Once upon a time we humans were dependent on our sense of smell. It told us where to go—”Mmm, there’s food in that direction”—and where to avoid— “Yikes, fire!” or “There might be a hibernating animal in that cave!” While we no longer need that kind of information for survival, we do use our noses to enrich our experiences.
Over the past several years, I’ve grown more interested in the power of scent, which led me to Dr. Kate McClean who wrote a thesis on smell walks and sensory mapping. Check out her self-guided “smellfie” kit here, that’ll help you document your own smell walk.
Smell walks are information-gathering missions to record what smells exist in a specific place and time. These “scent maps” provide sociological, cultural and historical information for posterity; personally they provide us a memento of robust memories.
Smell-walking is a great way to train our noses, an activity that has been shown to help reverse parasomia (a changed or skewed sense of smell—that is, as it happens, a fairly common after-effect of Covid-19 anosmia; loss of smell), and keep the mind sharp in general. Our sense of smell is located in the emotional and memory core of our brains, which means we can create detailed and rewarding smell maps as we travel through the world. Here are a few tips on how to take your own smell walk.
Setting Out for Sniffing Out
Limit your walk to about 1.5 miles or 45 minutes so you don’t exhaust your smeller. Avoid wearing perfume or scented hair products that’ll interfere with your fragrance focus. The same is true when working in kitchens: extraneous scents dull the nose and make it more difficult to detect other smells.
When wandering between the garbage dump and the rosebush the best way to clear the olfactory palate is to smell your skin—armpit preferred! If that is too humiliating for you to consider doing in public (even though you are already most likely nosing into stranger spots) a piece of wool is quite effective (unlike coffee beans).
If you’re wondering if it’s a good idea to bring others with you: Yes. It’s a great opportunity to develop another lost skill—discussing smells. American English is begging for a resurgence of smell-related descriptors and an injection of new words and phrases that can convey nuance beyond “good” and “bad.” Rolling with friends forces you to talk it out, maybe even coin a phrase or two (check out the fun project odorbet.com for more on this).
If you’re in a new-to-you place, bonus points if you ask locals to direct you to distinct smell spots. They might even have insight into cultural and historical reasons why certain places smell the way they do—i.e. “People here burn this kind of incense on this holiday,” or “ This used to be a sugar factory, you can still smell a slight tinge of caramel in the air.”
Timing is Everything…
Remember, smells change depending on when a place is sniffed. A great example of this happened to me on a walk back from the architect Luis Barragan’s house in Mexico City. I was stopped in my tracks by a white-blossomed tree called huele de noche, which translates to “it smells at night.” Similarly, gardens will smell different from one season to the next, week-by-week, hour-by-hour.
What to Bring
Feel free to bring all the fun pens, paints, journals, cameras, note-taking apps and other ways of recording the initial information you love using. Dr. McClean has devised participatory smell walks in different cities, creating forms for participants to fill out with information on duration, intensity, even shape and color impressions of the smells or lack of smells in an area.
Most importantly, have fun with the data you’ve collected. Maybe drawing an actual smell map isn’t your cup of tea. Then find another way to commemorate your journey. If you love music why not write a song or create a playlist that will evoke the notes you recorded? Creating a haptic topographic smell map will literally give you “all the feels” from that memorable trip. Last year I did a project where I had friends tell me what they smelled outside of their windows wherever they were and created cocktails and small dishes to take me to them in spirit (and body!). Happy sniffing!
Tessa Liebman is a chef and olfactory experience producer who has participated in the Institute for Art & Olfaction’s Experimental Scent Summit and the Digital Scent Festival launched in 2020.