Laurel Wreaths: A Brief Hydrosol Encounter, Essay 9 of #52essays2017

Two glossy green Laurel leavesThis brief and admittedly drunken hydrosol encounter with laurel (Laurus nobilis) was inspired by Cathy Skipper’s Hydrosols class at the School for Aromatic Studies.

Last week I ordered my little arsenal of sensory indulgences from Aromatics International because they were the only (recommended) online aromatherapy shop I could find that was not sold out of this delicious hydrosol. It was my first time ordering from them, but I’ll definitely order from them again.

I must confess that I’m a slut when it comes to buying essential oils and hydrosols. It is my firm belief that not all companies can provide all your needs, they must have specialties, and expertise, and so as with clothes, groceries, booze, and pretty much everything else, I have no interest in shopping one place exclusively. My impression is that in the world of aromatics, it is best to steer clear of those companies that tell you they can fulfill all your needs, i.e. beware the multi-level marketing when it comes to aromatics, and probably everything else too.

Ok, enough PSA for today. Here’s my hydrosol encounter with one of my all-time favorite trees, the laurel.

For people who like the Earth and are sending away for healthy/botanical friendly stuff, there can be some guilt. It’s the opposite of buying local, but in New York City, it’s oddly difficult to get a hold of very many of the rapidly growing assortment of hydrosols that exist, though there is a lovely little aromatherapy shop in the West Village, Enfleurage, that has a marvelous selection of essential oils, less in the way of hydrosols. The point being that I appreciate minimal packaging, and Aromatics International did a great job–no extra crap in the way of brochures and pamphlets, no unnecessary wrapping–just biodegradable popcorn, pet bottles and a bit of packing tape around the tightly screwed tops. Perfect.

I ordered four products: three hydrosols to help me out with a couple recipes for my upcoming HONEYPOT article, and an impulse purchase of a new-to-me oil, Marula (Sclerocarya birrea), which is apparently great for the skin.

I opened the box without my boyfriend Alabaster being home, to find four identical (to the touch) 4-ounce bottles, but was unconcerned, because (blindness be damned) the ears and nose were all that was required in identifying these aromatic liquids.

First I shook the bottles and determined the oil from the waters by the sound. I could tell from the lower and slower sound flow, which was the marula, and smelled to confirm. Marula () is a nut oil, that is a carrier oil with little smell, but it is apparently very good for wrinkles… I’ll let you know…

Pink Pelargonium capitatum flowersThen I smelled the first of the hydrosols. The citrus note told me at once that this was the citrus geranium (Pelargonium capitatum), one of the rose geraniums used in perfumery, but distinctly more lemony than the Pelargonium graveolens, which I also purchased for comparison in martinis and on my face.

Last came the laurel (Laurus nobilis), and my nose did a little dance. How I love this noble leaf!

“Upon smelling,” I wrote in my first impression notes, “the top note is so surprisingly floral or fruity,–a fruit that is almost tropical, a fruit that I can almost name but cannot–that, with the distinctive bay leaf underpinnings, the sensation is almost orgasmic. Upon tasting, the fruity disappears and the whole pungent, spicy leaf smashes intensely on the tongue.”

Anyway, I added a bit of water, and then, without too much ado, some vodka… and then some ice, and well, the taste was pretty amazing. Granted I started out with a whole tablespoon of hydrosol, which is a lot, quite a bit more than a normal person or cocktail will desire. What can I say? This is a debauched hydrosol encounter.

“Ok, just added a touch more vodka to my now iced laurel and find that this is unbelievable; the peppery notes of the laurel sparkle. I want Alabaster to experience this taste with me, but he is cooking and filling the room with other smells. While I wait for him to try, and try not to drink the whole damn thing, I will remind myself of the mythical, poetical laurel…”

Apollo seated with lyre wearing laurel wreath.Apollo, Greek god of music, poetry and light, prophecy and excellence of all kinds, crowned his head, and the heads of winners, with laurel wreaths. To this very day we have poet laureates, and Nobel laureates and may we ourselves be crowned with laurels, but may we never rest on them.

I can, at this very moment, testify to the intoxicating effects of Laurus nobilis, but I will not claim knowledge of the Pythian priestess. Whether she delivered her prophecies in well-wrought verse or unintelligible gibberish I cannot say, but if I, dear reader, were able to deliver words of wisdom beyond the obvious “Know thyself,” I would say, “drink of the noble laurel, and your eyes will be opened.”

