Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Sensory Questionnaire

Memory lane

Glass Petal Smoke has created a sensory questionnaire to get us thinking about our sense of smell. So here's my attempt to describe that most personal, ephemeral, and emotional sense.

Sensory Questionnaire

1. What does your sense of smell mean to you?

It didn't used to mean anything at all. I never really thought about my sense of smell until a few years ago, when an interest in perfume began. It was then that I began to realize that it gave me so much pleasure. The more things I smelled, the more I could smell, as if the act of concentrating on deciphering a particular perfume was somehow educating my nose. A year later, I could return to a perfume I had dismissed as too harsh or too strange, and smelling it again find that a landscape or a story or a painting now opened in my mind.

Now my sense of smell is entertainment and a joy. It's the spice in my day, the salt on the potato chips of my life.

2. What are some of your strongest scent memories?

Christmas means the smell of Christmas tree lot: snow, fir and pine trees, fresh cut wood. Car exhaust. Hot chocolate steam filtered through damp wool. Icicles have a smell, like pale blue sunlight.

The summer smells of wet streams and green moss and the little orange flowers that grew in the damp places in the woods.

The smell of shed behind my grandmother's old garage; old wood, mildew, the oil on gardening shears, mothballs and old silk crinolines.

3. What are some of your favorite smells (things in nature, cooking &/or your

Wood smoke in the air on a chilly fall night. Pine sap. Fresh lilacs. Pipe tobacco. The smell of baking bread when the wind is blowing the right direction in my neighbourhood.

4. Do you have any favorite smells that are considered strange?

The smell of hot, sun-baked dust and and grass and weeds by the side of a road (it smells like a cicada drone). The smell of my dog's temples.

5. Describe one or more of your favorite cooking smells.

Red meat grilling. Fresh basil.

6. What smells do you most dislike?

Vomit. Olives. Head shop incense.

7. What smell did you first dislike, but learned to love?

Scotch. The bitter green of galbanum.

8. What mundane smells inspire you?

The smell of sawdust. The smell of rain on hot pavement. The smell of fall: smoke, dry leaves and apples.

9. What scent never fails to take you back in time and why?

The smell of grass and clover take me back to being 8 years-old and roaming like feral children, between the hours of 8am and 6pm every Saturday, in the fields and woodlots behind my subdivision.

The smell of a hay is always the barn loft where we were allowed to play with the kittens that one summer and the smell of the ponies that brought us there still on my clothes.

The smell of dry corn fields and fallen leaves in September combined with Obsession perfume will always be the smell of illicit excitement.

All church basements smell the same. A quiet contemplative smell of old wood, old paper, old people, coffee and Peak Freen cookies.

10. What scents do you associate with memories of loved ones?

My mother smells of Diorissimo. My father smells of Irish Spring soap and Old Spice. My husband smells of coconut oil castile soap and whatever I'm wearing.

11. What fragrance(s) remind you of growing up?

Hot vinyl. Kraft Dinner. Cut grass. Playdoh. Pink erasers. Lily of the valley. Mr. Bubble.

12. What fragrance(s) remind you of the places you visited on vacation?

Lime and coconut and rum remind me of the Caribbean. Rose water and anise remind me of Turkey. Cedar reminds me of the cottage. Tiare flowers remind me of Bora Bora.

13. Describe a piece of sensory literature that is very magical for you.

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 mid-western town, when both of one's parents were alive. Smells detonate softly in our memories like poignant land mines, hidden under the weedy mass of many years and experience. Hit a trip wire of smell, and memories explode all at once. A complex vision leaps out of the undergrowth. - Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses

Photo: retro woods by carolune 


  1. What a beautiful post. I really enjoyed accompanying you on your trip down memory lane. And my mother smelled of Diorissimo too...

  2. Beautiful writing. You have conjured up some amazing "scent pictures". I can smell the Christmas tree lot.

    The Diane Ackerman quote is just perfect. What a beautiful book. Her book "Cultivating Delight" is another sensory wonder.

  3. What thoughtful responses! After I read your description of the wafting scent of baking bread I had an interesting experience. A stream of scents that all fit together greeted me as I ascended six flights of stairs in my apartment building on Thanksgiving; the smell of baking bread, the aroma of roast potatoes, the buttery sweet goodness of cookies baking, the scent of apple pie and finally the smell of a well basted turkey. It was a complete olfactive experience; like smelling a perfume.

  4. Thank you everyone.

    JoanElaine: I'll have to get that book.

    Michelle: I missed turkey this thanksgiving, but I'm looking forward to smells like that at Christmas.

  5. What a lyrical and evocative post - you have detonated some scented landmines of my own by reminding me of long forgotten smells from childhood, like silk crinolines and erasers. Hauntingly beautiful stuff!

  6. wonderful post - love the reference to Mr. Bubble!

  7. Confession: Serge Lutens Chergui reminds me of Mr. Bubble! That's all I could think of when I tested it, but it's been so long since I actually smelled Mr. Bubble, maybe it's all in my head?

  8. hahaa! I'm going to have to sniff Chergui tonight and see if Mr. Bubble's ghost comes through!


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