The weather’s been rather reminiscent of Brisbane (Australia) this week – warm to hot, humid, with storms every afternoon. Even the blasted smell of the air is the same, that steamy mix of grass and water rising off tar and cement smell that comes when it starts to rain after a hot day.

It hasn’t been quite hot enough to include actual steam rising from the roads and driveways, but certainly enough to smell that way, and of course take me on a solid trip down memory lane.

See, smell (or scent, if you want to be refined about it) is probably the most evocative of the senses. Even though we humans have relatively weak sniffers, anything we pick up by smell has the ability to bypass what passes for our rational thought processes and go straight to the hindbrain – at levels that can be damned embarrassing (like the time I found gardenia in bloom in Texas, mentally went straight to Brisbane Christmases and got all weepy).

Everyone’s scent triggers are going to be different, of course, but they’re also going to be very strong – and anyone who’s had the misfortune to smell dying/rotting animal will never forget it. The roadkill dragged into those deep rainwater ditches on the side of Texas roads is not something you want to inhale after a few days of ninety-degree weather. Trust me on that one.

Of course, it’s also a relatively easy cheat for a writer, and one that rarely fails if you can Heinlein it in there. Throwing in smell cues every now and then, regardless of what they are, is enough to subconsciously cue a reader so they’re not smacked in the face when you bring out the smell that throws your character for a loop or evokes the big traumatic memory, or whatever the key thing you need the character to feel or do happens to be. It’s only a cheap trick if that’s the first time you’ve dropped a scent in.

Not to mention, something that someone can smell feels a lot more real than something that’s not described with scent. You can talk all you like about the look and feel of leather, but the smell…? You’ll have your readers mentally in a leather goods store in seconds.

Similarly, a place that smells sterile is going to evoke an image of somewhere stark and cold, where smells of baking bread will have readers thinking of homey places.

And there’s nothing that can quite match the smell of a hot day after a storm. That one will take me back to days when I would sit out on the back porch and watch the storms come in, thoroughly enjoying the cool wind that would take the worst of the day’s heat and staleness away, and letting the drum roll of rain on a metal roof relax my mind.

I miss that. Even though sometimes it would get so loud you couldn’t hear anyone speaking, the sound of rain on a metal roof is something that just doesn’t happen here. All the roofs here are that composite fake-tile stuff over a layer of tarry stuff laid on wood (I have no idea what it’s called, but it’s pretty much ubiquitous here in the USA, unlike Oz where it’s almost all either tile or metal roofs).

Oh, and have a picture of an itty-bitty-baby Buttercup with a sorely missed Baby

19 thoughts on “Evocations

  1. A cousin toured Ireland with “Up With People.” She stayed with a family in their 200-year-old fieldstone, low ceilings, tiny windows, small rooms. She felt sorry for them, living in such a dumpy house. She showed photos of her home in the USA, a two-story farmhouse built around 1920, big shade trees, wrap around porch, whitewashed with baby blue trim. The children looked at her pityingly. “You must have been very poor.” Huh? Why? “You live in a wood house.”

    1. Perspective… that’s a lovely way to illustrate just how much our experiences color our conclusions.

    2. Chesterton once observed that the writers who bragged of progress in Britain because houses were no longer wood, never noticed that many of the up-to-date houses in America were also wood.

  2. Composite is the word for that kind of roof. Down here, several neighborhoods insisted that you had to have wooden shingles. A major hail storm and the insurance companies, along with a fire that jumped to two other properties, ended that requirement. And in my limited experience, there is nothing louder than hail on a tin roof.

    1. It is possible to get louder than hail on a tin roof – but it takes a _lot_ of effort. The last hailstorm I recall from Oz it felt like I was stuck inside a snare drum while the drummer was doing a drum roll.

  3. Actually, the notion that humans have a poor sense of smell is a myth. Couldn’t offhand find the study I wanted, but here’s one anyway:


    In the one I can’t relocate, testing was done using trails made by passing a small paintbrush over chocolate, then dragging it hither and yon across a carpet. The test subjects had no problem following that trail. In fact human performance was as good as the average dog, but =awareness= that they were following a scent was mostly absent (being subsumed by the visual cues).

    From that study, and personal experience, I developed a suspicion that the famous wilderness trackers weren’t following some near-invisible trail of visual clues, but rather were unwittingly following scent, then noticing the visual clues when they happened to coincide with the scent trail.

    I’m aware that I do this myself. Here’s an example: my tenant’s dog lost his $600 training collar somewhere out in the sage and rabbitbrush. After a suitable period of panic, she comes wailing to me to help find it. I cast back and forth downwind a couple times, then went straight to it, having had no idea where it was in a 14 acre field other than that it was somewhere to the east, therefore upwind. I did not consciously scent it, but it’s pretty obvious that’s how I found it.

