Sights and sounds make stories, but smells make experiences. We are taught to see and listen, but smell memories are often unstructured, raw and emotional. My first period smelled of plastic packaging and soap and faintly of rust, my first love smelled of coastal sweat poorly masked by deodorant, and the first time I moved away from home, it was the smell of a new suitcase that lingered. The first time I lived in a forest for fieldwork, I had an overwhelming sensory experience, well beyond all the things I learnt. I learned how to use a GPS and how to design experiments while breathing in damp clothes and wood smoke. I learnt that to fully experience, is to breathe in deeply.
Nature is a lived experience and smell is central to it. From watching the documentary film, Hear the Call of the Forest, I learnt that the smells of a forest can heal. In one scene, a Canadian ecologist walked through a forest in Japan, taking it in wholly through a Japanese practice called forest “bathing”. Illustrated molecules emerged from the trees, leaf litter, and the soil and she explained their healing properties. I live and work in an area that is almost-forest, close to the sea, in the Andaman Islands archipelago. Here, tall, dense evergreen and deciduous forests stand shoulder to shoulder with coastal mangrove and littoral forests. These coastal forests almost dissolve into the vibrant blue sea, home to teeming coral reefs and seagrass meadows. I moved here to look at these forests and make notes of my observations, but just by breathing I have grown deeply in love with the place.
Smells that mark time
There is no single smell that can describe life in the Andamans. The smells of life here change through the year, through the seasons. I first came here in the monsoon, to the smell of rain on parched earth; petrichor, the fragrance of fungi waking up from their summer slumber. During an early field trip, in the middle of the work day, it started raining and we cowered under a tree. I say tree, but “ecosystem” is a more fitting word for the giant, slanting Andaman padauk tree (Pterocarpus dalbergioides), on which smaller stems of a few other species stand erect. Inside the hollowed belly of the padauk and around its base was a large termite mound. Three of us sat on the mound in the large alcove that was the tree’s hollow. As it poured, water intercepted by the various tree trunks dripped onto us through the mound, smelling strong, earthy, and metallic. I had never smelt that before and it lingered on my clothes for rest of the day.
As the rain calms down, one’s clothes slowly lose their musty smell and actually begin to come back drier from the clothes line than when hung out. The start of the dry season in October is marked by blooming Alstonia kurzii, the scholaris tree, called chatiun locally. When I take the bus back to my field station from Port Blair, in the evening light I see patches of bloom here and there: white flowers in an explosion of hemispherical bunches. This tree is easy to remember if you have seen it in full bloom, and impossible to forget if you have smelt it. As dusk falls, the wind against my face is laced with a thick floral yet cinnamon-y bouquet. I smell it in fits and starts as the bus speeds along. My childhood in Kerala taught me that this tree is the haunt of a yakshi, a celestial seductress. I try to time my bus ride in October to nightfall; it would be a shame to miss the wild seductive fragrance of this flower.
Fallen fragrances in a tropical forest
My mother, who told me stories of yakshis, visited me on the islands for the first time last November. She came after the Alstonias had bloomed and gone. When we walked around the field station, we found a carpet of Dipterocarpus flowers, pink and green, large and soft. Dipterocarps, or gurjan, are gigantic – some field guides would go so far as to say majestic – trees that dominate the upper layers of the lowland evergreen forests in the Andamans. Unlike the Alstonia’s, its smell doesn’t find you; you have to either squish it or go really close to smell it. And the smell isn’t like the nimble, fluttering smells of the open plains — the lavenders, the thymes — it’s the heavy, heady smell of tropical forest, local and contained; it sits on your shoulder and seeps into your senses.
By December, the forest is slowing down. Leaves are falling, everything is dry. If you have to describe the forest now, it smells of a wooden cupboard of old tea leaves. You pick up a leaf from the forest floor, crush it and drink in the smell. Something about drying in the hot sun makes all leaves smell kind of the same. When I worked on a project measuring leaf traits in the Andamans, we would collect fallen leaves (leaf litter), dry them in a hot oven and weigh them. In a different forest on the mainland, my friend also worked with leaves then. She once told me how she wanted to brew all the species of her samples and drink them. Since then, our hot air oven with leaf samples has always smelt like an eclectic teashop to me.
