Thursday, August 2, 2012

Synonyms for Smell

I did a lot of driving the first two days of August.  Explored territory I haven't visited for several years.  Not much time for photography, but the things that caught my eye at 65 mph were things I associate with smells.  Two such plants shown above are Fennell and Rosemary.  Others that drifted into our open car windows were Eucalyptus, Diesel fumes, dead skunk, and chicken farms (AKA Petaluma),  As I thought about these olfactory stimuli, I realized what a limited vocabulary we have to deal with such things.  Perhaps we are talking about a terribly underused sense.  I remember that during my last nature hike at Oakland Camp a week ago we saw many species of trees, shrubs, and wildflowers that my guests had seen before but never smelled.  These included Pennyroyal, Mugwort, Jeffrey Pine, Gumplant, and two species of wild cherries.  For the most part, people were delighted and amazed that these olfactory delights were "right under their noses" so to speak. 
A brief search for synonyms for the noun 'smell' yielded the following: fragrance, odor, aroma, bouquet, scent, stench, stink, mephitis, and ...well, that's enough for now.  Note how the words fall easily into a positive or negative category, nothing too subtle.  I recall that when I introduce people on my hikes to new odors, if they are pleasant, at least to me, I tend to use the word "fragrance."  I tend to avoid the use of the negatives because I am trying to represent nature appreciation.  There's a hole category of bugs that are usually called stink bugs, and that's a problem.  Sometimes bug will emit an odor designed to ward off predators, and the word 'stink' might be warranted.  But, if I'm trying to explain what a wondrous adaptation it is, and that what is an offensive odor to some might be attractive to others, I try to avoid vocabulary that enables the existing prejudices against such critters. 
My kids and I have gotten a charge out of watching the Dentate Eleodes beetle successfully defend itself against one of our cats by raising its abdomen in the air and emitting a cyanide-laced spray. It bothers me (or should I say bugs me) to have kids always call this amazing beetle a Stink Bug.  Not to be totally biased in favor of this beetle, I should add that it's quite an impressive show when a certain species of wild mouse outsmarts the beetle by holding it's abdomen against the ground with one paw while eating away at the other end.  We've also enjoyed watching our cats fight various stinging insects.  Sometimes they win and sometimes they lose.  Sort of like dogs vs. porcupines.  Some dogs are smart enough to avoid porcupines and some art not. 
In closing, I'll say I'm glad I travel with windows cracked or fully open most of the time.  As thousands of vehicles passed us on the freeway with windows closed and AC on, I felt sad to think of all they were missing.  Tomorrow we're going tide-pooling.  I can hardly wait to smell sea weed again.

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