 

*This is a drunken essay 9 of #52essays2017, written with all four senses and remembered sight. Read my previous essay “Mapping & Mixing the Senses at the Mall of America” here*

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Mapping & Mixing the Senses at the Mall of America, Essay 8 of #52essays2017

This is my answer to the Mall of America Writer-in-Residence application question “What would you like to write about during your writer residency? ” which doubles as my #52essays2017, written with all four senses and remembered sight, offering this busy week of state and house-hopping.

Youthful Godin in a Paris Disney teacup

I will write about beauty with all four senses and remembered sight. What is beautiful to the nose, the ear, the tongue, fingertips, and yes the eyeballs too? How do the senses fare in one of the most stimulating places on Earth?

I will explore the nooks and crannies of taste , smell, touch, hearing and sight, collecting organic material to run through my synesthetic still. For the harder perceivable clumps I’ll have to use my wordsmith’s hammer and anvil of insight to pound out the contours of desire and satisfaction.

Denis Diderot, the philosopher, encyclopedist and art critic who in his last moments on Earth reached for the cherry compote, that is, died wanting more deliciousness, wrote, “I consider that of all the senses the eye was the most superficial, the ear the proudest, smell the most voluptuous, taste the profoundest and touch the most philosophical.”

In our daily musings at our desk, my laptop and I will test these hypotheses, and formulate new ones: If a pink flower is distilled into a bottle of perfume will my soul turn that hue upon my spritzing myself with it? Can a song-inspired designer make a dress that can teach me to dance? Can I ride choo choo trains to work and back again without hearing joy or sorrow? Can I write a love-letter to the tongues of universal taste? Will I touch my girlhood in a looking glass while wearing leather, or satin, or feathers, or ruby slippers, or in a tank of waving sea anemone? Can I enter my father’s boyhood, or my mother’s, more truthfully through taste, touch, or smell? Is there a perfect sight? A perfect sound? A perfect smell? Is asking for perfect sensations too ridiculous to entertain? What is the smell of laughter? Can you taste a smile? Can you buy lovely? Can you sell hunger? Where in the MOA can you find natural beauty? Unconventional beauty? Ugly beauty? Metaphorical beauty? Beauty for all the senses and the spirit too?

I once was sighted, but now I’m blind. Having lived on almost every notch of the sight -blindness continuum, I will comment about what was seen, what is to be seen and what might yet be seen with a little imagination and artistic cross-sensual translating.

Helen Keller wrote that our senses tell us very little without the spark of imagination: “Without imagination what a poor thing my world would be! My garden would be a silent patch of earth strewn with sticks of a variety of shapes and smells. But when the eye of my mind is opened to its beauty, the bare ground brightens beneath my feet, and the hedge-row bursts into leaf, and the rose-tree shakes its fragrance everywhere. I know how budding trees look, and I enter into the amorous joy of the mating birds, and this is the miracle of imagination.”

In my ramblings as the Mall of America Spectator, I will carve a path with Moses (my trusty white cane) leading others through the promised land of gratification. I will work the Mall’s sense organs, aesthetic appreciation, metaphysical gleemings, from the mind’s eye out. Together we will map the contours of ineffable, ineluctable, and sensational beauty. Together we will anatomize the feel of beautification, skin smoothers and brighteners, sleek lines of suits and stiletto heels, scents that attract men, attract women, woo the nostrils, and tickle the visual cortex. Like true adventurers, we will explore plush Furniture music, intricate lace movement, luxurious leather goods and thrills. We will hunt for the scented candle that reminds you of your professor’s library, of your baby’s cowlicked head, of your secret garden. We will hunt for the sound of mirrored astonishment, in the maze or in my sunglasses. We will do archaeological digs for glinting rocks, in nature stores and at jewelry counters. We will make a study of dolls’ dresses and dressing like dolls, as well as more sophisticated drone-toys and the taste of rose cocktail fizzes, truffle oil and high-piled hotdogs.

I promise to faithfully scribble down the gasps and whispers, truthfully set down the pleasures, curiosities and explorations, honestly pen the trends and heart-wishes of the Mall of America.

