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

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 True ambergris has been replaced by a variety of synthetic aroma molecules in most of perfumery—save, perhaps, for a few small-batch artisans dedicated to working with fine natural materials.

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.

Sissel Tolaas: Use Your Nose

“this is what my strength is: challenging people to use their nose gives them new methods to approach their realities. There is a playful aspect about discovering the world through smells and discovering more about ourselves and our potential to interact with our environment. A more comfortable relationship with smells brings about a more optimistic attitude toward our surroundings. It changes mood. And I think we need more optimism and a more positive attitude to be able to understand the seriousness of what we face: new challenges, new methods, new methodologies, new tools…” —Sissel Tolaas

📖 Book borrowed from my friend Noele

Zine: Smelling is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Smells

My first risograph zine! “smelling is forgetting the name of the thing one smells” / “there are smells I never had a name for”

This idea is something I keep returning to, and one I’ll keep expanding on in other projects. The title is a play on Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, Lawrence Weschler’s book about California Light and Space artist Robert Irwin. For me, it expresses the question of the role of language in our experience of smell. Does language expand our experience or does it limit it? In some ways, reading a scent description flattens or constricts our perceptions. It stops us short. But in other ways it does the opposite, pushing us further and offering new ways to understand what we encounter.

This is further complicated by the fact that we notoriously do not have language for so much of what we smell. As Diane Ackerman wrote: “It may be, too, that smells move us so profoundly, in part, because we cannot utter their names. In a world sayable and lush, where marvels offer themselves up readily for verbal dissection, smells are often right on the tip of our tongues—but no closer—and it gives them a kind of magical distance, a mystery, a power without a name, a sacredness.”

More to come on this topic. In the meantime, if anyone would like a copy of this zine, I have some extras! Use the contact form to send me your mailing address.

Printed by Paper Press Punch as part of their Zine of the Month Club.

Scent in Fiction: Salt Fish Girl

Salt Fish Girl by Larissa Lai

Sometimes I think there should be some kind of Bechdel test for smell in novels. Are there at least two smells in the story and do they affect the characters’ actions? Do they give the reader information we didn’t already have?

Larissa Lai’s Salt Fish Girl would pass that test—scent is the thread of continuity between the protagonist, who was born with the strong and unpleasant body odor of durian fruit, and her semi-mythological origins. It’s how she recognizes the girl she loves across lifetimes. I was struck not only that scent played such a major role in characters’ identities, but also that the narrator was conscious of smell in the way she navigated through her world—knowing that she had to move slowly to sneak out of the house, because a sudden rush of her body odor would give away her movements. That she could camouflage her smell in smellier surroundings.

Synesthesia by Bruno Fazzolari

When we talk about what it’s like to encounter smells, I tend to resist much enthusiasm about the idea of synesthesia (the “crossing-over of perception and senses,” experiencing a smell as a sound or a number as a color, and so on). We are so unpracticed at encountering smells and we have such little vocabulary for the experience, it’s only natural that when we grasp for ways to conceptualize it, we reach for parallels from our other senses: scent as music with notes and chords, or scent as texture, or as color. While it’s certainly useful to think about scent in these terms, I find myself wanting to push aside what feels like an analogy with limited usefulness and lean into the baffling ways that scent is none of these things—it is a separate category of experience.

But lately I’ve been spending time with Bruno Fazzolari’s book of Synesthesia paintings and finding it unexpectedly generative. From his introduction: “For someone who ‘sees’ scent, it feels odd to say that odor and color are separate categories of experience when both are vibrational events along a continuum of experience. At some point we call one seeing and the other smelling, just as we stop saying green and start saying blue. My work explores this space between color, visual form, odor and olfactive form, and about the ways these relationships expand the space of painting and the space of perfume.”

What’s most compelling to me about Fazzolari’s work is that he’s using his synesthesia not just as a way to interpret or translate smells, but also as a way to approach manipulating them. To discuss his painting Osmanthus, he describes the scent of osmanthus absolute: “while it’s jammy, it’s also dense, heavy, and lacks a sense of space. A pleasing osmanthus perfume would need to open up the space of the extract in some way. The painting explores color facets of osmanthus absolute and considers some contrasts to open up that space. Alone, the pink in the painting lacks sparkle, and the green rectangle is too vivid. Combined, they transform one another.” Fazzolari isn’t just sharing his synesthetic experience of smells, he’s also applying principles of color theory as a skilled perfumer. 

Inspired, I pulled out my copy of Josef Albers’ Interaction of Color, flipped it open, and felt this connection confirmed when I saw gradation studies shown on a photograph of perfume bottles. There are principles of perception that an artist can play with to create a new experience for their viewer. Fazzolari draws upon the experience of his senses as inter-connected, creating space for us to experience it, too.

Purchase Bruno Fazzolari’s Synesthesia – Catalog or shop prints and perfumes.

The Scent of Cotton

Bright Black Candle cotton

The scent of cotton. It is, arguably, a “fantasy note” in perfumery terms, as cotton is not distilled or made into an aromatic material, nor does it have much of a scent at all. But when I stick my nose into these fluffs of raw cotton, there is a texture that comes through in the way of smell: soft, swaddling comfort, muffled and peacefully quiet, enveloping like a clean cocoon. “Fantasy notes” use smell in non-literal ways to evoke ambiance, moods, associations, and ideas—which is why it’s such a powerful choice that Bright Black Candles and Cocoasavvy included the textural scent of cotton in these two beautiful candles. The history of cotton—and the wealth and economic power that the US gained through it—is inextricable from the history of slavery, sharecropping, injustice, and the dehumanization of Black lives.

“So much of Bright Black is about seizing control of our narratives and reclaiming our history as a means of shaping the present and the future,” write Tiffany and Dariel of @brightblackcandle in a post about the Durham candle from their Diaspora collection. “This is why we blended cotton with our other fragrance notes in our Durham scent. We were inspired by @blackcotton.us and their movement to position cotton positively (which is a very different framing than we grew up with in the North). From a scent perspective, the cotton softens the whiskey and tobacco notes, rounding it out and providing balance to what would have otherwise been quite a harsh aroma.” The smell is rich, sultry, enveloping, and deep.

For Alita Carter’s @cocoasavvy brand, Bright Black created a scent using notes of cotton, cocoa, and sugar cane—all three major cash crops produced in the Americas, all three produced largely by Black and African people, some free, many not. In Tiffany and Dariel’s words, this candle is in many ways “a tribute to the Americas and the contributions so many Black people provided to growth in these regions….It’s a tender scent, a consoling scent, an almost mitigating scent—sending reassuring messages that tomorrow will be ok, even if today is tough. That hopefulness flows all through this candle, and has flowed throughout our history in North, South, and Central America (and throughout the entire Diaspora really).” Alita paired the scent with Margaret Walker’s poemFor My People.” “…For my people standing staring trying to fashion a better way / from confusion, from hypocrisy and misunderstanding, / trying to fashion a world that will hold all the people, / all the faces, all the adams and eves and their countless generations; // Let a new earth rise. Let another world be born….”

The Cocoasavvy candle can be purchased at cocoasavvy.com, and the Durham candle can be purchased at brightblackcandles.com. The raw cotton bouquet pictured above is from blackcotton.us, a family farm and community-focused company in North Carolina. Give them a follow and take a look at what they’re doing to strengthen their community through agriculture.

The Act of Smelling

“The act of smelling something, anything, is remarkably like the act of thinking itself. Immediately, at the very moment of perception, you can feel the mind going to work, sending the odor around from place to place, setting off complex repertoires throughout the brain, polling one center after another for signs of recognition, old memories, connections.”

—Lewis Thomas