That Smell


I managed to get a sunburn on my elbows.

I was helping a friend with a film project that involved being outdoors in the direct, California sunlight for the brightest and hottest part of the day today. I thought that I was prepared: I wore long pants and a shirt that covered my shoulders and a wide brimmed hat. I brought sunscreen and applied it liberally and reapplied it at least twice.

But apparently I missed my elbows.

When it comes to being out in the sun, I often joke that I expect to burst into flames at the slightest exposure to the suns rays, but it’s not really a joke. I have the burns to prove it.

Sunburn aside, it was a pleasant and productive day. It was sunny, but not humid, and a steady breeze kept it from being uncomfortably hot. I found I was enjoying my time outside- partly because it is so rare that I go outside during the height of the day and partly because we were deep in one of the state parks, away from people and traffic. It is likewise rare that I get to go out in nature anymore. I recognize almost none of the local plants: back in Chicago I could name most of the trees and quite a few of the native and non-native prairie plant species. Here I feel lucky if I can figure out if I am looking at a tree or a large scrubby shrub.

Something, though, was familiar to me. That smell. Every time I walked up the gravel path from the riverbed where we were shooting to the staging area where the van was parked I caught a whiff of a smell that sent me back to my childhood so fast it made me slow down each time I made the trip. It was a woody smell, resinous, dry, warm: not quite like pine but not very different either. I wasn’t able to figure out where it was coming from. It reminded me of my youngest years in New Mexico, although I couldn’t place it more specifically than that. It made me wonder if it (the smell) belonged to some kind of plant that grew across the whole southwest that I might’ve encountered when I was very young.

Funny how smell can work like that. One of the buildings on campus does the same thing to me: it smells like the basement of my grandparents’ house from when I was little, and even though I know that it is probably mildew that I am smelling, I can’t help but breathe deeply every time I walk past just so that I can remember it again. Funny how our lives are booby-trapped with all these pockets of smell-memory.

I wonder if I will ever stumble across this mystery childhood smell again.  Next time, I hope I will be able to discover what it comes from.

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~ by Gwydhar Gebien on August 5, 2014.

2 Responses to “That Smell”

  1. Sagebrush, perhaps?!

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