Narrative Homework, Week 6 of 8, Smelly

Thursday, June 28, 2012

An exercise from Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter's What If?: Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers, 22.

List smells--indoor and outdoor--and the memories they conjure up.


The Imperial Valley in California was a desolate place in the 1990s, and I've often wondered what it's like now.  When I last experienced it, it was a patchwork of dirt roads running through fields of warm onions and melons, brocolli, and lettuce.  The canal systems were like laces, tying all the fields together.  In second grade, we had a in-depth safety unit in school, teaching us not to play in canals (Dippy Duck).  So many kids are killed while swimming in canals it's necessary to spread the word:  they're really dangerous--with fast-moving water, spinning turbines, and pipes that lead under roadways. 

More than anything, though, I remember the smells of the Imperial Valley.  The road got so hot, the older ladies in the neighborhood would joke that you could fry an egg on the sidewalk.  I tried it once.  My eggs were over-easy at best.  The rain came so seldom that every rain was a celebration, and every rain brought steam up from the roads and the smell of cooling, dusty, hot pavement.  If I smelled that scent in the air right now, I would flash back to heatwaves dancing at eye-level, warm rain, and the feeling of excitement that comes when something rare pays a visit.

Because of the abundance of crops in Southern California, farmers had to stay aggressive to battle the bugs.  Every afternoon close to sundown, small planes would drop pesticides on the plants and trucks that looked like tanks would drive around the neighborhood and spit mosquito-killer-fog into the air.  The kids in the neighborhood would cover their faces and run inside, but I'll never forget the smell of that toxic fog.  It was the kind of smell that you can almost taste, the kind of smell that leaves a bitterness on your lips and down your throat.  If I smelled that smell right now, it would make me angry:  angry about the pesticide I'm breathing, angry about the big-business state of food in this country.

Another smell unique to my time in the Imperial Valley is the smell of warm onions.  If you imagine the pungent aroma of sauteed onions on your stove, was the smell I smelled on the school bus every day riding out the gates of the base toward the small town where I went to school--warm morning and warm onions.  There's something really inspiring about living life so close to plants.  The farmers plant bulbs, plan canals, and spray pesticides, but ultimately, they don't control the sun, storms, or plagues.  Ultimately, farming is an act of faith.  Digging my hands into rich, dark dirt always reminds me of the miracles that unfold around us--the kind we forget are miracles.  The idea that a bitter, crunchy little seed can sprout and grow into a woody, leafy tree that grows juicy oranges is a miracle.  The idea that human beings grow from a similarly small seed and sprout into creative, relational, human beings is also an incredible miracle.  Most of the onions you buy are probably grow in the Imperial Valley, but miracles are all around you.

The playground at my tiny elementary school was what seemed like a giant sand pit.  Though we were at least an hour from the beach, sand was a multi-sensory experience.  When the hot wind blew, the sand whipped around, and we could taste it.  It landed on the pines, and we pulled off the needles and sucked on them. It covered the grounds, and we dug in it and built sand furniture ///tbc

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