March 22, 2007 in Keepers Log, Questions for the Keeper

Question for the keeper: smells

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This question comes from a fiction-writer in Chicago: what does the lighthouse smell like?

Let me begin by saying that I’m relieved that she didn’t ask what the lighthouse KEEPER smells like. Not nearly so pleasant a subject matter. I think a poet once said that to venture out on a day in March is to come back smelling of damp earth. That in mind, the lighthouse smell is reminiscent of early March and late September–a mild mix of musty basement and aging wood. Probably what you’d expect from an 138-year-old building next to the water. My nose is desensitized to the scent by prolonged exposure, so I don’t notice it much unless I’ve been away for awhile. When I return from a trip after a few days, my nostrils welcome the familiar odors of home. Doors locked and windows shut during my absence, the air inside may be stale but distinct, encapsulating the unique olfactory-chemical signature of the lighthouse atmosphere. It may be my imagination more than memory, but that smell reminds me of a bygone era, a past I did not live personally but feel connected to nevertheless. On a cold day, first thing I do upon my return is to get the place heated up again. Kindling a fire in the kitchen cookstove adds a hint of woodsmoke to the air. Once I get the coalstove in the parlor stoked up, the hot iron stove parts leave a metallic bite in the air while the burning coal inside the stove emits a faint sulfur smell. Upstairs in the bedrooms, perpetually blooming geraniums keep the air fresh and sweet. Before bedtime, a steamy hot toddy to help me sleep and stave off the cold with warm vapors of lemon, tea, and whiskey. In the morning, I cook breakfast, filling the lighthouse with the smells coffee brewing on the stovetop, bacon frying in the skillet, and pancakes heating on the griddle. (Pardon the bit of B&B self-promotion in that last line.) Hope that answers the question without indulging too much nostalgia.

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