Morris: Sniffing out the state smell

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Leo Morris

I am not the world’s greatest housekeeper, so if you enter my home, you are likely to detect a musty, stale odor or two.

I don’t notice them myself. Being around them all the time, I can easily forget they are even there.

You’ve undoubtedly experienced the phenomenon. You visit a friend really into pets and are assaulted with the strong smell of wet dog fur or an unemptied cat litter box. But the longer you stay, the less bothered you are by the fragrant air.

At the extreme, this olfactory peculiarity is why you can take a bathing break during vacation and walk around all stinky and sweaty, obliviously happy, though friends will stop calling you and strangers will cross the street to avoid you. If Robert Burns had thought about it, he might have wished for some power the giftie gie us to smell ourselves as others smell us.

It’s called nose blindness, also known as olfactory fatigue or olfactory adaption. It’s the brain’s way of filtering out scents we are frequently or constantly exposed to as a way to avoid sensory overload. It also helps us detect a sudden, out-of-the ordinary smell like burning toast or a gas leak.

And thank goodness there is such a thing, or people in at least a couple of Indiana localities would probably go mad.

My apologies if folks there have addressed the problem in the few years since I passed through these places, but the odors were so powerful I’m surprised I didn’t drive the car off the road.

One place was Westville in Northwest Indiana, which had a company that collected and refined waste oil. Stench. The other was along U.S. 30 somewhere around Plymouth, where rumors had it there was a rendering plant. Gag-inducing, eye-watering, double stench.

Neither one of those smells, it is safe to say, will be under consideration if Indiana legislators endeavor to designate an official Hoosier odor.

And they certainly will, if only to keep up with New Mexico in the great Pointlessly Bestowing State Imprimatur sweepstakes. The legislature of the Land of Enchantment (its official nickname, of course) has become the first in the nation to consider an official state aroma.

And that aroma is the smell of green chiles roasting on an open flame. I have no idea why New Mexicans identify with the aroma, given the above-mentioned nose blindness. Perhaps visitors from Arizona or Colorado were driving through and kept remarking, “Ooh, that smell.” (I am not going to make the Lynyrd Skynyrd reference you thought I might, so settle down.)

But gauntlet thrown. What smell could we come up with as the official Hoosier aroma?

No fair coming up with a sweet aroma universally considered pleasing, like vanilla or freshly ground coffee or roses or warm spring rain. Likewise, we can’t dredge up a universally detested odor to mock-disparage our state, such as sweaty feet or overflowing sewers.

We need an odor that is distinctly, uniquely specific to Indiana.

There is a company that makes candles with state-specific scents, and for Indiana it has chosen “a light vanilla finish balanced by coconut and white musk,” which is supposed to evoke memories of “summer festivals in the Hoosier state, from kettle corn and hay to selvedge denim.” I dunno. Sounds to me more like what you’d smell in a room with bean bag chairs and blacklight posters on the wall.

When I moved from a rural area to the great urban center of Fort Wayne, I detected a sharp change in odors, from a mixture of growing plants and animal excretions and laundry on the line to a blend of concrete dust, automotive exhaust and wafting cooking vapors. I have since thought of them as the “country smell” and the “city smell,” but I don’t know that either one of them, or a combination thereof, would be peculiarly Indiana.

Quite the conundrum.

But I think our legislators are up to the task. Any group of people with the creative depth to designate a state fossil and the courage to name a state sandwich can surely handle sorting through all the available odors and proudly declaring one of them to be our very own. They must be the best collection of great minds since the Founders met in Philadelphia or even since Plato learned from Socrates and then taught Aristotle.

Or perhaps I have just been around them too long.

Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at [email protected].