I almost gagged as the scent hit me. As bad as if there were dead animals buried in the foot or so of manure, the smell permeated not just the air around me and my siblings, but anything within a few feet of the barn. We looked at each other, and, I would say took a deep breath, but I’m pretty sure we were avoiding breathing at all. And then we dove in with the shovels.
Our family had taken over the running of the ranch, in an attempt to earn some land of our own on which to build a house. One of our first tasks? To clean all the manure out of the large barn. If I were a betting person, I’d say that no one had bothered to scoop manure in that barn in its entire existence. Then again, I was like 10 years old, so my view could be a little biased. But a big pair of boots, gloves, and a good shovel, and we learned the meaning of sore muscles and a good day’s work.
The amazing thing about hard work, not matter how gross? How good it feels when you are finished. I have vague memories of the final scoop of manure leaving that barn, looking around at the (relatively) clean building, and a growing sense of satisfaction in knowing I had taken part in that.
But I’d be okay if I never smelled manure again.
Speaking of scent, I had a very productive day of research the other day that mostly revolved around perfume.
A faux complaint of many writers is how often we start off researching one thing and end at something completely different hours later. I say “faux” because, let’s be honest, it’s one of the most fun parts about being a writer. You never know what you will learn. On the aforementioned day, I started researching witch hazel and ended up on the fall of Rome.
Do you ever get that annoying, niggling memory of something you saw or read once but you can’t quite remember exactly what or where? That happened to me when my sister-in-law introduced me to Witch Hazel and Rose Water toner. I could have sworn and in fact, did state with utter confidence that women used to use witch hazel almost as a perfume, patting it on their faces before company.
Where on earth did I get that notion? I would tell you if I could, but I can’t, because I don’t know. But I could almost see the words of a book in the corner of my mind about someone patting on witch hazel before going down to see a suitor or visitors, and how strange it seemed to me.
Well, the internet would beg to differ. In fact, the internet appears to think it was completely a figment of my imagination, because the next day I conducted an extensive research on the history of witch hazel, and at no time does it ever state that it was used for anything other that divining rods and for illness/skin ailments, scented or not.
I learned there is an actual witch hazel plant and that, despite the fact that witches believed it had magical properties, the name witch actually stems from the word wiche, meaning “to bend”, referencing the pliable branches of the plant.
So, desperate to prove I wasn’t completely ignorant, I decided to research perfume, positive that witch hazel would come up at some point. But nope. I learned, however, that perfume appears to have originated in Egypt, spread quickly to other countries, and, as well as being used to cover the stench of those who could afford to use it (since they didn’t believe in bathing), it was used to sacrifice to whichever gods were in vogue in that country.
Most interesting thing I heard? There’s apparently a legend that Nero was so obsessed with the scent of roses that he not only installed pipes to spray rosewater on guests, but he once had a waterfall of rose petals that smothered a guest to death.
So how did I get from this to the Fall of Rome? Well, apparently, after the fall of Rome, Europe basically banned perfume for centuries, dismissing it as too luxurious. So then, of course, I had to remind myself of how the fall of Rome took place.
So, I may have been completely mistaken in my initial assessment of the history of witch hazel, but that is the fun part of being a writer—if I hadn’t made that statement, I wouldn’t have felt compelled to research it for accuracy, and I wouldn’t have learned all the fascinating facets of the history of scent.
Embrace it, fellow writers. There’s no occupation quite like ours.