It’s funny what memories arise with just a faint whiff of a forgotten smell.
I am walking home from work after dark, just a breeze blowing instead of the usual lusty Alberta wind. It is beautifully warm for November, probably around 10 degrees Celcius*. As the snow melts and the ground thaws, spring-like scents arise and I almost believe myself to be living months from now, in March or April, instead of almost Advent-time. The dark is not complete: the half-moon is glowing enough to reflect light off the sodden snow as I schlush through the shrunken drifts.
The breeze brushes past me, and I catch the momentary aroma of cattle, hay, straw, moisture swirled together into a memory-stirring elixir. Suddenly I am – five, six, seven? – years old again, following my father as we walk from the huge door of the milking barn, through the shelter, over the trail the cows have trampled through the straw and manure, to the part of the corrals that shelter the bigger orphan calves who are awaiting their share of the warm left-over milk. The few cows my dad milks are lying in the straw in the shelter, the scant sixty-watt bulbs suspended from the ceiling doing their meagre best to keep the peaceful darkness outside from pressing in. The cows’ breath steams in the dimness, and I hear their teeth grinding cud. They are content. As I follow my dad over the frozen lumps, I think, How peaceful to be a cow. And that scent, that elusive mix of manure, feed, and cowhide, has become the scent of innocence, childhood, security.
*When it’s warm and windy in November, one can assume that a chinook is blowing. Chinooks are a weather phenomenon on the Alberta prairies resulting from moist Pacific winds dropping their moisture on the western side of the Rocky Mountains and descending on the plains still warm, but dry. I read once that “chinook” comes from an Aboriginal word meaning “snow-eater”. This particular chinook has been voracious, devouring inches of snow (and my children’s snowmen) in mere hours.