Welcome to the Smelliest Time of Year

I love fall. It’s my favorite season. And I know what I’m talking about: I grew up in New England and live in Upstate New York, which makes me a bona fide autumnal expert. It is the most glorious time of the year around these parts. It’s also, unfortunately, the most intensely scented.

I’m not talking about the natural scents of sweet ripe apples waiting to be picked or smoky leaves crunching underfoot. I’m talking about the olfactory assault of artificial fragrance that fills pretty much every public space from September through November.

Normally I avoid stores that specialize in home fragrance or perfumed lotions, but this time of year, the scents spill over their normal boundaries and I have to steer clear of entire wings of the mall. Craft stores display fragranced candles and incense at the front end; bookstores sell autumn potpourri on racks near the checkout. Even my local grocery store has a display of seasonally scented wreaths by the entrance. And the most pervasive seasonal scent of all is Pumpkin Spice.

Pumpkin Spice scent — there’s no escaping it, no box I can click to opt out. The scent is so powerful that it will not be contained within a bath and beauty store, much less the candle aisle in Target. It wafts and curls outward, seeping through cracks, contaminating sidewalks and the aisles of the mall. Such is the insidious power of Pumpkin Spice.

I know, I know: I’m being such a buzz-kill. Who am I to disparage this benign seasonal pleasure? The thing is, it’s not benign — not to folks like me who are sensitive to strong smells. Air fresheners, perfume and cologne make me wheeze; I can’t even use dryer sheets without breaking out in hives. Strong smells — particularly artificial fragrances — can trigger an asthma attack. Pumpkin puree? Not a problem. That Pumpkin Spice candle? Excuse me while I reach for my inhaler.

Pumpkin puree? Not a problem. That Pumpkin Spice candle? Excuse me while I reach for my inhaler.

Look, if you want to ingest nothing but pumpkin-flavored snacks and wash them down with pumpkin lattes and cocktails, that’s your business. If you offer me a taste of your special seasonal pumpkin cereal, I can politely decline. But when I walk through the mall (and I have to, sometimes; a girl can’t buy everything online) and I pass stores that sell candles and bath products, I cannot choose not to breathe. And when I breathe, ALL I BREATHE IS PUMPKIN SPICE.

Sometimes Pumpkin Spice mingles with other seasonal (yet similarly improbable) scents, such as Apple Spice or its siblings, Caramel Apple and Mulled Cider — none of which smell anything like actual apples, just like Pumpkin Spice smells nothing like a real, freshly carved pumpkin.

And this is only the beginning. The Smelly Season, as I call it, lasts for months. No sooner has Pumpkin Spice disappeared from stores than it is replaced by the equally offensive scents of Cranberry Bog, Spiced Gingerbread, Sugar Plum and Balsam Fir. I can’t truly let my guard down until after Valentine’s Day, when the last of the Cinnamon Heart products are cleared off the shelves.

I realize I’m in the minority, but I’m certainly not alone. And besides, artificial scents aren’t just offensive, they’re unnecessary.

Lest you think that I’m advocating living in a scentless vacuum, let me assure you that there are ways to enjoy the smells of fall without resorting to the autumnal equivalent of Axe body spray. Try baking a pumpkin or apple pie, for example. Or pour some cider in a saucepan or crockpot, add a few cinnamon sticks (and some star anise, if you’re fancy) and create your own, natural air freshener. Vanilla extract makes the house smell lovely when warmed gently over low heat.

Or, best of all, go to a farmer’s market or take a walk in the woods and enjoy the all-natural sensory joys of the season. Think about it: Trees that explode in a riot of color before dropping their leaves onto the damp earth. Juicy grapes and crisp apples waiting to be eaten, not to mention the kale and brussels sprouts that are actually made sweeter by the first frost.

And as for Pumpkin Spice? A gorgeous, sunset-hued pumpkin is perfect all by itself; it becomes sublime with baked with a generous sprinkling of cinnamon and cloves.

There’s just no need for the fake stuff.

(Photo collage: Erica Hornung/TueNight)

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