Odors both sweet and sour waft into the memory


October 30, 1993|By TOM HORTON

Walking near home, past the Oakley farm, among nets of light and dark cast by a half moon through the black walnut trees:

The crisp air uncurls a languid eddy of odor from the farmer's chicken houses; a complex pungence of ammonia, feed and sawdust soused with the manure of 50,000 fowl.

Intellectually, I might wonder how this affects my suburban property value on the Eastern Shore, or about the threat to the Chesapeake Bay from agricultural runoff. But smell is not very intellectual; to the world encountered nose-first in the dark, we respond as viscerally as any hound.

So it is that Oakley's chicken house perfumes my path, evoking immediate and familiar and pleasant recollection of childhood. And of mother. She would tend family chicken houses and family simultaneously by pushing us toddlers along in a feed conveyor as she went about the chores.

The odor of chicken houses may be a nose-wrinkler to you, but it smells like home to me. And that's typical with smell, our most ancient and evocative sense. Laid down early in the evolutionary process, the processes of olfaction involve the primitive, instinctual sectors of our brain. Something smelled does not dally around be- ing filtered through the great, gray convolutions of higher thought in the neocortex, or "new brain," whose development makes us human, and so logical that we sometimes ignore our feelings.

Odors crash right over that transom of reason, grab us by the gut and the heart and take us cascading down rivers of feeling more intense and personal than anything flowing in through our eyes and ears.

For animals, of course, it is even more so. A dog, surmises essayist Peter Steinhart, may get as much mental exercise from a summer breeze playing across its nose as a man does watching a Shakespeare play.

"It was one of these mysterious fairy calls from out the void that suddenly reached Mole in the darkness," begins a delightful passage from Kenneth Grahame's "Wind in the Willows." It continues: "Home! That was what they meant, those caressing appeals, those soft touches wafted through the air, those invisible little hands pulling and tugging."

Even Grahame had to concede that we humans "have not even proper terms to express an animal's intercommunications with his surroundings . . . only the word 'smell' to include the whole range of delicate thrills which murmur in the nose of the animal night and day, summoning, warning, inciting, repelling."

But the most odoriferous environment of all may be underwater, a place generally understood to be rich in acoustic properties. The larger species of whale, for example, can groan sonic conversations across whole ocean basins.

The water is where smell evolved (we still need the moist medium of the mucus membranes to smell), and much of the life underwater still proceeds according to chemical cues wafted about on tides and currents.

The fabled capacity of West Coast salmon to find their natal streams from far in the oceans only slightly surpasses Chesapeake river herring, whose spawning surges send a crackling vitality to the capillary ends of the bay's watershed.

Before the era of the big dam, these little silver fish ascended tributaries as far as Cooperstown, N.Y., and Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. Salmon-like, they appear to be sniffing out, from a 41 million-acre drainage basin, the unique, organic bouquet from each herring's home stream, some no wider than a person could stride across.

Perhaps even keener abilities reside in eels, which somehow navigate from the Sargasso Sea, where they are born, into creeks and rivers of the bay and the whole East Coast. They can recognize certain odors even when diluted to about three parts per quintillion in water -- a dilution equivalent to adding less than an ounce to the entire volume of the Chesapeake.

The diamondback terrapin, an amphibian nearly eaten into extinction when it was popular on restaurant menus half a century ago, is another who "nose" the way home. I have watched long lines of them along the bay shore at Smith Island, heads just poking above the surface, paddling resolutely toward a spawning beach.

Recent research has indicated that the diamondback seems to seek the same beach year after year, and only that beach will do.

Is it some improbably distinctive perfume that draws them to a few dozen yards among miles of same-seeming sand? We know that some sea turtles appear to follow such odors from near Africa's west coast all the way to South America to lay their eggs.

Even the humble oyster, glued to one spot for all its life, has a brief and vital moment to smell the roses, so to speak. In its earliest larval stages, it is free-swimming, looking for a good place to "set" and grow. One way it finds such a place is to sniff out a good thick slime, whose presence on the bottom indicates a local abundance of waterborne nutrients, which in turn translates to fat, happy oysters.

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