I notice changes in my stress levels, a capacity to commit more fully to the moment and to my communities. When I’m not confronted with a constant flow of news, updates, information, I find a new engagement… space to truly be in the world around me.
And so I find myself wondering: How might I find this same sense of connection to the world by using rather than rejecting my phone? Likewise, how might I connect from afar in other ways? Letters and packages have always been a favorite of mine, a deepened sensory experience– handwritten notes, a patch found at the thrift shop, a tiny bough of cedar… glitter… a stone… sand.
Photo by Georgia Wilkins: Sniffing the forest floor.
Back to the phone… I send photographs, poems, short stories, emojis, drawn out messages, videos. But I have an ultimate technological fantasy that someone else might realize someday.
For now, let’s call it the smellophone. I imagine being able to capture a smell on my iPhone, just as I would take a photo, and send it to someone I love. Salty air to Ontario. The sharp smell of pine and crisp air coming back. The warm breath of someone you love.
If technology enabled a stronger sensory experience, we might be even more affected by the stories and information we experience through it.
Imagine if we learned of the recent oil spill in Bella Bella not just through photos, but through the harsh smell of crude oil mixing with the sea and cedar undertones? How might that alter our reactions or further impact us?
The smellophone would allow us to save smells, to revisit them. In her wonderful book, A Natural History of the Senses, American naturalist Dianne Ackerman provides a storied exploration of the senses which helped me to become more aware of the magic of the many ways our body allows us to experience the world. Ackerman shows that of all the senses, smell is most closely connected to nostalgia. A smell can instantly and emotionally transport us in subconscious ways our brains might otherwise not allow.
Walking along the Big Tree Trail on Meares Island (part of the Tla-o-qui-aht Tribal Park) this afternoon, I came to an impasse where a spruce tree had fallen, making the path unclear. I looked around and found a kind of tunnel through the branches. As I crawled through, I inhaled and was brought to a blissful place – the smell of spruce, Christmas trees, warmth; family and friends gathered around a plate of fancy cheeses and tea in my childhood home. The deep feeling of knowing you are loved. An emotional nostalgia so strongly linked to the rapturous fragrance of spruce.
The phenomenon works in painful ways too.
When I was eight, my parents left my sister and me at home with our brother Matt who was to care for us. At the time, Matt’s kind and loving nature took unusual and cruel forms. He told us to wait in the living room as he prepared shot glasses of ketchup, mustard and vinegar. We were told to drink them. Unfortunately, my positive reaction to the sweet taste of ketchup didn’t give Matt the reaction he was looking for. I was told I must eat all three condiments… or else.
Food poisoning. I was horribly sick and missed a week of school. It was mid-February, and as a seven-year-old, I was traumatized to miss the Valentine’s Day card exchange in class and a special field trip to see Stuart Little. I still remember trying to go to school on February 14th and having to run out of the school bus onto the snow where I threw up.
For years, I refused not only to eat, but to be near the smell of vinegar.
Six years later, I suffered a panic attack at school. My body shook as my breathing became short and quick. I cried uncontrollably, stricken by fear. On this particular day, there was an anti-smoking presentation happening, and the presenters had brought in a pig lung to demonstrate the changes that tobacco smoke has on our lungs. The lung was kept in formaldehyde, and the smell filled the school. It reminded me of vinegar, of sickness. Perhaps a fear of not being able to trust the ones I love.
My emotional reaction to the smell has stayed with me for years. Only recently, have I found myself able to cook and clean with vinegar.
Smell is powerful. Let us pay attention to it. Savor it, be repulsed by it.
Close your eyes. Reflect on your day from the moment you woke up. Focus on the smells you’ve encountered. Do not assume them, remember them. Note every olfactory moment. Allow yourself a sensory journey… Recognize. Appreciate. Let it go. Until the smellophone comes around, every smell is fleeting.
Let us breathe easy, breathe deeply and become more a part of the places we inhabit.
Photo by Georgia Wilkins: Along the Big Tree trail on Meares Island.
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