You smell good, thank god I’m safe, oh wait….
With gratitude to my biodynamic class and to those in my life who have taught me about the physical cost of artificial chemistry.
So, I keep telling my 17 year old, who is in her last year of using our home as her primary base, that I want to keep my nose tucked in to that soft place where her neck meets her shoulder. You know the place, right there in the front, just hovering above the collar bone. I am not being creepy. Or not completely creepy. It’s just that it’s warm there, and our specific life-smells are strongest there. Imagine babies curled up with their heads on our shoulders, nose turned towards our neck. Lovers, too, but since I am talking about my daughter, I won’t go there in this conversation.
We move through a constant air- and earth- and water-stream of smells. This piece isn’t really about the grooviness of smelling. There are lots of pieces written about that, but just a few notes before I get to the point:
If you believe in the poetry of evolution, smell is the oldest sense we have. It’s the way we understand the chemical composition of the environment around us. We have been smelling since we were single celled beings. This means we have had a HELL of a long time to get it right.
If you sniff your palms within 30 seconds of shaking hands with someone and then notice your feelings about them, you’re likely to get a really good sense of how compatible you are, of how they are feeling, of what is between you. It’s that thing that gets called intuition but includes lots of things, including the smells that come up from that handshake.
Infants learn about fear or what to be afraid of and what is safe from the shifting in their parent’s, particularly their birth parents’, smells.
And yeah, taste is more about smell than what happens inside of our mouth.
Our farts smell very similar to those we are biologically connected to. Similar gut microbiomes. This means that fart trails, even when not super obvious, are one of the ways we track our kin.
Different flavors of science keep arguing about it but the fact remains: we can smell sickness on the bodies of those we care about and are open to. Smelling “sickness” can be misleading - we smell when something is “not right” and that “not right” can be a whole range of things. Hormones, the tang of sweat, the way heating or cooling skin meets the air, the microbiology that is laced through breath; all of these things are forms of communication that tell us about the inside worlds of our loved ones.
Us westernized people, if we are honoring the senses at all, tend to be all strong with the sight and hearing senses, but to dismiss the others (if that doesn’t include you as you read this, I honor your people who raised you to remember your full life). The sense of smell is the only one of our senses that directly links to the limbic system in the brain: the place of emotion, sexual arousal, memory, and basic self-preservation like whether or not we are hungry and how and when we sleep. Even when we are fully aware, we still don’t consciously “smell” many of these things, even as our bodies respond to them.
Smell is core, it is foundational, and it is almost destroyed by modern US living. Growing up, many of us learn early on how to over-ride a whole bunch of smells that are actually dangerous. Remember, as one of the points named above, we learn fear as infants by the smells of our caretakers, as much as by their words and body language. So this means, as we are introduced to different smells, we learn what is dangerous and what is safe or neutral by being shaped by the bodies around us. How else can you explain how we would learn that the million chemical smells that are actually signs of things that are dangerous for our health are, in some strange way, actually safe? What else could rewire this oldest foundational sense that, for most of our ancestral generations, helped us to determine friend versus foe, which plants are poison and which are food, what the wind is carrying, and what other life forms are nesting nearby? Historical trauma has many manifestations and this, to my mind, is one of them.
As you can tell by a lot of my writing, I am very interested in how our bodies show us who we are, alone and together, before oppression and dominance over-wrote our deeper instincts. Our bodies show us all of the time that we are collective beings who experience life individually far more than we are individual beings who sometimes come together in groups. Like every other plant and animal relative, we are a “we” much more than we are an “I.” We emerge from the womb focused on connection and relationship. Our survival instincts are focused on being part of a pack. It takes a hell of a lot of resources and trauma to support a single individual to live separate from the whole.
So what does that mean for smell? Many of us reading this have become somewhat smell-neutral. We are not aware of the impact of the chemical environment on our bodies and the bodies of our kin. We are also not getting all the good juice that sniffing can bring to us. Smell is impacting us all of the time, but it stays largely in the unconscious or neutral zone. Except for those it doesn’t. There are kin among us whose bodies are not protected from the toxicity of the chemical soup that industrialization has created. Their bodies respond in truth-telling ways rather than through hiding and override. A lot of people I love and respect are dealing with multiple chemical sensitivities. This means just what it says: bodies that are overwhelmed by toxic chemicals. This overwhelm can show up as significant physical or mental or emotional (all aspects of the same thing) pain. These beloveds (hello friends reading this) often have to make life choices that can be isolating; working to create spaces where what comes into their mouths and nostrils does not debilitate them. Most of us reading this who do not live with chemical sensitivities are part of the problem.