    Many small “pet breed” dogs, and most cats, have a much poorer sense of smell than humans do. If you’ve ever done scent discrimination training, that dogs’ sniffers are not uniformly good becomes obvious. The good nose whizzes past the scatter of objects, and instantly on-the-fly picks out the one with your fresh hand scent. The poor nose has to sniff and sniff and is clearly grinding the gears, and after a lot of consideration and back-and-forth comparison, eventually picks out the right one (well, usually… sometimes they miss it).

    There are all sorts of studies on human pheromones, but the one that’s a trifle alarming showed that normally women choose a mate based on histocompatibility (ie. a good genetic match for healthy offspring), as indicated to her by the man’s pheromones. But women who are on The Pill choose a mate that most closely matches their fathers’ genetics. (Occurs to me that this hormonal disruption basically juvenilizes the sense of smell that relates to reproduction, and may explain much of the current generation of “spiteful mutants” not to mention the divorce rate.)

    1. Wow. Thanks for the link to the article: that was fascinating. I’m definitely going to have to train myself out of the idea that humans have weaker noses than other land mammals.

      I can certainly believe that we aren’t consciously aware of the scent cues we’re responding to or following. I’ve experienced the way a smell will fade into the background and become basically “not there” after a while – most likely a way of filtering out input so we don’t get overwhelmed.

      I do wonder if there’s much if anything on the crossover between smell and taste? I recall learning long ago that most of what we perceive as taste is actually smell, but I don’t remember any of the details.

      1. It’s been speculated that the principal reason we don’t rely more on smell is that our noses are so far off the ground.

  4. Not just smell. Eain on a metal roof; freight train passing through town; 30’s dance band music — always evoke my childhood memories. Every time I taste cola I remember the 1958 Rose Parade where, after our march was over, the band members were given ice cold coke in paper cups, no ice.

    1. Oh, yes. There are always things that will be very evocative. I find smell is the strongest, but that doesn’t mean the others are weak.

      For me it’s rain on a metal roof, the tangy salt smell and low roar of waves from the ocean. The feel of the air on a hot oceanside day. Battered fish (preferably cod) with steak fries that are crispy on the outside and fluffy inside with fresh lemon to squeeze over the fish. If the whole lot is wrapped in paper, so much the better: there were so many days at the beach where we finished off by buying a bunch of fish and chips at the local store and unwrapped the paper on a picnic table so everyone could just reach in and have what they wanted.

  5. When I read ‘Evocations’, I thought of invocations which is what you’re doing with layering in scent descriptors.

    But also, invocations: Over a year ago on a post of yours, I mentioned that we were cat-less and had been for some time and were looking for another kitty.
    Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. We weren’t looking hard for a variety of reasons.

    But I told the right person and last Saturday, Bast delivered.

    Judy, from two streets over, delivered Dimitri to our door.
    He’s about 8 weeks old (?), cute as a button, a black and white tuxedo but mostly white, and obviously not feral based on his behavior and cleanliness. He was dumped.

    We’ve got a well-kitten check scheduled for today.

    Dimitri is our new intern and, based on previous interns, will swiftly move into a management position where he observes the rest of us working from a position of ease and comfort.

    Thank you!

    1. That was the idea, to play a bit on invoke and evoke.

      Congratulations on your new furry intern. May he have a long and happy career with you.

      1. He’s going to stay with us! There was a moment of doubt at the vet’s yesterday.
        The vet got out the scanner and ran it all over Dimitri, looking for a microchip.
        Luckily, he did not have one and I didn’t have to flee the vet, clutching my now-stolen kitten.

  6. Smells are surer than sounds or sights
    To make your heart-strings crack–
    They start those awful voices o’ nights
    That whisper, ” Old man, come back! ”
    That must be why the big things pass
    And the little things remain,
    Like the smell of the wattle by Lichtenberg,
    Riding in, in the rain.

    There’s a combination of urban scents that drags me back to Vienna 1 (the inner, old district) every time I smell it.

    1. I don’t doubt it. The scents that go with a particular place (and time) can drag us right back there. That’s why I got all weepy when I encountered gardenia blooms. That smell is Christmas and family to me.

  7. Indeed – and nothing evokes a place more than a peculiar smell. For me it is the smell of fresh rain on California chaparral brush to bring back trail rides when I was a teenager in California, or ancient linoleum and the faint odor of boiled cabbage to recall British youth hostels. Freshly-cut lumber, the smell of tomato plants, the salt-surf and drying seaweed on the shore to remind me of the beach. It’s a good thing to note, in setting a particular scene when writing. Someone who was at a book club meeting where one of my books had been a choice for the members mentioned once how often I noted how things smelled.

    1. It tends to make things come alive in your mind, when you’re reminded of a smell from your past.

      Mind you, I still have olfactory hallucinations from the days of the Roomba poopocalypses when our much loved (and now much missed) Bugger-Cat was having his intestinal cancer issues. I swear that smell got burned into my nostrils. The memory does not in any way have to be a good one…

    1. Interesting… I might try that when it’s actually raining here to see if the combination of the sound and the smells from the rain work for me.

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