The Smell of Home

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.

How can it be possible that these trees don't smell like . . . anything? Notice the itsy, bitsy person in the corner for some perspective on size. They're HUGE!

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.

Story world? What happened to plain old setting?

In this whole novel writing process, I’ve learned a whole new term – story world.  What happened to plain old setting?  I teach high school English and one of the basic standards is that a story takes place in a setting ie. it has a place, a time, and a mood.  However, novelists apparently don’t place their novels in a mere setting, they create a world.  I actually like this idea, though I think it’s interesting that the production end of books (novelists) have a different language and possibly even definition of place and time in their novels than the receiving end (readers) – well, maybe not all readers but at least the English teacher types like myself who have to teach literary terms!

One of the loveliest elements of a great novel is to be carried away to a new place, to really live and get a sense of that place and time.  That’s one of the reasons I read.  So I’ve decided that the idea of a story world is much more interesting than a mere setting.  But I’m learning that creating an entire “world” is tough!  It can’t be too vast, filled with boring descriptions, not detailed enough, or full of irrelevant or gratuitous details.  In thinking about this, I’ve decided that great writers make both vast and confined story worlds feel intimate and incredibly relevant to the characters.  A specific character in a great novel just could not experience this story in any other possible place or time.   Can you imagine Scarlett O’Hara in any place or time than the south during the Civil War? Or, Frodo any place other than Middle Earth? I can’t.  Mitchell and Tolkein so beautifully created their worlds that the characters live there, and we can’t possibly imagine them any other place or time!  Now, I just have to figure out how to do that.  My setting is vast and encompasses a journey, so the story world is physically shifting as the main character progresses across the terrain, but she also evolves emotionally.  This adds a whole new element of . . . ack!!!  I have a changing setting that must remain as vast as it is but with relevance and intimacy to the story and the characters.   I think I’m going to put my scrapbooking skills to work this weekend and create a giant map to put on my wall to get started with this world.  I need a visual.  I’ll let you know how it goes.