"The sense of smell is funny like that. Your sense of hearing, sight, touch and taste tends to keep you firmly in the present. But smells have a way of taking you out of time – just like Proust’s too often referred-to madeleines."
During a generous part of the year, the wintertime (and let me tell you, it feels like half of the year at least), we Northerners live bereft of our senses, in one way or another. This might sound exaggerated – but please, hear me out. Imagine that you are going for a walk, midwinter. The chilling winds numb your face, your hands and feet. Soon enough you won’t feel very much at all. Your sense of touch is gone.
The snow itself acts like a sound-absorbing blanket, not unlike the padding in a recording studio. So, you won’t hear much, either. There is one sound though, piercing through, accompanying you on your walk; the creaking from under your boots as you make your way across the snow. This very distinctive sound is deeply rooted in us. So much so that it has found its way into public awareness through a popular children’s song, known by practically all Swedes. It is sung in preschools across the country and by parents to their offspring. The lyrics are set to an utterly depressing, hymn-like melody, composed in the minor key, of course. And it goes like this:
It is cold,
it keeps creaking
we all yearn
for warm enough climes
That’s it. And these hopeless lyrics are meant to be sung not only once or twice, but over and over again, in perpetual canon, as if chanting in tandem with the sluggish beat of the ongoing, unending winter. It surely drives the nail home: “You guessed it, kid: it truly is this bleak!” Your sense of hearing is gone.
You would do best to scurry home and get indoors. More than a few lives are lost to the cold each winter: happy partygoers falling asleep on snow drifts, the homeless forced to live outside, or people getting lost, just walking. It is early afternoon, but it will get dark before you know it. And it gets pitch black. In the middle of Sweden, around Christmastime, the sun rises at twenty minutes past nine in the morning and sets at twenty minutes past two in the afternoon. Your sense of sight is gone.
Since the world freezes over, so will anything you can taste or smell. There goes your taste and smell as well, both well and truly gone. There is one family of smells that distinguishes itself from the others: burning carbon, be it exhaust fumes or thick streaks of grey rising from log fires.
Come spring and the thaw, the first smell you sense is that from decomposing organic material in dead waters, pools and ditches. It is full of unicellular organisms and rotting leaves and smells like a perfect blend of drying sea bed, cow dung and compost. Taken out of context, this particular smell is downright horrendous. But, in Sweden – and supposedly in all the countries near the Arctic Circle – this smell signifies something else entirely, at least by the end of winter. And it is beautiful. You hardly notice the smell at first, just vaguely – like a distant recollection. It is as if you cannot believe your mind. You get a whiff. You recognize the dead water smell and then you suck it in like the first breath of air: You just got your sense of smell back!
Dreams of summer emerge instantaneously, all midsummers past rush by your mind’s eye like a snappily edited montage sequence. It is almost as if you can touch upon those endless white nights. This is the flipside to all the darkness: there is as much darkness as there is light. Our problem is spelt distribution.
The sense of smell is funny like that. Your sense of hearing, sight, touch and taste tends to keep you firmly in the present. But smells have a way of taking you out of time – just like Proust’s too often referred-to madeleines. “But the protagonist of ‘In Search of Lost time’ tasted those cookies!”, you might object. Yes, true – but as you probably know, the sense of taste is limited to a small elemental pallet: saltiness, acidity, bitterness, sweetness and something that isn’t really taste at all. What we refer to as taste in our daily lives is in fact smell. The perfumes of caramelised sugar, baked butter, the zing of lemon peel and roasted wheat. All this is in the nose – and without the perfumes, madeleines would taste nothing but sweet.
