Smellscape/Hellscape: The Life of the Nose in Urban Close Quarters During a Pandemic

“The concept of smellscapes suggests that, like visual impressions, smells may be spatially ordered or place-related. It is clear, however, that any conceptualization of smellscape must recognize that the perceived smellscape will be non-continuous, fragmentary in space and episodic in time, and limited by the height of our noses from the ground, where smells tend to linger.”
—Douglas Porteous, “Smellscape,”
The Smell Culture Reader, edited by Jim Drobnick


My neighbor’s yard is a source of olfactory joy for a short time each summer, and a source of olfactory misery for most of the rest of the year.

In early summer, when lilacs explode in this Lake Superior latitude, for a few weeks the bush just across the property boundary serves as the star of the local smellscape. I sit on the small patio I built and bathe in the glory of the perfumery. Then, all too soon, the flowers give way to small, hard green seeds, and the smell goes where all smells go, into memory.

However, my neighbor’s impact on my nose on a daily basis continues unabated. Fabric softener sheets — those detestable, chemical facsimiles of laundry fresh from the line — fill the air with the synthetic mephitis that is supposed to conceal the funkiness of human bodies. I empathize; he’s got boys in their early teens — some of that funk is pretty skunky — but I have never understood why we seem so repulsed by our human smells. I would rather contend with a bit of sweat and hormones than the nasal derangement I experience when the dryer vent on my neighbor’s house dumps its scentload into the window of my living room a mere 10 feet away. *

And that’s a real issue here — proximity. We live in close quarters, my neighbors and I. Our neighborhood is fairly dense for a bunch of single-family homes. The distance between the houses to the east and the west is about 60 feet … in between is the place where I live, with its narrow lot. That’s not a lot of space to contain the smells a family produces in its daily rhythms.

Overspill is inevitable; before we moved our sleeping space (for reasons unrelated to smell) to a center room, I knew when I woke to a whiff on the wind through open windows that my neighbor was making bacon for breakfast. When anyone on my block grills out, I eat the odors for appetizers. When another neighbor installed new countertops, I smelled the adhesive at my breakfast table. When people mow, the atomized remnants of their burnt hydrocarbons are my nose’s to process. Beans for supper are not secret; if somebody has gas in a three-house radius, we all know. (Okay, that’s an exaggeration, but it seems almost true).

Modern life is not very good at creating pleasing smellscapes. Dominating the odors of the world — we can nail that. Humans fill river valleys with mucks, reeks, stenches, and vapors — of this I have no doubt. The city where I live sits on the estuary of a great river (the Saint Louis) most people have never heard of. We have paper plants, grain elevators, oil refineries galore — and the smell of this town sometimes resembles the inside of a wet cardboard box filled with rotting chips of last year’s Christmas trees slurried with diesel fuel. Humans are pretty good at stinking to high heaven.

Talking about smells is rarely a neutral activity, and smells can certainly be enjoyable (fragrant, fresh). Pleasant odors are frequently associated with food (delectable, delicious, sweet, savory, spicy, etc.). But English apparently has few ways to discuss pleasant smells that don’t involve taste, although I’m fond of nosegay — “a small bunch of flowers, typically one that is sweet-scented.” I am happy whenever I have a gay nose.

If you seek a tour de force of catty, descriptive language for smell, skip the wine critics and check out biophysicist Luca Turin’s perfume reviews. His assessment, for example, of a perfume called Poême concludes: “The drydown smells exactly like the reception area of a fragrance company, a lusty chorus of all the fiercest aromachemicals escaped from the lab down the hallway. A tinselly, tacky perfume, ideal for nine-year old beauty queens.” His commentary on the long-lived perfume Shalimar (invented by Jacques Guerlain in 1921 and still a best seller **) offers almost Proustian language (“a red-plush-and-gilt marvel of smooth vanilla, sweet amber, somber woods and saucy animalistic notes”) to make sense of a scent that doesn’t even start out as “good”:

Unlike modern perfumes eager to make a good first impression, Shalimar is an intricate machine designed to project an olfactory effect remote in both time and space. It does not smell ‘good’ in the strict sense for at least half an hour after being put on the skin. It also feels rather strange up close, while radiating a quietly melodious aura. But just as we patiently sit through an overture in anticipation of the aria at the end of the first act, we rightly expect Shalimar to come on-song in an hour’s time, and to be better appreciated from the stalls than the stage.

It’s not an accident that Turin resorts to metaphors from stage and sound to convey the power of Shalimar. Odor has such power that when it grabs us, we need to call in multiple senses to make it make sense.

English offers a host of means for conveying unpleasantness related to smell (festering, fetid, fetor, foul, fumes, funk, moldy, noxious, putrid, rancid, sour, spoiled, stale, and just plain old bad). And we have a few words for smells that are ambiguous (pungent, strong, tang).

The language of smells matters to me, this summer perhaps more than usual. I have been incessantly at home. Normally I would spend a month in Ecuador visiting Saraguro friends and ethnographic collaborators and a week or more visiting a friend from college days as well as frequent trips to my daughter and her family, but a global pandemic shut all that down, of course, as it has closed travel for so many millions of us. We have to stay home and smell the roses (and everything else) our neighborhoods present.

