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The Smell of Snow

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High in the Sierra Nevada, 10,000 feet up, where it’s cold all year round, there are fields of pink snow.  If stepped upon, pink compresses into crimson and releases a scent of watermelon. Hence, the common moniker of the Green Algae Chlamydomonas Nivalis strain, watermelon snow.

I discovered this phenomenon while reading an article in Harper’s, A Brief History of Scent,  a fascinating account of the world of smell and its complex commercial, military, and artistic developments.   Beau Friedlander compares the smell of a landscape, or a city block to that of perfume: “some head notes (bright smells that dissipate quickly), heart notes (heavier molecules that define the overall smell), and a bottom note (a smell such as sandalwood, which doesn’t dominate a fragrance but may stay on your clothes for days).”   Scent itself is a word that comes from the Latin sentire, whose meaning covers a range of feelings from love, to hearing, to taste.

The smells my city block can change my internal thoughts, temperature, and outlook:  the productive fellowship of morning’s coffee and toast; evenings of contemplative solitude walking by lavender,  or the sheer presence of so many hungry neighbours eating bbq.  In winter my the aroma of melting chocolate wafting from the Blommers factory near Grand  warms my bones.

Much of the article features one perfumer’s intrepid searches to capture molecules of smell in flight to reproduce them in his laboratory.  Hence the mention of watermelon snow, as well as the smell of sap from trees warmed by afternoon sun, and petrichor, the smell of rain on warm soil (a most difficult to simulate scent).  The effect of unpleasant smells to mine our memory  is also covered.  Friedlander relates the grisly tale of an abandoned crematorium where the US military captured the smell of death to prepare soldiers for the battlefield and the innovations of a division of Musak, Scentair, which designs consumer environments that linger, evoking deeply ingrained synesthetic recollections.

A few weeks ago the fire department was deployed after a leaking garbage truck marked its territory with an invisible miasma in the West Loop.  I discovered that Chicago’s Department of Public Health uses a team from Chicago’s Smell & Taste Treatment and Research Foundation to investigate questionable smells.  The team employs tools such as the chromatograph, to measure chemical compounds of a smell, and the Nasal Ranger to measure the depth of the smell.  The best tool in their arsenal is the human team of super-smellers, who can smell 1,000 times better than the average human, for better or worse.  One of the center’s current studies focuses around odor and the perception of time.  The smell of coffee made a minute feel like 50 seconds, while the smell of baby powder made a minute feel like a minute and a half.  So wake up and smell the baby powder if you want to have a long day I suppose!



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