We can read about how sensory experiences in landscapes work on our minds by exploring the latest neuroscience, but there’s no replacement for just going out an experiencing a place. “Our senses snap us back to the here and now,” said D. Fairchild Ruggles, a professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, at a conference on sound and scent in the garden at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C. One question, though, is: how can we use our senses in a place that no longer exists? This was the topic of discussion over a few days, as landscape historians explored the limits of words and pictures when describing landscapes of the past.
Ruggles said “vision has a privileged place in architectural history.” This is because too often architectural history is dedicated to “the pursuit of permanence.” In landscape architecture history, the most common visual is the site plan or aerial view. “But this visual representation doesn’t capture the sound or scent of the place.”
For centuries, Arab poets discussed the sensory experience of the garden. Unfortunately, today, “smells are elusive. Other than saying something is fragrant, what can we say? We compare it to something else. Something smells like… We have no sophisticated vocabulary.”
John Dixon Hunt, a landscape historian at the University of Pennsylvania, picked up the discussion, saying essentially that words and images fail us when we are trying to evoke the sound and smell of a place. “We can’t explain one person’s experiences to another. They are so subjective.” He said two people may walk through a landscape and have a “shared experience but will have different articulations, using different words, just as two painters viewing the same scene will paint it differently. Everyone has their own take. We are on our own in life.”
Given words fail, the experience of being in a historic place is lost. “We have to be depressed looking at the past because we can’t get to it. Modern landscape architects can only try to impart back or transpose things backwards.”
Still, Hunt called for a greater effort to communicate the experience of being in a place, at least in landscape and garden writing today. He complained that writers and critics focus too much on the form of a space than the experience of being there. “We must evade simple reliance on architectural forms. Movement determines mood. The mood is lost when we just look at forms.”
This challenge is not lost on the poor writers who must explain what a place sounds and smells like. “How do you capture the sound of water?” He said even Shakespeare, who described a garden as “deft of sound and scent,” really told his readers, “one must go there to enjoy.”
Hunt described a number of historic and contemporary works of landscape architecture that highlight scent. For example, the lavender fields of France “assault the senses.” The scent garden at the University of Toronto, with its aromatic pavilions, has significant impact because of its “limited focus.” There, the “blind can smell and touch.”
As to whether the impact of a sound or scent can be measured, Hunt wondered whether some things in life are “immeasurable,” simply beyond our reach. He argued that may be a good thing: “it’s terribly important to have something in one’s life that you can’t grasp.”
Has anyone researched other languages to see if they have words to better describe sensory experiences?