Monday, July 26, 2010

Camel Sweat and Cow Dung

For intro: Ah, the sweet smells of home.
Camel sweat and cow dung

“I fell in love with him because he smelled like horses and leather,” I told Karen. “He swung me up on his rope horse and taught me to ride. Well, the horse taught me to ride. My husband taught me to notice things along the trail. I had a tendency to ride with my head down, looking for rattlesnakes. He taught me instead to pay attention to my horse’s ears, which would twitch and point if he saw a snake along the way. When I didn’t have to worry about snakes, I learned to look out over the land. We rode for fun every evening, often after a work-day in the saddle. That horsey-leather smell still makes me wistful.”

“I grew up on horses,” Karen said. “My favorite smell is a sweaty horse, one that I’ve been running hard and he’s warm and stomping and blowing and full of energy. When I rub him down, I flick the sweat off his rump with my hand. I love that smell.”

We were driving up and down the streets of Harlem at about three miles per hour. It was Friday evening, the day before the school reunion. We were reminiscing, trying to remember just who used to live in the house on the corner, or in the house that is no longer there. We got to talking about how over the years our values have changed. And somehow that led us to talking about good smells.

“Horses,” I said. “That’s probably why I like camel-sweat tea.”

Karen raised her eyebrows. I told her the story. “In ancient times, merchants from China and India carried tea and spices to the Mediterranean countries across the mountains along the Silk Road . The tea leaves became soaked with the camels’ sweat. Every few nights the men had to dry the tea over their campfires, giving it a strong smoky flavor. My friends call it my “stinky tea”. Lapsang Souchong. It’s my favorite.”

“I like the smell of cow dung,” Karen confessed with a side-long look. “Especially when it is fresh and steamy on a cold winter day.”

“Me too. But my favorite is pig. It reminds me of raw brown sugar.”

We burst out laughing. We had both had grown up surrounded by animals. A whiff of scent triggers a host of memories.

This time of year the wild rose and milkweed blossoms and wet dirt drop me back in time to our farm on the Milk River . Once again I’m walking along the irrigation ditch, watching the dirt crumble off the bank into the swift brown water. I’m carrying a jar of iced tea and a fresh cinnamon roll to my Dad. The smells of cut grass and new-mown hay, scooped into windrows in the fields, make me feel rich, though it is neither my grass nor my fields.

When summertime heat has settled in, dust and sagebrush will have me back riding Sputnik again, moving cows to pasture, scanning the sky any the hint of a cloud, praying for rain. Although too many years have passed, memory is vivid.

On return trips to Harlem when my Dad was alive, rolling down the east slope of the mountains into Ellensburg, I could smell the feed lots, the dust and the sage. I was instantly transported to Montana , though I had hundreds of miles to go. The lure of dust and sagebrush eventually reeled me back home for good.

Whiffs from back yard barbeques reminded Karen and I that we had not yet had dinner. We headed home, still puttering along at about three or four miles per hour, remembering, forgetting, laughing and talking, reliving events from forty and fifty years ago. We heard shouts. There were nearly thirty people sitting on a front patio. I recognized a friend waving his arms. He shouted for us to join them for dinner, the barbeque was ready to put on the table. I looked around, the way one does when one is not sure who is really being motioned to. “Yes, you. Come eat with us and meet some of my friends.” We parked along the crowded street and joined the celebrants.

It was nearly dark when we left. Rain hung heavy in the air, along with another familiar night scent. “Now that’s another smell I really like,” I told Karen. “Eau de skunk.”

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
July 15, 2010


  1. Horses, YES! But.. pig and cow poop?? Ewww! I liked the story of the tea! Now.. I'll have to go and explore that one further! Our neighbor owns a Chinese restaurant.. and often brings me ooh long tea! (sp?) omg! Does it make a lovely iced sweet tea!

  2. PS.. they weren't bbq'in the skunk.. were they?? Grin!