Scents and sensibilities: enjoying life's little pleasures [Commentary]

It's as common a bit of advice on how to be happy as there is: Take time to stop and smell the roses.

Each spring, this bit of sage advice occurs to me, partly because that's when roses are in bloom but mostly because in the spring and summer there are lots of pleasant smells to savor.

Before going on about smells, though, I'd like to take a few paragraphs to talk about the origin of the "smell the roses" advice. The Internet tells us that Ringo Starr, drummer for the Beatles, released an album called "Stop and Smell the Roses" in 1981. Possibly it wasn't a coincidence that the same year the stinker of a movie "Caveman," in which Starr was, well, a star, was released. Maybe he hoped the aroma of roses would mitigate a rather odd movie. (I have to point out, though, "Caveman" does have its fans.)

Further into the World Wide Web is the information that the advice to smell the roses probably originated in the 1956 book by golfer Walter Hagen, "The Walter Hagen Story," in which the following few lines appear: "You're only here for a short visit. Don't hurry. Don't worry. And be sure to smell the flowers along the way."

No mention of roses, but the sentiment of the sage advice is a good deal clearer: Life is short, so be sure to enjoy the little bits of sweetness it offers without being asked.

Smell is possibly the most under-rated of the senses, at least as far as we humans are concerned. People have made careers making the sounds known as music, and even writing about music and other sounds. Visual experiences, from dance performances to light shows to fireworks similarly figure prominently in subjects of conversation. The number of cooking shows on TV and the number of cookbooks are testament to the power of taste. Touch and comfort also get a lot of attention.

As for smell, well perfume and various commercial scent designers are largely reactionary, which is to say their main function is to replace or pave over unsavory aromas with more pleasant or acceptable ones. Perfumes, and their related products such as deodorant, constitute a prime example as, pleasant though they are, essentially they're little more than a reaction to body odor.

To me, these efforts all kind of end up smelling like the same thing: a magazine filled with a melange of aroma samples. It's a pleasant smell, though its origin is a bit strange if you think about it.

It's a darn shame pleasant smells don't get the same kind of attention as good music or tasty desserts, because so many things smell so nice without even trying. If dogs were in charge, instead of us humans, possibly fine aromas would figure more prominently in the lexicon of culturally vital sensory experience. Then again, while dogs do enjoy smelling just about everything they can find on the ground, their enjoyment of some odors strikes me as being something of an acquired taste. For example, there's a groundhog that has holes in the territory behind my family's house and our golden retriever takes great pleasure in smelling the entrances to the groundhog's warren.

My preference this time of year while walking the dog is to take in the scents of grass, fresh cut or free growing, as well as the various flowers that show up along a pathway through our neighborhood. Among these is the honeysuckle, which is just starting to make its presence felt. If it were a bottled fragrance, it probably would be too strong, but in its natural state it's as fine and sweet a smell as there is.

Out in more wild areas, along flowing streams like Deer Creek, there's a fresh, clean scent that's associated with water crashing onto rocks. I've seen plenty of air fresheners lay claim to duplicating the freestone waterfall smell, but nothing comes close to the real thing.

Closer to my house there's a place where I've successfully started a little patch of the herb sage, which smells kind of like Thanksgiving, only a little more lively. Much to my wife's irritation, I've got a fairly good crop of mint (which is really nothing more than a nice-smelling weed) just outside my front door. That's also where our roses grow, which I often slow down to smell.

Spring and summer have fine aromas, but come fall, they'll all mix together as they begin to decay and the singular faint aroma of vinegar mixed with soil will be noticeable to those paying close attention.

Unfortunately, winter is something of an aroma wasteland, at least outside (unless you're a dog) so the smell and taste kind of merge for a few months as the most pleasant aromas end up being associated with cooking.

When it comes down to it, Ringo Starr, Walter Hagen and anyone else who offered the advice to smell the flowers as a euphemism for enjoying life's little pleasures seems to have been on to something. Little pleasures like honeysuckle and cut grass can give an ordinary day the aroma of something special, even if it's only for a few seconds.

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