Sunday, September 25, 2011
Every fall I teach an intensive 4-week class for incoming freshmen. The building where I teach is surrounded with a planting of dozens of jasmine bushes. Over the past three years I’ve watched them grow from tiny starts to mature bushes that are now becoming vines, sprawling over the beds of landscaping chips. Every year there are more and more flowers, and this fall there was a bumper crop.
On my way to class, I could smell jasmine as soon as I was in the square next to the building. Walking up to the entrance every morning, I was surrounded by a thick, heavy cloud of jasmine fragrance. It was insistent and unmistakable. I assumed that my students would have noticed the smell, but I was wrong.
About three weeks into the class, I asked if anyone had noticed any flower fragrance outside the building, on the way to class. I got a lot of blank stares and puzzled looks. No one had noticed any flowers, and no one had noticed any scent. Not a single student had any idea what I was talking about. When we went on a field trip to the other side of campus, I pointed out the jasmine as we left the building. Without exception, the students said that they had not noticed it, either to see or to smell. It’s as if they were both blind and anosmic to their surroundings.
I’m at a loss to understand how someone could not notice a strong and pervasive flower scent. What is going on? Are people so bombarded with air fresheners, deodorizers, laundry products, department store signature scents, cleaning products, and other artificial smells that they are unable to smell things in nature? Has all this olfactory cacophony resulted in people expecting to smell something all the time, so they don’t pay attention to smells of any sort? Do people spend so much time in front of a screen that they don’t notice the things that are around them in the real world? Is smelling flowers so uncool that no one is willing to admit that they smell jasmine on the way to class? Are teenagers really that oblivious to everything?
I have no good explanation for why more than two dozen students can’t (or don’t) smell jasmine. However, I do hope that the current budget crisis will put a damper on the university landscaping team’s constant digging up of one thing and replanting with something else so that the jasmine will continue to grow and perfume the fall and winter quarter classes that I teach in what I’ve come to think of as the “jasmine building”.