You smell – and I’m not being rude

My wife (her name is Jeanette, not Kate, and she has a rather fine nose) has suddenly got her sense of taste and smell back after a senseless four or five years. She tried many things over the years, including many returns to the House on the Top of Great Orme for their lemon meringue pie (that worked once). Her senses have been restored just when she had given up trying. She is now going round sniffing things (Comfort fabric conditioner is a favourite) and is enjoying the tastes of food. It’s like coming to life again. I am delighted for her.

Our senses of taste and smell are often overlooked. There are no words that I am aware of which describe the taste-less and smell-less state. Blindness and deafness describe severe visual and hearing impairment, but there is no equivalent words to describe the impairment of the other senses. Maybe that is because blindness and deafness affect lives in a far more critical way, whereas the senses of taste and smell are pleasures. The pleasure is usually taken for granted, and our senses are often dulled because we don’t really appreciate the senses we have been given.

The Smell Report suggests that western civilisation has devalued the sense of smell in a tendency to compare and rank the senses. The sense of smell won the wooden spoon in the Sense Games, while the gold medal went to the gift of sight. Long noses and nosiness are not welcome here.  “You smell” is a common playground insult, whereas “you see” isn’t.

The Smell Report points our noses at other cultures. For example, in some Arab countries breathing on people as you speak to them is a sign of friendship and goodwill – and denying someone your breath and smell is a shameful sign that you don’e want to get involved with them.

The Onge people of the Andaman Islands tell the time by smell. They have a calendar based on the odours of the flowers that bloom at different times of the year.  Their greeting is not  “How are you?”, but “Konyune onorange-tanka?” which means  “How is your nose?”. Sometimes people respond by saying “I am heavy with odour”, at which the greeter, to be polite, must inhale deeply to remove some of the surplus. At other times the greeter may need to blow heavily on the person she is greeting if that person is a bit short of odour energy.

Ivan Illich discovered that smell is not something to be sneezed at when he was in Peru. It was pointed out to him that there was a connection between nose and heart, smell and affection that he had not made. In his address The Cultivation of Conspiracy, Illich recalls:

“I was in Peru in the mid-1950s, on my way to meet Carlos, who welcomed me to his modest hut for the third time. But to get to the shack, I had to cross the Rimac, the open cloaca of Lima. The thought of sleeping for a week in this miasma almost made me retch. That evening, with a shock, I suddenly realised what Carlos had been telling me all along, “Ivan, don’t kid yourself; don’t imagine you can be friends with people you can’t smell.” That one jolt unplugged my nose; it enabled me to dip into the aura of Carlos’s house, and allowed me to merge the atmosphere I brought along into the ambience of his home.”

Illich refers to the old German adage Ich kann Dich gut riechen” (“I can smell you well”) which goes with another German saying “Ich kann Dich leiden” (” I can suffer you well”).

We mustn’t look down our noses at the sense of smell, or taste. And if you think that’s cheesy you might be interested in Giles Milton’s book, Edward Trencom’s Nose: a novel of history, dark intrigue and cheese. Milton has a nose for history. Trencom, and his predecessors, has a remarkable nose, just for cheese.

PS Big Nose Kate didn’t have a big nose. She was just nosy. She was Doc Holiday’s girlfriend. The photo is by TLfromAZ

The Long Now

I didn’t realise just how many ways there are of telling the time until I read Jay Griffith’s A Sideways Look at Time  a few years ago. She drew attention to the way in which the clock came to tower over our lives with an oppressive power which meant that this has dominated the  way of telling the time in our culture. She contrasted this with different ways time is told in cultures that have not fallen under the spell of Captain Clock. For example, she tells of the scent calendars of the Andaman Islands which uses the smell of the flowers and trees to tell the time. She demonstrates how our sense of time separated from our sense of nature. She quotes a conversation with Mateo Jicca, an Arakmbut leader in Peru who complains that “your (westernised) people are all planification and punctuality. In the cities everything has to be at the hour, punto, precise. By contrast, here in the mountains we give things time, sin limitari, without limits.”

His criticism rings alarm bells. It perhaps is true that we squeeze things into our plans, rather than giving things/people the time they need. But then there is a rush isn’t there? We only have “now”, or “just a minute”. We think that “time is running away with us” and that time is scarce as the sands of time run out on us. Why can’t “now” be longer? Why can’t we take longer? Why can’t we be more generous with our time? Refreshingly, there are those who want to give us pause for thought – seconds out.

clock of the long now (prototype)
The 10,000 Year Clock (above) is part of the Long Now Project. It challenges our obsession with immediacy. The clock is designed as a symbol for long term thinking, and is being built inside a mountain in the Sierra Diablo Mountain Range in West Texas. Danny Hillis is the clockfather. He wanted to design a clock that will keep time for 10,000 years and that:

  • ticks once a year
  • will generate a different chime sequence each day for 10,000 years
  • where the century hand moves once every one hundred years
  • and the cuckoo comes out on the millennium

Introducing the idea of the clock, Danny Hillis said:

I cannot imagine the future, but I care about it. I know I am part of a story that starts long before I can remember and continues long beyond when anyone will remember me. I sense that I am alive at a time of important change, and I feel a responsibility to make sue that the change comes out well. I plant my acorns knowing that I will never live to harvest the oaks.

The first prototype of the clock began working on December 31st 1999 in time to display the transition to the year 2000, shown as moving from 01999 to 02000 (because it’s a 10000 year clock). The chime struck twice.

The requirements for the clock include ensuring future generations can keep the clock working with nothing more advanced than Bronze Age tools, and should not contain valuable parts that can be looted. The clock is a shy clock which hides its face. The time it displays is the time asked for by the last visitor. It’s a clock that is locked away, that takes the visitor a day’s pilgrimage to reach. It’s a clock that knows that it will be overlooked in the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Stewart Brand, a founding member of the Long Now Foundation,

“Such a clock, if sufficiently impressive and well-engineered, would embody deep time for people. It should be charismatic to visit, interesting to think about, and famous enough to become iconic to the public discourse. Ideally it would do for thinking about time what the photographs of Earth from space have done for thinking about the environment. Such icons reframe the way people think.”

The photo is by piglicker.