The Power of Scent

I drove to work today along the Arroyo, window down, smelling the sage brush in the damp morning air. The sense of smell is so evocative, and natural aromas can be so fleeting. As I turned away from the Arroyo into Old Pasadena, I left the aroma of the west behind and rolled up my window, refreshed by that morning snatch of nature.

We have become so used to controlling the aroma of our environment with perfumes and candles and fabric softeners that I fear we are losing touch with the scents of nature.

I don’t care what the ads say, no fabric softener recreates the smell of spring or of line-fresh laundry.

No matter how much scientists try with their chemicals to recreate the natural scent of the world around us, they cannot succeed.

Because of my sensitivity to chemicals, I am very conscious of smells in my environment. Most scents in my urban world are artificial and chemical-based, and therefore they weaken my immune system. (They probably weaken yours too, but the effects aren’t as instantly noticeable.) The off-gassing of plastics and furniture, the air freshener in the bathroom of my office building, the smell of fabric softeners, laundry detergents, hair products, body lotions—all are made of chemicals, and all, to me, smell far less appealing than that wonderful sage smell this morning.

As much as possible, I live in a world without artificial scents. I don’t use air fresheners or scented laundry products. In fact I am leery of smell—I use this sense to tell me when something is safe for me (generally unscented) or not (generally scented). If I smell something strong, chances are it’s made of chemicals that my body does not tolerate well. Which is why you generally don’t smell anything while you’re in my office.

In traditional Chinese medicine, the doctors use the aroma of their clients in their diagnosis—you might smell sweet or sour or musky and this will help them determine their course of treatment. You women have probably noticed that your own body smells different at different times in your hormonal cycle. Everyone’s body smells different as they age—from the scent of a newborn to that of an elderly person. None of this is bad—it’s just different.

Yet we live in a society where everyone wants to be uniform—to smell the same or act the same or dress the same. There is currently a hair care product on the market with a smell that clings to hair for many hours. I don’t know what it is, but I have smelled it on a client, and on a young girl in front of me at the Griffith Park Observatory, and on a hiker at Arches National Park. All three times I’ve had to move away and clear the air before the headaches and nausea that are signs of toxicity set in. And yet it seems to be a best seller. Why people would want to smell like that, I don’t know.v

While I eschew the chemical aromas of the man-made world, I love the scents in my garden. From the heavy almost overpowering odors of the gardenias and tuberoses and orange blossom to the light citrus scents of the four o’clocks and the moon flowers, to the lavender that smells warm in the midday sun, and the muskiness of the lantana, I love them all. I love sitting on my back stoop in the early evening, smelling the grass and the flowers and the trees—it’s a very subtle scent, but it makes me feel at one with nature.

Probably most people would not be aware of that subtle fragrance in my backyard at twilight. I fear that with all the stronger artificial aromas around us, we will lose touch with the fleeting wisps of scents in nature. How many people drive along the Arroyo smelling the air freshener in their car instead of the sage brush? How many people smell the fabric softener on their clothes instead of the flowers in their garden? (I know that some evenings I smell the neighbors’ laundry detergent instead of my garden. They probably think it smells great.)

Why should we care about our sense of smell? First, because to smell something, we have to inhale it. Tiny molecules of it, to be sure, but that’s what you’re doing when you are smelling a chemical or natural aroma—you’re absorbing it into your body. I would rather absorb the fragrances created by plants than the chemicals created by humans in a laboratory. Just as I would rather eat the food created by plants than the chemical “foods” created by humans in a laboratory.

There is also the appreciation of subtlety that comes with the sense of smell. A waft of an aroma on a breeze is tantalizing. It makes you wonder—where did that come from? What was that? You’ve probably stood in an elevator with someone who bathed in their aftershave—there’s nothing tantalizing about that. Let’s allow ourselves to stop being bombarded by smell, and instead be intrigued by it—let it catch us unawares.

I urge you to reconnect with nature through your sense of smell. I encourage you to let go of your attachment to artificial scents, and instead embrace the aromas of what is really there.

The first step is to spend a week or so without the artificial scents in your air.

Use an unscented coconut-based laundry detergent such as those from Planet, Ecover and Seventh Generation. You’ll find them at the health food store. These companies have scented detergents, so make sure to get the unscented ones. Fabric softener too.

Wash your dishes with unscented dish soap (same sources as above).

Unplug your air fresheners and instead open your windows to make your house smell better. Let the fresh air in. (Unless you live next to a particularly noxious factory, in which case get an air purifier.) I live in a city neighborhood with lots of cars. The outside air doesn’t always smell great, but it still freshens my house. Get a cross breeze going to clear out the mustiness plus all the chemical odors from off-gassing plastic (t.v.s, computers etc., etc.) and furniture (formaldehyde from fireproofing, all kinds of chemicals from particle board, etc., etc.).

Change to unscented hair and body products, or at least products with natural fragrances such as essential oils. We’re aiming for a scent-free environment to let you smell what is really there in nature, but at least the natural fragrances wear off faster than the chemical ones. If your hair still smells like your shampoo hours after washing, that’s distracting you from the world around you. Your hair should smell like hair, not like a rainforest or a coconut.

Sniff the air. What do you smell?

Now go outside and sniff. What do you notice? Smell the trees and the flowers. Try this in the morning with the dew, then later in the heat of the day, then again in the evening. Notice that the sense of smell can tell you more than you realized. Try sniffing with your eyes closed to enhance the experience.

Notice also how the sense of smell evokes memories and feelings. When you smell fresh-mown grass, what do you think of? For me it’s sitting in a seventh grade classroom while the lawn is mowed on a warm May day.

And smelling the sage brush as I drive up the Arroyo connects me to the present—to my life here in southern California, in a city that contains wildness. It jolts me into the present and wakes me up to the now.

What can you smell right now?

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