of scents and sounds: when kindling fails to ignite

In a recent post, a fellow blogger whose writing I enjoy surveyed the sometimes tenuous ability of words to capture thoughts and feelings, to provide us with the solace and understanding we as humans (and perhaps aliens) seek. As someone who has spent his entire life relying on the written word both to interact with and decode the world around me, I read the post with interest, and it set off a chain reaction of thought. Sometimes it feels like we introverts have limited tools at our disposal, but of these tools, for many of us written language is often the sharpest and most accurate. But what about when it dulls or falls short? Unable to write ourselves out of the cages we’re trapped in, what other implements exist to sever our bonds, assuage our pain, aid us in puzzling out our conception of the world and our place within it?

Humans arrive on planet earth armed with an arsenal of senses. From the point of our harsh entry into this world we explore our surroundings using our rapidly developing senses of taste, smell, touch, sight, and hearing. As adults, these senses, though apt to weaken over time, continue to serve as an interface between us and our environment. And so I’ve come to rely on them when words are not enough to dig me out of whatever rabbit hole I’ve fallen down. For brevity’s sake, in this post I will only focus on the two I’ve found to be most effective in mitigating mental or emotional collapse: scent and hearing.

The human sense of smell, while not as developed as in other species, is still a formidable system. We smell food cooking and find it makes us hungry. We know that certain scents can also stimulate memories, as Marcel Proust famously described. Scent (and its companion taste) can therefore help us revisit our past and perhaps plumb its depths for answers to our present questions.

As an example, I will deconstruct the roots of my strong nostalgic attachment to the scent of pine trees. About a decade ago, I moved to a strange and foreign land. It was like no place I’d ever lived before. I lacked the familiar and suffered as a result. One day I discovered a small grove of pine trees behind my workplace. When feeling low at my desk in the windowless bowels of the library, I’d creep out the back door and stroll down the sidewalk, breathing in the familiar pine scent. It inevitably flooded my “emotional brain,” the limbic system, with pleasurable sensations. When I probed at this reaction, I unearthed a store of early memories of summer vacations spent on the northeastern and southeastern coasts of the U.S., where the rich scent of pitch pines (northeast) and loblolly pines (southeast) hangs in the warm summer air. After this realization, I explored what it was about these times that seeded such a deep-rooted nostalgia in my brain. A number of possibilities came to me. For one, these vacations brought me close to nature, and a different kind of nature than what was available to me at home. At an early age, these trips helped form the foundation of my lifelong passion for the natural world. These vacations were idyllic, full of fun and leisure time, all experienced within a framework of the outdoors. Thus, important associations grew within me. I am also a Pisces, the water sign, and have always felt an affinity for water (though we’ve not been without our occasional disagreements over the years). Observing and listening to water soothes me. As a child I spent a lot of time near or in water. And so our family vacations at the ocean reinforced this. Now when I crush a few pine needles between my fingers, the scent rushes to my hypothalamus, triggering the resultant emotional reaction, i.e. all of the above. How does this help me? What I took from this was the knowledge of some actions I can take to improve my mood. I can travel to the beach (not always feasible, but good for longer term relief) or I can sniff some pine trees (easy enough to find and provides a quick fix). This is good information to know and I use it often.

Now let’s set scent aside and move to hearing. Hearing permits a range of constructive activities, but here I’d like to discuss it only in the context of music. In a 2001 Scientific American article, Kristin Leutwyler reports that no human culture on earth has lived without music, that music existed before agriculture, and possibly even language. Think about that for a moment. People may have been making music before they even began speaking and writing! This makes so much sense. Even though I don’t formally play music as much as I used to, I have always felt that it is the purest form of creative expression. As much as I love tinkering with words, sitting down and playing guitar or bass never fails to unspool rich threads of satisfaction inside me. While I have experienced similar transcendent moments while writing, I have to admit that they are rare and fleeting. Music feels like a more natural release; it comes from some deep unconscious stream, where it steeps in primal rhythmic tannins. There were many times in the past, playing in various bands or just casually with like-minded folks, that the music took over, and it was as if we were mere vessels, that the music was playing us, rather than us playing it. It was so much greater and larger than the sum of our collective instruments. The feelings such experiences provoked are difficult to describe. And perhaps this is because music is older than language.

Listening to music can be often nearly and sometimes equally as transcendent as playing it. I can recall certain shows, listening in the shadows as chills traveled through me, the hairs on my arms and neck standing up. Music has so much power, and it is so tied to emotion. In my head lies a map of my life with all the music I know plotted out upon it. Songs conjure people and places, melodies represent events, and in an instant I am transported somewhere else, to the epicenter of the song’s significance to me. Once there I can study its connections to my present life.

Leutwyler notes in her article that music, like scent, also travels to the limbic system, the part of our brain that is, evolutionarily speaking, one of the most ancient. It’s a part that we share with many other creatures, including whales and birds. Leutwyler cites Patricia Gray, head of the Biomusic program at the National Academy of the Sciences, who states in a paper written with colleagues, “When birds compose songs they often use the same rhythmic variations, pitch relationships, permutations and combinations of notes as human composers.” This is one likely reason why we find bird songs to be so appealing. It’s as if all of us creatures on earth, not just humans, are connected through music, making it truly more universal than words. As Dan Higgs sings in “Creation Story”:

but the music pervades
it was music that gave the shove
and resolved in music
we shall breathe

We can use music in many ways. On the simplest level it can elevate mood (or foster wallowing in it, depending on your inclination). My taste in music, like my taste in beer, changes with the seasons. In winter, it’s heavy and dark on both accounts. The transitional seasons, spring and fall, engender tunes and ales teetering on the cusp of light and dark, cool and warm. Take The Smiths, for example. While I consider them a band for all seasons, certain songs and even certain albums fit better on bleak winter days, while others suit the sweet breezes of an early June morning. And this is where it gets more technical. The mental map unfurls and soon I am poring over it, pinpointing exactly why that Ride song makes me think of my old college roommate. Or why that Pixies song wakens memories of a girl in church I burned for in that torturous way shy teenage boys have of burning.  If you want, you can plunge deeper, to the charred terrain on the map, and really begin to excavate. You may get lost, and feel real pain, but there is much to learn in that territory.

At any given moment in our lives, the health of our mental state depends so much on whether we are happy or not. Happiness can be elusive (as can its definition) and doesn’t often linger long, but discovering our individual keys to unlock this state of mind (whatever you want to call it) is crucial to our survival. We need to learn what is good for us and we need to remember it in times of crisis, be it minor or major. In my own experience, I’ve found that writing through trauma can hasten the healing process. But sometimes the words dry up, or their bandages only cover so much of the wound. At those times, I seek out the scents and sounds I know will bring relief. And if I’m really lucky, they will irrigate the mental fields enough for words to grow again.

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3 Comments

  1. Not so much kindling as a roaring log fire, this! Plenty to think on.

    My place of first resort is words, even at the darkest moments. In times of crisis I can’t listen to music; only when I’m back on the upswing can I go there again; and from then onwards it is a huge comfort, perhaps the most comforting thing of all.

    I should also say that I’m lucky enough to live in among pines these days, and the scent still gets me every time I smell it on the breeze.

    Reply
    • That is lucky. I would like to live among the pines someday. The crabapple out back is not much comfort. And the cherry trees, while not without their charm, are too small and fancy for my taste. I hang most of my hopes on that old cottonwood at the end of the block.

      Reply
  2. A wondrously sensuous post – evocative and inspiring.
    Cheers,
    Dia

    Reply

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