The Smell’s the Thing

Discovering the thrill of grass and other earthy delights with a guide dog.
By Stephen Kuusisto, July 2009, Updated February 2015

Day One
If you spend as much time as I do with a dog (the only perk of blindness, eh?), you have the privilege of living a sort of dual citizenship. My yellow Labrador, Nira, and I fly together and go to classes together. We enter supermarkets and museums, amusement parks and churches (those yins and yangs of the spirit).

Now, I resolve that henceforth whenever Nira stops to sniff I too shall drop to the ground and follow suit. I hereby announce that I’m throwing off my anthropomorphic and shallow notions of “ergo sum” for a new kind of “cogito” driven by odor and fragrance and all the declensions in between.

Yes I’m going to learn about Nira’s world. I will keep you posted dear reader. And yes of course the pun is intentional. I shall hold nothing back. I will not fear gawking strangers. (Indeed the public “already” gawks at the blind guy anyway.)

I'm going to undertake graduate study with Nira who is, after all, a $45,000 dog.


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Day Two
Yesterday I announced I’d follow my dog’s lead and drop to the ground, or lean in close, to know more fully the whirligig of doggy nasturtiums and nosegays. Clearly I’m having a vague and occupational dementia—the kind of thing that happens when it’s very hot. The Iowa sun has mastered my wits. And the dog is just a dog. She does not know I’m officially crazy.

This morning Nira plunged her head and shoulders into brush that grows along a stone wall in my backyard. It was early and there was dew on the grass and drops of water fell from the disturbed leaves of the bushes. Nira’s whole body was in lockstep with her nose, her broad back trembled and the long leash whipped back and forth in my hand, all the motion driven in accord with the dog’s nostrils. There is not a word in the English language for attenuated motion driven by a dog’s nostrils. I imagine the Swedes have a word for this, something like “hundt-flenken” and I’ll have to look it up at some point. If the Swedes have such a word it will likely prove to be ancient. All the important words are ancient.

So, Nira was really in there and “working it,” as they say at the gymnasium. Her nose was alive and wide open like the soul of a Sufi dancer. She was receiving news of something bosky and yet plangent—a thing both rich and low, a thing dark and yet still capable of flight. I could feel the intelligence of Nira’s nose deep in my hands. “The thing” behind the wall of sylvan camouflage was alive and breathing. Its exhalations were going straight into the dog. The dog was zithing like a wire. “God Almighty,” I thought. “Now I’m going to have to go down on all fours and scent this trapped but living fragrance for myself.”

It’s not so easy to muscle your way into the shrubs alongside a quivering dog but I did it. I was suddenly at the heart of a Mexican standoff under the folds and spills of the elderberry and lilac bushes. I knew I had to be fast. Dogs don’t think twice about scenting living things. This wasn’t a formal affair with multiple forks and knives: I had to plunge and sniff. I was aware that my ass was sticking out of the leaves. My brain was oddly fast and slow. I was simultaneously throwing my blind, naked face into the dank unknown while worrying that the neighbors might see my “plumber’s crack” pointing from a wall of greenery. I tried for just a second to concentrate on my shorts. Were they up? Yes, they were up. No plumber’s crack. The only thing my neighbors could see (supposing they were positioned in accord) would be my khaki shorts shining like a bleached sail far away on the sea.

I had to go faster. Forget my shorts. Nira was snuffling like a torn accordion. The thing was right in front of me. I inhaled and tried to ignore the scratching sounds. The thing was at the wall. It smelled like a wet haystack. It smelled like a moldy rug. It smelled like leaves in a dead fountain. That’s when it began to dawn on me. Yes friend, the dawning was starting to happen. It was moving from my nose to the richly folded and tiny nautilus of my brain’s odor center. The odor brain knew what was going on but the cross circuits from the scent district to the conning tower were out of shape. Yes, the dawning was taking too long. Wet haystack, clogged aqueduct—what “was” that scrabbling thing?  All the important words are ancient.

It so happens I know the Old English word for “the thing” that Nira and I were smelling. You can look it up in the Oxford English Dictionary if you wish. The word is out of use these days.

Yes, my friend, we (man and dog) were smelling a “fud”—a rabbit’s rectum.

Getting out of the bushes was harder than getting in. Nira didn’t help. She was undergoing some kind of transfiguration and I left her to it.

I staggered to my feet. My Neanderthal Man’s nose was getting reacquainted with the post-modern language center.

I owe it all to my dog.

I shall take thought for this canine-centric exercise anon.

Day Three
Kind friends have written to check my sanity. Bill points out that his Labrador has an affection for cat feces—a matter that is presumably tied to the olfactory predilections of canines. My pal “Bibliochef” points out the sheer improbability of the word “fud” but I swear that’s what we were smelling yesterday and I further swear that that’s the word for the hindmost netherpart of a rabbit. I am, of course, a fool. But to further split the point, fools can be sane. Shakespeare’s fools are invariably the sanest people on stage. So in truth I must declare (as if we were in a court of law) that I knew full well what I was doing when I proclaimed I would follow my dogs nose wherever it may point. The thing is: Fools can and “do” take vacations. Again, if you look to Shakespeare you’ll notice that the fools never get run through with poisoned swords or undergo a serious splitting from nave to chaps. Nope. Your true fool knows when to get the heck out of Dunsinane.

Accordingly, I let Nira nose her nose this morning and I kept to the upright, stolid, Lutheran posture that my Finnish grandmother would have approved. When Nira checked out the jetsam and flotsam of the roadside I thought of Cotton Mather. I thought of Duns Scotus. I kept a fierce detachment. I held my nose aloft like the late William F. Buckley interrogating a Liberal. I was just another dog walker moving slowly among the red winged blackbirds and the yellow finches.

If I had a moralistic streak I would say something about the wisdom of letting fuds hide in the buds. But the fool in me knows better. Life is life wherever you find it.

Stephen Kuusisto teaches nonfiction writing at the University of Iowa. He is the author of Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening and of Planet of the Blind, a New York Times Notable Book and Don't Interrupt: A Playful Take on the Art of Conversation. His latest book, Have Dog, Will Travel, was published in 2018.