A smell contains worlds.
This morning the kitchen smells of jasmine and sandalwood and lapsang souchong tea, smoke tinged with piney resin, a glimpse of a mountainside in a strange land, in a time alive in a stranger's deep memory. Old, crazy poets drinking alone in cloud forests, laughing at reflections in mountain streams, waiting to follow the fast flight of birds as they disappear around the mountain, beyond those great, mist-wreathed cliffs, on beyond knowledge into oblivion.
Outside, the quiet dawn smells of dry grass with the night still in it. Of deep summer, a promise of heat, a memory of years long gone, an old hare running through long dry grass over an empty skyline; yellowhammers rising from lichen-covered fence posts and slipping sideways on the wind, off towards some small peninsula bay where the surge heaves up mats of writhing kelp and smacks against old volcanic rock. Among the boulders on the small beach one finds a washed up float bleached almost white, a scrap of fishing net tangled in dried wrack, a cloud of shore flies rising from the shrivelled corpse of a kahawai. No one lives here and few visit. A sway-backed horse on an empty hill; a line of broken macrocarpas where sheep camp in the dust and cough in the night like old men with ruined lungs; where possums hack and hiss. At night, the gibbous moon shines on the sea and ghosts sleep on the shingle beach.
A smell contains worlds. I step into a pantry, into the smell of apples, and I'm eight again; a woman walks by on a Wellington street and a wisp of perfume wraps around the past and hauls up an ache I thought I'd released years ago.
Yet, for all its power to evoke and recall, it's the forgotten sense. You who read this do so using your vision; a few might listen with the aid of a text-to-speech program. What your computer can't do is deliver the smell of this kitchen or of the ground outside, damp from new rain. Nor, for that matter, can it convey the feel of the keys under my fingers and the humid warmth of that sub-tropical air on my skin ( a strange, complex system of fronts is swamping much of Aotearoa right now). Nor can I share over the Internet the utterly distinctive taste of that slice of watermelon, cold and crisp and sweet.
The number of our senses is disputed, but the traditional five will do for now. Five, and the Internet delivers two. Forty percent of real life? Perhaps. The detail could be disputed, but the point remains — life cannot be lived fully online.
I walk away from the computer, pick up an apple and go outside to sit on the verandah. Jimmy saunters over and brushes against my leg; I run a hand along his fur and it feels warm and soft beneath my palm. He puts his front paws on my knee and when I bend towards him he dabs his nose on mine — a momentary touch, a greeting. He smells of fresh hay. He licks my hand; I feel the soft, rough tongue rasp my skin. The apple crunches crisp and juicy between my teeth.
I suppose one could argue books suffer the same sensory shortcomings as the Internet — even more, perhaps, because a book (generally speaking) utters no sound. Moreover, many books lack photos or other graphics; the reality those books attempt to convey relies on fewer senses than perhaps any other form of communication. Even vision, the only sense with which they reach out to us, reveals on the face of it a strange, complex pattern of black and white lines and arcs, a geometry from which we somehow make not mere sense, but meaning. How is it then, that the best books convey reality at least as adroitly and often better than media that offer more sensation?
Perhaps books achieve this by forcing us to engage imagination. With no real sensory input we must turn to our own experience, our knowledge of our senses — what it's like to drink lapsang souchong tea on a humid, misty morning or stroke a cat. What an apple tastes like; or a slice of cold watermelon. Show us those things in a photo and we relax, we let vision take over, but if we could do that with a book, “watermelon” and “cat” would be hieroglyphics. Having learned to read, we automatically imagine the melon and the cat; the words instantly invoke our imagination, which responds and creates the objects.
I overstate the case, of course. Exceptions can be found — for example, powerful films rely strongly on vision and sound, and can transport and transform us; and books, no matter how strongly they conjure worlds, are no more real life than is the virtual reality of some regions of the Internet — but here's my challenge. Find a photo you like and try to smell it. Touch it. If you're game and don't mind ruining your monitor, you could even try tasting it. I guarantee none of those sensations will correspond to the smell, feel, or taste of what you see in the photo.
So, just for a while, step away from that screen. Remember this when you're reading that book, and close it (mark the page, though). Then make a cup of tea (real tea with leaves), or stroke the cat (or pat the dog) or step outside, or do the whole damn lot, and pay attention to all your senses.
Particularly the sixty percent you've just been neglecting.
Writing seems to have been particularly difficult lately. However, I have no intention of giving up.
1. Vine and twine; textures from a garden fence.
2. Nor'wester over Godley Head, Banks Peninsula, Canterbury. January 2009.
3. More selective vision from the same garden.
4. Deer have poor vision, although they're good at detecting movement. Their hearing, however, is phenomenal, and their sense of smell is beyond comprehension. While walking to mid Pohangina hut on the first day of the whio survey just before last Christmas, I heard something moving in the forest. I stayed perfectly still and waited, knowing the wind was blowing from the sound towards me. A hind stepped out of the bush, browsed slowly past me and wandered off up the track. I paced out the distance. She'd walked within ten metres of me. If the wind had been going the other way, she'd have known I was there if I'd been a kilometre away. [These are captive deer; one of the delights of living here.]