I grew up with pine trees outside my bedroom window. For eleven years, I fell asleep listening to the branches and needles swoosh in the breeze coming off the mountains. The wind is an everyday occurrence on the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. It starts to blow around three in the afternoon and keeps up until after sundown.
In the front of our house, there were two trees, quite close to one another. One was easy to climb, the other not so much. My sister and I would climb the easy tree, grab a branch from the other tree and swing across to the taller tree. Then, if we climbed way to the top, we could sit way up high and sway in the afternoon gusts.
We’d grip the trunk tight with our hands and lock our ankles below the branch we were sitting on as the entire tree would bend and sway. I’d always stick my nose right up against the branches and breathe in the vanilla-y smell of the Douglas pines. It is one of my favorite smells in the world. Even now, the smell of pine makes me think of the home I grew up in.
Last week, my family traveled to the Redwood forests in the far northwest corner of California, just below the Oregon border. I thought about what those giant forests might smell like. When we first pulled in to the campground and opened the truck doors, I fully expected to smell the forest, the wood, the moss . . . something, but I didn’t smell anything.
The next day, on a hike through a grove of giant old growth trees, I stuck my face right into a tree. This tree towered over me and made the Douglas Firs I grew up with look like tall, woody weeds. I breathed in deeply through my nose thinking that up this close I’d be able to smell some piney scent or maybe even some sort of tang like in a eucalyptus tree. I didn’t smell a thing.
I was hoping for something, some scent that would, after I returned home, remind me of these trees and forests that exuded a sense of peace. Standing below the trees, we could crane our necks and see neither the tops of the trees or the sky. They were immense, majestic. I loved them and will return someday, but I won’t be reminded of them by a passing scent, the way the smell of pine trees reminds me of my childhood home.
At the end of the week, after a long drive we pulled into our driveway following a summer thunder shower, and I breathed in the smell of my home now, the sweet scent of sage following a rain.
Smell is integral to my sense of place. I hadn’t realized quite how much I associated smell with place until this trip, to a place that I thought should have smelled but didn’t, through Tahoe and the smell of my childhood home, and back to the desert after a rain.
It is something that I will definitely be aware of in terms of my writing as well. What does my setting smell like? And what does that smell mean for the characters or what emotions do they associate with it? I think I’ll have to chat with them about that.