Drinking Monarch Nectar, AKA Milkweed (Asclepias), Essay 12 of #52essays2017

On the day of the hydrosols tasting with Cathy Skipper and Florian Birkmayer (offered through New York Institute of Aromatherapy), my daily hallucinations were painted blue, an electric blue that did not want to let go its hold on my visionscape. In recent years, I’ve found that strong scents can change my visual palette almost immediately, but somehow that blue day would not give way except for the neon orange of the orange blossom and then the glorious yellow orange of the milkweed that burst through towards the end of the evening.

The way it worked was that each new hydrosol was spritzed into our wine glasses and mixed with a little filtered water. Then we all smelled and sipped and free-associated, allowing the mystery hydrosol to elicit thoughts, feelings, images and yes colors too.

To be honest, it was hard for me not to feel a little competitive. As a blind person, I want my nose to be best, but, as a person new to aromatic aesthetics, I realize this is ridiculous. For several of the hydrosols, I was sure what they were and I was correct, for a bunch, I had ideas of what they were, but having been derived from plants I’d never met before–black copal and palo santo for example–I was nowhere close, and I hate to be wrong!

After the first three I finally relaxed and allowed my mind to wander a bit and not get too hung up about being right. One cool moment was guessing #8 Beeswax correctly, but I had an advantage since, being enrolled in Skipper’s Hydrosols course at The School for Aromatic Studies, I knew that such a thing was possible. That was certainly one of my favorites, as it exhibited a strong distinction between its taste and aroma–the smell reminded me of the spirit of the plants that sustain the hive, while the flavor tasted of the building material itself, a glossy waxy sensation that was almost chewable.

Birkmayer encouraged us to think synesthetically, which in the case of #9 penetrated and offered a joyous blast of yellow orange. I did not know what it was, but I liked it. I was so entranced that I neglected my notes, so unfortunately I cannot refer back to words from the moment to explain the flavor, also it was number nine, so Alabaster–who was gracious enough to accompany me on this odd little tasting adventure–and I were a bit slap happy. We’re not yet persuaded by the concept of vibrational aromatherapy, but our heads were surely buzzing by that point in the evening!

For some of the hydrosols, we were encouraged to imagine an animal. People were not guessing the correct animal for this one and so Birkmayer mentioned butterflies and then I knew and said, “Milkweed?” And I felt justified in all my orange and yellow associations.

The common name milkweed derives from its milky nectar that can trap some nonnative insects, but
Linnaeus, that taxonomist of all taxonomists, apparently named the genus asclepias after Asclepius, the Greek god of healing. Why? I wonder. Milkweed is a new world plant, likely brought back to Sweden by one of his students flung out to all corners of the world to collect new species for Linnaeus to inspect and name. Perhaps he did so because he learned that some natives of the New World used some species for healing, but so many plants have medicinal uses, this seems too easy an answer.

Asclepias speciosa, from which our hydrosol was distilled, is also known as “showy milkweed” because of its flamboyant flowers. It is the special food of the monarch butterfly.

The recognition of the monarch nectar brought me back to the Santa Cruz grove where the monarchs winter. I wrote a poem about seeing those butterflies, which I often visited during my years at UCSC (Go Slugs!).

How many times did I take my friends and family to the little Eucalyptus grove by the ocean, only to be disappointed by the cold and nearly inert clusters of monarchs clinging to the trees for warmth, but for a few flying bravely. The foreign eucalyptus grove and the beach at Natural Bridges are an easy walk but worlds apart.

Once, with a forgotten companion, I saw them fall from the sky mating in the warm afternoon sun. They dropped in our hands and flew apart and I believe it was all not a dream, though the memory has that quality of unreality that sometimes makes me doubt.

 

*This is essay 12 of #52essays2017, written with all four senses and remembered sight. You can read #11 “Melissa Officinalis (or Lemon Balm): Booze and Botany and monasteries Oh My!” here*

 

Melissa officinalis (or Lemon Balm): Booze & Botany & Monasteries oh my! Essay 11 of #52essays2017

Melissa officinalis derives its name from the Greek word honeybee because the tiny white flowers are so attractive to bees. According to The Drunken Botanist: “The upper leaves and flowers are steamed distilled to extract this potent flavor, which goes into absinthe, vermouth, and herbal liqueurs. It is suspected to be one of the secret ingredients in both Chartreuse and Benedictine.”

Boyer's Carmelite Water factory with monks, drawing, probably an advertisement.

