Monday, October 2, 2023

Stink, Stank, Smellmatize (Eau Ferula)!

Wheel of aromatic ferula resins or secret stink device?

Teaching people how to evaluate the smell of an unknown material on a perfume blotter requires trust and a sense of adventure. This is true for novices and experienced attendees at Smell & Tell in Ann Arbor, which was highly evident at a recent AI-themed program.

The sense of apprehension that’s experienced before blind smelling an odorant is a reminder of the underlying purpose of smell, which is to protect us from danger (and encourage behaviors that lead to survival like eating, and sniffing out desirable qualities in a mate).

Hemulen, a character in Tove Jansson's Moomins series, gave up stamp collecting for botany. You can smell his tabula rasa mindset. 

Blind smelling requires a tabula rasa mindset, so you can sense the character of a thing. It's not about whether you love or hate a smell. The smell exists irrespective of your opinion of it. Your job, in real life and at Smell & Tell, is to interpret what your brain is interpreting through your nose. 

The tendency to seek visual proof for non-visual sense objects gets in the way of being fully present for an experience. Smells that are polarizing are challenging to evaluate, but it's important to give smells a chance because what you notice at first sniff changes as it evaporates—and some smells transform in fascinating ways.

Once in a while, I throw a polarizing nose surprise into a Smell & Tell lecture that pushes a contextually relevant button. It’s not done for the sake of theater (a mixed chorus of "icks" and expletives that are the inevitable result of encountering something less than pleasant). 

"Green Wheat Fields, Auvers" by Vincent Van Gogh

When attendees experience a shapeshifting smell from start to finish, they're more than surprised; they're elated. This reaches beyond the fact that the fragrance blotter no longer smells unpleasant. It's proof that patience is worth the time it takes to understand the essence of a thing—because you might learn something new. 

Case in point. A two-year old asafoetida tincture was smelled at Smell & Tell: AI, Machine Learning & Smells last month. The material, which was the sixth and final material in the scent flight, had a nose wrinkling reputation with a twist. Attendees were in for a surprise after class.

The smell in Asafoetida that reminds humans of sulfur, garlic, and onions changes over time. This particular tincture possessed more than the balsamic vanilla drydown noted by Steffen Arctander. It smelled sweet, citrusy, floral-rosy, musky, powdery, orris-like, and citrusy (lemon).

This, dear reader, explains the wheel of ferula resins that accompanies this post. They are part of a tincturing project that informs a future Smell & Tell lecture on the ferula family of scents. I was inspired by an email I received from author Alex Kourvo who attended last month's event. The subject line read “What is this magic?” and continued with:
Smell and Tell was sooooo fun on Wednesday! All the smells were interesting and as always, I felt like my brain grew two sizes. I was amazed that the blotter that had asafoetida on it smelled so much better the second day! I almost threw it away instead of taking it home because it smelled so awful at first. But on day two, it was almost like a perfume. And on day three, it's still pleasant. How. How. How?
Alex's question is an important one that resonates with comments from other attendees who've attended Smell & Tell at the Ann Arbor District Library since it’s inception in 2012. Humans generally don't expect something beautiful from something that smells unpleasant, but it's possible. That's an experience worth holding onto.

Asafoetida was used at Smell & Tell to make a point about avoiding cow pies regarding Artificial Intelligence (AI), human olfaction and neurology. The term “AI" is frequently substituted for "machine learning" by startups on the AI bandwagon. Don't believe the hype

Smelling tinctured resins comprises half of the method I use to evaluate scents (the way I was trained a la perfumery). I use a thermostatically controlled incense heater to experience smells that resins release into the air over time as this enjoins perfumery's predecessors; medicine and incense. 

Image of Die Wachauer Nase By Schurdl (CC). The sculpture, one of a series of nose sculptures in Austria, was organized by the Gelitin art collective.