A rose by any other name

FOSSICKING through an old shoe box of Scanlens football cards at the showgrounds market, I plucked out a 1994 Paul Roos and instinctively put it to my nose.

Sounds weird, I know, but anyone enamored by footy cards in their youth will understand.

Incredibly, after 20 years, it still smelt of that unchewable stick of pink bubblegum that came in every packet of those sacred artifacts. For years, the smell of bubblegum was the smell of football.  

It wasn’t until I snagged my first autograph on game day that I learnt footballers really smell like linament and sweat.

Our noses remember so much more than our eyes or ears. But it isn’t just the profusion of new experiences that make childhood smells so enduring.

According to researchers at Stockholm University, we are much better at detecting and remembering smells when we’re young.

Smell is one of the most primitive senses we share with other animals.

Smell is one of the most primitive senses we share with other animals. The more complex the animal, the smaller the olfactory area of the brain, which explains why we have such a poor sense of smell compared to our four-legged friends.

When we’re born, however, our olfactory bulb is incredibly well developed, suggesting that most of our scent training occurs very early in life.  

I remember visiting an installation at the Melbourne Museum a few years back that replicated a school shelter shed from the 1970s – full of the sights, smells and sounds of the schoolyard.

Visitors were invited to sit at a wooden desk (the kind we carved our initials into with the tip of a compass) and write their school-day memories on small cards for others to read.

For some, the aromas of lockers, chalk dust and lunch boxes were heady reminders of childhood freedom. For me they dredged up fear and anxiety – made me long for the safety of home.

Finnish author, Tove Jansson, wrote that “smells are a sheath of memory and security”. We all instinctively crave scents that bring calm to our troubled souls.

As a creative writing teacher, one of my favourite ways to engage participants is to ask them to list ten smells that make them feel safe, happy or calm. It often leads to some wonderfully emotive writing, whether the author is eight or 80.

At a rural women’s writing workshop I remember a lady in her 80s reading a piece she’d written about her grandmother. Even though her gran had passed away 50 years earlier, the scent of rosewater still conjured her presence.

“The smell of silence,” she called it. So beautiful.

And while an old footy card might not seem as poignant, I’m sure Proust would argue that even the scent of stale bubblegum has the power to raise the dead when longing is profound.

Shakespeare would agree – a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

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