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Smell is a potent wizard that transports us across thousands of miles and all the years we have lived.  The odors of fruits waft me to my southern home, to my childhood frolics in the peach orchard.  Other odors, instantaneous and fleeting, cause my heart to dilate joyously or contract with remembered grief.  Even as I think of smells, my nose is full of scents that start awake sweet memories of summers gone and ripening fields far away.

-- Helen Keller

The Mute Sense

Nothing is more memorable than a smell. One scent can be unexpected, momentary, and fleeting, yet conjure up a childhood summer beside a lake in the Poconos, when wild blueberry bushes teemed with succulent fruit and the opposite sex was as mysterious as space travel; another, hours of passion on a moonlit beach in Florida, while the night-blooming cereus drenched the air with thick curds of perfume and huge sphinx moths visited the cereus in a loud purr of wings; a third, a family dinner of pot roast, noodle pudding, and sweet potatoes, during a myrtle-mad August in a midwestern town, when both of one's parents were alive. Smells detonate softly in our memory like poignant land mines, hidden under the weedy mass of many years and experiences. Hit a tripwire of smell, and memories explode all at once. A complex vision leaps out of the undergrowth.

People of all cultures have always been obsessed with smell, sometimes applying perfumes in Niagaras of extravagance. The Silk Road opened up the Orient to the western world, but the scent road opened up the heart of Nature. Our early ancestors strolled among the fruits of the earth with noses vigilant and precise, following the seasons smell by smell, at home in their brimming larder. We can detect over ten thousand different odors, so many, in fact, that our memories would fail us if we tried to jot down everything they represent. In "The Hound of the Baskervilles," Sherlock Holmes identifies a woman by the smell of her notepaper, pointing out that "There are seventy-five perfumes, which it is very necessary that a criminal expert should be able to distinguish from each other." A low number, surely. After all, anyone "with a nose for" crime should be able to sniff out culprits from their tweed, India ink, talcum powder, Italian leather shoes, and countless other scented paraphernalia. Not to mention the odors, radiant and nameless, which we decipher without even knowing it. The brain is a good stagehand. It gets on with its work while we're busy acting out our scenes. Though most people will swear they couldn't possibly do such a thing, studies show that both children and adults, just by smelling, are able to determine whether a piece of clothing was worn by a male or a female.

Our sense of smell can be extraordinarily precise, yet it's almost impossible to describe how something smells to someone who hasn't smelled it. The smell of the glossy pages of a new book, for example, or the first solvent-damp sheets from a mimeograph machine, or a dead body, or the subtle differences in odors given off by flowers like bee balm, dogwood, or lilac. Smell is the mute sense, the one without words. Lacking a vocabulary, we are left tongue-tied, groping for words in a sea of inarticulate pleasure and exaltation. We see only when there is light enough, taste only when we put things into our mouths, touch only when we make contact with someone or something, hear only sounds that are loud enough. But we smell always and with every breath. Cover your eyes and you will stop seeing, cover your ears and you will stop hearing, but if you cover your nose and try to stop smelling, you will die. Etymologically speaking, a breath is not neutral or bland -- it's cooked air; we live in a constant simmering. There is a furnace in our cells, and when we breathe we pass the world through our bodies, brew it lightly, and turn it loose again, gently altered for having known us.


Breaths come in pairs, except at two times in our lives -- the beginning and the end. At birth, we inhale for the first time; at death, we exhale for the last. In between, through all the lather of one's life, each breath passes air over our olfactory sites. Each day, we breathe about 23,040 times and move around 438 cubic feet of air. It takes us about five seconds to breathe -- two seconds to inhale and three seconds to exhale -- and, in that time, molecules of odor flood through our systems. Inhaling and exhaling, we smell odors. Smells coat us, swirl around us, enter our bodies, emanate from us. We live in a constant wash of them. Still, when we try to describe a smell, words fail us like the fabrications they are. Words are small shapes in the gorgeous chaos of the world. But they are shapes, they bring the world into focus, they corral ideas, they hone thoughts, they paint watercolors of perception. Truman Capote's In Cold Blood chronicles the mischief of two murderers who collaborated on a particularly nasty crime. A criminal psychologist, trying to explain the event, observed that neither one of them would have been capable of the crime separately, but together they formed a third person, someone who was able to kill. I think of metaphors as a more benign but equally potent example of what chemists call hypergolic. You can take two substances, put them together, and produce something powerfully different (table salt), sometimes even explosive (nitroglycerine). The charm of language is that, though it's human-made, it can on rare occasions capture emotions and sensations which aren't. But the physiological links between the smell and language centers of the brain are pitifully weak. Not so the links between the smell and the memory centers, a route that carries us nimbly across time and distance. Or the links between our other senses and language. When we see something, we can describe it in gushing detail, in a cascade of images. We can crawl along its surface like an ant, mapping each feature, feeling each texture, and describing it with visual adjectives like red, blue, bright, big, and so on. But who can map the features of a smell? When we use words such as smoky, sulfurous, floral, fruity, sweet, we are describing smells in terms of other things (smoke, sulfur, flowers, fruit, sugar). Smells are our dearest kin, but we cannot remember their names. Instead we tend to describe how they make us feel. Something smells "disgusting," "intoxicating," "sickening," "pleasurable," "delightful," "pulse-revving," hypnotic," or "revolting."

My mother once told me about a drive she and my father took through the Indian River orange groves in Florida when the trees were thick with blossom and the air drenched with fragrance. It overwhelmed her with pleasure. "What does it smell like?" I asked. "Oh, it's delightful, an intoxicating delightful smell." "But what does that smell smell like?" I asked again. "Like oranges?" If so, I might buy her some eau de cologne, which has been made of neroli (attar of oranges), bergamot (from orange rind), and other minor ingredients since its creation in the eighteenth century, when it was the favorite of Madame du Barry. (Although the use of neroli itself as a perfume probably goes back to the days of the Sabines.) "Oh, no," she said with certainty, "not at all like oranges. It's a delightful smell. A wonderful smell." "Describe it," I begged. And she threw up her hands in despair.

Try it now. Describe the smell of your lover, your child, your parent. Or even one of the aromatic cliches most people, were they blindfolded, could recognize by smell alone: a shoe store, a bakery, a church, a butcher shop, a library. But can you describe the smell of your favorite chair, of your attic or your car? In The Place in Flowers Where Pollen Rests, novelist Paul West writes that "blood smells like dust." An arresting metaphor, one that relies on indirection, as metaphors of smell almost always do. Another engagingly subjective witness is novelist Witold Gombrowicz, who, in the first volume of his diary, recalls having breakfast at the Hermitage "with A. and his wife.... The food smells of, forgive me, a very luxurious water closet." I presume it was the fried kidneys for breakfast he didn't care for, even if they were expensive and high-class kidneys. For the cartography of smell, we need sensual mapmakers to sketch new words, each one precise as a landform or cardinal direction. There should be a word for the way the top of an infant's head smells, both talcumy and fresh, unpolluted by life and diet. Penguins smell starkly penguin, a smell so specific and unique that one succinct adjective should capture it. Pinguid, which means oily, won't do. Penguinine sounds like a mountain range. Penguinlike is the usual model, but it just clutters up the language and labels without describing. If there are words for all the pastels in a hue -- the lavenders, mauves, fuchsias, plums, and lilacs -- who will name the tones and tints of a smell? It's as if we were hypnotized en masse and told to selectively forget. It may be, too, 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.


Violets smell like burnt sugar cubes that have been dipped in lemon and velvet, I might offer, doing what we always do: defining one smell by another smell or another sense. In a famous letter, Napoleon told Josephine "not to bathe" during the two weeks that would pass before they met, so that he could enjoy all her natural aromas. But Napoleon and Josephine also adored violets. She often wore a violet-scented perfume, which was her trademark. When she died in 1814, Napoleon planted violets at her grave. Just before his exile on St. Helena, he made a pilgrimage to it, picked some of the violets, and entombed them in a locket, which he wore around his neck; they stayed there until the end of his life. The streets of nineteenth century London were full of poor girls selling small bouquets of violets and lavender. In fact, Ralph Vaughan Williams's London Symphony includes an orchestral interpretation of the flower-girl's cry. Violets resist the perfumer's art and always have. It is possible to make a high-quality perfume from violets, but it's exceedingly difficult and expensive. Only the wealthiest people could afford it; but there have always been empresses, dandies, trend setters, and extravagants enough to keep perfumers busy. The thing about violets, which many people find cloying to the point of nausea, is that no response to them lasts long; as Shakespeare put it, they're:

Forward, not permanent, sweet, not lasting,
The perfume and suppliance of a minute.

Violets contain ionone, which short-circuits our sense of smell. The flower continues to exude its fragrance, but we lose the ability to smell it. Wait a minute or two, and its smell will blare again. Then it will fade again, and so on. How like Josephine, a woman of full-bodied if occasionally recondite sensuality, to choose as her trademark a scent that assaults the nose with a dam-burst of odor one second, and the next leaves the nose virginal, only to rampage yet again. No scent is more flirtatious. Appearing, disappearing, appearing, disappearing, it plays hide-and-seek with our senses, and there's no way to get too much of it. The violet so besotted the ancient Athenians that they chose it as their city's official flower and symbol. Victorian women liked to sweeten their breath with cachous, violet drops, especially if they'd been drinking. As I write this, I have been tasting a roll of "Choward's Violet" pastilles, "A delicious confection/Fragrance that refreshes," and the sweet, pungently musty ooze of violets has nearly swamped me. On the other hand, in the Amazon I brewed a pot of casca preciosa, a fragrant relative of the sassafras, whose steeped bark soon scented my face, my hair, my clothes, my room, and my psyche with hot violets of exquisite subtlety. If violets have thrilled, obsessed, repelled, and in other ways addled us for centuries, why is it so hard to describe them except indirectly? Do we smell indirectly? Not at all.

Smell is the most direct of all our senses. When I hold a violet to my nose and inhale, odor molecules float back into the nasal cavity behind the bridge of the nose, where they are absorbed by the mucosa containing receptor cells bearing microscopic hairs called cilia. Five million of these cells fire impulses to the brain's olfactory bulb or smell center. Such cells are unique to the nose. If you destroy a neuron in the brain, it's finished forever; it won't regrow. If you damage neurons in your eyes or ears, both organs will be irreparably damaged. But the neurons in the nose are replaced about every thirty days and, unlike any other neurons in the body, they stick right out and wave in the air current like anemones on a coral reef.

Found at the upper end of each nostril, the olfactory regions are yellow, richly moist, and full of fatty substances. We think of heredity as ordaining how tall one will be, the shape of the face, and the color of hair. Heredity also determines the shade of yellow of the olfactory area. The deeper the shade, the keener and more acute the sense of smell. Albinos have a poor sense of smell. Animals, which can smell with beatific grandeur, have dark-yellow olfactory regions; ours are light yellow. The fox's is reddish brown, the cat's an intense mustard brown. One scientist reports that dark-skinned men have darker olfactory regions and should therefore have more sensitive noses. When the olfactory bulb detects something -- during eating, sex, an emotional encounter, a stroll through the park -- it signals the cerebral cortex and sends a message straight into the limbic system, a mysterious, ancient, and intensely emotional section of our brain in which we feel, lust, and invent. Unlike the other senses, smell needs no interpreter. The effect is immediate and undiluted by language, thought, or translation. A smell can be overwhelmingly nostalgic because it triggers powerful images and emotions before we have time to edit them. What you see and hear may quickly fade into the compost heap of short-term memory, but, as Edwin T. Morris points out in Fragrance, "there is almost no short-term memory with odors." It's all long term. Furthermore, smells stimulate learning and retention. "When children were given olfactory information along with a word list," Morris noted, "the list was recalled much more easily and better retained in memory than when given without the olfactory cues." When we give perfume to someone, we give them liquid memory. Kipling was right: "Smells are surer than sights and sounds to make your heart-strings crack."


All smells fall into a few basic categories, almost like primary colors: minty (peppermint), floral (roses), ethereal (pears), musky (musk), resinous (camphor), foul (rotten eggs), and acrid (vinegar). This is why perfume manufacturers have had such success in concocting floral bouquets of just the right threshold of muskiness or fruitness. Natural substances are no longer required; perfumes can be made on the molecular level in laboratories. One of the first perfumes based on a completely synthetic smell (an aldehyde) [1] was Chanel No. 5, which was created in 1922 and has remained a classic of sensual femininity. It has led to classic comments, too. When Marilyn Monroe was asked by a reporter what she wore to bed, she answered coyly, "Chanel No. 5." Its top note- -- he one you smell first -- is the aldehyde, then your nose detects the middle note of jasmine, rose, lily of the valley, orris, and ylang-ylang, and finally the base note, which carries the perfume and makes it linger: vetiver, sandalwood, cedar, vanilla, amber, civet, and musk. Base notes are almost always of animal origin, ancient emissaries of smell that transport us across woodlands and savannas.

