The Conservation of Smellscapes

Recently, I cycled back late from town. There was no wind, almost no traffic, and no moon. I was struck by the power of smells in the dark: first some splashed diesel near the garage, then lilac in a garden, pine trees at the motorway bridge, and the warm ammonia of bullocks at the farm. Finally, home, and then, suddenly, the smell of my neighbour’s washing, hung out overnight: an overpowering and entirely artificial scent, a radical shift of smellscape.

I first came across the concept of ‘smellscape’ in a paper by the cultural geographer Douglas Porteus in 1985. He pointed out that smells tend to be place-related, and that the nose perceives smellscapes just as the eye sees landscapes. Porteus describes sampling smells on ‘smellwalks’, not unlike my cycle journey home. Different continents, countries, regions, neighbourhoods and houses have their particular smellscapes. As Victoria Henshaw pointed out in her book Urban Smellscapes, cities have characteristic smells.   Kate McLean, an artist and designer, makes ‘smellmaps’ of cities around the world.

Ecosystems also have characteristic smells: the herbs of Mediterranean garrigue, the sulphurous slop of saltmarsh mud, the coffee grounds of leaf mould in woodland, the hot stink of fox. The world of scent and pheromone is fundamental to biology and ecology. Even humans have a fine sense of smell: think of wine tasting, or barbecue smoke. The smellscapes we inhabit vary daily (best on frosty or dewy mornings, and at dusk), weekly (Sunday cut grass, Monday traffic fumes) and seasonally (grass cutting, may blossom, burning leaves).

So what is it about artificial smells? We seem to need to carry around a personal island of artificial fragrances. Walking a busy stretch of the wonderful Southwest Coast Path in Dorset last year, some people moved in a mobile cloud of such astringency that I sneezed. The powerful mobile smellscapes created by washing powders are just part of it: it is ironic that the only lynx likely to be encountered in a British nature reserve or up a mountain is the one that comes from a can.

Of course, this is in part a matter of personal taste. Perfumes are as ancient as civilizations, with scented flower oils (such as lavender or rose) an accepted part of elite lifestyles in Europe since the Fourteenth century at least. The mass marketing of perfume for women in particular has been one of the great successes of twentieth century advertising (thank you Mad Men).   Ironically, one of Britain’s greatest mountain photographers, W.A. Poucher (whose book The Scottish Peaks, first published in 1965, I still use every winter), was a perfumier at Yardley: personal fragrances on the hill are clearly nothing new.

But it is still strange, to shun one’s own smells for another. Stranger still when you think about the organic source of perfumes: civet oil is a glandular secretion from African and Asian civets, musk comes from the glands of male musk deer (seven species from different parts of Asia), and castoreum from beavers. These allegedly smell disgusting raw, but have for centuries been the basis of compelling perfumes, and drivers of hunting (and now gland farming).

But to me the alarming thing about our lust for artificial scents is the way they change smellscapes. The fragrance industry promises to eradicate natural and characteristic smells.  Of course, we are all familiar with bad domestic smells: poorly ventilated toilets, un-emptied bins, the neighbour’s cat poo on children’s shoes, a farting dog (or husband). But the home fragrancy industry goes far beyond these to offer novel smellscapes wholesale. Douglas Porteus lamented the growing homogenization of the smellscapes under the pressure of American-style ’sanitization’. Proctor and Gamble’s world-bestriding brand, Febreze, promises ‘odors out. freshness in. Go on, breathe happy’. Breathe happy indeed, with all natural smells neutralised.

To the fragrance industry, the home is a jungle of dangerous smells, waiting to ambush the proprietor and offend guests.  The problem, according to the Febreze website, is the way in which we adapt to smells: most of us, it seems, have become ‘noseblind to the smells in their homes’. But visitors are not: to avoid embarrassing ‘noseblind judgment from guests’, you need ‘an odor makeover’.

Luckily, Febreze can provide ‘the whole odor-removing kit-and-caboodle to continuously conquer noseblind symptoms’. It seems that every part of the home needs treatment. You should ‘hit your guests with freshness as soon as they walk in the door with your favorite Febreze PLUG in the entryway’ (one plug provides two alternating scents for up to 45 days of coming and going). If there are unexpected guests and no time to clean: ‘when the doorbell rings, spray Air Effects in any (or every) room before answering the door. Any one of our 20+ scents is an instant welcome wagon’.

