Following the Scent Trail

The honeysuckle is blooming.

I walk home after work and come through the garden. I smell it before I see it–citrus-y, flower-y, like nothing else in this world. Strong, heady, a flow of heavenly scent. I can imagine it as a moving trail, a colored ribbon of semi-translucent yellow and amber (that’s my synaesthesia acting up).

Earlier today we were talking about smells, as a group of us went through a quick chainsaw training session. Katie stated that she likes a whiff of saw gas and exhaust and sawdust. Indeed. It’s the smell of fieldwork. Smell is the most primal of senses, hitting the brain and evoking powerful feelings and memories. Fieldwork smells like pitch and dust and horses and sweat. The smell of a forest fire stirs my adrenaline. There are subtler smells in the forest: blooming vanilla leaf. Fir needles masticated by thousands of caterpillars in the tree tops. Elk pee. All these ribbons of scent weave together, entwining the summer days.

Hiking along today, I was thinking of how a dog’s sense of smell is 200 times keener than human’s. How is that for them? Some smells must feel like they’re being shouted out loud. Humidity in the air affects scents. Moisture brings up the scent, which is why dogs love sniffing on dewy mornings.

The air has been muggy and damp these past few days, intensifying the honeysuckle. It fills the garden and house and the olfactory part of my brain is positively lit up. Wow.

What scent trails are you following?

Another Whiff

Rode my bike from Thorp to Taneum Creek this afternoon and got another first whiff–this time cottonwood. The buds are filled with a sticky aromatic gum. As the leaves begin to unfold in the warmer days, a sweet honey scent is released. It’s heavenly.

Like willows, cottonwoods bear female and male flowers on separate trees. The tree I photographed is female. The branches were loaded with pendulous reddish flowers like long bunches of grapes. When these go to seed in early summer, the air will be filled with the white fluff that gives the tree its name. A lot of seeds are produced, but I rarely see many baby cottonwoods. I guess the seeds have to fall in exactly the right place to germinate. They favor floodplains and riparian areas. Cottonwoods don’t mind wet feet.

Also today: blackbilled magpies, redtailed hawks, song sparrows belting out their signature melody. New calves in pastures. Headwind from the southwest. Clouds bring yet more rain as La Nina malingers.


“Mmm, smell that?” asks Mikki as we walk together. Yeah, I got a whiff right at the same time she did. “I love our pine trees,” she declares.

There is nothing like the scent of warm sun hitting the bark of ponderosa pines. Some people say it smells like vanilla, but to my nose it does not. First of all, it’s sweet but hasn’t entirely given up its piney essence. Not really resinous or sharp, but not sugary either. It’s complex. The young trees don’t give off the aroma as well as the big old trees whose trunks have begun to sway and bow. The big pines self-prune, meaning that as they grow, the lower branches retreat further up the bole. So a person can walk right up and put her nose to the cinnamon-colored bark without getting poked by a limb. Sometimes it’s possible to find a solid chunk of cloudy amber pitch to take home and smell later.

Smell and memory are both processed in the deep limbic system of the brain. That’s why certain smells bring back memories so clearly. It sure worked for Mikki and me today, as we remembered being out on trails in the woods in the sun. It means summer is coming.

Where My Eye Goes, Part 2

Yesterday’s walk was in the rain at Cowiche Canyon. My eyes were gobbling up the greening hillsides, the shapes of basalt rocks, the rushing creek, magpies…but the overwhelming sense was smell. When cottonwood leaves open, they release a sweetness into the air that is thick and warm and rich like honey. The dampness from the rain heightened the perfume, until I could also smell a tang of sage and a sharp green note of all the plants that were growing.

I floated on this scent trail, almost unaware of the rain until I reached the aspens. Their leaves are unfurled and tender, and the dangling catkins are bloomed out. What caught my eye was the pattern of marks made by water trickling down the trunks. How did this form? Something in the way the rain fell and dripped from the new leaves, then gathered to follow gravity around the bole of the tree? I didn’t ponder this very much, just went from tree to tree to appreciate the variations.

Nature is a pattern-maker, the ultimate creative designer, the master teacher of all of us who are compelled to create also.