Sep 192015

The countryside along the north shore of Rice Lake is beginning to smell of autumn now. Last night, I took a walk over to a friend’s farm where I plant a vegetable garden. Over the years he’s created trails throughout the woodland and I was fortunate enough to catch the sun before it dipped down behind the drumlin at about 7 p.m.

Ron Mackay, Settler’s Line / Foley Road, Keene


Sept woodland walk 1 - Ron McKay

Sept woodland walk 1 – Ron Mackay

Sept. woodland walk 2 - Ron McKay

Sept. woodland walk 2 – Ron Mackay

May 152014


“How sense-lucious the world is.”
– Diane Ackerman

In this second article on how to use our five senses to more fully experience the natural world, I am presenting some simple activities that can add an element of fun to any nature outing. These activities, which can be done alone, with your family or with a larger group, have been taken from an up-coming book I am co-writing with Jacob Rodenburg, Executive Director of Camp Kawartha, on seasons-based nature activities for kids.

Palette of colours similar to paint chips

Palette of colours similar to paint chips

As Diane Ackerman wrote in her national bestseller, “A Natural History of the Senses”, our eyes are the great monopolists of our senses. In other words, it is primarily through our eyes that we experience the world. Here are three fun activities to boost our ability to really see the natural world around us.
• Rainbow Colors: Go to a paint store and ask for paint chips (small cardboard pieces each with a different shade of colour) to take along on your next outing. Try to find natural objects along the trail that match the colour of the paint chips exactly. Once you start looking closely, you will be amazed at how many colours there are in nature. To make the game even more challenging, look for different shades of each colour – especially green.
• Look-Alikes – Look for objects or patterns in nature that remind you of something else (e.g., a pattern in the bark looks like a human face). Study the palm of one of your hands. Reach up under a tree and try to find a branching pattern that exactly matches the wrinkle pattern in your lower palm. How many examples can you find?
• The Human Camera: This is an activity for a group of children. You will need coloured pencils as well as pieces of stock paper or cardboard of about 4″ X 6″. Working in pairs, partner A (the human camera) closes his or her eyes. Partner B (the photographer) leads partner A to an interesting, close-up scene such as wildflower or a mushroom and positions the “camera” to get the best view. Partner B then pulls gently on partner A’s ear lobes to “open the shutter”, namely his or her eyes. Partner A stares at the scene for 30 seconds or so, remaining perfectly still. Partner B then says to Partner A “take a picture in your mind of what you see and then close your eyes once again.” Partner B carefully leads partner A back to a central location. Without the photographers watching and using the crayons and paper provided, the human cameras must now draw the scene they just took with their eyes and their mind. Now, put all of the “photos” on display. Can the photographers identify their scene? Switch roles and try the activity again.

Cupping your ears to enhance hearing

Cupping your ears to enhance hearing

From the buzzing of bees to the trilling of toads, every natural area is characterized by a unique soundscape. Recognizing the common bird, frog and insect songs not only provides a great deal of satisfaction, but it also avoids the hard work of having to actually see the animals each time to identify them. Like acquiring a new language, however, learning to listen to our nonhuman neighbours takes some effort and a little patience.
• Sound Maps – Find a comfortable place to sit for a few minutes, preferably out of talking range of another person. Place an “X” in the middle of a sheet of paper to represent your location. Each time you hear a sound, mark it on the sheet, showing its approximate location. Name the sound if you can or simply draw a picture or write down a few words to describe it (e.g., a little horn if the bird had a horn-like call). Afterwards, discuss what you heard with the rest of the group (e.g., natural sounds, human-made sounds, something you had never heard before, etc.)
• Focused Hearing: Squeeze your fingers together, take your two hands and cup them behind your ears. At the same time, gently, push your ears forward. This simple procedure can increase your hearing by up to 10 times. In a way, your ears have become “deer ears” – large parabolic dishes that capture sound waves.
• Contrast Walk – Block out all sounds by plugging your ears with your fingers as you walk about 50 metres. Stop, and without saying a word, heighten your sense of hearing by slipping on your deer ears. With ears cupped, turn towards different sounds you hear as you walk another 50 metres or so without talking. Discuss the contrast.

