scent memories

Dr. Jane Goodall Loves the Smell of Skunk

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Call it the Proust effect: Memories are often triggered by smells. Scientific studies confirm that out of all the senses, smell offers the best recall. In Scent Memories, the Cut asks people about the scents they associate with different times in their lives. Next up is Dr. Jane Goodall, DBE, founder of the Jane Goodall Institute, and U.N. Messenger of Peace. The world-renowned conservationist recently co-created a limited-edition personal-care line with sustainable, earth-friendly brand Schmidt’s Naturals inspired by Goodall’s favorite floral scent, lily of the valley. Five percent of each lily of the valley purchase benefits the Jane Goodall Institute’s efforts to protect animals and the environment. The Cut caught up with Goodall to talk skunks, scotch, and extremely well-done toast.

My first scent memory is: Freshly turned earth, because I was fascinated by earthworms — I was always digging them up. Another scent that takes me right back is freshly mowed grass — I love it. The lily of the valley, which has the most beautiful scent, is also one from my childhood. We had lilies of the valley in the garden, and every time I smell it, it takes me back. It’s the same emotion that’s conjured up when I smell the first spring’s violets when the bunches are bursting.

Even the smell of chimpanzee takes me back to the forests of Gombe National Park where I did all my years of research, and the smell of rain on parched earth, when the rains would pass through for the first time. I do believe that scents are very evocative of past memories.

Love smells like: Burnt toast, which takes me back to memories of my absolutely amazing, wonderful, and supportive mother. You know, she wasn’t much of a cook, because she always burned the toast. So that’s such a nice smell — we always think of mum.

Success smells like: Probably being around your friends when some exciting news has come through, waving a glass with a little touch of Scotch whiskey in it.

A pleasant surprise smells like: Skunk. I remember driving in California, and it was first the time that I smelled it. Most people hate it, and I think I’d hate it if it was sprayed directly onto me, but the smell was wafting, and I thought it was a lovely smell. It really amazed me.

A bit later, I was visiting some friends in London, and I said, “Do you have a pet skunk?!” But it was actually marijuana — I had no idea that I was just smelling them smoking weed. [Laughs] Which is why it’s called “skunk.”

Vacation smells like: I haven’t had a vacation for at least 40 years, so I don’t know what a vacation is quite honestly! But let’s see, I did have a vacation in Namibia and Kenya with one of my first boyfriends, so maybe … sun-tan lotion?

The worst smell is: The body of something that’s been killed. We would sometimes search for chimpanzees that had disappeared, and the smell of the dead body, its life as it leaves, is absolutely awful. It’s a chimpanzee who you really knew really well and probably had a horrible death. That smell takes me back to finding some of my friends and finding their bodies in Gombe.

Sunday and Monday mornings smell like: I don’t have Mondays and Sundays; my life doesn’t have weekends. When people say “What are you doing on Sunday?,” I say “What is Sunday?” They exist on the calendar, yes, but not in my life [laughs]. I mean that!

If you could have one smell on your hands forever, what would it be?
If one were to have one smell on their hands forever, I think you’d quickly get sick of it. I suppose I’ll say lily of the valley? But I’ll need a lot of free samples then, in that case.

My home smells like: Dog. It’s always a dog. The lovely smell of dog. That, and roses in the summer, because we always have them. In France, they developed a rose called Jane’s Rose or something like that, but the scent is absolutely unbelievable, and they deliberately created this rose to have a wonderful scent.

What do you smell like? Oh, crikey! Come on, somebody in this room: what do I smell like? Alright, let me say lily of the valley. It’s not true, but I’ll say it.

Oh, they say “fresh.” I smell fresh.

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Dr. Jane Goodall Loves the Smell of Skunk