Friday, May 8, 2015

The Scent of Outside

Untitled
"I can tell that you cycled here!"

"Oh yeah?"

We were sitting in a cafe and my bike was parked out of sight. I was dressed in ordinary clothing. I wondered what gave it away; was I red in the face?

"It's the way you smell," the woman elaborated, leaning in and inhaling dramatically for emphasis.

For a moment, I was thoroughly mortified. Being told we smell as though we've been cycling is not exactly what any cyclist hopes to hear! It was only that morning I'd seen this Yehuda Moon strip and chuckled, blissfully unaware of just how closely to home it was about to hit. Could it be that, despite all my wool and attempts at thorough personal hygiene, I go around reeking of stale body odour, leaving hordes of townsfolk in revolted half-swoons in my wake?

The look on my face must have reflected my thoughts' direction, as my companion was quick to pat my arm reassuringly.

"No-no-no, I don't mean it like that. What I mean is, you smell lovely - you smell like... the outside!"

"Outside?"

"Yeah, the outdoors. It's hard to describe, but you know - grass, flowers, the sea!" She leaned in again and made sweeping gestures with her hands as if to direct whatever fumes were emanating from me toward her. "There it is! That cold windy outdoorsy smell. Mmm, I'm jealous!"

It was a relief to know I don't stink. I too love that complex, elusive fragrance of being out in fresh air and feel envious of people who come in from the cold smelling of it. But what exactly is this scent of outside, I wonder? Obviously, it incorporates all the subtle fragrances of the local plantlife and bodies of water - from freshly cut grass and flower blossoms, to dug up soil, peat fire smoke and decomposing seaweed. As we wander through their midst, these scents weave together and wrap themselves around us, gently but persistently, like an invisible shawl.

And yet, the scent of outside is not about these smells alone. That is why the myriad of perfumes, detergents, soaps and air freshers that strive to recreate this outdoorsy essence never quite get it right. Because in the scent of the outside we can also "smell" the cold, the wind, and the sunshine - and it is this more than the earthy-floral aroma in of itself that evokes a strong response on our part.

There is a dynamism to the scent of outside that can communicate movement, temperature, time of day, even mood. It is a rich visceral experience that awakens a range of sensations, rather than smell alone.

Earlier I mused on whether cyclists experience a heightened sense of smell while pedaling through the landscape - the combination of physical exertion and the speed at which we travel perhaps making us uniquely receptive to the subtle scents around us. Now I wonder whether these same elements might make us more prone to retaining these outdoor smells as well. The people around me seem to think so, at least. And not that I am complaining. Who knew "you smell like a cyclist" could be a compliment!

32 comments:

  1. Just curious... was this woman who commented on your smell a stranger or a friend of yours? Ever since I bought a bicycle I seem to attract comments, often of a personal or intimate nature, from complete and utter strangers. I swear, even when I was pregnant it was not this bad! Anyway, thanks for this post. I love the idea of smelling like flowers after a bike ride :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It was a woman I'd said hello to around town before, but was not acquainted with beyond that. And yes I think there is something about being spotted with a bicycle that signals "it's okay to say weird stuff to this person"!

      Delete
    2. "I think there is something about being spotted with a bicycle that signals "it's okay to say weird stuff to this person"!"

      I've never thought about that, but reading it I'd have to say "yes." I've gotten all sorts of strange questions from complete strangers over the years.

      Delete
    3. Oh yes, being a cyclist, particularly a full on year round no matter the weather cyclist garners endless attention and comments...

      Delete
    4. “It’s ok to say weird stuff to this person” – you should wear that like a badge of honour, Velouria. You should also write a post about it some day, if you haven’t already (or even revisit it if you have) – about people’s attitudes to cyclists – although it’s such an overwhelmingly complex subject you might have to have a lie down after you’ve written it. My experience is, it covers the whole spectrum – scorn, disdain, antipathy, ambivalence, curiosity, intrigue, admiration and sometimes even respect. Although I think people think more than they ever say. Makes you think, though, you shouldn’t bother about what other people think, should you?

      Delete
  2. Yes, we are more aware of the scent of the outside - and quite possibly it does attach to us in some way - I know that is one of the many things I enjoy about cycling. Whether it is the smell of dust during the hot rainless days, or the 'thick' scent of the eucalyptus trees after a down pour, or even the smell of the bitumen road - just wonderful. No wonder those lines of motorists I see as a zip around town look so lack-lustre and miserable, locked away from it all, waiting for lights to change and cars to move - I think I am so fortunate to be part of the landscape, not apart from it :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I completely agree. Before I truly got into bikes, I loved getting riding as a kid because I loved the feeling of the wind around me and being out in the open. When I do drive, I feel suffocated until I put all of my windows down. Even in my box truck, it was so hot today during work that I had to drive with the (sliding) doors all the way open and it just felt so nice.

      Delete
  3. Well, of course we smell of our environment. It was always noticeable when the kids would come in from playing outside as opposed to from playing inside. A healthy smell. The outdoors. Why would cycling be different, especially if one cycles at a comfortable pace?

    I thought everyone knows you as the cycling lady. If you appear anywhere it's because you cycled there!

    ReplyDelete
  4. do I smell eau du cycliste in the works?

    ReplyDelete
  5. Its a bit like how bed sheets are much nice when dried outside on a washing line than inside by whatever means

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. ...unless you live next door to a farm that happens to be spreading "slurry" at the time : )

      Delete
    2. When you go into the cafe after your neighbor spreads 'slurry' are you also tagged as a cyclist?

