The Smell of Dawn


Senses of Dawn

This is the third installment of a five-part series on the senses of dawn. Each piece (touch, sound, smell, taste, sight) will run at daybreak (EST) this week. 

Original illustration by Jackson Joyce

Charlie Stackhouse: early bird. Andrew Cinnamon: night owl. The two men, founders of the creative agency Cinnamon Projects, spent a year collecting images—drawings and photographs from books and online—and assigned each image a set of tags according to composition, emotional response, and time. When they filtered the results according to time of day, they found the patterns and themes that presented themselves were particularly compelling. So they designed a series of scents, perfumes and incense, that are “chaptered by the hour.” The perfumes are based on the hours of 8 A.M., 10 A.M., 2 P.M., 9 P.M., and 11 P.M.

What does 11 P.M. smell like? Like white, thick-petaled flowers growing on vines, blooming at night. They climb up the gutter of a stone house that you pass on a night walk and the flowers glow like the moon glows and give off a moist smell, something like fur coats, an adult smell from the mind of a child. According to their description, it’s “deep, sophisticated, mystifying” with “amber, clove, carnation, patchouli.”

And 8 A.M.? A shampoo for children, soft and sudsy, with hints of just-laundered beach towels dried on the line, lollipops, and innocence. A bathed child, a summer morning, a porch-door slam, sunscreen, lemonade, bare feet, honeysuckle. Not just a fresh day, a fresh life. According to them: “golden, opulent, alluring,” with “neroli, orris, sandalwood, vanilla.”

And 2 P.M.? It is not among my favorite hours of the day. It’s the hour that ushers in the afternoon slump when I know the good work of the day is behind me. Of the perfume set though, it is my favorite. It is an athletic smell, the salty musk of secret places, like you’ve sweat just a little bit. Less floral and more woodsy, with light lacing through pine needles, it’s the vigorous, dense smell of walking down a path in the forest and sensing the afternoon might hold a beer and sex, and right now, the pine-pitch stickiness of sap. A sensual smell that says you’re doing it, you’ve done it, you’re alive in the woods. Less like perfume and more like all your smells combined. In truth, the perfume altered my perception of the hour. According to them, 2 P.M. is “raw, sensual, grounding” with “cypress, black pepper, driftwood, and vetiver.”

The closest Cinnamon Projects gets to dawn is an incense for 7 A.M. (“cosmic, ethereal, meditative”; “black tea, clay, driftwood, marigold”). The incense, to my nose, is hard to detangle; all incense smells like high school.

What would dawn smell like? What perfume would capture those seven minutes, or eleven minutes, in between night and day? Let’s do what Stackhouse and Cinnamon did, and start with some images.

Return of the Sun by Odd Nerdrum. Three brawny, thick-limbed women lean against a stone balcony, facing the sky and the sun. Tan, peach, and purple colors. The clouds sweep and bend. One can feel the press of the girls’ flesh against each other. Something warm, eager, ready, embracing here. So one smells: kneaded bread, yeast, peach pit, burnt sugar, the brothy smell of sleep and flannel.

Come Away from Her by Kiki Smith. A yellow-haired girl sits on a mound in a dress. A cloud of large birds, black like smoke or night or shadow, some have hind legs with paws—wolves or cats, who knows—fly away from her. The image is based on a drawing by Lewis Carroll. There’s a sense of being left, fled from, deposited somewhere alone and left to see what happens next, an end and a beginning. So one smells: black licorice, nickels, feathers, sage, dried grass as in nests, shoreline, potential.

Hayhook by Sally Mann. A girl dangles naked from a hook hung from a porch ceiling. She is framed against an open door that leads to darkness. There are people on the porch, a long-legged man, a women reading, another, younger girl, also naked, with something in her mouth. The hanging girl does not have breasts but she will soon. She puts out her own light. She is a cusping moon. She hangs in between this world and another, in between childhood and womanhood, between dark and light, night and day, life and death. Her head is back; one cannot see her face. She is almost meat. And one can almost hear the light thud when she lets go, surrenders herself to gravity, and her weight lands on the wood floor of the porch. So one smells: electricity, menstrual blood.

What does dawn smell like? Peach pit, licorice, bread, nests, sparks, blood. What does dawn smell like? Anticipation.

There is a dispute about what place in the United States sees the first moment of sunrise. It depends on the time of year and complicated calculations about how light bends. Cadillac Mountain in Maine claims it; so does Siasconset on the eastern edge of Nantucket Island. I walked to the beach there in the dark one September morning. I sat in the sand, ready to see the glowing apricot dome peak over the horizon line, rays spearing themselves across the waves. I sat in the damp sand and waited.

Smell, like dawn, exists in the past and in the future. What’s come before, what’s coming next. Marcel Proust and neuroscientists both know: smell is the sense most linked with memory. A scent in the air deposits one back into the hallways of one’s elementary school, to a street corner in a foreign city, the doorway of one’s childhood kitchen: onions in oil on the pan, the vanilla blanket of a birthday cake, soup on a snow day. Smell makes of us time travelers.

We travel back. We travel forward. Smell is the most anticipatory sense. One smells the coffee on the counter before one takes the mug to the mouth. One smells the rotting mouse below the fridge before one sees it. One smells rain on warm pavement before one feels the drops. We’re blasted with pheromonal force before we know what it is we’re registering. And dawn, likewise, is the most anticipatory moment. Is it happening? Did I miss it?

On the beach, the wind blew at me, pressed against my face and chest; the sky was low. The air smelled metallic, ionized. Why? Don’t tell me; it’s not yet time for words. Then: a faded pink glow. A skirt of pink light. It’s coming, it’s coming. A radiant swell. It’s about to happen. Oh god. It’s all happening, now, I thought, there on the sand, not wanting to blink. Here it comes, the sun is coming. “Not knowing when the dawn will come / I open every door,” wrote Emily Dickinson. A reminder: ready yourself, open every way in. It’s not just the start of some new day, it’s the unfolding of everything. Light, love, art, the next idea that illuminates your mind and steers you some new way. Open all the doors! Is it happening? Will it happen today? What joy there is in never being sure. “We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake,” Thoreau urges us, echoing Ms. Dickinson, “by an infinite expectation of the dawn.”

On the beach, the waves kept coming toward me. The light kept coming toward me. The forces we can’t see guide us anyway. There is no stopping the waves, the passing time, the daily emergence of the light. At dawn, more than any other moment, we’re witness to earth’s turning. It seems impossible, to be able to watch the movement of the earth, but at dawn you can see how fast it happens. We’re hurtling.

The pink glow faded. A thickness of purple-gray clouds grew so dense it nearly eclipsed the coming light. Facts on the computer had told me sunrise was at 6:13 A.M. I did not want to look at my watch. I knew there were still a few more minutes. The air smelled like rust and light. Colors were coming back into the world. And then, there on a beach on the eastern edge of an island, it was day. The smell of metal disappeared, and the air smelled only of the ocean, salty and damp. No trumpet blast. It had happened. I didn’t know exactly when. A single seal raised its head from the waves.

I had thought I’d see the sun come bouncing up over the horizon line like a ball, and yet I felt no disappointment. I didn’t feel I’d missed anything. I was simply quiet. I would walk back to the house on paths lined with goldenrod and honeysuckle. Breakfast, coffee. I could almost taste it.


Nina MacLaughlin is a writer and carpenter in Cambridge, Massachusetts.