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
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,
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
the ravens and vultures
and coyotes

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

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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