Strange Days (-Ross)

As many of you know a lot of changes have started to become apparent in what raw materials can be used in incense. This has actually been going on for awhile but because some of the incense makers stock piles and reserves are running low, not to mention that the market price of most aromatic woods and materials has soared, many of the incenses that rely on Aloeswood or Sandalwood have gone up in price, been “reformulated” or in some cases discontinued.

In the world of incense materials the group known as CITES plays a big part in this, based in Europe, they have  become an international monitoring body that also sets forth guidelines, in theory based on accurate studies and scientific findings, that have turned into laws governing the harvesting, shipment , use and sale of the above woods as well as quite a lot of other natural materials. This includes both animals and plants that are apparently being over harvested into possible extinction.  Given my understanding of human nature and the seemingly never ending quest for more money, I can understand how this happens. People are well known to do many things that are extremely narrow minded, selfish, short sighted and, well, stupid to get an extra dollar (insert national currency of choice). So CITES came into being to put some controls on the wholesale destruction of many irreplaceable natural resources. Somehow oil, whales, dolphins and for that matter, human slavery do not seem to be included (go ahead, Google any of those, just make sure you have a large amount of your favorite anti depressant nearby).  But that is another story

I recently have been reading the writings of Eric Hansen, who is listed as a travel writer, one who uses the immersion technique. His stories are amazing and very well documented as well as fun with a lot of very keen social  and human insight. He has lived in the jungles of Borneo with the native peoples (I hate this term as it makes them seem less than they are, actually they are quite brilliant in their environment, which would kill most of us). He has also written a small article on the journey of Aloeswood from the jungle where it grew to the market places where it is sold. The real eye opener is his book Orchid Fever.

Orchid Fever is about the oh so crazed world of orchid plants, growers, buyers, scientists , smugglers and the assorted government agencies that attempt to control all this. It would seem to be a much more intense and downright insane, possibly corrupt and intrigue filled world then one (well, at least me) could imagine. CITES plays a big role in this story. Many orchids are considered to be rare and near extinction. This is based on some scientific study, but much of it seems very debatable.  Oddly enough it’s a lot like the minimal  studies done on Aloeswood production.  Many of them are also being wiped out by the clear cutting of forests by the same governments that are saying it is illegal to harvest the orchids before they are destroyed. Guess what? The same thing is apparently happening to many Aloeswood trees as well as many other valuable woods and plants, not to mention the animals that live in those forests. It might have something to do with being run over by the  bulldozer doing the clear cutting, go figure. The logic in all this is so very much that of the out of control governmental/organizational thinking that is seemingly running our world today. For some reason the Doors song “Strange Days” keeps running though my head every time I look into this, Pink Floyd’s “Money” could work just as well.

Trygve Harris, at her blog Absolute Trygve is another writer, like Eric Hansen, who actually goes to the places she writes about and talks to the people who are involved in the trade. In her case she is going into the Middle East, Asia and South America to find Essential Oils and materials for her store because she wants to sell things that she personally knows are of the best quality. She has done a number of pieces about Aloeswood in the past.  Her recent articles(there are about 6 or so in the current group) from India and South East Asia on Aloeswood and Sandalwood production as well as many of the flowers necessary for the production of exotic oils are fascinating. Bit depressing also ( think climate change and the effects on flower growth). It’s not that the woods do not exist, but the out of control rules governing them make it very hard for anyone to “legally” sell them. It’s not that they did not get over harvested, they did(especially Sandalwood), but they can also be re-grown but that will take much cooperation. Once again CITES, as well as the local governments have played a big part here, seems to have been quite a lot of rather haphazard rules put in place.  There are many people in these areas that could really benefit from well thought out policies and programs regarding the growing, harvesting and sale of Aloeswoods and Sandalwood as well as many other materials. But as to that actually happening, it might be pretty hard going. We are talking about agencies at many levels and people who are entrenched in the “way things are” that works very well for them, as it is. It’s not that I do not think something like CITES is necessary, I do. I also firmly believe it needs a major redo as do many of the policies that have been implemented.

So, the next time you notice your favorite incense just went way up in price or suddenly smells very different, or is just not obtainable anymore, think about this. I am pretyy sure that any number of policies and laws that we are now living with were rushed into being, it might take decades to sort them out.  Oh yes, much of this also applies to your favorite perfumes and the materials necessary to make them, but that’s a different(also European) group and another piece.  -Ross


  1. Regar Airy Group said,

    January 10, 2014 at 6:23 am

    Its a good review.