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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*

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Hannibal: From Acting to Aromatics, essay 4 of #52essays2017

Two winters ago, I got a call from my agent in LA to tape an audition for
Hannibal, and it led me on a journey from stars in my eyes to a brand-new appreciation of smell.

I was, as an actor, thoroughly green. I did not even know that for TV/film auditions you sit or stand still with the camera in your face and speak the lines with all the emotions your head can muster. You must have your lines memorized or virtually memorized. If you can see, you can bring in your sides and glance at them if necessary, but if you are blind, like me, you cannot rely on this visual blankie.

Speaking of blankies, I did not know that props are generally pooh-poohed, because I’d not yet read Marci Phillips helpful book The Present Actor until after the fact and learned that:

“Whatever people normally carry around with them is usually regarded as acceptable. A cellphone, iPod, blackberry, bottle of water, briefcase, bag, magazine, pad, pen, jacket, etc. are all fair game…. If you’re eating in a scene and you choose to bring actual food into your audition, make sure that you’ve given this a few trial runs at home first.”

I did not bring actual food into my audition coaching session but rather an eraser on a plate, which I mimicked eating like it, were pie with an actual fork.

It is difficult to say how terrible my self-tape audition would have been if my agent had not found me a professional coach with whom I could work for an hour (and film the self-tape) on the Sunday before the Monday when the tape was due. For those non-actors out there, I was lucky to get a couple extra days to memorize and rehearse because the call came on a Thursday night. As gently as possible the coach, Jonathan Hammond, took my eraser-plate away from me and told me that props came across as a little bit amateur.

I had received two scenes and both were familiar because I’d seen/heard the film Red Dragon many times, and read the novel at least twice when I received the call to audition. Reba McClane is one of the best blind characters ever to grace a novel, let alone a screen. Reba was created as a round and nuanced blind character–a rare and precious thing–by Thomas Harris in Red Dragon, the first of the Hannibal series, from which the films and then the TV series developed. Hence, I admit I was pretty excited and honored to be asked to audition. I tried not to think about how awesome a job Emily Watson did in the role.

The first scene I’d been given was the scene where Reba invites Francis Dolarhyde into her home, offers him pie, and tries to draw him out. It was different from the film. Reba’s memory of a cougar at the zoo reverted back to the original llama of the novel, but in each incarnation, the scene has a quirky charm driven by Reba’s rambling.

The second scene for my audition was totally different, scary. Dolarhyde has Reba tied up and she tries to understand his anger. Having done a little bit of theatre, I embarked on my home rehearsals by clinging and pleading melodramatically. Thankfully, Alabaster–who was helping me memorize my lines–told me to sit down and act tied up.

With rehearsals through the weekend about every couple hours, I had gotten it pretty good, but my real nervousness combined with the fact that Jonathan was a pro, took this scene to a level that gave me great insight into acting, and made me realize (once again) that I do not have the stomach for it.

Jonathan told me that the one who got the part would be the one who breaks the casting director’s heart. That was a revelation. I did it with him the second time to such an extent that I had to keep myself from crying after we were done. Alabaster had walked in and was like “wow.” It was so intense; I still remember the feeling of my heart pounding and the need to sob with wonder and amazement. I get why actors are fucked up. Feeling that intense for no reason does not feel any different than feeling that intense for personal reasons–the heartrate still skyrockets, and the body says fear or love or whatever. When it was over, I was confused. I’d never felt that intensely for something that was not a product of my own rumpled psyche. I suppose one taps into one’s own psyche to get there, but still, it was strange to feel that intensity while “acting”.

I can’t say that the taped third try was as good as that second one of memory, but for an untrained actor, I was proud to have pulled it off. In my own mind, I was working very hard to send a tape to my agent that was good enough for her to pass on to the casting director and not dump me. Just good enough to impress her. the idea of actually getting a part in one of NBC’s hottest dramas was impossible, though it’s hard after it’s all done to not have some stars in your eyes, and since I sent off my two scenes in the week before Christmas, I had three weeks to contemplate how the experience would change my life.

Poor Alabaster had to watch (and describe) the entire first season and part of the second of the horrifically graphic Hannibal. (The mushroom-feeding episode is one neither of us will ever forget.)

