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Bill  On The Road

 by: Bill Oetinger  4/1/2001

Aroma Therapy

Springtime in California is the season of green and growing grasses. (In some parts of the world, the grass grows all year 'round, but in California, it is only during our long, protracted springtime-from February to June-that the grass is green and actively pushing up out of the ground.)

If you have any land around your house, and if you make any pretense at keeping the place tidy, Springtime must also be the season of mowing. I have a bit over an acre around my home, and most of it needs to be cut back from time to time. In fact, every weekend from late February to late June involves the same schedule for me: one day of cycling and one day of mowing. I don't do the whole acre every week. One week I do the apple orchard, the next week the meadow, then the paths in the piney wood, and then the grass around the vegetable patch. Each needs to be whacked back periodically if we're not to be overrun, or more importantly, if we're not to be left with a fire hazard of tall, tinder-dry stalks in the hot, seer months that follow the green time. I call it mowing. Some call it weed abatement.

It's hard, sweaty work, muscling a heavy mower around this hilly, lumpy landscape. But I don't mind the task. First of all, I con myself a bit by thinking of it as cross training...good leg work and a good upper-body workout as well. Second, I like how it looks when everything is tidy, or as tidy as fields of rye grass and fescue and oxalis can be. (This is not suburban lawns we're talking about here.) Finally, and maybe best of all, I simply love the smell of newly cut grass.

That's where my thoughts are running this month in the middle of mowing season, and that's what this column is about. No, this isn't about my yard chores; it's about our sense of smell.

The minty, bittersweet fragrance of new-mown grass cuts through the clutter of my forebrain and touches some deep wellspring of positive emotion within me, reaffirming the ancient, seasonal promise: that from the still, cool ashes of Winter comes the rebirth of life and the rekindling of hope. When I smell that new, green smell, I feel again, at least for a moment, the childhood elation of waking up on a sunny Saturday morning when the world lies open before me, when anything and everything is possible. All this from a whiff of lawn clippings? Yes indeed. Smell is the most primal of our senses, and it will do that to us, if we give it half a chance.

Taking our noses out for a bike ride is like taking our stomachs to an all-you-can-eat restaurant: the aromas wafting across our path are as intense as they are various, and springtime is perhaps the biggest olfactory smorgasbord of all. Next time you're out there going anaerobic, pay attention to your sense of smell. Savor the myriad, vagrant fragrances hitching a ride on the air you're inhaling: the scents of a thousand blooming flowers; the subtle incense of fir and pine, and the spice of eucalyptus and bay laurel; the salt tang of the seashore and the moist musk of a river bank. Acres of apple blossoms. Meadows of mustard. A rumor of rain on the wind. A tantalising tease of backyard barbecue (as you head for home at the end of a long day's ride, having eaten nothing but a banana since noon).

Of course, not every smell encountered on a bike ride is pleasant. Consider the humble barking spider, for example, or the exhaust from a diesel truck, or the pungent punch of the midden pond at a dairy. And we have a duck farm near here, out on Middle Two Rock Road, that will just about knock you sideways when you ride past...my nomination for worst smell in the county. (And I don't care that Julia Childs visits the farm and likes their ducks. It still stinks.) And here's another noxious no-no, boys and girls: if you're planning on pacelining today, please leave the perfume and cologne on the shelf, okay? Riders trailing acrid streamers of aftershave are not popular in the pack.
But even some of the less wonderful odors we encounter can be informative. For instance, if you're not sure whether you're really riding strong today or just have a helpful tailwind, you'll know for sure you have the tailwind when you don't smell the dead skunk until you've passed it. And if you're grinding up a new hill, and you wonder how much further it is to the top, you'll know you still have a lot of climbing ahead when you smell the hot brakes on the cars coming down the hill.

Fortunately, good smells seem to outnumber bad on bike rides, especially in the country, and most especially in the springtime, when everything is fresh and blooming. I hope that wherever you're riding, this proves to be the case. And I hope that when you do happen to hoover up a good smell, or at least an interesting one, you let it have the run of your subconscious for a few seconds...let it rummage around in the attic of your memories, until it turns up some pleasant, aromatic association from your blissfully misspent youth. Before you know it, and without your really trying to go there, your simple bike ride along a familiar country road will have turned into an epic journey to the far reaches of your mind and heart.

Bill can be reached at srccride@sonic.net

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