Summertime usually means swimming in the sea. Swedes have a thing for swimming in lakes, though. Perhaps it has something to do with the temperature of the Baltic Sea, our pool of an ocean. The mercury seldom rises above 18 degrees Celsius, if that. Lakes tend to be somewhat warmer. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that we have about one hundred thousand of them. A lake is never far off. When I was a young adult, I had a dip in one near my hometown. The first thing I saw, popping my head above the water was this magnificent water lily boasting a supercar yellow. I thought it was truly magnificent. Then it struck me: I had no idea what water lilies smelt like. It is not precisely the most accessible of flowers. So, I swam up to it and had just one sniff – unprepared as I was, as if by magic, I was taken back to the dark embrace of my grandmother’s utility room. Sitting there in my brown, plush jumpsuit, arranging some plastic farm animals. I must admit that it was not the best perfume for a flower, but of course I was spellbound. This utility room had a very distinctive smell, as I recall; a mixture of floor soap, moth balls, deteriorating plastic, fibreboards and stored winter clothes. And I had not felt that exact same smell until I had had that swim.
I was recently reminded of another story involving water and fragrance. It began, or ended, depending on your viewpoint, on a tempestuous winter’s day in the west Atlantic Ocean, in February 2011. Just off the southern shore of Bermuda, the roaring winter storm – dislodging layer upon layer of sediment – slowly exposed an intact bow section of a sunken Civil War blockade runner. The Mary Celestia was unveiled. These kinds of ships were used to smuggle contraband to the confederates, finding their way through the blockade lines. They would run guns, letters and any luxury goods uneasily attained in wartime. It had lain there untouched since it sunk in 1864. A team of maritime archaeologists were able to salvage a few artefacts; among them a perfume bottle embossed with the name Piesse & Lubin, a pair of perfumers who at that time ran a successful perfumery from Bond Street, London.
One of them, Septimus Piesse, had made a name for himself as a writer, as well. He penned the classic: “The Art of Perfumery”, a work still held in highest esteem and thought of as an early perfumer’s bible. The “Gamut of Odours” was also his creation, first explained in his book. It is the idea that each fragrance could be attributed a specific note and placed on a scale – just like musical notes, as if they corresponded to one another with mathematical certainty. They do not, of course. Nevertheless, the “Gamut of Odours” can be used as a key to unlocking the mysteries surrounding a long-lasting tradition in perfumery: the comparison between the world of music and fragrances. There is a raster of musical thoughts and ideas forced upon fragrances, like a beautiful straightjacket. For example, the perfumer oftentimes sits on a cabinet containing all kinds of perfume oils, making the vials accessible. It looks a bit like a pipe organ. Why not call it a perfume organ, then? We have mention the scale, with a base and a top. Different oils put together constitute a chord. And of course, notes and tones are frequently used as metaphors, always part of compositions. You get the picture.
"Just because you have access to every perfume oil imaginable doesn´t necessarily mean you have to use them all at once."
The archaeological team behind the examination found that the essential oils in the perfume flask obtained from the Mary Celestia had rotted. They smelt of hydrogen sulphide, of little else than pure decay. But the residue was ultimately run through a gas chromatograph, and even if the ingredients could not be determined with any degree of certainty, a list of the probable ingredients was later published: orange flower, geranium, orris, bois de rose, opoponax, sandalwood, benzoin, civet and ambergris – a composition that could very well reflect Piesse and Lubin’s popular perfume “Boquet Opoponax”, released into the market a few years before the shipwreck.
A multitudinous blend, indeed. Blending and composing is the perfumer’s heritage and seems to be the answer. In fact, close to one hundred per cent of perfumes sold are blends. And a hefty majority of them contain at least one citrus variety. Even though you could compose innumerable varieties of perfumes, the end-results are often alike. We at Tangent GC have tried to focus our attention on one single source – one solitary kind of flower, grass, moss or sort of wood. It might be that we believe that the cacophony of a blend can be overwhelming, impenetrable.
Just because you have access to every perfume oil imaginable doesn´t necessarily mean you have to use them all at once.
As it happens, even the scent of water lily alone can be too much for one man to handle.
Founder of Tangent GC