Also in those three weeks, I started thinking about and researching on-camera classes and found a super little school called MN Acting Studio. I read Matt Newton’s book and signed up for an on-camera class with Joseph starting the end of January.

And, I’m not sure exactly how it happened, but this was also the time that started me Googling DIY beauty. I think it was that I thought if I had another audition, I should probably do a little more with the way I looked. My outfit choice for my first big audition was more about the character I knew from the books than what they were probably looking for in a supporting role–the love-interest of a starring serial killer. I don’t think I gave my makeup or hair much thought.

Cheap beauty tricks led me to DIY facials, which led me to discover essential oils. I started buying essential oils and was amazed how smells that I’d smelled before now suddenly had names.

I read the monographs–part historical, part botanical–with wonder and excitement. I calmed my heart with lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) and my allergies with German chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla). There is something quite powerful in discovering chemical constituents for fun light self-medication. The new-discovered enjoyment of naming ylang-ylang (Cananga odorata) and putting a smell to the laurel (Laurus nobilis) of Apollo’s poets and prophetesses cannot be over-estimated.

It may be that reading through all the Hannibal books for the third time primed me for my smell explorations, as Hannibal Lecter is of course a olfactory -aesthete, but whatever the reason, reading about essential oils struck a nerve. Although two years is probably not enough time to gauge such things, I feel like this exploration has changed the course of my life.

I’m not saying that I plan on setting up shop as a serial killer, but I do appreciate the fact that Hannibal recognizes the beauty and importance of the oft-neglected sense–the fallen angel, as Helen Keller puts it.

Farmacia di Santa Maria Novella fragrance bar

In Harris’s novel Hannibal, we follow our favorite serial killer into the Farmacia di Santa Maria Novella, and relish with him the olfactory symphony:

“The air was music. Here were pale tears of frankincense awaiting extraction, yellow bergamot, sandalwood, cinnamon and mimosa in concert, over the sustaining ground notes of genuine ambergris, civet, castor from the beaver, and essence of the musk deer. Dr. Lecter sometimes entertained the illusion that he could smell with his hands, his arms and cheeks, that odor suffused him. That he could smell with his face and his heart.”

I did not get the part; they decided to go with Rutina Wesley (not blind) of True Blood fame. I can’t say I was not disappointed, but I’m happy to have been asked to audition, to be a part of a new and important entertainment revolution, to have people with disabilities represent themselves onscreen.

One of the dreams I nurtured during my three weeks of waiting was to go on talk shows and educate the public about the important but still nascent trend that will shape the face of entertainment as surely as it has been changed before. Soon having anything less than a deaf actor cast in a deaf role, or a blind person cast in a blind role or a wheelchair person cast in a wheelchair part will perhaps reveal itself to be as shameful and insulting as blackface. Until then, I open my nostrils to the tears of frankincense and the shy flowers of mimosa and imagine how sweet will be the revenge!

 

*This is #4 of #52essays2017, written with all four senses and remembered sight. Check out my previous essay The Voice of the Turtle here*

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Dying Into Being: Goethe and the corpse Flower

[This Distill My Heart about the infamous corpse flower and its unsavory pollinators is a little bit stinky creepy crawly, a little bit anthroposophical sweetness, and was first published at Quail Bell Magazine.]

 

Most people know Goethe as the author of Faust and other literary works. But Goethe was also a keen amateur botanist who was very proud of his scientific writings, despite the fact that they fell flat in his own time–both because he was not a member of the scientific community and because they seemed outlandish to his contemporaries. “Stick to poetry,” was the general consensus. His 1790 Metamorphosis of Plants was not fully appreciated until after Darwin’s theory of evolution established itself.

 

In their chapter on Goethe, the authors of The Secret Life of Plants (1973) present the poet-scientist against the backdrop of the cataloguing and classifying mania of the 18th and 19th centuries, and lament how that mania deprived the study of botany its vivacity:

 

“How many universities even now draw the parallel between the hermaphroditic nature of plants, which bear both penis and vagina in the same body, with the “ancient wisdom” which relates that man is descended from an androgynous predecessor? The ingenuity of some plants in avoiding self-fertilization is uncanny. Some kinds of palm trees even bear staminate flowers one year and pistillate the next. Whereas in grasses and cereals cross-fertilization is insured by the action of the wind, most other plants are cross-fertilized by birds and insects. Like animals and women, flowers exude a powerful and seductive odor when ready for mating. This causes a multitude of bees, birds, and butterflies to join in a Saturnalian rite of fecundation.”

