I’ve been reading a lot of nonfiction about smells. Or smell perception, to be exact.
How people experience smells, through their bodies, socially or emotionally, is the focus of some fascinating nonfiction. Nonfiction offers a unique opportunity to tell vivid stories that weave together a scientific understanding of smells, scents, odours, fragrances and aromas with unexpected insights into everyday life.
Stories about smells are not just scratch and sniff books—although these are not without their olfactory charm. Rather, nonfiction that explores the ephemeral and often powerful experiences of smell can help to re-imagine our relationship to the world, and each other.
Kate Grenville writes evocatively about smell. In Grenville’s book The Case Against Fragrance, she uses everyday objects to imaginatively describes how the human nose interacts with molecules in the air that combine together to form odours.
‘What happens up there in the far reaches of your upper nose is that those bits—molecules of smell-chemicals—lock onto the ends of stringy nerve receptors,’ Grenville writes, following the body’s olfactory journey. ‘These are connected to the brain through a grid of bone at the top of the nose (I picture a tea strainer with bits of dental floss hanging down through the holes).’
Grenville goes onto explain that information from the odour molecules travels through those nerve receptors into the brain, where it is processed in the olfactory centre, and the sensation of smell is experienced. The book is easy to read, and draws on thorough research, making Grenville’s critique of the fragrance industry, including specific detail on how exposure to particular chemicals in fragrances has potentially harmful effects, compelling. By the last page, I felt like my bathroom needed to be emptied of its shampoos and deodorants.
Not all nonfiction authors write cautionary tales about smells, however. Alexandra Horowitz and Rachel Herz, scientists studying dog behaviour and human psychology respectively, and Mary Roach, a freelance writer of science and humour books, have produced more humorous works of nonfiction.
In Being a Dog: Following the Dog into a World of Smell, Horowitz tags along with her dog Finnegan as she writes about the hundreds of millions cells in the nerves of his snout that he uses to sniff the bums of other dogs to see if they’re anxious, friendly or on heat. Herz spends more time with humans in her book The Scent of Desire: Discovering Our Enigmatic Sense of Smell, exploring the ‘psychological riddles’ of why smells evoke such vivid memories for us, and have deep emotional connections, including her unusual love of skunk odour.
Roach provides a snapshot of olfactory history in the American military as part of her book Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War. After discovering secret military documents, Roach reveals the military’s interest in the use of a ‘stench liquid’ during World War 2. The ‘evil-smelling’ liquid, developed by a gadget man in the British Intelligence and available in gelatine capsules and a brass spritzing device, was to be squirted on the enemy and make them smell of ‘personal uncleanliness’. It was hoped the smell would be demoralising and alienating. The American military went on to develop its own ‘olfactory non-lethal weapon’, a blend smelling like shit, vomit, smelly feet, goat and rotten egg—in paste and squirt forms.
I’m not planning on building a stink bomb, but I do need to understand how people experience smells for a nonfiction book I’m writing. My book aims to tell a story of Melbourne through the smells people notice as part of daily life. To help with research for the book, I’m interviewing people from a variety of backgrounds living in Melbourne. It’s a technique I learned from researchers studying smell perception before and after socialism in Poland. Reading back through the notes and transcripts, it’s fascinating to discover what smells people remember, those pungent, pleasant and everything in-between.
In one transcript, a person fondly remembers the smell of oil and grease from their father’s mechanics workshop. Another relishes the odour from rain or water falling on hot concrete, such as when a storm arrives after a long, hot day in Melbourne. The smell of rosemary or similar herbs growing in the garden are appetising for many people, and for one participant, were not only associated with an enjoyment of food and cooking, but family in Greece.
Some smell memories are common. A lot people describe the savoury smell of garlic and onion frying, or the overpowering odours of deodorant and sweat in high school classrooms. A few factories are remembered positively for their sweet smells of biscuits or chocolate. Other industry is remembered with much less nostalgia, such as the harsh stink of cleaning agents used in shipping containers.
The smell of things burning, and its rarity now in Melbourne, is a common experience too—like those rough odours of cigarette smoke that once made clothes stinky after a night on the town, or backyard incinerators on a Sunday afternoon.
To help sniff out more about life in Melbourne though, and give my book historical context, I’ve been reading records from the National Library of Australia, and the State Library of Victoria. Some of the more vivid records from newspapers and journals provide descriptions of the aromas and odours associated with plants, the streets and consumer products.
In May 1855, Rural Magazine, a monthly journal of farming, gardening and natural history, included ‘disandria foetida’ from the paddocks of Melbourne as one of its featured plants. The writer describes disandria foetida as a ‘creeping woolly leaved plant’ having a ‘most disagreeably foetid smell’. One can imagine being a writer looking for rich detail in the greenery at the edge of the city, then bending down to smell a curious looking plant, and reeling backwards in shock, overcome by a rank odour.
Not long after the federation of Australia was established, The Express and Daily Telegraph newspaper reported that William Judkins, a Methodist reformer and lay preacher, made an address in Camberwell to temperance supporters, arguing that smells made people give in to their cravings for alcohol.
‘Knowing this fact,’ the article reports from Judkin’s speech, ‘some publicans adopted the diabolical plan of throwing liquor into the streets so that the smell of it might attract men into their hotels.’ While Judkin’s argument is deeply problematic, what is remarkable is that the article, which is over 110 years old, resonates with recent debates concerning the availability of booze late at night in city centres across Australia.
Some later library records about smells in Melbourne are more positive. After World War II, the aromas of flowers were used with braille to help blind children recognise different kinds of plants. Fashion conscious men were able to buy suits that smelled like the Australian bush after rain. And in the late 1970s, the smell of spring created a sense of excitement as Carlton and North Melbourne footy clubs faced off in the end of season finals.
I’m still exploring library archives, but what I’ve found so far is that by reading newspaper and other records of smells, I get a strong and immersive sense of how life has changed in Melbourne—including the shift away from time spent outdoors, the expansion of suburban homes into the fields and bushlands that were once country areas, and seemingly rampant consumerism. These days, the smells of fried chips and burgers in McDonald’s fast food restaurants stretch far and wide, well beyond the city and its business and entertainment districts.
Reading books and stories about smells has made me more aware of those moments of change in the place where I live, when a combination of molecules in the air is processed by the nose and brain in such a way that it results in a different, uncomfortable, jarring or new perception of the world. I started researching my book when I noticed the smell of the street where I lived seemed less pungent.
Horowitz writes of a similar experience with how smell changes perception, and she cleverly notes that, ‘What is truly off-putting are disingenuous smells: ones inconsistent with how a place ought to be. We have a sense of familiarity born of experience more than consciousness.’
I smell where Horowitz is coming from. Hopefully, as I read more about smells, and the complex and sometimes contradictory nature of human emotions, attachments and meanings associated with those molecules in my nose, I come to know with more depth the history, and people, of Melbourne, a place that I love, and that I lived in for so long.
Ben O’Mara is a writer and health researcher living in Melbourne and Canberra. Ben’s stories have appeared in The Guardian, The Age, Eureka Street, Kill Your Darlings and Meanjin. Tweets: @benomara