Zoologist Perfumes for Halloween

bat2Happy Halloween! Today is the perfect day for Bat by Zoologist Perfumes. 🦇 This cavernous beauty was created by local Seattle-based perfumer Ellen Covey of Olympic Orchids Perfume. It’s the scent of a dank cave, humid nighttime soil, bananas and soft fruits beginning to rot. It’s a little bit leathery, a little bit earthy, a little bit sweet. This formulation was recently discontinued, which is its own kind of horror. 👻

Last weekend I dressed up as Velma Dinkley from Scooby Doo, and I also happened to choose a Zoologist fragrance for the costume. Since Velma is always snooping around haunted places, I went with Moth. It’s a dusty indoor floral that becomes more and more musty in the dry down—it often makes me think of Miss Havisham.

The Problem with Scent

Have you noticed that everyone seems to interpret smells differently? You’re not the only one. I love this excerpt that The Institute for Art and Olfaction shared recently, from an upcoming essay by founder Saskia Wilson-Brown:

“The increasingly fractured significance we apply to scent means that when our personal experiences, memories and preferences are expressed in smell, they are often done so through an uneasy combination of assumptions. “Timeless” meanings (“Frankincense smells holy!”) are assumed to be general understanding, and specific individual perspectives (“The smell of chocolate cake reminds me of my childhood summers in the south of Vietnam”) are assumed to be relatable.

Thus a young trans woman in Atlanta can perceive the smell of rose as a meaningful signifier of her feminine identity, while a Somali scholar in Dubai can concurrently ascribe to it the symbolic meaning of traditional hospitality. An elder from a Canadian First Peoples tribe can understand sage in the context of medicine and healing, while an affluent banker in Hong Kong can understand it as a luxury object in the form of a refreshing room spray.

The meaning of any given smell is heterogeneous; as Derrida would have it with language, so it is with scent. Traditional understandings, fragmented as they already are amongst cultures and epoch, are further splintered with every personal memory, micro-niche, trend, marketing pitch, and emotional analysis. In our globalized world everyone can see or experience everything, and everything means something to everybody. What this means for people working with scent is that, in fact, nothing means one thing to everybody (at least not without a hefty dose of contextual information). Aromatic materials have no consistent meaning. And therein lies the primary problem when working with scent.”

—Saskia Wilson-Brown, The Institute for Art and Olfaction

“Aromatic materials have no consistent meaning.” What do you think?

Scented Screening: The Blair Witch Project (1999)

Last night I hosted my first “scented screening,” and it was so interesting and fun! We watched The Blair Witch Project (1999). Light spoilers ahead.

This movie was a fun one to scent because while the setting is basically consistent throughout—they’re in a forest—I could use smells to play up emotional undertones. The pacing was crucial as well: it was slow enough that adding another sense to the mix doesn’t compromise the viewers’ attention. The action is also somewhat ambiguous, leaving room for scent to play with our interpretations of what’s happening onscreen.

How it worked was simple: I dipped paper strips and passed them out at key moments; generally one scent every 10 minutes or so. Some were raw materials or a mix of raw materials, and some were perfumes.

I used Nuit de Bakélite by Naomi Goodsir to set the tone: green, insomniac, unsettling, with plasticky notes evoking camera equipment. 

Chris Rusak’s lo, with its incense and woods, signaled that we’re in the midst of something ritualistic.

I used Hiram Green’s Hyde for warmth and subtle sweet undertones, inspired by the way the characters try to cope and get comfort from each other in a terrifying situation.

Secretions Magnifiques by Etat Libre d’Orange: a notorious scent for a notorious scene. I wasn’t sure how my audience would take this scent. It’s like a brick wall of stale sweat to me, but I hoped it would smell like BO, snot, and raw fear. To my surprise, the audience actually found the scent quite pleasant! They said it smelled fresh, or like cotton. I wonder how much they influenced each other on that one, or how much I’ve been influenced by descriptions of the perfume.