Enter the corpse flower, the titan arum, whose Latin binomial, Amorphophallus titanum, refers to its giant (titanum), misshapen (amorpho), phallus-like spadix, which some say resembles more a French baguette.

 

In the past few weeks, the corpse flower has received a lot of attention as it has bloomed in the botanical gardens of three US cities: New York, Washington DC and Denver. My personal favorite, based on name alone, is Charlotte, the darling of the U.S. Botanic Garden.

 

In The Corpse Flower is Ready for its (Smelly) Close-up, published on August 2, the Washington Post warns:

 

“She took her own sweet time to unfurl the maroon cape that surrounds the central spike of the world’s largest unbranched flower. But that may be the only thing about Charlotte that is sweet. She opened at around 4 a.m. and by late morning was greeting visitors with odors that ranged from rotting cabbage to stinky trash and worse. Over the next few hours, and particularly Tuesday evening, her horticultural minders anticipate the flower to unleash the rotten flesh stink that gives it its common name.”

 

Amorphophallus titanum is a member of the angiosperm (flowering/fruiting) phylum, which is by far the most successful plant phylum with over 250,000 species. In terms of diversity, angiosperms are second only to the insect phylum, with whom they have flourished. In the push for genetic diversity, insects and angiosperms have been very cleverly doing the genetic mutation dance in tandem for about a hundred million years–remember that fun video of a bee humping an orchid?

 

As OpenStax Biology puts it, “Most flowers have a mutualistic pollinator, with the distinctive features of flowers reflecting the nature of the pollination agent. The relationship between pollinator and flower characteristics is one of the great examples of coevolution.”

 

This brings us to the corpse flower’s pollinators…

 

Sure, you can attract sweet-toothed bees and butterflies with nectar, but why compete with all those girly flowers? Corner the market on the smell of death, and the night’s creepy-crawlies are yours! The corpse flower bothers not with the masses but has rather made a name for itself in the niche-market that caters to flesh eating flies and beetles who come out at night for a snack and to lay their eggs in carcasses.

 

Instead of a slab o’ meat, these fellows find themselves trotting atop a giant flower, which, in addition to exuding convincing odor, generates heat in its Oscar-worthy portrayal of rotting flesh. Dazed and confused, the beetle or fly departs in search of the real thing and is (hopefully) foiled by another corpse flower, thereby delivering new genetic material for a new generation.

 

The corpse flower must open, attract pollinators and be pollinated all within a day or so, if it is not to have gone through all its work in vain. Allow me to reiterate the strangeness of plants, which, unlike most of us, possess both male and female organs. In other words, flowers can self-pollinate, though many, like the corpse flower open or activate their male and female sex organs in succession rather than concurrently in order to avoid this. The point is that flowering plants have developed ingenious ways of spreading their seed, and a marvelous diversity, foul and fair, has sprung from that evolutionary impulse.

 

The corpse flower is a member of the family araceae, which also includes the calla lily (Calla palustris). This is lucky for me, since I have never seen a corpse flower but have a very vivid visual memory of the sexy calla lily from my childhood backyard in San Francisco. I see quite clearly in my mind’s eye the large and elegant white spathe–what I would have called a petal–with its yellow finger-like thing sticking up out of it–I now know this to be called the spadix on which the actual flowers hang out. This is a good memory to have since all I have to do is enlarge the whole thing by several feet, color it burgundy and, ta-dah! Behold the titan arum. Please don’t pop my bubble if I’m wrong. I’m blind. Give me a break. Anyway, who gives a dam what the thing looks like? People don’t stand in long lines for the look of the thing. No. They flock to city botanical gardens in order to smell the stink!

 

But because the Titan arum reaches ripeness of stench in the middle of the night, visitors to botanical gardens featured in YouTube videos seem disappointed by the underwhelming gross-out quotient. Personally, living in New York City, where summer stinks abound, I felt not the least need to witness this smelltacular.

