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Experiencing odor

Once upon a time the world was full of fragrance, and fragrance was valued. The powerful had their rose gardens and their personal perfumers, while the poor made do with easier flowers and the scents of the world.

Not all smells were equally wonderful, as everyone acknowledged, but the roles of sewage, vomits, and skunks were treated as philosophical discussions complicated by the challenges of the widely-recognized use of musk in perfume and the gentler smells of pastures and barns.

The Perfumers' Guild had great power, dispensing fragrance to all once a week while their most devoted adherents gathered to focus exclusively on producing the strongest and best smells.

There were a few people who said they couldn't smell the difference, but no one trusted them. There were also a few very sad people who were surrounded by wonderful fragrances but couldn't detect them, and suffered through a strange life of hiding their nasal dysfunction.

And, of course, there were a few people who overdosed, losing themselves completely in the fragrances and leaving behind the concerns of the world. There were heresies - the Cult of the Free Odor, which claimed that all the world had a smell, and that all the world should enjoy smells.

Over time, the abuses of the Perfumers' Guild and even dissension among the Perfumers over how best to approach the difficult subject of 'fragrance' grew doubts among the people. Those who hadn't had a great sense of smell came out and said so. Allergies were no longer a subject of scorn, and many even turned to habits - notably tobacco - that dulled their sense of smell.

Smells were difficult to explain. Opponents leaped on the common challenges of explaining exactly what a smell was like to another person, on subtleties that different people, even experts, might interpret differently. Sides formed, with different groups accusing each other of misinterpreting the meaning or even the value of smell.

Centuries of warfare, whole populations moving on the basis of fragrance, and what seemed like infinite argument finally subsided. There were still perfumers, still people gardening to produce their own fragrances and even essential oils, and a large group of people who considered fragrances useful medicinally.

There were still tensions, though. The "live and let live" attitudes were hard to maintain when proposals for adding congestants and histamines to public water supplies came up. Burning incense in public schools leds to lawsuits, and a series of broken bottles of essential oils across several cities led to riots.

My parents' families were fond of fragrance, but I grew up in a house that was free of it. We tried to preserve the best of what we'd learned, but without the constant smells and accompanying bells.

I, of course, found my way back into the rose garden. A quiet rose garden, but one full of fragrance I found difficult to explain to my family and friends.