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From Where I Lie: Editing The Past

Tuesday July 7, 2009

By Larry Johnson

    It happens to all of us. As we get older we begin editing the sensory memories of our lives. That means we begin harvesting those golden moments that give meaning to the sixty, seventy, eighty or plus years we’ve been on this planet. This is a natural condition of aging and it is, in my opinion, a very good thing.

     Don’t get me wrong, the present moment is where we live, but the present is merely an accumulation of the myriad past moments that have led up to now. If we can incorporate those moments from the past into the present we have, I contend, enriched our lives immeasurably.

     My sensory memories hearken back most predominantly to the late 40s and 50s when I was growing up on a dairy farm. Anyone familiar with farming and its multitude of sensory impressions will agree with me that the smells of earth, vegetation and farm animals can be overwhelming to the uninitiated, but, once gotten accustomed to, become indelibly imprinted in the brain.

     It has been fifty years since I lived on a farm, but my olfactory memory of mud and manure, mown grass and cured hay, among many other things related to farming, is as acute today as it was then. I wish I could say the same about my memory for names of people I’ve long known and soon forgotten.

     We are a visual species, that’s true. We use our eyes, perhaps, more than any other sensory organ, but it is our sense of smell that triggers, most truly I believe, our past experiences. I contend that I’ve forgotten much of what I’ve seen in life over the past 67 years, but the odors I smelled decades ago, such as new-turned earth, cedar wood chips or chopped sileage are as vivid today as they were then.

     The future is what we strive for, but it’s the past that glues our lives together and gives them meaning. Without taste- memory, for instance, I wouldn’t know that parsnips leave me cold or that toast without butter is reminiscent of cardboard. Without smell- memory, my mother’s kitchen, and my mother herself, wouldn’t be nearly as vivid as they are. The smell of baking bread and frying doughnuts wouldn’t send me back sixty plus years to a time when family was the center of my life and when the outside world was a mysterious, future experience. 

     My mother’s kitchen was the source of smells for good things to eat, but it was the other parts of the farm, especially the barn, that not only engaged my olfactory sense organ but stimulated my imagination in other ways. For instance, the horse barn still offered up smells of horse sweat and harness leather long after the horses had been replaced by a tractor, and the tractor had its own mechanical smells of oil, grease and steel. The sweet/ sour smells of fermenting corn silage will never be forgotten. Neither will the indescribable odor of baled hay, unstrung and spread in front of a row of overheated Holsteins.

     It is said that the Eskimos have 20-plus words for different kinds of snow. With a little embellishment, perhaps, a life-long dairy farmer could come up with at least half that number of words for grass turning into hay, or corn turning into silage.  

     One of my many jobs as a farm kid was to haul the milk in two pails from the barn to the milk house, a trip of about two hundred feet, one way. Not a great distance by anyone’s standard, but to this day I can conjure up a multitude of sensory impressions gained along that route, both visual and olfactory. It would be a meaningless exercise for me to try to describe them, not even a Robert Frost could do that, because my memories of the barn, barnyard and milk house, and everything else along that short route, are subjective and selective to my own recollections. Unless you have enjoyed the smell of warm milk, fresh from the cow, or the myriad of other odors related to that kind of very specialized experience, my trying to tell you about it would be meaningless. We could never share the images derived from that activity so long ago.

     History, especially personal history, must always fail to live up to its promise. It can never relate the true past. The best it can do is serve up a ghostly compromise of what could have happened. I know that the things I remember are not perfectly accurate, for time has edited them and the little gray cells have stored the edited version, not the real thing. Nevertheless, they have become my reality and I wouldn’t trade them for any other.

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