These Things are Scent to Try Us By Marian Van Eyk McCain
I was assaulted this morning.
Like every other day, I was out for my morning walk, striding briskly along a country lane. My senses were wide open to the distant beauty of the sky and the near at hand beauty of the hedgerow, to birdsong, the cool air against my face and the delicious smell of damp earth after rain.
Suddenly, as I turned a corner, I was assaulted. Not, as you might imagine, by some shadowy character with gun or knife in hand, but by two, pleasant-looking, middle-aged women whose faces broke into smiles as they greeted me.
Which of them it was who had drenched herself in that evil-smelling perfume I have no idea. Maybe they were both wearing it. But even though we were going in opposite directions, even though none of us halted and there was never less than a three foot gap between us, I soon found I was wearing it too.
Whether those petrochemical molecules leaped across the three foot gap and lodged in the hairs of my nose or the outermost fibres of my clothing, or whether they simply hung so thickly in the air that I could do no other than breathe them in, I do not know. But what I do know is that I had to walk at least a quarter of a mile before I could rid myself of that smell which had so aggressively insinuated itself into everything around me.
It obliterated the green scent of the hedges, the rich, mushroomy aroma of fallen branches and every other subtle delight of the nose.
I would so much rather have encountered a dead skunk on the road this morning.
But of course, that is all in the mind, isn’t it? As a woman well-trained in the spiritual arts, I knew full well that my disgust at the woman’s perfume was underpinned by mental concepts. The indignation that arose in me at the assault on my innocent, country-sniffing nose was all based on a belief that “Things should not be this way.” That belief was in turn underpinned by a whole stack of facts, figures, ideas and opinions. The issues raised by this one, brief encounter with someone’s perfume ranged all the way from the ill-treatment and exploitation of musk-bearing animals, through the environmental effects of flower monoculture, the obscenity of oil industry CEO’s salaries, the pollution from factories and the rampant consumerism of the “beauty” industry to the personal anguish of a dear friend of mine who is so cripplingly allergic to petrochemicals—particularly these modern, synthetic perfumes—that she had to spend several years of her life shut away in a sterile room with almost no visitors. All of this went through my head, and much more besides. By the time I reached the next bend in the road, my mind was seething with indignation.
I took a whole lot of deep breaths, huffing each one out as forcefully as I could, trying to expel every last trace of that disgusting perfume. I buried my nose in a wet fern, trying to fill myself with something sweet and natural and green.
A good Buddhist, I told myself, would have said “Ah, so,” and walked serenely on. “So, the smell of a woman’s perfume is in my nose. Ah so. Disgust arises in me. I walk on. The smell is still there. Ah so.”
But instead of that, by the time I got to the little stone bridge at the bottom of the hill, I already had three indignant articles written about it in my mind, and I had already dreamed up a new political pressure group (perhaps I could call it the Right To Smell Association—or how about a neat acronym like the National Organization for Signalling the End of Chemically-based Olfactory Pollution? NOSECOP). We shall insist on the rights of people to commune with non-human Nature with their noses and to be free of the dangers of assault by synthetic perfume. We shall lobby for legislation banning the addition of synthetic perfumes to all cosmetics and cleaning products. We’ll give our special endorsement to all those people producing pure organic rose water, pure essential oils (from organically grown sources only) and things like old-fashioned lavender bags unadulterated by smell-enhancing chemicals. Of course, there will have to be a special meeting to decide about camphor. My friend is allergic to that, too. Are mothballs in or out? There will be a lot of decisions to be made.
Suddenly, it seemed as though there was a lot that needed doing. When I get home, I thought to myself, I’ll have to get on the Internet and research all the technological stuff. Esters and suchlike. It is important to get one’s scientific facts right.
As if there wasn’t already enough to be protesting about. Perhaps one should concentrate on getting rid of George Bush and Tony Blair and the WTO before worrying about a minor matter like nose pollution.
And what about skunks, anyway? Maybe some people would claim that they are much more offended by encountering the pungent scent of skunk than they ever could be by some woman’s perfume. So what exactly is nose pollution? That will have to be carefully defined. (NOSECOP will need a sub-committee to work on that).
Passive smoking can be clearly demonstrated to have ill effects on health. So those of us who do not smoke have a right to clean, smoke-free air. And industrial chemicals cause cancer. The evidence is mounting. But, I wondered, do I yet have a case that is strong enough? With the exception of my friend and other allergy sufferers like her, what direct damage can perfume do to the general public? And even if I know in my bones that it does do damage, simply by being just one more thing that comes between human beings and the beautiful, natural world around them, how can I convince anyone of that? Of course I know that the numbers of allergy sufferers around the world is increasing exponentially. And I know that the effects are cumulative. For someone already carrying a heavy allergy load, that whiff of perfume could have been the proverbial last straw that plunged him or her into illness. Furthermore, I know that the real problem at the root of everything is the increasing alienation of humans from their eco-systems. It is the insidious separation of our senses from the matrix within which they evolved that is causing our species to sicken. I know that the sickness of alienation, if it is not reversed, will eventually cause us—and many other life forms with us—to die.
But how can I convince anyone of just how much these seemingly small components of the problem really do matter? How could I say to those women in the lane “Your perfume is helping to destroy life on Earth”? They love the countryside like I do. “Isn’t it a glorious day?” they said this morning, beaming around them at the trees and birds.
And it was. Every day is glorious, rain or shine. But the perfume polluted my morning, at least for a little while. Its assault on my nose felt like the rape of one of my senses. Yet I said nothing.
I suppose nose pollution is rather like noise pollution. You cannot prove that it is bad for anyone, even though you know deep down that it is.
Once, when I was hiking up from the bottom of the Grand Canyon I met a group of young men coming down, and they were carrying a boom box. The air was shattered by the sound. I told them off, but they only sniggered and walked on past me, their electronic noise booming and bouncing off the canyon walls. “Silly old cow,” I heard one of them say.
How do you claim damages against a kid with a boom box, or inane, all-pervading Muzak, or the neighbors’ radios blaring through open windows, generators that ruin the peace of a campground—or an insidious, sickly smell of someone’s perfume that violates your gentle nose?
You can’t, really, can you? It would be nice if you could. But if noise or smell are defined as problems, then there may be other people who say that skunks, too, should be banned, along with jays, squirrels, crows, bugling elk, squawking seagulls squabbling on the sand and screech owls whose cries rend the night.
I suppose I should just practice saying “Ah so,” and walk on. For now, anyway.
Marian Van Eyk McCain. BSW (Melbourne), MA, East-West Psychology (C.I.I.S. San Francisco) is a free-lance writer with publishing credits in a wide range of subjects, including wellness, stress-management, psychology, women’s health and spirituality, environmental politics, organic growing and alternative technology. She has also published poetry and short fiction.
Marian is the author of Transformation through Menopause (Bergin & Garvey 1991), written for women who seek a deep understanding of their menopause process, and “ELDERWOMAN: reap the wisdom...feel the power...embrace the joy” (Findhorn Press, Scotland 2002), an inspirational guide to the third age journey.