I have to admit that the best smell on Earth to me is the smell of lilacs. And, this has been a banner year.
The smell isn’t just from putting your nose directly into one, although that provides an immediate endorphin rush, but just the general smell wafting through the air all over town. I guess second and third on my list are sun on pine sap and, despite the cliche, freshly cut grass. For me, it is virtually impossible to be down about much of anything when these smells are in the air.
Although humans are not by any means the highest on the chain of mammals that use their noses for survival, our sense of smell could be a way to cling to our age-old place in the natural world – a time before most jobs were accomplished at desks and most play was done on a computer screen. Smells in nature just lift people’s spirits, and, it turns out, boost their health as well.
Science backs up this inherent understanding. It has been found that smelling nature lowers blood pressure dramatically and increases anti-cancer molecules in our blood stream. Of course, smelling the real thing in nature is optimal, but even subjects sequestered in a hotel room showed drops in stress hormones and increased immune cell activity when using natural aromatherapies, mostly from evergreens and other trees.
The animals that use their sense of smell for survival are many, some of which may be surprising. In Colorado, bears have the largest number of scent receptors of terrestrial mammals. Black bears have been observed traveling over 18 miles in a straight line to a food source.
Moths are the best sniffers in the insect world and use their skill for finding a mate. Using its feathery antennae, a male moth can smell its future mate from up to six miles away. Snakes also have a highly developed sense of smell without actually using their noses. Instead, they “taste the air” with their tongues, using the damp surface to catch scent particles and carry them to a special organ in the mouth called Jacobson’s organ, where smells can be identified as food or danger.
According the Journal of Science, humans can detect 1 trillion distinct scents after odors enter the nose and travel to the top of the nasal cavity where the nerves for smell are located. Humans have about 5 million to 6 million odor-detecting cells. But, to put it in perspective, man’s best friend has 220 million odor-detecting cells, creating a vastly different perspective of the world we live in.
Because of human innovation, we have evolved to rely less and less on our sense of smell, while most animals have retained this need. However, with the air ladened with the smell of lilacs and the happiness that it brings, perhaps we need this underappreciated sense more than ever as a reminder that we are still a part of the natural world.
Sally Shuffield is executive director of Durango Nature Studies. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 382-9244.