February 2023

The Nation Reviewed

On senses: A citizen nose

By Rebecca Giggs
Illustration of smell-lines being inhaled through a nose
Touring the suburbs with a man in possession of a professionally average sense of smell

An hour after dawn on wind-shivered blocks south of Fremantle, and Philippe Najean is hounding after a smell. In KingGees and high-vis, with his hair close-cropped – very nearly a monkish head-shave – Najean cuts an inconspicuous figure among the tradespeople now pulling up to lug gear onto residential building sites. At 51 he could be the foreman or a senior conveyor. Only, his toolbox weighs less; indeed, the principal bit of kit Najean uses to do his job is something we all carry, always. Najean’s forte is the faculty of his nose; his profession entails a labour of the senses. In the borderlands conjoining industry and suburbia, Najean patrols for plumes of odour.

His work is varied but he schedules this part of it, the role of kerbside sentinel, early in the day, before thermal heat rebounding off the earth raises upward turbulence in the air. Landfill, composting works and refineries, animal-containment and water-treatment facilities all emit gases that, corralled by the breeze or penned within microclimates of the built environment, revolt and repel human olfaction. More than lifestyle is at stake. In encircling neighbourhoods, a reek can inhibit work and play, the peaceable enjoyment of public space, the homeliness of private rooms. Even appetising smells may begin to curdle if they become perennial or concentrated. Najean recalls a biscuit factory stationed outside a township 100 kilometres beyond Paris, where he began his career in the early 1990s. Bakery vapours snaking through the town tantalised newcomers, but long-time inhabitants of the sugary atmosphere complained of dizziness, irritability and distraction. A few grew sick at the aroma.

The degree to which a smell is offensive is of slender reliability, Najean observes. The mind is quick to attach personal and idiosyncratic associations to each whiff. Smoke, for example: to the churchgoer, purifying; to the housefire survivor, terrifying. Iterative exposure to a specific smell over weeks and months will, for some, prompt its retreat from conscious perception: the odour, once they’ve grown accustomed to it, will cease to feature in the mental drift of their day. To others, the repeated onslaught of a smell only heightens disgust and vigilance. The notion that the odour cannot be avoided might take root, blooming into hypersensitivity. A minority of unfortunate individuals understand themselves to be persecuted by bad smells and, with slight shifts in the weather, register foulness in ever smaller fractions. Which only goes to show that smell, as a sense, has untold psychological dimensions. Better to focus on an odour’s identifiability, intensity and duration, says Najean. More neutral qualities. He takes out a piece of pink tape and lets it flap to gauge the direction of the airflow, which he notes on a clipboard and confirms with a handheld anemometer, a device for measuring wind speed. Then he stands with his hands loosely clasped in front of him and rocks back on his heels, his hooded eyes agleam, like a chorister awaiting the first downbeat of the baton.

Today he is trailing the emanations of an edible-oils recycling plant. Hidden from view beyond the sun-beaten flanks of a highway and behind several rows of recently completed townhouses, is a mid-scale operation processing cooking fats and frying oils for salvage and resale to Perth eateries. The December light tricks out heaped metal and fresh brickwork, and falls between shards of jagged century plants in the sand of empty lots. In this instance, Najean is consulting for the oil business itself, as an intermediary documenting the remonstrations of locals, and an adviser on mechanical and procedural changes that might quell escaping odours. The other significant duty he undertakes in his line of work is as an expert witness in tribunals and courts, testifying to odour nuisance and pollution.

What is the worst thing Najean has ever smelt? Burnt hydrocarbons come to mind (Najean trained as a chemical engineer – hydrocarbons are vented in the petroleum, bitumen and gasoline industries). No, he says, thinking on it. Then with sudden emphasis: it is “the smell of death”. Tanneries, rendering, old abattoirs; nauseating, gag-triggering miasmas, often attended by thousands of flies. On an evolutionary level it makes sense for meat-fled smells to prove the most distressing, signalling potential rancidity, infectiousness or violence.

Such odours are a far remove from the trickling greasiness that comes upon him now, blown by draughts through the channel of a half-constructed carport. One should not snort it, Najean implores. Take a short, ordinary sniff. The everyman sniff. He crosses his arms. Affect a certain amount of indifference is the lesson. More simply put, be receptive to novelty without anticipation, aversion or characterisation. To be an odour consultant seems a vaguely zen vocation, demanding what is sometimes called “beginner’s mind”, the disposition of the novice. Najean may be an expert, but, unlike a sommelier, his skill lies not in the refined discernment or virtuosity of a highly discriminating nose. As a proxy for the community at large, he must possess merely a quotidian sense of smell: a citizen nose, not a specialist one. Each year he is tested by an olfactory laboratory to ensure that what he is capable of smelling is the province too, of most other Australians.

The fragrance loosed from the factory is reminiscent of budgie feed, metal and lard, a cold wok stowed in a dirty cupboard. A memory forms of cleaning stiff paintbrushes with yellow linseed oil, fingertips slippery on the ferrule between handle and bristle. Smell is the most plastic of all the human senses, and yet it is also the most inexpressible and intimate. When eyesight and hearing begin to falter, their deterioration cannot be arrested or reversed by a training regimen, dedicating oneself to looking at, or listening to, a range of finely graded stimuli. Our olfactory sensitivity, on the other hand, can expand with coaching – healthy adults can learn to recognise, remember and distinguish a wider range of smells. Increased scent perceptiveness induces neurological changes; scientists have shown that perfumers’ brains end up being structurally modified by their vocation. Still, the language used to describe smell remains predominantly comparative. Where colours have their own names (cerulean, maroon), as do tastes (bitter, salty), the description of a smell depends on a reference point that is itself smelly: to talk of a citrus tang hinges on the existence of oranges and lemons, a smell redolent of decay recalls breath soured by tooth-rot.

Najean has a very educated nose, in fact – stood downwind of an organic-waste composting depot, he can tell if the disintegrating bacteria are in harmony or have turned florid and noxious. And he can categorise smells with ease, sorting a nutty odour from a fried one, the hairspray waft of a solvent as distinct from the sharp, sometime resinous pungency of a foundry. If courting these abilities has the potential to push him beyond the range of the average nose, he is not too concerned. Voluble and thorough, he gives the impression of being a man entirely enchanted with his work, the invisible sphere of smells. When a moment of stillness settles, and the oil scent drops away, he seems lightly disappointed to have lost it.

Rebecca Giggs

Rebecca Giggs is an author from Perth. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times Magazine, Granta and The Best Australian Science Writing. Her debut book, Fathoms: The World in the Whale, won several prizes including the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction.

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