I Remember They Used To Surprise Me

Words & Photos by Sylvia Ziemski


I remember they used to surprise me. I would be outdoors, on my way somewhere, or just taking a walk, and suddenly there would be something golden in front of my feet. It didn’t happen that often though, and I always wondered how on earth people who come home after an hour in the forest with a basket full of mushrooms manage it? How did they find them? How did they even see them?

It was filled with good smells, bad smells, lingering smells, pungent smells, eclectic smells, informative smells, secret smells, seductive smells...

I also remember when I left the city after many years, to live on an island in the Stockholm archipelago for a while, that I would miss the smells of the city. It was filled with good smells, bad smells, lingering smells, pungent smells, eclectic smells, informative smells, secret smells, seductive smells... Smells everywhere. I was aware of course of the beauty of having fresh herbs in the summer, but the summer in Sweden is short. I had not thought that much about what it would be like to have clean forest air every morning. Somewhat more than a year later I realise living closer to nature was one of the best things I could have done for my nose and soul. The forest air and nature walks cleanse not only my mind but also my nose and provide valuable practice.

My initial spontaneous reaction, “there are no smells”, was much like when one finds oneself in a monochrome landscape, like a desert or out at sea. The time this was most memorable was on Svalbard in the Arctic Ocean. We’re so used to artificial sensory sensations in urban environments that we might not perceive all of the subtleties that nature, wild nature, can offer. For instance, the way rain tastes. We hear a lot about how people leave the city and suddenly hear birds singing. I admit I was unprepared for all the olfactive sensations that awaited me.

I missed my city smells at first. I was not even aware that I had trained my nose and brain so well to write the story of my days navigating between good coffee, bad coffee, fresh ground coffee, pollution-covered gravel, strangers with great shampoo, strangers’ armpits too close, strangers’ lunch selections’ aftermath, the smell of paper and ink fresh from the printer, concrete, flu season, metal, fuel, cinema chairs… But I had forgotten how morning smells on a day when it will rain in the afternoon.

Gradually, I have started to notice all kinds of smells, as well as things that feel like smells but are not,  for example, humidity levels. Living close to nature has added many more sensations to my catalogue of olfactive references. It has also made me much more perceptive to nuances and low sensation levels. I am convinced that when I left for perfumery summer school in Grasse, and was overwhelmed there with how intensely I experienced some raw materials, I was influenced by the island months before that. My nose was more perceptive and clean.

Walking through the forest is like yoga for the nose. It’s soothing, cleansing and sensational and a walk through all stages of life. 

The air is so crisp and innocent in early summer mornings. If it had a sound, it would be a giggle or a child’s laughter. Trees and plants seem to give away only a light leafy sweetness. Unless it rains, then its like a spinach smoothie, and that most particular smell of wet stone and soil – earth, iron and animalic. Definitely not giggling. If one oversleeps though, all of that remains a secret. If the day has begun and the sun has started to provoke the trees and plants, challenging all their locked-in water, then the forest air is just still, dry, woody and an oily kind of sweat. As my shoes walk over moss and branches, these react with dry woody dust that might make me sneeze.

When autumn comes, the morning air almost seems retrograde, as if it was pretending that nothing ever happened. The freshness beams in my nostrils saying “what happens in summer stays in summer”. Then in the afternoon it relaxes and reveals what has been going on during those days when I was busy applying more sunscreen. Suddenly I realise why those branches and forest paths felt so secret and disturbed by my fast pace. They were in preparation. Early autumn comes with lush moss that smells intimate and alluring, with berries that wear their thin protective masks but when picked, the juice erupts in all kinds of sweet, fruity and metallic symphonies. 

That humidity, and the particular smell of mycelium that collects all the odours of the world under my feet.

And then there’s that special smell, by now I don’t have to look, I just know. I can sense a concentration of humidity in some places, with a quick analysis of surrounding trees, I know I’m right. That humidity, and the particular smell of mycelium that collects all the odours of the world under my feet. That’s where the chanterelles are. Even if I can’t see them, they are there and I know it. Perhaps I need to lift some leaves or moss. And if I close my eyes and inhale, I know in which direction there are more because that’s where that earthy, primitive, moist, sweet, mouldy odour comes from. They don’t surprise me anymore.

Snow doesn’t surprise me any more too. I can feel it the night before. The air is more heavy and stretched, as if filled with anticipation or maybe holding its breath, so not to reveal the secret. The first snow often comes while we’re asleep, doesn’t it? The air before the snow is not necessarily obviously a colder temperature, it’s more about heaviness. A texture that is a bit like a freshly sawed plank and a peppermint hue. Then the snow falls. Sweet. Wet. Naked. Young. Secret. Light. Transient. I love how winter smells. That snow innocence mixed with burning firewood, melting candles and spices. The velvety dark winter sky and that fresh stringent air create such direct elegance. The winter forest stays away from sillage. It is what it is, and only if the bark on a tree opens, or one encounters a sudden opening like a creek, will it confess to a more unruly seasonal character. Swedish poet and Nobel laureate Tomas Tranströmer wrote:

Weary of all who come with words, words but no language
I make my way to the snow-covered island.
Wilderness has no words.
The unwritten pages stretch out in all directions.
I come across the tracks of deer slots in the snow.
Language but no words.

As spring approaches I look forward to new sensations. I do find spring air somehow rude though. It’s so straightforward and just opens everything up all at once. “Is anyone in control here? At all? Is everything really supposed to happen all at once?” The spring forest is like a group of teenagers. Fresh, curious and with no sophisticated maceration whatsoever. For some reason I prefer the city then, it smells like gravel, great coffee and new lipstick. But for now, I will enjoy this summer’s mushrooms from the freezer and wait for the snowflakes.

Sylvia is a communications consultant based in Stockholm but happiest when travelling. She smells her way through life. You can find her at www.senseofscent.nu

This article appeared in ODOU issue 3
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