This is a memory I can readily transport myself within:
A midsummer day on Georgian Bay. Turquoise waters lapping against pink granite dotted with bright orange lichen. The smell of sun-baked pine needles and sunscreen soaked skin...
What is it about scent that can feel otherworldly and can readily transport us back in time and to another place? The scent of a lover, a tart wine, your mother's perfume, the boreal forest in the fall. It is the sense of smell that outlasts all our other senses as we age. Learning how to appreciate scent means having access to lasting beauty.
Before continuing, consider lighting some incense and pouring a glass of wine. When I settle in to read about the history of perfume, I feel an overwhelming want to experience all things more wholly. To feel the details in the details. To savour that sip of wine. Appreciating the complexities of scent is an elegantly sensual experience. So tap into your inner roman goddess or god, and read on.
Roy Bedichek, in the novel Sense of Smell writes 'not vision, not hearing, touch, nor even taste–so nearly kin to smell–none other, only the nose calls up from the vastly deep with such verity those sham, cinematic materializations we call memories'.
Scent colours our memories.
I know for me, my memories are tightly bound by scent associations that remind me of people, emotions, or a time in my life. Rose Geranium with my Great Aunt Ada, the smell of the dry dusty prairies after a thunderstorm with worry over starting a masters, and the smell of bull kelp and stale beer on a pacific beach with feeling completely carefree. I could go on.
In The Picture of Dorian Gray, author Oscar Wilde describes the ability of scent to enter into the wellsprings of our emotions:
And so he would now study perfumes, and the secrets of their manufacture, distilling heavily-scented oils, and burning odorous gums from the East. He saw that there was no mood of the mind that had not its counterpart in the sensuous life, and set himself to discover their true relations, wondering what there was in frankincense that made one mystical, and in ambergris that stirred one’s passions, and in violets that woke the memory of dead romances, and in musk that troubled the brain, and in champak that stained the imagination; and seeking often to elaborate a real psychology of perfumes, and to estimate the several influences of sweet-smelling roots, and scented pollen-laden flower, of aromatic balms, and of dark and fragrant woods, of spikenard that sickens, of hovenia that makes men mad, and of aloes that are said to be able to expel melancholy from the soul.
Scent is one of the most underutilized, yet overstimulated senses.
'Most of us take our sense of smell for granted, leaving it to its own devices in a monotonous and oversaturated olfactory environment. We never think about its cultivation or enrichment...' - Mandy Aftel, Essence and Alchemy
The 'fragrance' aisle
Where we once had to rely on our keen sense of smell to survive, we are now inundated with overpowering synthetic iterations of the florals, gums, resins and oils that were once considered to be heavenly, or truly 'of the gods'. All ancient cultures have a relationship with scented plant material. The ancient Egyptians, the Romans, the Greeks, Hindu deities, the indigenous peoples of North America and more all have a unique natural history of scent appreciation.
Ancient Egyptian perfume production
From the utilitarian perspective, perfume is almost completely worthless. Yet it is partially because of perfume and odoriferous plant material that entire civilizations could flourish, and trade routes were established. All for pure epicurean pleasure—especially within ancient cultures where a tangible good could provide intangible transcendence (if you paid enough attention).