Saturday, October 25, 2014


A one-celled animal

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.

When we were operating the Scriver Museum of Montana Wildlife, which was attached to the Scriver Taxidermy Studio, we were careful to make sure there were no offensive smells during tourist season.  (In hunting season there might be bears to skin -- they smelled like wet dogs unless they’d been traveling in conifers, which made them smell like Christmas trees.)  In treating skins we used borax, one of the oldest ingredients of Egyptian mummification recipes.  People who can smell it at all associate it with laundry soap.  Rubber latex, smelling of 1,4-polyisoprene, was one of our usual substances, as was plastilene, clay kneaded into a waxy petroleum base.

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.  

My time in the ministry was on the prairie in the Eighties when people still related to sweet clover and new-cut alfalfa as good things.  But the last time I visited my home Portland church there was a sign on the door forbidding anyone wearing perfume from entering because of allergies.  (I haven’t been back.  Why would I go to a place that’s allergic to me?)  In fact, close to the end of my circuit-riding there was a parent who asked us not to use smudges because her child was allergic.  This strange chemical asceticism is quite serious and I didn’t fight it.  People die of peanut allergies.  But it’s a loss.  Now we can only name the smells and hope people will be able to summon them up in memory.  

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. 

Oak Moss

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. 

Bleach, ammonia, Lifeboy soap, naptha, lemon oil, Old English polish -- all potent smells but none used in religious ceremonies that I know of.  Nevertheless, they creep into the big empty spaces that are churches and form a felted background to the damp coats and galoshes of worshippers.  Sometimes there is a hint of baby powder.

The neuron olfactory receptors in the nose are projected extensions of the original nose, which is the bulbs deep under the “new” brain, same as the neuron light receptors are eyeballs on the ends of the optic nerves that extend back to the real sight deciphering organs at the back of the head, close to the top of the old brain.  All this description is merely meant to evoke your own associations, especially those that are deep in the old brain, the limbic system, where the real meanings are felt, not just asserted.

This is not a pitch for scented candles in the sanctuary.  Many of them are toxic offenders -- I’ve known them to make people faint -- which is why beeswax is recommended.  It’s a benign sweet smell.  Nor am I saying one should sprinkle cinnamon or mint leaves around or install one of those scent dispensers they use in stores to make you happy enough to fork out money -- though that’s a thought!  Rather this is an invitation to sit in your religious place and "see" what you smell.  Reflect about your own personal smell associations, because they won’t be the same as everyone else’s -- and yet you might share some.  

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.

If smell and touch are dangerous, sight and sound must take up the slack unless we begin to eat in church beyond Communion, which has also worried people who fear germs.  But religious institutions have always been good about providing images and music, printed words and spoken words.  It is recovering senses of spiritual individuality and coordinating them into a welcoming and meaningful communal experience that presents the challenge.  The basic forces of life are survival of the individual and survival of the group.  One of the functions of religious institutions is to keep the individual and the group from damaging each other -- helping them reinforce each other.

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