Friday, June 27, 2008

Perfume Memories: Seeing with Scent

First steps, first kiss, first love—memory is especially fond of embracing events that shape fundamental life experience. I’ve often marveled at the life of Louis Braille, who accidentally blinded himself while playing with one of his father’s awls at the age of three. The memory of his childhood accident could have easily remained a haunting vignette, to be played over and over again whenever he became frustrated at his inability to see. Fortunately for Braille, his love of literature was stronger than the obstacles of blindness and self pity, and in 1842 he invented the raised dot alphabet that allows the blind to read by touch. One of the tools he used to create the braille alphabet was a stylus; a blunt awl related to the same tool that caused him to lose his sight. Today, a person can run their fingers across an elevator’s button panel and experience the transformation of tragedy into a beautiful gift.

I was eight-years-old when I first read Louis Braille: The Boy Who Invented Books for the Blind by Margaret Davidson. The original imprint included Braille’s raised dot alphabet on the back cover. I can still recall the tactile sensation of the dots beneath my fingertips, the way they asserted themselves in a ticklish sort of way. I also remember how I began sobbing when I read about Braille's accident. Children relate to stories in literal ways as they learn to reconcile the suspension of reality with the truth of the world around them. I was prescribed glasses that year and the idea that a person could lose their vision was frightening and made me feel immensely sorry for Louis. In addition, the leather awl responsible for Louis Braille’s accident was the same tool I played with in my father’s garment shop when I was making collages out of leather scraps. Both of our fathers told us not to play with tools that could potentially harm us. I was lucky. Braille was not.

Two years later, my fifth grade class visited the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Of all the sights and scents that we encountered there, there was one particular area that affected me profoundly. It was a small, circular garden designed for the sight impaired. Brass plaques identified patches where fragrant plants grew, each marker revealing the genus and species of flora that grew near it. The plaques were inscribed in English and braille. I remember running my fingers across the sun-warmed metal plates, experiencing the functional sensation of braille text as opposed to the embossed alphabet that appeared on the back of Margaret Davidson’s book. I can still see the trail of my ten-year-old fingers glossing over the patinated glyphs.

The Fragrance Garden at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden was designed by landscape architect Alice Recknagel Ireys in 1955 and was the first public garden in the United States designed for the sight-impaired. What continues to make this garden so endearing is the fact that visitors are permitted to touch the plants so they can smell the aromas on their hands. I touched many plants on my first visit to The Fragrance Garden, but the plant that fascinated me most was an herb called Lemon Balm. Until that encounter, my notion of lemon was round, yellow and bursting with juice. Within seconds of discovering Lemon Balm new concepts were added to my impression of lemon, including soft, green and leafy qualities. In that moment something dormant in my soul began to emerge that was familiar and primal. As a result, I became anchored in the notion that that the sense of smell was special and though I did not have the vocabulary at the time, I remember feeling a sense of something worshipful and eternal. Because of this childhood learning experience Lemon Balm continues to be a favorite herb that is catalogued in my memory like a primary color. To forget Lemon Balm would be like forgetting the sun.

It is easy for the sighted to have empathy for the visually impaired as our culture is first and foremost a visual culture. For the sighted, to imagine existence without vision is quite distressing. Those with vision can sometimes forget the extent to which human beings are resilient. It is not uncommon to find increased acuity in taste, touch, smell and hearing in people who have visual limitations. Olivier Baussan, founder of the French cosmetics and fragrance company L’Occitane, learned this lesson when he encountered a blind woman identifying perfumes by smell as she had no other way to determine the difference from one product to the next. Baussan was fascinated and deeply moved. In 1997 braille was added to all L’Occitane packaging, followed by the creation of perfumery classes for visually impaired children and adolescents (one of several charitable programs run by Fondation L’Occitane). Students focus on using the skills they have versus the ones they lack; a compassionate and appropriate approach to teaching.

In the United States the sense of smell is not a sense that is commonly explored in grade school, let alone high school or college. Sharon Longert was my fifth grade teacher at P.S. 33 in the Bronx and her decision to take our class to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden changed my life. I googled her and found out that she is still involved in education and now focuses on helping high school students with mild to moderate learning disabilities. I hope there are many other “Mrs. Longerts” in the world, educating students on the wonders of the sense of smell. Their role is crucial to inspiring professional pursuits in the fields of flavor and fragrance. Teachers have a profound influence on students. The effects of educator Annie Sullivan Macy’s lessons were not lost on Helen Keller, who navigated in a world without the benefit of sight or hearing. Helen Keller understood the power of scent and described it best, “Smell is a potent wizard that transports you across thousands of miles and all the years you have lived.” Where will your scent memories take you?

Gaël Peltier is an independent, blind perfumer who conducts perfumery classes for the blind on behalf of L’Occitane. Fondation L’Occitane is currently helping him acquire a talking scale that will help him take precise measurements. Mr. Peltier’s picture is at the top of this post and is from the Fondation L'Occitane website. A photo of students from last year's L'Occitane class was provided by the company. It appears in the second to last paragraph and can be viewed in true size if you click on it.

The American Foundation for the Blind helps connect prospective students with Fondation L'Occitane's perfumery classes for the visually impaired.  If you know a blind child from the U.S. (age 14-16) who would like to participate in the program, check the website for 2009 applications. Accommodations for the child and a chaperone are covered by Fondation L'Occitane.

Photos of The Brooklyn Botanic Garden are from their website.

On April 24, 2009, this story received a FiFi Award Nomination from the Fragrance Foundation and took second place in the "Editorial Excellence in Fragrance Coverage" category. The award is historical as 2009 was the first year that blogs were included in the "Editorial Excellence"category.