Monthly Archives: January 2015

I came across an article today about the poetics of smell; that is, about the relationship between the experience of smell and the literary depiction of it. As the author, Clare Brant, explains: “Smell, I argue, has a poetics, one that looks to metaphor to diffuse beyond its limited and unstable lexicon, and metaphor may focus or widen or filter the world of a smell. A name by any other rose may smell as sweet” (544). What she’s interested in is the interweaving of smell as experience and meaning. I’ve read Clare Brant’s work before. Her book, Eighteenth-Century Letters and British Culture is a standard text for those interested in understanding the politics and practice of letter writing in eighteenth-century Britain. But I hadn’t read her work on smell, and on the role of smell in shaping identity.

Particularly intriguing to me was her method. Brant kept a “smell log” to “log smells that invite consideration, including how one might organise them into categories” (548).

What follows in the article are her observations, considerations and thoughts about smell and how it works.

Brant goes through her smell log with her “research assistant” (otherwise known as her dog), and she indicates that this process too, shapes her smell experience. After all, “[d]ogs,” she writes, “ignore human proprieties about smell: with no embarrassments, dogs sniff mouths, genitals, arses, and mostly seem satisfied with the information they get” (549). She writes about the smells of leaves and fresh lumber, and the ideas and emotional responses these evoke.

She also comments on urban life, and her journeys through London, where she works, and Oxford, where she lives. It’s and intriguing read.

“If I’m working in London, the day is distinct in its smellscape. Getting to London, I endure a plasticky smell on trains and greater proximity to people smells, of which the worst for me is not sweat but peppermint, which I loathe and which is a daily endurance. There’s an occasional gag-inducing experience … but or me, machines smell worse than people. Vehicle fumes make it hard to breathe, chokingly so. It begs the question, in the wake of public smoking, why our air is so noxious. London is not all a negative log: indeed one effect of living with a dog is that I accept readily that people are animals too” (549-550)

“I stood one winter evening at Paddington Station, waiting for a train. There were smells of diesel, plastics, traffic fumes, oil, newsprint, chips, burgers, disinfectant, coffee, cigarette and cigar smoke. I amused myself by distinguishing them, and thinking about the significance of naming a smell, whether putting a word to it changes its effect. It was cold and I put my fleece gloves to my face, for warmth. A surprise – my gloves had a delicate smell of dog …. I realised I must have patted or stroked her often enough for my gloves to have absorbed her light perfume. It was a beautiful moment of connection. It also made me pause and reflect on the rhythms of smells: when – and how! – do you decide on the removal of smells – time to wash this sweater, time to bath the research assistant?
Working at home in Oxford, most mornings I walk to the parks with my research assistant. She insists on examining many smells on walls an in gutters, especially the pee-mails left by other dogs which have to be carefully ‘read’ and sometimes answered. A whole zone of smells below human knee-level is thus revealed.” (550)

All of this made me realize the role that smell plays in how we understand ourselves and our histories. I returned to the smells that turn me on and to those that turn me off. I thought about the intensification of olfactory senses during pregnancy. And about the complex array of smells that enveloped me when I returned to The Netherlands last year for the first time in a decade.

And I wonder if I, too, should take some time to create a ‘smell log’ – just cataloguing, recording, and reflecting on the various smells in my environment and then thinking through what these smells might mean.

A lot of stuff to think about – and a whole world to smell!


Clare Brant, “Scenting a Subject: Odour Poetics and the Politics of Space.” ETHNOS 73.4 (2008): 544-63.


Last year, I pointed to the practice of using human skin for book binding. Here’s the Chirurgeon’s Apprentice, Lyndsey Fitzharris, explaining the history of this project in greater detail:

An intriguing piece in the Huffington Post about the stories you may not even realize your body is telling…

Here’s how it begins:

In November 2014, filmmaker/photographer Angela Park, graphic designer Tara Nitz, costume designer/makeup artist Kathryn Wilson, and hairdresser Tammy Rupe came together to help me recreate some photos of my parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and cousins. The pictures highlight family resemblance, showing that many different family members’ features can be found in one person’s face. It also illustrates how many people it takes to create one person.

How many people it takes to create one person. I love this idea. What stories might your ancestral photos tell about you?