 

According to Titan arum’s Wikipedia page:

 

“Analyses of chemicals released by the spadix show the “stench” includes: dimethyl trisulfide (like limburger cheese), dimethyl disulfide, trimethylamine (rotting fish), isovaleric acid (sweaty socks), benzyl alcohol (sweet floral scent), phenol (like Chloraseptic), and indole (like human feces).”

 

Interestingly, I’ve run into this last before. Indole, despite its resemblance to poop, is a chemical constituent in some of the most beautiful-smelling flowers such as jasmine (Jasminum grandiflorum, J sambac, etc.) ( and ylang-ylang(Cananga odorata), which are both used in perfumery and aromatherapy for their calming, alluring and even aphrodisiac qualities. As Perfumes: The A-Z Guide puts it:

 

“One of the many difficulties that nature has strewn in the path of perfumers is the vexed problem of indole. Indole is a small molecule made up of a hexagonal ring and a pentagonal ring fused together and containing nitrogen. It and its kissing cousin skatole are breakdown products of the digestion of food and are therefore found in feces. They are also found in large amounts in white flowers such as jasmine, ylang, etc., possibly to attend to the eclectic tastes of pollinating insects. In the textbooks, their odor is described as “fecal, floral in dilution,” which is nonsense: they smell like shit when in shit, and like flowers when in flowers. By itself indole smells like ink and mothballs; skatole smells like bad teeth and that wonderful tripe sausage called andouillette. What, you ask, is the problem? If you measure the amount of indole in, say, jasmine oil and make up a synthetic mix with the same amount of the pure stuff, it will smell of mothballs whereas the natural one doesn’t. Why? Nobody knows. But that is the main reason why white-flower reconstitutions seldom have the back-of-the-throat rasp of the real thing. Perfumers put in as much indole as they dare, but usually stop short of the full dose.”

 

I think nature touches upon the uncanny with this not-quite-rightness of an ostensibly monolithic good or bad scent. Disgusting scents have a little flower sweetness (benzyl alcohol) to make them especially awful, while beautiful ones need a little nasty indole to keep them from being cloying.

 

As mentioned above, besides producing um, fragrance, the corpse flower is thermogenic (heat-producing)–stink + heat = convincing carrion!

 

Other colorfully/odoriferously named thermogenic members of the araceae family are: eastern skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus ), elephant foot yam (Amorphophallus paeoniifolius ), vvoodoo lily (Sauromatum venosum ), and dead horse arum lily (Helicodiceros muscivorus )–also stinky to attract flesh-loving flies.

 

The heat production takes a lot out of the plant, which is one reason why their bloom is so short. The corpse flower resembles a corpse more than a flower for much of its lifecycle.

 

After the corpse flower blooms and dies, a gigantic leaf–the size of a small tree–will rise from the corm. A corm is an underground modified stem used for energy storage that resembles a bulb or rhizome–the corm of the corpse flower is as outrageous as the rest of the plant, typically weighing over a hundred pounds. The leaf will work to store food-energy, then wither and fall off, leaving the giant corm to lie underground dormant for approximately four months, then the process will begin again.

 

The corpse flower’s contraction into the corm is a perfect segue back to Goethe, as his understanding of the lifecycle of a plant takes place in a series of expansions and contractions, each seeming entirely different from one another and yet all containing within them the potentiality of the whole plant.

 

So as we wave goodbye to the corpse flower bloom, I leave you with an anthroposophical flourish, found in Ernst Lehrs’ book Man or Matter; introduction to a spiritual understanding of nature on the basis of Goethe’s method of training observation and thought (1958):

“Compared with the leaf, the flower is a dying organ. This dying, however, is of a kind we may aptly call a ‘dying into being.’ Life in its mere vegetative form is here seen withdrawing in order that a higher manifestation of the spirit may take place.”

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Helen Keller on Smell, The Fallen Angel

[“SMELL, THE FALLEN ANGEL” is Chapter SIX of The World I Live In (originally published in 1908), a magnificent book that tells of sensations beyond seeing and hearing. It is also the book from which I took the heartbreaking preface that ends Helen Keller Tries To Tell You Her Story. This has been gently edited for apparent scanning errors and the odd British spellings Americanized. 

 

Helen Keller, with full dark hair and wearing a long dark dress, her face in partial profile, sits in a simple wooden chair. A locket hangs from a slender chain around her neck; in her hands is a magnolia, its large white flower surrounded by dark leaves.
Helen Keller, Los Angeles Times, 1920.

