A SCENT OF WINTER

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What do the first leaves of autumn smell like? Depends who you are.

by Leslie Anthony

Whether we like it or not, it’s autumn. I know this not because the leaves are already turning in the high country and other places, but because I had my first ski dream the other night. I don’t know if I was ready for it. But I think another dream I had a few weeks back might help with that.

As one does, I nodded off in the passenger seat during a long drive across the Prairies. Shards of a dream lodged in the interstices between fragmented sleep and banging my head on the window. It was a childhood scene with nobody in it, a rapid-running virtual tour of elementary school, seen through the eyes of a younger self. It started in the yard on a sunny September day, where crisp, curled leaves of red and yellow blew like tiny tumbleweeds along a chain-link fence, trailing the stale smell of suspended decomposition they hold until November’s rain sends them on their way to mulch. The scene shifted inside to a classroom where it was January; along the wall, rows of steam radiators draped with the grey, red and white-ringed socks we all wore to play ball hockey in the slushy schoolyard sent up a miasma of wet wool mixed with the damp, canvas innards of rubber boots. On the desks sat freshly mimeographed spelling tests, airing the strangely pleasant mixture of solvent and drying ink. Then it was lunchtime and strains of egg-salad, mustard, and peanut butter permeated the air. In the school hallways, now suddenly hung with the iconography of springtime art class, a nose of fresh-cut construction paper and white glue hovered.

 

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“As I stared out the car window, perhaps because I longed for a mountain to rise up through the planar of glowing canola, I’d found myself wondering what skiing smelled like.”

 

I don’t know what sponsored this particular dream (does one ever?) and it went no further, but I was intrigued by the fact that my mind walked through it aroma by aroma. It’s been said that odor is the most powerful arbiter of memory, more evocative than any other sense. (One imagines this to be an atavism from a time when scents were everything to our ancestors.) Certainly we’ve all had the experience of having something distantly familiar waft past our noses only to have it all come flooding back. As I stared out the car window, perhaps because I longed for a mountain to rise up through the planar of glowing canola, I’d found myself wondering what skiing smelled like.

Sure there was the hockey-bag pong of ski boots and warm wax and foul polypro underwear and old, wet Gore-Tex and a million other odiferous clichés, but as in my school dream, these comprise more of an ancillary bouquet that accompanies the actions you execute. What, more precisely, is the actual smell the mind would pair with ripping down a hill?

There’s the fragrance of strong sunshine working on whatever is available—the metal-meets-fungus it pulls off lichen-coated rock, or the car-deodorizer that evergreens give off to let you know they’re still alive. Then there’s the smell of storms, which—though they can vary depending on where you are, how cold it is and how much moisture is in the air—are fundamentally similar in that precipitation has a distinctive smell both coming and going. And then there’s the sharp nose of cold itself, a whiff, I imagine, of molecules halted mid-motion.

What each of these evocations have in common, of course, is that they’re the perfume of a mountain atmosphere, of the air rushing past you, offering both resistance and a sense of place. And so maybe it’s really that simple. Skiing smells like rushing air. And rushing air reeks of freedom.

OK, I’m ready for those ski dreams now.

 

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