A Smell Walk on the Mild Side
Missing the forest for the trees
Toronto-based writer Tracy Wan is, among other things, an amateur perfume enthusiast who runs the Invisible Stories website where she showcases aspiring indie perfumers and fragrance culture.
Wan has a new piece in The Atlantic:
The Hidden World of Scents Outside Your Door
Part of the allure of going on a smell walk is how challenging it feels to engage such an underused sense.
Her anodyne essay consists of anecdotes of a smell walk through her neighborhood; mentions of Kate McLean’s “smellscape mappings” and the alleged “olfactory artist” Sissel Tolaas; quotes from Aristotle and Kant; and her experience of temporary smell loss from COVID.
It’s a harmless piece and a welcome break from The Atlantic’s relentless political ax-grinding. We hope she got a nice fat fee for writing it.
But in some ways the essay is rather too easygoing.
Consider Sissel Tolaas. Anyone who spends an hour looking into her career will find ample evidence that she is a humbug, pure and simple. Wan does her readers a disservice when she name checks her approvingly.
Wan’s mention of Kate McLean is a missed opportunity to explore the value of smell maps. By creating a visual representation of the invisible, a smellscape map is potentially a way to gain insight into the role of odors in our daily lives. There have been various smell mapping projects, some by individual graphic designers, others crowd-sourced. All interesting design projects. But no one has yet asked: what exactly do they add to our understanding of smell or culture? Can a smell map—the record of one person’s olfactory impressions of a given location on a single occasion—be an intellectual contribution?
Let’s immediately dispense with the “subjectivity” objection. The record of a journey (Lewis & Clark) or an account of the seasons in one location (Edward Abbey) is always subjective: the author selects which impressions to include and which to ignore.
The major limitation of a smell map is that it captures a single slice of time, whereas what we value in travel narratives are the larger themes created from accumulated impressions. A smell map is a snapshot. In comparison, smell walks taken at morning, noon, and night would provide depth and texture: one might gain a sense of the ongoing olfactory rhythms of a neighborhood.
One can walk past the feedlots of Greeley, Colorado and chart the smell of manure. That’s both accurate and trivial. But repeat the walk in different seasons or in different kinds of weather and you expand the field of view and increase the resolution: The stink of manure playing against the smell of dry hay on a hot day; the mood at the outdoor tables at Weldworks Brewing under light and heavy stink.
Smell maps are often flat and color-coded. Why not add a topographic effect where elevation equals odor intensity? Why not a time-lapse presentation where smells move across the landscape like a storm on a weather map?
I can see it now: The Channel 9 Accu-Scent Forecast on the six o’clock news, with a live standup by reporter Bob Pompadour in Greeley.