Columnist

Beth Dolinar has been writing her column about life, both hers and the rest of ours, for over 20 years. When not on the page, she produces Emmy-winning documentaries, teaches writing to university students, and enjoys her two growing children.

Words escape me when it comes to describing that smell.

Halfway through my evening walk, I pass through it. Language fails, but here goes: The fragrance is green, but not fruity or grassy; it’s not flowery and not exactly sweet, but feels soft when I breathe it in. It smells old, and by that I don’t mean musty or decaying, but old as in that smell has been living in nature for thousands of years.

When I pass by the smell on my walk, I stop to see what it might be. There are two large leafy trees nearby, not evergreens but probably something more of the elm family. I once grabbed a leaf and tried to match it with any of the trees on our property, but no. The leaf itself smells like any other leaf.

And I’ve encountered the smell before, while on a bike trail in Ohio. There, too, I stopped to investigate, following my nose around the woods that lined the path. I couldn’t sort it out. Passing cyclists saw a nutty woman who’d ditched her bike and was stomping and snorting her way around the fringes. The scent is elusive and fleeting, like one of the butterflies that flirt around the wildflowers.

For answers, I turned to a friend who is a nature photographer. He knows everything about forests and trees and flowers; surely he would know. But again, words fail. Or rather, English fails. It’s been said that the Inuit people have dozens of words to describe snow, a hyper-specific lexicon grown out of climate realities. I can describe only two kinds of snow: fluffy and wet. Those living in snowy places are more articulate.

“It’s green,” I told my naturalist friend. “Really fresh but not flowery. Like something that’s growing. It’s more blueish-green than just green. And more shady than sunny.”

“Honeysuckle, maybe,” he said.

“It’s not that,” I said. “I know honeysuckle to see it and smell it.” I mentioned that the first time I encountered the smell was when visiting the home of a member of our book club, and she said she had Sweet William in her garden.

“Sweet William smells very floral and sweet,” he said. I was striking out, unable to capture the scent with words.

But I’m not alone in my frustration. The perfume industry is doing its best to sell fragrances online, using only words. If Julia Roberts in a white gown isn’t enough to make me buy a perfume, then maybe descriptions will help – words like velvety, powdery, soapy, musky, rosy, grassy, woodsy and papery pop up in online descriptions. My mom sometimes wore White Shoulders perfume when we were little. It smelled like Christmas.

And the scent I’m chasing smells like blue-green shade; if it were a singer it would be Mark Knopfler; if it were a book it would be “The Overstory”; if it were a month it would be May; if it were an instrument it would be a cello. That’s the best I can come up with, and I’m a writer.

I would like my house to smell like that smell. Heck, I would like me to smell like that smell. If a perfumer would find a way to identify, capture and bottle that scent, I’d buy up all I could find.

For now, I’ll search for it in nature. I’ll take my walks and ride my bike, waiting for that scent to arrive. And when it does, I’ll do the only thing I can do. I’ll stop and breathe it in before it slips away.

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