      Delete
  6. This concept had nothing to do with cycling. I cycle myself but it's when I return from walking the dog that my husband always tells me that I smell of outdoors. I don't think that cyclists have a heightened sense of smell, or walkers for that matter. The person who is outdoors is never aware of the smell of outside, even though they are aware of individual scents such as woodland, hedgerows, flora and fauna. The smell of outside is usually the same, despite the location. I have smelt it countless times, thought everyone had but am not entirely sure whether city outside smells are the same. Cycling is just one way to acquire the scent of outside, it doesn't have a monopoly. Oh and don't worry about the farm next door, you won't smell of slurry, just of the outside!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Anon 4:44.

      Having read your last sentence I would like to respectfully call "Bullshit".

      As someone who lives surrounded by fields that get visited by the "Honey Wagon" a couple of times a year and has a rendering plant on the other side of the tiny little town where I live, I want to assure you, on the wrong day, you can definitely absorb the funk in your clothes and hair. My wife went to a Teachers meeting one afternoon after school and when she opened her bag to get something, the "used food" odor from the wool sweater she stuffed in there that morning took over the meeting. She had worn that sweater outside for only the amount of time it took to take some slacks off the clothesline and walk to the car.

      I have returned from bike rides that took me down the road past the rendering plant at 20 MPH where I was only aware of the stench as a damp spectral hand on my throat for a few seconds and arrived home 30 minutes later only to be turned out of the house by my wife and mobbed by our dogs who COULD NOT WAIT to get all up in my bubble.

      The same sort of thing used to happen to folks I know who lived near the local poultry processing plants and the giant concrete silo where they used to make dog food.

      Your observation is correct most of the time but THERE ARE DAYS...

      Spindizzy

      Delete
  7. L'Air Du Silage. Ew.

    That "outdoor smell" can be awesome, and last a surprisingly long time.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I have always mused on this subject, just never discussed it with anyone. ahhh, the smell of cyclist!

    ReplyDelete
  9. Most definitely! I love the outdoors, nature, it is very important for me to be outside, and working full time makes bike time precious. This is part of what makes cycling so amazingly wonderful. I love it, the smell of changes in weather, wind, barometric pressure, and how much the weather can change in a small area, especially living so close to the ocean. The cedar forests, the moss, the grass, rain, ocean, earth, and in spring a symphony of flowering trees, bushes, lilacs!!!

    ReplyDelete
  10. A friend, a long time ago: "Just think of it - if you're smelling sh*t there are particles of it in your nose."

    ReplyDelete
  11. My cats smell of the outdoors when they've been out for a while. I dont think it's exclusive to cyclists

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I bet your cats are stashing their bicycles somewhere; you just don't know it.

      Delete
  12. It doesn't always end this way. My son and I bicycle for transportation. Recently, we both arrived home from our work days at about the same time and he started it….'you reek of linseed oil and sweat' ….'and you reek of cigarettes' …. we do carry the scent of our days. Even bicycling cannot mask them.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Are you using Irish Spring? (Smiling)

    ReplyDelete
  14. I've had a very similar conversation with my cat.

    ReplyDelete
  15. Ah, always the Romantic! You must have a clean palette to begin with during your rides.

    Oh, when will you clue us in to your schedule of upcoming, epic rides?

    ReplyDelete
  16. This must be an Irish thing….

    ReplyDelete
  17. I really like this picture. Where I live, Montana, canola fields are adorned with bright yellow flowers, but not this early in the season. Is that what's pictured here?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Looks like a field of rapeseed plants to me..

      Delete
    2. It is rapeseed, yes. They plant and harvest it several times in the season here; at least 2 but some years possibly 3. First time is in May, next in July. This year there seems to be many more fields of it than I recall previously; everything is yellow!

      Delete
  18. As a kid when my mom would say I "smell of outside", it usually meant I needed a shower. Maybe it was a different scent back then because to me the smell of outside is fresh and clean, and the smell of someone needing a shower is not so fresh and clean.

    ReplyDelete
  19. I call it the sun kissed smell - when your skin and hair get bathed in sunlight. Even if you sweat - as long as it's not copious amounts - it all smells of that "I've been outside and enjoying it" fragrance. It's a LOT better than the I've been sitting inside a small room drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes with discount cologne smell. ;-)

    ReplyDelete
  20. Ah. The cold cat coat phenomenon. I have three cats, but it only happens with one of them -- he of the immense girth and the glossy slick coat. Not sure which to attribute the smell to, but it is lovely. I find it happens w my husband's leather jacket as well, and some of our dead-of-winter down coats. Oddly, not all of them. Must be fabric specific somehow.

    It still gets down to about 0C overnight here, so I can hang my merino shirts out for a few hours and they take on that wonderful smell of cold, too. I'm sure people think I'm strange for walking around the house, face buried in a shirt, sniffing, but you take your joy where you find it, right?

    Best,
    Lil Bruin

    ReplyDelete
  21. One of my clearest memories as a kid is my mom always telling me I smelled like outside upon returning home from tree climbing, crab apple picking, "treasure hunting" and yes, bike riding. I tell my own grass-stained son that all the time now myself and it makes me smile. And I'd like to think I recapture a bit of that while commuting to work on my bike.

    ReplyDelete