Smell Safari
Joe Clark ~~ Feb 27, 2004

As I was enjoying today's warm weather (upper 40s) by walking around Cedar Lake, I began to think about an unusual topic: smell. We talk about beautiful images and melodic sounds and scrumptious morsels, but maybe we sometimes forget about the sense of smell. I'd like to share a little about my experiences with this sense, just for the record. While I know this is a strange topic, please try and take it seriously, because I am not saying these things sarcastically.

Cedar Rapids has often been called "the city of five smells". This has always been a derogatory comment based on the several factories and the former meat packing plant here in town. Now, I guess I don't really disagree with the fact that Cedar Rapids is a smell-or-iffic place. What I guess I'd like to propose is maybe that array of smells is not a bad thing.

For the record, some of the more memorable smells of Cedar Rapids are: ADM Corn Sweeteners smell (bitter corn), the General Mills smell (Crunch Berries), the Quaker Oats smell (sometimes oatmeal-ish, sometimes the bitter corn-ish), the Diamond V Mills smell (yeast), the garbage dump smell from the new Cedar River trail south of Czech Village, and formerly the Farmstead Foods packing plant smell. Each of these smells is distinct and holds a certain amount of memories for me. I'm not saying these smells are *great* or anything, but for me they hold a certain appeal. It's sorta like Data on Star Trek when he first experienced a taste he didn't like. When asked how it tasted, he said, "It's revolting!" When asked if he wanted more, he said, "Yes please!" That's when experiencing a sensation is more important than the relative like or dislike of the sensation. Does that make any sense?

I think the memories aspect is the key ingredient for my appreciation of the smells around me. When I smell the bitter corn, I am reminded of the days when I was 10-15 and my parents and I would go sometimes nearly every night to ADM to watch the CRANDIC road train prepare and leave for Iowa City. I have images in my mind of watching the train approach, of waiting for 20 minutes or sometimes an hour for the train crew to do their switching, and then feeling the excitement when the train (finally!) came back out from ADM and came by once more on their way to Iowa City. I am still fond of these childhood memories, even though times change and the train doesn't go to Iowa City anymore and I've found other ways to spend my time. These trainwatching times were times of bonding with my parents, as well as a chance to get away for a bit from schoolwork or whatever else needed to be done. So, if you think I'm crazy when I say that ADM doesn't smell bad, now you know why.

When I smell the crunchberries smell in the air, I am reminded of more trainwatching. While the CRANDIC train was at ADM, we would often drive a few miles west to CNW's (now UP's) Beverly yard and watch the trains there. Sometimes we saw the crazy-fast through trains go by, bringing coal or trailers or corn products or containers from lands far away by my sight. These were, in a way, a strong connection with the world, even from a young age. I used to keep track of train car numbers and think about where they were from -- coal from out west, box cars from the south, engines from the Chicago yard. These thoughts gave me a chance to think outside the bounds of my Cedar Rapids kid existence. I don't know if I thought about it that much at the time, but I think it had a part in shaping who I am now. So the crunchberries are special to me as well.

When I smell the Quaker Oats bittersweetness, I am reminded of the many many bike riding adventures across town. After discovering the Cedar Lake trail, I often would ride across town to ride on the trail. Often while riding by Quaker I would see a CNW/UP or Chicago Central (or CRANDIC, on especially rare and happy occasions) train switching in the yard. Again, the trains would "enthuse" me, and I would entertain myself by watching them and their raw but controlled power. With every breath of that trainwatching, I was smelling the Quaker Oats aroma, and good or bad, those two sense memories are intertwined in my mind. Today I still often journey out on the Cedar Lake trail, and the nearby Quaker Oats smells still remind me of the pleasant trainwatching and bike riding of years past.

The Diamond V Mills smell reminds me of other bike riding adventures. It was not frequent, but occasionally a train would make its way from Quaker to Beverly, and I would chase it by bike partway across town. That trek took me by Diamond V Mills, with its characteristic yeasty smell. On other occasions, while bike riding to Ellis Park I would smell the same smell, and laugh to myself about the utter unlikeableness of the smell. But, like it or not, it is a marker in my mind reminding me of the good times God has blessed me with.

One final memorable smell: A few years ago they built and paved a trail from Czech Village in SW Cedar Rapids to Tait Cummins Park. Along that trail is one of the city's two garbage dumps. Needless to say, when the wind is blowing in the right direction, there is a very, um, pungent smell at times while on that trail. But, that smell now, especially while riding on the trail, reminds me of the many evening rides I've had in the past few years on that trail, how I would ride the length of that stretch and back, and make my way home via the cool slick method by riding down the small roads and up the hill through the cemetery to avoid traffic.

Now, for completeness -- as for Farmstead Foods, I just barely remember that factory, so its smell is almost outside my scope of memory. I can't imagine that I would have liked that smell, but since I like these other "great" smells, who knows?

So, I think that for the sense of smell, like the other senses, we find pleasure and meaning from things that remind us of things past. This has a sort of a cascading effect in our lives I think. From early childhood we are exposed to certain things. When we attach positive memories with those early sensations, and then are re-exposed to the same sensations, we re-remember the memories, which makes the association that much stronger. This is a bit psychological I guess, but it makes sense to me. I guess one of the many questions I think about but sadly never ask people is if they have similar memories, or if I am alone in my crazy smellorificness.

These thoughts make me thankful and a bit amazed at how God has placed these things in our hearts (in mine at least), that there is a sort of perpetual, self-reinforcing joy from these sorts of memories and senses. Our experiences build our memories, and while we are making new experiences every day, we have these triggers in our mind that trigger the memories of the past. I know this is true for both good and bad memories, but I've chosen to focus on the positive ones tonight. How blessed we are to be able to build such a repertoire of positive memories, if we choose to be aware of them.

Now, I've made a list of just some of the more weird smells in my life. I have not even begun to describe many of the rest of them -- the newly mown grass smell, the electric motor model train smell, the diesel smoke train smell, the October leaves smell, the garden dirt smell, the August grasshoppers smell -- I'm sure you could add many of your own to this list. And, I guess the point is, I hope you will. Maybe it's too weird, but maybe not. How many memories do you have that are somehow related to the "smells of life"? Think about it....

Okay, that's all for now. Thanks for bearing with me -- I know the topic of "I like random smells" is rather weird. But it's something to think about, and at least maybe you'll understand a little better why I say, "ADM bitter corn smell? Ahhhh...smells like my childhood." :-)