Maps, almanacs, even a gold-plated phonograph record projected into the galaxy aboard the Voyager spacecraft by astronomer Carl Sagan; historical records have taken many forms. Scent, though, has been largely overlooked. The olfactory oversight is one that Dr. Kate McLean, a researcher, artist, and lecturer at Canterbury Christ Church University, has been determined to correct. For the past decade, she’s documented places around the globe by following her nose, creating smell-scapes of various cities; her 2011 map of a Lower East Side block, for instance, included trash, dried fish, car oil, and cabbage.
Her mission makes sense because we, as humans, are hard-wired to be guided by smell. It’s the very first sense we use when we’re born. In fact, our brains are packed with 40 million olfactory receptor neurons, and humans are capable of detecting up to an astounding one trillion different smells. Each one of those smells can trigger myriad reactions: contentment, disgust, hunger, or longing; they can inspire a fight or flight response, and they can immediately connect us to a lifetime of memories, vividly recalling a person, place, or even a season. And if smell is the most evocative sense, then summer, olfactively speaking at least, is the most evocative season.
That’s partly because the summer months are when nature is in its full (and, often, most fragrant) thrust, but also, perhaps, because it is when the majority of us have the time to really appreciate it. Our log of vacation days allowing us the opportunity to turn off and tune in. It’s why summer has long presented perfumers with a deep well of inspiration.
“Summer to me is boat gas and the Rosa Rugosa beaming by the Atlantic Ocean’s ever-present salty seaspray,” says David Moltz of DS & Durga. Carta fragrance founder Heather D’Angelo’s summer scent bank is dictated by the places she’s logged the most time: her childhood in Connecticut, young adulthood in New York City, and, now, San Francisco. “In Connecticut, I remember the bracing lime green of a freshly cut lawn sweating in the late morning heat and sweetened by the scent of wild tiger lilies,” says D’Angelo. “New York City was a chaotic bouquet of designer fragrances, dampness, and perspiration, and where I live today, summer is the smell of fog as it unfolds across the city, carrying with it the scent of the sea and eucalyptus trees.”
Master perfumer and vice president of perfumery at Givaudan, Rodrigo Flores-Rouxx, aligns summer with Acapulco’s night-blooming datura flowers (or angel’s trumpets) and fizzy lime. In contrast, fragrance developer Carlos Huber (whose most recent project is a nostalgic summer perfume called, fittingly, Vacation) says it’s the “rocky paths redolent of pine, lavender, and rosemary you walk down to reach the small coves of the Mediterranean Sea’s crystalline water.” And International Flavors & Fragrances (IFF) fine fragrance perfumer Mackenzie Reilly’s summer scent references are many. “I think of orange blossom lemonade and jasmine and honeysuckle in the evenings when I’m in the south of France,” she says. “Monoi (tiare flowers soaked in coconut oil) which I use at the beach even putting it in my hair, or the sweetness of grasses, hays, and flowers that have dried a bit under the sun, breathing the soft scent of coumarin into the summer air.”
For this writer, the scents of summer are similarly organized by place—Italy, where I logged many of the warmer months as a child with my family, and New York City, where I have lived for the past 20 years. And of course also people. The clean crispness of my nonna’s freshly laundered white cotton sheets mingling with the sticky resin of Italian stone pine; the pungent spice of tomato vines; the smoke of smoldering mosquito coils; swimsuit lycra damp with pool chlorine and streaked with sunblock; concrete sidewalks steaming after a hot rainshower; sugary fried dough and charcoal-seared kebabs drifting from street fair vendors; the sweet warmth of my toddler’s breath after a strawberry ice cream cone; the occasional cloud of maple syrup wafting over from New Jersey; the residue on my skin of a day at the beach, a blend of artificial coconut and briny salt and perspiration; and even the familiar putridness of trash bags simmering in the sun and the countless ginkgo and callery trees lining Brooklyn streets which, with summer’s heat, begin to emit odors akin to bodily secretions.
That scent is intangible is what seems to give it that much more substance. But the eternal appeal of summer scents, in particular, is one inextricably linked to the allure of the season itself. It is the only season whose end we anticipate (with, admittedly, a bit of dread) right from the beginning. And, like summer, we understand that the life span of the smells we associate with it is short ,too—these are transient olfactory moments that, by virtue of being ephemeral, are also incredibly enduring in our hearts and minds. That summer’s scent pleasures are passing is why the savoring of them feels that much more urgent.