As discussed in this article on St-Germain, Medieval monks and nuns used booze to preserve the healing powers of herbs. The famous Carmelite Water consists of Melissa officinalis macerated in rectified spirits with angelica, nutmeg, and other medicinal plants in a closely guarded formula that can still be purchased in German pharmacies for stomach upset.

Officinalis is a term from Medieval Latin that refers to the place where the medicines and other necessities of the monastery were kept. It denoted a plant (or sometimes animal) as having established use value as a medicine. It was Carl Linnaeus, the famous Swedish taxonomist, who first employed the binomial nomenclature that so plagues young botanists and plant enthusiasts today. Melissa officinalis, Rosmarinus officinalis, and many more plants with the epithets officinalis (for masculine and feminine nouns) or officinale (for neuter nouns) tell us that the plant was known and used by at least the middle of the 18th Century, when Linnaeus published his several editions of Systema Naturae.

As Mrs. M. Grieve writes in her 1931 Modern Herbal, Melissa officinalis is also known as sweet balm or lemon balm. “The word Balm is an abbreviation of Balsam, the chief of sweet-smelling oils. It is so called from its honeyed sweetness.” Grieve continues, “It was highly esteemed by Paracelsus, who believed it would completely revivify a man. It was formerly esteemed of great use in all complaints supposed to proceed from a disordered state of the nervous system.”

The essential oil of Melissa officinalis is quite expensive (about $60-70 for a 5ml bottle of good quality oil), so I decided to give the hydrosol a try. I ordered a 4 oz. spray bottle from PhiBee Aromatics, a family-run distiller in Arizona, who specialize in oils of the Southwest.

Melissa is native to the Mediterranean but has been naturalized in many places around the world. I messaged Clare to ask a couple questions about their hydrosols and she got back to me right away, among other things she mentioned that she often has a teaspoon of melissa in warm water before bed. I too put a teaspoon of Melissa hydrosol into a cup of warm water and added a shot of Bushmill’s Honey for an instant hot toddy–delicious!

Melissa officinalis from Botanical Magazine.Melissa officinalis is a member of the mint family (lamiaceae), which includes many of the classic culinary herbs such as basil, oregano, mint, rosemary, and like these others is wonderful in the kitchen. Yet, with so much commodification over the course of the twentieth century, a huge variety of plants used in the kitchen got compressed into a few, and many delicious flavors absconded from the typical American palate. The result is that when I encounter an herb like melissa I am delighted to find recipes that support its culinary use, for instance this one for lemon balm pesto.

Having lost the majority of my vision later in life, I still consider myself to be a highly visual person, but I’m trying very hard to hone my aesthetic appreciation of taste and smell. The hydrosol of Melissa officinalis has a delightfully lemony tang, but not like lemons. As Suzanne Catty puts it in Hydrosols: The Next Aromatherapy, “more the idea of lemon in a flavor.” There is also something floral about it while it retains the herbaceous grounding of its culinary cousins. It’s a flavor that can go both sweet or savory. Catty suggests using it for steaming vegetables or fish.

Catty also tells us, “Melissa is calming to the body more than the mind but without being overly sedative. Use it for stress, anxiety, and childhood hysterics. Combine with rosemary while studying and with neroli to drink during exams.”

John Gerard, frontispiece to his 1636 Herball.Melissa officinalis has long been renowned for its good effects on the nervous
system and to calm anxiety, and there have been a number of scientific studies to back up the anecdotal evidence. For someone who tends to get overexcited/angry, I can appreciate. The herbalist, physician and contemporary of Shakespeare, John Gerard wrote, “It maketh the heart merry and joyful and strengthened the vitall spirits.”

With that in mind, I’ve been spritzing myself day and night with melissa. Travelling around as an artist hobo makes it necessary for me to buy stuff and use it up. As much as I’d like to have palettes of aroma rainbows to choose from at all times, I can’t be toting around dozens of bottles. So I do the very unAmerican thing of using a few items for everything, thereby using up all my stock and replenishing as necessary. Taking a cue from the ladies of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, I like my beauty products to double as potable cordials!

