Alex Palmer's Natural History Notes and Thoughts

Thoughts and reflections on various social and environmental issues, as well as naturalist observations from the great outdoors.

Rotting leaves

For the first 18 years of my life I grew up in the east suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio.  Everyday I would see sights and sounds that were typical of the hilly east ‘burbs of Cleveland.  The wildlife habitat there was typically an oak-hickory or a beech-maple forest, typical of the Western Allegheny foothills, and the creek and river bottoms would be littered with sycamore trees and silver maples.

When I was 18, I moved to Ashland, Wisconsin, along the chilly south shore of Lake Superior.  The sights and smells were, of course, different here, and as I spent more time I became familiar with them.  The wildlife habitat there was typically a conifer dominated area, with lots of balsam fir and spruce trees, and a musky but sweet smell in the air.

This past year, I am now residing in Western Pennsylvania in the Allegheny Mountains.  I’ve stopped noticing the sights and sounds, and I already know everything I need to know about the wildlife habitat.

A few days ago I decided to visit my old stomping grounds in Cleveland.  I decided to go for a quick walk on one of the trails near a nature center I grew up around.  The end of the summer had been dry, and the Sycamores (Platanus occidentalis) were already shedding their leaves.  My feet crunched over the leaves, and this is when I stopped dead in my tracks.

I could smell the sweet fragrance of rotting sycamore leaves.  But these were not just any old sycamore leaves.  That smell that they were making was unique to me.  I have smelled that smell growing up here dozens of times, and I have ONLY smelled that here where I grew up.

Is it possible that this observation of mine – the fact that the smell from decay of sycamore leaves is different in this location than elsewhere – something I made up?  Or is there really some weight to what I am experiencing?

I am a “man of science” for lack of a better term.  Is there scientific relevance for why I recognized this sensation?  Does it matter, or is the answer in this case more important than the question of how or why?

I walked back to my car and drove away.


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