Wednesday, September 15, 2010


The photograph is an entry in the State Fair crafts competition.

It has been said, and I believe it is true, that emotions and memories are most strongly evoked by scents, more than any other of the senses. Walk into a school, inhale, and suddenly you’re fifteen again. Or six. Well, I will never be six again in an elementary school, because there is no more chalk powder in the air, or rubber overshoes.

For me, spring begins with the scent of wet, thawed earth as the snow and ice depart. Spring has truly sprung when I smell the first freshly-mowed lawn. Or lilacs in bloom. Summer smells of tomato vines, corn on the cob, watermelon, cantaloupe, new hay, petunias, charcoal starter. (Summer is over when the State Fairgrounds smell of fried onions, deep-fried meat, horses and cows and pigs and chickens, and hot miniature donuts.) Outdoors, the winter air doesn’t smell of much of anything, but it’s cold enough in Minnesota to freeze the hair in your nostrils. Well, there IS the scent of evergreens, but that smell belongs to Christmas, which is a season all its own. Indoors, the smell of fuel oil (from my childhood) and wood smoke. Maybe the scent of the seashore is a winter scent, in a way. If I’m lucky enough to go south on vacation or a book tour, the smell of salt-sea air is, for me, a winter scent that also evokes summer. Whiplash in the nose.

My favorite season, autumn, is full of scents. The most famous one, of course, comes at the very end of autumn, the great smell of Thanksgiving dinner. But building up to it is the dusty-sharp smell of dried leaves crushed underfoot, of fresh apples, autumn vegetables, fruit pies, hearty stews and soups, roast goose (more on that below), that dusty smell when the heat is turned on for the first time, new school books, the old winter coat taken out and readied for winter, hot apple cider with a cinnamon stick in it, Halloween candy, the scent of burning leaves. Nothing else smells like burning oak, maple, and elm leaves. Come October, we’d walk home from school in a haze of sharp-scented smoke. We elder folks can be instantly carried off to our childhood at that scent, a time when everyone raked leaves from their lawn, piled them in the gutter or driveway (or even in the middle of the lawn -- the ashes were good for next year’s grass) and set them on fire. The air was full of that smell for weeks, as house after house had that bonfire lit. Not long ago, when we lived in a townhouse with a fireplace, I would actually go out on the lawn to gather leaves and burn them in the fireplace, looking for just one more trip in memory’s time machine.

Then there’s Michaelmas, September 29. There‘s an old saying: “Who eats goose on the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels will not want for money for a year.” When we were first married, we had a friend who had resurrected that medieval superstition, and would roast several geese and invite everyone she knew to drop by with a dish of something to share, and have a bite or two of goose. When she moved away, we decided to keep the custom ourselves. I wrote a parody of Amazing Grace called Amazing Goose, which we sing, but we also say a perfectly serious prayer to Michael the Archangel. It won’t make you rich, we believe, but it stops the fiscal emergencies. It’s like, before Michaelmas goose, you get three hundred dollars in the bank and your car has a four hundred dollar breakdown. After Michaelmas, you get three hundred dollars in the bank and your car has a two hundred and seventy-five dollar breakdown. I stuff our geese (when we having a big party, like this year, I roast multiple geese) with chopped tart apples, lots (LOTS) of peeled garlic, and green grapes, and roast them in an extra-hot oven. Mmmmmm, that wonderful smell! Michaelmas has become a holiday as traditional as Thanksgiving in our house. It falls on a Wednesday this year. I will send the recipe and the words to anyone who wants them.

By the way, the winner of my “crystal spheres” contest is Judy Harper of Birmingham, Alabama. Congratulations, Judy! I’ll be sending her a bookmark with her name ornamented with fancy stitches.


Elaine said...

I would love the words to the song and recipe. Thank you.

Linda O. Johnston said...

I could just smell all of the scents you suggested in my imagination, Monica. Your descriptions are great!

Betty Hechtman said...

I love reading about scents because I smell them in my head as I read and get all the nostalgia connected with them.

The winter scent I think of is the smell of the cold on my father's overcoat when he came home from work.

Monica Ferris said...

Will be sending the words in a few minutes, Elaine. Thanks for asking!

Betty, you're right, you CAN smell the cold on a winter coat fresh from the outdoors. I had forgotten that. As Bob Hope used to sing, Thanks for the memories . . .

Julie said...

I remember smelling snow coming in Wisconsin. I didn't realize I'd picked that up until we'd lived there about a year, and I came in from outside saying, "It smells like snow." And when it smells like snow outside, it usually smells like stew or chili inside. Wish it would cool off here in Indy. The smell of dusty, dry lawns has totally lost its appeal.

Monica Ferris said...

Julie, you may be right about smelling snow, I'll have to pay attention this winter -- which may be here sooner than we want. There may be a frost warning over this coming weekend.

I'm currently writing a novel set in January, and keep being surprised to go outdoors and seeing the leaves still on the trees, flowers blooming in the yards, and no snow.

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

Monica, you are amazing. What a lovely tribute to fall. I have read that smell is the most powerful memory tool, and you just proved it.

Are we all invited over to partake of that goose dinner?