Lilacs, Sawdust and Love

I am writing this in view of the back yard so that I can refresh myself with frequent glances our lilac bush.  Every spring, it produces thick cones of blossoms that range in color from violet buds to the lavender of spent blooms.  Some people don’t care for lilacs because they bloom so briefly, only a matter of weeks compared with the spring-to-summer performance of roses, for example.  And the contrast of shaded purples against the plant’s vibrant green leaves might strike some as garish, but I love it.

However striking their appearance is, the reason lilacs are my favorite flower is invisible, but impossible to ignore: its scent.

Heady, intense, luxuriant, this time of year the perfume hits us as soon as we step out of the back door, even though the shrub sits at the edge of our yard.  I could bury my face in the heavy clusters and breathe their odor in for the next two weeks.  (Apologies to those who suffer from high pollen counts this time of year!)  Trying to analyze the scent with words like ‘sweet’, ‘earthy hints’ or ‘green’ doesn’t work.  One whiff hits my nostrils and all I think is Lilac!

Part of this is because our sense of smell is primitive.  It’s not processed in the cerebral cortex, so is more linked with memory and emotions than with rational thought processes.  I often participated in theater during college and the head of the scene shop never understood why I stuck my head through the doorway and inhaled deeply every time I passed.  He didn’t know the smell of sawdust rockets me back to age three or four, watching my carpenter grandfather in his workshop while I happily play on the floor.  Grandpa died over 30 years ago, but thanks to sawdust, I retain vivid memories of him.  The power of scent works both ways, though.  I couldn’t be in the same room with egg salad for years because of a highly distressing experience involving a sandwich, the back of a station wagon and the flu.

Science debates the importance of pheromones in human mating behavior, but each of us does have a unique scent that can only be disguised temporarily by deodorant or perfume.  Humans don’t have the acute noses of bloodhounds, but on the same subconscious level that triggers emotional memories of Grandpa, personal scents register in our brains.  As a romance writer, I try to keep that in mind as something that draws the hero and heroine together, or repels them from the villain or villainess.  I may not always include it, but I give some thought to what my characters smell like:  Leather? Pine? Soap and water?  Vanilla?  Maybe lemons make him remember burying his face in her hair because she used their juice to rinse it.  Or opening the cedar chest causes her heart to ache because the odor clung to his shirt.

Scent, feelings and memories — an intimate triad of the physical, emotional and mental aspects of our nature.

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