From the smell of the damp earth and abundant blossoms in spring to the spicy fragrance of fallen leaves in autumn, each season has its signature scents. When you are out for a walk or hike, get into the habit of smelling flowers, buds, green leaves and needles, conifer sap, etc. By gently rubbing plant parts, more of the chemicals they contain are released, which greatly increases the smell. In addition, take the time to think about how certain smells make you feel. The nerves that sense smell are directly connected to the emotional part of your brain, making smell a strong trigger for a flood of emotions.
• Lick, Rub and Sniff – Next time you go for a walk and want to smell something, try licking your upper lip. As with dogs and their cold, wet nose, wetness under the nose helps to distinguish more odours. Try a little “rub and sniff.” See if you can notice a difference between smelling with your upper lip dry and then again with it wet.
• Smell Cocktail: You will need some Dixie cups and small twigs. As you hike, encourage everyone to selectively harvest tiny “bits” of the forest and place them in the cup: a small pinch of leaf mould, a part of a rubbed leaf, etc. When you have a four or five items, stir them with your twig. This is your smell cocktail! Give each creation a name – perhaps “petaltopia” and let everyone smell each other’s concoction. Can you identify the smells?

Taking time to "smell the roses"

Taking time to “smell the roses”

When you are out on a walk, or just in the backyard, take a moment to think about what you are feeling – not just with your hands, but with your entire body. Feel the breeze, the warmth of the sun and the coolness of the shade. Run your fingers over the bark and leaves of different kinds of trees and notice how different they are. Compare, for example, the texture of oak leaves (thick and leathery) to those of maples (thin and more fragile).
• Barefoot Walk: Take off your shoes and socks and, wearing a blindfold, have a friend guide you as walk across a lawn with patches of sun and shade or through shallow water with a sandy bottom – anywhere that is safe and free of sharp objects. Change roles. Talk about how the temperature and the texture of the ground changed.
• Meet a Tree: This wonderful activity works best in an open area with lots of trees. You will need one blindfold for every two people. To demonstrate, blindfold a volunteer and say, “I’m going to introduce you to a special friend.” Gently and carefully guide the person in a circuitous route to a pre-selected tree – preferably one that isn’t too big. Have him or her feel the texture of the bark, the arrangement of low branches, the shape of the leaves, the girth of trunk, etc. The more tactile clues you offer, the better. Now guide the volunteer back to the starting point – but not the same way. Gently spin him or her around a few times and remove the blindfold. Say, “Can you find your tree?” Often this is easier said than done. Now, let everyone try it.
• Simple challenges: While walking through the woods, challenge group members to find objects in nature that really awaken our sense of touch. To get started, these could include the smoothest, roughest, softest, furriest, bumpiest, slimiest, spikiest, warmest and coldest!

Introduce kids – and maybe yourself, too – to the edible wild and the wonderful tastes to be experienced from the landscape. Some plants with edible leaves (generally the young leaves taste best) and flowers include Chicory, Dandelion, Fireweed, Wood Sorrel and all of the different violets. A delightful and familiar-tasting breath freshener can be had by chewing on a leaf or berry of Wintergreen. Simply spit it out when the taste starts to fade. WARNING! As always, be sure you absolutely know what you are tasting.
• Forest Tea: As you walk, harvest a handful of Eastern White Cedar and White Pine (long soft needles in bunches of 5). When you get home, toss these in boiling water and let steep for at least 10 minutes. The resulting tea will be bitter but refreshing, and your tongue will dance with the evocative taste of the forest!


May 082014

Do you ever wonder why some people come back from a hike with colourful stories of close encounters with interesting plants and animals yet when you return, all you’ve seen are mosquitoes, trees and a couple of annoying crows? Why do some people observe so much? Granted, seeing nature is partly knowing where and when to look and knowing what to be looking for. However, it is also all very much about venturing forth with a healthy dose of curiosity, activating all of your senses and having your patience primed.