For centuries, people tormented and sometimes slaughtered animals to obtain four glandular secretions: ambergris (the oily fluid a sperm whale uses to protect its stomach from the sharp backbone of the cuttlefish and the sharp beak of the squid on which it feeds), castoreum (found in the abdominal sacs of Canadian and Russian beavers, and used by them to mark territories), civet (a honeylike secretion from the genital area of the nocturnal, carnivorous Ethiopian cat), and musk (a red, jellylike secretion from the gut of an East Asian deer). How did people first discover that the anal sacs of some animals held fragrance? Bestiality was common among shepherds in some of these regions, and it can't be ignored as one possibility. Because animal musk is so close to human testosterone, we can smell it in portions of as little as 0.000000000000032 of an ounce. Fortunately, chemists have now designed twenty synthetic musks, in part because the animals are endangered, and in part to ensure a consistency of odor difficult to achieve with natural substances. An obvious question is why secretions from the scent glands of deer, boar, cats, and other animals should arouse sexual desire in humans. The answer seems to be that they assume the same chemical shape as a steroid, and when we smell them we may respond as we would to human pheromones. In fact, in one experiment conducted at International Flavors and Fragrances, women who sniffed musk developed shorter menstrual cycles, ovulated more often, and found it easier to conceive. Does perfume matter -- isn't it all packaging? Not necessarily. Can smells influence us biologically? Absolutely. Musk produces a hormonal change in the woman who smells it. As to why floral smells should excite us, well, flowers have a robust and energetic sex life: A flower's fragrance declares to all the world that it is fertile, available, and desirable, its sex organs oozing with nectar. Its smell reminds us in vestigial ways of fertility, vigor, lifeforce, all the optimism, expectancy, and passionate bloom of youth. We inhale its ardent aroma and, no matter what our ages, we feel young and nubile in a world aflame with desire.

Sunlight bleaches some of the smell from things, which anyone who has hung musty bedclothes on a clothesline in the sun will tell you. Even so, what remains might still smell stale and uninviting. We need only eight molecules of a substance to trigger an impulse in a nerve ending, but forty nerve endings must be aroused before we smell something. Not everything has a smell: only substances volatile enough to spray microscopic particles into the air. Many things we encounter each day -- including stone, glass, steel, and ivory -- don't evaporate when they stand at room temperature, so we don't smell them. If you heat cabbage, it becomes more volatile (some of its particles evaporate into the air) and it suddenly smells stronger. Weightlessness makes astronauts lose taste and smell in space. In the absence of gravity, molecules cannot be volatile, so few of them get into our noses deeply enough to register as odors. This is a problem for nutritionists designing space food. Much of the taste of food depends on its smell; some chemists have gone so far as to claim that wine is simply a tasteless liquid that is deeply fragrant. Drink wine with a head cold, and you'll taste water, they say. Before something can be tasted, it has to be dissolved in liquid (for example, hard candy has to melt in saliva); and before something can be smelled, it has to be airborne. We taste only four flavors: sweet, sour, salt, and bitter. That means that everything else we call "flavor" is really "odor." And many of the foods we think we can smell we can only taste. Sugar isn't volatile, so we don't smell it, even though we taste it intensely. If we have a mouthful of something delicious, which we want to savor and contemplate, we exhale; this drives the air in our mouths across our olfactory receptors, so we can smell it better.

But how does the brain manage to recognize and catalogue so many smells? One theory of smell, J. E. Amoore's "stereochemical" theory, maps the connections between the geometric shapes of molecules and the odor sensations they produce. When a molecule of the right shape happens along, it fits into its neuron niche and then triggers a nerve impulse to the brain. Musky odors have disc-shaped molecules that fit into an elliptical, bowl-like site on the neuron. Pepperminty odors have a wedge-shaped molecule that fits into a V-shaped site. Camphoraceous odors have a spherical molecule that fits an elliptical site, but is smaller than that of musk. Ethereal odors have a rod-shaped molecule that fits a trough-shaped site. Floral odors have a disc-shaped molecule with a tail, which fits a bowl-and-trough site. Putrid odors have a negative charge that is attracted to a positively charged site. And pungent odors have a positive charge that fits a negatively charged site. Some odors fit a couple of sites at once and give a bouquet or blend effect. Amoore offered his theory in 1949, but it was also proposed in 60 B.C. by the wide-spirited poet Lucretius in his caravansary of knowledge and thought, On the Nature of Things. A lock-and-key metaphor seems increasingly to explain many facets of nature, as if the world were a drawing room with many locked doors. Or it may simply be that a lock and key is familiar imagery, one of the few ways in which human beings can make sense of the world around them (language and mathematics being two others). As Abram Maslow once said: If a man's only tool is a key, he will imagine every problem to be a lock.

Some smells are fabulous when they're diluted, truly repulsive when they're not. The fecal odor of straight civet would turn one's stomach, but in small doses it converts perfume into an aphrodisiac. Just a little of some smell -- camphor, ether, oil of cloves for example -- is too much, dulling the nose and making further smelling almost impossible. Some substances smell like other substances they seem remote from, in the nasal equivalent of referred pain (bitter almonds smell like cyanide; rotten eggs smell like sulfur). Many normal people have "blind spots," especially to some musks, and others can detect smells that are faint and fleeting. When we think of what's normal for human beings to sense, we tend to underimagine. One surprising thing about smell is the vast range of response one finds along the curve we call normal.


Much of life becomes background, but it is the province of art to throw buckets of light into the shadows and make life new again. Many writers have been gloriously attuned to smells: Proust's limeflower tea and madeleines; Colette's flowers, which carried her back to childhood gardens and her mother, Sido; Virginia Woolf's parade of city smells; Joyce's memories of baby urine and oilcloth, holiness and sin; Kipling's rain-damp acacia, which reminded him of home, and the complex barracks smells of military life ("one whiff ... is all Arabia"); Dostoevsky's "Petersburg stench"; Coleridge's notebooks, in which he recalled that "a dunghill at a distance smells like musk, and a dead dog like elder flowers"; Flaubert's rhapsodic accounts of smelling his lover's slippers and mittens, which he kept in his desk drawer; Thoreau's moonlight walks through the fields when the tassels of corn smelled dry, the huckleberry bushes oozed mustiness, and the berries of the wax myrtle smelled "like small confectionery"; Baudelaire's plunges into smell until his "soul soars upon perfume as the souls of other men soar upon music"; Milton's description of the odors God finds pleasing to His divine nostrils and those preferred by Satan, an ace sniffer-out of carrion ("Of carnage, prey innumerable ... scent of living carcasses"); Robert Herrick's fetishistic and intimate sniffing of his sweetheart, whose "breast, lips, hands, thighs, legs ... are all richly aromatical," indeed "All the spices of the East/Are circumfused there"; Walt Whitman's praise of sweat's "aroma finer than prayer"; Francois Mauriac's La Robe Pretexte, which is adolescence remembered through its smells; Chaucer's "The Miller's Tale," where we find one of the first mentions in literature of breath deodorants; Shakespeare's miraculously delicate flower similes (to the violet he says: "Sweet thief, whence didst thou steal the sweet, if not from my love's breath?"); Czeslaw Milosz's linen closet, "filled with the mute tumult of memories"; Joris-Karl Huysmans's obsession with nasal hallucinations, and the smell of liqueurs and women's sweat that fills his lush, almost unimaginably decadent, hedonistic novel, A Rebours. About one character, Huysmans explained that she was "an ill-balanced, nerve-ridden woman, who loved to have her nipples macerated in scents, but who really experienced a genuine and overmastering ecstasy when her head was tickled with a comb and she could, in the act of being caressed by a lover, breathe the smell of the chimney soot, of wet from a house building in rainy weather, or of dust of a summer storm."

The most scent-drenched poem of all time, "The Song of Solomon," avoids talk of body or even natural odors, and yet weaves a luscious love story around perfumes and unguents. In the story's arid lands, where water was rare, people perfumed themselves often and well, and this betrothed couple, whose marriage day approaches, in the meantime converse amorously in poetry, sweetly dueling with compliments lavish and ingenious. When he dines at her table he is "a bundle of myrrh" or "a cluster of camphire in the vineyards of En-ge-di," or muscular and sleek as a "young gazelle." To him, her robust virginity is a secret "garden ... a spring shut up, a fountain sealed." Her lips "drop as the honeycomb: honey and milk are under thy tongue; and the smell of thy garments is like the smell of Lebanon." He tells her that on their wedding night he will enter her garden, and he catalogues all the fruits and spices he knows he'll find there: frankincense, myrrh, saffron, camphire, pomegranates, aloes, cinnamon, calamus, and other treasures. She will weave a fabric of love around him, and fill his senses until they brim with oceanic extravagance. So stirred is she by this loving tribute and so wild with desire that she replies yes, she will throw open the gates of her garden to him: "Awake, O north wind; and come, thou south; blow upon my garden, that the spices thereof may flow out. Let my beloved come into his garden, and eat his pleasant fruits."

In the macabre contemporary novel Perfume, by Patrick Suskind, the hero, who lives in Paris in the eighteenth century, is a man born without any personal scent whatsoever, although he develops prodigious powers of smell: "Soon he was no longer smelling mere wood, but kinds of wood: maple wood, oak wood, pinewood, elm wood, pearwood, old, young, rotting, moldering, mossy wood, down to single logs, chips, and splinters -- and could clearly differentiate them as objects in a way that other people could not have done by sight." When he drinks a glass of milk each day, he can smell the mood of the cow it has come from; out walking, he can easily identify the origin of any smoke. His lack of human scent frightens people, who treat him badly, and this warps his personality. He ultimately creates personal odors for himself that other people aren't aware of per se, but which make him appear more normal, including such delicacies as "an odor of inconspicuousness, a mousey, workaday outfit of odors with the sour, cheesy smell of humankind still present." In time, he becomes a murderer-perfumer, who seeks to distill the fragrant essence from certain people as if they were flowers.

Many writers have written of how smells trigger flights of comprehensive remembrance. In Swann's Way, Proust, that great blazer of scent trails through the wilderness of luxury and memory, describes a momentary whirlwind in his day:

I would turn to and fro between the prayer-desk and the stamped velvet armchairs, each one always draped in its crocheted antimacassar, while the fire, baking like a pie the appetizing smells with which the air of the room was thickly clotted, which the dewy and sunny freshness of the morning had already "raised" and started to "set," puffed them and glazed them and fluted them and swelled them into an invisible though not impalpable country cake, an immense puff-pastry, in which, barely waiting to savor the crustier, more delicate, more respectable, but also drier smells of the cupboard, the chest-of-drawers, and the patterned wall-paper I always returned with an unconfessed gluttony to bury myself in the nondescript, resinous, dull, indigestible, and fruity smell of the flowered quilt.

Throughout his adult life, Charles Dickens claimed that a mere whiff of the type of paste used to fasten labels' to bottles would bring back with unbearable force all the anguish of his earliest years, when bankruptcy had driven his father to abandon him in a hellish warehouse where they made such bottles. In the tenth century, in Japan, a glitteringly talented court lady, Lady Murasaki Shikibu, wrote the first real novel, The Tale of Genji, a love story woven into a vast historical and social tapestry, the cast of which includes perfumer-alchemists, who concoct scents based on an individual's aura and destiny. One of the real tests of writers, especially poets, is how well they write about smells. If they can't describe the scent of sanctity in a church, can you trust them to describe the suburbs of the heart?


We each have our own aromatic memories. One of my most vivid involves an odor that was as much vapor as scent. One Christmas, I traveled along the coast of California with the Los Angeles Museum's Monarch Project, locating and tagging great numbers of overwintering monarch butterflies. They prefer to winter in eucalyptus groves, which are deeply fragrant. The first time I stepped into one, and every time thereafter, they filled me with sudden tender memories of mentholated rub and childhood colds. First we reached high into the trees, where the butterflies hung in fluttering gold garlands, and caught a group of them with telescoping nets. Then we sat on the ground, which was densely covered with the South African ice plant, a type of succulent, and one of the very few plants that can tolerate the heavy oils that drop from the trees. The oils kept crawling insects away, too, and, except for the occasional Pacific tree frog croaking like someone working the tumblers of a safe, or a foolish blue jay trying to feed on the butterflies (whose wings contain a digitalis-like poison), the sunlit forests were serene, otherworldly, and immense with quiet. Because of the eucalyptus vapor, I not only smelled the scent, I felt it in my nose and throat. The loudest noise was the occasional sound of a door creaking open, the sound of eucalyptus bark peeling off the trees and falling to the ground, where it would soon roll up like papyrus. Everywhere I looked, there seemed to be proclamations left by some ancient scribe. Yet, to my nose, it was Illinois in the 1950s. It was a school day; I was tucked in bed, safe and cosseted, feeling my mother massage my chest with Vicks VapoRub. That scent and memory brought an added serenity to the hours of sitting quietly in the forest and handling the exquisite butterflies, gentle creatures full of life and beauty who stalk nothing and live on nectar, like the gods of old. What made this recall doubly sweet was the way it became layered in my senses. Though at first tagging butterflies triggered memories of childhood, afterward the butterfly-tagging itself became a scent-triggerable memory, and, what's more, it replaced the original one: In Manhattan one day, I stopped at a flower-seller's on the street, as I always do when I travel, to choose a few flowers for the hotel room. Two tubs held branches of round, silver-dollar-shaped eucalyptus, the leaves of which were still fresh -- bluish-green with a chalky surface; a few of them had broken, and released their thick, pungent vapor into the air. Despite the noise of Third Avenue traffic, the drilling of the City Works Department, the dust blowing up off the streets and the clotted gray of the sky, I was instantly transported to a particularly beautiful eucalyptus grove near Santa Barbara. A cloud of butterflies flew along a dried-up riverbed. I sat serenely on the ground, lifting yet another gold-and-black monarch butterfly from my net, carefully tagging it and tossing it back into the air, then watching for a moment to make sure it flew safely away with its new tag pasted like a tiny epaulet on one wing. The peace of that moment crested over me like a breaking wave and saturated my senses. A young Vietnamese man arranging his stock looked hard at me, and I realized that my eyes had suddenly teared. The whole episode could not have taken more than a few seconds, but the combined scent memories endowed eucalyptus with an almost savage power to move me. That afternoon, I went to one of my favorite shops, a boutique in the Village, where they will compound a bath oil for you, using a base of sweet almond oil, or make up shampoos or body lotions from other fragrant ingredients. Hanging from my bathtub's shower attachment is a blue net bag of the sort Frenchwomen use when they do their daily grocery shopping; I keep in it a wide variety of bath potions, and eucalyptus is one of the most calming. How is it possible that Dickens's chance encounter with a few molecules of glue, or mine with eucalyptus, can transport us back to an otherwise inaccessible world?


