It has been appallingly hot in this part of the world for about a week now, and it isn't showing any signs of going away any time soon. It could be worse: Toronto is having 40°-plus days (when you factor in the humidex), and it hasn't been quite
that hot here. Yet.
We all know what you do when the weather gets hot: you choose light, fresh scents, things that make you feel cooler, things that won't bog you down with heavy sweetness. But damned if my brain isn't trying to trick me into wearing something thick and suffocative in this heat. "Go on," it says. "You really want to open that bottle of Ambre Sultan you bought last month, you know you do!" Yesterday, I had to fight to keep from putting on AS, Spellbound, and Panthere de Cartier (vintage extrait, to make it worse). Not all at once, I mean (because that would probably have done me in on the spot), but those are the heavy oriental scents my brain was pushing at me. Finally I shut it up by wearing Santal Blanc, a woody oriental but one of the lighter Lutens scents, pre-shower, and Hermes Poivre Samarcande, a predictably transparent Ellena scent, afterwards.
Still. It's hot and close, and my brain is perversely trying to kill me, and I have no idea why.
A couple of weeks ago I was talking about genetics, sort of
, and since then I've been giving the matter a lot more thought: specifically, why we would develop a taste for things that are not inherently wonderful or beautiful.
It's not hard to figure out the sense of taste in this regard. All babies, everywhere on Earth, like three things: they like salt, because without electrolytes you die; they like sweetness, because glucose is your brain's only fuel, and without it you die; and they like fat, because its storage means the difference between life and death in times of hardship, times that must have been pretty frequent in our evolutionary history. Salt, sugar, fat: everything else comes down to the learning process. You aren't born liking bitter and sour things; you have to come to like these unpleasantnesses. And they're unpleasant for a reason: they're the hallmarks of spoilage, of things that can injure or kill you. You have to learn that sour, unripe apples can give you stomach cramps and diarrhea, but that a slice of lime can be refreshing and delicious; that the taste of mold or putrescence in a food can be a sign of botulism, but that a related taste of decomposition in cheese can be delicious.
Evolutionary preferences exist for one reason: they help you survive long enough to pass your DNA on to the next generation. If you hated sweetness as a baby, you would die, whereas if you hated sourness, it might well help you live by warning you off things that could do you in.
The sense of smell is altogether more complicated, because we can process thousands of different scents, and yet it is hard to see what most of them have to do with survival. A few bad things are obvious: the smell of the decomposition of flesh means evolutionarily that there is a predator nearby or a disease-bearing corpse, the smell of smoke means something's afire, and food that smells wrong is probably going to do you harm. An appreciation of the smell of fresh air and the outdoors in general and of sweetness are likely hard-wired into us, but it is difficult to see how most other scents that we love would actually improve survival on an evolutionary scale. You may have a low opinion of rose perfumes--many do--but most everybody on the planet can appreciate the smell of a rose on the stem, and why should that be, exactly?
The smell of oakmoss is something that not even I would try argue is inherently beautiful, not in the way that that rose bush or a vanilla bean is. It is a peculiar thing: it has elements of loam and earth and forest floor to it, and the almost subliminal suggestion of fecal matter, allied to a lush honeyed warmth and a dark penetrating spininess. It is a whole concatenation of things in one place, some gorgeous, some decidedly not; and yet many people love chypres. I know I do, almost obsessively.
L'Aromarine Mousse de Chene--which is the French for "oakmoss"--is not a pure unadulterated glob of oakmoss, which is no doubt for the best. Instead, it's a compact, simplified chypre scent, which, as you doubtless know, is classically the alliance of a fruity top note, usually citrus, with an earthy base dominated by oakmoss. Most chypres either fill in the middle with flowers and other interesting aromatics or build up a large base with dark earthy things, often a large quantity of patchouli, but also leather, tobacco, and ambergris. Mousse de Chene takes the latter route, having essentially no middle; it starts with a friendly lemon note, sweetened, with all the sharp edges taken off, and then rapidly segues into a dirty-soapy oakmoss and patchouli accord, heavy on the soap, with a tantalizing suggestion of sweetness at the very bottom. There is plenty of foresty rot and a few pine needles; it's a particularly outdoorsy chypre, this one. It is not as dense as it might sound, although that could just be my brain tricking me into wearing something dark and thick after all.
The small L'Aromarine bottles are about a third of an ounce of what they call "extrait de parfum", but they're in an oil rather than an alcohol-water base. You can treat them as any other perfume oil, which is to say wear them or add them to bathwater, but the company advises that you can also add them to three ounces of alcohol to get a 100-mL bottle of eau de toilette (which L'Aromarine also sells). I would like to believe that the scent is made with some natural oils, though I doubt it very much, since the company makes a number of other perfume oils that don't exist in nature--Peach, Strawberry, and Apple, to name three. But their base-note oils, synthetic or not, are good; they make a Patchouli that wins the approval of my patchouli-loving co-worker, and they have an Opoponax that, although actually too sweet for my taste, is beautiful. You can easily find many of them online, so if you're on the lookout for good and cheap, have fun.