I’m a sucker for stories about time capsules found in completely unexpected places and containing curious bits and bobs. A recent New Yorker post describes a time capsule from the 1940s found in the Smithsonian’s National Museum for Natural History. Inside a wooden, there was a crumpled up newspaper cartoon, a note listing the names of three people involved in the preparation of a dinosaur skeleton from the Jurassic Period, and one of the men’s Boy Scout leader card…..

The story has even more curious twists and turns:

The time capsule soon wound up in the office of Siobhan Starrs, the exhibit’s developer, and one morning in December several of her colleagues dropped by to see it. As they peered at the items, now stored in a conservation box with a clear plastic lid, Starrs said, “I wish I could ask Murray why he decided to put his Boy Scout pack-leader card in here.”

The museum’s historical records held a clue. As a child, during a 1928 scouting trip on the Chesapeake Bay, Murray found a skull, which he took to the museum for assessment. Gilmore determined it to be that of a fossil porpoise. The Boy Scouts led Murray to his life’s work. Later, after a religious conversion, he became a “creation scientist” and used paleontology to argue against evolution.

From palaeontologist to creation scientist. Curiouser and curiouser…

There’s a penis carved into the sidewalk on the corner. There’s another one carved into the sidewalk on the path between the childcare centre and the student residences at the university. Last summer I followed a line of orange spray paint to another one – this one gigantic – painted on the walking trail towards the junior high. It’s perhaps slightly better than the “nigger” that was sprayed in that exact spot two years ago, but in fluorescent orange, it certainly makes a statement. And on the weekend, during a walk in the crisp cold of a January afternoon, I discovered another giant penis stomped into the ice and snow of our local pond.

Pond penis. Can you see it?

Pond penis. Can you see it?

I can’t quite figure out why it’s so entertaining to draw penises – or is that penii? What makes this such a great activity that it needs to be repeated and repeated and repeated? Over and over and over again?

Several years ago, when we still lived in a housing co-op in Vancouver, a bunch of teenagers picked up sidewalk chalk left behind by toddlers and drew rainbow-coloured penises all over the open square where the little ones played all day. A high school teacher resident washed it all down, counseling the teenagers that they were welcome to draw the on their own books and binders, but that public space was just that – public – and it wasn’t open for penises.

What’s so special about a penis that people need to draw it on almost any surface they can find?

I can appreciate that it might be nice to celebrate one’s embodiment, to acknowledge the weight, size and feel of a body part that, at a certain point starts to act of its own accord, a body part that has a voice and agency of its own. In this form, perhaps the penis draw-er is nothing more than a ventriloquist, an amanuensis speaking for a part that otherwise has no public voice?

But is that truly the case, or is there more to this act of marking territory?

It’s one thing to scratch your name into wet concrete. Or to put your hand prints there. It’s satisfying to say “hey, I was here” and to know that your fingerprint is forever preserved in mud. After all, mud is part of how fingerprinting was discovered. But it’s something else entirely to scratch a penis into concrete. There’s no sense of “I was here” there. This isn’t a fingerprint. It’s a penis.

And so I’m curious why it’s so fascinating. What makes this such an amazingly hilarious thing to do? Why do it? I just don’t get it. Along the various walking trails and on the sides of buildings, I see faded penii, their voices and stories disappearing with age. And I wonder what purpose they serve. What stories of belonging does a spray painted penis tell? Anyone?

The Chateau de Gudanes, an eighteenth-century rotting French relic purchased by an Australian couple who are now renovating it, has appeared in numerous news stories on various different blogs. It’s a romantic story: Australian couple looking for a farm stumbles on the remains of a castle and, in a fit of whimsy and inspiration, buys it and then starts the arduous task of renovating and recovering it. There’s something fairytale-like about this narrative: perhaps we can all live in a castle, it suggests. Perhaps dreams do come true.

It also makes me think of Vancouver colleagues who, in the early 2000s purchased a French farmhouse and outbuildings together. They were in their twenties when they made this decision. And together they undertook the work of fixing it up. In the intervening years, they’ve hosted vocal and other retreats there. And now it’s available for tourists (or longer term visitors) to rent. I didn’t have that much foresight, or that much vision, when I was that age, at least not in relation to material things like property. But this, again, is a romantic story that reminds us that with hard work and serendipity and being in the right place at the right time, sometimes magic is possible.

