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The Sense We All Should Use More Often

One hiker discovers the importance of the most animal of senses: smell.

Body splayed out on scratchy scrub and dry grasses, I stick my nose against a patch of dirt and inhale deeply. I paw deeper into the earth hoping it will release whatever is remaining hidden from my nose, but to no avail. Neurons and vocabulary both fail me. What I am smelling is dirt. Simply dirt.

I close my eyes and continue breathing in the earth but am distracted by my body’s slow creep downslope. Digging the toes of my boots into the ground, I try to anchor myself and remain on task. Smell. Smell. What am I smelling? Goodness, my stomach is itchy. Arms too. The irritated rosy glow of a rash is beginning to bloom across my skin. Oh crap, did I lay down in poison oak? Leaves of three, leaves of three . . . nope, don’t see any of that. How long have we been lying here? Ah yes, the dirt. It smells. . .

I’m supposed to be using my animal senses, but it’s clear I’ve become rather detached from my animal self. Dwelling constantly within the cerebral plane of modernity, it’s no wonder that a deep breath of dirt—a veritable biome in miniature, teeming with untold microorganisms—could only be processed as “earthy.” My point of reference for dirt is very one-dimensional. But dirt isn’t just dirt if you’re on intimate terms with it. Of course, for an urbanite, intimacy with the dirt is something that requires concerted cultivation. Cultivation that necessitates quieting the incessant droning of one’s mind and tuning to something more elemental.

Hiking with Hall Newbegin— founder and owner of Juniper Ridge, a company that distills fragrances from flowers, moss, tree trimmings, and other materials harvested from the wilderness—offered the opportunity to really dig into a sense of place through the most basic of animal senses: scent. I’d hiked in and around the Marin Headlands many times, but could only describe it by historical facts and trail maps—nothing that really spoke to the place’s essence, that which could be received and understood viscerally rather than cerebrally.

Setting off on a trail, we halted almost immediately at a large bush sprouting tiny white fuzzy blooms—coyote bush, Hall told us. We bent over it, giving the plant a closer look. “Touch it! Rub it between your hands and smell it!” Hall urged, grabbing a fistful of stems to illustrate. It felt like the downy fur of a dog’s ear, and tickled my nose into a sneeze.

We followed the dirt trail wending in a gentle slope up the hill, sampling plants along the way. Tiny yellow flowers with propeller-like blooms surprised us with their sharp bite. (“Part of the mustard family—you can tell by the four, regularly spaced petals.”) Mugwort, a delicate plant with forked leaves and a snowy silver underside, had an herbal sweetness undercut with a musky base that made its scent feel just a bit racy. Hall told us that many believe mugwort is good for dreams, but that he personally found it “too stimulating.” Already subject to bizarre dreamscapes played out nightly in my sleeping brain, I decide to forgo a dip into the mugwort-laced variety.

Along the path were clumps of squat bushes. It was a parched-looking plant I’d passed on area trails dozens of times with stems like slender sticks tipped with bottlebrush needles and tiny globular blooms: California sagebrush. Hall plucked off a branch and rubbed it vigorously between his palms, offering his cupped hands to each of us. I stuck in my nose and inhaled a gray-green sweetness, a distillation of fog saturated with creeping vegetation clinging to sun-soaked rock. The immediate vividness of the scent’s conjurations startled me. Instantly, it had taken root in my brain and sprouted into a fully formed landscape. It was as if the memory of the scent had always been there, tucked away in the recesses of my subconscious.

I sit up from the ground scratching absently at the rash on my arm. I haven’t yet formed a communion with the dirt, but smelling a sprig of crushed California sagebrush in my hand, it’s as if the scent itself has aroused the gray fog rolling in from beyond the hills. Thick and sweet, it dissolves into the expanding ocean, smudging the horizon into obscurity. 

A Word of Caution

Although it’s great to dig in to nature with your senses, do be smart about it. During the hike, Hall held up a slender stem with delicate, fernlike leaves. It looked pretty innocuous to me, but guess what—hemlock. So please, don’t run around the trail munching unfamiliar plants with reckless abandon. And before you rub leaves to inhale, be sure you're not touching poison oak or stinging nettle.

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