Driving through farm country at summer sunset provides a cavalcade of smells: manure, cut grass, honeysuckle, spearmint, wheat chaff, scallions, chicory, tar from the macadam road. Stumbling on new smells is one of the delights of travel. Early in our evolution we didn't travel for pleasure, only for food, and smell was essential. Many forms of sea life must sit and wait for food to brush up against them or stray within their tentacled grasp. But, guided by smell, we became nomads who could go out and search for food, hunt it, even choose what we had a hankering for. In our early, fishier version of humankind, we also used smell to find a mate or detect the arrival of a barracuda. And it was an invaluable tester, allowing us to prevent something poisonous from entering our mouths and the delicate, closed system of our bodies. Smell was the first of our senses, and it was so successful that in time the small lump of olfactory tissue atop the nerve cord grew into a brain. Our cerebral hemispheres were originally buds from the olfactory stalks. We think because we smelled.

Our sense of smell, like so many of our other body functions, is a throwback to that time, early in evolution, when we thrived in the oceans. An odor must first dissolve into a watery solution our mucous membranes can absorb before we can smell it. Scuba-diving in the Bahamas some years ago, I became aware of two things for the first time: that we carry the ocean within us; that our veins mirror the tides. As a human woman, with ovaries where eggs lie like roe, entering the smooth, undulating womb of the ocean from which our ancestors evolved millennia ago, I was so moved my eyes teared underwater, and I mixed my saltiness with the ocean's. Distracted by such thoughts, I looked around to find my position vis-a-vis the boat, and couldn't. But it didn't matter: Home was everywhere.

That moment of mysticism left my sinuses full, and made surfacing painful until I removed my mask, blew my nose in a strange two-stage snite, and settled down emotionally. But I've never forgotten that sense of belonging. Our blood is mainly salt water, we still require a saline solution (salt water) to wash our eyes or put in contact lenses, and through the ages women's vaginas have been described as smelling "fishy." In fact, Sandor Ferenczi, a disciple of Freud's, went so far as to declare, in Thalassa: A Theory of Genitality, that men only make love to women because women's wombs smell of herring brine, and men are trying to get back to the primordial ocean -- surely one of the more remarkable theories on the subject. He didn't offer an explanation for why women have intercourse with men. One researcher claims that this "fishiness" is due not to anything intrinsic to the vagina, but rather to poor hygiene after intercourse, or vaginitis, or stale sperm. "If you deposit semen in the vagina and leave it there, it comes out smelling fishy," he argues. This has a certain etymological persuasiveness to it, if we remember that in many European languages the slang names for prostitutes are variations on the Indo-European root pu, to decay or rot. In French, putain; to the Irish, old put; in Italian putto; puta in both Spanish and Portuguese. Cognate words are putrid, pus, suppurate, and putorius (referring to the skunk family). Skunk derives from the Algonquin Indian word for polecat; and during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in England polecat was a derogatory term for prostitute. Not only do we owe our sense of smell and taste to the ocean, but we smell and taste of the ocean.


In general, humans have a strong body odor, and anthropologist Dr. Louis S. B. Leakey thinks our ancestors may have had an even stronger odor, one that predatory animals found foul enough to avoid. Not long ago, I spent some time in Texas, studying bats. I placed a large Indonesian flying fox in my hair, to see if it would get entangled, as the old wives' tales warned. Not only did it not tangle, it began to cough gently from the mingling smells of my soap, cologne, saltiness, oils, and other human odors. When I put it back in its cage, it cleaned itself like a cat for many minutes, clearly feeling soiled by the human contact. Many plants -- like rosemary or sage -- have evolved pungent odors to repel predators; why not animals? Nature rarely wastes a winning strategy. Of course, some humans have much stronger odors than others. Folk wisdom says that brunettes "smell different" from redheads, who smell different from blondes. There's been so much anecdotal evidence about different races having distinctive odors -- because of diets, habits, hairiness or lack of it -- that such claims are difficult to discount, even though the topic scares most scientists, who are understandably concerned about being called racist. [2] There hasn't been a great deal of research into national and racial odors. In any case, one culture doesn't "smell" better or worse than another, just different, but that may be why the word "stinking" so often appears as an adjective in streams of racial abuse. Asiatics don't have as many apocrine glands at the base of hair follicles as occidentals do, and as a result they often find Europeans ripe-smelling. A strong body odor among Japanese men is so rare that at one time it could disqualify them from military service. This is also why there is so much scenting of the room and air in Asian life, and much less scenting of the body. Pungent odors are absorbed by fats: If you put an onion or cantaloupe in the refrigerator with an open tub of butter, the butter will absorb the odor. Hair also contains fat, which is why it leaves grease stains on pillows and antimacassars. It absorbs smells, too, like smoke or cologne. The hairiness of Caucasians and Blacks makes them very sweaty compared to Asians, but colognes simmer in their oil and warmth like votive candles.

Body odor comes from the apocrine glands, which are small when we're born and develop substantially during puberty; there are many of them scattered around our armpits, face, chest, genitals, and anus. Some researchers conclude that a large part of our joy in kissing is really a joy in smelling and caressing each other's face, where one's personal scent glows. Among far-flung tribes in a number of countries -- Borneo, on the Gambia River in West Africa, in Burma, in Siberia, in India -- the word for "kiss" means "smell"; a kiss is really a prolonged smelling of one's beloved, relative, or friend. Members of a tribe in New Guinea say good-bye by putting a hand in each other's armpit, withdrawing it and stroking it over themselves, thus becoming coated with the friend's scent; other cultures sniff each other or rub noses in greeting.


Meat eaters smell different from vegetarians, children smell different from adults, smokers smell different from nonsmokers; other individuals smell different because of hereditary factors, health, occupation, diet, medication, emotional state, even mood. As Roy Bedichek observes in The Sense of Smell: "The body odor of his prey excites the predator so that his mouth waters and every fiber of his being becomes taut and every sense alerted. At the same time in the nostrils of the prey, fear and hate become associated with the body odor of the predator. [3] Thus on low levels of animal life, a specific odor evolves along with and becomes identified with a specific mood." Each person has an odor as individual as a fingerprint. A dog can identify it easily and recognize its owner even if he or she is one of a pair of identical twins. Helen Keller swore that by simply smelling people she could decipher "the work they are engaged in. The odors of the wood, iron, paint, and drugs cling to the garments of those who work in them.... When a person passes quickly from one place to another, I get a scent impression of where he has been -- the kitchen, the garden, or the sickroom."

For those of exquisite sensuality, there is nothing headier than the musky smell of a loved one moist with sweat. But natural body odors don't strike most of us as particularly enticing. In the Elizabethan Age, lovers exchanged "love apples" -- a woman would keep a peeled apple in her armpit until it was saturated with her sweat, and then give it to her sweetheart to inhale. Now we have whole industries devoted to removing our natural odors and replacing them with artificial ones. Why do we prefer our breath to smell of peppermint instead of rotting bacteria, our "natural" smell? True, a foul smell might signal disease: We might not be attracted to someone giving off an unhealthy odor, and an excess of rotting bacteria could persuade us we are chatting with, say, a cholera victim, someone who could infect us. But mainly we value one scent over another thanks to Madison Avenue's brashness and our gullibility. Aromatic paranoia pays well. In creative greed, they've frightened us into thinking that we're "offensive" and require lotions and potions to mask our natural odors.

Just what do we mean by a bad smell? And what is the worst smell in the world? The answers depend on culture, age, and personal taste. Westerners find fecal smells repulsive, but the Masai like to dress their hair with cow dung, which gives it an orangey-brown glow and a powerful odor. Children like most smells until they're old enough to be taught differently. When naturalist and zookeeper Gerald Durrell wanted to catch some fruit bats for his zoo on the Isle of Jersey, he went to the island of Rodriguez, east of Madagascar, and baited his net with what he called "jackfruit," a big, brown durianlike hedgehog of a fruit, whose white pulp reeked "like a cross between an open grave and a sewer," a regular "charnel house." That sounds pretty bad to me, and so, just to see if he's right, I've put "Rodriguez in jackfruit season" on the long list of sensory destinations I'd like to get to one day.

Though ancient and uncontrollably natural, a fart is generally considered to be repellant, discourteous, and even the smell of the devil. The Merck Manual, in an uncharacteristically entertaining chapter on "Functional Bowel Disease," subheading "Gas," describes the possible origins, treatments of, and miscellaneous symptoms and signs of gas, along with this observation:

Among those who are flatulent, the quantity and frequency of gas passage can reach astounding proportions. One careful study noted a patient with daily flatus frequency as high as 141, including 70 passages in one 4Ěh period. This symptom, which can cause great psychosocial distress, has been unofficially and humorously described according to its salient characteristics: (1) the "slider" (crowded elevator type), which is released slowly and noiselessly, sometimes with devastating effect; (2.) the open sphincter, or "pooh" type, which is said to be of higher temperature and more aromatic; and (3) the staccato or drum-beat type, pleasantly passed in privacy.

While questions of air pollution and degradation of air quality have been raised, no adequate studies have been performed. However, no hazard is likely to those working near open flames, and youngsters have even been known to make a game of expelling gas over a match-flame. Rarely, this usually distressing symptom has been turned to advantage, as with a Frenchman referred to as "Le Petomane," who became affluent as an effluent performer on the Moulin Rouge stage.

In his fascinating history of stench, perfume, and society in France, The Foul and the Fragrant, Alain Corbin describes the open sewers of Paris at the time of the revolution, and points out how strong a role scent has also played in fumigation throughout history. There are various forms of fumigation -- fumigation for health reasons (especially during plagues); insect fumigation; and even religious and moral fumigation. The floors of medieval castles were strewn with rushes, lavender, and thyme, which were thought to prevent typhus. Perfumes were often used for magical and alchemical purposes, too, promising an enchantment. If the promises of today's perfume ads seem extravagant, consider those made in the sixteenth century. In Les secrets de Maistre Alexys Ie Piedmontois, a book on cosmetics, the author promises that his toilet water will make women not just attractive for an evening but beautiful "forever." "Forever" is pretty serious advertising, and probably should tip off a potential consumer to read the fine print. Here is the ghoulish recipe: "Take a young raven from its nest, feed it on hard-boiled eggs for forty days, kill it, then distill it with myrtle leaves, talcum powder, and almond oil." Splendid. Except for the stench, and an overwhelming desire to quote Poe, you'll surely be a ravenous beauty perching on the eaves of forever.


Pheromones are the pack animals of desire (from Greek, pherein, to carry, and horman, excite). Animals, like us, not only have distinctive odors, they also have powerfully effective pheromones, which trigger other animals into ovulation and courtship, or establish hierarchies of influence and power. They scent-mark, sometimes in ingenious ways: Voles and bush babies spray the soles of their feet with urine and brand the earth with it as they patrol their territories. Antelopes mark trees using scent glands on their faces. Cats have scent glands on their cheeks, and can often be seen "cheeking" someone or a favorite table leg. When you pet a cat, she will, if she likes you, lick herself to taste your scent. And then she'll probably choose your favorite armchair to claw and curl up in, not just because of its cushions but because your scent is on it. The polecat, as well as the badger, drags its anus along the ground to mark it. Jane Goodall, in The Innocent Killers, reports that male and female wild dogs scent-mark one after the other on exactly the same blades of grass, to inform all interested parties that they are a pair. When my friend takes her German shepherd Jackie out for a walk, Jackie sniffs at curb, rock, and tree, and soon senses what dog has been there, its age, sex, mood, health, when it last passed by. For Jackie, it's like reading the gossip column of the morning newspaper. The lane reveals its invisible trails to her nose as it doesn't to her owner. She will add her scent to the quilt of scents on a tuft of grass, and the next dog that comes along will read, in the aromatic hieroglyphics of the neighborhood, Jackie, 5:00 P.M. young female, on hormone therapy because of a bladder ailment, well fed, cheerful, seeks a friend.