Fresh and fleshy
Come January, many of the tall deciduous trees are bare and some of the lower canopy trees begin to flower. In January 2020, I was sampling in a dry forest in the Andamans. There, the subcanopy had a large abundance of a citrus species of the genus Glycosmis. The first time we encountered it, we were confused, but as practiced ecological detectives, we knew what to do. We took photos of branches from the top and bottom. The shape of the leaf looks like a kind of citrus, but how do we know? We crushed the leaf and smelled it. Lemony; definitely citrus. They were also in bloom. At the top of the stem were white flowers, a few millimetres across. Five petals, I noted. Done taking photos, I leaned in and smelled them and was instantly transported. It was an incredible fragrance, rivalling the different jasmines, packed into tiny, tiny packages. I wonder which lucky insect gets to sneak into the tiny flower for nectar, bathe in the smell, and pollinate them all day.
In the hot summer months of April and May, when many trees bail out from the burden of leaves, mangoes and jackfruits are in full glory. Half-eaten fruits dropped by green imperial pigeons and fruit bats line street sides and orchards across the islands, and even the small paths at our field station. But it’s a bad idea to eat fallen fruit unless it is whole. Some of the ripe fruits fall whole, but break on impact with the ground and release forbidden fruity goodness. Perhaps the toughest (heart) break is the fallen wild jackfruit, Artocarpus chaplasha — the size of a breadfruit and bright orange.
Throughout February and March, the roofs in our field station that have overhanging wild jackfruits trees are intermittently pelted with gunshot-like sounds when they fall. This sound is not for the fainthearted, nor is the fallen fruit, which is sticky, slimy, and smells like a jackfruit that was cut open two days too late. I’ve never yet seen one fallen whole to taste and it, and that remains my unrequited summer crush.
Scents of wonder
During parts of the year, inland forests may seem vacant of smells, but you won’t go hungry. Mangroves line the seaward edge of many forests in the Andamans; they have to be traversed to get to the coast, to a boat and away. Some stretches are easy — firm ground and patchy vegetation, mostly new growth. But we’ve on occasion had to hopscotch across treacherous knee roots and inevitably sink our boots into decades-old slush; slush full of methane and hydrogen sulphide. Nature-inspired soap from the mangroves would have to say “cow burps and rotten eggs” and that’s less marketable than “sandalwood and bergamot”. But it is believed that these soils store a lot of carbon and there’s definitely a market for that. As for the smells, I can attest that they grow on you, but it’s an acquired taste — like blue cheese.
Last year, in a less earthy, more expensive-cheese continent, I visited a museum. In the corner of a special exhibit on Egypt, in the section on daily life, was a set of fragrances in small bottles. You could open and smell them and truly experience life in an ancient Egyptian city. The smells were cardamom, frankincense, and myrrh, but at the end of the line was a bottle marked “Mendesian” — an early perfume whose combination scientists are still trying to rediscover. They don’t have the right answer yet, but they had the hypothesised combination in the bottle. Having just spent three years of my PhD wrangling with hypotheses in words and numbers, this bottle challenged all my sensibilities. The emotional appeal of this tiny table stayed with me more than the entire room of a Virtual Reality reconstruction of a queen’s tomb.
The environment today is very much Mendesian — changing so rapidly before we can document and remember combinations of species and environments. We are simultaneously struggling to tell compelling stories of the changes we experience. I could read that the lowland evergreen forests of the Andamans and their native species are under risk from sea level rise through graphs and papers, and nod with scientific detachment. But if this means that I would never smell the faint wet smell of Dipterocarpus blooms in the islands again, I care deeply for this loss.
is an ecologist and nature enthusiast. On field, she is a tea drinker, morning person and eBirder. At other times, she mostly reads and lurks on Twitter as @KrishnaAnujan.
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Enabling Wholistic Wellbeing & Meaningful Living
Enabling Wholistic Wellbeing & Meaningful Living