 

*This is Essay 11 of #52essays2017, written with all four senses and remembered sight. Read Essay 10 “CERKL Gene: My newly Identified Eye Disease Is Not an Eye Disease” here*

Adulterated Rose or, The Smell of Regrettable Youth, Essay 7 of #52essays2017

The guy with the hard metal name was beautiful in my degenerate eye. Beautiful with a girlfriend. And a Volkswagen bus. This was around the time of the earthquake of ’89, when the influences of flower power still loomed large in San Francisco. I’d been pining for so long and then he said they’d broken up. We climbed into his bus and he put rose oil (adulterated, I recognize in my mind’s now more refined nostrils) under my nose and kissed me. When I give myself a little credit, I remember thinking it a cheap trick. I was young, but I knew enough to recognize that when it was over the smell under my nose was gone.

Red and white vintage VW bus model.
Sheet Metal Car Camper Vw Bus Volkswagen Model Car

The guy with a name that reminds one of welders, returned to his girlfriend and told her what we’d done, which made her hate me. That hurt too. I then glimpsed adulthood, where quotidian comfort trumps experimental romance.

Then I moved from my mom’s place in the Richmond District to 1462 Haight Street. Out the front door to the right was Ashbury and below a diner. Lazing on Haight Street, breakfast eggs and potatoes stick in the craw. It is this stuckness of regrettable youth that stinks like All You Knead. To live above a mediocre diner, to smell its unclean smells, and still to eat there is a kind of willful anosmia.

Haight and Ashbury street signs.

Similarly, being 19, mostly ignorant and a masochist, I adopted the scent of fake roses, bought for 10 bucks down the street in a crystal shop or some damn woowoo place, as my own. Not sure if I made the connection, but I still loved the smell after the encounter with the guy named for a metal that was the material of which the VW bus that had so briefly cocooned us was made.

Recently, long since those days of low self-esteem and unrefined judgement, I’ve had the pleasure of smelling real rose oil, bought in a precious one milliliter vile, Rosa damascena, and it is sweet and innocent–pink flowered and pure. It is warming to the heart, not meant to bump you upside the head with a reification of sex.

These days I often look to aromatherapy books when I’m feeling grumpy . Keville and Green tell me that it was the poetess Sappho who dubbed rose the “queen of flowers”:

“The fragrance of rose inspired poets and lovers throughout the ages, and it has been used to ‘open’ the heart and ease grief, heartache, loss, and sadness. … Employed for relationship conflicts, envy, anger, and intolerance, it is comforting, supportive through crisis, and an aphrodisiac. It also helps alleviate depression, anxiety, fear, insomnia, and lack of confidence.”
Vial of rose oil on white background.I need to save my pennies for another tiny vial!

And yet, sometimes I feel guilty for my greedy nose, and wonder if it is, even now, worthy of the holocaust of hundreds of flowers. In Aromatherapy I read that it takes up to 60 rose blossoms to produce just one drop of essential oil.

Roses are difficult to raise organically, must be handpicked, and do not have many essential oil glands, so it is often adulterated.

In the essential oil of rose, or rose otto (usually distilled from Rosa damascena) there are hundreds of distinct chemical constituents. At the risk of boring you, but in the interest of proving my point, I will include a few here (from Essential Oil Safety): Citronellol (16.0-35.9%), Geraniol (15.7-25.7%), Alkenes & alkanes (19.0-24.5%), Nerol (3.7-8.7%), Methyleugenol (0.5-3.3%), and so on…

Many more exist in trace amounts, which gives rose its complexity, roundness and depth. Unfortunately, chemists working in the flavor and fragrance industry tend to ignore this fact. They isolate major constituents and reconstruct simple versions of a complicated fragrance. The distinctly rosy constituent geraniol, for example, can be added to rose oil to extend it, but in the process, flattens out the scent.

Isolating a single constituent of rose is like isolating a personality trait, and claiming to know something about the whole person. I doubt any of us would like that very much! Nobody wants to be thought of as only gregarious, only proud, only smart, only funny, only a pain in the ass, only pretty. A flowers unique essence is made up of many things, just as we are, and to pin a couple of trope constituents on a formula created in a lab and slap the term rose on it, is as unconscionable (and comes from the same sad impulse) as bigotry and the creation of stereotypes.

Artificial aromas and flavors are so one-dimensional. And we’ve grown used to it. Eat a cherry flavored candy and you may name it as such, but what resemblance does the cherry flavor candy have to the real thing? Almost nothing. And unfortunately so many of us are weaned on such artificial flavors that we must be reeducated. Even “natural” flavors ought to be suspect in our noses as what is meant by “natural flavors” are organic compounds isolated and reconstituted to create a one-dimensional and highly duplicable taste. Cherries taste all kinds of ways in nature but only one way in a Skittle.

