Notes on a new year’s eve.
Calendar of Scents
When I try to think of what happened in 2012, I am lead through the rooms of my memory palace by the scents: the flowers, the mangroves, the rain, the grass seeds. These scents lend a succession of fragrances to the passing months. Later, I can match the fragrances I evoke so clearly to dates that quickly become blurred.
In his 1906 ethnographic venture into the Andaman Islands, Radcliff-Brown noted much the same thing.
“The Andamanese,” he wrote, “[mark] the different periods of the year by means of the different odoriferous flowers in bloom at different times…their calendar is a calendar of scents”.
A calendar of scents.
The scents of experienced moments.
In places like the place where I grew up, people still keep a calendar of weather and seasons. My mother calls me and speaks of the rainy season. In my memory, this is the time of year that comes after November and before February that smells of eucalypt, petrichor, mud drying on boot heels, and damp horsehair.
But the reality is, I grew up in a drought. I only experienced a few of these rainy seasons in my mother’s home. There is a gap then, a period of time, when the calendar of scents failed to match the passing years. The Gregorian calendar flipped its numbers, seven years, but the wheel of my year did not turn.
Often, when I catch a hot dry wind, I feel as though the drought is following me, and I know that the things I learned then have shaped who I am today.
Other times, other experiences, other scents, make me think it is I who have shaped the season.
Or at least, how I remember the season.
There’s a time in my memory where it is always late spring or early summer, always too hot and always just about to rain. There the jacarandas are all in bloom, and we eat jasmine by the hand-full as we wallow in sweet oleander milk and watch the humid silence suspend the seasons. I was so terrified, so excited, so confused by this that I was always on the verge of tears. When I think about it, this was actually about 3 years in total. Of course, it couldn’t possibly have been summer the entire time. But in my memory it is.
There’s another place in my memory where it is always cold. When I talk about this time, I say it rained for a whole year straight. No breaks. No deluge. Just a constant downpour that amounted to nothing.
Obviously, this too is impossible, if only because this time also overlaps with some of those other times when it was always summer and always right on the verge of rain.
There’s the calendar year and there are these other times, these other experiences, that seem too vivid to ever be contained in dates. The two don’t match. I can’t see where one year turned into the next. All I know is that there were certain things I experienced and they had a certain season attached.
In my memory we raise our hour glasses to the denial of dates and drink deeply.
In the 1980s another ethnographer, Vishvajit Pandya, also spent time studying the Andamanese. He found that the Andamanese still viewed time as connected to scent and the wind. But he found something else too. Their concept of time is not linear, but “rhythmic”, subject to the same caprices as the constant winds that pass through their island. In such a way, they do not see time as easily divided, but a continuation:
“Both past and present are apprehended within the present, and this experience of time is described as totekwata. The past is seen as an experience that has gone by like the winds, not as something left behind for good any more than the winds leave the island permanently. The winds return but when they come from new directions they bring different experiences, leaving places “wet and cool” and at other times “dry and hot”.
The wheel of the year turns, and sometimes, on night like tonight say, we might try to look back and see how things have changed. We see, through the clairvoyance of hindsight, the signs, the antecedents, the consequences, the dreams, the realisations. And yet, like the Andamanese, it is difficult to see it merely as crossed out calendar dates. These are experiences that stay with us, that drift to us again, like the scent of phantom flowers on the wind.
So maybe New Years Eve is a little arbitrary, just a commemoration of some celebration we had on this date last year. Nothing is new, just a continuation of what’s already been, just another experience to add to the multitude we experience all at once. We watch the seasons change. We watch ourselves change. But we see this is an ongoing process that can hardly be confined to a calendar year.
On New Years Eve we celebrate that, while the succession of scents or dates might not play out as we think they ought to, we have experienced 365 days worth of moments, and these moments roam free on the changing winds.