Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Good Scents

Shared laundry facilities can be a wonderful thing. Without our laundry room, I wouldn't have met Michelle, with whom I began by commiserating about a malfunctioning dryer and ended up in an ongoing smellfest.

Let me explain. Michelle, it turns out, is a breezy but serious sensualist, deeply immersed in all things olfactory, who writes professionally for and about the fragrance industry. She also writes a delightful and wide-ranging blog called Glass Petal Smoke. I told her that I have Parkinson's and that people with Parkinson's sometimes lose their sense of smell. Knowing this, I had been thinking of how I might be able to exercise my smelling apparatus, just as I exercise my muscles, in the hope of keeping my scent-sense alive.

Instant karma. Fast forward a few days and there we are, Michelle and I, at my dining room table. Before us sits a plastic tray containing some 70-odd vials of essential oils. They are grouped and ordered according to a system designed by a French parfumier to train the "noses" of his industry to discern scents, much as vintners learn to savor and analyze wine.

Michelle lays out small strips of blotting paper around the tray, like a white picket fence. She labels two strips with the name of the oil in the upper left corner of the tray (it's lemon), and dips the tiny wands into the oil. We each sniff a blotter and describe what we smell, writing down the words that come to mind: lemony (duh), bright, sweet, citrus. We repeat the process for the first 8 oils or so, all in the citrus group, with names like mandarin, grapefruit, and bitter orange. Then we move to the next group, oils with a citrus foundation and grassy tones. These smells seem more complex. We find notes of licorice, hints of cucumber, whiffs of hay.

Somewhere in the vicinity of 18 scents, we reach smell saturation and call it a day. My head is full of fragrances. I can't wait to do more. There is something relaxing, almost meditative, about focusing on smells in this way. This kind of concentration has to be good for people with Parkinsons, I think—it's a great settler of anxious tension, which I sometimes experience in tandem with the disease's hallmark rigidity and slowness. (The combination is like wanting to jump out of your skin while you are up to your neck in river silt.) I imagine doing yoga breathing to the sounds of R. Carlos Nakai's flute in a room suffused with sachets of lavender, peppermint, or lemon verbena.

It seems unlikely that any of this will hurt, and who knows how it might help? Our smelling apparatus is concentrated in a postage-stamp sized area in our nasal passages where neurons with globular heads are densely clustered, eager to make direct contact with the molecules that comprise various smells. This is the one and only place where the brain is in contact with the atmosphere, which is why inhaling drugs is the fastest way to get them to the brain. (You do have to be discriminating about what you inhale!) The idea that there could be a therapeutic effect from certain fragrances doesn’t seem to me to be far-fetched.

So thanks to Michelle and a crummy dryer, I'm now a dedicated aromaphile. My message to anyone lucky enough to have a functional olfactory system: Wake up and smell the coffee, the lemons, and the lavender.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I love the post about your friend and her essential oils, which brings to mind a few thoughts. The grandfather of a friend was the founder of IFF. Her husband, now employed at IFF, was learning to distinguish among different fragrances. During one of my visits, he demonstrated the "greens" and "browns" from unmarked little vials that he had to learn. What a great job! If you go to Paris, you might like to buy perfumes at Catherine's on Rue de Castiglione, a block from Place Vendome. French perfumes have longer staying power since they're made with potato alcohol. I remembered that each time I got the whiff of a woman passing on the street.

Reading Matter

  • David Howes, editor. Empire of the Senses: The Sensual Culture Reader. NY: Berg, 2005.