Scent: A Catalyst to Wonder

Moments of wonder may well be the times when we, as humans, know the most. For to wonder, to feel awe and curiosity, is for a fleeting moment to know how little we know. To feel inspired by this idea, rather than afraid can be the difference between embracing full bodied, experiential learning or clinging to an outdated, industrial model of education that values perfectly bubbled in answers on standardized tests more than it values the holistic growth of the learner. Those of us who have lived within the structures of conventional western education know how quickly and easily a sense of wonder can be squelched.

So how can we welcome wonder back into our lives? How can learners be inspired to embrace what Selby (2010) calls the, “decidedly non-measurable ways of knowing and ways of connecting to the world-such as attunement, awe, celebration, enchantment, intuition, reverence, wonder, and the oceanic sense of connectedness” (p. 45-46)? The senses can act as catalysts to re-inspire wonder in learners by uniquely and intimately providing the elements of experience.

Though inextricably linked, even when explored individually, each sense can open learners up to what Williams and Brown (2012) call “bodily ways of knowing” (p. 148). The sense of smell, specifically, can play a powerful role in evoking emotions and memories (Holloway, 1999). Though science has recently confirmed the connection, lived experience has long understood that “the sense of smell, almost more than any other, has the power to recall memories, and it is a pity that we use it so little” (Carson, 1998, p. 83). When attuned, “scents bring memories of life-stories–of place and communities” (Williams & Brown, 2012, p. 150). This emotional and storied aspect of scents can be used to encourage learners to explore and reconnect to memories of awe and wonder. By honoring the often overlooked sense of smell, learners can be re-inspired and opened up to new ways of knowing and wonder.

Suggested Activity: Scent Memory Journal

Similar to the environmental autobiography activity suggested by Corcoran (1999), which prompted students to recall and write about their first connections to place and how natural settings shaped their lives, a Scent Memory Journal can be a powerful way to encourage learners to explore the connection between scents, memories, and wonder.

Ask learners to recall a moment in their lives when they truly felt a sense of wonder. Then ask them to build the memory through the recollection of the scents that were present during this moment of wonder. You may wish to prompt students to dig deeper to further rebuild the memory by recalling other senses and emotions that they experienced in the moment. Alternatively, students may decide to journal about specific scents that always trigger deep memories for them and link these scents to moments of wonder throughout their lives.

Two Short Scent Memory Journals

Sweet Bark by Kristy Gonyer

Outside the library at Reed College stands a solitary ponderosa pine. Despite its wide girth the tree doesn’t call attention to itself with its sparse foliage and branches well above eye-level. However, on a warm day, I always pause. A familiar aroma drifts from the tree and invites me closer. As I draw near, perhaps even pressing my nose into the cracks in the bark, I am transported back to my earliest memories in the woods.

I am transported back to my first hikes in the forest. The warm scent, that reminds me of vanilla and sweetness, draws me back to the first time my father and I hugged a Ponderosa pine tree and drew in the warm scent of the tree. I can remember the feel of the rough bark on my cheek and the warmth of the sun on my head as we drank the smell in.

The memory blends with the memories of many other times in the forest with my family, or even by myself, when I couldn’t resist the urge to embrace a ponderosa. The scent and the memory form a link with my family and with the Black Hills of South Dakota. For me it is a scent of connection and contentment.

The Beach on 26th Avenue by Elise Baker

Sitting with my oldest sister, cuddled and bundled against her.

The crash of the ocean against the shore, remaining in my ears even after we’ve left.

Feeling the pink in my cheek from the wind.

The incessant need to explore the texture of sand, never able to stop even for a moment.

Seeing the energy of the waves. The power never truly expressed through words or pictures.

And the scent, the scent of salt and dampness clinging to our hair, our blankets, the rocks and the sand.

The scent of the beach is something all together its own. I can’t describe it.

But I remember the feeling of sitting there. Of being quiet, because it seemed the right way to be.


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