Could you tell the time if you had no watch or cell phone?
Most of us would think, well sure, I could roughly guestimate the time from where the sun is in the sky.
But what about when it’s a cloudy day?
Our ancestors had the ability to take that one step further, not only by observing the sun’s path but also by using their sense of smell.
Yes, their sense of smell. And so can you with a little practice and paying attention. So, let’s get started on learning about the ways in which time and the seasons manifest through different scents, and how our sens of smell is intricately linked to the environment all around us.
The Role of Smell in Telling Time
Long before the advent of modern gadgets, people relied on natural indicators to gauge time. One such indicator was the distinct scents of different times of the day. The morning air, filled with dew and earthiness, smells very different from the more subtle floral/grassy smells of the afternoon. And the night air in fall smells different from the night air in summer. And so on.
Early humans spent enough time in nature to become aware of this. They weren’t alone. This ability to tell time through smell is not just limited to humans. Animal researchers have learned that dogs can tell the difference between the hours of the day based on the intensity of scents.
As you may have already guessed, some of this also has to do with air temperature and how that affects our sense of smell. Let’s go a little more deeply.
Environmental Factors Influencing Scent
Temperature and Odor Molecules
Temperature plays a crucial role in how we perceive smells. On a cold day, there are fewer smells because odor molecules move more slowly, and our noses are less sensitive. In contrast, warm air allows smells to become airborne more quickly, making scents more intense during hot summer days.
Moisture and Its Effects
Moisture also significantly influences scent. Overnight dew intensifies earthy aromas in the morning, while the evaporation of moisture later in the day brings out lighter scents. This variation in moisture levels contributes to the distinct smells of different times of the day.
The Movement of Air
The way air moves also changes throughout the day, carrying different odors with it. This movement is a visual representation of how scents travel and transform over time.
One of the ways to exercise the sense of smell is to go outside at various times throughout the day. It won’t be long before you notice these subtle differences for yourself.
Back to the original question: Could you tell the time if you had no watch or cell phone?
With practice, I believe you could develop your ability to smell to this degree. One of the ways to exercise the sense of smell is to go outside at various times throughout the day, throughout the seasons, with real intention. It won’t be long before you notice these subtle differences for yourself.
Seasonal Scents and Their Causes
People living in areas with distinct seasons will often say — “smells like winter outside” or “smells like a storm is coming.” It’s that distinct odor in the air, which most of us can’t quite grasp and put into words. And yet, our brains have been signaled that there’s a shift that our noses are asking us to pay attention to.
As trees prepare for winter, they release gases like terpenes, contributing to the characteristic smell of fall. Additionally, the decomposition of plant matter adds to the season’s distinct scent.
The smell of rain even has its own word to describe it, “petrichor.” That’s because the weather front carrying storms has a lot of ozone. That’s what you’re smelling.
And anyone who lives where it snows knows that snow has a smell, which is a combination of fewer odors due to cold weather, which causes slower movement of molecules and increased humidity before a snowstorm.
Our environment also affects how we perceive the smell of time. Factors like factory emissions and rush hour traffic contribute to the ambient scent in urban areas. In contrast, rural areas may offer a broader spectrum of natural smells, from wet grass in the morning to subtler floral scents at night.
Our sense of smell offers a unique and often overlooked way to connect with the passage of time and the changing seasons. By paying attention to the subtle shifts in surrounding scents, we can become more attuned to the natural rhythms of our environment. The next time you step outside, take a moment to breathe deeply and appreciate nature’s intricate dance and how it can help us tell time.