The oldest sense has got to be smell, which is the ability to decipher molecular clues from the environment. A one-celled animal must know what to go towards and what to avoid, which is at the core of smelling the environment. It is a sense historically most deeply related to worship as incense, oils, and burnt offerings. Two of the three natal gifts to the Baby Jesus were sources of scent. And yet smell is the most problematic of senses to use when designing ceremonies.
We burned “Campfire Memories,” an incense devised by a local biology teacher as a little side business. By some secret process, he ground up pine needles, got them to stick together in a paste and extruded them into “sticks” which did indeed smell like a campfire when burned. The Blackfeet, of course, constantly used smudges, especially sources of coumarin like sweetgrass or sweet pine (balsam pine), cedar and sage.
Do not come to my house if you are allergic to any smells. It’s not just the cats and the cat box that had to come inside because Crackers stopped using it otherwise. It’s that the earth under the house smells of volcanic clay (I leave the trapdoor open so I can monitor the ancient plumbing) and I smudge sweetgrass. Rather than using commercial deodorizers, I fling all the doors and windows open as long as the temperature allows.
I keep oils like sage and hippie mixtures on cotton in dishes. When I left Portland, a co-worker gave me a little blue bottle of mixed essential oils that she wore as perfume so I wouldn’t forget her. She bought it in one of the New Age shops on SE Hawthorne but over the years (15 now) the label has soaked up oil that obliterated the label so I can’t order more. (I never saw her again and she knew I wouldn’t.) But it’s easy to find sources by mail. If you like the mystique and have access, you could “wildcraft,” go looking on the land. Check out the damp places, sniff for mint.
When Leland stops by, he says the house smells like his grandmother. He means tobacco, strong coffee, cottonwood smoke, and Ben-gay. Maybe some Vicks Vaporub. (I put tobacco in with my Bundle Opening clothes to protect them.) I save all the perfume samples that come in magazines to tuck into shirt pockets and the underwear drawer, but the aromas have become insipid, both in the kind of smells and the intensity of the samples, even though the zines come in plastic envelopes to protect the sensitive.
In France some powerful ingredients of perfume are now illegal on grounds that they are carcinogenic. Claims are that the stuff causes sperm damage, hormone disruption (which is linked to some cancers, thyroid disease, obesity, diabetes, and other serious health problems), reproductive toxicity, and allergy problems. Oak moss is one of the casualties and happens to be in my all-time fav scent (Aliage) as well as Chanel No.5.
Aside from the intriguing poetics of smell, it is good to consider the patterns that develop under different contexts. Right now, disconcertingly, “touch” may be more toxic, allergic and contagious than smell. Due to fears about Ebola and flu, we are encouraged not to shake hands, but so far as I know no one has invited people to “pass the peace” by the suggested substitute: bumping elbows. Kissing and hugging, of course, are out, which does not worry we former stiff Presbyterians who were never into it anyway.