What a welcome: all natural odours deleted, replaced with synthetic scents.

Artificial scents are not neutral chemicals, but designed to be active, to bind with smells and neutralise them, overwriting them with others. Porteus described the sanitized American motel bathroom as ‘the antiseptic symbol of sensuous death. Because all environmental smells cannot be pleasant, we will have none at all’.

And where does the fragrance industry look for the ideas it wishes to associate with its products? To nature of course. The Febreze range is named after plants (pumpkin, pine, pressed apple), and exotic places (Big Sur, Bora Bora). Tesco’s range of air fresheners and home fragrances includes citrus, lily of the valley, ‘outdoor fresh’, ‘spring fresh’, magnolia and vanilla, lavender, ‘blossom and breeze’, sandalwood, vanilla flower, white vanilla, Thai orchid, Mediterranean sun… you get the idea. Industrial home scents are almost always marketed by reference to nature.

So is this a symptom of a deep-seated love of nature? A passion for the wild that conservationists should grab hold of, to wean the bemused householder away from nature deficit in the synthesized world we have created?

No, this is nothing to do with nature. The problem is not that we love nature’s smells. But that we fear our own.

It is simply marketing that persuades us of the authenticity of factory fragrances. The industry sells us an artificial replacement of nature’s smellscapes, an olfactory spectacle. We carry commercial scents on our clothes and bodies as a tribute to the make-believe universe conjured by the advertising industry, meeklyenjoying the commercial smellscapes curated in the service of marketing.

As smellscapes become progressively standardized, commodified and privatized, we lose touch with traditional and natural smellscapes in urban and rural spaces   Urban planner Victoria Henshaw bemoaned the swamping of once familiar city smells (hops and spices, coal or yeast) with artificial scents and the creation of sterile and neutral spaces. We have grown ‘nose-blind’ to nature too. We allow factory-produced smells to replace those of nature. We forego too much if we lose touch with the smell of a real flower meadow or a seaweed on a beach, or honeysuckle on a June night.

Do we need a campaign for the conservation of smellscapes? We could celebrate smelly ecologies (ramsons in a woodland anyone, or elder in a hedge?), or the scents of field margin flower strips, or planted sensory gardens. Maybe we should self-impose no-perfume rules in nature reserves, or allow ourselves to smell the complex ecology of production, consumption and disposal that keeps the human world watered, fed and cleaned?

Certainly, our choice of smells tells us a lot about ourselves. As we spread our industrial smells around, we create smellscapes that speak of our alienation from nature, our willingness to live in (perhaps our need to live in) an artificial world. We do not wish to inhabit spaces that admit of the messy smells of real ecosystems. The smellscapes of our homes, the ecosystems we inhabit, our very bodies, are reworked in accordance with the dictates of the world of advertising and the needs of industry.

But in our need for artificial smellscapes, we repudiate our fundamental biology. We do not want to sweat, or defecate. We do not want to be known to have exercised, or cooked. We want to be perfectly clean, untraceable, unknowable. We want to escape our very nature.

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3 thoughts on “The Conservation of Smellscapes

  1. Very good piece . Thanks . The French of course have left the US way behind on this one .
    Expensive room parfums have genuine connection to lavender , vanilla , beeswax etc .
    Surprising that L’Oreal have not stolen some of this absurdly big market . Perhaps they consider the market is not mature enough to handle real life smells ?

  2. On the idea of “smellscape”: A year before the piece you cite by Douglas Porteus, there was the fantastic article by geographer Dan Gade entitled “Redolence and land use on Nosy Be, Madagascar” which also used the smellscape idea. There must have been something in the air in the early to mid 80s in the corridors of academia that started an interest in smell-scapes, not just in the ylang-ylang perfumed tropical island of Nosy Be (the article is in Journal of Cultural Geography 4(2) 29-40, 1984).

    • Thanks for this reference – semper novi quid ex Africa (or ex Madagascar anyway)… Indeed, what was in the air in the 1980s?

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