21 July 2014
ON LOSING ONE'S SENSE OF SMELL
Sensual things go real blurry when your nose turns off ... but only to you, the observant pervy sniffer, feeling left right out ... painting by DRINKSTER hero Ian Francis
A few years ago I took a drive through the Adelaide Hills with Paul Drogemuller, founder of Paracombe wines. It was a balmy, windows-down midsummer night: warm and slightly humid. As we wound our way through the orchards and vineyards he named the sprays and chemical applications each farmer had applied. These horrid stinks overwhelmed the original wholesome smells of woodland, pasture and fruit. Paul had, as a young man, worked in a farm supplies store, so his expert nose knew its way round the petrochem business.
The horrors of total anosmia:
language comes back last of all,
the words for the worst bits first
by PHILIP WHITE
In that game, a good nose can save your life. Which is nothing new. It's like sleeping by the fire in a cave when you suddenly smell lion. Like, "LION!!!"
Nowdays, Paul puts his excellent organoleptic skills to work on the sensuous bouquets in his wine glass ... you won't find many smelly petrochem aromas in his family's beautiful vineyard at the top of Paracombe, where the wines are clean and delicious.
When I was a little kid on a farm in Gippsland's Strezlecki Ranges, about the only imported smell on our farm, apart from grease, udder wash and pollard, was superphosphate, the omnipresent fertiliser made from birdshit from Nauru. That acrid stink was delivered in hemp/burlap/hessian sacks, which added their dry, nose-tickling methoxypyrazine reek to the phosphates. By tucking one bottom corner of the sack inside the other, we'd make hoodie cloaks from them when we were caught out in the Gippsland rain, so I remember that smell well. It got in my hair.
Smell that? Marron and yabbie platter with Sauvignon blanc at Two Wheeler Creek, Kangaroo Island ... photo Philip White
Methoxypyrazine occurs naturally in tomato leaves, hemp and bell peppers, and is the grassy stuff predominant in many cool region Sauvignons blanc. It also appears in greener Cabernet sauvignon. Added to some phosphate-like whiffs brought on by wild yeast and maybe specific terroirs combined with sulphur dioxide, the preservative, this combined whiff can be found in some wood-aged Sauvignons, like the fumé blanc of the Loire Valley in France. You'll also find it in some cold-region Semillon.
Most of the more memorable smells on our farm (apart from the malty breath of the Jerseys and the steaming fresh manure of the cowshed) came from the surrounding ferny forest, the rich meadow pasture, its hay and silage, the orchard and the old weatherboard grange, where we kept all our orchard fruits, radishes, onions and potatoes.
A firm believer that most of our adult aroma vocabulary is formed before we're ten years of age, I find many of these early smells invaluable in my wine tasting. Trouble is, most modern people have no such childhood to recall, as we tend to grow up in city or suburban buildings, so my vocabulary is becoming less effective as a wine communication device. People don't know those smells.
Our sense of smell develops as quickly as our sense of vision and probably much earlier than our sense of self ... it's all settled in real early ... very confident young feminist at The Currant Shed, McLaren Flat ... photo by Philip White
Like, hands up those who remember the fatty acid aromas of junket, which are replicated in some creamy Chardonnays via malo-lactic fermentation? Who's ever stuck their head in a used burlap superphosphate sack?
The most confronting incident I've experienced with common modern smells occurred on a recent trip to Canberra. I left the beautiful country bouquet of the vineyards and bush of Kangarilla, climbed into a taxi with one of those stinky little pine-tree-shaped "air fresheners" and thence into an aircraft full of plastic, deodorant, detergent and perfume pollution. The Canberra airport smelled pretty much along the lines of the taxi, purged as it is by relentless cleaners with their petrochem arsenals. Another stinky cab took me to the parliament building, which offers a full palette of such "cleansing agents". Even the National Gallery stank of chemicals.
Which had me wondering about the sensual organoleptic skills of our politicians and bureaucrats, who live constantly with those horrid petrochem toxins. The whole of Canberra stinks of them. It's on the nose. The town needs an aroma consultant, urgently.
All these sweet-and-sour memories were severely challenged these last weeks when I fell ill. A gastric virus weakened me, then the sniffles started. These turned into a full-bore head cold, which eventually invaded my lungs, which filled with body fluids in a matter of hours. I was drowning in mucus. Bubbling. Gurgling. By which time I realised I'd lost my sense of smell. Regardless of the vocabulary, the scents, bouquets, fragrances, smells and stinks made no difference. I was suddenly, scarily, aroma blind.
Apart from a few instances when this had occurred as a result of full anæsthesia, I'd never experienced it as something which simply happened within me as a result of a few savage viruses and bacteria.
The sense of smell gradually returned as my strength seeped back over the weeks, but a very strange thing occurred: something I cannot recall happening before. While I could smell, I found it really tricky relating each aroma to its word: the sensory perception department has lost contact with the memory and language box.
As a person who lives by his nose, my livelihood seemed to have evaporated before me.
Healing has been like learning to walk AND talk again.
So far, a fascinating thing has happened. Those childhood memories of aroma, which were predominant language informers all my life, have declined, giving way to the modern smells of the petrochem world. I find myself having to reach back through these modern aromas and their cold, horrid language, to grasp the more sensuous and sensual natural ones, with their descriptors, from my childhood, my infancy.
This becomes easier day after day, and the fear and confusion of having lost it all is gradually being replaced by a sort of child-like excitement, as my brain slowly reforms the links between the memories of the original fragrances with their relative words.
One of the first infant memories to return: the delicate carrion twang of Old Baldy ... strange thing is that after the aroma came back, it took days to remember what it was ... the author photographed by James White, Strezlecki Ranges, South Gippsland, 1955
While I lay there wasting and sniffing in my feverish puddle, I thought at great length about those unfortunate souls who have permanently lost their organoleptic senses through extreme tension, illness or physical trauma, like petrochem poisoning, car accident or assault. Such folks are surprisingly many.
Humans also have a wide range of specific anosmias, the aromatic equivalent of colourblindness, which I also suffer. While I get confused between reds, greens and blues and their myriad combinations, I see a world stacked with colour, and cannot imagine there being any more of it than I can detect: more of it would be total overkill.
Then, while we have sophisticated tests to detect the various degrees of colourblindness - you'll find some good ones on the net - it seems to me that these may detect various specific inabilities, but fail to prove that we all see, say, blue, as the same colour. I suspect it's our learned language link to colours that remains constant across the populace, regardless of what we can actually see.
Like, everybody knows that the sky is blue, whatever we see.
Or what we think we see, in the presumption that others see precisely the same thing.
With my recent experience, this suspicion intensifies, reassuringly, as my words find their way back to their relative aromas.
The scariest bit of all this is the possibility that if you're lucky enough to recover from being stricken by total anosmia, it's only the words for the most recently learned aromas that return. The horrid modern smells. That'd be a total friggin nightmare. It may be very reassuring to have a superlative hooter like my mate Drogemuller, but by Bacchus and Pan I also want all that childhood sensuosity back and fast.
Bad lads: Droggy and me ... great hooters when they work ... photo Annabelle Collett ... it's Paracombe's annual special reds weekend this coming one, but if you want a perfect Drogemuller family repast, you gotta book