  2. nmuss said,

    April 13, 2010 at 9:08 pm

    You have hit a key note there, Ross: Time. It’s interesting when you read old manuscripts about aloeswood and sandalwood; most of them speak of decades or even centuries when it comes to these two incense items. Even traditional incense makers like Baieido are now cutting supposed sandalwood or aloeswood chips with fragrance oils. I don’t know if this is due to regulation or availability, but it definately speaks to the time/expense involved in procuring and selling quality product. The common citizen expecting incense fit for an emperor at bargain prices will get what they pay for, so buyer beware. The best ingredients require time-a lot of time-and of course it is going to cost. Thanks for bringing some awareness to the matter! Nathaniel

    • David Oller said,

      April 14, 2010 at 12:23 am

      Nathaniel, I don’t know the source of your information but you are very mistaken if you thinnk Baieido adds anything to it’s Sandalwood or Aloeswood. I’ve been their distributor for over 14 years and I been in the factory and every step of their process, seen their raw materials, watched it being pulverized, mixed, blended, extruded, straightened and dried, and if we tell you it’s a whole herb natural incense you can take that to the bank, and if we use an essential oil, fragrance or anything else besides the same kind of raw materials used 300 years ago we will gladly tell you. In those 14 years I have never found Baieido anything less than completely open and honest about everything, not even the tinyist falter in the entire time. I mean have you been trying their woods for 14 years and noticed any difference other than the natural variation caused by nature? Cause I happen to have a fourteen year old piece of Hakusui that I would glady let you come compare to a brand new package. Besides, fragranced agarwood is easily identified because it’s volatility is so high just as it is easy for someone who has been trained to identify Kyara from Jinko without burning it. And I’ve smelled so much Sandalwood I would know instantly if it had been soaked in oil, which I doubt would be economical anyway. Sandalwood fragrance is easily spotted as well, I can give you at least 20 people with noses good enough to know by smell alone. It’s not happening pal, not at Baieido which is the name you used.

      • Nathaniel Musselman said,

        April 15, 2010 at 6:53 pm

        My apologies to the group, Baieido, and you David. I would have swore the inexpensive box of Byakudan chips I bought was soaked with fragrance the way it leached out of the bag and box into the other wood blocks I store it with. Thanks for the tutelage.

        • David Oller said,

          April 17, 2010 at 10:07 am

          Well, perhaps it is a bit fortunate then because we can reach a better understanding, I can see how that could happen, Nathaniel, Sandalwood has a much higher volatility than agarwood and storage requires being sealed in something that won’t allow the vapors to escape. I have some Japanese Sandalwood teapot plates, basically they are Sandalwood Heartwood cut about an inch thick. They are used to set teapots on and the heat of the pot sends the fragrance into the room. Over time they will lose their sandalwood aroma because sandalwood is not a resin it is saturated with oil similar to many other plants. We vacuum sealed the teaplates to preserve them.

          Sandalwood squares or chips will off-gas sandalwood aroma which will sent anything sealed in the same container, and the plastic bags sandalwood chips come in are intended for short term storage. If you want to keep them long term put them in the freezed in the bag or vaccum seal them.

  3. David Oller said,

    April 13, 2010 at 6:46 am

    Agarwood is easily stored because it has a low volatility. You basically have to heat it to diminish or disperse the fragrance. Keeping raw alosewood below 45 should extend it indefinetly and room temperature you could still save it for your grandkids children.

    • Ali said,

      April 13, 2010 at 9:36 pm


      Thanks for the information. If I don’t have to do anything special to preserve some good Kyara, then all the better.

  4. David Oller said,

    April 13, 2010 at 12:47 am

    Agarwood oil industry is a major problem to species survival. The trees used to distill for oil are those which are slightly infected and starting to produce resin, what the Indians call Dhum which is a slight discoloration and resin concentration. You cannot identify these trees without cutting them down, ergo the problem with “clear-cutting” Incense grade resin, however, comes from trees that are beginning to die from the infection that causes the resin, they become stag-headed and are easy to identify. Add to this the fact that it is easier to regulate the export/import of chunks of wood sufficient to be worth the trouble, than it is to regulate Oil which can be distilled in the backwoods and packed into suitcases marked as fragrances and easily passing through customs. This is also where the cultivated agarwood could prove to be helpful, I haven’t smelled any oil from these plantations, but the grase of wood hase been improving so I see no reason it wouldn’t produce good essential oil. It should also be noted that agarwood in difference to sandalwood is easily planted and grown, and I’ve yet to understand why nobody has undertaken reforestaion in the wild.

