Monday, March 2, 2015

Oud and the Eternal Cycle of Life

"Humus ist the true black gold. Humus has a good smell. Humusscent is more sacred and closer to God than the smell of incense. Whoever walks in the forest after rain knows this smell."

So wrote the Austrian artist and architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser in his 1979 eco-philosophical manifesto "Shit Culture - Sacred Shit" (it was the Seventies, you know).To him, this is the smell of life understood as a cycle. No life without death, no sustenance without decomposition, food to feces, feces to food. We are made of earth and earth we become.

I recently won a bottle of La Via del Profumo's Oud Caravan No. 2 - I had briefly written on Dominique Dubrana's trilogy of Eaglewood scents before this blog went into hibernation. These are not Western fashion ouds that contain nothing of the sort, but scents in the indo-arab tradition made from and centered on (cultivated, rather than the insanely expensive wild) oud. Oud, which like humus has been called black gold, is an olfactory cornerstone of Islamic culture and I assume that a European/American like myself would not ever be able to emotionally comprehend its many-faceted significance in this respect, but at best acknowledge it intellectually. In fact, most Westerners at this sanitized point in our civilization are likely to be disturbed by the deeply organic smell of "gaharu" and would consider it an anti-perfume rather than a precious jewel (the days of massive civet, cumin and musk bombs being, after all, long gone). Animalic / barnyard is probably the most common association, though the scent spectrum of aloeswood is actually rather broad depending upon its provenance, quality and age.

What, then, is my frame of reference for Oud Caravan No. 2? It is decidely memory-bound and Northern European. My perception of the Laotian and Bengali oud in Abdesalaam Attar's composition is organic, indeed, but vegetal, rather than animal - it recalls the fruity-estery smell of decomposing foliage on its way to becoming humus. As a child I spent many hours playing on the outskirts of a park upon three huge mounds of composting leaves, many layers of which had already turned to soil. It is precisely this memoryscape and smell that Caravan No. 2 brings me back to. There is also a subtle aspect of smoke, which rings autumnal to my mind and this leads me to my other association. It is from adult life and it is anything but Islamic, though distillation has its roots in Persia and the word alcohol is, after all, derived from the Arabic al-kuhul (also visible in kajal, as the word refers to cosmetics originally): Whisk(e)y, specifically the phenomenally complex nose of the 15-year-old Irish pure potstill whiskey called Redbreast, a dram defined by its fruity-estery nature that transforms a forest walk somewhere between fall and spring into a pleasurable flavor (it accentuates sweetness rather than rot, of course). Add to that some of the smokey phenolic notes of a peated Islay Malt (back to black gold again) and I get the whisk(e)y manifestation of the vegetal organic quality of Oud No. 2.  I won't strain the analogy by pointing out that "whisky" is derived from the Gaelic term for "water of life" (acqua vitae), but the idea of a scent of life, of a complex process of growth and withering, transformation and development is what ties all of this together and makes Oud Caravan No. 2 a very meaningful scent to me, far from any of its Middle and Far Eastern roots (or maybe not?)

Friedensreich Hundertwasser once more: "The smell of humus is the smell of God, the smell of resurrection, the smell of immortality."