When I close my eyes I can remember what the Island looked liked before the Dutch arrived.
With everything that’s changed, I’m still surprised to find that the biggest is the smell. They say that the nose is the best memory trigger, and they must be right, because when I sit in Washington Square Park and close my eyes everything returns at the same time. I grow dizzy at the scent of cedar and elm, and while the sounds of birds are deafening, the earth and the air take me furthest away. Some people get distracted by the smell of rain on hot pavement, or even coffee in the morning. The perfume of an ex-wife or bread breaking takes them back to a time when they might have been happier. But for me it’s just dirt: rich, thick, dirt in its many forms. The mud smells warm and wet, and the brown flaky dust near the riverbank is salt and leaves. The dark red clay smells of fur and sex, and if I keep my eyes closed for too long I worry that I won’t be able to return.
But when I open my eyes the visual takes over, and I swear I can see the trees rising from the earth. I can feel the wind on my skin, and when I breathe in it’s air that you have never tasted. Yes it’s clean, but the word doesn’t come close to the reality of it. We think of clean air as empty. But empty air is about as delicious as distilled water, and as unlikely as well. When you breath clean air you breathe pollen and dust. You breathe in sun and water, and your lungs hurt as the oxygen fills them. Clean air is alive.
I lick my lips, desperate for that memory, and I try not to worry about the people around me. But even they vanish as I watch—and feel—the forest grow up around me. I can smell woodsmoke and tanning skins. I can hear music somewhere in the distance, and when I touch the earth beneath me everything is connected. There are squirrels, yes, but also deer and fox darting in and out of the brush with so little fear I find I envy them. Hawks soar through the sky above me, and there are more kinds of insects than anyone has bothered to count. When I finally bring my hands up from the dirt and rub my temples, the people return and the sounds of cabs honking is deafening.
I can barely make out the smell of a burned pretzel from the cart on the street.