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RUSSELL WANGERSKY: Scents and sensibility

Society seems obsessed with wanting to override natural odours. —
Society seems obsessed with wanting to override natural odours. — 123RF Stock Photo

Why does everything in life have to be scent-sational?

High on the wall in the men’s room at work, there’s an asthmatic little white box. Regularly throughout the day, it issues a desperate little sigh of scent, an exhalation of curated odour.

On the floor beneath it, there’s a sticky, discoloured patch on the tile where the sprayed material has settled.

Occasionally, a man in uniform is paid to come in with a big suitcase. I’ve seen inside: there are bottles with names like wildberry, sandalwood and black currant, different scents for different situations, I suppose. The box on the wall is recharged regularly, and has its battery changed when it loses its breath.

Another device is bolted to the wall above the urinal, hard-wired into the water supply with a metal pipe. A sensor on the box shoots another scented product into the urinal’s water supply.

But even that is not enough.

A plastic disc sits inside the urinal, the disk either a brilliant pinkish-red or bright yellow. The red disk is overwhelmingly wildberry — the yellow, enough lemon oil to stop you in your tracks.

What is it with our fetish to overwhelm bad smells with heavyweight chemical “goodness”?

I mean, I understand that bathrooms sometimes smell, well, like bathrooms. But bathrooms with scent dispensers also still smell like bathrooms, because that’s what they are — just with an overlay of cloying chemistry to make things particularly pungent.

But it’s far from just bathrooms — there’s a huge industry involved in making things smell like someone’s idea of better.

I think about that walking to work some mornings, especially when I go through a neighbourhood where someone’s got their laundry in the dryer with one of those detergents that’s supposed to keep your laundry smelling fresh for weeks. (It’s not really keeping the laundry fresh, of course — it’s just overwriting the laundry with whatever long-lasting scent oils and chemicals come the closest to “fresh.”)

What is it with our fetish to overwhelm bad smells with heavyweight chemical “goodness”?

I understand that exercise gear and hockey equipment can get foul — but home products to block one smell and replace it with an acceptable override seems almost counter-productive.

And who’s choosing what’s a nice smell, anyway?

Why does liquid hand soap have to smell like a bad chemical approximation of an explosion of black cherry candy?

Who chose industrial potpourri over, say, the smell of baking bread?

I’ve always been struck by just how evocative smells can be, good, bad and even downright ugly. Fresh trout cooking in butter with wood smoke in the air transports me to any number of riverbanks, while the spice of cut fir or the bitterness of bruised dogwood bark takes me right to the woodyard, the small, tramped-down circular universe of snow and splitting block and saw.

The cornucopia of decay that accompanies pulling your boot out of the bog is hardly pleasant, but it is complex and unique — distinct, even, from the equally rich salt-water rot of clam-flat mud. And as an added bonus, it can cast you back to an experience decades ago.

Sometimes, even though they’re earthy enough to generate repellence, there are smells that herald the arrival of something truly fine, like a particularly heady cheese.

The point I’m trying to make is that we do ourselves a disservice building walls of scent instead of recognizing the fact that we’ve been given a remarkably discriminatory sense that’s keyed into our thoughts and memories in a way that might have been crucial to our survival as a species.

But by all means, let’s stun it into near-silence with a manufactured, artificial blast of bubblegum or faux-citrus. Heaven forbid we might actually have to deal with a bad smell.

Russell Wangersky’s column appears in SaltWire publications across Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at — Twitter: @wangersky

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