THE SCENT OF WATER
Beijing, 12 October 2012
How would you describe the scent of water? This evening, as I reached the bridge which crosses my piece of canal a gentle breeze lifted the scent off the water’s surface and wafted it over to me. And I asked myself that question.
Let me take a leaf out of wine reviews and try a little of their purple prose: “I sense a hint of moss, with an undercurrent of peat, perhaps a whiff of algal respiration”. But actually what I was smelling was my childhood. Don’t you find that scents are a powerful trigger of memories? I do: a drift of scent will suddenly have me awash in memories. And so it was that as I crossed the bridge I was suddenly ten years old again, on my grandmother’s sail boat on the Norfolk Broads, moored at her buoy on Barton Broad. The sun has set, a light breeze is blowing off the water bringing me the scent of the Broad’s peaty water, and small waves are slapping quietly at the boat’s hull. A grebe calls out in the night.
I loved the Broads. My grandmother spent most of her summer on the boat, taking her numerous grandchildren in shifts of two weeks. I must have gone five years in a row. The sailing didn’t really excite me; it was kayaking among the rushes and in the little creeks on the edges of the Broads that I loved, watching the wildlife and discovering small marsh flowers at every turn.
But I grew up, and my grandmother grew old, and life moved on. I stopped going and haven’t been back since. Yet I am sure that the Broads made me what I am today: an environmental engineer who for more than thirty years has tried to push back the tide of waste threatening to wash away the natural beauties that are around us.