Smelling My Way Up-Island

Everyone knows how certain odors trigger strong memories, often from childhood. Freshly cut grass takes me back to boyhood days mowing lawns. The scent of cucumbers puts me at my parents’ dinner table munching the fruits of my mother’s garden. The tang of cow manure transports me back to prep school, where the athletic fields were surrounded by dairy farms. A quick web search informs me that the olfactory nerve has direct access to the amygdala (where we store emotions) and hippocampus (critical to memory). But after that, scientists don’t really know why there’s such a strong response to scents, other than that it’s likely a relic of our animal past.

I ride the bus from Edgartown to Aquinnah for work, and while I usually stare out at the landscape, I often read as well. And with my nose in a magazine last spring, I noticed something remarkable: I could tell where I was just by the smells coming in the window. The pine grove along West Tisbury Road, oaky North Road, the brine at Quitsa – all gave away our position without a glance up. I even detected very specific scents from particular spots: a lilac hedge atop a hill in Chilmark and the skunky bog at the bottom, a newly hayed field in West Tisbury. Even smells from flowers and plants I can’t put a name to located me like some homing bird.

Admittedly, I’m also familiar with that bus ride from the undulations and curves in the road, from the way the light comes in the window, from certain sounds, from the time and stops, and even from who’s on the bus. But I still thought the scent locator was a pretty good trick.

Regardless, I’m grateful to Mother Nature and the miscellaneous people responsible for the olfactory signposts on my commute. Throughout the year, the scents change: dusty summer roads, wood smoke on a chill fall day.

I imagine that nearly all of us have scents we associate with certain places and times on the Island, whether the reek of low tide brings you to the dock at Lobsterville, or the bouquet of your neighbor’s roses back in America recalls your mother’s flower garden at your East Chop cottage.

Now, I’m not a gardener (to say the least), but I’m starting to think maybe my yard should have some signature scent that says, “I’m home.” We don’t have a signature scent yet, but this year we’ll plant some native trumpet honeysuckle vine on our pergola. And if we can keep it alive, it will provide a perfumed welcome for man and hummingbird alike all summer long.