The Scent of Sagebrush Hills


I’m headed home to Boise on Sunday. On Thursday, September 13, I’ll be reading from Coming to My Senses to a crowd of people who will include my parents, my husband and many of the aunties I wrote about in the book. It’s a big deal. So big that I haven’t been able to think much about it for fear I’ll suddenly race out to buy new clothes and get my hair cut and all the other useless but time-consuming, exhausting and expensive things I do when I’m nervous about an event.


Of course, in another way I’ve been thinking about reading this book in Boise since the moment I began writing it.



The chapter of Coming to My Senses that’s set in Boise comes late in the book, but it was the first thing I took notes on when I was coming up with a project and the second chapter I wrote.  So Boise, my mother, and the aunties were there in my head when I was first trying to convince myself I could write a book, and then, when we sent that chapter out as part of the book proposal, they were there to convince editors to take a chance on me. When all was said and done and the book was finished, they were still there, right at the heart of the story.


It’s going to be a busy week. On Monday, from 6:30-8:00 I’ll be giving a writing workshop on scent, memory and storytelling. We still have some spots open if you’d like to come. On Thursday, before the reading, I’ll be talking to a class of 220 students at Boise State University. They’re even putting me on local TV. I’ll try to check in, but if things get quiet around here, that’s why.



I hope I’ll get a chance to take a walk. The foothills in these photographs are not far from my parents’ house. My husband took them on one of his hikes. I’m not much of a hiker, but when I finally made it up to the trail I saw it was gentle, something even I could do.


Even through a window the hills have a presence. I’ve always thought of it as a kind of audible quiet, a tangible calm.  And of course they have a scent, too–more than one. Right now they are hot and dry from months worth of heat, and they smell of blonde grasses and hot summer dust. I remember how taken aback I was to find that smell in Les Nez’s Let Me Play the Lion–summer dust and old wood gone silver and a hint of the wildfire smoke that drifted through the sky every summer of my childhood and that hangs in the air right now.


In the spring, after it rains, the dust settles, the blonde grasses turn pale green, and the hills smell of sage and sweet grass and morning air. It’s a scent not unlike perfumer Roxana Villa’s beautiful Chaparral, created to honor a similar California landscape. Its dominant notes are a soft sage, a clear, silvery frankincense and something else (or several something elses) I don’t know about that chimes with those sweet grasses. I often find myself pressing Chaparral on friends who are new to perfume because it is gentle, and all-botanical and smells of the outdoors. It occurs to me now that I’ve been giving them a little piece of myself, too.


Do you have a landscape you love? What does it look, sound and smell like?


Images: All photos taken by Vicente Lozano

[Edited to Add: Just discovered one can click on the photos and enlarge them to full screen size. Highly recommended]






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  • hd says:

    How poignant! And such a great question. I love rose perfumes–they remind me of when I first moved to capitol hill, met my husband, and DC finally started feeling like home.

    p.s. enjoy next week!

    • Alyssa says:

      Thanks for the good wishes! Is DC covered in roses? I didn’t know that!

      • hd says:

        Capitol hill is! August in DC is generally thought to be hell on earth. But there is something about the humidity and the late summer roses that I adore. SIP’s prima ballerina captures it perfectly for me. I know most don’t like that scent, but i love it for that precise reason.

        • Alyssa says:

          Ah! Now that I know about August and the humidity I can imagine it perfectly. Esepecially at night. You make me want to try the Prima. I am woefully ignorant of the Strange Invisible Perfumes line.

  • dabney says:

    What beautiful hills!!! What i love about the west is that she bares herself..doesn’t cover up with the layers of tangled green.
    I recently saw some shots of a place in the NC mountains that i had not been to for almost 30 years but as soon as i saw the pictures i could smell that wilde place. A moist mix of wild herbs, trees, creeks, hawks, shrubs, wind, flowers, bogs, animals and cool mountain air.
    Would love to visit your place as well.

    • Alyssa says:

      Not everyone loves that high desert bareness. I remember my parents, who are from the Northeast, talking about how long it took them to get adjusted to the lack of greenery. But I love it. The red rock, saguaro cactus and high desert mountains of the Soutwest, too. And then when I go places like the. NC mountains you’ve described so beautifully I’m overwhelmed by the lushness of it all!