I was wandering through the Chateau de Gudanes blog earlier today and came upon this gem, which I think captures so much of the spirit of archival work and of life writing and storytelling:

Dreaming and wondering, I imagine the Château being the mastermind and measurer of its own serendipity, not as a commander or master, but to gently steer and guide the journey, allowing time to remember the past and giving longing for the future.

The Chateau as the teller of its own stories, as Scheherazade who weaves her seductions over a captive audience. Of course.

Digging into my personal archives, today, and poking through a scrapbook I created in 1987. A few surface insights and photos, through which I also demonstrate my ability to play with various filters in picasa. Bear with me.

An antique - well, vintage - Air Canada napkin, complete with tea stain to lend it that aura of authenticity! Maybe I should sell it on ebay.

An antique – well, vintage – Air Canada napkin, complete with tea stain to lend it that aura of authenticity! Maybe I should sell it on ebay?

First, I managed to keep every scrap of paper that came my way. What else can possibly explain the coffee-stained paper napkin from an Air Canada flight that took me to my flute audition in Victoria?

Second, fluting and music were obviously central to everything I did that winter and spring, from a Woodwind Weekend at Alberta College Conservatory of Music, to visits to the Symphony, to audition times for the Alberta Provincial Honour Band, to a symphony pass, to comments and ribbons from several different categories of performance at three different music festivals, to summer music camp and wind ensemble group photos, to my audition trip to Victoria (and the inspiration chocolates from my symphony-going partner in crime, Helene Day).

My good friend Chenoa came in first. She always came in first!

My good friend Chenoa came in first. She always came in first!


You too could zoom into your audition…

Romantic piano? What was I thinking?

Romantic piano? What was I thinking?

Ah, scales and arpeggios. Who would have thought that I'd actually get around to learning scales in 7ths and that I'd actually feel a sense of accomplishment from it?

Ah, scales and arpeggios. Who would have thought that I’d actually get around to learning scales in 7ths and that I’d actually feel a sense of accomplishment from it?

Tallying up the spoils. As with all artistic endeavours, the spoils didn't even cover the costs...

Tallying up the spoils. As with all artistic endeavours, the spoils didn’t even cover the costs…


Helene and I made a pact. She’d study fashion design in Toronto. And I’d study music in Victoria. And it all came true.

Third, religious belief was an important element of who I understood myself to be at that time. It isn’t anymore, but then it was. A youth conference, some flyers, and a thank you card from one of my Sunday school charges. Soon after I left high school, my religious belief started to tangle with my politics (and actually, if I’m honest, I suspect the tangling was already happening – see the  completely crazy description of a youth conference session on satanic rock music below, which I already found ridiculous even way back then – but with a broad, open-minded pastor at my home church, it wasn’t emerging as an issue at the time). By the time another pastor told a largely student congregation that if we didn’t attend a Rally for Life, we’d really need to question our commitment to Christianity, I was well and truly done. My friend and I looked at one another. We turned around. We left. And we never went back. Forced to choose, my politics win. Every time.

Be afraid. Be very afraid!

Be afraid. Be very afraid!


And finally, high school graduation. As I remember it today, I wanted out. I’d been ready to leave my school, my home and my town for months. Graduation couldn’t come fast enough. Perhaps it’s unsurprising that the whole rigamarole merits pages and pages and pages of scrapbook. Congratulatory cards, notes from friends, official paperwork, newspaper articles, the program, the rough copy of my valedictory speech, and the name tag ripped off the protective plastic covering of my grad gown. You name it and I have it.

School news... one of the few times I merited a mention.

School news… one of the few times I merited a mention.


Writing schlock for the valedictory address.

High school graduation in soft focus allows for a gentle reliving of some pretty traumatic years.

High school graduation in soft focus allows for a gentle reliving of some pretty traumatic years.

Who keeps these things? Me, that's who.

Who keeps these things? Me, that’s who.

When I first opened all of this, I marveled at my packrattishness, at the sheer volume of “stuff” for only six short months of my life. But as I look more closely, I’m reminded of all the stories I had forgotten, all those bits and pieces of myself that I’d stowed away in carefully organized (but since hidden) parts of my brain. And as a result, parts of me wish I’d been this creatively organized through all of my years. In the meantime, my time capsule has returned me briefly, if not to the “summer of ‘69” as Bryan Adams would have it, then at least to the wonder of 17.