Sometimes messages can't be merely immediate; they need to last over time, and yet be a constant signal, like a lighthouse guiding animals through the breakwaters of their uncertainty. Most smells will glow for a while, where a wink may vanish before it's seen, a flexed muscle imply too many things, a voice startle or threaten. For an animal who is prey, the odor of its hunter will warn it; for the hunter, the odor of its prey will lure it. Of course, some animals exude an odor as a form of defense. Spotted skunks do a handstand and squirt would-be attackers with a horrible stench. Among insects, odor is all forms of communication: a guidebook to nesting or egg-laying spots, a rallying cry, a trumpet flourish announcing royalty, an alarm warning of ambush, a map home. In the rain forest, one can see long, ropy caravans of ants, marching single file along trails of scent that have been laid down for them by scouts. They may seem to be scrambling around in a blind fury of industriousness, but they are always in touch with one another, always gabbing about something meaningful to their lives. A male butterfly of the Danaidae family travels from flower to flower, mixing a cocktail of scents in a pocket on each hind leg until he has the perfect perfume to attract a female. [4] Birds sing to announce their presence in the world, mark their territories, impress a mate, boast of their status -- ultimately, much of it has to do with sex and mating. Mammals prefer to use odors when they can, spinning scent songs as complex and unique as bird songs, which also travel on the air. Baby kangaroos, puppies, and many other mammals are born blind and must find their way to the nipple by smell. A mother fur seal will go out fishing, return to a beach swarming with pups, and recognize her own partly by smell. A mother bat, entering a nursery cave where millions of mother and baby bats cling to the wall or wing through the air, can find her young by calling to it and smelling a path toward it. When I was on a cattle ranch in New Mexico, I often saw a calf with the skin of another calf tied around its back, nursing happily. A cow recognizes her calf by smell, which triggers her mothering instincts, so whenever there was a stillborn, the rancher would skin the dead calf and give its scent to an orphan.

Animals would not be able to live long without pheromones because they couldn't mark their territories or choose receptive, fertile mates. But are there human pheromones? And can they be bottled? Some trendy women in Manhattan are wearing a perfume called Pheromone, priced at three hundred dollars an ounce. Expensive perhaps, but what price aphrodisia? Based on findings about the sexual attractants animals give off, the perfume promises, by implication, to make a woman smell provocative and turn stalwart men into slaves of desire: love zombies. The odd thing about the claims of this perfume is that its manufacturer has not specified which pheromones are in it. Human pheromones have not yet been identified by researchers, whereas, say, boar pheromones have. The vision of a generation of young women walking the streets wearing boar pheromones is strange, even for Manhattan. Let me propose a naughty recipe: Turn loose a herd of sows on Park Avenue. Mix well with crowds of women wearing Pheromone eau de cologne. Dial 911 for emergency.

If we haven't yet pinpointed human pheromones, surely we can just use our secretions the way animals do, bottle our effluvia at different times of the month. Avery Gilbert, a biophysiologist, doesn't think so. It's more like psychology in a vial. He told Gentleman's Quarterly that "If you had a bottle full of fluids generated by the female genital glands during copulation, and you put it on a guy's desk, and if he even recognized the odor, he'd be embarrassed. Because it's out of context, and that's what makes the difference. If male consumers actually believe a claim that this component will get women hot, then they're naive. I don't think there is a chemical that will do that. But it may not be important what particular odor men are broadcasting; it's the signal of availability, the perception of self-confidence. Those claims are implied and probably work. And that's probably the basic reason people wear the stuff."

One of Gilbert's colleagues, George Preti, staged an experiment in which ten women had the sweat of other women applied under their noses at regular intervals. It took three months for the women to begin menstruating at the same time as the women whose sweat they were smelling. A control group, daubed with alcohol instead of sweat, didn't change their cycles at all. Clearly, a pheromone in sweat affects menstrual synchrony, which is why women in dorms or close girlfriends so often menstruate at the same time, a phenomenon known as the McClintock Effect (after Martha McClintock, the psychologist who first observed it). There appear to be other effects. When a man gets involved with a woman for any length of time, his facial hair starts to grow faster than it did before. Women who are cloistered away from men (in a boarding school, say), enter puberty later than women who are around men. Mothers recognize the odor of their newborn children, and vice versa, so some doctors are experimenting with giving children bursts of their mother's odor, along with the anesthetic, during operations. Babies can smell their mother entering a room, even if they can't see her. In J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan, children can even "smell danger" while they sleep. Mothers of school-age children can pick out T-shirts worn by their own child. This is not true for fathers, who do not recognize the smell of their infants, but men can determine whether a T-shirt has been worn by a male or a female. Pheromones do affect people. But how much? Do pheromones trigger vigorous responses in us as they do in moths or beavers, or do they figure in the cascade of our sensory awareness no more significantly than ordinary visual or hearing cues? If I see a handsome man with beautiful blue eyes, am I having a "visualmone," as one researcher called it dismissively, or is it just that blue eyes excite me because they register as attractive in the culture, time, and context of my life? Blue eyes, "baby blues," remind us a little of Caucasian newborns, and fill us with protectiveness. But in some African cultures they would be thought ghoulish, icy, and unattractive.

Science fiction has often frightened us with humans as automatons, driven by unknown forces, their minds a sort of dial tone. Suppose pheromones at times secretly cancel our powers of choice and decision? The idea alarms. We don't like to lose control, except on purpose-- during sex or partying or religious mysticism or doing drugs -- and then only because we believe we're just fractionally more in control than we're not, or at least that such control will return to us quickly. Evolution is complex and at times amusing, so much of an adventure that few of its whims or obbligatos frighten me. Our apparent need for violence does, but not the possibility that we might be having elaborate, if subtle, conversations with one another through pheromones. Free will may not be entirely free, but it certainly is willful, and yet it seems as if there is a good deal of stretch in it. Such masterly ad-libbers as human beings know how to revise on almost any theme. If there's one thing at which we really excel, it is at pushing limits, inventing strategies, finding ways to sidestep the rudest truths, grabbing life by the lapels and shaking it soundly. Granted, it tends to shake back, but that never stops us.


When we crawled or hopped out of the ocean onto the land and its trees, the sense of smell lost a little of its urgency. Later, we stood upright and began to look around, and to climb, and what a world we discovered spread out before us like a field of Texas bluebonnets! We could see for miles in all directions. Enemies became visible, food became visible, mates became visible, trails became visible. The shadow of a distant lion slinking through the grass was a more useful sign than any smell. Vision and hearing became more important for survival. Monkeys don't smell things as well as dogs do. Most birds don't have very sophisticated noses, although there are some exceptions -- New World vultures locate carrion by smell, and seabirds often navigate by smell. But the animals with the keenest sense of smell tend to walk on all fours, their heads hanging close to the ground, where the damp, heavy, fragrant molecules of odor lie. This includes snakes and insects, too, along with elephants (whose trunks hang low), and most quadrupeds. Pigs can smell truffles under six inches of soil. Squirrels find nuts they buried months earlier. Bloodhounds can smell a man's scent in a room he left hours before, and then track the few molecules that seep through the soles of his shoes and land on the ground when he walks, over uneven terrain, even on stormy nights. Fish need olfactory abilities: Salmon can smell the distant waters of their birth, toward which they must swim to spawn. A male butterfly can home in on the scent of a female that is miles away. Pity us, the long, tall, upright ones, whose sense of smell has weakened over time. When we are told that a human has five million olfactory cells, it seems like a lot. But a sheepdog, which has 220 million, can smell forty-four times better than we can. What does it smell? What are we missing? Just imagine the stereophonic world of aromas we must pass through, like sleepwalkers without headphones. Still, we do have a remarkably detailed sense of smell, given how small our organs of smell really are. Because our noses jut out from our faces, odors have quite a distance to travel inside them before we're aware of what the nose has probed. That's why we wrinkle up our noses and sniff -- to move the molecules of smell closer to the olfactory receptors hidden awkwardly in the backmost recesses of the nose.


Few pleasures are as robust as the simple country pleasure of sneezing. The whole body ripples in orgasmic delight. But only humans sneeze with their mouths open. Dogs, cats, horses, and most other animals just sneeze straight down their noses, with the air bending a little at the neck. But humans huff and tremble in an anticipatory itch, draw in a big gobful of air, contract the ribs and stomach like a bellows, and violently shoot air into the nose, where it stops short, blasts the general area, and sometimes sprays messily out of the nose and mouth all at once. This wouldn't matter too much if our lungs blew air out gently during a sneeze. But researchers at the University of Rochester have found that a sneeze expels the air at eighty-five percent the speed of sound, fast enough to scour bacteria and other detritus from the body, the sneeze's goal. Human noses have a hairpin turn way at the back of the nasal passages, which makes the whole process of breathing more taxing, and inhaling odor molecules more difficult. There is no direct path for the air to follow in a sneeze. We have to open our mouths. If we sneeze closed-mouthed, the air thunders around the cavities and passages in our heads, looking for a way out, and can hurt our ears. There are many theories about why our noses are so poorly designed; in the last analysis, it probably has to do with the evolution of our biggish brains and the cramped space in our skulls, and to permit stereo vision. Bedichek suggests that the design didn't become awkward until we "swarmed into those congested areas we call 'cities.' Here the nose has had forced upon it suddenly a function it was never intended to perform, namely, screening out dust and grit while at the same time being subjected to intolerable odors of municipal filth, and finally to fumes from the vast chemical laboratory the modern city has become." The seventeenth-century poet Abraham Cowley states the point as a rhetorical question:

Who that has reason, and his smell.
Would not among roses and jasmine dwell,
Rather than all his spirits choke
With exhalations of dirt and smoke?

A tickle is all it takes. Or the sun. Some people, like me, inherit a genetic oddity that causes them to sneeze when confronted by bright light. I'm afraid this syndrome has been given the overly cute acronym of ACHOO (autosomol dominant compelling helio-ophthalmic outburst). If I feel a sneeze hovering, all I have to do is look at the sun to bring on the explosion, a light apocalypse.


Though it's April, we've had snow in Ithaca for weeks, or so my neighbor tells me -- I was in Manhattan, a maritime climate. Now I find that small mute deer prints lead right up to the door and the huge windows, dart across the frozen pool sparkling with rime, then meander through drifts to twin apple trees and ice-claggy fruit. So they have learned how to walk on water, browse the fragrant marvels tucked beneath the surface of the world, even how best to come and go in a season oblique with bullets and ice. Did they search for me, where I used to pause, reflecting in the glass? What if, later this spring, the frozen pool plays tricks and sags beneath their hooves, then folds up over them, and I do not hear their underwater screams? What if, like the snow, I have drifted too far? Craving the dialect of cities, I forgot the way deer steal into the yard with their big hearts and fragile dreams. I wasn't here to follow their gaunt, level eyes, or the staggering poetry of their hooves.

Often, I see them browsing in the yard, but when I slip outside for a closer look they smell my strong human scent, amble down to the fence, and leap back into their pandemonium of green. This summer I intend to disguise myself as a conifer or a mushroom. A recent issue of Field and Stream tells me how: To fool deer and rabbits, take something without much tannin (yellow birch, pine, mushrooms, hemlock, wintergreen, or some aromatic conifer, for example) and dry it for a week or two. Chop it up, then fill a jar half full of it. Add 100-proof vodka. Filter through a Melitta filter. Put in an atomizer. Apply liberally to bury your human smell. Let your thoughts mushroom.


I am holding a lavender rose called "Angel Face," one of the twenty-five rosebushes planted around my house. For the first few years, the deer that frequent my yard would steal in at dawn and eat all the buds and succulent new growth. Once they ate the bushes right down to the dirt, leaving only small knobs that looked like the velvet of incipient antlers. I am used to embezzlers in the garden. The first summer of the grape arbor, I watched two vines evolve from flowers to succulent purple fruits, sense-luscious and nearly bursting with fragrance. Each day, I watched them, waiting until the perfect moment of ripeness, imagining how it would be to roll the grapes around on my tongue, fresh, sweet, and quenching. One day the grapes' purple sheen changed to a taut, robust iridescence, and I knew the next morning would be the earliest day to pick. Such knowledge was not reserved for me alone. When I awoke, I found every single grape sucked dry, the skins littering the ground like tiny purple prepuces. This scene, left by raccoons, has repeated every autumn ever since, despite cages, cowbells, barbed wire, and other "deterrents," and frankly I've given up on grapes and raccoons. The roses pose a trickier problem.

I love the deer as well as the roses, so I decided to use smell as a weapon -- after all, plants do it -- and sprinkled a mixture of tobacco and naptha around the rosebushes. It worked, but made the air raunchy and caustic. Unless you crave the smell of baseball players at winter camp, their mouths full of chewing mess, their pockets full of mothballs. This year I have another plan: lavender. Deer hate its strong nose-scrubbing smell; I've ordered dozens of bushes to plant around the roses and day lilies, hoping they'll make an olfactory fence when the deer come calling. Still, we'll divide the spoils. I have left them the luxuriant raspberry bushes, which I no longer try to harvest, and the twin apple trees. The raccoons get the grape arbor, the rabbits get the wild strawberries. But the roses are sacrosanct, because they so drench my senses with exquisite smells. The most expensive perfume in the world, and one of the enduring classics, Joy, is a blend of two floral notes: jasmine and lots of rose.

