Homer Alaska - Opinion

Story last updated at 9:54 PM on Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Smells provide powerful link to life's experiences

The other morning, hurrying with my usual get-to-work momentum, I dashed out the cabin door, headed to the car and instantly stopped in my tracks.


McKibben Jackinsky

It wasn't the sudden realization a moose was standing just off the edge of the porch, as has happened a time or two. Nor was it that I'd forgotten what I was doing, which, as I get older, seems to be a too-frequent occurrence.

Rather, it was a comforting combination of sensations that enveloped me in, well, I don't know any other way to describe it than to say I felt swaddled in a sense of being home.

There was the goose bump-raising crispness of a cold wintry morning, the sight of familiar mountains on the far side of Cook Inlet awash in the pinks and lavenders of sunrise and the presence of birch trees that, for longer than I can remember, have populated this tiny piece of my family's homestead. However, it was the scent of halibut — a vital part of my fishing family upbringing — I had been cooking earlier in preparation for that evening's meal that tied it all together. The sense of smell was the final thread weaving all the other sensations together and binding me to the spot.

Times. Places. People. Things. Accomplishments. Failures. Joys. Fears. Our sense of smell is a treasure chest bursting with a lifetime of associations.

New car? Now there's a smell. So important is that smell that when the paint peels, upholstery tears and tire tread disappears, air freshener companies stand at the ready to maintain the thrill of owning a new car. Spray it. Hang paper soaked in it around the rearview mirror. That smell can keep the pride of new-car ownership alive and well.

Coffee first thing in the morning? There's a powerful smell. What camper hasn't slipped from a warm sleeping bag on a chilly morning just to enjoy a mug of coffee made over the fire? What dark morning isn't made a little brighter by the welcoming aroma of a just-brewed cup of joe? What rise-at-dawn barista isn't hip to the eye-opening power of espresso? The coffee industry knows all about the persuasive perfume of coffee. Hence, coffee pots with timers that can be set the night before, drive-throughs that catch morning traffic, travel mugs in a variety of designs.

Leather in a shoe store. Roses at the florist. Next-to-the-entrance perfume counters in department stores. Dinner on the stove. Chlorine in a swimming pool. Garbage that needs emptying. Refrigerators that needs cleaning. Babies that need changing.

Even the U.S. Department of Defense has capitalized on the power of smell. Bad smells, that is. According to information I found on the web, Defense personnel have designed stink bombs that can quickly diffuse an unruly mob.

If I've got it right, the olfactory bulb is in charge of sending information about smells from the nose to the brain. The information gets processed by the emotion-processing amygdala and the information-gathering hippocampus, as well as other areas of our body's control center. Throw in the power of conditioned response and you have a sturdy and frequently traveled bridge connecting smell to whatever happens to be going on at the time.

Humans don't have a corner on the market when it comes to the power of smells. Keep food in your tent and a bear is bound to come calling. The smell of a single drop of blood will turn the head of a shark a quarter mile away. The flicking tongue on a snake picks up scent particles from the air. Dogs ... well, we all know how dogs depend on their sense of smell. We depend on dogs' sense of smell, too, when it comes to finding lost people and searching out illegal substances.

The most striking lesson for me regarding the power of smell comes from salmon. It is believed they find their way from the ocean to the streams of their birth through an amazingly powerful sense of smell. No celestial navigation for them. No GPS. No road signs.

In one experiment by Canadian scientists, something as seemingly insignificant as a solution of one part human skin in 800 billion parts of water dumped into a river can stop a salmon in its tracks for as long as half an hour while it sorts out that intruding data. Another example suggested a salmon could detect one part per trillion by smell. Using a martini as a yardstick, that equals approximately a drop of vermouth in 500,000 barrels of gin.

Now, that's a sense of smell. And a strong drive to get home.

My morning on the porch can't hold a candle to that. But home smells like home, be it riverbed or cabin.

McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at mckibben.jackinsky@homernews.com.