Eighteen years ago I was living in Germany when my friend Vincent visited from New Zealand. He was in search of his French ancestors – distant relatives who had travelled from a village in Normandy to the even smaller settlement of Akaroa, on Banks Peninsula, during the late nineteenth century.
Over a period of two weeks we made a slow road trip from the city of Würzburg, where I lived, through southern Germany, eastern France, Paris, Brittany and then the final haul to Normandy in search of family.
It was during this trip, somewhere around Giverny, that I began to wonder if it would be possible to create an en plein air sniffing group — that is, an informal society of scent enthusiasts who would be happy and willing to sit outdoors, together, and inhale the air.
I was drawn to the simplicity of the project. Rather than lugging heavy and cumbersome easels, canvasses, paint boxes, and palettes, we would need nothing more than our own noses, a small notebook and pencil in which to jot down fragrance notes, warm clothing for cool days, straw hats for hot.
As we travelled further across the country, I found myself responding to the landscape in a new way. I pictured my imaginary group of six or eight fellow deep breathers seated on canvas fold out stools arranged in a semi-circle. The scent possibilities were as varied as the views: hayfields, river valleys, cathedrals, cobblestone streets, markets, forests, coastlines and so on.
However, as we drew closer to our goal, the landscape became increasingly dull, broken up by petrol stations, new housing areas, factories, and a nuclear power plant. Eventually, we arrived in what had to be one of the ugliest, if not the ugliest, village in the whole of France, the ancestral home of my companion, Vincent. After an hour spent wandering the graveyard, a dismal grid of grey monuments and plastic flowers, we silently agreed to escape the drab, depressing village forever, and in our haste took a wrong turn that brought us to a pig farm.
Though Vincent laughed over his bad luck, making light of his disappointment, it was clear that he felt the loss. In a futile attempt to cheer him up, I told him about my own grandmother’s house. As a child I spent many afternoons playing in her Waltham garden, a small strip of damp turf overshadowed by the Christchurch gasworks. At times my grandmother, a white-haired, fat, deaf woman, would join me outside and we would silently stare at the gasometers. Every time I visited I asked my grandmother to explain how the gas-holders were able to change height, but she didn’t know.
In my mind, I associated my grandmother’s house with the smell of gas, the taste of tinned apricots served in a bowl of evaporated milk, and the faint ticking of a two-bar heater as the elements warmed up.
Vincent listened quietly but made no response. Not knowing what else to say, I decided to tell him something else that had been preying on my mind since leaving Paris the week before — that is, that I was worried I might be pregnant. Again, Vincent said nothing.
That evening we drove along the rugged coastline and then inland through several small villages, places that were unremarkable but not as ugly as Vincent’s ancestral home. At last we pulled up to a small hotel and restaurant located near a swampy river. The manager, a man of around nineteen, was closing up for the night but he let us in and, explaining that renovations were underway, led us down a corridor strewn with drop cloths, buckets of paint, sacks of plaster, glowing heat lamps and ladders, before showing us to a small room and handing over the key. He then left the building and deadlocked the main door behind him.
Back in Würzburg, I quickly forgot about my idea for the en plein air sniffing group. It turned out I was pregnant, and for a while any strong smell made me gag or vomit.
Earlier this year, however, I was walking through the student area at the back of the University of Otago when I caught the smell of wet plaster. In that moment, I was transported back to the hotel room, and the seemingly endless night we spent gulping, like goldfish, for fresh air. I was reminded of my idea for an en plein air sniffing group, and this time I vowed to do something about it.
Five weeks later I found myself standing alone on a burnt patch of grass next to rows of wind-shredded flax behind the Hocken Collections library. It was early morning and across the road from where I stood was a cluster of fuel storage tanks, and beyond them stacks of logs and then, further still, brick warehouses, sheds, wharves and the harbour, a stretch of water I could not see.
I had been thinking about my grandmother when I settled on the wharf area for the inaugural meeting of the now formally named En Plein Air Smell Discussion Scheme. An obvious choice might have been the rose garden or the tropical house, but I wanted a more authentic environment, a scent-location that challenged people. My hope was that we might sit together as a group and discuss the scent of our environment in such a way that we moved beyond clichéd responses. I imagined we might feel encouraged to search deep for new ways to approach and describe the combined notes of damp flax, exhaust fumes, woodchips, oil and salt air. I also hoped we would learn to appreciate the beauty of our surroundings based on smell alone.
Three people had responded to the small notice I placed in the community bulletin announcing the formation of my sniffing group. The fact that anyone responded unsettled me. I worried they might all be film students looking to infiltrate some whacky subculture in order to gain credits for a degree. But as it was, no one turned up. It was a relief, really.
Scented by Laurence Fearnley (Penguin Random House, $38)