Hints for Paying Attention
Seeing birds, mammals, insects and even plants depends to a large degree on minimizing unrelated “noise” in your head and truly paying attention to your surroundings. In many ways, paying attention is not unlike the Buddhist concept of “mindfulness.” Try to minimize the noise of extraneous thoughts and conversations and strive to be in the moment. Here are a few hints:
• Be patient. Paying attention requires looking and listening with complete concentration. As the Black-capped Chickadee suggests in his three-noted, slurred springtime song, “be-pa-tient”. This might mean standing motionless until the sparrow you thought you saw in a brushpile finally shows itself again or sitting quietly in your car at dawn scanning a meadow and fenceline, until the coyotes you’d been hoping to see finally make an appearance.
• Shhhh! To really pay attention, you need to be quiet. This doesn’t mean just talking in a low voice but rather keeping all unnecessary talking to a minimum, especially if your goal is to see birds or mammals. In addition, by minimizing noise, you’ll get that much closer to any animal you eventually do see. Be aware, too, of where and how you are walking. This means choosing where to place your feet so to avoid brittle branches or piles of noisy dry leaves. When you do see or hear something of interest, avoid the urge to yell out. It is just as easy to whisper, or better still, to slowly raise your arm and point at what you have seen or heard. By doing so, the bird or other animal will likely stay put for everyone to enjoy – including you.
• Avoid sudden movements. Sudden, jerky movements will scare animals away as quickly as loud noises. You therefore need to get in the habit of moving slowly, smoothly and deliberately, especially as you get closer to whatever you are stalking. Avoiding rapid movements can also be important when you bring your binoculars up to your eyes.

Our eyes are our most precious asset for enjoying nature.

Our eyes are our most precious asset for enjoying nature.

Engaging all of the senses
In today’s modern age, it is easy to be seduced by technology – whether it is a 3-D TV set, the surround-sound of a home theatre system or the amazing graphics of the latest computer game. However, we tend to forget that evolution, too, has endowed humans with remarkable sensory capabilities that can rival or surpass even the latest in technological innovation.
Take our eyes for example. As human beings, we have the sight capabilities of a predator. Stereoscopic vision helps us to see in three dimensions and to gauge depth and position. With the help of special “cones” in the back of our eyes, we can distinguish over 10 million different colours! Our ears are able to hear frequencies between sixteen and 20,000 cycles per second, which is sensitive enough to be able detect wind gently moving through grasses. We can also hear sounds from different locations simultaneously – one could say we even hear in three dimensions. And it doesn’t stop there. With every breath in and out, we also detect a myriad of scents. In fact, recent research by Dr. Andreas Keller at Rockefeller University in New York City has demonstrated that our sense of smell is sensitive enough to detect a trillion different odours! This wonderful sense is evocative enough to bring back distant childhood memories of everything from freshly baked pie to the smell of the spring air. Let’s not forget, too, that we are enveloped in amazingly sensitive skin. Special receptors in the skin called Meissner’s corpuscles can respond to pressures as gentle as the sweep of a cool breeze. Finally, some 10,000 taste buds in our mouth help us to detect the faintest of flavours, including bitterness in concentrations as small as one part per 2 million.
We therefore need to take the time to unplug technology and “plug in” to the natural world through the wonder of these highly-developed senses that we often take for granted. In a way – this is our green conduit – the most basic and arguably, the most powerful way to connect to nature. But, as we’ll see, to drink the world in through our senses takes practice.

More than anything, humans are visual animals. In other words, we have evolved to make use of sight more than our other senses. We therefore need to take full advantage of this amazing gift of evolution. Here are some activities that can help to maximize our use of sight.
• Use “splatter vision” – When we walk in a natural setting, most of us cast our eyes downward. This makes sense, for our inclination is to avoid stumbling. However, by focusing primarily on our feet, we are missing so much of what is going on all around us. Practice being an “all around watcher” and use what naturalists call “splatter vision”. This means not keeping our eyes in one place for too long. As you walk, remember to look up, glance to the sides, scan what’s happening off in the distance and occasionally take a look behind. By continuously sweeping your eyes in all directions, you are more likely to pick up animal movement in the landscape – perhaps a distant Fisher crossing the road or a hawk soaring overhead. When you arrive at a body of water, look for any dark objects (e.g., ducks, a beaver) swimming or floating on the surface. Also, make a special point of checking out telephone poles and wires, dead branches in the crowns of trees, fence posts, etc. – anywhere a bird might perch.
• Use binoculars – Our sense of sight can be greatly enhanced by learning to use binoculars properly. Many naturalists find 8 X 40 or 8 X 42 binoculars the best choice. They provide good magnification but also offer a wider field of vision. This makes it easier to actually locate a bird our insect with the binoculars and follow it as it moves around. Most serious birders purchase a roof prism design, because they are the lightest, most durable and most waterproof. Good nature-viewing binoculars should also have what’s known as “close focus”. This means that they will focus on objects only a metre or so away. Not only will you be able to study birds up close, but you will also be able to watch butterflies and dragonflies. Remember, too, to hold your binoculars with both hands. For added stability, brace yourself up against a tree trunk, car or building. When you do see a bird or other object you want to check out with the binoculars, begin by locking your eyes on the object. Then, slowly raise your binoculars to your eyes. If you have done this correctly, the bird, insect or mammal should be right in the middle of your field of vision. Don’t make the mistake of simply scanning randomly with your binoculars in the general vicinity of the bird in the hope of stumbling upon it.
• Use a hand lens: A good hand lens can open up an entire new world when used properly. Hold the lens as close to your eye as possible. Bring the object you are looking at towards the lens (or vice versa) until it is in focus. This usually means getting as close as a couple of centimetres away. For most nature study purposes such as examination of insects, plant parts and rocks, 10 X is an excellent magnification.

