Life without the scent of lilacs

  • Article by: KATY READ , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 19, 2010 - 3:03 PM

A memoir of a woman who must learn to live without the sense of smell.

Remembering Smell by Bonnie Blodgett

I have always felt sorry for people who can't smell, especially at this time of year, with the air full of the fragrance of flowers and mown grass and burgers on the grill. How awful to lose a sense that brings so many pleasures!

Oh, Bonnie Blodgett might say, you don't know the half of it.

In 2005, Blodgett lost her ability to smell -- the result, she deduced, of using the over-the-counter nasal spray Zicam (since ordered off the market). As she writes in "Remembering Smell: A Memoir of Losing -- and Discovering -- the Primal Sense," olfaction is much more than access to pleasant scents. Evolutionarily ancient, its signals processed deep in the brain, smell is intertwined with emotions, with memory, with eating, with physical intimacy, with language, with protection against danger -- and for Blodgett, a St. Paul author who usually writes about gardening, with work.

Blodgett didn't just miss nice aromas -- and flavors, since taste is 90 percent smell. She mourned all absent odors: lipstick, the worn fabric of her great-grandfather's wing chair, even the cleaning products that enlivened her household chores. Without them, she felt disconnected from her surroundings, from life:

"Smell used to ground me in the here and now. It took the edge off my essential solitude. It challenged my irrational (or not) fear that reality is unreliable and can slip away at any moment. Certain smells are ravishing and others foul, but all of them possess an animal component that is absent from sight and hearing. You can't overthink a smell. It's there whether you want it or not, having its way with you, like music, but more potent for its subtlety, its immunity to reason, how it affects you without your knowing it, how it makes things real on their own terms."

Blodgett weaves in passages about the science of smell and anosma, or inability to smell, which afflicts 2 percent of the population. They're informative, but I wanted to hear more about her own experience. Maybe there's only so much to say about something you can't do.

Blodgett complains that people underestimated the gravity of her loss. A friend, inviting her to a gourmet dinner, forgot all about it. "'Oh, sorry, of course,' he replied. ' ... You can tell me if you like the texture.'" She wants us to understand what a big deal it actually was: "Studies have shown that even sudden blindness is less traumatic, in the long term, than anosma." I wasn't entirely convinced -- wouldn't blindness be a greater functional challenge? -- but the book opened my nostrils, er, eyes. "Remembering Smell" made me glad I can smell not just lilacs and baking bread, but also sour milk, dead fish and wet dog.

Katy Read writes for Salon and other publications. She lives in Minneapolis.

  • related content

  • Bonnie Blodgett, longtime local garden writer and author.

  • REMEMBERING SMELL

    By: Bonnie Blodgett. Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 245 pages, $24.

    Review: When Blodgett, a gardening writer, loses her ability to smell, she learns more about this subtle and underappreciated sense, discovering its connection to our emotions and memories. Events: 7:30 p.m. Friday, Magers & Quinn, 3038 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls.; 7 p.m. July 1, Tangletown Gardens, garden tours, reading, prizes and refreshments; 7:30 p.m. July 7, Common Good Books, 165 Western Av. N., St. Paul.

    In Wednesday's Variety section: A profile of Bonnie Blodgett

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