Mar 18, 2015

Scent of the Unknown

"If there are words for all the pastels in a hue—the lavenders, mauves, fuchsias, plums and lilacs—who will name the tones and tints of a smell?" - Diane Ackerman

My mother and I did some macaron shopping while in Paris last week. While standing at the counter of Ladurée staring at all the brilliantly colored cookies as though they were jewels and trying to decide which flavors Mark would prefer (salted caramel? bergamot and rose?) I faintly heard the sales clerk over the din of my own brain.

"quel parfum voulez vous?"

I look up, realizing she's speaking to me, in French. Do I not look like every other bewildered American tourist? I do speak a little French, but what was this word parfum doing in a pastry shop? 

That the word parfum can mean "flavor" in French gives me great joy. I have always seen little differentiation between things we wear (and therefore smell) and things we eat. Most of what we taste is perceived in our brains by odor. I love wearing the scent of grapefruit as much as eating one with a jagged spoon. I love rosewater as a face tonic as much as putting a few drops in a jug of lemonade. Maybe I am just hungry all the time, or overly curious but I think if I were one of the first humans to walk the earth I would've been dead in a fortnight. Dear fellow humans who came before me: thank you for trying all the toxic plants so that I don't have to. Actually when I was three I went to the hospital more than once for eating poisonous berries or other household substances. Dear Mom & Dad: thank you for calling poison control and teaching me the ways of the world.

While there are indeed aromatic plants that are toxic if eaten (such as lily of the valley, my mom's favorite), I've been more interested in the non-toxic things in nature, that is, things I can eat as well as smell. Again, maybe it's my insatiable hunger, or maybe it's just a fear of accidentally eating something that will kill me. Just as many pursue a healthy lifestyle by avoiding processed, chemically laden foods, so I pursue scent by approaching edible scents and avoiding synthetics—chemical compounds produced in a lab that mimic those in nature. While the "natural" versus "synthetics" debate is one for another essay, I think reducing the number of manufactured chemicals we interact with on a daily basis is good practice.

Earlier this year, between blizzards, I had the chance to study perfume in California with a renowned natural perfumer named Mandy Aftel. Her perfumes, which contain no synthetic ingredients (a rare form of perfume), manage to capture the most ethereal sensations and experiences, from the fragrance of a greenhouse full of exotic orchids, to a western ghost town where you can practically hear the sound of hoof beats from ancient horses galloping through the dust. Her knowledge of essential oils and exotic essences (including those from animals) is astounding and humbling—each day I left her studio dizzy with new information, with new sensations about my place on the earth.

Learning to pay attention to scent—to the role it plays in our every day life as well as our health, our relationships and our jobs, is like learning to interact with the world in a new way, as though you are a traveler in a new land. As Mandy writes in her newest book, Fragrant (Riverhead Books 2014):
Like music, smell is an evolving experience, always in motion; the nuances of aromatic notes are experienced in transition from one to another. And as with music, the intangibility of scent allows us to experience it in a state of dreaming imagination.  Smell is an invitation to a journey: it allows us to leave the ordinary course of things and go on a trip, to absent ourselves.

Often I've find myself scribbling on these electronic pages about outer space and our place on earth and what does space smell like (other than nothing...) but it's all in an effort to gain perspective on this sense (olfaction) that is so hard to understand and describe with words. I want a blank slate sometimes, like the upper stratosphere, just so I can return to scent anew. We use associations, memories, stories and analogies to understand scent, but even then sometimes come up short. Sometimes we just have to feel it, and let that be enough.

Roy Bedichek, author of The Sense of Smell (London 1960) struggles with this same frustration after returning from a walk through a sycamore grove:

 I can say of its trunk and larger limbs that they are smooth to the touch as human flesh, that they are grey like silver mist, or like a column of clouded pearl in dusky light, while delicately tinted as if by the green breath of the forest blowing constantly upon them and that they are ornamented with curling flakes of brown or deeper grey. 
 But for the odour of this lovely tree, there is no word, no valid comparison, no intelligible metaphor.

This lack of language, this inability to describe something appropriately or to "capture" it, as we might with a touch of an iphone, is often what art is about—the thing that remains unknown, the mystery that is beyond our human ability to understand. As Bedichek explains in the above passage, while it is possible to express the shape, color and even texture of the sycamores, he finds it impossible to describe the scent. I think of the enormous sycamore growing behind my grandparent's house, shedding its mica-like flakes of bark all over the yard, and I too cannot tell you what it smells like. But I would recognize it if I were led there, blindfolded, as I can even imagine what it smells like now as I sit at my desk. But I can't make this smell out of words and I won't try.

What I loved most about studying with Mandy, as I love about traveling, is learning to let go. Let go and just be completely present in a feeling. When on a trip, you can never take enough photos, or buy enough knickknacks or even write enough poems to fully capture an experience. It's that meditative state of being that allows for the fullest experience. 

The paradoxical beauty of this letting go is that it can inspire creation, such as in a painting, an essay or a perfume. The sadness of not being able to describe something is almost a driving force of inspiration in wanting to describe it or recreate it, knowing that is ultimately impossible. As Aftel writes:
            The pathos of the fragile and fleeting reality of life fills us with feelings of tenderness and sorrowful contemplation. ...Fragrance, striking us as simultaneously timeless (in its evocation of memory) and evanescent (in its fleeting beauty), gives us the opportunity to marvel at our precious life and magnificence of nature even as the experience is tinged with sadness. (Fragrant, p. 218)

            I don't pretend to be able to access this state of being very easily, and in fact I spend a lot of time feeling grumpy that I can't access it. I so often find myself getting psychologically caught in the snarls of my own or others expectations to accomplish things, or to produce something. But in learning about natural perfume I have come to realize that I value the experience of accepting the "fragile and fleeting reality of life" more than that which I create of it. That zone of experience that cannot be named, bottled, seen or heard.

A few books to check out:

            Fragrant by Mandy Aftel 2014

            A Natural History of the Senses by Diane Ackerman 1990

            The Sense of Smell by Roy Bedichek 1960


  1. This brought back a lot of shared memories for me. What a jaw-droppingly amazing experience we had! Just being in her presence changed my life. Reminds me: I have to write mine up, too...

  2. Do you like aromatic fragrances? If it is yes then you'll like herbal incense very much. You should try herbal incense once in your life. However, if you want to buy the best herbal incense online you can visit the Flight AMS website.