Roses have tantalized, seduced, and intoxicated people more than any other flower. They've captivated homeowners, swains, flower addicts, and sensuists since the ancients. In Damascus and Persia, people used to bury jars of unopened rosebuds in the garden, and dig them up on special occasions to use in cooking -- the flowers would open dramatically on the plates. In Jean Cocteau's film version of the fairy tale Beauty and the Beast, all the mischief and magic begins when a man picks a rose for his daughter, her sole desire among a sea chest of riches. Long ago, Europeans raised a tough mongrel rose that was loud, obvious, and very hardy, and whose fragrance could embalm a statue. But, in the 1800s, they began importing elegant Chinese tea roses, which smelled like fresh tea leaves when crushed, and also frost-delicate, ever-blooming Chinese hybrids with bright yellow to red flowers. Breeding the hybrid Chinas with the European roses as carefully as racehorses, they produced subtle and sophisticated offspring roses, charmed into a seemingly endless array of colors, shapes, and scents. They called them "hybrid tea roses." Since then, over twenty thousand varieties have been bred, and at one time the rose's fragrance was nearly lost through overbreeding. Fragrance seems to be a recessive trait in roses, and two deeply fragrant parents may produce a petal-perfect but smell-less offspring. Now the trend is toward perfumed roses, thank heavens. The most popular hybrid tea in the world is "Peace," a stunning multicolored pastel with sunset hues that shriek at noon, grow muted at sunset, and record all the other phantoms of light during the day. Its egg-shaped buds open into large, pale-yellow ruffles with translucent tips that are often flushed with pink. And it smells like sugared leather dipped in honey. Of all my roses, "Peace" seems to have an almost human complexion and human moods, depending on the moisture and light of each day. An experimental rose, it was named on May 2, 1945 (the day Berlin fell), at the Pacific Rose Society in Pasadena, because "this greatest new rose of our time should be named for the world's greatest desire -- Peace." Many presidents have had roses named after them (Lincoln's is blood red, John Kennedy's pure white), and there are wittily named roses to honor movie stars or celebrities (Dolly Parton's is flamboyantly pungent, with knockout-sized blossoms). Though roses symbolize beauty and love, their colors, textures, shapes, and smells are difficult to describe. "Sutter's Gold," one of my favorite hybrid tea roses, produces a flat ruffled flower of yellow petals tinged in apricot, fuchsia, and pink, with a fragrance like sweet wet feathers. The floribundas, thoroughly modern roses, cascade with flowers all summer long. "The Fairy" has hardly any scent, but is a constant explosion of dainty pink flowers from spring until winter, despite light snowfalls. Roses were already considered ancient when the Greek botanist Theophrastus wrote about "the hundred-petaled rose" in 270 B.C. Fossilized wild roses have been dated as far back as forty million years ago. The Egyptian rose was what we now call the cabbage rose, renowned for its many petals. When Cleopatra welcomed Mark Antony to her bedroom, the floor was covered in a foot and a half of such petals. Did they use the floor, and make love in a swamp of soft, fragrant, shimmying petals? Or did they use the bed, as if they were on a raft floating in a scented ocean?

Cleopatra knew her guest. Few people have been as obsessed with roses as the ancient Romans. Roses were strewn at public ceremonies and banquets; rose water bubbled through the emperor's fountains and the public baths surged with it; in the public amphitheaters, crowds sat under sun awnings steeped in rose perfume; rose petals were used as pillow stuffings; people wore garlands of roses in their hair; they ate rose pudding; their medicines, love potions, and aphrodisiacs all contained roses. No bacchanalia, the Romans' official orgy, was complete without an excess of roses. They created a holiday, Rosalia, to formally consummate their passion for the flower. At one banquet, Nero had silver pipes installed under each plate, so that guests could be spritzed with scent between courses. They could admire a ceiling painted to resemble the celestial heavens, which would open up and shower them in a continuous rain of perfume and flowers. At another, he spent the equivalent of $160,000 just on roses -- and one of his guests smothered to death under a shower of rose petals.

Islamic cultures found the rose a more spiritual symbol, one that, according to the thirteenth-century mystic Yunus Emre, is supposed to sigh "Allah, Allah!" each time one smells it. Mohammed, a great devotee of perfume, once said that the excellence of the extract of violets above all other flowers was like his own excellence above all other men. Nonetheless, it was rose water that went into the mortar for his temples. Roses mix unusually well with water, making fine sherbets and pastries, so the flower has become a delicate staple in Islamic cooking as well as being much used to scent apparel. Hospitality still demands that a guest in an Islamic household be sprinkled with rose water as soon as she or he arrives.

Rosaries originally consisted of 165 dried, carefully rolled-up rose petals (some of which were darkened with lampblack as a preservative) and the rose was the symbol of the Virgin Mary. When the crusaders returned to Europe, their senses sated by the exotic indulgences they discovered among the infidels, they brought attar of roses with them, along with sandalwood, pomander balls, and other rich spices and scents, plus a memory of harem women, sensual and languorous, who awaited a man's pleasure. The scented oils the knights returned with became instantly fashionable, suggesting all the wicked pleasures of the East, as seductive and irresistible as they were forbidden. Pleasures as sense-bludgeoning as a rose.


Smells spur memories, but they also rouse our dozy senses, pamper and indulge us, help define our self-image, stir the cauldron of our seductiveness, warn us of danger, lead us into temptation, fan our religious fervor, accompany us to heaven, wed us to fashion, steep us in luxury. Yet, over time, smell has become the least necessary of our senses, "the fallen angel," as Helen Keller dramatically calls it. Some researchers believe that we do indeed perceive, through smell, much of the same information lower animals do. In a room full of businesspeople, one would get information about which individuals were important, which were confident, which were sexually receptive, which in conflict, all through smell. The difference is that we don't have a trigger response. We're aware of smell, but we don't automatically react in certain ways because of it, as most animals would.

One morning I took a train to Philadelphia to visit the Monell Chemical Senses Center near the campus of Drexel University. Laid out like a vertical neighborhood, Monell's building houses hundreds of researchers who study the chemistry, psychology, healing properties, and odd characteristics of smell. Many of the news-making pheromone studies have taken place at Monell, or at similar institutions. In one experiment, rooms full of housewives were paid to sniff anonymous underarms; in another study, funded by a feminine hygiene spray manufacturer, the scene was even more bizarre. Among Monell's concerns: how we recognize smells; what happens when someone loses their sense of smell; how smell varies as one grows older; ingenious ways to control wildlife pests through smell; the way body odors can be used to help diagnose diseases (the sweat of schizophrenics smells different from that of normal people, for example); how body scents influence our social and sexual behavior. Monell researchers have discovered, in one of the most fascinating smell experiments of our time, that mice can discriminate genetic differences among potential mates by smell alone; they read the details of other animals' immune systems. If you want to create the strongest offspring, it's best to mate with someone whose strengths are different from yours, so that you can create the maximum defenses against any intruder, bacteria, viruses, and so on. And the best way to do that is to produce an omnicompetent immune system. Nature thrives in mongrels. Mix well is life's motto. Monell scientists have been able to raise special mice that differ from one another in only a single gene, and observe their mating preferences. They all chose mates whose immune systems would combine with theirs to produce the hardiest litters. Furthermore, they did not base their choices on their perception of their own smell, but on the remembered smell of their parents. None of this was reasoned, of course; the mice just mated according to their drive, unaware of the subliminal fiats.

Can it be possible that human beings do this, too, without realizing it? We don't require smell to mark territories, establish hierarchies, recognize individuals or, especially, know when a female is in heat. And yet one look at the obsessive use of perfume and its psychological effect on us makes it clear that smell is an old war-horse of evolution we groom and feed and just can't let go of. We don't need it to survive, but we crave it beyond all reason, maybe, in part, out of a nostalgia for a time when we were creatureal, a deeply connected part of Nature. As evolution has phased out our sense of smell, chemists have labored to restore it. Nor is it something we do casually; we drench ourselves in smells, we wallow in them. Not only do we perfume our bodies and homes, we perfume almost every object that enters our lives, from our cars to our toilet paper. Used-car dealers have a "new-car" spray, guaranteed to make a buyer feel good about the oldest tin warthog. Real estate dealers sometimes spray "cake-baking" aromas around the kitchen of a house before showing it to a client. Shopping malls add "pizza smell" to their air-conditioning system to put shoppers in the mood to visit their restaurants. Clothing, tires, magic markers, and toys all reek with scent. One can even buy perfume discs that play like records, except that they exude scent. As has been proven in many experiments, if you hand people two cans of identical furniture polish, one of which has a pleasant odor, they will swear that the pleasantly scented one works better. Odor greatly affects our evaluation of things, and our evaluation of people. Even so-called unscented products are, in fact, scented to mask the chemical odors of their ingredients, usually with a light musk. In fact, only 20 percent of the perfume industry's income comes from making perfumes to wear; the other 80 percent comes from perfuming the objects in our lives. Nationality influences fragrances, as many companies have discovered. Germans like pine, French prefer flowery scents, Japanese like more delicate odors, North Americans insist on bold smells, and South Americans want even stronger ones. In Venezuela, floor-cleaning products contain ten times as much pine fragrance as those in the United States. What almost all nationalities share is the need to coat our floors and walls with pleasant odors, especially with the smell of a pine forest or lemon orchard, to nest in smells.

A small shop on Third Avenue near Gramercy Park, like many such places throughout New York, sells a melange of sensory delights. There are many pieces of Port Meiron china emblazoned with colorful, precisely detailed botanical drawings. Stationery and wrapping paper is all handmade, the woody fibers and imperfections thickly visible. Some are coarse-grained, with tutti-frutti splotches of color. The nose leads the way. Small bath-oil beads claim to smell like "Spring Rain" or "Nantucket." What does Spring Rain smell like? It's a popular scent. But would even the diehard sensuist know the difference between spring rain and, say, summer or fall rain? Appealing first to the imagination, it puts a picture of spring rain in the mind, then you inhale its sweet mineral essence and think, perhaps, of the red-capped lichens called "British soldiers" you, discovered in the Berkshires when you were ten. Or remember the scent of rain on the olive-drab tent, and hear the rain falling on canvas like a thousand drumming fingers. Gramercy Park seems only a small eddy in time from those distant years. One shelf in the store is devoted entirely to environmental fragrances. "Use with our aluminum light bulb ring to perfume your living spaces" one of the packages explains. Parfum de l'Ambiance. Tint the air with scent, perfume what enters your nostrils, bathe in sweetness while you walk from one room to another, stir the fragrance by dancing.

We seem unable to live in Nature without taking on its smells and wearing them as talismans, imagining we possess their ferocity, magnetism, or zest. On the one hand, we live in quarters sanitary and orderly, and if Nature should be rude enough to enter -- in the form of a vole, fly, or termite crawling along the skirting boards, or a squirrel in the foundations, or a bat in the attic -- we stalk it with the blood lust of a hunter. On the other hand, we insist on bringing Nature indoors with us. We touch the wall and make daylight flood a room, we turn a dial and it's summer, we surround ourselves with a caravan of completely unnecessary outdoor smells -- pine, lemon, flowers. We may not need smell to survive, but without it we feel lost and disconnected.


One rainy night in 1976, a thirty-three-year-old mathematician went out for an after-dinner stroll. Everyone considered him not just a gourmet but a wunderkind, because he had the ability to taste a dish and tell you all its ingredients with shocking precision. One writer described it as a kind of "perfect pitch." As he stepped into the street, a slow-moving van ran into him and he hit his head on the pavement when he fell. The day after he got out of the hospital, he discovered to his horror that his sense of smell was gone.

Because his taste buds still worked, he could detect foods that were salty, bitter, sour, and sweet, but he had lost all of the heady succulence of life. Seven years later, still unable to smell and deeply depressed, he sued the driver of the van and won. It was understood, first, that his life had become irreparably impoverished and, second, that without a sense of smell his life was endangered. In those seven years, he had failed to detect the smell of smoke when his apartment building was on fire; he had been poisoned by food whose putrefaction he couldn't smell; he could not smell gas leaks. Worst of all, perhaps, he had lost the ability of scents and odors to provide him with heart-stopping memories and associations. "I feel empty, in a sort of limbo," he told a reporter. There was not even a commonly known name for his nightmare. Those without hearing are labeled "deaf," those without sight "blind," but what is the word for someone without smell? What could be more distressing than to be sorely afflicted by an absence without a name? "Anosmia" is what scientists call it, a simple Latin/Greek combination: "without" + "smell." But no casual term -- like "smumb" for instance -- exists to give one a sense of community or near-normalcy.