Before I remove my teeth from this subject, allow me to worry the bastards over at Febreze.

I don’t know if you’ve witnessed their ad campaign centered around the tawdry word “noseblind,” but let me just say that as a blind person (extremely tolerant of the liberal use of blindness as a metaphor), I find this term infuriating. I am blind. It is not a great thing to be, but it works its magic in its own particular and mysterious ways. Don’t take it away from me because you are lazy, because you know no actual blind people, or because you fancy them so far away that they would not even be watching, sorry listening to, television.

Why not nosedeaf, thank you very much. Certainly viewers would sniff at the thought of it!

You, Febreze, peddlers of terrible synthetic smells, coiners of mean and unnecessary words, create that which you profess to mitigate. I’ve walked into stores scented with your fruity monstrosities and fell to my knees, praying for anosmia. Anosmia is by the way the word you are wanting, and I suspect a willful ignorance, and kowtowing to the lowest common denominator, who may be put off by a word they do not know, keeps you from using it.

AAAH! Sometimes I truly hate this world with so much contriving that the very truth one professes, is in fact its opposite. And people eat it up. With their thought deafness and their mind blindness, and, above all, their tastelessness.

Quit being satisfied with the fakes, people. Demand the real. It may cost more, but as I mentioned in Sandalwood Love, there is nothing wrong with embracing the scarcity and complexity of precious things. I think it is not going so far to say that if you can’t appreciate these things in a flower, how can you recognize them in a person?

Rosa damascena postcard by resolute

*This is essay #7 of #52essays2017, written with all four senses and remembered sight. Read my previous essay “1984: Late to the Party Again” here*

Ylang-Ylang: Calming the Panic of Love & Memory, Essay 5 of #52essays2017

Cananga odorata illustrated in Francisco Manuel Blanco's Flora de Filipinas. 1800-1803?. Public domain from Wikipedia.When I first read about ylang-ylang (Cananga odorata), I’d no smell associations, but I was intrigued because it is included in so many aphrodisiac blends. It is both relaxing and stimulating, which is a fabulous combination when you’re trying to get it on.

Then I smelled ylang-ylang out of a labeled essential oil bottle, and I realized I’d smelled it before. I was transported to the sexy time in my life when I could walk around unaided–no white cane, no guide dog, no boyfriend. I’d just arrived in New York City and I could see well enough to walk around without mobility help, but not well enough to read signs or see into shops.

I was a grad student at NYU and was visually impaired, but if you saw me walking around campus, you would not know that I was not like everybody else, unless of course you knew me and therefore knew not to be offended that I did not recognize you. If you recognized me from a class but did not know that I was visually impaired, you likely thought my lack of acknowledgement meant I was a snob. Anyway, in those days of wandering around enjoying the feel of walking if not the visuals that many peripatetics associate with the activity, I regularly got slapped pleasantly in the face by a smell that emanated from a large and bustling shop–perhaps a hair salon–that sat on the corner of Waverly and Sixth.

Each time I walked by, I would hesitate and want to enter, wondering what it was because that smell reminded me of an earlier scent memory. I’d coveted the brilliantly colored hair on the box of Salon Barbie, and her dyes–red, purple and black–smelled of what I now suspect to have been some kind of synthetic ylang-ylang. The smell stuck with me though any fun I may have derived from the oddly punk rock toy has completely evaporated.

That said, I was never a very olfactory-oriented person but rather a visual one. I can still see the photograph on the box of that damn doll with its perfect purple hair quite plainly in my mind’s eye. I still feel like a visual person, but I’ve not got the sensory inlets going anymore, only the imagination and the hallucinations.

The deprivation has finally led me to appreciate smell, and recently I find that I get a little depressed if I don’t have any around–pleasant ones I mean–those that I can control, or at least name and manipulate. The fakey-wakey smell of my cheap-ass Dove “cucumber” shampoo does not count.

Though I cannot, at present, afford to have everything be blessed by natural fragrances, I fantasize about a future wherein I will have complete control of my smellscape. I underline the word fantasize here, because though I long for the day when I can indulge in all the aromas I read about and lust after, having complete control over what enters the nose is of course impossible, as smells permeate all, and each person has their own. Sadly my smellscape could not be vacuum-sealed unless I had no desire to go out or have sex.

