Sunday, March 7, 2021

The Incense Project and Lessons from Peruvian Myrrh

Abundancia by Gerasimo Sosa Alache from Chulucanas,
Piura Region, in Peru. Image by David Stanley on Flickr.

I started The Incense Project during the March 2020 pandemic lockdown. Cataloging aromas of plant resins and related incense materials was something I'd always wanted to do, but the idea was quashed by work and everyday responsibilities. In the silence of the lockdown The Incense Project took on the quality of a seed specimen trapped inside a glassine envelope, yearning for air, soil, light and water. It spoke in the silence, when I could listen without distraction and respond without weighing how much time I could spare against meaningless "to do" lists. 

Transforming the silence of isolation into creative gestation requires intention when the world around you is falling apart. In retrospect the need to survive in a climate of fear, shock and immitigable grief (a climate that makes wearing perfume seem frivolous) was malleable. The pandemic made me take stock of my professional sensory evaluation training. Incense was and remains the mother of perfume. I needed to see what was in front of my nose and reevaluate what I was taught in the past while experiencing the emotional dislocation of the pandemic. I was neither teacher nor student. I crossed the threshold and approached The Incense Project as an autodidact with a tabula rasa mindset. 

The Aymara people of the Andes highlands have an interesting perspective when it comes to physical orientation of the past and the future. They see the past positioned in front of them and the future behind them. The framework for the Aymara concept of time revolves around the fact that the past is known because it was experienced, and you can't know something that hasn't occurred, which makes the future moot in the absence of prophecy and magic. The Aymara point of view is similar to the "present moment" consciousness of Buddhism, which is easier for Westerners to integrate versus a reverse concept of time based on physical orientation.

Vinicunca Rainbow Mountain, Cordillera de Vilcononta, Cusco, Peru.
Image by Federico Scarionati via Unsplash.
I considered the Aymara way of looking at time and wondered how it influenced personal and collective nostalgia in their culture. If the past is physically in front of the Aymara do they long to return to the past as Westerners do, or is the past better integrated in a well-rooted present? Contemplating this reminded me to avoid attachment to “good old days” thinking with respect to exploring incense resins infused with a rich past that includes elements of medicine, myth, magic, and religion. I used my nose to evaluate incense ingredients the same way I evaluate flavors and fragrances, which is the same way humans have smelled for centuries. I purchased materials from fair trade vendors with short supply chains out of respect for cultures that own these incense traditions. 

I couldn't transport myself into the locus of the past, but I could release the habit of smelling plant materials in solution on a perfume blotter for the first half of the The Incense Project, and interact with plant materials in their natural state that were ethically grown and harvested. Plant resins from Africa, Asia, India, the Middle East, as well as Central and South America, arrived by post every six weeks. I listened to plants tell their aromas stories on an incense heater and conducted research on their organoleptic properties after experiencing materials on their own and in simple combinations. 

Hymenea Coubaril resin from Mexico before and after use on
an incense heater. Burning incense on charcoal removes this
sensory aspect from the experience of incense appreciation.
Image © Michelle Krell Kydd. All rights reserved.
Incense resins smell better when you use temperature control versus burning them in a censor using charcoal. Combustion destroys delicate aromas and creates burnt odors, which interfere with appreciating a resin's character. This doesn't mean that everything you smell on an incense heater will be pleasant. That's dependent on the chemistry of the resin when it's heated. If you study Sumatra Benzoin (Styrax benzoin) on an incense heater you learn that it melts quickly and goes through a short acrid phase before releasing a warm, sweet, penetrating balsamic, vanilla-like odor. This is not true for Siam Benzoin (Styrax tonkinensis), which also melts quickly, but retains a sweeter balsamic character and possesses more vanillic tenacity than Sumatra Benzoin (Styrax benzoin). This quality is noticeable in the spent resin, something you wouldn't know if you burned Siam Benzoin (Styrax tonkinensis) on charcoal.

Consumers are familiar with commercially traded incense resins, which omits incense resins deemed less appealing and profitable. Commodification of incense materials used in perfumes and burned as incense changes the way we relate to incense bearing plants and the people who work the land where these plants grow. Ingredient stories are re-written by marketers, sublimating and negating native scent cultures, in addition to replacing fact with myth, fetish and taboo in the name of commerce. This is ironic, but not surprising when one considers the fact that colonialist patterns of co-opting cultures and resources in the name of "luxury" has been going on for centuries. How far back in time can we go to find genuine incense resin stories related to use and origin? The answer is as far back as scholarship across disciplines can take us along a chain of ancestral incense resin use.

If one delves into incense materials related to personal ancestry the idea of shared generational olfactory experience melts the fabric of time. This is especially poignant if your ancestors experienced conflict, persecution and oppression. Smelling incense is a lived experience that connects you to people in your family you've never met and some you'll never know by name. This is Proust's madeleine at an inhalable DNA level and it's why people from cultures with ancestral connections to incense materials are needed to pursue scholarship on the subject of incense. Add the fact that some of these plants can and will disappear and you have a compelling reason for generating knowledge via research.

Styrax weberbaueri resin aka Peruvian Myrrh
Image © Michelle Krell Kydd. All rights reserved.

                  Research is rooted in asking questions and relentlessly pursuing answers even if some of the questions don't yield any answers. Answers result in more questions and that's what makes inquiry interesting and addictive. Take Styrax weberbaueri and its commodified name; Peruvian Myrrh. Styrax weberbaueri is the same genus as Styrax benzoin and Styrax tonkinensis, but it's not a type of myrrh. You wouldn't know it from commodified language used on various online incense shops, which causes confusion. True myrrh is categorized in the Commiphora genus. So how did Peruvian Myrrh get its name? 

