Boyhood or girlhood on the prairies has a way of staying with you for the rest of your life. In the preface to her Nebraska novel, My Antonia—the greatest novel ever written about life on the Great Plains of North America—Willa Cather speaks of the “freemasonry” of those who grew up on the plains. They know things they cannot quite explain to people who have not shared the same experiences.
One of Cather’s greatest admirers, one Pullitzer Prize-winner to another, was Wallace Stegner, who wrote about his boyhood in southwestern Sasktchewan in the book, Wolf Willow. Stegner’s book hinges on what is called a “sensory trigger”—that is, some impression of the senses that takes you back to a past time and place, makes you think about that time and place without really knowing why you are thinking about it.
Stegner goes walking along the Frenchman River in his old home town, and suddenly it comes upon him: “the smell that has always meant my childhood . . . that odor that I have not smelled since I was eleven, but have never forgotten. . . . It is wolf willow, now blooming with small yellow flowers. It is the wolf willow . . . that brings me home.”
The smell of wolf willow is powerful, and musky. It is pleasant only if it connotes good memories. For people from other parts of the plains, it is similar to that of Russian olive in bloom, but not so sweet.
The memories loaded into the scent are what are important. Stegner gets this idea of a sensory trigger—smell triggering memory—from the French writer, Marcel Proust. Proust is famous for recalling the whole village where he spent his summers of boyhood from the scent of a teacake.
Stegner, being a 1950s writer, was much taken by pop psychology—nature and nurture, imprinting, all that sort of thing. So he was much taken with the psychological phenomenon of a sensory trigger described by Proust.
All of which makes this sound hopelessly literary and esoteric, except that when you think about it, most of us with prairie personal histories can cite examples of our own of a smell conjuring up past experiences. Alfalfa, fresh-mown, is a common one, calling up the joys and the labors of hayfields past.
For persons of a certain generation, Aqua Velva calls back certain male relatives, or Evening in Paris old female acquaintances.
For me, the scent of certain soil types does it. Although I live in North Dakota, I travel north and south frequently, and it is the soils of the Platte and particularly the Arkansas river valleys that smell like home to me as I roll down the truck window. For my wife—and this is a source of humor to anyone she tells it to—the sensory trigger is DEET. She grew up in Alaska, and so every outdoor memory of her youth is permeated with insect repellant.
Which raises the question, what’s your sensory trigger? What scent takes you home to another place and time? Come on, think about it.