One of the pleasures of autumn is starting to use the fireplace again. A few days ago, when I lighted up a fire suddenly a wonderful aroma sipped into the room. An aroma I actually had forgotten to know so well and memories from my childhood dreamily invaded my mind.
This begs explaining.
Firewood in Finland is mainly produced from birch trees. Birch is one of most ubiquitous tree species in Finland. Its wood is dense and has excellent heating value, so it provides the most common firewood. The smoke from burning birchwood has a distinct leathery scent and one soon comes to identify this aroma with how smoke smells in Finland. Only, that I hadn’t known this smell at all before I moved to Finland.
Where I grew up, near the Black Forest in Germany, there are very few birch trees and most of them are planted, like the one we had at home in our garden. Instead there are plenty of spruce everywhere (after all they gave the Black Forest its name), so spruce was used for camp fires during my childhood. Smoke from sprucewood has a its own wonderful scent, resinous with a hint of summer in it and it supports beautifully one of the greatest pleasures of my childhood: having a book read out aloud while sitting around a camp fire during a summer night.
What had happened when I lighted the fire at home was that a log from spruce had been mixed among the firewood and spread its unique aroma unlocking these memories.
I was also reminded of another experience. Some years back I made a business trip to Manaus in Brazil. While I had been very excited about finally seeing the Amazon from the airplane, nothing had prepared me for the wonderful scent meeting me when I stepped out of the airport. It was a true bouquet of smoky aromas, refined and complex like a good wine. I never found out where the smell came from. It might have had any number of sad reasons: devastating fires in the rain forest, slash and burn agriculture or whatever. But forever in my memory the place will stay connected to this most gorgeous aroma.
Well, you’ll say, this is supposed to be a photography blog, what has this to do with photography? Ah, I say, this has everything to do with photography in that it reminds us how we perceive the world. All our perception happens within a context, or let me phrase it more strongly: in a box. That box is made up from the place and culture we grew up and live in. In Southern Germany a fire smelled like resin, in Finland like leather and on the Amazon like a symphony of scents. But in all these places people probably assume that’s just how “fire and smoke” smell. At least I did and didn’t even notice that my standard had changed when I moved from Germany to Finland. This box is made up from many perceptions we make about the world; how bright the sun is and how blue the sky. What is warm or cold. How a forest looks, or a lake. I had often wondered why in films about e.g. Japan or the U.S. the colors looked different and whether that was a technical phenomenon – until I visited these places and saw how different the colors are. Equally strong are our cultural biases on how people should be, what is polite or rude or how many abstract concepts from friendship to government look and feel like in reality.
It has been the single most rewarding experience in my life to stretch the box and to keep stretching it. Reality can become a so much richer experience if we keep widening the borders of our perception and live outside the box. But this is what photography is much about: to perceive the world outside the box. This, however, is nothing to be practiced with camera in hand only. It is an attitude towards the world and to practice it, sometimes it is enough to light the fire in the fireplace at home.