Smell of spring


Spring has come to Saint Paul – or so we’d like to think.  One day above 60 degrees doesn’t make a spring, but it certainly has the snow melting, the water flowing, and the potential for a serious Mississippi flood rising. It’s awfully early to call it for real, given the lack of a vivid green budding smell in the air, but a nose full of memories knows what is on the way. Damp and slightly rotten has a smell of life all its own to those who let the stories flow.

I came to love the damp smell of early spring long before I even knew much about the boreal cycles of life. My elementary school, Coral Reef, was a building that was built to catch the breezes of southern Florida and vent off the heat of a child’s day passively. The only room that was air conditioned was the library, and no matter how well the rest of the school was constructed it was a sanctuary when the heat cranked up.

The chill wasn’t installed for us kids. It was a vain attempt to stave off the damp that ate away at books, a decay that grabbed your nose the moment you walked into it. The library had a funky kind of smell, equal parts mildew and stale, that came with any collection of paper and glue in a moist climate. I learned quickly how many treasures were hidden in the stacks arranged in an underfunded district that relied heavily on donations to fill the shelves, many of the books not meant for kids or simply very old. There was some wild stuff up there for any kid who wanted to take the time to be absorbed by the strange smell.

Later I came to know this smell through the Everglades, a place where rot and decay can be overpowering. At the entrance to the Hell’s Bay Canoe Trail at the tip of Florida one person who paddled the mangroves ahead of us summed it up well – “Real Hell – smells like it, too.”  As a wide-eyed kid I got beyond that kind of judgment easily and came to inhale it deeply as the smell of life.  Rot is just the yang to the yin of life, after all. Damp and dingy is in the nose of the beholder when there are gators and birds and, yes, a kazillion mosquitoes everywhere.

When this swampy kind of dampness rises in early spring all these memories come back to me in a Proust moment.  Smell overpowers the other senses and goes straight to the memories like to no other, rushing the imagination like the torrent of a spring river. I may see brown and decay not yet sprouting and I may not hear much in the way of sparrows chittering yet – but I feel the sense of adventure and life that is just beyond my memories.  The wheel of seasons is written in this smell, waiting for me or anyone else to take the time to discover it and treasure it like any other ancient tale elaborated with time.

The stories that make up a life aren’t always told in just one smell, of course. That’s up to the imagination that connects them to the moment sitting right in front of your nose. Just as life is often hidden under the clues left by a whiff of decay, adventure and discovery can be found in the musty words left behind by time.

It’s easy to imagine a spring that isn’t quite here yet because the smell of life has returned.  Not the soaring whiff of green in the air, but the deep must that lies at the roots. For me, at least, that’s enough to get things going. It’s a small adventure just waiting to happen and a rebirth that is on its way.