Jasmine and Asphalt A city scented with a season

Text: Rosalind Thomas

It’s subtle in Sydney but did you hear that click? Spring’s kicked in, and we watch the city wake up from winter. On the street, coils of jasmine, wrapped around wrought iron fences, start to bud.

The warmth of winter’s bright sun suddenly lingers into evening. It’s a languid time, and it never lasts long. Its scent, to me, is that of narcissus, the strange flower family that includes tiny waxy jonquils, bulbous daffodils, those sticky-stemmed paperwhites, $5 a bunch at the markets on Saturday.

They always look too cheerful to be true – just like those first few balmy evenings of the year, when you can’t believe your luck to be bare skinned. You can smell the narcissus coming, their scent is hypnotizing, intensely warm and green. And although there’s also something more peculiar lurking beneath, the waves of nostalgia that hits with their brief appearance makes them irresistible.

You grab a bunch or two.

It’s easy to own the scary-sweet smell for a day or two, but it’s a notoriously difficult note for perfumers to capture. There’s almost something carnal in that scent and back on the street, jasmine’s opening unfolds with an unnerving edge too.

It’s indole that does it, the chemical come-hither call of blossom yearning for pollination, sexy but also slightly earthy, even dirty. It mingles with another street scent that’s more the opposite: dirty but somehow reassuringly clean in its fragrance. As the earth warms and the dreaded damp of dark terrace houses retreats, the scent of man-made stone emerges.

Photography by Laura Reid

Unlike that snowdrop peeking out from a fenced church garden, have you ever stopped to inhale the smell of stone? Sweet steaming-hot asphalt laid and re-laid in a patchwork of repairs; the necessary hop into the gutter to avoid the gaping holes left by council workers on their lunch breaks. Beside me again as I regain the pavement, the softly radiating concrete of office buildings, dry and warm and scented paradoxically like sandalwood, worthy of a perfume. (Comme des Garçons agrees – their latest release is a tribute to the grey matter)

Walking towards Oxford Street, I find shelter from the sudden wind and press against one of those thick industrial slabs. It’s the side of St Vincent’s Hospital, now imbued with warmth. That stillness in the air entices stillness in me. Weeks ago, concrete turned a brutal cold shoulder – but today, suddenly, it’s a suntrap and I linger: the sweet stone and I are hunting partners.

These traps are set everywhere. By ocean pools, the clear icy water creates a marine accord of ozone and algae so pure without its summer overtones of sun cream. Outside the pub, smokers emerge from hibernation with spring’s blossom and I take a clandestine breath of second-hand cigarette, the ex-addict’s guilty pleasure, almost exotic now.

And tucked behind the grandstand of the local oval is a favourite spot to stop for spring’s best smell. There’s a guy cutting the grass with a petrol-powered ride-on mower. The ground is wet and he’s probably cutting too short. Did you know that cut grass smell is a distress call from each broken blade? The scent of compounds rushing to provide first aid, seal wounds and offer defence. Scientists call the chemicals ‘volatile’ and actually they’re mostly alcohols. Perhaps it’s possible to get drunk on that scent, the scent of spring. A few inhales might get you there. Breathe deep.


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