The sense of smell has the strongest direct connection to long term memory. In fact, there’s literally a direct connection from the olfactory cortex that receives the incoming signals to the hippocampus where long term memory is generated. All of the other senses have to be processed, filtered, examined and catalogued first, and then the important bits are selected out and sent on to the hippocampus to create long-term memories, but not smell. This is one reason that even a faint whiff of a familiar scent can unlock a long forgotten memory.
I’ve always been fascinated by that connection, and the often surprising bits and pieces that can float to the surface when you smell something for the first time in a while. Like the lightly sharp, slightly sweet smell of golden cured tobacco that tingles deep in the back of your nose . I got a whiff of that not long ago when I decided to try a new blend of tobacco for my pipe, and I was immediately thrown back to my childhood and the years we spent working in tobacco. I remember being nine or ten years old, shirtless in the hot late summer sunshine. The whole family was out at the metal bulk barns in the far corner of Nanny and Granddaddy’s front yard, and we were working hard sheeting one of the barns to take to market.
For the uninitiated out there, sheeting is a process where you take the large metal racks of cured tobacco out of the curing barn and wrap them in large burlap sheets to make a bale. We would pull the racks of golden brown leaves out on a hydraulic chain and lower them to the table. The racks were popped open and the cured leaves dumped into a large ring of half inch thick black vulcanized rubber sheeting. As more racks were dumped into the ring the loose leaves would begin to pile up and they would begin to spill out over the top.
At that point, the pile of cured tobacco was still too loose to make a bale heavy enough not to blow out of the back of the flatbed on the way to town, so they needed to be packed. And that’s where my brother and I came in. We would climb up into that big black plastic ring and walk in slow, careful circles, packing the leaves with our bare toes as we went. At first, we’d sing down to our armpits in the ring like a frontiersman in an Alaskan snow drift. But, as we packed, the floor was steadily rising and growing more firm.
Soon, we were walking with the edge of the black ring at our waist, then our knees, then our ankles. And that’s where it got kind of tricky. The leaves at that point were packed well enough to have become like a springy sponge, but there were still empty pockets hidden here and there. If you stepped in one and weren’t paying attention, you could twist an ankle or fall out of the ring and hurt yourself. None of that ever happened, but we were always well aware that it could.
Once we were walking around on top of the leaves and not really sinking in at all anymore, Granddaddy would make the call that the bale was ready and my brother and I’d get down. Someone went to each of the four corners of the large tobacco sheet and got ready. Mom and Nanny would usually be the ones to pull the black ring up and off the packed bale. They’d have to move quickly, too, because once the ring was gone, the leaves would want to explode apart from the tension. The people holding the corners would rush together and tie a quick knot in the top of the sheet.
We’d repeat that process ten or fifteen times per barn as we sheeted the tobacco that came out and hauled it to town to the market. When I was a kid, it seemed like the toughest, most grueling job in the world. Looking back at it now, twenty four years later, I wish I could go back and do it again, odd as that may be. The sound and feel of the leaves crunching under my feet and the smell of tobacco as it came straight out of the barn, still warm from the curing. A fine gold dust of dried tobacco would hang in the air in as we sheeted it, and that smell was always stuck in my nose for a day or two afterward.
When I opened my pouch of new pipe tobacco the other day, I got a whiff of that same golden brown scent and for a brief moment I was back in the sunshine and the dust, stomping my way around a bale of tobacco, and I couldn’t help but smile. It’s amazing the random things that will pop into your head when the right scent comes along.