To say cold smells like nothing isn’t accurate, though it’s the first descriptor that comes to mind. The cold mountain air of winter smells how a field of snow looks. Blank. Chilly. Icy and reflective, colorless. Like cold spring water. But it isn’t nothing. It’s something.
And through this empty something, other smells of winter are electrified. The smoke from my neighbor’s wood stove, infusing the air around the block with cedary, sprucey, charred deliciousness. The smell of warmth, of comfort. Or the spruce and fir boughs themselves in a snow-deep forest. The needles still green and tender and fresh. The smell of growth, of sunlight, verdancy. The bark that smells of the hard, real, touchable physicality of life.
The Zen Buddhist teacher Sunryu Suzuki has said something that I interpret as — emotion is the mind in recognition. I think of this when I smell the smells of winter. In the cold winter air, the sun can almost be smelt. The wind. The ice crystals blowing off the peaks.
When a sensation in the world makes me feel something, my brain is coding a physical stimulus, running it through its immense catalog of past experience, delivering a feeling. And it’s not just my personal experience in my brain’s catalog. It’s everything I’ve watched on TV and in the movies, scripts written by strangers, experiences of characters in books, stories the rather random folks in my life have told me.
The live world is simply the live world, reality without a manual, and the complex interworking networks of the mind and body provide the how. How to feel about it, how to react, how to proceed, how to continue to create a cohesive narrative in which to be out of the stimuli the body is built to receive.
Winter nears. The smells of fall dwindle. Late season debris fires, all the dead leaves piling up around tree trunks, the grasses dry, the earth dry and mouldering. Life becoming more earth, becoming more essence for the life soon to arise.
There’s lots of wind, and smoke in the wind. And also that winter coldness, that blankness, like a warning or reminder. That those of us who create our own heat must shore up, and those of us who do not create our own heat must perish. For now. Under all this color, all this distraction, a stone, a strength, a knowing, a scent.