Gonesh / Coconut (by Nancy)

I’ve been reading this book, A Natural History of the Senses, by Diane Ackerman. The first chapter is all about smell. Very interesting. Did you know that we can identify over 10,000 smells? Or that it takes a mere 8 molecules of a substance to produce a response from our olfactory receptors? Did you know that smell was our first sense? That’s right, that thing we now call a brain was originally just a lump of olfactory tissue atop a nerve cord. Our cerebral hemispheres came much later, budding off from the olfactory stalks. As Diane Ackerman says, “We think because we smelled.”

Now smell is interwoven into our limbic system, an interesting collection of structures that are also responsible for emotion, behavior and long-term memory. This is the proverbial “lizard brain,” the part that developed so long ago in evolutionary time that it even predates warm-blooded creatures such as ourselves. It has ties to the endocrine system (the glands that secrete hormones), the autonomic nervous system (which directs our unconscious bodily activities like respiration and perspiration), and the nucleus accumbens (the brain’s pleasure center). Because the limbic system links smell with memory and emotion, odor molecules can evoke distant memories and alter moods.

I first started burning incense when I was in junior high. It was the 80’s and it was Long Island, meaning that my most reliable source for incense was the head shop at the local suburban mall. There one could find all manner of inexpensive incenses and for some reason I gravitated toward Gonesh’s Coconut. This was the only incense I burned for a while, not that I remember how often, but I definitely went through a phase. So, after reading Diane Ackerman’s book, I thought hey, wouldn’t it be interesting to get a pack of Coconut and see what sort of memories it evoked? I debated this for a while, acknowledging my preference for natural aromas, but still being drawn out of curiosity to the idea. Could I actually have an emotional response? Would burning this incense unearth old memories of my suburban adolescence?

As you’ve probably concluded already, I picked up a pack of Coconut the other day at a head shop downtown. Just couldn’t resist the idea, especially since there was such a small financial commitment. First of all I must say that I am amazed that I can still find the same exact stuff 25 years later. Same familiar smell, same gold packet with the little tab at the top. As it turns out, Gonesh is a fourth generation incense company, founded in 1923 by a Lithuanian immigrant, one of only a small number of American producers. I see their line everywhere; surely they must control an impressive percentage of the US market.

So here I am sitting in my little incense room. I have to admit that even just the smell of the unopened packet is terribly familiar, the lit stick even more so. And, yes, here it comes: memories of chillin’ out in my room burning Coconut, listening to WLIR, the local new wave radio station, on my clock radio. I see the Adam Ant calendar I had up on my lilac walls and hear the sound of the paper birch rustling outside my window. I definitely didn’t expect visual and audio memories!

As for the smell? I guess it kinda smells like coconut, probably as close as you could get without using any actual coconut. The nuttiness is there for sure, but it’s more like a hazelnut and reminds me of Frangelica. Also, there is a chemical note, you know the one that universally runs through synthetic aromas? It‘s that thick petroleum smoke smell, or like glue or detergent, that undeniably reveals the true origins. Unfortunately, I couldn’t even burn a whole stick and I even tried twice, due to the onset of that tell-tale frontal headache. Gonesh is certainly high quality for what they do, the stick is loaded with fragrance and packs an olfactory punch, though I can really see how much my sense of smell has changed over the last 25 years! I guess just like good beer has spoiled my taste for MGD and PBR, good incense has spoiled my ability to enjoy a full stick of Gonesh’s Coconut.

So this whole thing has got me thinking about the evolution of incense. How did we get from the Three Wise Men and their gift all the way to Glade Plug-in’s? At what point did we forget the healing power of plants, and their truly amazing deliciousness, and wind up with an appreciation and enjoyment for aerosol air fresheners? There was a time, many moons ago, when burning natural incense was a common ritual, used as a delivery system for medicine, an aphrodisiac, and a sacrament for the gods. It helped the recently departed find their way to heaven and carried prayers aloft. It could drive off demons, keep plagues at bay, and help us attain enlightenment by altering our consciousness. Now, alas, its most common function is as a smell useful for covering other less desirable smells.

This experiment has made me want to sincerely thank all of the wonderful incense companies who consciously strive to produce the most natural incenses possible. The ones who select their own raw materials, refuse to use ingredients from endangered animals or plants, produce their incenses by hand, and guard their proprietary formulas like the treasures that they truly are. These fine companies carry on the old tradition, preserving the ancient recipes that have opened my mind to the tangible effects of incense. They have shifted my sense of smell, and hence my consciousness and perception, giving me a deeper appreciation of the amazingly important and profound role that plants play in our lives. It is true that the synthetic aroma of Gonesh’s Coconut has been ingrained into my memory, but it is the plants that have touched my soul.

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Gonesh / Vanilla, Cinnamon, Raspberry

This is the first write up where I feel like I’m putting my boxing gloves on and getting ready to rumble. I picked up a package of Gonesh a year or so before starting the incense resource at Mike’s Prattle, when I’d walked into a local store one day and found myself a little weary at picking up another box of Nag Champa or another common Shrinivas scent, so even though I knew it would be trouble, I picked up this three in one package of the dreaded “charcoal dipped” style. When I first tried them, I wasn’t at all impressed, but it’s nothing like my post-Japanese incense nose, which actually prefers the smell of burning California forests to these scents.

There appears to be very little natural about these scents. One page has the claim that Gonesh incense has the “highest charcoal content of any brand on the market,” a statement that will make many of us scratch our heads over the idea that this might be a good thing. I’d argue that this, in part, is exactly what makes their incense so unpleasant. No matter what “high quality raw materials” they use, very little about any of these incenses strikes me as remotely natural, rather the aromas are more like air fresheners or other synthetic oils and perfumes. And this is why this is likely to be the last review an incense of this style here (no doubt I’ve broken one of my own rules already).

The Vanilla reminds me of the smell of extract in the bottle, but that’s only the top note, the rest of the oil is more in the hair or bottle spray mode. The charcoal’s probably the most hidden here, but don’t take that for invisibility, it’s still there with its characteristic abrasiveness. This may be a cleansing scent in its own way, but so is 2 oz of Listerine. In particular, the finish on this one was brutal. With all three of these, it took maybe a week in between for me to brave another light, just so I could finish my notes up. And in most cases the stick was put out after about 2-3 minutes when I started to feel like I was choking.

The Cinnamon has an oil like a cinnamon-flavored toothpick made out of nuclear material. The charcoal here is even more harsh. While it’s obviously more affordable than most cinnamon incenses, a comparison of this to, say, Baieido’s Koh is as one-sided as the Lakers playing your local high school team. I’d as soon have this scent coming from the bucket of hot water and cleaner I use to wash a car.

The Raspberry is the least unpleasant of the three. It reminds me of taking Raspberry Bubblicious gum, especially that gooey, aromatic center they have. The charcoal’s still harsh but it doesn’t conflict with the oil as badly as the Cinnamon. As the stick continued to burn the aroma turned more to something like raspberry cough syrup and the smoke got quite cloying. While the California fires at the moment probably have something to do with it as well, my eyes were starting to sting after a few minutes.

To say the least, the charcoal dipped incense stick kind of ruins the idea of incense for many people, it’s far more common than it deserves to be and belies the idea that there are really excellent incenses out there that have none of this sort of harshness or clouds of choking smoke. To say the least, these are among the most unpleasant scents I’ve ever tried, although to be fair they’re a little smoother than other charcoal lines (not counting, of course, some of the Baieido charcoals which are in a different league). I’d recommend not only avoiding this but the whole style in general.