Godin brushing hair reflected in antique vanity mirror

Speaking of sex, let’s return to the heady floral scent of the tropics.Ylang-ylang, long admired in its native islands of the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia for its good effects on libido, skin and hair, grew commonplace in far-away England as Macassar Oil, which was so popular as a styling product for men, that doilies were soon required to protect the backs of upholstered furniture. As mentioned in Aroma Victoriana, the men and women of 19th century England were as mixed up and contradictory as any society, and so it is likely the sensual fragrance of ylang-ylang, reminiscent of bodies barely clad and warmed by the sun, was likely more than one kind of bother in the buttoned-up drawing rooms.

But ylang-ylang is more than an aphrodisiac, or rather, its effects on the libido result from its ability to relax and regulate extreme emotions and to calm the physical and mental effects of anxiety. As Peter Holmes remarks in Aromatica:

” In dealing deftly with intense emotions, Ylang ylang bestows a relaxing, softening, harmonizing and lightening grace over the energetic Heart – a function that is expressed in Chinese medicine as ‘nourishing Heart Blood.’ Its ability to transform dark negativity into lightness and positivity is perhaps unique. In opening us to the lightness of being, Ylang ylang is clearly a remedy for the soul as much as for the body.”

Jar of Yes Organic Ylang-ylang rose night cream on antique vanityLiving now as a vagabond, my essential oil collection has dwindled. Knowing this, my best friend and owner of Yes Organic Boutique, gave me a beautiful cream made with ylang-ylang and rose essential oils. I slather it on at night to smooth the wrinkles of face and psyche. The calming effects of ylang-ylang have been of particular interest to the latter, which has recently been subject to panic attacks.

I was a panic-prone person in my twenties, so I can’t blame it all on aging and blindness, but these two aspects combined with the recent casting off, has allowed the sleeping giant to rise. The first panic struck on the plane from NYC to Denver and hit me again in the bus from Colorado Springs to Albuquerque. In lesser forms, it hits me in each new house, where even the simplest cupboard or table can present a problem–one can be mired in a cul-de-sac no bigger than a public bathroom stall when one cannot see. As mentioned in Winter Wonder Maze, I’m terrible at being blind, and worse when I feel people’s eyes on me. So, putting myself in the position of being in the households of others, with their crap acting as constant reminders of my lack of freedom and control seems an odd place to be. Stupid maybe.

And yet. And yet, who is truly free? My dear friends with house and car payments, children and spouses may be free to walk about the cabin, but they are not completely free either. Freedom comes in degrees, independence a balancing act.

My mother wonders why I do not get another guide dog. “You used to care so much for your independence,” she opines. She does not know how hard-fought and lonely it was. She does not feel the memory weight of its superficiality, tethered as it was to anger and the need for a love that I wielded like a club.

She also does not believe that in these strange blind cul-de-sacs there is another freedom, and the only one that may yet transcend this mortal coil. I will, like all of you, grow feeble, if I am permitted to live, and this body will be but a sack of memories of a time when the body was free. But if the mind is free, there is movement in the soul, right? And, just as those ancients used scent to communicate with the gods, I use smell to transport me out of this body that fears each vase-clad armoire as if it were an on-coming bus, this body that shuffles about like that of a very old person, slowly, carefully, with embarrassing trepidation.

If my worth were measured in my tiny steps taken , my life, like Prufrock’s measured out in coffee spoons, I would surely collapse in a heap of self-loathing. But if I follow the scent of the Tropics to a place where I can learn and learn and continue to learn, I do not feel old or blind or feeble. Not useless. On the pleasant smelling days, I believe myself to be an organism still sucking life and pleasure, in and out.

The trick is to follow the nose up and up into the rarified air of the unforeseeable future.

The trick is not to panic.

The trick is to keep breathing, nostrils flared as if smelling a flower for the very first time.

 

*This is essay 5 of #52essays2017, written with all four senses and remembered sight. Read my previous essay Hannibal: From Acting to Aromatics here*

Distillation Installation: With All Four Senses and Remembered Sight

Godin with head at Stravinsky's level on braille table top

Seventeen years of living in a three-bedroom Astoria apartment distilled into one art installation: so much lost and gained; so many things dismantled and recreated; so many memories… I lived and worked in every room of that home. Beginning in the front room with my first guide dog and the boyfriend whose munificence allowed me to remain long after us, to the back room where I came into being as a blind person and an artist. Once I looked out the window to fire escape and cherry tree, the identical buildings across the yards, but, upon my departure, I saw only a pixilated rectangle of light.