hand lens - Wikimedia

hand lens – Wikimedia

Next week, I’ll provide more suggestions and activities for getting the most from our five senses when exploring the natural world. This series of articles is part of an up-coming book I’m co-writing with Jacob Rodenburg, Executive Director of Camp Kawartha, on seasons-based nature activities for kids.

Nov 122009

Last week, I began a discussion about smell. Today, I’d like to talk a little about the role of smell in the lives of our flora and fauna, and how the sense of smell has long been in decline in humans. I will also conclude my list of signature scents of the seasons.

Smell plays a huge role in plant and animal communication. However, nearly all of these airborne messages go undetected by the human nose. Smell is the principal means by which insects communicate, be it ants laying down scent trails for other ants to follow or the ability of a male Cecropia moth to find a female several kilometres away by following the scent of pheromones she emits. Salamanders depend on smell each spring when they follow their imprinted memory of their natal forest pond with its specific odours of mud and decaying vegetation. Smell allows squirrels to find acorns they buried months earlier, while wolves, by scent alone, can locate prey, other pack members and enemies. Even though birds in general have a poor sense of smell, turkey vultures are an exception. They can use the odour of rotting meat to find a dead animal deep in the forest. In the plant world, petunias emit a strong odour at night specifically to draw in hawk moths for the purpose of pollination. A host of other plants, when under attack by insects, will emit aromatic substances that serve to attract insect eaters. When it comes to humans, however, the role of smell as a tool of communication – and the acuity of our sense of smell itself – has been deteriorating for thousands of years.

Evolution has long been phasing out our sense of smell. Genetic studies have shown a steady decline in the number of functional olfactory receptor genes through primate evolution to humans. These are the genes that encode for the production of receptor cells in our nose that detect different odours. Today, even mice have 2.7 times as many functional olfactory receptor genes as humans! Fully 70% of the human olfactory receptor genes have become nonfunctional. Clearly, human evolution has been marked by the gradual rise of vision and the reduction of smell. Our noses have become smaller and our eyes have moved to the middle of the face to permit depth vision. At the same time, the adoption of an erect posture has moved our nose away from the ground and away from its multiplicity of odours. Despite this decline, we still crave smell today. This helps to explain why chemists continue to drench everything, from cars to lotions to incense, with some kind of chemical scent.

Many questions remain as to why humans find some smells pleasant and others disagreeable. For example, why do we find the smell of rotting meat so foul? Once again, is there an evolutionary advantage to being repulsed by this smell? The standard response would be that evolution has shaped us to avoid eating things we don’t like the smell of because they are probably unsafe. Another question could be: Why do humans find the smell of most flowers pleasing? Is there something in our evolutionary history that makes liking floral fragrances important to our survival, or is there no connection at all?
The smells listed below are representative of spring and summer in the Kawarthas. They are listed more or less in chronological order. Many, however, continue to occur over more than one season.
Early spring  

·          Making maple syrup – the sweet aroma of evaporating sap, mixed with the smell of wood smoke, wafting from the sugar shack

·         Grass fires – a common April smell in suburban Peterborough in the 1950’s and 60’s.