The "My Turn" column in Newsweek of March 21, 1988, by Judith R. Birnberg, contains a deeply moving lament about her sudden loss of smell. All she can distinguish is the texture and temperature of food. "I am handicapped: one of 2 million Americans who suffer from anosmia, an inability to smell or taste (the two senses are physiologically related).... We so take for granted the rich aroma of coffee and the sweet flavor of oranges that when we lose these senses, it is almost as if we have forgotten how to breathe." Just before Ms. Birnberg's sense of smell disappeared, she had spent a year sneezing. The cause? Some unknown allergy. "The anosmia began without warning.... During the past three years there have been brief periods -- minutes, even hours -- when I suddenly became aware of odors and knew that this meant that I could also taste. What to eat first? A bite of banana once made me cry. On a few occasions a remission came at dinner time, and my husband and I would dash to our favorite restaurant. On two or three occasions I savored every miraculous mouthful through an entire meal. But most times my taste would be gone by the time we parked the car." Although there are centers for treating smell and taste dysfunction (of which Monell is probably the best known), little can be done about anosmia. "I have had a CAT scan, blood tests, sinus cultures, allergy tests, allergy shots, long-term zinc therapy, weekly sinus irrigations, a biopsy, cortisone injections into my nose and four different types of sinus surgery. My case has been presented to hospital medical committees.... I have been through the medical mill. The consensus: anosmia caused by allergy and infection. There can be other causes. Some people are born this way. Or the olfactory nerve is severed as a result of concussion. Anosmia can also be the result of aging, a brain tumor or exposure to toxic chemicals. Whatever the cause, we are all at risk in detecting fires, gas leaks and spoiled food." Finally, she took a risky step and allowed a doctor to give her prednisone, an anti-inflammatory steroid, in an effort to shrink the swelling near olfactory nerves. "By the second day, I had a brief sense of smell when I inhaled deeply.... The fourth day I ate a salad at lunch, and I suddenly realized that I could taste everything. It was like the moment in 'The Wizard of Oz' when the world is transformed from black and white to Technicolor. I savored the salad: one garbanzo bean, a shred of cabbage, a sunflower seed. On the fifth day I sobbed -- less from the experience of smelling and tasting than from believing the craziness was over."

At breakfast the next day, she caught her husband's scent and "fell on him in tears of joy and started sniffing him, unable to stop. His was a comfortable familiar essence that had been lost for so long and was now rediscovered. I had always thought I would sacrifice smell to taste if I had to choose between the two, but I suddenly realized how much I had missed. We take it for granted and are unaware that everything smells: people, the air, my house, my skin.... Now I inhaled all odors, good and bad, as if drunk." Sadly, her pleasures lasted only a few months. When she began reducing the dosage of prednisone, as she had to for safety's sake (prednisone causes bloating and can suppress the immune system, among other unpleasant side effects), her ability to smell waned once more. Two new operations followed. She's decided to go back on prednisone, and yearns for some magical day when her smell returns as mysteriously as it vanished.

Not everyone without a sense of smell suffers so acutely. Nor are all smell dysfunctions a matter of loss; the handicap can take strange forms. At Monell, scientists have treated numerous people who suffer from "persistent odors," who keep smelling a foul smell wherever they go. Some walk around with a constant bitter taste in their mouths. Some have a deformed or distorted sense of smell. Hand them a rose, and they smell garbage. Hand them a steak and they smell sulfur. Our sense of smell weakens as we get older, and it's at its peak in middle age. Alzheimer's patients often lose their sense of smell along with their memory (the two are tightly coupled); one day Scratch-and-Sniff tests may help in diagnosis of the disease.

Research done by Robert Henkin, from the Center for Sensory Disorders at Georgetown University, suggests that about a quarter of the people with smell disorders find that their sex drive disappears. What part does smell play in lovemaking? For women, especially, a large part. I am certain that, blindfolded, I could recognize by smell any man I've ever known intimately. I once started to date a man who was smart, sophisticated, and attractive, but when I kissed him I was put off by a faint, cornlike smell that came from his cheek. Not cologne or soap: It was just his subtle, natural scent, and I was shocked to discover that it disturbed me viscerally. Although men seldom report such detailed responses to their partner's natural smell, women so often do that it's become a romantic cliche: When her lover is away, or her husband dies, an anguished woman goes to his closet and takes out a bathrobe or shirt, presses it to her face, and is overwhelmed by tenderness for him. Few men report similar habits, but it's not surprising that women should be more keenly attuned to smells. Females score higher than males in sensitivity to odors, regardless of age group. For a time scientists thought estrogen might be involved, since there was anecdotal evidence that pregnant women had a keener sense of smell, but as it turned out prepubescent girls were better sniffers than boys their age, and pregnant women were no more adept at smelling than other women. Women in general just have a stronger sense of smell. Perhaps it's a vestigial bonus from the dawn of our evolution, when we needed it in courtship, mating, or mothering; or it may be that women have traditionally spent more time around foods and children, ever on the sniff for anything out of order. Because females have often been responsible for initiating mating, smell has been their weapon, lure, and clue.


Just as there are people with distorted, failing, or nonexistent senses of smell, there are those at the other end of the olfactory spectrum, prodigies of the nose, the most famous of whom is probably Helen Keller. "The sense of smell," she wrote, "has told me of a coming storm hours before there was any sign of it visible. I notice first a throb of expectancy, a slight quiver, a concentration in my nostrils. As the storm draws near my nostrils dilate, the better to receive the flood of earth odors which seem to multiply and extend, until I feel the splash of rain against my cheek. As the tempest departs, receding farther and farther, the odors fade, become fainter and fainter, and die away beyond the bar of space." Other individuals have been able to smell changes in the weather, too, and, of course, animals are great meteorologists (cows, for example, lie down before a storm). Moistening, misting, and heaving, the earth breathes like a great dark beast. When barometric pressure is high, the earth holds its breath and vapors lodge in the loose packing and random crannies of the soil, only to float out again when the pressure is low and the earth exhales. The keen-nosed, like Helen Keller, smell the vapors rising from the soil, and know by that signal that there will be rain or snow. This may also be, in part, how farm animals anticipate earthquakes -- by smelling ions escaping from the earth.

People dressing for a dinner party on a stormy night won't need to use as much perfume, because perfume smells strongest just before a storm, in part because moisture heightens our sense of smell, and in part because the low pressure makes a fluid as volatile as perfume spread even faster. After all, perfume is 98 percent water and alcohol, and only 2 percent fat and perfume molecules. At times of low pressure molecules evaporate faster, and can waft from one's body into the alcoves of a room at considerable speed. This is also true, even on sunny days, in high-elevation cities such as Mexico City, Denver, or Geneva, where barometric pressures are always low because of the altitude. The ideal time and place to overwhelm a restaurant with one's new perfume would be at the 7,000-feet-high El Tovar Lodge, perched right on the sense-staggering edge of the Grand Canyon, when a storm is brewing.

Helen Keller had a miraculous gift for deciphering the fragrant palimpsest of life, all the "layers" that most of us read as a blur. She recognized "an old-fashioned country house because it has several layers of odors, left by a succession of families, of plants, of perfumes and draperies." How someone blind and deaf from birth could understand so well the texture and appearance of life, let alone the way our eccentricities express themselves in the objects we enjoy, is one of the great mysteries. She found that babies didn't yet have a "personality scent," unique odors she could identify in adults. And her sensuality expressed itself in smell -- and explained an age-old attraction: "Masculine exhalations are, as a rule, stronger, more vivid, more widely differentiated than those of women. In the odor of young men there is something elemental, as of fire, storm, and salt sea. It pulsates with buoyancy and desire. It suggests all the things strong and beautiful and joyous and gives me a sense of physical happiness."


Those people with the nimblest sense of smell often end up working for perfumeries; some, if they are also imaginative and daring, create the great perfumes. In a sea of flowers, roots, animal secretions, grasses, oils, and artificial smells, they must be able to remember thousands of ingredients available to a perfumer, and the alchemical ways to blend them. They need an architect's sense of balance and a bookie's cunning. These days, laboratories can mimic natural essences, which is just as well, since we don't have reliable natural extracts of such flowers as lilac, lily of the valley, or violet. But to produce a persuasive rose oil may mean mixing five hundred ingredients. On Fifty-seventh Street off Tenth Avenue in New York City, International Flavors and Fragrances Inc. houses the best professional noses in the world. People in the business know the place simply as "IFF," a prolonged if, almost a whiff, mecca for any company needing a smell. Although they create almost all of the expensive, lavishly advertised perfumes that appear in the department stores each season, and many of the flavors and smells we enjoy in everything from canned soup to kitty litter, they do their work anonymously. But they're the ones who provided the smell for a golf magazine's highly successful ad (peel away a paper golf ball and the smell of freshly mown grass surges up to your nostrils), as well as an amusement park's "cave" odor, and the habitat smells of New England woodlands, African grasslands, Samoa, and other locales for displays in the American Museum of Natural History. Turning a fake Christmas tree into a Tyrolean pine forest in the mind of the inhaler is no problem. In fact, that's one of their simplest tricks. They are sensuous ghostwriters, inventors of rapture, creating the gold-plated aromas that influence and persuade us, without our knowing it. Eighty percent of men's colognes are created in their laboratories, and nearly that much of women's. Though they refuse to name names, in their hallways glass cases display perfumes by Guerlain, Chanel, Dior, Saint Laurent, Halston, Lagerleld, Estee Lauder, and many others, to which they gave birth. Some of their noses point at computer consoles, others are at work in rooms cluttered with papers and bottles. To them falls the ultimate paradox of creating a perfume that, on the one hand, is innovative, fresh, and exciting, and, on the other, is not too brazen or bizarre, but acceptable to large numbers of people. Scent strips, or Scratch-and-Sniff strips, have made their work easier to share. Pick up a magazine these days, and you'll be assaulted by pages that smell of a Rolls-Royce's leather upholstery, or of lasagne, or even of a new perfume. Invented at 3M Corporation only a decade ago, the strips contain microscopic balls full of fragrance. When you scratch, or tear back the flap, the balls rip open and the scent rushes out. Giorgio was the first company to advertise their perfume with scent strips. Now it's difficult to find a magazine that doesn't smell. I have on my desk right now a collection of over forty scent strips advertising perfumes, with slogans for Estee Lauder's Knowing, "Knowing is all"; Liz Claiborne's feminist "All you have to be is you" for her signature fragrance; Parfums Fendi's "La passione di Roma," in which a marble-cheeked young girl is caught passionately kissing a statue; Yves Saint Laurent's Opium is minus any verbal slogan, but its accompanying photograph of a beautiful woman in a gold-lame suit, lying half dead in an opium delirium on a bed of orchids, makes its own perverse statement. There are thirty odor evaluators at IFF, on call to smell about a hundred fragrances a day. One spring afternoon, I meet their brilliant nose Sophia Grojsman, a robustly alive, Russian-born woman. Her short black hair is held back with a navy-and-white-striped headband. Her blue eyeshadow vibrates over dark lively eyes; she wears bright red nail polish and a denim suit with silver zippers. For a world-class nose on a deadline she seems relaxed and alert at the same time, as she sprawls behind her cluttered desk, right in the middle of which is a small trio of the monkeys who represent see-no-evil, speak-no-evil, hear-no-evil. Smell-no-evil doesn't rate a monkey.

"When did you first know that you had a special nose?"

"When I was a child in Russia, there were gigantic fields of flowers all around the little town where I lived." She smiles as she says it, and her eyes drift for a moment; the memory obviously carries her back forty years. "And there was an enormous amount of odor everywhere. The sky was thick with smells. I was always picking flowers ..."

An abrupt knock at the door. A young woman walks in briskly, her long thin bare arms extended. "If you could smell me?" she says to Sophia. Sophia gets up and takes the woman's left arm first -- the warmer arm, because it's nearer the heart -- and presses her nose close and sniffs at the wrist and then again at the elbow. Then she sniffs twice at the other arm.

"What do you think?" Sophia asks me.

I sniff the arms. "Lovely."

"But in which order?"

The scents are so light, so quiet against my nose that it's hard to think of them as four distinct smells with individual personalities to be ranked. In one scene in Bus Stop, Marilyn Monroe sits in a diner, playing with two peas on her plate, choosing a favorite. There is always something about one that's better than another, she tells her companion; you can always choose. For me, life offers so many complexly appealing moments that two beautiful objects may be equally beautiful for different reasons and at different times. How can one choose? Still, here, on the extended arms, there is no doubt about number one -- a slightly musky, basically floral scent at the woman's left wrist. Second? A lighter version of it at her left elbow. The smell on the right arm seems a shade fruitier, though somewhat attractive. I tell Sophia, who nods her head knowingly.

"Those are the two versions we need to work on," she says. A lab technician appears at a sliding glass window between her and the shelves upon shelves of bottles holding natural and synthetic essences, a real magician's larder. "I need the H formula," Sophia says to the technician, who returns to her cupboards. Sophia leans back in her chair and makes a gesture with her hands as if throwing confetti into the air. "This is a total madhouse today. We've had an emergency that I'm trying to attend to."

A scent emergency? What on earth could that be? When I ask, Sophia remains sphinxlike. In this corporate world, formulae and everything related to them are guarded and double-guarded. The people who blend the final fragrances don't know what they're blending; the ingredients and the batches carry only code numbers.

"We lived right at the end of the little town," Sophia says, returning to her memories, "and there were lilac bushes and whole fields of narcissus and violets. A world of natural smells was all around, a part of Russia that wasn't badly destroyed. As a child, I would wander off into the fields; I was desperately curious, snooping into everything. This was postwar time, and there weren't many children. I was surrounded by grown-ups and I would wander off by myself and pick up and smell the moss, the twigs, the leaves."

"When you're creating a scent, what is the process?" I ask, remembering that one of the great perfumers said he got his ideas from dreams, another that he kept a diary of everything he smelled when he traveled.

"You always have an image in your head. You can actually smell the accords, which are like musical chords. Perfumery is closely related to music. You will have simple fragrances, simple accords made from two or three items, and it will be like a two- or three-piece band. And then you have a multiple accord put together, and it becomes a big modern orchestra. In a strange way, creating a fragrance is similar to composing music, because there is also a similarity in finding the 'proper' accords. You don't want anything being overpowering. You want it to be harmonious. One of the most important parts of putting a creation together is harmony. You could have layers of notes coming through the fragrance, but yet you still feel it's pleasing. If the fragrance is not layered properly, you'll have parts and pieces sticking out, it will make you uncomfortable, something will disturb you about it. A fragrance that's not well balanced is not well accepted."