Finally came Moth by Zoologist, a musty haunted mansion. One audience member disagreed with this scent choice—he said it was too pleasant for what was happening onscreen. I liked that reaction, because then we could talk about what kind of scent expectations we had and how we all thought the setting should smell.

Overall it was a fun way to further engage with a classic movie. What scents would you choose for The Blair Witch Project?

Perfume Material: Frankincense

I’ve been having fun burning frankincense and other resins as incense lately. Frankincense specifically is one of the more light, “clean”-smelling resins with notes of lemon and pine.

Trees of the genus Boswellia ooze the resin “tears” from “wounds” that harvesters cut into the bark.

My favorite frankincense perfumes are Avignon by Comme des Garcons which perfectly evokes that high church blend of frankincense and myrrh that Catholics will remember from their childhood; Passage d’Enfer by L’Artisan Parfumeur, which showcases the cleaner side of frankincense, somewhere between freshly showered and cool & cavernous; and Camel by Zoologist, rich and warm with incense and sweet dried fruits. Do you have a favorite incense or incense perfume?

Perfume Note: Lily

My love gave me a bouquet of lilies and roses a couple of fragrant weeks ago. The lilies’ aroma overpowered the roses from the start; our apartment has been filled with their scent.

For the first few days, my primary experience of it was my association with funeral homes. After a while I moved past that and was surprised by how animalic they smelled, almost savory, like a floral ham. The scent seemed stronger from a distance—it asserted itself in the room, but when I stuck my nose into the bouquet, it became shy and I smelled the softer scent of petals.

I found this spread about lilies in Nez Magazine issue 6, which was fun to read alongside my experience.

Smellscapes: Smell Maps

A different way to interpret place: the smellscape. These “smell maps” by Kate McLean are beautiful visual representations of olfactory experience.

Kate leads groups of “cartographers” on smell walks to catalog smells, then finds the common ground in their perceptions—because inevitably, everyone perceives an olfactory landscape differently.

What are the smells that characterize your city? Your neighborhood?

Culinary Smelling: Matsutake Mushroom

I had just started reading a section of The Mushroom at the End of the World, a book about the matsutake mushroom by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, when it was time to go to dinner. I was surprised and delighted to see the list of specials—there it was: matsutake mushroom, served with preserved pine, currants, and herring roe. I had never heard of matsutake until about an hour before, and I wasn’t 100% sure I was remembering the name right, but I had to order it.

The Mushroom at the End of the World Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing mastutake book cover

From what I’d read at that point, I gathered that matsutake had a polarizing scent, and that it could overtake and ruin a dish if you didn’t prepare it correctly (Tsing described throwing out an entire stir-fry when the matsutake’s flavor invaded every bite). I was expecting a strong and distinctive aroma, but was a little disappointed to find the dish perfectly inoffensive. Light and earthy, with an outdoorsy aromatic lift, probably from the pine, and a hint of salty marine breeze from the roe. The mushroom was served raw and sliced thin, yet its smell and flavor was mild. Ordinary.

After dinner I went back to the chapter I’d read and realized that I hadn’t yet encountered an actual description of the smell. I kept reading. Tsing says that for the Japanese people to whom matsutake is so delightful, it’s a nostalgic smell. It “smells like village life and a childhood visiting grandparents and chasing dragonflies. It recalls open pinewoods, now crowded out and dying. Many small memories come together in the smell … It was an easier time, before nature became degraded and poisonous.” Eventually she breaks the news: “It is time to tell you that most people of European origin can’t stand the smell.” Even though matsutake flourishes in the PNW, Tsing says that white mushroom pickers find the smell “nauseating,” describing the smell as “mold,” “turpentine,” and “mud.” When I googled matsutake to try to find out what kind of smell I should have expected, the first hit was this description from California mycologist David Arora: “A provocative compromise between ‘red hots’ and ‘dirty socks.’” I felt a little bit shortchanged to have been given such a pleasant dish.