the nose knows

Looking west from Gerlach

Looking west from Gerlach

Q: Why is a LAND BREEZE unhealthy?
A: Because it is frequently laden with exhalations from putrefying animal and vegetable substances.
Q: Why is a SEA BREEZE healthy?
A: Because it passes over the fresh sea, and is not laden with noxious exhalations. It is particularly healthy, therefore, to walk on the sea-beach before ten o’clock in the morning; but unhealthy after sun-set.
-from Rev. Dr. Brewer’s A Guide to the Scientific Knowledge of Things Familiar (1868)

In all this talk of
the desert’s quiet splendor—
its boundless vistas,
its tracklessness,
its surfeit of light
and space and
solitude—
I hear little mention
of its smells
(and believe me, it smells),
though it’s these stimuli
that anneal the experience
most indelibly
in my mind

To wit: the piquancy of
sage, crushed under tires
after an abortive,
three-point-turn-
about-face in the road;
ditto the vaguely medicinal stink of juniper,
the juicy-fruitiness of rabbitbrush—those shrubs
that stood in the way

Note the briny bouquet
of greasewood flats—salt-glazed
hillocks seasoning the toes,
tickling the sinuses, the nares—
wet clay underfoot, dank
and cool, earthy;
the surprisingly intractable
taint of
aerosolized playa dust

Speaking of earthy:
always there is a
geosmin-rankness of
granite rubble
after rain;
the barnyard-cloying waft
of cow shit, horse shit
(baked to tawny perfection)
carried on a summer breeze;
the sulfurous malaria
seeping vilely
from the springs

And don’t forget
the minty freshness of
monardella leaves, purple sage;
the ominous pall
of wildfire smoke
purling across the sky,
blotting out the sun;
and every so often
that ripe fetor of decay—
some dust-bitten corpse
laid to rest
in the brush—
never without its attendant
hangers-on,
the ravens and vultures
and coyotes

My sweat smells different out here:
I stink better,
or less,
maybe.

And though I am
at mercy to olfaction—
few things evoke
or transport
more powerfully
than a scent—
I make scant effort
to rank one above
the other; unbidden,
the smells color my experience
as surely as any
other sensation;
I daren’t turn up my nose
to any of it

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