  5. Ali said,

    April 12, 2010 at 11:31 pm


    Thanks Ross (and btw thanks in general for your contributions on this site) – good to know about vaccum sealing.

    Sorry I was not clear in my prior post – I meant to ask about long term storage of finished products. I don’t have the background to attempt to store and use the ingredients; I just use incense for meditation and ambiance. Based on some of the discussion here & elsewhere, I had thought about perhaps getting some samplers of high grade Kyara & keeping some in long term storage for special occassions. But I don’t know how feasible it is to keep high grade incense intact over many years.

    Any links to prior discussions appreciated.


  6. David Oller said,

    April 12, 2010 at 1:53 pm

    Thanks Ross,

    Of course, as usual, the ones who really suffer because of the manipulation of organizations like WWF and CITES are the indigenous people who have survived for centuries collecting and protecting these resources, it was the Penam tribe in Indosesia that first learned how to promote agarwood occuring in Daphne trees, and learned if you didn’t cut the tree down you could harvest the resin many times. Perhaps too simple to think that locals can best manage their enviroment, so we need organizations of control freaks whose self esteem comes from directing others in the “right” direction to protect the universe, so I leave you with my favorite quote from Moby Dick “Whose to doom when the judge himself is drug before the bar”

    • Ross Urrere said,

      April 12, 2010 at 11:15 pm

      The info about leaving the tree standing is amazing and not something I had heard of before. Could, if practiced, open up whole new areas of cultivation. Something that would/could apleal to a small community looking for a way to raise some money but also not destroy what they already have.
      One of the things Trygve mentioned were the people in India who plant an Aloeswood tree for big ticket items that will happen years in the future. Brilliant! It sounds like there really is quite a lot of wood out there made inaccessible by agreements and laws that do little, if anything, to benefit the people of the area.
      i find the present cultivated aloeswood farms to be sad. People ran out to start them as a money maker, not considering that they would take time to grow. Plus its a lot of work. It’s, ya know, farming, takes time to get it going. So what is on the market now is “maybe” 8-10 years old, that is a big maybe, because they want to harvest and sell it off and go onto the next money maker. But the natural woods are most likely much older and because of this have gone through a maturing process like anything else in the natural plant world. It stands to reason that the resins would be undergoing long term chemical changes given the time to do so.
      I could be very wrong here, but I doubt there is a whole lot of 8-10 year old kyara grade wood laying around. I got a feeling that it takes time to get to that point. But time is something that seems to be in short supply for most of us. -Ross

  7. Marla said,

    April 11, 2010 at 9:47 pm

    Thanks for a timely article, Ross. I’ve read T. Harris’ account r/t aloeswood, very eye-opening! The owners of Oriscent have written a lot, too, it’s quite fascinating. It seems like there is over-governance combined with under-governance, corruption, and just plain Alice-In-Wonderland lunacy at work when it comes to natural plant products in the world today. So sad, and you’re right, the people who suffer the most are the locals who understand these plants and could make the best of them, and earn a living, if simply allowed to use their wisdom.

  8. Ali said,

    April 11, 2010 at 6:25 pm

    Anyone doing any long term storage of favorites? Any experience/recommendations for doing so? Vacuum sealing? Humidistats? Temperature control?

    • Dave said,

      April 12, 2010 at 3:33 pm

      Thanks Ross,

      Very good piece that you’ve written which sheds some light on what little bit of this phenomenon I think I’ve experienced. This probably explains why some incenses I liked seem to have changed. That idea of reharvesting the resin of a tree many times over and not actually needing to cut it down seems like the way to go Dave. The resin I suppose being like the living blood of the tree. I’m sure wood for incense could be harvested without chopping down the whole tree as well. Does anyone know if there has been much written on harvesting materials for incense in an environmentally sensitive or dare I say it sacred way? Storage of these materials is probably an art in itself Ali?

    • Ross Urrere said,

      April 12, 2010 at 11:18 pm

      Hey Ali
      There was a string of comments about this in the “Ask the ORS” section about a year or so ago. One guy was big on seed preservation and had some really insightful info. Vacuum is NOT the way to go, pulls the oils out, bad news. -Ross

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