The Working Waterfront

Smell-o-vision in an island meadow

Natural scents are infused with memory

By Courtney Naliboff
Posted 2023-09-19
Last Modified 2023-09-19

During my first spring on North Haven, I often had occasion to walk to work. I lived on the island’s North Shore, much closer to the school than I live now, and walking was a more attractive method of transportation than driving the dilapidated Saab I had managed to buy that winter.

My route took me past an expansive meadow crowned with an A-frame house set far back from the road, looking like it would have been more at home in a Swiss Alpine village than on the island.

As we neared the end of the school year, the meadow exploded with wildflowers. In the late spring heat, purple and rabbits’ foot clover, white and golden daisies, and yellow and purple vetch dotted the field, interspersed with grasses spanning the full gradient of greens and browns.

That spicy, warm aroma lit up some part of my brain…

It was enticing to the eye, but what struck me even more strongly was the scent. That spicy, warm aroma lit up some part of my brain that remembered being a very small child being pushed in a stroller past a similar meadow, my younger sister in a front pack on my mother’s chest. She paused to pick a head of clover and place it on the stroller tray, where I could touch and smell and even taste it.

The smell of that sun-baked field, reaching 20 years into the past to connect me to the present, was a visceral and welcome clue that perhaps, despite all the challenges of moving to a new home, I was in the right place after all. And nearly 20 years on, the smell of North Haven’s spring meadows still reassures me that I’m in the right place.

Scent lets me know when I’m far from home, too. I’m filing this month from San Diego, where we’re visiting Bill’s family. On a walk through the neighborhood, we suddenly encountered a wall of scent, unlike anything I had on file in my memory. A quick glance to the side revealed a fence and half-wall covered entirely with jasmine, just past peak bloom. I sniffed—and sneezed—trying to imprint the odor on my brain.

The next time I get a full-face smell of jasmine, I hope it lights up the memory of that day, with its cool and pleasant sunshine, and the satisfaction of stretching my legs on a new path.

A few other smells trigger strong associations, most pleasant. Roses and smoke bring me back to three weeks in Spain in my junior year of high school. The lively smell of fresh vegetables and fish on ice, with an undertone of fry oil, transports me back to my first summer in Boston, reveling in the freedom afforded me by the “T” and finding dinner treasures in Chinatown.

Less welcome are the occasional flashbacks my brain offers to the powdery, fruity smell of the anesthesia used to knock me out for my tonsillectomy, my eight-year-old self briefly panicking in the overwhelming odor delivered by the mask over my face.

A quick search of the internet has taught me that it’s a quirk of brain anatomy that lets our noses act as a key to some of our most visceral memories. The pathway from the olfactory bulb through the limbic system works some sort of nostalgia magic when the right chemical combinations trigger a flood of memory and emotion.

That seemingly prosaic explanation doesn’t diminish the power certain smells have to press play on the experiences that have shaped my life. A smell can tell me when I’m on vacation, and a smell can tell me when I’m home.

Courtney Naliboff teaches music, theater, and writing on North Haven. She may be contacted at