The Power of Smell

“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

The Mechanics of Smell: Fugitive Fragments

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.

Olfactory Art: /FOREST BATH

/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.

Perfume Material: Ambergris

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.

The Scent of Snow

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?

Perfume Notes: Black Pepper and Pink Pepper

Black pepper and pink pepper are two popular top notes in perfumery, though pink peppercorns are not, strictly speaking, true pepper. Black pepper—true pepper—comes from the Piper nigrum plant. Its essential oil is distilled from the dried berries, or peppercorns. Pink peppercorns are the fruits of the Schinus molle tree. Both have a woody, stimulating, warm, clean-spice character. Black pepper is more sharp, where pink pepper is softer, and sometimes has subtle floral or fruity aspects. Pepper has high odor intensity, and a little bit can help bring definition to a blend.

Jazmin Sarai Otis & Me is, to me, the ideal black pepper-forward scent. Accented by incense smoke and the grit of dry coffee grounds, its character is simultaneously “dirty” and “clean,” like black pepper itself.

And of course, Blackpepper by Comme des Garcons does justice to its namesake: dry and woody, crackling with cedar and agarwood, with just a hint of tonka bean to smooth out the sharp edges.

For pink pepper, Xinu Copala is a beautiful example—bright and sweet with vanilla, made monastic with copal resin and mesquite smoke. Pink pepper bridges these two sides and forms the backbone of the perfume.

Anna Zworykina My Vanilla puts black pepper at the top of a complex, spiced vanilla, with woods, resins, green galbanum, and a sweet floral heart.

In Pink MahogHany Gent, black pepper and rosewood provide balance for a soft pineapple note. 

In Oriza L. Legrand Les Tourterelles de Zelmis, black pepper and saffron add depth to a waxy geranium-rose. 

Parfums de Nicolai New York Intense is a powdery, aromatic cologne with citrus and black pepper.

Filigree & Shadow Eperdu is a bright scent with pink pepper and citrus fruits on a dry, woody-sweet vetiver base.

Perfume Note: Fig

Image credit: Trew, C.J, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Fig in perfumery can be interpreted in several different ways. A perfumer can focus on the fruit itself—though they rarely do. Often, a fig scent encompasses the whole tree: leafy, green, and woody. Fig scents often have a milky or creamy facet (in perfumery this is often described as “lactonic”) that lends itself to coconut and sandalwood pairings.

There is no natural material distilled or created from the plant (there was once a fig leaf absolute, but it is no longer made due to its irritant properties), so it is made through combinations of aroma molecules. One way to make a simple fig accord is to combine a green tomato-leaf note such as stemone, a blackcurrant/fruity note such as labienoxime and/or damascones, a creamy/milky note such as gamma octalactone, and something woody like vertofix coeur.

Classics of the fig genre include L’Artisan Parfumeur Premier Figuer, a prolific fig tree, leaves rustling, pungent with sap, with whispers of almond and sandalwood. Diptyque Philosykos is a glossy landscape of leafy fig trees and cool, clear water. Hermes Un Jardin En Mediterranee transports me to an idyllic scene, somewhere sunny and manicured by the sea. Fig leaf combines with cedar, cypress, and lemon-citrus notes to create the idea of salty ocean air.

My favorite fig perfumes hover in the soft milky-green family, such as Nishane Wulong Cha—oolong tea, stems, wood, and milky lychee and fig.

Go further in the direction of coconut and you’ll find DS and Durga Debaser, a blunt snapped fig branch, unsweet coconut shavings, iris and dry woods.

Maya Njie Tropica uses fig to temper its beachy pineapple. Fig blends on one side with coconut and sandalwood, and on the other side locks arms with iris to create a boundary line, gentle restraint.

On the woodier side of fig we find Pierre Guillaume Bois Naufrage: clean musks and the condensation of salty marine air on the wood of a fig tree.

Profumum Roma Ichnusa is a warm, dry, woody fig. Dambrosia focuses more on the fleshy fruit, along with creamy sandalwood and almond.

Lubin Figaro combines green fig with greener vetiver and apple for a scent that is bright and bold and juicy as all get-out. I would call this fig green but not milky.

In Neela Vermeire Ashoka, fig plays a part in a much more complex whole: green fig leaf accents watery florals, including lotus and hyacinth. Its lightness moves into heliotrope and osmanthus, which in turn gives way to a leathery texture, complicated and soft.

One of the more interesting uses of a fig note is in Jazmin Sarai Fayoum: ripe figs and dates in a clay pot, warming in the sun, dust and dirt in the air.

Aftelier Fig is an interesting perfume because Mandy works only with natural/botanical materials, so she has none of the synthetic molecules listed above to draw upon. Her Fig is not a fig tree scent, but the scent of the fruit itself. She uses a jammy fir absolute, jasmine sambac, a fruity lavender, and citrusy yuzu to create the illusion of a ripe, fleshy fig.

Christmas Perfumes

Last December, I used up my decant of Serge Lutens Fille en Aiguilles (“girl in needles,” a resinous, jammy pine), so this year I ordered another. It smells to me like an elegant Christmas forest with accents of Gothic cathedral.

Aftelier’s solid perfume Fir imparts that Christmas tree scent: pure green fir needles.

Slumberhouse Norne smells like jammy fir absolute and the incense-scented forest floor. Luca Turin called it a “feral growl” of a perfume.

Olympic Orchids Seattle Chocolate is dry dark chocolate and darker evergreen woods, with an undercurrent of incense.

Etat Libre d’Orange Noel au Balcon is a playful gourmand, sweet-spiced-honeyed gingerbread, orange zest in the air, and a subtle smooth plastic note that I’ve heard people describe as “plastic dinnerware.” It smells like a holiday party with your fondest friends, and not over Zoom.

Arquiste Nanban is smooth and elegant with its saffron-spiced leather, soft osmanthus, black tea, balsam wood, frankincense and myrrh. Something about it smells like Christmas to me—a very stylish Christmas, like attending a holiday cocktail party wearing suede in taupe and burgundy.

What perfumes and smells do you use to evoke Christmas?

Merry Christmas! I found these cute scratch-and-sniff Christmas cards by La Familia Green at everythingsmells.com.

Scent Memory: Mothballs

The smell of mothballs brings back memories of the Old Home Place, a family home in rural East Texas that was built in 1898 and last inhabited in the 1970s. When my family and I entered the house for the first time in decades, there were mothballs in every room, in glass bowls like they were white buttermints. Over the next few years, the house grew large in my personal mythology. I never met my great-aunts, but I sorted through their belongings like treasure, even wore their dresses. The smell of mothballs brings to mind the duality of my relationship to the Old Home Place: simultaneously intimate and intrusive.

It was a joy to share these memories with Frauke Galia for her project Scent Tattoo. Read the full story here.

Smell Words: A New Zine

“Smell is the mute sense, the one without words. Lacking a vocabulary, we are left tongue-tied, groping for words in a sea of inarticulate pleasure and exaltation.” —Diane Ackerman

Smell Words is a collection of 160 words, small articulations in a sea of pleasure and exaltation, created in collaboration with Noele Lusano.

Get your copy of Smell Words + the first zine, Smelling Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Smells + two paper strips dipped in special edition scents to enjoy and find the words for. $10 shipped. To order, send me a message.

Risograph printed by Paper Press Punch.