FOR some inexplicable reason the sense of smell does not hold the high position it deserves among its sisters. There is something of the fallen angel about it. When it woos us with woodland scents and beguiles us with the fragrance of lovely gardens, it is admitted frankly to our discourse. But when it gives us warning of something noxious in our vicinity, it is treated as if the demon had got the upper hand of the angel, and is relegated to outer darkness, punished for its faithful service. It is most difficult to keep the true significance of words when one discusses the prejudices of mankind, and I find it hard to give an account of odor-perceptions which shall be at once dignified and truthful.

In my experience smell is most important, and I find that there is high authority for the nobility of the sense which we have neglected and disparaged. It is recorded that the Lord commanded that incense be burnt before him continually with a sweet savor. I doubt if there is any sensation arising from sight more delightful than the odors which filter through sun-warmed, wind-tossed branches, or the tide of scents which swells, subsides, rises again wave on wave, filling the wide world with invisible sweetness. A whiff of the universe makes us dream of worlds we have never seen, recalls in a flash entire epochs of our dearest experience. I never smell daisies without living over again the ecstatic mornings that my teacher and I spent wandering in the fields, while I learned new words and the names of things. Smell is a potent wizard that transports us across a thousand miles and all the years we have lived. The odor of fruits wafts me to my Southern home, to my childish frolics in the peach orchard. Other odors, instantaneous and fleeting, cause my heart to dilate joyously or contract with remembered grief. Even as I think of smells, my nose is full of scents that start awake sweet memories of summers gone and ripening grain fields far away.

The faintest whiff from a meadow where the new-mown hay lies in the hot sun displaces the here and the now. I am back again in the old red barn. My little friends and I are playing in the haymow. A huge mow it is, packed with crisp, sweet hay, from the top of which the smallest child can reach the straining rafters. In their stalls beneath are the farm animals. Here is Jerry, unresponsive, unbeautiful Jerry, crunching his oats like a true pessimist, resolved to find his feed not good–at least not so good as it ought to be. Again I touch Brownie, eager, grateful little Brownie, ready to leave the juiciest fodder for a pat, straining his beautiful, slender neck for a caress. Nearby stands Lady Belle, with sweet, moist mouth, lazily extracting the sealed-up cordial from timothy and clover, and dreaming of deep June pastures and murmurous streams.

The sense of smell has told me of a coming storm hours before there was any sign of it visible. I notice first a throb of expectancy, a slight quiver, a concentration in my nostrils. As the storm draws nearer, my nostrils dilate the better to receive the flood of earth-odors which seem to multiply and extend, until I feel the splash of rain against my cheek. As the tempest departs, receding farther and farther, the odors fade, become fainter and fainter, and die away beyond the bar of space.

I know by smell the kind of house we enter. I have recognized an old-fashioned country house because it has several layers of odors, left by a succession of families, of plants, perfumes, and draperies.

In the evening quiet there are fewer vibrations than in the daytime, and then I rely more largely upon smell. The sulfuric scent of a match tells me that the lamps are being lighted. Later I note the wavering trail of odor that flits about and disappears. It is the curfew signal; the lights are out for the night.

Out of doors I am aware by smell and touch of the ground we tread and the places we pass. Sometimes, when there is no wind, the odors are so grouped that I know the character of the country, and can place a hayfield, a country store, a garden, a barn, a grove of pines, a farmhouse with the windows open.

The other day I went to walk toward a familiar wood. Suddenly a disturbing odor made me pause in dismay. Then followed a peculiar, measured jar, followed by dull, heavy thunder. I understood the odor and the jar only too well. The trees were being cut down. We climbed the stone wall to the left. It borders the wood which I have loved so long that it seems to be my peculiar possession. But to-day an unfamiliar rush of air and an unwonted outburst of sun told me that my tree friends were gone. The place was empty, like a deserted dwelling. I stretched out my hand. Where once stood the steadfast pines, great, beautiful, sweet, my hand touched raw, moist stumps. All about lay broken branches, like the antlers of stricken deer. The fragrant, piled-up sawdust swirled and tumbled about me. An unreasoning resentment flashed through me at this ruthless destruction of the beauty that I love. But there is no anger, no resentment in nature. The air is equally charged with the odors of life and of destruction, for death equally with growth forever ministers to all-conquering life. The sun shines as ever, and the winds riot through the newly opened spaces. I know that a new forest will spring where the old one stood, as beautiful, as beneficent.

