There’s a certain smell in the summer. Maybe in my mind it’s actually the smell of summer.
It’s a smell of damp wood, sun-scorched earth, brackish water, salt marsh, and the slightest hint of creosote. It’s strongest, most potent in the high summer, just after the sun sets, maybe around 8:30 or 9:00. It’s a unique smell I only catch somewhere near the Bay after a blisteringly hot day with high humidity. On days when the weather is just right, you can feel it in the air as much as smell it.
This is the time of year I can smell it here at near the head of the Bay. I could smell it from the patio of my one-bedroom bunker in St Mary’s County, too. But the first place I smelled it was in Tracy’s Landing. It was a million years ago when I was a kid and summer was defined by “long” trips to my aunt and uncle’s house. It wasn’t more than three hours from home, but the drive then felt like it took forever. The flatlands of tidal Ann Arundel County might as well have been another planet from the ridges and valleys of far western Maryland.
It feels like that was lifetimes ago, now. More than anywhere else it was on these summer trips that I learned to love the Bay and the critters that dwell in, on, and near it. Those summer days were filled with buckets of corn distributed at a waterfowl sanctuary in Shady Side, picking fossils out of the creek out on the “back 40,” feeding Stormy and Hazy, the resident horses, gathering up vegetables for the night’s dinner out of the deep garden plots just a few hours before they were on the plate, trot lining blue crabs in the West River in a hand-made skiff, or chasing rockfish out on the “blue water” Bay in a proper work boat. There too, innumerable family events unfolded – back before family got too damned weird.
All these years later and I remember it all with stunning clarity thanks to something as completely ephemeral as a smell I can’t quite describe.
There’s a certain smell to summer in proximity to the Chesapeake. It’s not the saltwater smell you find at the beach. It’s not the aggressive punch of decomposing plant matter in the wetlands right down along the water’s edge. It’s a smell I only know from a few miles inland. It’s salty and woody and vaguely marshy. It’s a good smell and a familiar one for me. For a few weeks during the hottest parts of the summer I’d catch it in St. Mary’s County when I lived down at the southern tip of the western shore. It’s here now, too, at the northern reaches of the Eastern.
My first memory of that smell, and where I remember it most distinctly, is an a little town in between those two points no one reading this would have ever heard of. It’s the smell of long ago summer visits to far away relatives, of horses, of learning to pick crabs and to shuck oysters, and swimming until the pool’s rough bottom had worn blisters on my toes. It’s s a smell of a simpler time, or at least one that seemed simpler by virtue of knowing so little about the world’s machinations. It’s the single smell I’ll (apparently) forever associate with one very specific place and time.
It’s not a smell I’ve ever encountered elsewhere in my travels – there’s no hint of it in Petersburg, or Honolulu, or Memphis. Oregon has its own particular smell of the old, deep woods and powerful running water, but it’s not at all the same. I picked up that fleeting scent a few nights ago. It’s that time of year. The instant recall and deeply fond memories of times and people long gone couldn’t possibly have been stronger. I don’t think I’ll ever stop being amazed at what small details the brain snatches for its own and hides away only to restore them with perfect clarity years and decades later.
I’ve hear it said that there’s nothing as powerful as the sense of smell to carry us back to a moment or a place we haven’t thought about in years. I had one of those moments a few minutes ago. In smelling the combination of fresh-cut grass and the exhaust of a not-quite tuned gas engine, I was hit with an overwhelming recollection of my grandfather and his Allis Chalmers B-10 lawn tractor. I don’t think my grandfather was ever happier then when he was tooling around the yard on that mid-60s vintage machine. With that smell hanging in the air, for just a second, I was a kid again and could see people and places I haven’t set eyes on in twenty years. It was really quite remarkable and, I’m not too proud to say, it choked me up there for a minute. Memory is a funny thing like that.
I’ve hear it said that there’s nothing as powerful as the sense of smell to carry us back to a moment or a place we haven’t thought about in years. I had one of those moments a few minutes ago. In smelling the combination of fresh-cut grass and the exhaust of a not-quite tuned lawn mower, I was hit with an overwhelming recollection of my grandfather and his Allis Chalmers B-10 lawn tractor. The mid-60s vintage machine was practically new even when I knew it in the 80s. With that smell hanging in the air, for just a second, I was a kid again and could see people and places I haven’t set eyes on in twenty years. It was really quite remarkable and, I’m not too proud to say, was the best warm fuzzy I’ve had in quite a while.