Saturday, March 12, 2011


Once in a while I will unexpected catch the sharp stink of hot metal: molten bronze, welded iron, a blacksmithy.  It sweeps me back to the high alert of our foundry in the Sixties, the Bighorn Foundry because it had a row of full-curl bighorn skulls along the eaves.  We were always aware that what we were doing, melting bronze and pouring it into a baked mold,  came from the beginning of the Bronze Age when humans squatted by a small hot fire doing the same thing.  Therefore, a recent remarkable  post on  struck me.  After all, I have the scents of ferric nitrate, copper nitrate, liver of sulphur, and nitric acid literally deep within me from the days when I stood all day patining and inhaling molecules from heating sculptures and steaming those chemicals into chemical reactions with the bronze surfaces and my alveolar lungs.
I am in the habit of smudging when I make my morning coffee.  I grow a bed of sweetgrass in order to throw a pinch of it on the hot stove burner after I make my morning coffee,  the brief smoke a sort of fragrant prayer.  
So this particular post from went to my heart, startling though it is.  Octavian Coifan usually talks about historical perfumes and complains about the degeneration of once memorable and intense scents into baby smells: pretty, fruity, and even tinted pink.  This time he went into the future and found there -- the past.  I quote:
“A long time ago I "predicted" the appearance of a new direction - smoke, burnt things, caramelized resins, and all the spectrum of notes that share this empyreumatic facet in an oriental or woody context. Metaphorically this will be a return to the first experiences of man with scents, thousands of years ago, when he discovered how some things are smelling pleasant when they are burnt.
Today in Paris I am surrounded by (exotic) fruits, flowers from all around the globe, spices, beautiful perfumes and like any consumer space and time (the seasons) are no more a impediment to enjoy the natural beauty. But this is quite unique in the history of our race.
About 15 000 years ago the climate and the landscape was rather different in Europe. Forget oranges, bananas, vanilla, even rose and jasmine and try to figure out the scents of the "Ice Age". It is said that we cannot mourn what we've never had or knew. All these scents were theoretically unknown here, even if a "glimpse" could be found in some European wild herbs. But we started our journey on this planet in a much different landscape, before the earliest migrations out of Africa, 50,000 years ago, witnessed by the straits of Bab-el-Mandeb. Do we carry an "olfactory souvenir" in our genes and the discovery and use of aromatic plants is our conquest of "the lost paradise"?
In the post about "singularity and living memory" with the reflection about the scent in the world of androids / replicants, there was something suggesting the mood of the 1982 masterpiece, Bladerunner. This movie is set in 2019 and let us imagine that in the future some catastrophic event might hit this planet. What is shocking inside all these apocalyptic visions is the destruction of the natural environment. What would disappear are also the scents as we know them today - not exactly the perfumes, but the scents of living things, the fruits, the flowers, the trees. What you could enjoy today in every public park would become the sinister metropolis with a scent of fire and smoke, so beautifully depicted in the opening scene from Bladerunner, or the pure white "virtual" universe from Matrix. In both cases lose contact with the "real thing" and our food will become a "pill". . .
In this universe a new place will appear, much similar to the opium smoking rooms in China, and here you can experience the real thing - the scent of an apple, a blooming rose, a juicy grapefruit or the scent of somebody you loved and lost before the Event.
About 10 years ago, The Demeter Fragrance Library did something unique, capturing those basic scents of life, not exactly perfumes, but more a fraction or a quote from our environment. The core exhibition of the UK pavilion for the "Expo 2010 Shanghai" presented a "Seed Cathedral" where visitors were surrounded by the seeds in a 20-meter-high hollow cube with 60,000-plus transparent acrylic rods. If the seeds of plants are preserved by botanic institutes around the globe, the scents of our world are not "preserved", analyzed, they are not even known and classified. We consider scent either futile or commercial, we are focused on how we smell (biology, psychology, etc) and less on what we smell. Libraries, as a collection of humankind knowledge, have started thousands of years ago. Libraries of scent (from the specific scent of a flower, an exotic wood to a perfume) are utopian even in 2011. Who would invest in something that captures the "air"? There are only 3-4 places in the world where this information has been gathered, but not really available even for the perfumers working for these companies. If tomorrow the 2019 scene from Bladerunner takes place, we'll understand the crucial role of the perfumer in our society, the only one who is able to understand and master a sense that was considered too futile. 
When I was a child, my parents went to some event in Pendleton,  OR, probably the roundup, and brought me back a little doll, a kind that has a name I forget.  It’s really just a head with a body like a beanbag, wrapped in a bit of flannel to look like a sitting Indian in a blanket.  It smelled of smoke.  I loved it.  
I love the smell of smoke-tanned buckskin.  The smell of Indian Days was for me cottonwood fires (Bob used to smudge cottonwood bark in the evenings), now replaced by propane or electricity.  The smell of the Bundle Openings was old bird skins and rope tobacco, the big leaves simply twisted and dried, looking almost like dry meat.  You can have your delicate madeleines dipped in elderflower tea.  I crave those old funky alerting smells.  
Empyreumatic.  I never had a word for it before.  Not the smells of holocaust and death-dealing disaster like Japan right now, but rather a daily, homely, human smell.  Sometimes on chilly evenings the scent of neighbors’ woodfires slip under my doors.  It’s reassuring. I do not expect a smellsample of it to turn up as an insert in Vanity Fair.  So I came back here.

1 comment:

prairie mary said...

This comment comes from aad de gide, my poet friend in the Netherlands, who is also a perfume aficionado:

a lovely blog mary,about the smokey scents.
how this genial man (octavian coifan) writes about empyreumatic scents is alluring. pyromaniacs,pyrotechnics. i also never heard of this word. but it clearly burns.

i also like smokey scents. in nature,which i have scented far less than you,
and in....perfumes. because they are already there. now i take a walk to my vitrine,and seek some out for ya......

out of my head,is “aromatics elixir” from clinique definitely a smokey scent.
people either abhorr or love it. it is very pungent,also orientalistic,but the strangeness of the smokeyness prevails,i think.

“noir patchouli”,from “histoires the,is definitely also a smokey scent.

“cuir ottoman”,from “parfums d’empire”.paris, also,is a smokey perfume.

“cabochard” de “grès”.paris. patchouli based,a kind of sharp,smokey scent.

“arabie” de serge

“daim blonde” de serge

“black orchid” from tom ford. new york.

“labdanum” from “le labo”. york.

i have them all because i like smokey, heavy, whorey,sinistre,a bit wrong.