Touch sensations are permanent and definite. Odors deviate and are fugitive, changing in their shades, degrees, and location. There is something else in odor which gives me a sense of distance. I should call it horizon–the line where odor and fancy meet at the farthest limit of scent.

Smell gives me more idea than touch or taste of the manner in which sight and hearing probably discharge their functions. Touch seems to reside in the object touched, because there is a contact of surfaces. In smell there is no notion of relievo [relief], and odor seems to reside not in the object smelt, but in the organ. Since I smell a tree at a distance, it is comprehensible to me that a person sees it without touching it. I am not puzzled over the fact that he receives it as an image on his retina without relievo, since my smell perceives the tree as a thin sphere with no fullness or content. By themselves, odors suggest nothing. I must learn by association to judge from them of distance, of place, and of the actions or the surroundings which are the usual occasions for them, just as I am told people judge from color, light, and sound.

 

From exhalations I learn much about people. I often know the work they are engaged in. The odors of wood, iron, paint, and drugs cling to the garments of those that work in them. Thus I can distinguish the carpenter from the ironworker, the artist from the mason or the chemist. When a person passes quickly from one place to another I get a scent impression of where he has been–the kitchen, the garden, or the sick-room. I gain pleasurable ideas of freshness and good taste from the odors of soap, toilet water, clean garments, woolen and silk stuffs, and gloves.

I have not, indeed, the all-knowing scent of the hound or the wild animal. None but the halt and the blind need fear my skill in pursuit; for there are other things besides water, stale trails, confusing cross tracks to put me at fault. Nevertheless, human odors are as varied and capable of recognition as hands and faces. The dear odors of those I love are so definite, so unmistakable, that nothing can quite obliterate them. If many years should elapse before I saw an intimate friend again, I think I should recognize his odor instantly in the heart of Africa, as promptly as would my brother that barks.

Once, long ago, in a crowded railway station, a lady kissed me as she hurried by. I had not touched even her dress. But she left a scent with her kiss which gave me a glimpse of her. The years are many since she kissed me. Yet her odor is fresh in my memory.

It is difficult to put into words the thing itself, the elusive person-odor. There seems to be no adequate vocabulary of smells, and I must fall back on approximate phrase and metaphor.

Some people have a vague, unsubstantial odor that floats about, mocking every effort to identify it. It is the will-o’-the-wisp of my olfactive experience. Sometimes I meet one who lacks a distinctive person-scent, and I seldom find such a one lively or entertaining. On the other hand, one who has a pungent odor often possesses great vitality, energy, and vigor of mind.

Masculine exhalations are as a rule stronger, more vivid, more widely differentiated than those of women. In the odor of young men there is something elemental, as of fire, storm, and salt sea. It pulsates with buoyancy and desire. It suggests all things strong and beautiful and joyous, and gives me a sense of physical happiness. I wonder if others observe that all infants have the same scent–pure, simple, undecipherable as their dormant personality. It is not until the age of six or seven that they begin to have perceptible individual odors. These develop and mature along with their mental and bodily powers.

 

What I have written about smell, especially person-smell, will perhaps be regarded as the abnormal sentiment of one who can have no idea of the “world of reality and beauty which the eye perceives.” There are people who are color-blind, people who are tone-deaf. Most people are smell-blind-and-deaf. We should not condemn a musical composition on the testimony of an ear which cannot distinguish one chord from another, or judge a picture by the verdict of a color-blind critic. The sensations of smell which cheer, inform, and broaden my life are not less pleasant merely because some critic who treads the wide, bright pathway of the eye has not cultivated his olfactive sense. Without the shy, fugitive, often unobserved sensations and the certainties which taste, smell, and touch give me, I should be obliged to take my conception of the universe wholly from others. I should lack the alchemy by which I now infuse into my world light, color, and the Protean spark. The sensuous reality which interthreads and supports all the gropings of my imagination would be shattered. The solid earth would melt from under my feet and disperse itself in space. The objects dear to my hands would become formless, dead things, and I should walk among them as among invisible ghosts.

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