Growing up in Charleston, one becomes accustomed to various airborne effluents that shape in a visceral way your feel of the city. In my youth, we knew that if the wind blew from the north we would smell the paper plant in North Charleston, an aroma which must be experienced rather than described. My high school driving instructor, whose husband worked at the plant, said it smelled like bacon and eggs to her. The MeadWestVaCo plants is still there today, and still perfumes the air with what my father would have called the sweet attar of roses. In the right sun, viewed from the water or the nearby I-526 bridge, the glass front along the Ashley River reflects glints of light from wavelets in the river, putting on an almost psychedelic show. Today, the smell of the paper plant, noxious though it may be, is just a background redolence, an olfactory pedal tone to the aromatic music of the Holy City.
If the wind blew from the south, you know you would smell what we called the crab-packing plant. I cannot find historic information about such a plant in Charleston, but I think it was a more general seafood-processing operation,
Ligustrum in my new front yard
probably located somewhere in Mt. Pleasant. Today there is no such smell.
Another source of aromas in downtown Charleston of that earlier time was the smells emanating from various small stores and vendor carts selling shrimp, "wegetubbles", and so forth, counterbalanced with the sweet smells of the daffodils and jonquils sold by the women at the Four Corners of Law, usually by St. Michael's Church. White House Grocery on King Street had such exotica as kumquats, and invited you in with the aromas of fresh produce. The shrimp man would trundle through the downtown area selling his "swimps" with a lilting sing-song voice. The "wegetubble" man did the same.
The smell that prompted this entry, like Proust's madeleine, is the sweet aroma of blooming ligustrum. This densely-growing shrub is widely used for hedges in the Charleston area, and the smell of the spring blooms has etched itself indelibly on my subconscious. As a young boy, I used to use jars and catch bees in them by swooping down on the ligustrum blooms and clapping the lid on a jar that had just enclosed a bloom stalk with the bees on it. To this day, I cannot smell ligustrum without being taken back to the Old Citadel on Marion Square. Of course, there are other blooms that contribute to the spring incense in Charleston, such as my personal favorites tea olive and banana shrubs, as well as confederate and Carolina jessamine, but none is so evocative to me as the ligustrum.
But the smell I most loved in my youth is still occasionally experienced. Go outside in the early morning near the marsh, when the tide is low and the mud flats are exposed, preferably on a fall morning with a little fog, and just inhale. The smell of pluff mud is unmistakable. Pluff mud, for the uninitiated, is the gooey mud that is is exposed at low tide. Largely composed of rotting spartina grass as well as everything that dies there, it has an aroma that is distinctive and is either loved or hated, depending on one's own perception, and probably on whether you grew up with it. It is composed of a vague smell of rot, with hints of iodine, and finishes with back notes of the sea (to adopt a wine-taster's idiom). An old friend once told me that he had discovered that persons of the Northern persuasion were developmentally inferior, because they could not appreciate the subtle complexity of flavors in grits. I think something similar is true in pluff mud. The other thing about pluff mud that must be experienced is its vacuum effect. If you set foot down in it, your foot gets sucked under, frequently with the resultant loss of your shoe. When I was young, I did some work helping install pilings for a dock. They were set in the mud by using a jet of water to liquefy the mud, allowing the piling to sink down to the desired depth.When it was properly placed, you simply held it long enough for the mud, so fine-grained as to be almost colloidal, to sink around it and trap it as if in concrete.
Growing up, we were told that once you smell the pluff mud you will always come back.
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