THE FAIRIES IN THE GARDEN — smell, memory, and inner child sanctuaries
When I was little, my mum would take my brother and me to visit our grandparents, who lived several hours away in Nottinghamshire, near the legendary Sherwood Forest. I loved these trips for many reasons: my grandparents’ home was a spacious sanctuary of love for their many children and grandchildren; they had a large garden where we would spend hours playing in the summer and a cupboard full of toys for the more frequent rainy days; my grandfather — known to us as Bamps — would take us on long walks in the forest with his dog, where we played Robin Hood with his homemade bows and arrows; and there were fairies in the garden (I saw them from my window one night, but I could tell no one believed me).
One of my favorite places at their house was Gran’s greenhouse, which was full of tomato plants. There might have been other plants in there, too, but the only ones that stand out in my memory now are the tomatoes — I always did have a one-track mind when it comes to food. I used to sneak in there when I thought no one was looking and help myself to the sweet, ripe, juicy treats straight off the plant. To this day, the scent of a freshly picked tomato is a personal time machine that sends me straight back to those stolen moments of tomato thievery.
My other favorite place was Bamps’ workshop, which was in the garage. I watched in awe and wonder as he crafted objects from pieces of wood — among other things, birdhouses, the aforementioned bows and arrows, and a flower press that I still treasure and use over 30 years later. Sometimes I still lift it to my nose, and in my mind, the smell of the wood mingles with the lingering scents of petrol and sawdust, and once again, I’m five years old, watching Bamps work the wood with his back to me. It’s the smell of masculine love in its purest form, and I feel safe, reassured, comforted.
When you ask people about smells, almost everyone mentions their childhood. Smells like freshly baked bread or cookies are often conferred to maternal figures such as mothers, grandmothers, and aunts, and accompanied by memories of special occasions such as holidays or birthdays. The smells of cologne, wood, or engine oil are often conflated with fathers, uncles, and grandfathers.
There’s solid science behind this. In the womb, smell is the only fully-developed sense. Newborn babies have poor eyesight and recognize their parents mainly through smell. The first smells we become familiar with are the scent of warm skin and the sweet, vanilla-ish smell of breast milk.
These universal smells then give way to the unique scents that make up each individual’s experience. To me, the green, chlorophyll-y smell of the English countryside is the smell of childhood, but to those who grew up in the city, it could be the smell of car exhaust, a launderette, or a local takeaway restaurant. Smell remains the strongest of the five senses until around the age of 10, when sight takes over, which is probably why it plays such a prominent role in shaping our childhood memories.
The reason smell and memory are so closely linked is to do with the anatomy of the brain. The olfactory bulb is situated close to the limbic system, the ancient part of the brain responsible for emotion and memory. Smells reach the limbic system quickly, helping us to form strong links between memories and smells.
Then there’s the way we experience smell. Unlike sight and sound, which are immediate, smell seeps into our bodies gradually, permeating every cell, creating a cascading effect as it floods your brain with memories so vivid it’s like you’re watching a movie of your life. A really potent smell is practically a hallucinogen. And although only around 4% of the population are synesthetes, most people do, in fact, smell in color, according to olfactory branding expert Dawn Goldworm. She says that when people smell citrus, they think of colors such as yellow, green, and orange, while earthy vetiver produces images of brown and green.
The paradox of childhood is that while it’s one of the happiest times for many, it’s also when trauma imprints itself on our brains for the rest of our lives. As a coping mechanism, we reject and banish certain parts of ourselves, separating them from the whole and creating what’s known in Jungian psychology as the shadow self. Healing your shadow means reintegrating those banished parts of yourself through self-acceptance and self-compassion. Inner child work is, therefore, an integral part of the process.
My Google search into smell and inner child healing didn’t return much in the way of results.
However, I believe smell can be used as a powerful tool for inner child work. Smell already plays a role in many spiritual practices; it can help to focus the mind and even induce altered states of consciousness. The first step of inner child healing is to reconnect with your inner child, so you can start integrating those parts of you that have become separated.
Try combining childhood smells — such as baking cookies, your mom’s perfume, or fresh cut grass — with looking at pictures of yourself as a child. Once you feel connected, ask your inner child what they need. It could be ice cream, dancing to your favorite childhood song, a hug, or even watching a Disney movie — whatever it is, go and do that thing right away.
Inner child healing is a lifelong process, and the smells associated with childhood can be a powerful ally — particularly for those who struggle to connect to their inner child. There’s nothing quite as evocative as a smell to transport you back to the age of innocence.
Once you incorporate smell into your healing journey, it becomes a tool that you can access anytime, anywhere to support you. In my case, I may never be able to prove the existence of the fairies in my grandparents’ garden, but I can always connect to my inner child by inhaling extra deep whenever I pass a ripening tomato plant.
Victoria Peel-Yates is one of our Pinrose MUSES. She writes about wellness, mental health and all the wonderful things we learn as we traverse humanity together. Keen to be a Muse?