Scent of a Summer Day | JIM FURLONG

A few years ago, I wrote about the wonderful smells that were very much part of a St. John’s summer. For reasons I don’t quite understand it is the months of summer that are the great memory triggers rather than those of the grim winter. Where I grew up, in the heart of the west end, the deep and warm smell of the Bennett Brewery was part of a rainy summer day. That smell mixed well with the scent of baking bread from the nearby Mammy’s Bakery, or even the smaller Moore’s Bakery up on Hamilton Avenue. The rain encouraged all of that but I don’t understand the “science” of it.

We had several lilac trees in our back garden as did the house next door. It was in the rain that the exotic smell of lilacs in bloom seemed to jump out and fill the neighbourhood in the early days of a St. John’s summer.

It was all smells in the west end. You could smell the fruit stores on New Gower Street from a block away. There were lots of them. There was Kenny’s, Lars and a lot more. Apple and orange smells all over the place but also the rare and strange fruits from faraway lands – watermelon, plums, bananas, coconuts and other odd fruits that came from places we may never have even heard of. In recent years I have come to suspect that the salt fish trade from Newfoundland in southern climes had something to do with that and the importation of rum.

There was, however, a whole other world of smells for me, and it was outside St. John’s and down the Southern Shore. We lived in Bay Bulls and in Witless Bay in summer and our cousin, Father John Cotter, was parish priest in Ferryland. My brother John and I spent our summers immersed in the deep smells of outport life. There was the smell of fish down at the wharves and at the plant.

I was busy. I went to the cod traps in Bay Bulls with the Gatherall family and in Witless Bay I worked at O’Brien’s fish plant. In the middle of all that, as a young man in the day days of salt cod, I helped spread fish on the flakes to dry and help gather it and stack it when the weather threatened. That was a summer smell all its own. Capelin were part of it. Some were processed but some were caught and thrown in the soil to rot and help the potatoes, carrots and turnips along in the difficult east coast soil.

One summer I worked at reducing cod liver in a little building near the main Witless Bay plant. I worked with a man named Tommy Joe. Lots of people had two names in Witless Bay. Pad-Will, Tommy-Joe, etc. It was warm and steamy, and the liver was brought over from the main plant in a hand barrow and boiled and then placed in canvas bags and weighted down to squeeze the oil out of them. The smell of the cooking cod liver oil stays with me to this day. Further down the harbour was the meal plant. That was a separate facility where feed for animals was made from fish offal. When the meal plant was “cooking” you could smell it all over the harbour. A lot of people didn’t like it, but I did. It was part of my summer.

The smell that was most dominant in Witless Bay and Bay Bulls, and all over Newfoundland, was the Atlantic Ocean. It is a distinct pungent odour that is part salt water and part kelp and part fish. It was all part of a thousand other smells that are very much the smell of Newfoundland and Labrador. I often tell my wife I’m going down to “the landwash” and when she asks why I tell her that I want to smell the Atlantic. She doesn’t understand but some of you will.

Life has been filled with smells in summer. There were city smells and outport smells and they are an important part of who we are in our Newfoundland and Labrador.