Here I come to the limits of my metaphor of this essay’s title. I detest the many painful smells of my close-quarters neighborhood. We have so much effluvia of volatile chemicals in contemporary life, but today I am grateful even for the stink of the weed whackers my neighbors use. The fact that I can smell means I am well, I can breathe, when so many millions are suffering, so many struggle to draw breath, so many hundreds of thousands have died. The real hellscape is that millions of people have contracted the coronavirus, and our current U.S. government seems hellbent on ignoring what is possible to change this suffering, despite the fact that public health scientists and innovative economists have a pretty good idea about how the pandemic’s impact is reduced by taking preventative measures, and what happens when we don’t (“How the pandemic might play out in 2021 and beyond”; Denmark’s economic response to COVID, New Zealand’s economic response to COC).

Previous administrations, both Republican and Democratic, seem to have had plans to contend with pandemics (we could argue whether they were adequate plans, but at least the concept of preparation based on scientific knowledge existed!) It seems as if currently the power elites of our society seem to care little about minimizing suffering for those of us who are affected by the pandemic.

COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, has many strange symptoms and complications. From the beginning (was it really only December of 2019 that we all began to hear about this bit of protein that has upended our lives?) the loss of smell, termed anosmia in clinical language, seemed to be a common sign of infection. In June a report in Science Alert offered a summary of a model for what caused this loss of the sense of smell:

… an international collaboration showed recently that the ACE2 proteins the virus needs to invade the cells were not found on the olfactory neurons. But they were found on cells called “sustentacular cells,” which support the olfactory neurons.

We expect that these support cells are likely to be the ones that are damaged by the virus, and the immune response would cause swelling of the area but leave the olfactory neurons intact. When the immune system has dealt with the virus, the swelling subsides and the aroma molecules have a clear route to their undamaged receptors and the sense of smell returns to normal.

“When the immune system has dealt with the virus.” Nine almost casual words that hundreds of thousands of people (at the time of this writing, global deaths are approaching 700,000) will never get to experience. Millions are suffering anosmia and the other severe symptoms of the disease.
Suddenly my nose complaining about the hellscape of its small corner of the world seems a trifle, a privilege buttressed by all the advantages of this neighborhood where I live — my work as a professor can continue in virtual spaces where there are no smells, and no tiny, spiked protein balls that could burrow into my sustentacular and other cells. My home consists of me, my partner, who is also a professor, and our 17-year old son.

Today we discussed (and decided to proceed with) inviting his friend, another 17-year-old who has been living in a youth shelter for months, to join us in our relative comfort and safety. Smells will change. Our bubble gets a little bigger. But it’s still a bubble for the most part. I hope it doesn’t burst and cloud us all with the smellscapes of illness that so many are experiencing.

This country we live in — where so many suffer for the benefits of so few — has become its own hellscape. I hope you, too, detest that reality. I hope we can intervene, through our votes and our feet in the streets, to make something change before it’s too late, and we all choke on the miasmas, both physical and social, that are killing us.


* If my description isn’t convincing enough to persuade you to end the olfactory attack of dryer sheets, consider this response to a question posed on the website of Scientific American:

If you’re concerned about the health and safety of your family members, you might want to stay away from both conventional dryer sheets and liquid fabric softeners altogether. While it may be nice to have clothes that feel soft, smell fresh and are free of static cling, both types of products contain chemicals known to be toxic to people after sustained exposure.

According to the health and wellness website, some of the most harmful ingredients in dryer sheets and liquid fabric softener alike include benzyl acetate (linked to pancreatic cancer), benzyl alcohol (an upper respiratory tract irritant), ethanol (linked to central nervous system disorders), limonene (a known carcinogen) and chloroform (a neurotoxin and carcinogen), among others.

**The Nieman-Marcus website says this about Shalimar:

Shalimar is the first oriental perfume in history.

L’Eau de Parfum Shalimar is a mythic fragrance with bergamot, iris and vanilla notes; an intense wake with a touch of impertinence, always glowing which embodies skin-caressing sensuality with a hint of the forbidden.

Inspired by the passionate love story between an emperor and an Indian princess, Shalimar, which means “temple of love” in Sanskrit, symbolizes the promise of eternal love forevermore. It is a fragrance of desire.

Amazon, more prosaically, offers:

  • This product is made of high quality material
  • It is recommended for romantic wear
  • This Product Is Manufactured In France

A flight of flowers and bergamot whips up the top notes with a breeze of freshness. A blend of an alluring, classic fragrance of exotic florals and vanilla.




about 4 years ago

I love reading perfume descriptions, and have bought some without smelling them first, just based on reviews. It's fun and surprising. Aren't you worried your neighbor with the dryer sheets will be peeved?

David Syring

about 4 years ago

Yes, those reviews are very evocative. I've actually never smelled Shalimar, but I want to!

I think I'd rephrase your question: Isn't my neighbor concerned that he might be poisoning himself, his kids, and his neighbor? All I've done is describe my experience of being exposed to a potentially toxic substance. I guess I overthink what it means to be part of a community--I want to be considerate of the people I live amidst.

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