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Today is May 9, 2021


Sounds, smells, definitions and memories

By Tony Kinton

Sounds, smells, definitions and memories

Oh, for an onomatopoeia related to smells. These words are widespread for their intended use regarding sounds, but the concept as it pertains to smells is somewhat limited.

You know that word, onomatopoeia. Perhaps you recall it from a long-ago English or literature or writing class. Formed from two Greek words — Sonoma, which means name, and poiein, which means to make — onomatopoeia is basically a word that, when used in speaking or writing, mimics the sound being described: bang, clang, splash, swoosh. Clever devices for adding spice to communication, these words with the hard-to-pronounce designation are.

It is reasonable to conclude that any or all five senses can often be related and play a role in recall. Something we taste may trigger memory of something we saw, and so on. It was such an occurrence that spurred the thought for this column. Just recently, a cardinal singing is what I heard, but the smell of a specific setting from childhood came to mind. It is in the description of this smell that I badly need a proper and handy onomatopoeia.

My dad and I were paddling a battered wooden boat up a section of the Pearl River, this section generally known as the Old Straight. Actually, my dad was paddling; I was piddling. Impeding more than assisting I would guess, but my dad was gracious. I heard a bird. I had definitely heard this sound countless times before, but the urge to know what it was had never pricked me. “Red bird,” he said when I asked. Obviously, the cardinal, but it was red bird to him — all his life. And as influential as that identification was, it was the smell of the Old Straight that clung tenaciously to my remembering. It is still there, more than 60 years from that paddling, piddling sunrise river trip.

How do I describe that smell? Pungent, but certainly not unpleasant. It was decaying leaves and slough mud drying from high waters earlier that spring. It was the refreshing aroma of the river’s trickle over aging oaks that had fallen prey to a gnawing current on the off-side of that flow. It was the occasional breath of honeysuckle wafting on a morning breeze. It was the smell of excitement and tranquility and expectation. It was the smell of peace.

And there are many other sensory signals from my seven decades of growing and processing and filing away. Some of these courted a singular sense; others came through combinations of two or more. The green, stinging smell of sage from downslope, this seeping through nostrils begging additional oxygen in the High Country. The odiferous stimulation of an autumn wood, fresh from a pre-dawn splattering of cool rain. The drone of a small-farm tractor, its turning-plow releasing from captivity those rejuvenating aromas of freshly disturbed dirt. The fluffed feel and clean fragrance of hand-picked cotton bathed in sunshine and piled high on a ragged wagon.

And there was my mom’s rattling about the kitchen and her soft humming that always permeated the secret period between sleep and waking and that scent of biscuits baking before a day of farm chores that hold a permanent place inside memory. These sounded and smelled like security. Like home.


Tony Kinton has been an active outdoors writer for 30 years. He lives in Carthage and is a Central Electric member. Visit for more information.

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