Scent Trail

Amelia Winger-Bearskin
4 min readFeb 22, 2024

I’d like to share a story that begins among the stars and celestial bodies and comes all the way down to germs and dirt:

an abstract image of a perfume bottle
a still from “Scent Opera” a short film by Amelia Winger-Bearskin

In 2020, I was on a call with a scientist helping a giant multimedia corporation tell stories about ‘colonizing Mars.’ (The host of the Zoom call wanted to convince the man that ‘colonizing’ wasn’t cool anymore, and maybe I was invited for a ‘fresh take’.) The scientist was already on the defensive when I showed up in the Zoom window. He didn’t see anything wrong with the term ‘colonizer’ — why can’t we colonize? — and seemed to feel a bit attacked. Realizing I’d entered the chat at an incredibly ‘awkward turtle’ moment, as my son would say, I said flatly: “It doesn’t sound very cool to go to your Mars colony anyways. Why would anyone go if they can’t take their dogs?”

He blinked a few times on the Zoom camera and said, “No, NO! You don’t understand. We need animals, plants, spores, our pets. Our microbiome would die within two years if we didn’t have the bacteria which has a life cycle right there in your dog next to you.”

I looked at my dog next to me. He looked back at me. I gave him a treat — he’s a good one.

I admit the scientist’s response caught me by surprise. The reasoning is flawless: we absolutely will die without other species, and the microbiomes they bring with them. But it’s not so much that we will die without them — we are them. Is it more accurate to say that we all “have” biomes inside of us, or that ,we are biomes (i.e.: trillions of microorganisms, outnumbering our own cells by a ratio of ten to one)?

It’s a philosophical question (let’s call it Theseus’ Shit) but it has very practical implications for our everyday lives. That’s because we have developed a powerful tool for quickly and definitively identifying imbalances or anomalies involving the vastly complex biological systems of which we are a part: our sense of smell.

Biomes have a smell. They have many smells, strong smells, rich smells, overpowering smells, made even stronger by their unstoppable presence. Smell explains why you fall in love when someone smells like a tree. It is how I know the amazing scent my rescue mutt has in the morning. Scent is destiny. The way we become infatuated with another human because of their smell, usually is because of their human pheromones, though sometimes can be because they smell like other parts of nature that we love.

“What magnificent instruments of observation we possess in our senses!” said Nietzsche. “This nose, for example, of which no philosopher has yet spoken of with reverence and gratitude.” And elsewhere he proclaimed: “my genius lies in my nostrils.” My dog knows this intuitively.

Many creatures have smelling abilities far in excess of our own. Elephants can smell underground water sources from a dozen miles away. Bears will invite themselves to your campfire or picnic, or (as my friends in Tahoe tell me) break into your garage for the right snack. And, of course, dogs too have many well-documented feats of sniffing (such as the woman whose dog discovered her cancer; and saved her life.)

a still from “Scent Opera” a short film by Amelia Winger-Bearskin

It turns out that not only are we part of the same biometric network as the animals and plants that live around us, when it comes to evaluating the health of the network, we’re not even one of its most perceptive noses/nodes!

The sense of smell is connected to another classic of dorm-room philosophy: when I smell ambergris or wet dog, how can we be sure it is the same ambergris or wet dog that you smell? Many people like to pose this question about color (“How do I know my “red” is the same as your “red”?) but I like to consider it as applied to smell. That’s because judgment is of the schnoz — the olfactory system is where the real work of moral reasoning gets done. When we say “there’s no accounting for taste (which any scientist will tell you is ~80% smell anyway)” what we mean is: “there are powerful preferences, desires, and fears that inform our decisions to an outsized degree, and which are unaccountable to reason, and simply not up for debate.” I would really like to know why gorgonzola makes some salivate and others gag, but there’s no answer for that. Scent begins where language ends.

Should we colonize Mars? I don’t know. Probably not. All I can tell you: if it doesn’t smell right, don’t go.

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Amelia Winger-Bearskin

Banks Endowed Chair AI and the Arts, Digital Worlds Institute, University of Florida | studioamelia.com