The Smell of Slavery: Olfactory Racism and the Atlantic World. This academic book by Andrew Kettler contributes to a sensory history of Atlantic slavery. It traces the way olfactory sensibilities were shaped and wielded by white culture to subjugate African people and justify slavery, the way smell was used to dehumanize Black and African people, and the ways enslaved and formerly enslaved people used scent in acts of resistance.
“Scent was a brother of breath. Together with breath it entered human beings, who could not defend themselves against it, not if they wanted to live. And scent entered their very core, went directly to their hearts, and decided for good and all between affection and contempt, disgust and lust, love and hate. He who ruled scent ruled the hearts of men.”
—Patrick Süskind, Perfume
Benzoin is the resin from the styrax tonkinesis tree. Benzoin can be translucent or darker in color, but this one is opaque and looks like dried caramel—and it kind of smells like it, too. Benzoin absolute always reminds me of Coca Cola with its vanilla sweetness, a bit syrupy, but with a fizzy quality that gives the scent some lift and keeps it from being overly heavy. Its scent can be described as “balsamic”—not as in balsamic vinegar, but as in balsams; tree resins. Benzoin absolute smells warm, rich, resinous, with hints of cinnamon and wood. It’s a core component of classic “amber” accords, along with vanilla and labdanum.
“Olfaction necessarily puts the smeller’s body at risk: to smell something is to become vulnerable to it.”
Hsuan L. Hsu’s The Smell of Risk: Environmental Disparities and Olfactory Aesthetics is an examination of the many ways that smell is bound up into structural inequality—how “our differentiated atmospheres unevenly distribute environmental risk.” In the book, Hsu explores the olfactory inequalities present in art museums, naturalist writings, detective fiction, and settler colonial and Orientalist values and practices. Ultimately, Hsu explores what it could mean to decolonize smell. This book doesn’t shy away from complexities, and I highly recommend it to anyone curious about the role smell plays in environmental justice and decolonization.
In early 2020, I had the joyful assignment of selecting some curated perfume sample options for a couple who was engaged to get married in the desert near Santa Fe. They wanted to both wear the same perfume on their wedding day, which I love. Like many couples, the pandemic changed their plans, and although they didn’t get married in the desert as planned, the perfume they selected brought the feeling of their Southwest vision back into their wedding day in Portland, Oregon. Profumum Roma Arso, which they were able to pick up at their local perfume shop Fumerie, is dry woodsmoke and incense, comforting cedar and pine.
Congratulations to the wonderful couple M & J, and I hope this striking scent will bring back wedding memories for years to come!
“Despite its longtime reputation as one of the lowest of human faculties, smell clearly has the power to engage us with the world around us, to reveal invisible, intangible details of that world, to stimulate intense feeling and thought: to nudge us into being as fully and humanly alive as we can be.”
—Harold McGee, Nose Dive: A Field Guide to the World’s Smells
When we smell something, it means that volatile molecules floating through the air, having escaped their source by becoming vapor, have made their way into our noses and up to our olfactory receptors behind our eyes. Fugitive, invisible fragments of the world around you enter your body with every inhale—smell is the body’s way of being attentive to this. When you smell a flower, it’s because minuscule pieces of that flower made their way through the air and into your body. When I visualize this, I think of paintings by Alex Kanevsky. Every fragrant object shifting and shimmering, the buzzing hub of a swarm.
Paintings above by Alex Kanevsky.
/FOREST BATH by M Dougherty is an intermedia/olfactory art piece that was recently on display at the gallery Olfactory Art Keller. M sent me a vial of the scent and it is perfect: the smell of a forest. The dirt, the fir needles, the fresh wood, the mushroomy living air. The piece takes its name and its concept from the practice of “forest bathing,” or Shinrin Yoku, which emerged as a formal practice in Japan in the 1980’s. Simply being in a forest prompts all kinds of physiological benefits in our bodies, much of which is thanks to the scents given off by trees. M recreated these scents and infused them into beautiful sculptures—the sculptures make me think of handmade soaps, but actually they’re made of mycelium (which are basically the vast networks of mushroom roots underneath a forest floor) encased in resin and wax. The objects are scented, but the scent was also pumped into the air on the sidewalk outside so that passersby and those not comfortable going inside due to COVID could still experience the benefits of a forest bath.
What strikes me most about /FOREST BATH is that it represents a generous, compassionate impulse—a gesture of care for their audience. Especially during this year of stress and isolation and stir-craziness inside our homes, this idea of bringing the benefits of a forest bath to city residents feels like showing up at your sick friend’s doorstep with a pot of homemade chicken noodle soup. Beautiful concept and beautiful work.
Like an oyster makes a pearl to protect its insides from an irritant, a sperm whale makes ambergris to protect its insides from irritating parts of food it can’t digest, such as squid beaks. The whale excretes (ahem, poops) its brick of waxy mucus, leaving it to float in the ocean for years and decades, its scent becoming more and more refined as it “cures” in the salt water and sunlight—this is essential; ambergris fresh from the whale is no good. Eventually a sailor may scoop it up or a lucky passerby out for a beach stroll may find it washed up on the shore. Ambergris looks, basically, like a rock. Originally it was used (generally powdered and/or tinctured) as flavoring or in medicines, including the allegedly plague-dispelling “pomanders” that were filled with aromatic materials and worn around the neck—the word comes from the French “pommes d’ambre”: ambergris apples. Eventually the enchanting substance came to be used in perfume.
In her book Fragrant: The Secret Life of Scent, Mandy Aftel writes that “…ambergris remains one of the great mysteries of perfumery; a fixative of great value, it is long-lasting and mellowing. Used in small quantities, it creates an exalting and shimmering effect on the entire perfume. Sweet and dry, with stronger notes of wood, moss, and amber, it has only a slight animal aroma.” Steffen Arctander in his Perfume and Flavor Materials of Natural Origin writes of ambergris (listed as “Ambra”): “Its odor is rather subtle, reminiscent of seaweed, wood, moss, with a peculiar sweet, yet very dry undertone of unequaled tenacity.”
While ambergris from a sperm whale can in some ways be compared to pearls from an oyster, ambergris cannot be cultivated the way pearls can—which makes supply irregular and the exact qualities of scent inconsistent from one chunk or tincture to the next. Sperm whale populations are not endangered, but they are vulnerable, which means fewer mucus bricks excreted into oceans. True ambergris has been replaced by a variety of synthetic aroma molecules in most of perfumery—save, perhaps, for a few small-batch artisans dedicated to working with fine natural materials.
Snow doesn’t have a smell, exactly, being made of water—but the combination of cold and humidity is its own experience for our nose. While humidity helps our noses smell, in cold temperatures odor molecules don’t travel far, and fewer of them make their way into our cold-numbed noses. We register the coldness of the air with our trigeminal nerve, which is not the same as olfaction, but we process the experience similarly. The effect as we breathe in through our noses is cooling and refreshing.
The smell of snow, in some ways, is made up of the smell of our snowy environment: pine and fir trees; the environmental smells captured by the relative warmth of the pavement on a cold day; if we’re lucky, the smells of the winter cabin from which we watch the snow fall. The smells of snow may be ones of imaginative association: peppermint, white chocolate, cedarwood, frankincense.
All of this I had the occasion to ponder as I enjoyed @scentsofplates’s “50 Words for Snow” kit, with an herbal tea, chocolate “snow bark,” frankincense aroma candies, fizzy scented bath tablets, and an atmospheric playlist to listen to. The multi-sensory imaginative experience felt like a “snow day” unto itself.
What smells do you associate with snow?