While sights and sounds sometimes trigger fond recollections, it seems the effect of odor is much stronger, and certain aromas can stir vivid memories of days afield. There is a clinical explanation.

Incoming odors are first detected by an organ known as the olfactory bulb. It starts inside the nose and connects to two areas along the bottom of the brain that handle our emotion and memory. Information for sight, sound and touch do not pass through these areas, which probably explains why scent has a much stronger effect on our emotions.

The smell of burned gunpowder, on the shooting range or in the field, elicits myriad memories for me but none stand out as much as the frosty mornings of my early teen years and my first pheasant hunts. I can still hear the roar of wings as a bird erupts from cover nearly underfoot, and the raucous cackling of its escape flight, followed by two quick pops. And if I close my eyes, I can picture the gray smoke swirling out of the twin side-by-side barrels of my Lefever Nitro Special as I extract two empty hulls.

Driving by Scarborough Marsh at low tide with the windows open, I catch a sulfurous whiff of decomposing organic matter and my mind instantly goes back to a frigid December morning hunting red-legged black ducks on the coastal marshes. Those were simpler times. No camo jacket, just a weather-beaten tan Mackinaw, the pockets stuffed with No. 4 lead loads. When I stepped in the gray mud my nostrils would fill with a pungent rotten-egg smell so strong it almost burned.

The doughnuts I sometimes eat with my morning coffee conjure up memories of filling great barrels with expired pastry, then shoveling the amalgamated mass into smaller pails and lugging it into mosquito-infested woods on hot, humid late-summer afternoons. To outwit the bear’s keen sense of smell, you always sit on the downwind side of baits and so are treated to the aroma of doughnuts for hours while you wait.

Scuff away the duff as you walk through the forest and you may not smell it. But if you scrape away the leaves and other detritus from the forest floor, then sit on the bare earth you’ll sense the almost metallic, earthy smell. In the fall it takes me back to countless days on a deer stand waiting for deer that more often than not never came.

Then one November day he did come, and walking up on the fallen buck my nostrils were filled with a strong, musky odor that seemed to settle more in the back of my throat than my nose. And to this day, each time I smell the penetrating odor of a rutting buck it brings me back to that first one.

Sometimes on a spring morning, just after a rain when the humidity still holds aromas close to the ground, I’ll get a whiff of honeysuckle; or walking through a wet hardwood bottom my boot will crush a spathe of skunk cabbage. When the odor hits my nose it stirs countless mornings in the turkey woods, and sometimes I’ll swear I just heard a turkey gobble in the distance.

There are so many aromas that stir unique emotions and memories of days spent outdoors. But there is one that trumps all others because it is nearly pervasive. The smell of wood smoke is synonymous with hunting camp, serving as the matrix for a mottling of bacon and eggs, wet wool and wet dogs. It is the smell of hours of swapping stories and telling lies by an open fire. And before our civilized lives it literally meant survival, which might also explain why we find it so pleasant. In the end all that really matters is that we do.

Bob Humphrey is a freelance writer and registered Maine guide who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at:

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