Scent, Memory, and Haiti

One of the most common observations about scent is its ability to bring up long-forgotten memories in a way no other sense can. We know it is spring by the smell. We remember people, even, by the smell of their hair, their sweat, their cheap cologne.

Movie theater popcorn, baseball parks, college club events where it’s always the same brand of delivery pizza served (and let’s be honest, that’s why we all showed up for those terrible lectures on “isms”) – these are all memories created and archived by our sense of smell.

But as we all know, smell does not only represent good memories. It can quickly and unexpectedly thrust us into the bad ones as well. For me a good example is the elementary school that made me cry with nostalgia when I went back and smelled the coat racks. But it was anything but nostalgia when I smelled the cafeteria, where I remember often being teased.

Haiti is in scent hell right now. A few articles and televised reports have come out about it. Fortunately for us, unlike sight and sound, scent can’t be transferred to us through a screen …yet.

According to news reports, the people in Port-au-Prince are going to great lengths to cover the stench of dead bodies. Whoever has a surgical mask is wearing one, and they have become a sort of status symbol, a fashion icon for the devastated. The poorer and more desperate people are rubbing toothpaste on their upper lips, attaching orange slices to the bottom of their noses or stuffing their nostrils with basil.

CNN reports:

What is missing from TV or the photo images are the smells in Port-au-Prince… The worst, of course, is the smell of death. You can find it nearly everywhere, but especially close to collapsed buildings or places such as the morgue, where about 300 bodies have been placed in the parking lot. In a poor country with few private toilets and public facilities and a large outdoor population, urine is a common smell. The smell of garbage, which is strewn everywhere, is common, too…

Many journalists wear masks, but the masks don’t eliminate the odors, just slow them down. You bring the smells back to your hotel room, on your clothes, your hair, your skin. You want to wash them out, especially the smell of death, but you can’t. It takes more than soap and water. The odors have soaked your memory.

Our memories are like sponges that gather in smell and don’t let go. For the people in Haiti right now, their memories will always be affected, their senses forever traumatized.

Further resources:

An amazing article on the smells in Haiti and how they are affecting the memories of relief workers there who also worked at Ground Zero after 9/11

The Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders are obviously continuing to accept donations for Haiti as they clear bodies from the street and treat the near-dead this week.

Photo courtesy of United Nations Development Programme
UN Photo/Logan Abass The United Nations
12 Responses to “Scent, Memory, and Haiti”
  1. Connie Wiggs says:

    Absolutely amazing….

  2. Joanna says:

    Thank you for these thoughts, Laura.

    Also, to answer your question from elsewhere, you can certainly leave images, but they have to be links. I promise, though, to click on any links you leave (providing they’re appropriate – I know how racy you can be!).

  3. Laura says:

    It is funny, but the shampoo I’ve used remind me of the stage of life in which I was using it. Going down a drug store aisle and smelling the variety of brands can transport me easily to where I was at different times.

    There is one brand that takes me back to a specific time after a friend died in a car accident. Smelling that clean, crisp scent reminds me so deeply of grief–the sickening feeling in my stomach each morning I woke up–that I feel it again standing in an New York Duane Reade.

    It is a deep reminder that even as I move on, the memories and the depth of feeling still remain. And the simplicity of a single scent can bring them all tumbling forth. It will be a lifetime of memory for all the people in Haiti. The scent will eventually disappear from the air, yet it will never leave their memories.

  4. Brian says:

    Great insight, Joanna! You are right; scent brings back a world of memories–whether you want them or not. The way my child smelled when he was a newborn….the way fresh-cut grass instantly takes me back to summers doing lawn care for folks…

    There is something about smell, about aroma, that is just part of being made in the image of God, I think. Why else would he say over and over again in the Bible that this sacrifice or that bit of incense would be a “soothing aroma” in his nostrils? That sounds strange until we consider how a great smell from times past makes us feel. Maybe that gives us a glimpse into a little something deeper. Who knows? Thanks again! Keep up the good work!

  5. Katinka says:

    I appreciated Brian’s post on how Scripture speaks of God’s sense of smell, and how we can either be a “pleasing aroma” or a “stench in [His] nostrils.”

    A scent that has lingered with me since living in Tegucigalpa is the smell of burning trash. They did have garbage collection, but it didn’t always come regularly, and you would often find heaps of garbage piled on corners. At some point, someone would light it on fire, and you would smell the stench of burning plastic, rubber and fabric.

    Sometimes, in the evenings, I smell it in Philly. It made me feel like my world here and friends there were more connected that we seem right now.

    An interesting experiment is biking around a city, because you quickly pass from scent to scent as you cross into different neighborhoods. I find it helps me “know” a place better.

  6. Evan says:

    Smell of the fresh, clean lake water is so refreshing, probably because jumping in it always provided relief after a hard days yard work or soccer game!

    I can’t think of any traumas with smell…but the closest I can think of is the smell of tears and sweat mixing, when you get RIGHT up close to a loved one crying. It’s sad.

  7. David Bromberg says:

    Not to change topic, but I’ve noticed that songs that I haven’t heard in a while do this to me. At times in my life I’ve listened to certain CD’s over and over, and then years later I’ll go back and listen to a CD and feel some of the emotions from that time in my life, even if the content of the song itself has nothing to do with that emotion.

  8. Joanna says:

    Yeah, David, when my grandmother was dying of cancer, my dad took me out and bought me the Space Jam soundtrack (AMAZING!). The song “I Believe I Can Fly” still makes me think of passing that threshold from life to death, and how sad that week was. I’m sure Michael Jordan and the Looney Tunes never meant for their film to be taken that way…

  9. Michael says:

    I’ve been interested in the connection between taste and smell. I wonder how much of the sense of taste is determined by our sense of smell? Henry (our dog) always seems to lick the air when he is sniffing in the general vicinity of something. Hopefully I won’t sound like a snob in saying this, but my experience of wine and good beer has been greatly enhanced by really sticking my nose down in the glass.

  10. Mark says:

    In response to Michael’s comment about taste and smell, word on the street (and by street I mean my neighbor, who sells wine) is that most of the taste associated with wine actually comes from smell. If we had no sense of smell, which my poor friend Matt is afflicted with, we would not taste much of the wine, and it might taste quite bad. And that is the case for little ol’ Matt. Thanks for setting up the blog; this is nice.

    • Joanna says:

      Tomorrow the topic is actually all about your friend Matt and other people like him who can’t smell. Does your friend sell wine legally?

  11. Sarah says:

    I find that every time I eat an orange or tangerine or the like, I am reminded of Christmas morning. My parents would put an orange in the bottom of our stockings and my brother and I would tear right into them. The smell of citrus filled the house. When I was in South Africa for two months, oranges became my comfort food because they reminded me of home and family. I must have eaten 3 or 4 a day! Not to mention South Africa has lovely produce!

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