"Do you have the smells grouped in your mind and memory, the way woodwinds occupy one element of an orchestra and strings another?"

"Yes, but most of what I've created has come from totally abstract floral accords that just came along -- once I'd got them, I looked for other parts and pieces to go along with them. First there is the inspiration, then ways to revise it until I've finally got what I'm after. I prefer very flowery, very feminine accords. I'm better at female fragrances than male fragrances, although I've done both. I've also made functional products --"

"Like the scents for soaps, cleaners, polishes, paper products, and so on?"

"Exactly. But those things are easy and quick to do. If I'm trying to create the next best perfume in the world, well ... it takes longer."

"One of the company's officials told me that you've 'made some of the most famous perfumes in the world known to man or beast,' but that you're not going to tell me which they are."

"We can't tell." She pulls a long brown cigarette from a pack that says MORE and lights it.

"Does smoking affect your nose?"

"I'm sure it does something, but this is my environment, so I'm used to it. It's just one of the usual smells in my world."

"Do you protect your nose; are you hyper-concerned about it?"

"Not at all. I'm really very casual. Naturally, I don't want to get sick: It's frustrating to have a blocked-up nose, very hard for a perfumer to work in that condition."

"When you walk around the city, are you more acutely aware of smells than other people?"

"You know, it's a funny thing -- an incredible phenomenon -- but, because I work a lot, sometimes long hours, when I walk out of the building a little switch in my brain turns me off and I don't smell anything at all. In fact, there could be something burning on the stove at home and I wouldn't smell it! My hushand says: 'You're a perfumer and you can't smell the burning!' My brain turns off totally.

"But I find myself tuning in to people at odd moments. Sometimes someone kisses you and you recognize their individual smell. There's a certain smell to a baby's skin, to the top of a baby's head. Men do this less than women. Some people naturally smell 'sexy.' If I had to describe it," she says, wafting the cigarette like a censer, as she searches for the precise description. "I'd call it a very delicate, ambery-musky accord. I use a lot of it in my fragrances.

''There are certain accords that every perfumer uses. But you can recognize someone's handwriting, so to speak, by smelling a fragrance. Other perfumers can recognize my work, as I can theirs. They smell a new perfume and they say: Ah, this is Sophia's, that's Jenny's, and so on. They know the signatures."

"I was in Saks last week," I explain, "on a smell safari, and I noticed that the trend seems to be for perfumes with names that suggest danger, prohibited substances, neuroses, and so on...." I said that merchandisers seem to prefer smells that conjure up comfort and security, love and romance, but name them Decadence, Poison, My Sin, Opium, Indiscretion, Obsession, Tabu. In addition to the popular designer names and the bottled mystique of the superstars, they offer illegal substances and warnings. A woman may dress demurely, but in her mind and on her pulse-points she is as addictive as Opium, as dangerous as Poison, the cause for Obsession, expert in the ways of love so enthralling they're Tabu, ready for hedonistic Decadence, worth any Indiscretion, even transgressing the laws of God, as in Sin.

"Yes, but if you look at them closely, you discover that they're all based on certain classic scents, they're simply new interpretations of those classics. There are many instant successes, but true classics last over a decade. Chanel No. 5 was created in the early 1920s and still sells very well. Opium is nothing new. The mother of Opium is Youth Dew, which is about thirty years old. It's a variation on it, that's all, and it's also related to Cinnabar. If you smell the three together, you'll see."

"So, using your metaphor of music, a new fragrance is often a variation on an established theme?" She nods.

"Do you wear perfumes?"

"Not when I come to work. I do wear a lot of experiments. As I work with it, I wear it. I like to get the reaction of people to what I'm wearing. They're good judges. I was working on one fragrance, and when I walked out onto Fifty-seventh Street, I was followed by a drunk and I got scared. I started to run away from him, and he said: 'Lady, don't run. The perfume is so beautiful, I was following the perfume.' It turned out to be a winner."

"Since the beginning of time, people have perfumed themselves. Doesn't that seem an odd thing to do? To put flowers, fruits, and animal secretions on your body? Why do we do it?"

"Ah," she says, tossing her fingers as if setting free a handful of butterflies, "when I first saw Picasso's Guernica, it was disturbing. I was horrified and fascinated at the same time. It was disturbing, but also deeply moving. Perfumes do that, too -- shock and fascinate us. They disturb us. Our lives are quiet. We like to be disturbed by delight.

"One of the most gratifying experiences for me," she says unexpectedly, "was when I made a functional product, the smell for a detergent. I was walking along the street, and there were two old ladies buying a newspaper. I said, 'Oh, ladies, you washed your clothes in so-and-so.' They said, 'How on earth did you know?' I said, 'I can smell it.' They were so happy and so was I, because these ladies can't afford a two- or three-hundred-dollar perfume but they can afford a detergent, and they were happy that it smelled good. I was pleased that I touched a portion of humanity that could never be able to afford the perfumes you just smelled here."

"How lucky you are to be able to spend your life in this way, creating scents that will make women feel good about themselves."

"Sometimes there are grueling hours of work. A perfumer's life is not a picnic. It's not what it used to be. In the great old days, there were perfumers who were free-lancers. A famous perfumer would make one fragrance in three or four years, and they had no restrictions -- no price limit, no deadline. They would make two or three experiments a day for perhaps a week, then really live with it, wear it for weeks and weeks without any pressure. What's happening now is that it's very commercialized. You want to do things that will make a name for you, money for the company, and you must do them fast. A perfume can't be made overnight Every perfumer has little accords that, during their ten years of practice, they put away and keep in their memory bank. Oh, I need a floral, they might say, I remember that floral I had years ago. But it must be new. You'd be a fool to sell a copy. You can't plagiarize. You have to start from scratch. But there are accords you might return to as themes, as a kind of shortcut. I make approximately five hundred to seven hundred formulas a year. Maybe you see two big pieces of business come out of that, but this doesn't mean all the seven hundred formulas aren't good."

"Doesn't it break your heart if you create a formula that really stirs you, but the customer doesn't care for it?"

She rolls her eyes and her face keens. "Of course, and it certainly does happen. I always try to make it work somewhere eventually, so that somebody finally gets it. You have to believe in the fragrance, believe that it will prevail, that it will be there sometime, somehow. I'm very persistent. I keep going back to it, rethinking it.

"There's something that I made recently and I can't tell you the name of it, but the fragrance is an experience. Wearing it is an experience. I happen to love it. The main accord of the fragrance started a while ago with one accord that I called "cleavage"" headless," "bottomless," I have all these crazy names that I privately call things -- and what cleavage smells to me like is a young woman's skin here" -- she lifts her hands to show the area between the chin and the bosom -- "There's something very sensual and sensational about this accord."

She takes a long paper tester and dips it into an amber bottle full of oil, hands it to me. As I waft the smell under my nose, sherbety flowers drift over my senses. It is a very young smell, girlish and innocent, full of soft ruffles and lightly talced skin.

"This is simple but very complicated-smelling. It says in a strange way 'Hug me,' It's a sexy note that men adore. I knew I had a winner when I made this." She hands me another dipstick, this one fresher and slightly more alive. "Now this is the perfume it became. The first oil was the skeleton. This is the result. From the first bottle, it went all the way down the line to the finished perfume. It's basically a floral, but the more you smell it the more delicate it becomes."

"Which is the most sensual perfume you've created?"

"This is an interesting question, because what's sexy and sensual for one isn't necessarily for the other. To me, this one is sensuous, not sexy, but sensuous."

"How about one that's vampy?"

"Try this one."

She hands me a new tester; I hold it under my nose and have a powerful response. I can taste something thick and amber, like butterscotch, on the back of my tongue. It has a thin vinyl covering to it and a fizzy muskiness seems to be coming up all around it in a halo. It smells deeply luscious. "What is it?" I ask, scrunching up my face in the automatic contortion of pleasure.

"It's basically a Shalimar-type formula. It's not on the market yet."

"Unlike the other one I sampled -- 'cleavage' -- when I smell this I have a strong physical response. I can taste it,"

She laughs. "Yes, that's what people say about my perfumes, that you can taste them. I'm very passionate about everything I do. I want my creations to stir your taste and smell and emotions all at once."

"Can you picture a perfume that you can't create? Is there an ideal form that you strive for?"

"Oh, I would like to make a perfume some day so seductive to men that no woman could be resisted. It would be the most incredible thing I could do in my life. This is not a professional feeling. It's strictly a female feeling."

"The whole world would become unsafe."

"Yes!" she says with relish.

"Let me know when you find it. I'll be your first guinea pig."

"I'll be my first guinea pig."


When I leave IFF with its carnival of new smells and Fortune 500 status and its secret corridors that merge, veer off, and interflow like the workings of smell itself, I step outside into an atmosphere low-slung and broody. Steam rises from the manholes, as if there were one large sweat gland under the city. How does a professional nose stay acute in a city of warring smells, some of which are caustic? Perfumers aren't the only professional noses who must survive this urban sump. Doctors have always relied on their sense of smell, along with those of sight, feel, and hearing, to diagnosis diseases, especially in the days before sophisticated technology. Typhus is said to smell of mice; diabetes of sugar; the plague of mellow apples; measles of freshly plucked feathers; yellow fever of the butcher shop; nephritis of ammonia. [5]

We not only need all our senses, we need more of them, new senses. And, if necessary, we're willing to create and employ them outside our bodies, as scanning electron microscopes, radio telescopes, atomic scales. But we cannot do this effectively with smell. If smell is a relic, it's of a time of great intensity, need, instinct, and delirium, a time when we moved among the cycles of Nature as one of its promising proteges. Except to taste and to scout danger, we don't really need smell any longer, but we will not let go. We will not be weaned. Evolution keeps trying to tug it gently from our hands, pull it away while we are sleeping, like a stuffed animal or favorite blanket. We cling to it tighter than ever. We don't want to be cut off from the realms of Nature that survive by smell. Most of what we do smell is accidental. Flowers have scents and bright colors as sex attractants; leaves have aromatic defenses against predators. Most of the spices, whose heady aromas we are drawn to, repel insects and animals. We are enjoying the plant's war machine. As one quickly learns in the Amazon rain forest, there is nothing wimpy about a plant. Because trees can't move to court each other or to defend themselves, they've become ingenious and aggressive about their survival. Some develop layers of strychnine or other toxic substances just under the bark; some are carnivorous; some devise flowers with intricate feather dusters to touch pollen to any bug, bird, or bat they have managed to lure with siren smells and colors. Some orchids mimic the reproductive parts of a female bee or beetle in order to trick the male into trying to copulate, so it will become dusted with pollen. One night a year, in the Bahamas, the Selenicereus cactus flowers ache into bloom, conduct their entire sex lives, and vanish by morning. For several days beforehand, the cactuses develop large pregnant pods. Then one night, awakened by a powerful smell of vanilla, you know what has happened. The entire moonlit yard is erupting in huge, foot-wide flowers. Hundreds of sphinx moths rush from one flower to another. The air is full of the baying of dogs, the loud fluttering of the moths that sounds like someone riffling through a large book, and the sense-drenching vanilla nectar of the flowers, which disappear at dawn, leaving the cactuses sated for another year.

In ancient times, when perfumes were almost as mystical as they were precious, explorers set out in search of their healing or aphrodisiac qualities. Our sense of smell has contributed to the spread of language, which evolved at the crossroads of ancient trade routes. Yearning for spices, perfumes, medicinal herbs, and exotic talismans, people set sail across continents and seas, and when they arrived they had to be able to haggle and, eventually, keep records. I don't recall anyone celebrating the senses of smell or taste during our bicentennial in 1976. But Columbus's quest, we tend to forget, was sensuous as well as capitalistic, adventuresome, and ego-driven. It was partly the obsessive demand for exotic spices and perfumes that prompted him to set sail in the first place.