I last moved towards that window to open the curtains for Stravinsky, a creeping pothos (Epipremnum aureum) I bought to commemorate the untimely death of my second guide dog Igor. Igor’s poem, To Stravinsky, ensured that his plant spirit would occupy the living center of Distillation Installation. Also his small relics made into a piece whose description sounded, “Glue on memories.” (I audio labelled title and description cards with my PenFriend, dots that speak with my voice when touched with tip, analogue/digital magic!)

Finally, in later years, I came to rest in the dark corner room, dubbed the bat cave. Its purple walls with a genie providing pulsating light and smellscape in the last days, days when future was uncertain about everything except the important things: art and love, love and art, warm stability with our two hearts knocking out a stronger beat, keeping up the simple hard tune, “desire is suffering, desire is suffering, desire is suffering…”

So much potential had to be tossed. Braille books and maps, fabrics that wanted sewing, yarn that wanted knitting, paints that wanted painting–so many things collected and hoarded in the late stages of dissertation-that-wanted-writing. Throwing so many things out seemed so sad–so much potential lost that I conceived making an installation out of some precious drops of it. for months, I put things that might be of value in one corner and made bags for the street scavengers to pick through and utilize, minimizing landfill.

Godin with her hand sewn dresses hanging high.

I’d decided years ago that I had enough clothes and began repurposing. Too many things in the world. Too much crap. I kept ahold of my crap so that I would not be so tempted to buy new crap. With that in mind I first put fringe on deconstructed sweater and kept on with my refashioning old things into new by hand sewing. But of course, there are always things to buy that are not clothes–technology and musical instruments–and I can’t make shoes…

Distillation Installation manifested in the once-living room, the home’s center, with tin ceiling painted over long before I arrived. As I worked, around me as I sorted, discarded and built, its cracked paint fell about me in apocalyptic chips.

The braille blinds were the first part of the installation. “See ya later world,” I thought as I sewed double-pages of a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde braille book together, and lay them in cascading strips from the wrought iron double bar curtain rods bought in the early years of domesticity.

Then began the odoriferous papier-mâché experimentations. If I’d had a budget I would have invested much more heavily on smells, because flour takes a scent, is cheap, and good for sticking odd things together (pink taffeta on shovel) and mummifying others (drum music on accordion), but aromatic distillats, the cells of plant matter burst asunder to capture their aromas in oil or water, are rightly expensive. In the end, I could not give each piece a signature scent. But the room was scented: eucalyptus (Eucalyptus plenissima) and lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) bubbled in the ultrasonic diffuser in the Never Be Sorry exhibit, and in the corner under Prague Castle, a fan diffuser blew sweet orange (Citrus sinensis) and black spruce (Picea mariana), while the hanging braille cranes were lovingly spritzed with orange blossom water from the bitter orange tree (Citrus aurantium).

Godin tilting sunglasses at hanging braille origami cranes.

My origami braille cranes–not a thousand as planned, but a lot–hung from wire hangers suspended on the five blades of the dusty ceiling fan with three colored lights–blue red green–in the center sockets for a soft organic look.

Beneath sat Stravinsky on his personal braille-mâché tabletop–the last-minute decision that worked well to create small gasps when the curtain opened on the night of the goodbye tours.

I see it all in my mind’s eye and am proud to have done this thing–compensatory vanity! And why not cover over the mirrors (if I can’t look at myself why should anyone else?)–the gilt one sacrificed its mirrorness first, covered over by gold dust and finger paint scrawl, “Never Be Sorry,” another poem-inspired exhibit.

and “by following the scent” near the end–mirror removed from useless vanity, covered and dusted in mist and pink lipstick. Goodbye to the stage and the music and the light. Hello dazzlement and words and another trip in new places. No guilt just a bomb left behind, time tick tocking until another home will be made and destroyed, until the end when I leave all homes for the last time, leaving behind a fine distillation of my experience of the world, overwhelmingly flavored by brilliant hallucinations and this long eye disease my life.

Godin pointing at her self portrait, an abstract finger painted head on a reflector tape wall.

[All images by Geo Geller. Check out our conversation in Distillation Installation HERE!]

Sandalwood Love: Heart(wood) in a Bottle

Sandalwood reminds me of entering homes with objects from faraway lands. My aunt and uncle had such a home as this, with artifacts collected in world travels scenting the almost sacred space. When I entered the familiar yet exotic realm, my child’s imagination and consciousness expanded to include worlds beyond the tiny one I occupied.

