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Take a Smell Tour of San Francisco's Presidio Park

This weekend, sensory explorers can huff the park’s trees, dirt, “yeast,” and “wet cement.”

Robert Galbraith/Reuters

“I'm going to ask people to just pick up some dirt in their hands and smell the dirt,” says Laura Halsey Brown, an interdisciplinary artist in San Francisco. “Just smelling dirt I think is lovely.”

Halsey Brown is referring to an exhibit this weekend at her senseofplace LAB in the Presidio, the city’s sprawling northwestern park that’s crammed with fog-kissed trees, nature-inspired sculptures, crumbling military fortifications and, it turns out, a deluge of mysterious odors. For “Architecture as Pedestal” (October 29 and 30, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.), she’ll be talking scent and providing hand-drawn smell maps of the park, so visitors can take their noses on a journey and hoover up the park’s glorious musk.

“I hope people will use smell to have another avenue into their experience of the Presidio,” she says, “and in the big picture get a deeper relationship to the place.”

Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP

For some time now, the artist has been traipsing around the park to divine its signature fragrances. There’s manzanita, for instance, which has “kind of a sage smell” and a “lightness or softness to it.” (Manzanita can appear as shrubs or trees; the park’s lone Presidio Manzanita is perhaps the rarest plant on earth, being the only one known to grow in the wild.) Then there’s the “sweet fragrance” of flowery brickellbush, the pungent punch of pine trees, and that alluring soil aroma. “The dirt here is mixed with tons of sand—this is San Francisco, it’s obviously by the water,” says Halsey Brown. “If there was a way to heighten the smell, you could probably include the smell of sea in the dirt.”

If visitors are lucky they might even catch a whiff of that favorite herb San Franciscans love to enjoy in parks, which the artist says occasionally emanates “near” her Presidio apartment, but not necessarily from it.

Here’s what visitors can expect to see on Halsey Brown’s map. It guides them on a 15-minute walk between the senseofplace LAB and a different exhibit in the Presidio’s old Army facilities, Home Land Security. (The maps will be available at both locations.) The artist has eschewed pinpointed scent descriptions for the vaguer language of wine; she hopes people will use their sense memories to describe the smells to themselves:

Laura Halsey Brown

As a bonus, Halsey Brown will be selling handkerchiefs emblazoned with her map and a similar map of a Berlin neighborhood from artist Sheraz Kahn. These “psychogeographic art kerchiefs” will have the two maps printed on top of each other, so people can juxtapose smells in the Presidio with those in Berlin—“dense” with “dog poo,” "wet cement” with “acrid,” “soft” with “barbecue,” etc. Here’s a mock-up of the handkerchief design:

Laura Halsey Brown/Sheraz Kahn

About the Author

  • John Metcalfe
    John Metcalfe is CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, based in Oakland. His coverage focuses on climate change and the science of cities.