When I was a boy, I spent lots of time in my grandfather’s hay barn out on Sugar Creek (near Barnardsville). I’d build make-believe forts out of hay bales and tobacco staves. I still remember the musty, acrid aroma of that old barn.
I also loved to visit my uncles’ dairy farm in Mars Hill. Arnold and Joe had about 100 head of cattle and a big, automated milking barn. The fresh milk had a smell that was sweet, warm and delicious — quite different from the pasteurized, homogenized products at Bi-Lo or Ingles.
Most of all, I remember the floral fragrance of the fresh mountain air. I would set out in the morning and climb the highest mountain I could find, just to say I had done it. And the air at the top — I’ve never experienced anything like it since!
When we think about pollution, several types come easily to mind. Air pollution blocks our view of gorgeous terrain. Water pollution offends our taste buds, and increases bottled-water sales. Noise pollution, formerly a rarity in this quiet community, assaults our ears more and more.
But unless you’re near a smokestack or a hog farm, you generally don’t think much about odor pollution. That’s because the odors of industry are normally scattered far and wide by prevailing winds. (The other exception is an inversion: when the wind dies, and air is trapped in the bowl created by the mountains.)
Even though the industrial odors are dispersed, though, they’re still there. And they continue to do damage in insidious ways. The human-made chemicals in the air react with the indigenous scents of nature, masking and altering them in countless ways. The magic aromas of my childhood are still around, but I notice them less often. I have to go to quiet places, at special times, to seek them out.
One of those times is just after a good rain. Recently, I went on a bike ride though the back roads of Buncombe County. It was a route I’ve taken dozens of times, but this time was different! The air seemed alive with fertility. The bouquets of a million flowers swirled every which way — wafting their messages throughout the world (it seemed), creating a sensual delight.
Such experiences are rare, these days. It may be that my sense of smell is less acute than it used to be. Or perhaps I’m just overromanticizing my youth. But I don’t think so: People older and wiser than I am have told me similar stories.
Scientists have reported that the limbic system — which includes the olfactory bulbs — was one of the first parts of the brain to evolve. It controls such things as emotional expression, seizure activity, and memory storage and recall. Aromas affect us at the gut level, triggering strong emotions and memories.
If you doubt this, go to a local flower garden or nursery. (The North Carolina Arboretum or the Farmer’s Market are good choices, for starters.) Then stop and smell the roses. Literally! This is one of those cliches that are too seldom taken at face value.
One of the true treasures of Western North Carolina — every bit as much as the beautiful views and lush forests — is the rich redolence of its mountain air. It is indeed sad when one of the prices we pay for living in this modern age is a diminishing of that richness.
What can we do about the problem? As the saying goes: Write your Congressman! And while you’re at it, call Gov. Hunt at (800) 662-7952. Tell him to drop his lawsuit against the EPA, and ask him to require vehicle-emissions tests, statewide. Tell him air pollution stinks, and you want it stopped now! Your nose will thank you for it.
[Gregory Wilcox is an environmental consultant and computer programmer for Arthur D. Little Inc. He’s also the co-editor of The Crowded Planet, the newsletter of the Greater Boston chapter of Zero Population Growth Inc.]