 

As Deniz Ataman, managing editor at Perfumer & Flavorist put it in an email, “At the root of it, perfumery is about sharing the essence of the Earth’s spirit and creating beauty for others to enjoy.”
Earlier this year, Perfumer & Flavorist teamed up with The American Society of Perfumers (ASP) and TFS (an Australian company sustainably growing and harvesting Santalum album) in a perfume contest using this precious commodity. It was in fact this competition that inspired me to write about sandalwood, because, as I mentioned in Aroma Victoriana, it is an unfortunate age-old tradition in perfumery to be secretive, and the World Perfumery Congress (WPC) is one of the few places where the spotlight shines on the perfumer, instead of the hype of a brand or celebrity so common in the fragrance industry.

 

Ataman attests to the excitement of this unique competition, “Working with the American Society of Perfumers and TFS Corporation for the perfume contest was one of the highlights of my career. Our team was fortunate enough to participate in the judging with five other perfumers. It was quite an experience to watch a perfumer in action–it’s not just about smelling. It’s about experiencing, it’s about unlocking your memory and traveling to forgotten places.”

Jennifer Jambon, a perfumer at Molton Brown (London), won the competition. In its announcement article, TFS quoted The president of ASP, Chris Diienno, explaining her win:

 

“Jennifer Jambon’s winning fragrance topped a world class selection of contenders by striking a delectable balance of complimentary notes. Capturing the magic of the TFS sandalwood, she exposed it just enough to allow it to peek out and blend with the beautiful orris accord she had developed. This gave an elegance to the creation that became the determining factor for the judges,”

 

Sandalwood is one of the building block materials in both men’s and women’s fragrances. In fact, the oft quoted figure from Michael Edwards “the perfume experts’ expert,” is that approximately 47 percent of all fragrances since 1790 contain sandalwood notes.

 

Considering the demand, it’s no wonder Sandalwood (Santalum album) has been for decades overharvested and endangered. Thus, the WPC’s 2016 theme of Scents and Sustainability had a focal point in the work of TFS.

 

Sandalwood oil derives from the heartwood of a mature tree. There is much oil in the roots, so in order to yield the full potential of oil, the tree must be uprooted, the outer bark and branches stripped away, the inner pulverized and then steam distilled. In India, Santalum album is endangered and even threatened with extinction. Although the Indian government has done much to regulate the buying and selling of the oil which sells at upwards of $2000 per kilo, poaching is obviously a problem, and enforcement difficult.

 

As Keville and Green put it in Aromatherapy, “Sandalwood has a long history of being overharvested everywhere it grows, and it is difficult to cultivate and grows very slowly, taking twenty to fifty years to reach maturity.”

 

The time it takes to grow sandalwood is clearly at odds with the desire to be a profitable business. Keville and Green conclude their section on sandalwood as a “threatened essential oil plant” (alongside rosewood and spikenard) thus: “India’s sandalwood trade dropped in half during the 1980s. Replanting efforts and the control of poaching have been difficult. Some landowners actually cut down the trees rather than risk poachers, who often arrive armed and dangerous.”

 

In fact, according to a 2014 article at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), rangers are killed for protecting nature’s pricey offerings: “Almost 60% of all rangers killed this year are from Asia, with the majority of those from India. India, Thailand, Kenya and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) have seen the sharpest increase in ranger deaths caused by poachers in recent years. Areas rich in elephants, rhinos, sandalwood, rosewood and other valuable resources are most affected.”

 

Besides being a precious commodity for which people have been killed, sandalwood takes time and special effort to grow. Sandalwood, like its relative the European mistletoe, is hemiparasitic. The hemi means that the plant contains chlorophyll, and therefore carries out some photosynthesis, but derives a great deal of nutrients from neighboring trees. So, while human poachers are after sandalwood’s heartwood, the sandalwood tree is sucking the life out of its neighbors!

 

Hemiparasitic trees have specialized roots called haustoria that attached themselves to the root systems of other trees and pilfer their nutrients. Emma Mende, a forester who works with the TFS team in Australia’s tropical north, growing over 4.5 million Indian sandalwood trees and 10 million host trees, describes the endeavor in a brief Q&A:

 

“Over the course of an Indian sandalwood tree’s life it will use around 3 different host trees. While we plant all of the host trees in the plantations at the same time, the Indian sandalwood tree will move from the pot host to the fast growing medium-term host which is strong enough to support the nutrient requirements of the Indian sandalwood tree. Once the medium-term host tree dies at around 3 years of age, the Indian sandalwood tree will move to the long-term host which by that stage is strong enough to sustain the Indian sandalwood tree’s growth. The Indian sandalwood (Santalum album) will then host on this tree for the rest of its life.”

