Thursday, December 8, 2011

Smoke Is Powerful Stuff


It's December, and the night air is seasoned with the scent of burning wood smoke. It's not an unpleasant thing for most people, and it's actually the kind of thing that can really get you into the holiday spirit.

That got me to thinking about how powerful and evocative the smell of smoke can be -- how it always reminds me of places I've been, taking me back with just a whiff. Smoke is heavy with signals. It's chock full of codes and messages that speak deeply and directly to a primitive part of our brains. This will sound like an observation of the obvious, but it bears repeating: Smoke is powerful -- really powerful.

Anyone who's been camping can attest to how quickly and thoroughly campfire smoke gets into your clothes. It's the same permeating kind of scent that we're smelling in the nighttime air right now.

Smoke can also be horrible, like the kind that comes from burning plastic. Not only is this smoke toxic, but I personally associate it with chaos, the uneasy feeling that things are hurtling inexorably out of control and there's not a damn thing anyone can do about it.

Burning tire rubber, meanwhile, can be a reminder of how many bad drivers are out there. And anyone who's been to a rock concert can attest to the de rigeur cloud of marijuana smoke hanging over the proceedings, serving as a visual symbol of thousands of people having their minds simultaneously blown by the band playing onstage.

For me, smoke reminds me of other countries. In Bangkok, walk down the street and it's just a matter of time before you walk into an cloud of chili pepper smoke from street food vendors' cooking fires -- an invisible blast of capsicum that grabs your attention and sends you into a momentary panic. The pain only lasts a few seconds, and it's nowhere near as intense as being pepper sprayed, but it's still something you don't soon forget.

Smoke hanging in the still nighttime air also reminds me of India. I'll always remember landing for the first time in Delhi, very late at night, and having that be the first thing that registered in my jet-lagged brain. It made me picture the thousands of fires that were probably taking place at that time, all over the city. And with each fire there had to be some sort of interesting story, I thought to myself. Most of the fires were no doubt for cooking, since it was September and still quite warm. But the purpose of the other fires? I couldn't figure it out, and that made Delhi immediately more interesting to me.

The night smoke in the Bay Area right now is all about warmth, fireplaces and wood stoves, about huddling in front of the heat with a cup of hot cocoa, a good book, and preferably, a Golden or Labrador Retriever curled up nearby.

Humans love fireplace fires, both from a warmth perspective and because they're fun to stare at. Huddling at the fire in a cozy room is actually one of the most satisfying things we can do as humans, especially if it's pouring rain or snowing like crazy outside. I'm convinced of that -- in fact, I put it right behind eating warm chocolate cookies.

There's just something hard-wired in our brains that makes us feel happy and relaxed when we're gazing at a fire with eyes closed, feeling its warmth radiating on our corneas. I wouldn't be surprised it this feeling goes back to the earliest days of humanity, when men walked about with knuckles dragging and looking for something to eat that didn't run fast.

I'll always remember another type of smoke, too: The kind I saw in Thailand coming from chimneys of temples where dead people were being cremated. This is how it's done in Thailand, and in many other countries. The first time you see it, it's a bit unnerving -- you're looking at the smoke wafting up into the evening sky and it's hard not to think about the fact that you're witnessing the last visible part of a person.

But if you believe that there's something after this life, there's no more powerful visual metaphor for death -- and the blink of an eye that we call a life -- than this type of smoke.

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