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.