·         Thawing earth – as microbial activity increases in the spring, hundreds of chemicals are released by the microbes in the soil. The rich, earthy smell of the ground at this time of year is usually due to a compound called geosmin. It is also what gives beets their earthy taste. The human nose is extremely sensitive to geosmin.
·         Last falls’ leaves and grass – the smell of decomposing leaves from the previous fall,  heated and dried on a warm spring day,
·         Earthworms – the fishy, musky smell of earthworms slowly simmering in the sun-warmed water of sidewalk puddles after an overnight rain
·         Wild leek – the onion-like smell of wild leek below your feet during a spring walk through a maple woodlot. Their leaves are the first new growth of spring and appear soon after the snow melts.
·         Skunk cabbage – even though this species has not yet extended its range northward into the Kawarthas, it may soon do so as a result of climate change. In southern Ontario, skunk cabbage is the first flower to bloom in the spring. Carrion- eating insects are attracted to the smell and color and therefore play the role of pollinators. The skunky odour is spread to a large degree by the heat generated as the plant grows. It can even melt the snow that comes into contact with the plant.

Mid to late spring 

·         Freshly mown grass –    a researcher in Australia, Dr. Nick Lavidis, has found that a chemical released by freshly mowed grass can help people relax, put them in a better mood, and actually enhance memory. Like other smells, it directly affects the brain’s emotional and memory structures.

·         Balsam poplar – from early May to mid-June, this sweet, pungent balsam odour permeates the air almost everywhere in the Kawarthas. It is especially strong on warm, damp mornings. The scent originates from the sticky sap that oozes from balsam poplar buds as they open. Balsam poplar is probably my favourite smell of the year and says “this is springtime in the Kawarthas” more than any other odour.

·         Lilac – in the second half of May, city neighbourhoods and rail-trails are drenched with the floral fragrance of lilac. Even though I’m generally not a fan of non-native species, I’m ready to make an exception for lilacs!

·         Cherry – In the countryside, pin and chokecherry add their fragrances to the mix of lilac, balsam poplar and freshly mown grass. Take a moment to smell chokecherry blossoms close up. They have a lovely almond smell, as do the twigs and bark when crushed.

·         Other trees, shrubs, vines, and wildflowers – sweetgale (sweet and spicy leaves),  black locust  (in addition to their rich, floral smell, the flowers are edible), wild grape flowers (a clean, refreshing fragrance), red trillium (a carrion-like smell that attracts pollinating flies)


Early summer 

·         Freshly cut hay curing in the sun – the sweet scent of the first days of summer. It is claimed that from a downwind location, you can smell a hayfield a mile away.

·         Common Milkweed – if you come across a patch of milkweeds in July, stop to smell the honey-sweet perfume of the mauve-pink flowers which fills the air along country roads. The flowers can even be dried and used for making pot-pourri.

·         Canada elderberry – the fragrant, tiny white flowers of the elderberry shrub occur in flat clusters. They not only smell great but they are also edible. When flowers are open, the clusters can be picked, dipped in pancake batter and fried.

·         American basswood – in early July, the powerful, honey-like scent of blooming American basswoods can fill the air over large distances. The flowers attract over 60 species of insect pollinators, especially honey bees. In fact, the basswood is sometimes called the “bee tree,” in reference to the huge swarms of bees that can make the tree come alive with their humming. The nectar of basswood flowers produces a strongly flavoured white honey. The flowers can also be gathered and dried to make tea. Basswood is sometimes referred to as “linden.”

·         Summer leaves  –  stop and rub the leaves of the following plants for the wonderful cornucopia of smells they release: catnip (mint-like), wild bergamot (the peppery, citrus-like aroma of Earl Grey tea), yarrow  (pungent, sage-like),  aniseroot (licorice-like), and prickly-ash (lemon)

·         Mayapple fruit – our ancestors would dry the apple-like fruits of the mayapple, a spring wildflower with a large, umbrella-like leaf,  and use them to give a pleasant, lemony smell to stored clothing and bedding

·         Approaching rain – even though they’re probably only sensing a change in air pressure and humidity, some people claim they can actually smell rain before it arrives


Late summer

·         Petrichor – this is the strong scent in the air when rain falls after a dry spell of weather. The smell comes from oils given off by certain plants during dry periods which are absorbed by the soil. When it rains, the oil is released into the air along with geosmin (see Early Spring) which produces the distinctive scent.


·         Walnuts – the strong, citrus smell of unripe, green-coloured walnut fruits is a sign that summer is starting to wane. Keep one in your hand or pocket when out for a walk, just to enjoy the scent.

