Published on May 25th, 2008 | by Justin Van Kleeck0
The Persistence of Pine: A Sensory Flashback and a Sacred Place
That smell, that fantastically one-of-a-kind scent of wet pine needles.
That smell, sharp but sweet, overwhelming but easy to get used to and ignore.
That smell, wafting through town and country, rising from urban ditch and forest floor, tickling the nose’s nerves and the mind’s memories…
Wet pine needles….
And suddenly I am no longer standing on the side of a country road, warming myself in the just-out-of-the-oven rays of the morning sun like a lizard trying to turn its cold blood hot.
No, now I am back in my aunt and uncle’s house, that place where the smell of pine needles greets you in the morning and tucks you in at night.
I am there, running around at midnight in a nightshirt with my cousin, playing hide and seek in every room except the one where the grown-ups, the lazy old fuddy-duddies, are asleep and missing all the fun.
I am there, pretending, again with my cousin at midnight, to see German shepherds of every color–red, blue, green, purple, yellow, orange–and naming them even as we feared them; pretending that they were not really just the family pets, normal in color and every other way.
I am there, chasing and (more often) being chased by the tyrannical gaggle of garrulous geese.
I am there, crabbing in the marsh with string and slices of bacon and bologna.
I am there, swimming for hours and hours at all hours in the pool.
I am there, pretending to sleep as my aunt does an expert excavating job on my toenails, trying to endure the pain and not give myself away even while enjoying it all. (Why she is convinced that clean toenails are the acme of perfect health is beyond me. As is why she waits until the dark hours of night to assault us, my cousin and my uncle and myself, while we sleep…or pretend to. As is why my toes feel so much better in the morning.)
I am there, once again raking pine needles, just moving them from one place to another, over and over again, like Sisyphus rolling his bloody rock. Why not just leave the needles where they are? They just come right back! Are they going to pile themselves right on over the house or what?
I am there…a child, a teenager, a man…. I am there….
And then, as the edges of the vision start to soften, as the images and sights and sounds start to fade, I am back on this sunny country road…still smelling those wet pine needles…or these wet pine needles?
Back in myself, my self of the moment that is, I remember everything there and my heart grows warmer, brighter than the poppin’-fresh sun. Starting to walk again, carrying a smile along with me, I continue to fill my nose and my entire self with the scent of those, of these wet pine needles.
And when I get back home, I call my aunt up on the phone I thank her and then exclaim: “Never, ever sell your house!”
Note: For my essay on this topic of sensory flashbacks, please see “Sensory Flashbacks, Sacred Places, and Environmentalism.”