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Russell Wangersky: Sense and memory

Get out there!
Get out there!

You forget the things you should remember.

Russell Wangersky

You forget the size of and majesty of the Rocky Mountains, their sheer impressiveness, until you see them again. Forget the warmth of summer sun on your face, forget the sweet smell of freshly cut grass until there’s a mower grumbling in your neighbourhood in spring.

If you’ve ever been to the desert, you’ll forget the best parts of that, too: not that it’s hot, nor that it’s dry. What you’ll lose is the sense of how sere it actually is and how that feels on your skin, of how the sage hunkers down for survival and covers the land as far as you can see — and you’ll forget the smell of the sage as well. The full experience of dust as dry as flour; the way it cakes in the corner of your eyes, the way it fills your nostrils and changes all other smells.

Inside your workplace, you forget outside. You forget pine sawdust in a workshop and split spruce on the woodpile. The feel of a beach stone between your thumb and forefinger.

And here it is, June.

I know there’s no holding it all. I know that memory works in reverse.

You can’t manufacture the smell of fresh mint or crushed thyme by just thinking of them — or if you can, you’ve got a better memory than me — any more than you can hum one song while listening to another.

When it comes to smell and memory, one is the key, the other the lock. I know that the smell of saffron will transport me — I don’t know to where, until I smell it.

But as I said, here it is June, that time when the leaves are new and bright green, when they haven’t faded through the heat of summer.

And did I mention? You remember the things you should forget.

This isn’t really a riddle; more than anything else, I think it’s just that the best things are the things we experience through our senses, rather than the scorecard we build in the more laddered and ordered parts of our empirical brains. Recriminations, revenge, betrayal — every slight you’ve ever faced is piled up there in your head, and you could draw them out at will, counting each on your fingers as you went, running out of fingers and starting over again.

There isn’t time.

I don’t want to remember why I was angry at someone. There is no point. Blame may the stuff and pith and substance of humanity, but it will never fill you with joy.

I’d rather be able to pull up the smell of freshly turned soil at will than enumerate the reasons for buried resentments.

So, listen to the sound of someone in a big pasture shouting to a horse, and the sound of that single voice echoing back in the cool of morning. Settle down on a gravel beach and pick through the pebbles for beach glass; find a flat stone to skip, or else to turn on edge and throw almost straight up into the air so it cuts the surface of the water with the splashless rip that we used to call “slitting the Devil’s throat.”

Smell kelp, eat mussels — marvel at the notes of similarity they share.

Find a place this year to swim naked in a river. Learn again the way your breath stops itself when your face hits cold water. See a full moon rise in some part of this country where streetlights don’t stain the sky.

And here it is, June.

Get the hell out there and get your hands dirty, your sneakers wet, and your senses full.

Russell Wangersky’s column appears in 30 SaltWire newspapers and websites in Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at — Twitter: @wangersky.

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