Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Scents of Place



Ocklawaha River. December 10, 2009

It was cold this morning, even for December. I was standing on the bank of Ocklawaha River listening to the waking reveille dominated by the piercing chips of a cardinal hidden in a nearby wax myrtle thicket. High overhead, a gang of honking crows worked the rafters of the forest cathedral.

"a veil of misty drifts off the water...."
A veil of mist drifted off the water and curled around my ankles as I knelt down and dipped my hand into the water. Slowly and with unintended reverence, I lifted my cupped hand to my nose and took a deep whiff. In that instant, I was transported back to a night thirty years earlier, when I crossed Santa Fe River on the I-75 Bridge in the bed of an old pickup truck. It was my last ride of a three year hitchhiking odyssey, a quest of sorts, on which I had hoped to find my place in the world. In that moment, thanks to a breath of musty river air, I knew that place had been here all along. 

Some rituals are born of superstition. Others are meant to appease some god or another. My habit of beginning some tour-days with a quiet moment at the water’s edge and connecting with the river is nothing so grand. It’s a simple ritual that evolved many years ago from my habit of going to the riverbank after unloading the boats and splashing water in my face. When time allowed, I’d sit in the grass and close my eyes. It allowed me to cool down, but more, it helped quiet the racket in my mind—the counting of boats and gear, checking the roster, planning the route, reciting things I wanted to say and when I’d say them, checking my first-aid kit. I’d turn it all off and feel the cool water running off my face and down my neck.

As I knelt by the Ocklawaha that morning, I was engulfed by the river's scent. It wasn’t bad or good—just a faint essence of the river. It was familiar and comforting, like a grandmother’s attic. But, rather than scents of dusty photo albums, overstuffed chairs, doilies from a long-ago wedding and boxes of crisp letters written between young lovers now grown old, the images conjured by the river’s scent were of the present. They were of flowers, leaves and mud, birds and snakes and every living thing I knew to be living in that river’s forest and in its water. I couldn’t isolate any single fragrance and pin it to an exact source, but I recognized the blend.


Every river has its own scent. I don’t know this from any studies and I certainly don’t know it from personal experience; I can no more identify a river by its scent than I can sniff a Chardonnay and tell where the grapes were grown. I know rivers have their own scents because it can be no other way. Every river weaves through a unique blend of habitats, soils, minerals, plants and animals; each of them in unique proportions. Mostly I know it from riding in my truck with my basset hound, Gus. With his head out the window, his nose high and his floppy lips and ears slapping his head, he would erupt in an apoplectic mass of slobber and fur when we got about a mile from Ichetucknee River—his home turf.

Bears are even better. When I hang a bag of food from an oak limb near my campsite, every bear within a mile downwind will hoist its muzzle. An experienced old bruin will know he’s about to enjoy a snack of nuts, dried fruit and the sight of an annoying human scrambling into the underbrush.

The bear knows every stream in its range by its constellation of fragrances; the aromatic sum of its countless parts. It recognizes the blend of everything along its banks and in its water, from the butterweeds blooming below the rocky bluff and the sickening-sweet chitins of scarab beetles, to the musty fur of the river otters; it probably knows which otter. Depending on which way the wind is blowing, it knows what’s blooming in the high scrub or if a gator has stirred the muck of a spring freshet. For bears in the Ocklawaha forest, the air is a wild bouquet with strong elements of cypress pollen, 7000 year-old marl, squirrel turds and reptile musk. Waccasassa is a complex mix of buckeye blooms, rank golden club leaves, crimson, lipstick-scented groundnut flowers, fiddler crab froth and the putrid black muck exposed by low tides. 

But no mammal, regardless of brain, brawn or snout size, can match insects for scent detection. When a group of entomologists released sex pheromones of a female luna moth into the air, they found that males six miles downwind could detect them. Turns out the moth’s large, feathery antennae are not decorative but highly adapted scent detectors that make my own detector—my nose—look like a vestigial appendage relegated to holding up sunglasses. The lunas charms are wholly lost on me. 

I find it less intriguing than disappointing to know I am awash in a riot of scents that allows the bear to distinguish this river from all others. The bears nose twitches, the moth races past with a certainty of purpose, while I stand, deaf, dumb, blind and whatever smell-less is called. I want to know when to cheer on the luna. I want to smell the bear’s river.

I’d like to think there are people with trained “noses” who can recognize the complex tones of wild, “free-range” water. I would envy them but I would also be concerned. Any doe-eyed river-rat who found himself with such a gift would be invaluable to the world’s power brokers in these opening days of the Water Wars. 

I picture our hero as the uncomfortable guest at a black-tie “water tasting” event at the local Millionaires Club. Floating the room, he overhears connoisseurs discussing the finer points of river scents. Near the fireplace, a portly gent with a handlebar mustache and top hat (yes, I still get my rich-people clich├ęs from the Monopoly game) explains to an ambitious young upstart that rivers of the Suwannee basin westward carry subtle hues of beaver musk while those in the beaver-free streams of the Peninsula do not. Across the room, a bottled-water tycoon leans against a Martini bar and explains to a Saudi prince that blackwater is to spring water, what a wine cooler is to Champagne. A smarmy, toothy grin spreads across his flushed face when the maitre d’ sidles up carrying two crystal goblets and an elegant bottle of Ichetucknee.

Of course, any river-rat with such intimate knowledge of nature would likely be more comfortable in the “earthier” setting of a State Fair. As the scene opens, we find our hero sitting on a panel of river connoisseurs (though the Fair officials felt more comfortable billing them as “river sniffers”), in a converted “Scouts of the Wild West” shooting gallery, nestled between the Tilt-a-Whirl and a cotton candy stand. As the audience of a dozen or so mildly interested passers-by (including those in line for cotton-candy) watch, the judges pass a snifter of river water down the line. Each reverently lifts the vessel to his nose, closes his eyes and utters as many eloquent, quiche-and-Chablis descriptions and florid words as he can muster. 

Finally the flask comes to the champ. The audience falls silent as they watch him work his magic. He closes his eyes as he solemnly lifts the flask to his celebrated nose and inhales deeply. A faint smile of recognition spreads across his face. But he’s just warming up. As he leans forward, he pinches his eyes tight and focuses on the olfactory signals rushing his brain. “I’m detecting the subtle undertones of brine and rotten fish. This water is from of a coastal river.” An excited murmur breezes through the crowd. “I smell arrow-wood, red-buckeye, golden club, corkwood, ancient bald-cypress and garfish spawn. But there is no sign of mangrove detritus or spores of giant leather fern. This water comes from Waccasassa River…” a premature rustle of applause is cut short as he continues, “….the middle section.” The audience breaks into wild cheers. Even a few bleary-eyed, slightly-nauseous people staggering off the Tilt-a-Whirl applaud limply. The judges flutter around the champ like warblers in wax-myrtles. But the champ is oblivious, his attentions fully on the light breeze that has wafted though the stands. He tips back his head, closes his eyes and breathes it in.


The clock ticks. I splash another handful of Ocklawaha on my face. I close my eyes and breathe deeply. I believe, the way people always like to believe such things, that I can smell a thousand-year-old cypress... and just a hint of bear.

Chaz - Feb 19 2018 (7).JPG
An otter sniffs the air

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Appreciation to my father who told me about this webpage,
this blog is in fact remarkable.

Lars Andersen said...

Thank you very much, Anonymous. And thanks to your father, as well.