This morning I was standing at the drill press working on a batch of candle holders. Shavings and dust spilled out of the hole piling at my feet. Sometimes the shavings would come out in long crimped pencil sharpener ribbons . Sometimes they coiled around the bit like an Elizabethan ruff. The hot drill bit hitting frozen wood made clouds of steam billow out of the hole as though the wood were exhaling in the cold air. The steam was like concentrated wood perfume and I was again struck by what a punch in the olfactory system it is to work with wood.
Smell is a funny sense. I can’t remember a smell. Or a least I can’t think of a thing and retrieve the smell the way I can recall a song in my head or picture a face. I’ve been told that in the mush between your ears, the wires don’t run that way. When I try all I get is a feeling that I’m close and a pile of thoughts and emotions that I’ve anchored to the smell. But the wires run the other way. A familiar smell will often cause a cascade of memory and emotion.
And so it was that day, mindlessly punching holes in wood, all the while inhaling its steamy breath. I made it into something of a game, trying to sort through all of the thoughts and memories and emotions that the smells brought to mind. Siberian elm made me think of the stink of a horse barn. Maybe horse manure or old wood. Black locust smelled of black raspberries somewhat ruined by being cooked in a pie. Oak had more than one smell. Sometimes an unpleasant sour smell. Sometimes that sourness shifted all the way to a fishy smell like the sea. But then other pieces had a smell I thought of as wholesome almost like sassafras or rootbeer. A smell I savor on my clothes sometimes. One piece of box elder brought strongly to mind the childhood memories of a neighboring weedy field freshly mowed. Crab grass, Queen Ann’s lace, ragweed and chickory. The smell of an allergy attack. It also made me think of the smell of a green stick with the bark freshly peeled off. Another piece of box elder smelled of the rotten weeds and tarry mud that stuck to my shoes and socks in a swampy pond where I caught turtles as a child. Walnut had an unpleasant smell unlike anything and left a bitter taste in my mouth, but also brought a nostalgia and thoughts of highschool woodshop. Eastern red cedar brought to mind the smell of a cedar chest at my grandparents house, and the smell of my other grandmother’s coat closet where she used hangers made of the wood, and of the giftshops in Petosky where boxes and trinkets made form the colorful wood are sold with “Petosky” burned into them in a curly script. Sweet cherry smelled like old-lady perfume. And like a “cherry scented” liquid handsoap we used to have at my last job. It’s a smell that in other circumstances I’ve found cloying, but in the company of horse manure, weedy fields , and swamp muck struck me as wonderful. Overlaying all of this was the smell of wood smoke. Some from the woodstove. Some from the bit scorching as the water burned off. The smells of ash and elm and maple and all the others are lost to me now, but it’s pleasant to think that recall is but a sniff away.