Family, Historic Preservation, Monday Musings
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The smells of place and time

It was only after meditating in the shower that I came to realize why adding almond soap to my morning touched a memory.

Yes, my daily routine has now made me a veritable garden in bloom. Almond blends with lavender and sandalwood, each scent a reminder of a particular place and specific people. The lavender takes me back to a scrumptious dinner on a visit to the historic inn and lavender gardens of New Mexico’s Los Poblanos. The sandalwood in my beard oil brings up memories of discoveries and conversations along a Main Street in New York. The almond takes me back to the coffee shop where I read Natalie Goldberg’s consideration of Pierre Bonnard’s final painting — Almond Tree in Blossom. She ends her memoir answering the great question of how to live with eternity at your door. In full bloom.

Memories of trips, people, places, and scents

My meditation also took me to a fascinating article on how The National Trust of Australia was working with the City of Melbourne to recognize the distinctive smell of the Vegemite factory when considering heritage designation. That article brought back a flood of personal olfactory memories, beyond my morning toiletries.

For many years my grandfather Roberts worked for the Sunbeam bakery in Nashville. Papaw was a carpenter, building shelves and doors with the company logo to be used at small town and rural stores throughout the mid-South. On occasion, Mamaw would take me to the factory.

Sunbeam is known for white bread that was ubiquitous in the 1960s. The taste may have been nondescript, but that smell…oh, it was heavenly to my six-year-old nose. Even today when I enter a bakery, my mind goes back to those years — and smells — of my youth.

My friend Felicity Watson, the head of advocacy for the Trust, spoke to Broadsheet about how the organization came to be engaged in work to recognize a critical part of a building in Melbourne that most people don’t consider when thinking of heritage.

“When we were reviewing the proposed heritage listing they put forward, we realised that something really important to that building was missing….The smell of the factory. It’s a really distinctive experience.”

The intense yeasty smell competes with those coming from Abbotsford’s CUB brewery for the title of Melbourne’s most iconic.

“It’s quite evocative and memorable,” Watson says. “It’s a significant indication of what that building is used for.

“The National Trust is not seeking for that smell and that process of manufacture to continue in perpetuity. We accept that there will be changes at the site and it might be redeveloped into the future. What we’re asking is for that smell to be recognised as part of the history.”

Not all my olfactory memories are pleasant. In the 1970s, I worked one summer in Kingsport, Tennessee, which has a downtown paper mill. When I mentioned what from my perspective was an offensive odor, the locals invariably responded with, “It smells like money to me.”

But the larger point still holds. We engage all of our senses when we remember places in our past. In her book Root Shock, Dr. Mindy Thompson Fullilove writes about why our senses are so important to memory and place, and how those memories can last a lifetime. Places, she notes…

…are not simply bricks and mortar that provide us shelter. Because we dance in a ballroom, have a parade in a street, make love in a bedroom, and prepare a feast in a kitchen, each of these places becomes imbued with sounds, smells, noises, and feelings of those moments and how we lived them. When we enter an old classroom, the smell of chalk on the boards can bring back a swarm of memories of classmates and lessons, boredom and dreams….The breeze on a certain hillside reminds us of a class trip, while the sun in the garden brings thoughts of Dad….The cues from place dive under conscious thought and awakens our sinews and bones, where days of our lives have been recorded.

Buildings and neighborhoods are insinuated into us by life. We are not independent.

“We are more like Siamese twins, conjoined to the locations of our daily life, such that our emotions flow through places, just as blood flows through two interdependent people. We can indeed separate from our places, but it is an operation that is best done with care. When a part is ripped away…root shock (the traumatic stress reaction to the destruction of all or part of one’s emotional ecosystem) occurs.”

Remembering the things we see, hear, touch, taste and smell from our past helps us make connections to place and keeps us connected with the continuum of humanity.

Enjoy the scents of your week.

More to come…


Image of lavender farm by No-longer-here from Pixabay. Sunbeam image from Flicker Creative Commons/Penjelly.

This entry was posted in: Family, Historic Preservation, Monday Musings


I am David J. Brown (hence the DJB) and I originally created this personal blog more than ten years ago as a way to capture photos and memories from a family vacation. After the trip was over I simply continued writing. Over the years the blog has changed to have a more definite focus aligned with my interest in places that matter, reading well, roots music, and more. My professional background is as a national nonprofit leader with a four-decade record of growing and strengthening organizations at local, state, and national levels. This work has been driven by my passion for connecting people in thriving, sustainable, and vibrant communities.


  1. Jane Feddersen says

    I haven’t been online much, but happened to read this piece. Very nice. Woe to the poor Covid victims who lost their lives and those that lost their sense of smell.
    P.S. I love Vegemite!

    • Thanks, Jane. I’m glad to know of your Vegemite affection.

      Our daughter had a case of Covid and lost her smell, but it is only temporary. I do think of people who have a permanent lost or diminished sense of smell, hearing, or eyesight and reflect how different the world must appear to be. Take care, and thanks for reading. DJB

  2. One of my consulting clients who lives in Southside Virginia wrote on the LinkedIn version of this post, “The smell of cured tobacco!”

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