Perfume began in Mesopotamia as incense offered to the gods to sweeten the smell of animal flesh burned as offerings, and it was used in exorcisms, to heal the sick, and after sexual intercourse. The word's Latin etymology tells us how it worked: per = through + fumar to smoke. Tossed onto a fire, incense would fill the sky with a smoke otherworldly and magical, which stung the nostrils as if clamorous spirits were clawing their way into the body. Perfumed smoke began with the things of this earth but climbed quickly into the realm of the gods. Atop the famous ziggurat-shaped Tower of Babel, which stretched closer to the gods than mortals could reach, priests lit pyres of incense. Given the general hand-me-down history of fashion and luxury, perfumes were probably reserved for the gods at first, then priests were allowed them, then godlike leaders, then leaders, then aides, all the way down the social totem pole. Prehistoric people applied perfumes to their bodies, as primitive (and more sophisticated) peoples do today. An anthropologist friend who works with Indian tribes in the Amazon tells of one tribe in which the women wrap a kind of skirt made of sage around their waists and the men rub a fragrant root under their arms as deodorant. The first civilization to go on record as using perfume regularly, extravagantly, and with nuance was Egypt. Their elaborate burial and embalming practices required spices and unguents. They burned tons of incense in elaborate worship rituals. Scent became a national obsession during the reign of Queen Hatshepsut, of the New Kingdom (1558-1085 B.C.), who planted large botanical gardens and burned incense on the terraces leading to her temples. The Egyptians used lavish quantities of perfume and incense in their religious cults, eventually coming to enjoy them for personal daily use as well, especially during Egypt's Golden Age. They anointed their bodies with perfumes to ward off magical hexes, for medicinal purposes, and as beauty lotions, because they prized the feel of silky, scented skin. Egyptians discovered enfleurage (pressing aromatics into fatty oils) and created beautiful glass vessels to hold their potions, including the millefiori and other styles Venetian glassmakers were to use centuries later; they indulged in elaborate beauty rituals and had an almost modern fascination with makeup. If we were to observe a woman of ancient Egypt fixing her face and hair before a dinner party, we would find her seated at her makeup table, which would hold a variety of elegant, imaginatively designed perfume spoons, receptacles for unguents, vases, flacons, and boxes of eye shadow. She might well have a tattoo of a scarab or flower on her shoulder -- Egyptian women were fond of tattoos. (When an Egyptian tomb was opened in the 1920s and a mummy discovered to be delicately tattooed, Lady Randolph Churchill and other socialites decided to get scarab tattoos themselves.) An ancient Egyptian socialite attending a party would wear a wax cone of unguent on the top of her head; it would melt slowly, covering her face and shoulders with a trickle of perfumed syrup. It probably felt as if small beetles were crawling all over her, pushing balls of fragrance. The Egyptians were a clean, ingeniously sybaritic people obsessed with hygiene; they invented the sumptuous art of the bath -- an art that might be restorative, sensuous, religious, or calming, depending on one's mood. This they would usually follow with a massage of aromatic oils to soothe the muscles and calm the nerves -- aromatherapy, a technique first used in the embalming of mummies. Researchers at Yale's Psychophysiology Center are studying how smell can decrease stress and increase alertness. They claim that the smell of spiced apples can reduce blood pressure in people under stress and avert a panic attack, and that lavender can wake up one's metabolism and make one more alert. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that related tests at the University of Cincinnati have shown how fragrances added to the atmosphere of a room can increase typing speed and work efficiency in general.


At the Sonesta Beach Spa in Bermuda, I stretch out on a table in front of a window, through which I can see and hear the crash and caterwaul of the sea. A pretty young woman with large blue eyes enters the small room, wearing a white belted cosmetician's dress. Fresh from Yorkshire, she hasn't been on the island long enough to develop a tan on the twelve weekends she's had free. Her boyfriend is in the marine division of the Bermuda police, and yesterday she went to the Cricket Cup Match with him. She has bunions on her feet, inherited from her father's side of the family, along with the small symmetrical nose she thinks is too large, and the straight blond hair she thinks is too thin. Today she has me lie on my back and then discreetly covers me with blue terry-cloth towels, which she will rearrange as the hour progresses. In the past few days, she has seen my body enough to know its flaws and graces. Only a lover could touch it more often, or better. Now we are as relaxed about my nakedness as old spouses. She explains the next treatment: aromatherapy. This ancient Egyptian technique fell out of favor for many hundreds of years, reemerging in the eighteenth century, when aromatics and herbals returned to fashion. Because what I seek is relaxation more than mummification, my masseuse will blend lavender, neroli, and sandalwood in a sweet almond-oil base and massage my body from head to toe in windblown patterns that concentrate on the lymph system. I am not to shower afterwards, because the oils massaged into circulation need time to penetrate and soothe. Starting at the calves, she massages in fan shapes, rolling, circular, roaming, always returning to the point of origin, then veering off again in symmetrical arcs or ripples. The fragrance -- musky, heavy, Mideastern -- seems to roll up my body. After the legs, she does the rump; then the back, pausing to apply pressure at certain stations down each side of the spine. She skates across the shoulder blades, probing, then smoothing. The treatment's effect comes in part, she quietly explains, from the "energy flow" created between the two bodies. A veil of scent rises around my neck, collars me in pungent mist; her hands keep revolving, heating the oils. Unexpectedly, my mind begins to drift to when I was a child and my father drove us to Florida all the way from Illinois for a brief summer vacation. The journey from outside Chicago to Florida was long, and my mother packed a cold chest of sandwiches and Hawaiian Fruit Punch, a wicker basket of our favorite toys and some new comic and activity books. I picture the trip in such surprising detail: the "yup-yup leaves" that fairies in one of the comics harvested, the Spanish moss on the trees we passed, my mother, who loved to sing in the car, sitting in a gray dress patterned with large, mauve, cabbagey roses. She wore her straight brown hair Ava Gardner style. Sometimes, when she was silent, her left index finger would move sharply in a way that intrigued me. I was too young to understand that she was probably talking to herself. Why have I remembered that time? I was eight. My mother had me when she was thirty. I am now the age she was then, and she had two children. This vivid memory stays with me and fills me with a thick, warm lager. Then the masseuse swaddles me in a pale-blue blanket. The light-blue walls of the room have a small woodblock print: thousands of brown chevrons. Above each one floats a pair of gray quotation marks angled like those at the end of an utterance.


Masters of aromatics, the Egyptians had many uses for cedarwood: in mummification, as incense, and to protect papyruses from the assaults of insects. Cleopatra's cedarwood ship, on which she received Antony, had perfumed sails; incense burners ringed her throne, and she herself was scented from head to toe. I return to her now because she was the quintessential devotee of perfume. She anointed her hands with kyphi, which contained oil of roses, crocus, and violets; she scented her feet with aegyptium, a lotion of almond oil, honey, cinnamon, orange blossoms, and henna. The walls were an aviary of roses secured by nets, and her regally perfumed presence arrived before her, like a kind of calling card in the scent-drenched wind. As Shakespeare imagines the scene: "From the barge/A strange invisible perfume hits the sense/Of the adjacent wharfs." Romans became famous for their spa-like grandeur, but they actually borrowed the bath from the sybaritic Egyptians.

In the ancient world, royal architecture itself was often aromatic. Potentates built whole palaces of cedarwood, in part because of its sweet, resiny scent, and in part because it was a natural insect repellent. In the Nanmu Hall at the imperial summer palace of the Manchu emperors at Ch'eng-te, the beams and paneling, all of cedarwood, were lacquerless and paintless, so that the fragrance of the wood could influence the air. Builders of mosques used to mix rose water and musk into mortar; the noon sun would heat it and bring out the perfumes. The doors of Sargon II's eighth-century B.C. palace in what is now Khorsabad were so scented that they would waft perfume when visitors entered or left. Pharaonic barges and coffins were made of cedarwood. The temple of Diana at Ephesus, one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world, which had columns almost sixty feet high, survived for two hundred years, then burned down in 356 B.C., aromatically aflame. Legend says that, in shame or as an offering, it burned when Alexander the Great was born.

Ancient he-men were heavily perfumed. In a way, strong scents widened their presence, extended their territory. In the pre-Greek culture of Crete, athletes anointed themselves with specific aromatic oils before the games. Greek writers of around 400 B.C. recommended mint for the arms, thyme for the knees, cinnamon, rose, or palm oil for the jaws and chest, almond oil for the hands and feet, and marjoram for the hair and eyebrows. Egyptian men, attending a dinner party, would receive garlands of flowers and their choice of perfumes at the door. Flower petals would be scattered underfoot, so they could make a fragrant stir when guests trod on them. Statues at these banquets often spurted scented water from their several orifices. Before retiring, a man would crush solid perfume until it was an oily powder and scatter it onto his bed so that he could absorb its scent while he slept. Homer describes the obligatory courtesy of offering visitors a bath and aromatic oils. Alexander the Great was a lavish user of both perfumes and incense, and was fond enough of saffron to have his tunics soaked in its essence. Babylonian and Syrian men wore heavy makeup and jewelry, as well as laboriously arranged coiffures of tiny ringlets set with perfumed lotions. In ancient Rome, the passion reached such heights that both men and women took baths in perfume, soaked their clothes in it, and perfumed their horses and household pets. The gladiators applied scented lotions all over -- a different scent for each area of the body -- before they fought. And, like other Roman men and women, they used pigeon dung to bleach their hair. In their equivalent of a locker room, before a gory contest with a lion, crocodile, or man, they might have been talking rough, but their hands were applying sweet scents. Roman women applied scents to different parts of their bodies, just as Roman men did, and I imagine they spent some time deciding whether sandalwood feet and jasmine breasts went well with a neroli neck and lavender thighs. With Christianity came a Spartan devotion to restraint, a fear of seeming self-indulgent, and so men stopped wearing scents for a while. (Even so, a religious symbolism attached to favorite flowers and their scents. For example, the carnation was in favor because its smell resembles that of cloves, and cloves themselves resemble the nails that were driven into Christ's cross.) As John Trueman puts it in The Romantic Story of Scent: "The men of the ancient world were clean and scented. European men of the Dark Ages were dirty and unscented. Those of medieval times, and of modern times up to about the end of the 17th century, were dirty and scented.... Nineteenth-century men were clean and unscented." But men seldom wandered far afield from desirable scents. The crusaders returned from their travails wearing rose water. Louis XIV kept a stable of servants just to perfume his rooms with rose water and marjoram, to wash his shirts and other apparel in a stew of cloves, nutmeg, aloe, jasmine, orange water, and musk; he insisted that a new perfume be invented for him every day. At "The Perfumed Court" of Louis XV, servants used to drench doves in different scents and release them at dinner parties, to weave a tapestry of aromas as they flew around the guests. The Puritans did away with scents, but soon enough men took them up again.

An eighteenth-century woman's dressing called for elaborate preparations and a discerning nose: She wore sweet-smelling hair powder and scented makeup; her perfumed clothes were kept in an aromatic clothespress; she lavishly perfumed her body, and then soaked cotton pomanders in cologne to tuck into her bodice. Potpourris sat on her tables, scenting the room from their Chinese porcelain containers ("porcelain" is a word with a fascinating history, which leads back, through cowry shells, to the genitals of a female pig, which is obviously what its silky texture reminded them of). At midday, she changed into a fresh array of aromas equally overwhelming. And then again at evening. Napoleon's passion for luxury included his favorite cologne water, made of neroli and other ingredients, 162 bottles of which he ordered from his perfumer, Chardin, in 1810. After he washed, he liked to pour cologne over his neck, chest, and shoulders. Even on his most arduous campaigns, in his elaborately decorated tent he took time to choose rose- or violet-scented lotions, gloves, and other finery. During the Napoleonic Wars, British sea captains sent on to the Empress Josephine roses destined for her garden at Malmaison (where she had 250 varieties); couriers with new varieties of roses had immunity passing between England and France. Elizabeth I adored gloves scented with ambergris; she not only wore perfumed cloaks, she required that her courtiers be heavily scented, too, so that they might surround her sweetly when they moved. A patron of the arts, Elizabeth was single-handedly responsible for the glory of the Elizabethan theater and the well-being of many writers, Shakespeare included, and she relished her position at the center of sensory and artistic life. She was particularly fond of Sir Walter Raleigh, and so, it may be assumed, of the strawberry cologne he liked to wear. Elizabeth kept her pets doused in scent, and she wore a pomander (an apple rolled in cinnamon and dressed in cloves) to ward off the plague.

This scent obsession started long before. The first gift to the Christ Child was incense and, in the eleventh century, Edward the Confessor presented Westminster Abbey with a sacred and surprisingly imperishable relic -- some of the original frankincense carried by the Magi. In India, the art of abhyanga, a musky rubdown of female elephants to increase their sexual attraction to male elephants, still exists. In the ancient courts of Japan, clocks burned a different incense every fifteen minutes, and geishas were paid by the number of scent sticks consumed. Perfumes have obsessed every culture and religion, but the ultimate promise is probably in the Koran: Those religious enough to go to heaven will find there voluptuous companions called houris (from the Arabic haura; dark-eyed woman), who will attend to every whim and invent new cravings, which they will then quench. The ultimate font of delights, they are not merely perfumed -- according to the Koran, they are made entirely of sandalwood. They are pure smell, pure pleasure. How fitting. In a sense, the houris return us to that time, before thought, before sight, when smell was all we had to guide us down the dimly lit corridors of evolution.



1. Aldehydes are a broad generic class of organic molecules, most of which are naturally occurring; rum and wine are flavored by wood aldehydes, which seep in from the keg.

2. The authors of a paper in Science a few years ago discovered that some black men appear to have larger penises than white men -- that is, the penis appears larger when in repose, because the gene that carries sickle-cell anemia tends to make the penis semi-erect when it's flaccid. I was told that the authors of the study had hesitated for some time before publishing their findings, and then did so anxiously and with misgivings.

3. Novelists have written about the smell of fear, and researchers working with rats have found that stressed rats give off a special odor. Other unstressed rats detect the odor and have a physical, analgesic response, so that they will be prepared for pain.

4.  Butterflies often give off an aroma to attract a mate, and may smell like roses, sweetbriar, heliotrope, and other flowers.

5. Among the curious diseases recognizable by smell is maple syrup urine disease, which afflicts infants. Doctors aren't sure what produces the odor. The smell of acetone on a patient's breath often signals diabetes. "Menses breath" (some women develop an oniony smell) comes from a change in sulfur compounds in the body during a woman's menstrual cycle.

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