·         Sweetfern – the shiny, fern-like leaves of this Shield plant are incredibly aromatic, especially on a hot day. The leaves keep their scent for months after being picked.

·         Goldenrod – a subtle but sweet smell of goldenrod is everywhere by late August when entire fields become a sea of yellow.

·         Algal blooms – in addition to turning the water milky-green and smelling bad, algal blooms usually mean that Labour Day is quickly approaching and, with it, the beginning of the true New Year.


Try to take time to cultivate your sense of the smells of the season. An awareness of their presence and where they are coming from can add so much to an outing or to just spending time working in the yard. Be it fallen leaves in November, skunk spray in February,  balsam poplar in May or wild bergamot in July, smell never ceases to inform us about what is happening in the natural world.



Nov 052009

Leaving the house one dark, wet morning last week, I immediately noticed our maples had shed nearly all of their leaves overnight. Despite feeling a bit discouraged at all the raking I’d have to do, I couldn’t get over the wonderful smell that greeted me. It was like walking into the heart of a maple forest, full of the spicy, lusty leaf smell that becomes especially rich on a damp  morning. Like the dark-eyed juncos at the backyard feeder, the cool temperatures and the greys and browns of roadside goldenrods, the smell of sodden leaves on the ground signals November’s arrival. Gone are the heady days of early October with its riot of colour and still summer-like weather. We have moved on.

Appreciating nature is clearly not just about sights and sounds. It’s also very much about odours and even taste and touch. We need to bring all of our senses to the experience. For me, smell is an emotionally-charged sense that represents the promise of change – the barely perceptible slippage of one season or time of year into another.

As humans, we experience the  world primarily through eyes and ears. We tend to pay less attention to what our nose is telling us. It’s partly because our culture often teaches us that there is  something impolite or embarrassing about odours. Nor is smell a sense that we usually  need in order to survive. At the same time, however, smell allows for near instantaneous emotional connection to a situation. Without it, we feel isolated.

The human nose detects smells through millions of microscopic olfactory cells, located in two patches about the size of postage stamps on the roof of the nasal cavity. When odour molecules reach the cavity, they dissolve in a layer of mucous and are absorbed by hairs on top of the nerve cells. Differently shaped  cells “trap” different molecules – almost like a key fitting into a lock –  and therefore recognize different smells. The olfactory nerve then transports signals from the cells to the smell centre in the brain.

Humans can detect over ten thousand odours and have about five million of these olfactory cells. This sounds impressive until you discover that dogs typically have about 44 times more! Imagine the huge diversity of smells that a dog encounters and that are lost on us. Imagine the pleasures  we are missing. As much as our brains have expanded over evolutionary time, our sense of smell has shrunk. What a pity.

It is said that smell is our most ancient sense, and that it is wired deeper into our brains than even sight and hearing. This helps to explain why a few simple airborne molecules – as little as one part per billion – can trigger vivid recollections and strong sentiments. This is not surprising. Our sense of smell follows a pathway in the brain that is linked to the brain’s emotional and memory centres. That’s why we react so strongly to certain smells and either love them or hate them. It is also why smells can leave permanent  impressions that are strongly linked to past experiences. The smell of smoke from an outboard motor reminds me of wonderful fishing outings with my grandfather and is therefore an odour I like. I’m sure for most people, though, exhaust is not at the top of their smell list! More than anything, our reaction to smells is intensely personal.

Maybe part of the reason we tend to almost suppress or ignore our sense of smell is that our language to even talk about it is severely lacking. About all we have to work with are the names of the seven basic smell groups: minty (peppermint), floral (roses), ethereal (pears), musky (musk), resinous (pine sap), foul (rotten eggs), and acrid (vinegar). Beyond this, the requisite words don’t seem to exist. It’s as if we’ve never developed the proper vocabulary to properly describe the olfactory experience. In “A Natural History of the Senses” poet Diane Ackerman describes how hard it is  to explain how something smells to someone who hasn’t smelled it. “Lacking vocabulary, we are left tongue-tied, groping for words in a sea of inarticulate pleasure and exaltation.” Contrast this to our sense of sight where we have words for every shade and intensity of colour. When it comes to the tones and tints of a smell, however, we are left to devices such as awkward comparisons to something else, be it vanilla or wet dog hair. We also tend describe a smell in terms of our reaction to it – what a delightful (or revolting) smell!

