Spring aromas trigger memories sweet and pungent

Editor's note: This article was published in Grand Traverse Scene magazine's Spring 2019 issue. Pick up a free copy at area hotels, visitor's centers, chambers of commerce or at the Record-Eagle building on Front Street. Click here to read GT Scene in its entirety online.

Limnologists study inland aquatic ecosystems, using terms like “spring turnover” to describe the warming of a lake. When surface temperatures match the rest of the lake, strong spring winds mix oxygen and nutrients, beginning the process of photosynthesis by aquatic plants once again. But in the land version of the spring turnover, receding snows reveal winter’s leftovers, both living and from beyond the grave — and it’s anything but serene. While a vital role in the circle of life, a pretty picture, it ain’t.

Like mini glaciers, snow piles creep backward, and road-killed critters sprout their rotting, sprawling figures along main roads; local farmers slop a winter’s worth of “fertilizer” on a field I’m planning to turkey hunt in ten minutes; the outside kennel area I kept shoveled for the dog — that looked remarkably clean after each new snow — is now a reeking, mushy mine field; the menacing aroma of amorous skunks stretching their legs hangs precariously in the air.

This happens every year, and cautious locals reluctantly don knee-high rubber boots in mild acceptance of living in a northern clime, knowing flip-flop season lies just around the corner.

With the passing of winter, though, springs life, and the initial attack is an olfactory assault. But there’s a silver lining. That strong — sometimes stinging — bouquet of soil bacteria breaking down wet detritus, and animals naturally fertilizing everything in sight, gives way to earthier scents. Mushroom hunters forage for ramps and morels as the essence of onion-dirt-fungus competes with fragrant daffodils, lily-of-the-valley and lilacs.

Personally, I find the pungent mix appealing; inhaling sharp odors from farm and animal as I await the first gobbles of the day during late April’s turkey season. Same goes for May, when wading a stream in hopes of enticing a few brook trout upward to my fly. Turkeys and fish play a role in the grand spring scheme. But while activities are what we “do,” smell is memory’s true trigger.

On a particular May morning, early blooming serviceberry competes with the mild, fishy smell on my hands from a recently released brown trout. That same slime from a pike or bluegill later in the month lingers a little longer; whether pleasant or malodorous, both remind me of spring. Hanging musty waders in the shed, the aroma instantly triggers last fall’s duck season, but instead of enjoying the moment, I race my wife to the lawnmower for the first mowing of the year. Is there anything better than freshly cut grass?

Yes, for a ballplayer, at least. Nate tosses me my glove as we stretch arms on the newly trimmed front yard. Before the first ball is thrown, I see him bury his nose in leather and take one long, indulgent whiff from the webbing. His proud papa does the same, as I have ever since that first “catch” with my dad over 40 years ago. You never forget that smell.

Evening now, and I’m standing under the back deck, ironically sipping on a rather peaty scotch. Below me sprawls a mile-long swamp. Western breezes waft fresh cedar and sweetfern up the slope on welcome warm air. Standing motionless, mesmerized by the moment, I fail to hear skunk-like footsteps creeping up the hill. Other than God’s good humor, there’s no reason Pepe Le Pew’s perfume should not have accompanied those good smells I was enjoying.

And I hesitated, as it turned out, too long.