      • Roxana says:

        So true how not everyone appreciates the arid landscape of the west Alyssa. I
        created the fragrance Chaparral while researching incense and realizing
        the connection between the native California Indians and their use of sage.
        That led me to create a native garden, which is in tune with the vibration
        of the land but opposite of the water loving, green plants that all
        the neighbors adore. My intention is that once my garden is finished I will inspire
        others to plant oaks instead of palm trees and other native plants.

        • Alyssa says:

          That’s so great to hear about your garden, Roxana. My mother has used xeriscaping to great effect–a professor once took her class on a tour of the yard! But the neighbors are all still watering their petunias and roses and shrubbery. Here in Austin, the city mandated native and low water landscaping for all public projects–it seems to include all the grocery stores, etc. too. I adore the results–so many beautiful tall grasses everywhere.

  • karen says:

    I loved the Boise parts of _Coming to My Senses_.

    The Hudson River Valley is fall. Leaves turning. Cool, crisp with a bit of apple and wood smoke

    • Alyssa says:

      That sounds so appealing right now. We are still trying to move on from summer.

      Gathering Apples, from CB I Hate Perfume, layered with his Burning Leaves is a not bad approximation of what you’re describing. But you have to imagine the cool air and the sound of leaves underfoot…

  • Roxana says:

    Oh, how I would adore breathing in the scent and stories of that landscape with you Alyssa!

    • Alyssa says:

      It would be fun to be able to compare the two–I will have to take notes this time so when I finally visit the Chaparral I can remember…

  • Olga (Warum) says:

    Oh, what a great workshop opportunity for those who plan to be in Boise! I will be traveling to Alaska these days, but otherwise I would make a hop, skip and a jump from Oregon (more like a day drive, I am afraid, but who counts) to be able to attend. I hope you will be offering more of those in Boise at another time.

    Lovely hills. Your description of them is lovely as well.
    One of my favorite landscapes right now is Willamette Valley. Every time I take a drive across it, my heart just sings. I am not sure I even know how to start explaining why.

    • Alyssa says:

      I would love to have you in one of my workshops, Olga! Perhaps we can make that happen in another time and place. I hope you had a splendid time in Alaska.

      I don’t know the Willamette Valley landscape, but I do know that heart singing feeling…

  • Helen Carter says:

    Dear Alyssa, All three of us thoroughly enjoyed your workshop at the Log Cabin Literary Center in Boise tonight. The consensus was “She sparkled!” We are going to continue our scent-driven writing exercises on our own. Thanks for the scents, the ideas and the opportunity to practice new skills. What fun!

    • Alyssa says:

      Thanks so much for this lovely comment, Helen! It was delightful to have all three of you in the workshop. Let me know if anything comes of the writing.

  • Meagan says:

    Hi Alyssa,

    I stumbled across an excerpt from your book, and it really resonated with me. I also love how intimate and transcendent scents can be, the way they can change your mood and the moods of those around you like a magic spell. I am from Bend, in Central Oregon, and there is no smell that hits me like the high desert, especially after it rains (I think you know what I mean). Coming home from college over the years, I would roll down the windows as I drove into the dessert, inhale, and almost cry because it smelled so intoxicating. Sage, volcanic dust, juniper, and other wild plants, it is such a fresh, wild, romantic smell that makes me want to sleep under the stars (and boy, the sky is so clear there). Thanks for sharing your experiences with us, they are truly a pleasure!

    • Alyssa says:

      Hi Meagan, thanks you for this wonderful comment. You describe that high desert smell so well that I know exactly what you mean. I can imagine the stars and the rush of air through the car, too.

  • Jenn says:

    It looks like heaven; Big A and I named it “Where God Lives”…it smells like childhood, youth, innocence and it breaks me into a million pieces whenever we go back.

    It’s usually like that with the things that we’ve loved and lost, yes? Longing for the memory, the time, the moment and then wishing it away when somehow, something brings it before us; it’s usually the smell of a certain fall day for me.

  • Sherri says:

    I just finished your book and came over to read your blog. I grew up in Mountain Home so I know the sight and scent of those hills. Hope to take part in the next workshop you give in Boise.

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