Fragrant gifts of frankincense and myrrh were given to the Christ child and are widely known by name. Perhaps Styrax weberbaueri is called Peruvian Myrrh because the name myrrh implies pre-Christian and post-Christian ritual use (the belief systems commingle in Peruvian culture, a quality described as syncretic). How do Peruvians use Styrax weberbaueri? Are there pictures of the plant and resin harvesting available? I haven't found answers to either question, but it doesn't mean the answers don't exist. Peruvian Myrrh (Styrax weberbaueri) hasn't been thoroughly researched and documented as a source of incense resin. 

Peruvian Myrrh is a type of styrax so if you've familiar with Styrax benzoin and Styrax tonkinensis anticipating vanilla aromas with a twist is a way to set expectations for what Styrax weberbaueri smells like on an incense heater. Or is it?  Warming resin on an incense heater allows you to smell your way through aroma development, much like ethanol supports the evaporation of top, middle and base notes on a perfume blotter over time. Top notes are fleeting, middle notes have a characteristic linger, and base notes persist over time. 

Engler, H.G.A. Pflantzenreich (1900-1968), Pflanzener.
It's possible to anticipate what Styrax weberbaueri smells like using all of our senses, which reflects a way of scientifically interacting with plants promoted by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Goethe refers to this as utilizing "exact sensorial imagination." The color of Styrax weberbaueri resin nuggets varies, which indicates the potential for differences in smell (darker resins may have more or less intensity of odor than lighter ones). Some pieces of Peruvian Myrrh are a pale yellow while others are golden yellow, orange yellow and sand muted beige. The appearance of the resin's surface area varies and seems brittle where tiny open pockets once containing air appear. Peruvian Myrrh (Styrax weberbaueri) exhibits a variety of hues, which is also true of Commiphora myrrha from Somalia, and looks like myrrh when it becomes a toasty amber color on an incense heater.

Styrax weberbaueri resin feels light in the hand. Past experience with heating Styrax benzoin and Styrax tonkinensis resins suggested utilizing a setting of 180 degrees, which proved optimal. Peruvian Myrrh resin isn't prone to melting like its two relatives, so turning pieces over from time to time and moving them to different locations on the incense heater plate supported aroma development and balanced heat distribution. A pair of incense tongs that resemble elongated tweezers is used for this task, which resembles meditative cooking in miniature. 

Kouign-Amann by Stijn Nieuwendijk-CC-Via Flickr

Peruvian Myrrh is full of surprises as it's heated. A creamy milky coconut character (described as "lactonic" in the parlance of perfumers and flavorists) arrives after a fleeting fusty eau-de-souk aroma fades, and is followed by gourmand notes of vanilla, cinnamon and toasted coconut. If Proust were alive Peruvian Myrrh would be his incense resin of choice. The smell of it would bring him back from the dead and we'd have an eighth volume of In Search of Lost Time in our hands.

The cakey aroma of Peruvian Myrrh is transporting, especially when you split a heated resin nugget between your fingers and smell it (the Lilliputian pieces deliver a measure of scent that defies their size). Fresh brioche mingles with the scent of Kouign-amann, the beloved Breton pastry redolent of French butter and caramelized sugar. Styrax weberbaueri deserves to be as widely known and appreciated as it's botanical cousins in genus. It's a delicious mouthwatering shapeshifter. Just don't confuse it with true myrrh or eat it.

Notes & Curiosities:

Spent Boswellia rivae, a species of Frankincense. 
Image © Michelle Krell Kydd. All rights reserved.

I've evaluated over half a periodic table's worth of plant materials used in incense and perfumery (66 ingredients) since I began The Incense Project. The results inform three Smell & Tell classes I'm teaching at the University of Michigan this spring: Scenting Abrahamic Masculinities, Scriptural Scents and Rite Smells. The classes deliver multisensory experiences in virtual classroom environments.

Peruvian Myrrh (Styrax weberbaueri) used in The Incense Project was purchased from Apothecary's Garden shop on Etsy. It is native to Piura, Peru, which supports a vibrant arts community. Apothecary's Garden website is an informative resource on incense that’s worth exploring. Proprietor Dan Riegler is a respected, knowledgeable and ethical purveyor of incense materials and alchemistic maker of artisan products derived from them.

Styrax weberbaueri aka Peruvian Myrrh is named after Augusto Weberbauer (1871-1948) a German naturalist, botanist and university professor who explored Peru in search of new plant species. 

Siam Benzoin (Styrax tonkinensis) is native to Southeast Asia via Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand). It shares organoleptic qualities with Sumatra Benzoin (Styrax benzoin), which is native to East Asia via Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. If you are interested in developing a vocabulary for smells to describe raw materials used in incense and perfumery you should learn more about Steffen Arctander and his book, Perfume Materials of Natural Origin. It's a dictionary of smells.

If you want to know more about using an incense heater watch Incense Dragon's YouTube video.

The word perfume is derived from per fumus in Latin, which means "through smoke". The etymology harkens back to perfumery's origins as incense. 

French publisher Gallimard has announced a new book of unseen work by Marcel Proust, Les Soixante-quinze feuillets (The Seventy-Five Pages). There's no news regarding if and when it will be published in English.

Native Americans in the United States and Indigenous peoples in Canada have compelling scent cultures inclusive of incense. Where do their stories live and what can these stories tell us about their ancestral scent traditions before colonialism? This is a subject of inquiry that deserves more attention.