For the last few weeks I've been on Vancouver Island, where I grew up. I’ve always appreciated the access I had as a child to nature as a playground and how much freedom I had to explore the beaches, rivers and forests but on this recent trip I noticed how many of the smells, tastes and feelings imprinted and influenced me. There were many occasions when I looked at something and I could almost feel a part of my brain light up in recognition.
We talk about babies imprinting the smell of their mothers within hours and about how smell can invoke childhood memories but what about the other senses? How do they influence our connection to place? How do they help us identify home?
Certainly the smell of warm pine needles, cedar trees and campfires are reminiscent of childhood summer days but just by looking at an almost ripe Huckleberry I can remember the tanginess.
I was fortunate to time my visit so I could go on a kayak trip with my dad and sister in Nootka Sound on the west coast of the Island.
We pulled our kayaks up to a beach covered with huge logs brought in by the tide. As I walked along the tops of the logs, looking for a lunch spot, I realised I was walking in the way I did as a child – balancing confidently but with caution, waiting for the log that would tip slightly like a see-saw or rock a little and unbalance me. What a great environment to develop balance, muscle and coordination – how much more informative and exciting than a space where everything is concreted in and reliably stable. I remembered how we would race barefoot along the logs so we could move across the beach faster than walking on the pebbles and having to slow down when we hit a sharp barnacle or shell.
Another day, my sister and I went for a walk, scrambling over a rocky outcrop. Because of the high rain fall, moss grows like thick carpet on the rock and I could remember what it was going to feel like to sink barefoot into it just before I stepped down. At another beach I saw Arbutus leaves and remembered how slippery they could be when they were dry and piled on top of each other - the banana peels of the west coast!
A few days later I left the Island to head back to my flight out of Vancouver. I stood at the back of the ferry watching the ramps lift up and appreciated the familiarity - the smell of the creosote from the dock, fuel from the ferry and salt water, the rumble of the engines, the sound of the water churning, the gulls and the ship's whistle announcing we were on our way. In isolation these things might not make an impact but together they always mark leaving or returning home.
From the ferry I could see large logs that had escaped the booms and I remembered how they figured into our play at the beach - we'd use them as rafts when we were tired or challenge each other to try and stand on them and jump off. I can remember the smell of the warm logs and the feeling of them as they bobbed under our weight.
Robin Christie from Childspace said something last year that stood out for me – pine cones, rocks, shells, sticks and other natural materials all have a different taste but plastic just tastes like plastic.
What did your childhood taste, smell and feel like? What will your children’s? What smells and feelings will connect them to their place and be there for them when they want to remember home?