You know the whole strategy of the canary in the coal mine? Back in the day, miners who worked deeply underground brought canaries with them. They hung their canaries in cages up near the roof of the mine. Dangerous gases like carbon monoxide would kill the canary before the miner felt the impact. This was a sign that the miner had to get out of the mine as quickly as possible. I am using this as an illustration but I also want to be careful: those canaries were not consenting to this use. They were living their own feathered lives before they were trapped and brought deep under ground. Also, there is something to be said for the earth, as her minerals were being pulled out from her body, getting in the way of oxygen.
Remember what I said about our sense of smell, or the path of external chemicals that come in through the nose and mouth - that they go straight to the limbic portion of the brain, our earliest and oldest ways of reading the safety and ease of our environment? There are many among us, and their numbers are growing, whose bodies are telling them what our other bodies are too numbed out to hear. The things we pump into the air, put in our cars, roll under our armpits, use to wash our hair, to moisturize our skin, to cover our natural scents: these things are dangerous and they are harming, even sometimes killing us. The number of people whose bodies are truth-telling this is growing. Let me say that again: the number of people whose bodies are not numb, whose bodies are very clear about the cost of this manipulation of chemistry and scent, are increasing. What the hell did many of us learn when we were small that makes it so easy to ignore those among us who have information that we can’t yet sense?
If we remembered, and I don’t mean just with our minds but with our whole selves, that we are connected, then we would turn to those among us who are experiencing harm first and we would say, tell us about it. What can we do? We would know that OUR body is being harmed, even if the evidence is showing up only in some of us. It’s the same thing this community of 52 trillion cells we call an individual does. When the skin is torn or there is something inhaled that the body perceives is dangerous, we turn our resources towards ensuring repair and safety. Our body doesn’t go - oh, that’s just a big old gash on the thigh. We’ll let the thigh deal with it. Better yet, let’s just cut off the thigh and focus on the rest of the body cuz, you know, that’s not MY experience. Oh wait. The body does that. Or tries to. It’s what happens when the body stops sending blood to part of itself, like when the tissue dies due to gangrene or another deep trauma. The body tries these things but most of the time they don’t work: the whole body dies anyway.
Our body’s ability to respond to the chemistry of outside as a form of information is one of our oldest forms of connection. It’s why I keep wanting to put my nose right there, against my daughter’s neck, even though I couldn’t describe the smell to you. It just is there, complete and settling. I wish this sense of smell as safety for everyone. I wish this sense of chemical connection, even when we can’t describe exactly what it is, to be nourishing and, when it isn’t, to give us what we need to turn away or to eradicate that which is causing harm.
It is not coincidental that one of the manifestations of racism and sexism and all of the US cultural shaming of those living in poverty is the idea that some of our bodies or aspects of our bodies are “dirty” and need to be “clean” and that “clean” is about covering up what is natural with a range of products that switch sweat-scent with artificial-scent. The violence of dominance culture is brilliant: eroding natural autonomy generation after generation so that one of our oldest instincts for assessing safety is covered up, making us vulnerable. It is not coincidental that white supremacy finds a way to shame bodies whose cultural foods have spices that are not anglo-us cultural. We are what we eat, we smell like the food we eat, we smell like the food we call home. I honor the mothers and grandmothers who believed they were protecting us by teaching us that safe and appropriate is about not having smells. I deeply honor their lives and their strategies for survival. And I remember that learning to survive the violence of systemic control, of cultural surveillance such as that held by white supremacy and patriarchy and laced all throughout poverty, is not the same thing as liberation. Another layer of this exhausting chemical soup.
A short term thing we can do is be aware of what we individually are adding to the chemical mix. There are lots of guides to scent-free living for public spaces, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarsinha’s guide is a good clear teaching one. If you are someone who is financially resourced enough to make choices about what you put into your home, then you can also make your home safer for the folks who live there and for everyone who visits. Each of these are important, we have to all do them, and at the same time, they are not enough.
I have been spending the last few days in a biodynamic craniosacral class, learning about what happens in the body when there is glory and love as well as stress and trauma that floats in through the nose and mouth and signals the pituitary and the hypothalamus. The whole time I have been sitting there, a range of people’s faces keep floating through my thoughts. Multiple chemical sensitivities were first named in the 1950s. They emerged and then grew along with the age of chemistry; when western science learned how to take apart chemical structures and put them together in different shapes and forms. The 1950s is when this skillset moved from the lab to the market.
WE are dying. WE are destroying and killing this life that is so astonishingly beautiful and complex and that communicates with us in a range of ways. Some of us live in bodies that are telling us this every single day. Others live in bodies that are numb. My liberation is bound up with yours. Your liberation is bound up with mine. This is always true, conscious or not, one scent at a time.
I was talking about this piece with someone and she asked me, are you saying we shouldn’t be cleaning ourselves anymore? This has nothing to do with “clean” versus “dirty”. If you’ve got money, there are a million and one nontoxic unscented body cleaning products out there. If you don’t have a lot of money, there are more and more cheap products as well.