Conifers’ Fragrant Pull On Memory

Tom Poland

Posted 10/20/23

By Tom Poland
A Southern Writer

: Conifer needles evoke memories. (Photo by Tom Poland)

I read that fragrances stimulate recall more so than any other sense. I knew from experience that it had to be true. You and I, we’re scentimental creatures … See what I did there? Think about your favorite aromas a bit. Don’t certain fragrances bring back memories? I’ll wager they do.

Two days ago I cycled through a forest where trees were being cut along a right-of-way. The sharp smell of pine resin transported me back to the 1960s when my father owned a saw shop. Workdays and Saturdays the wail of chainsaws carried some two hundred yards into my bedroom. I knew my father was testing a repair as he made a fresh cut on the pines behind his shop. I turned the thick slices into wheels, rolling them downhill in races with one another.

I worked in that shop as a boy and the fragrance of conifers—pines and cedars—mingled with raw gas created an aromatic blend I summon whenever I want. And in reverse action, the fragrance of raw pine resin summons up my saw-shop childhood, one that pushed me toward a quieter world, one of words and images.

And then that bike ride through pine-scented air resurrected a memory from 1989, September 22. The night before, Hurricane Hugo had barreled through and the next morning I walked outside to the overpowering smell of pine resin. Limbs and branches covered the land, as if some grounds crew had worked through the night to create a fragrant green world. I had no power but an electric memory would rise henceforth from my subconscious whenever the fragrance of freshly cut pines came my way.

Last month something I have dreaded for over thirty years came true. I live in what was once a state forest. A large tract of woods some 300 yards from my home was sold to become a community of townhouses. As men in yellow, noisy machines toppled trees, as saws sliced them into logs, two things filled the air—the fragrance of pine resin and birds. Never had I seen so many birds in my back yard. Refugees had fled what had been their home. They flocked to my feeder. Drank from my birdbaths. Bathed too.

Then a week ago I visited two Christmas tree farms for a holiday story and though not one tree had yet to be cut, the fragrance of resin came to me. Leyland cypresses, red cedars, Virginia pines, and other conifers would get the saw, leaving stumps oozing gold, honey-like sap.

Other fragrances take me back in time. The warm sugary aroma of cinnamon toast takes me back to my Mother’s kitchen. Now and then I come across a powder that brings back memories of my grandmother’s bath closet. Fragrant, fresh-cut grass finds me wearing a helmet and pads as my teammates and I warm up beneath Friday night lights. Oh, and somehow fresh-cut grass makes me think of slices of watermelon. Woodsmoke brings back memories of my grandfather’s smokehouse as well as remembrance of wood stoves and fireplaces.

Just a hint of Vick’s VapoRub conjures up my grandfather bumping though pastures in an old jalopy. The fragrance of paper and ink revives memories of books and bookstores no longer open. Gardenias and tea olives take me home to Georgia.

More than anything, though, the broken branches of conifers and resinous stumps of pines fire up my memory. They transport a fellow riding a bicycle through woodlands to places where loved ones live again. They stir up cyclones that spin and Christmases past. But something sad seems at work here. It seems no new fragrances come to me, aromas that will work their magic on my mind and memory, but that’s okay with me. The ones I have bring back good times aplenty, and that’s good enough for me, hurricanes notwithstanding.

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