The Sweet Smell of Earth

    One of my early ocean crossings was from Hanalei Bay, HI to Santa Barbara, CA in the summer of 05, on a custom built racing sailboat who had just participated in the Trans Pac.  Some time has passed now and the details of that trip have faded.  I remember the trip being planned for 3 weeks and we came in under.  I remember getting a last-minute e-mail off to my wife to wish her a happy anniversary, over the single side band radio, after being out of contact for a few weeks.  And, I remember a few other exacting stories but for the most part the details are quickly waning.  However, we all connect to experiences and places differently.  What triggers us to recall differs from person to person.  My research in creating ‘place’ has helped me connect the 5 senses that people have to the landscape and places.  I personally weigh my connections heavily on smell.  And oddly enough, of all the details from that crossing, one of my most vivid memories is the smell of earth.

    When offshore for more then a few days your nose adjusts to its salty wet surroundings.  As you approach port, and before you can even pick out details on shore, you small the earth.  Rotting leaves and grass, asphalt roads, fresh vegetation and the soil.  Land has a very unique smell that most don’t realize because of our constant stimulation. 

    Last month my closest friend made a crossing from Hawaii to Saipan.  My role here at the University stopped me from joining in.  As a consolation prize I was given the duties of Weather Router.  My job was to plot his course daily, down load weather, overlay it on his heading and give advice to keep him moving on some days and safe on others.  My life was saved once by a Weather Router on a crossing to Ireland and I have a great a great deal of respect for the task.  As such, I took my job quite serious and became personally involved.  When he was a few days out, and had clear sailing, I suggested I get an early call so that I could wish my congratulations, as the trip was a rather difficult one.  My phone rang earlier then expected one morning.  He was 20 miles off the coast and had cell signal.  His tone approaching shore was much more upbeat then the one leaving the USA 30 day prior.  We chatted for quite some time.  As we did he would interject updates, “I can see shapes now…I can pick out buildings…I can see people…”.  I was deeply emotionally involved and every time he did I had a flash back of smelling the sweet scent of earth for the first time.

By:  Garth Woodruff - Blue Mountain, VA

By:  Garth Woodruff - Blue Mountain, VA

    This last weekend I was at my Virginia home in the Blue Ridge Mountains.  My oldest son and I were out for a hike and the smell was incredible.  We commented a dozen times during our 2-hour trek about its power.  We couldn’t shake the intoxication of the mountains we so love.  I took this picture and posted it with the comment “If I could only Instagram the sweet small…”.  At the same time I was also swept off to that August day when approaching the California cost for the first time, still vivid in my head.

    I realize it’s an odd connection I have to things.  It can make me feel uncomfortable in a place or quite at home.  In my gardens the smell of the soil, basil, and thyme all connect me.  I know a tomato plant before my eyes focus on it, making a visual connection.  In the landscape, after 20 years of jobsites, the smell of fresh mulch excites me and takes me back to the many spring experiences of my past.  Decomposing leaves take me to fall runs on the Application Trail.   Honeysuckle takes me to my childhood, building forts in our woods.  This rose picture is of an old-fashioned shrub rose in our display gardens on campus.  Her cutting now adorns my desk and has changed the entire experience of my office.  The smell of the earth and things on it excite me.

By:  Garth Woodruff - Berrien Springs, MI

By:  Garth Woodruff - Berrien Springs, MI

    Edward Thomas, a 19th century British essayist and poet, penned this short poem, Digging.

“To-day I think

Only with scents, - scents dead leaves yield,

And bracken, and wild carrot's seed,

And the square mustard field;


Odours that rise

When the spade wounds the root of tree,

Rose, currant, raspberry, or goutweed,

Rhubarb or celery;


The smoke's smell, too,

Flowing from where a bonfire burns

The dead, the waste, the dangerous,

And all to sweetness turns.


It is enough

To smell, to crumble the dark earth,

While the robin sings over again

Sad songs of Autumn mirth."