Tuesday, May 31, 2011


While going over the list of projects I realized I never got this posted. It is my response to the week on smell and memory.


The past week has been full of rich experiences worthy of discussion, from the breadth of flavors and smells in Spanish wine to the marvel of consciously constructed disability architectural environments. One of the most striking was the impact of language on perceptual experience.

The simple act of naming causing the object in question conform to a hyper-real mold, almost a Platonic solid, crystallizing some central, essential aspect while also causing the edges, the periphery to almost vanish. I have long considered naming things to be both a creative and a destructive act, but I have rarely experienced and consciously observed such a poignant example of this as I did during the smell class. While many of the scents that first eluded me became clearer once I heard the associated name, it was pear that was the most shocking. My initial take on smelling the oil was of something very fruity—perhaps a berry (though it smelled like several) or maybe even a very sweet flower (again indistinct, but recalling something very essentially floral). Each time I returned to smell it, one of the sidenotes would come forward and force me to reevaluate my sense of the smell. Until I found out it was pear. Pears happen to be one of my favorite fruits and often the first bite will take me back to a particular day when I was probably around six years old and my dad had brought me and my brothers several small, fresh picked pears back from Rinconada. They were gold and red the way only sun ripened fruit can be and each fit in my then tiny palm. Each bite was taste-bud heaven; the sweet pear flesh releasing juicy perfection out of the tiny granules, the texture so unique to pears. This moment forever caused pears to stand out among fruits. So imagine my surprise when this many berried many flowered aroma was pear. I smelled it again and suddenly, inexplicably, all I could smell was pear. Gone was all the confusion, replaced by pure conviction. A laser beam of complete understanding that this, THIS was pear. And yet, gone also was the mystery. The breadth of possibility, the potential for this to be any number of smells, not just a Jelly Belly likeness to Pear. Thus it is with all language. It helps to know that I am not you, but sometimes it would be better if I treated you like I. I am not in opposition to language, but I believe strongly that we should be in a constant dialogue with the language centers of our brain so that we can make our definitions of the world less rigid, more mutable and adaptive. This is particularly important as cultural and ethnic boundaries begin to fade and concepts of disability are being better understood to be in many cases not less able, but differently abled.

This strong recollection I experience whenever I eat a pear made me think a lot about smell and memory in general. Certainly I have heard many times that the olfactory sense has the strongest link to memory, but this made it so clear that I started thinking about other smells that illicit that response. Probably the two strongest are the smell of earth when tilled to fallow and the smell of New Mexico Green Chili roasting over a propane fire. The smell of earth, mildewed and ancient and woody, reminds me specifically of late evening rosy light across Taos mountain and the fields in Cańyon that ran alongside the half mile driveway to Mariposa Apartments, my mothers home during my teen years. I must have smelled this smell a hundred times, but somehow the memory is timeless. The air is always warm and calm but slightly crisp heralding the fall, the shadows always long, the light always rosy, the me always 14 or so. Green chili is different. It causes my entire past to swell, images of every fall that I remember ebbing, flowing from one to the next. A thousand meals with my friends and family. Dinner tables and burrito wagons and chow carts. Rellenos, tacos, enchiladas, pupusas, sopapillas, beans, rice, stews, steaks and calabacitas. I can't grab hold of any of them, cannot isolate the one from the many. It is a river not a pond. Almost nostalgic but lacking the melancholy, it always anchors me and leaves me hopeful. It makes me feel alive in a way that few things can. The feeling it gives me is what it feels like to be. To be alive and to be me. And, of course, it makes me really hungry.


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