Although our 11-year-old daughter has grown fairly squeamish about anything that smells less refined than designer soap, she nevertheless concedes an abiding affection for the scent of our backyard shed.
"I don't know why I like the smell of the shed, but I do," she confessed to me the other day.
I could understand what she was talking about, even if there's nothing in the air of our old shed that could be mistaken for Chanel No. 5.
The aroma is an odd mix of birdseed and bagged manure, sawdust and motor oil, gasoline and moss, rust and dust, ant poison and WD-40, plastic pails and pine straw, old tar paper and turpentine, with a sharp whiff of cedar from the scrap lumber beneath the roof.
It's an ambience that one either tolerates or embraces, and I count myself among the enthusiasts.
I had thought that perhaps our preference marked me and my daughter as odd ducks, but then I remembered E.B. White's fond evocation of old barn smells in a lovely passage from "Charlotte's Web":
"The barn was very large. It was very old. It smelled of hay and it smelled of manure. It smelled of the perspiration of tired horses and the wonderful sweet breath of patient cows. It often had a sort of peaceful smell – as though nothing bad could happen ever again in the world. It smelled of grain and of harness dressing and of axle grease and of rubber boots and of new rope. And whenever the cat was given a fish-head to eat, the barn would smell of fish. But mostly it smelled of hay, for there was always hay in the great loft up overhead."
What one smells inside an old barn or shed, I suppose, is the sublime perfume of possibility.
The fragrance of hardware and garden supplies is like a dream of things to be done – of flowers to plant, of fences to mend, of the day – perhaps now or next year – when an old bed frame in the cobwebbed corner will be painted and made new.
The signature scent of our old shed has seemed particularly vivid in these early days of fall, as we open the door to retrieve a shovel or grab some seeds for the finches.
In the high heat of summer, we avoided outdoor chores as much as possible, and the shed, closed tightly for days on end, has concentrated its potency like perfumed letters sealed in an attic trunk, or a sachet long hidden in a dresser drawer.
I breathe deeply as the shed door creaks behind me, and I don't think of leaving until someone reminds me that I have the first of a million autumn leaves to rake.