We don’t need to sleep-walk through the olfactory world, however. The American naturalist and philosopher, Henry David Thoreau, elevated smelling to an art form. When walking in the woods, he would smell nearly every plant he encountered by constantly rubbing or crumpling the leaves, thereby releasing the aromas within. Many of the smells come from  volatile oils  that plants use to defend themselves from insects and other herbivores. For example, by squeezing the leaf of a prickly ash – a common species in the Kawarthas –  a flood of citrus odour is released. Prickly ash is a member of the orange family and has the same pungent, aromatic leaves as the orange tree. Thoreau also loved to  sleep on spruce boughs which he would pile particularly thick around his head and shoulders in order to indulge his sense of smell as he slept. Nor was he just attracted to the typical pleasant smells of nature. Thoreau even wrote: “I love the smell of the swamp, its decaying vegetation .”

Even today, Amazon Indians use smell to identify trees,  since features such as leaves, flowers and fruit can be hard to get at. They simply slash the bark with a machete and breathe in the tell-tale flood of odours that pour out.

By paying attention to nature’s different aromas, we can literally follow the progression of the seasons smell by smell and thereby feel further connected to the Earth’s endless cycles. I’d therefore like to propose an olfactory trip through the year of smells that represent for me the mileposts of the seasons. While most of the smells are pleasant, some rather disagreeable odours are included in my list as well, simply because they, too, signal the time of year.


Early fall

·         Freshly fallen leaves – the spicy smell of autumn leaves is one reason why fall is said to be the most nostalgic of the seasons

·         Burning leaves – this smell takes me back to sunny fall afternoons at my grandparents’ cottage where I spent hours raking and burning the leaves

·         Smells of the harvest – apples and the assortment of other fruits and vegetables at the Farmer’s Market

·         Wood smoke – the smell of the first wood fire of the fall is yet another nail in summer’s coffin

·         Wintergreen leaves – on fall walks, I love to stop and crush a wintergreen leaf for its strong, wintergreen scent. The leaves of this evergreen plant can also be chewed.

·         Fungi – most mushrooms do not have a distinctive odour. However, there are exceptions. Agaricus mushrooms smell like almonds, while some Marasmius species have a garlic smell. The golden chanterelle smells like apricots. The strongest odours, unfortunately, belong to stinkhorn fungus which smell like carrion and actually attract flies.

Late fall

·         Decomposing leaves – the smell of leaves being softened, shredded, digested and decomposed by countless billions of bacteria, fungi and invertebrates

·         Freshly cut wood – probably the best month to cut firewood, November brings the  smell of wood as the axe or chainsaw bites through a log. Some of my favourite wood smells are white pine, white birch (reminds of Tinker Toys) and eastern red cedar.

·         Manure – the smell of manure is often in the air as farmers spread it before the ground freezes

Early winter

·         A general lack of smell – an absence of strong smells is a characteristic feature of late fall and early winter. Much of the reason for this is because there are no plants in bloom.

·         Balsam fir – a balsam Christmas tree transforms the smell of the house and immediately evokes memories of Christmases past. The foliage of all the conifers exudes wonderful, resinous smells, especially when warmed by the sun on a mild winter day.

·         The smell of approaching snow – snow can contain many chemicals such as formaldehyde  and sulphate, all of which have distinctive odours, and can sometimes be perceived by the human nose. The nose is also sensitive to changes in temperature, humidity, and air pressure, all of which can signal that it is about to snow.

·         Smells associated with snow – Snow in itself may not have an odour, but it is definitely mingled with myriad other smells such as cross-country ski wax, smoke from a wood stove, and even snowmobile exhaust.

Late winter

·         Skunk spray – the smell of a male skunk on the prowl on a wet, mild February night is one of the first signs of pre-spring. It is an unpleasant but yet welcome smell that heralds the red-winged blackbirds’ arrival in a few short weeks.

·         Balsam poplar and yellow birch buds–  when I’m skiing or walking in the woods, I love to stop and  squeeze the resinous buds of a balsam poplar. They  give off the sweet, pungent balsam odour that is so common in the Kawarthas in May. For  a wonderful wintergreen smell, crush a twig or bud of a yellow birch tree.


Next week, I’ll continue my discussion of the signature smells of nature’s year with a look at spring and summer.