The Senses





When I was a child, there was a huge old flowering crab-apple tree in our backyard. When it was in bloom the fragrance was intoxicating, filling as it did the fresh, unspoiled sense of youth. I planted one on our farm just after we got here. In this late spring, it is just about to open its flowers, releasing once again that familiar perfume.

But I don’t need to wait. I can remember the fragrance vividly. There is somewhere inside the space of my mind where I can breathe it in. If anything, the fragrance is more penetrating, more directly delivered through the walls of whatever nerve cells register such information.

My friend recently had a virus that gave him a cough for a week or two. After the cough died away, he discovered that his sense of smell was almost gone. Since this sense of his had been heightened ever since his exposure to the chemical sprays used on the fruit trees he picked in his twenties, this was a curious thing. I began to imagine for him what it would be like not to smell the cherry blossoms on my walk up the hill. Not to be able to smell the lilacs beginning to bloom by the barn. Not to smell the roses that will be opening in May. What if that external sense were blocked?

As have most people, at least in their childhood, I have often tried to reconstruct the experience of the blind by binding my eyes and trying to navigate my house. I have tried to experience deafness, but mostly in my imagination. You can always hear a little something when you plug your ears and I can’t afford those big blocking headphones.

Once I even tried to create what it would be like to lose the sense of touch, but it quickly becomes complex. Touch tells me about the condition of my muscles, the rhythm of my heart, whether my shoes are good for my feet, the texture of a tree’s bark, the heat of a stove or fever in my head, the cold of an ice cube or the chill in my bones. It communicates through delicate neural traceries the spreading fire of sexual response.

But, if I become quiet and look around in the internal space, I can feel the touch of a feather on the palm of my hand, the softness of a rose on my cheek, the way the wind blows and tosses my hair, the roughness of cedar bark. It’s harder to block the external sense of touch and imagine what it would be like not to feel that  jab of a stick on a fresh burn or what it would be like not to experience the touch of the air on my skin or the pressure of a rock on my knees as I weed in the garden.

If I close my eyes and go into that infinite space, some internal set of eyes allows me to see so many things from my memory, my dreams, my imagination. With that interior vision, parts of some scenes appear darkly, bits hidden in background. Others are bright landscapes where it’s possible to turn my gaze from one place to another and, as with the twist of a camera lens, focus on the details of a stained glass window, the plants, the insects, the fallen leaves on the forest floor, or even the mundane objects on the desk in my last office.

Faces are more difficult. Features of even the dearest faces seem to retreat repeatedly into the mist. Emotions that cling to the connection between us eclipse the actual appearance of a nose or a cheek. Although I can often see into the eyes, the sparks, the iris, the depth, that blur of feeling persists in keeping the other details from me.

I can hear, as I walk a trail in my imagination, the call of a certain bird I heard only once, the sound of the wind as I stand on a rocky overhang halfway up a mountain, the clang of a metal bar dropping somewhere at the train station. But the voice of my son, of my daughter, of my dead mother. They are almost impossible to hear with any certainty.

But it is the sense of smell that comes to me most vividly in that internal landscape that turns the universe inside-out. I can smell the power of that deodorant my son used as a teenager. I can smell the stew my son-in-law cooks for us or the warmth of my daughter’s hair. I can smell the particular fragrance of the wild roses that grow along the road where we ride our bikes in May and then shift to the distinct spicy fragrance of the big, fluffy heirloom rose I planted in my garden. I can smell the loamy smell of the old-growth forest floor I’ve walked in Northern Idaho and the smell of the old, pink snow clinging to the granite in the Absoroka Mountains in July.

If I can explore that endless interior space with all my senses, where is the division between the body I seem to walk around in and the rest of the universe? Between the space inside what I call me and the space inside what I call you?

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