Andrea Kane is new to San Diego: the Navy has stationed her husband here, and they've landed in Imperial Beach. While he serves, she's become an aromatherapist and a perfumer. Locally, she's already making a name for herself by creating and marketing organic creams, lotions, and blends, pomades and balms. Kane and I are sitting side by side on a black vinyl couch in a coffee shop in Imperial Beach. I've found her because I need an expert to guide me into the world of olfaction, the odoriferous, the redolent, the aromatic. Kane is 34, wears a denim skirt, a silver-flecked black cotton shirt layered over a white T-shirt, and a fragrance. Whoa, what's that? I blurt, getting some creamy, warm waft from her hair. That hair is short braids, like sticks of cinnamon, that dangle on her forehead and flop when her raucous laugh jars them. "That," she giggles, "is me. That's my blend." She won't say what it's made of, only that she's working on it. "It's just a fragrance; it has no therapeutic benefits." Except, I think, to attract my notice of it as an enticing smell. I also detected, entering the café, a whiff of patchouli oil, an odor that, for me, signals strange. Kane says, yes, that's her too, a scent so strong that it tarries in the air several minutes after the person has passed.
In her mixes, Kane uses essential oils, distinctive volatile compounds produced by plants. A volatile compound carries a scent -- the plant's essence -- into the air. She says that "each aroma sets off a different physiological effect in the person who wears it or the person who smells it. For example, I have a new collection; it's all heart scents -- floral, rose, tuberose. When I put it on, I feel the effect -- calm, relaxed." New research on essential oils, she says, is showing that certain ones can reduce blood pressure and others can increase it.
Kane got into aromatherapy when her mother, a cancer patient, refused chemotherapy and relied on aromas to help endure the pain. "She lived with me the last month of her life and took no drugs at all. Instead, she took a mixture of cedarwood, frankincense, and sandalwood. I would rub it on her head, and she would inhale it." An essential oil applied on your body goes into your bloodstream, and you'll continue to inhale it, as will others. "She was in a tremendous amount of pain -- maybe the smell helped balance her and she moved to a different zone. The doctors were amazed." On difficult days, Kane makes "an aroma vessel," a necklace sachet that helps defuse her stress.
Personal fragrances emanate only around one's personal space. Public smells are something else. Their origins are legion -- from dump to church altar to ozone lingering after rain. I ask Kane, who's lived all over the world, what smells she remembers from other places. New York City, she says, is acrid from trash, urine, and feces, yet redolent of pasta, garlic, and Indian food. Hawaii wafts floral scents on warm, soft breezes. Some streets in Florence, Italy, smell of coffee, cigarettes, and Roberto Cavalli perfume. The Moulin Rouge in Paris is pungent with greasy food and sweaty body odors, a sensuous combination. Miami holds a spicy memory while San Francisco reeks of unwashed street people. The stink of the Big Apple was, at first, repulsive. But, Kane says, the nose adapts, and soon it's not too bad.
So what about Imperial Beach, I ask. What's its smell?
She smiles her way through some serious nasal pondering. Finally, she says, "Gray."
"Gray and a bit grimy."
You realize, I say, that gray and grimy are not exactly smells. Grimy may contain the oily scent of mechanics working on cars in a closed garage. But gray, hey, that's not a smell.
"I know," she counters. "But that's it. Gray and a little grimy."
No sea? No salt? No seaweed? No fish?
"Nope. None of that. There's no other scent here. No floral. I don't smell trees. There are no trees. There's no homeless people. No outside smell. It just smells gray."
Later, walking down Seacoast Drive, I get a rush of spice from the aptly named Aroma Thai. But that smell isn't local; its pungency could be anywhere on the commercial planet. I don't expect all of San Diego to have a particular scent. But then I didn't expect Imperial Beach to be missing an odor either. What's a missing scent smell like? I walk farther down the boulevard, then sense Kane is right. It does smell gray, sort of flat, a bit winter woolen, damped down, maybe. I smell very little beach in this beach town.
On days when onshore breezes are strong, salt and seaweed smells remind us of how close to the ocean we are. But wind and proximity are everything. Most days, the cliffs near La Jolla Cove stink of cormorant and pelican poop, just as the Pine Hill Egg Ranch, east of Ramona, nauseates with the stench of bulldozer-mounded chicken manure. Odor's trinity is source, concentration, and dispersal, with the ripest smells coming from decaying organic matter. To get close to hometown olfaction, I need to hunt up the smells, their sources, and the noses who know them.
Our noses recognize and recall 10,000 different odors. Two scientists, Richard Axel and Linda Buck, who were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2004, have studied this encyclopedic acumen of the olfactory system. The nose, they found, is regulated by nearly 1000 different genes (about 3 percent of our total); what's more, smell may be the most heavily coded of the five senses. The nose's genetic abundance is, most scientists believe, a holdover from our animal past. Back when, our noses to the ground, we relied on smell for survival. Once we got off all fours, we traded smell and taste for sight and hearing. Sight and hearing are now primary to our beings. Our arts are visual and auditory, not olfactory and gustatory. Smell, as Helen Keller said, is the fallen angel.