 

She concludes by making the connection between the forester’s job and oil production:

 

“To achieve the best yields this parasitic relationship needs to be carefully managed even from the seedling stage. This is because the development of heartwood in a stem is largely dependent upon diameter growth early in an Indian sandalwood tree’s life. This is important since fatter (larger diameter) trees generally have more heartwood and therefore offer more oil yield.”

Since the original publication of this article in my Distill My Heart column at Quail Bell Magazine, I have had the privilege of smelling TFS Sandalwood, and it is glorious! But as I’d not yet got my nose on the TFS Santalum album and in order to learn some distinction between species, I travelled to NYC’s West Village to the beautiful aromatherapy supply store Enfleurage, where I purchased a tiny vile–2ml–of Santalum album from Indonesia.

I also got to do a little comparison contrast with another species of sandalwood native to Australia, Santalum spicatum, which was much stronger and in some ways seemed more familiar, more easily recognizable, intellectually anyway, as sandalwood. It poked me in the nose and announced itself, “I’m sandalwood!” In other words, not a terrible smell, just a little over-friendly, bordering on aggressively pleasant, like an ambitious salesperson.

On the other hand, the Santalum album drifted into my consciousness as if from a tiny box of exotic treasures rarely opened. When I got it home I put a drop in my palm and rubbed the woodsy warmth around. Creamy sweet and softly spicy, this lingering scent is ambiguously seductive, being neither too feminine nor too masculine. I’m smelling myself right now, and I smell delicious!

In response to my follow-up email, Joe Richkus (who teaches many of the free classes at Enfleurage) wrote that the Indonesian trees that provide the oil they carry are left to grow for forty years before they are harvested and added, “It could be a lot better, but that’s a happy medium given the climate for fast profit today.  The older the tree, the better the oil.”

Hence, sandalwood is necessarily expensive. My little 2ml vile of deliciousness cost me $25 at Enfleurage, and at Organic Infusions I see they are selling Santalum album (CO2 extracted) for $94 for 5ml. One of my favorite aromatherapy shops, Stillpoint Aromatics does not carry S. album, but carries Royal Hawaiian (Santalum paniculatum for $300/oz.

In other words, if the stuff is cheap, chances are it is not sandalwood at all but another genus altogether, such as Amyris. Also, real sandalwood may be adulterated with a synthetic, such as Sandela or Javanol, which can work, albeit with much fussing, in perfumery, but may run you into trouble if you try to use it medicinally or in aromatherapy.

Sandalwood has had many uses through the ages, and so the peddling of fake or adulterated sandalwood is nothing new. In Sandalwood and Carrion, James McHugh writes, “Sandalwood is arguably as important a raw material to South Asian religions and civilization as jade is to China or porphyry was to the Roman Empire at certain times. … Taking sandalwood as an example, I present several texts on the evaluation and artifice of aromatics and conclude that faking this costly material was clearly both common and very profitable.”

 

There is so much to say about a product of nature prized for millennia, that I will wind this potentially book-length subject down with this insightful comment from McHugh, “things smelled differently in early and medieval South Asia than they do today: not only were there many different odorants to smell (more elephants and sandalwood for example, at least in certain circles), but, more important, things smelled differently because of what was in people’s heads when they smelled things.”

 

In conclusion, I offer this thought: When an exotic fragrance is, by ingenuity and cunning, distilled and transported so far from its natural and cultural habitat, to land like an arrow from nowhere into our noses, we skirt the dangers of simple appropriation. A quick Google search for “sandalwood” will find you thousands of posts about the marvelously spiritual effects of sandalwood, which appeal I think to our sometimes untethered experience of modernity. Perhaps learning a little bit about the tree that gives its life for our pleasure will help us to feel less greedy about having it in our lives, and realize that our demands for natural must necessarily be costly. It is up to us to decide if the costs should be suffered by our pocketbooks or the environment. If we are ok with taking the hit financially, then a 2ml vile of the essence of Santalum album’s heartwood offers an olfactory expansion of our personal smellscape that is not otherwise quantifiable.