I love creosote. Not just the smell, which many people, if not most, find hard enough to believe, but the feel of it as well: the tacky frictional darkness under the fingertips. I love the smell of it as I roam the lumberyard, search out the scent, get closer and closer to a board with just enough of it to get my hands on, my nose close to sticky yellow.
The feel of creosote is harder and harder to find. The smell, though, is not so difficult to come by. On the occasions my wife will drag me to a big-box home improvement store, for it is she who likes the gadgets and tools, not me, I will wander to and stall in the lumber area casting for whiffs of it. If there is an exterior lumberyard, all the better because the outside temperatures tend to drive the creosote to the surface and, if not the creosote entirely, the scent, certainly.
This has been my habit as long as I know. I remember if from Sunday station wagon lumber drives with my father as he would choose boards, plywood, two by fours for whatever project was next on his list. Back then there was more creosote to smell as it was used much more than today, much less discriminately. It was everywhere, oozing from the wood, down the stacks, to the ground. The lumberyards stank of it if I could to, it was heavenly.
One might think these memories are why I love then scent so. Association of a smell with a pleasant memory. True, smell is our deepest, most primal sense, nestled far within the limbic system, the part of the brain we share with lizards. Scent will bring an emotional response more easily and to memories more distant, more faint, than any other sense and it can do so even if the memory itself is lost. The emotional content is still there and scent will bring it back.
But it cannot be so with creosote. These forays to the lumberyards would be followed by build-time where I would be conscripted to help measure, which I never did well, cut, where the sound of the saw would have me doing as I do today – picturing myself falling on a whirring blade, losing bits of my body. Later, as he worked through the night, I, tired, would never hold the light quite right, shine it in the right place. The hammer and power tools would have me holding my ears. Home projects often ended in violence. None of this comes back as pleasant. I never looked forward to trips to the lumberyard. Except, of course, for the creosote.
My brain likes the smell. I like it. Love it. Always did. And that attraction to the scent must, somehow, be separate from those experiences.
When I lived in Gainesville we had an apartment near a wood treatment plant. Koppers would take lumber and pressure treat for exterior use, in playgrounds, in buildings, for gardens. In Gainesville they made utility poles and marine pilings. This involved copper and arsenic. This involved creosote.
Never mind the ninety-four acres of Cabot/Koppers is one of the top superfund sites in the United States. Never mind one could grow a garden in the area but was strongly suggested to not eat the produce one grew there. I could smell the creosote so it was all fine.
Still, today, if there is a roof being tarred, I will linger. If there is a road being resurfaced, I will open the windows of the car or raise the visor of my helmet and breath deeply. Still.
I also like camphor.
September 13, 2008 at 2:20 PM
I never knew creosote was something manufactured. All I knew of it was the stuff left in the chimney after a season’s fireplace use which, if not cleaned, would cause chimney fires. In Vermont my apartment was heated with a wood stove, and I had to have it cleaned religiously or my world would disappear in flames.No, I lied. I also know of Mr. Creosote, the gargantuan fellow in Monty Python and the Meaning of Life who, after a particularly heavy meal, ate a single wafer more, with disastrous results.
September 16, 2008 at 10:37 AM
Oh, I love that you love creosote. This is a lovely, evocative post.