Lately, I’ve been thinking that If I am going to learn about base notes and top notes and middle notes I am going to have to really live some of these scents. If I am going to create a new smell memory and be more connected to this life I am living right here, I am going to be the kind of person who pays attention to every breath I take at every moment I could remember to do it.
Luckily, the world is always set up to give you exactly what you need in a form that you can least prepare for.
This summer, we got a quick lesson in the power of base notes. Adam and I have been practicing a new art in our house, trying to find a way to do anything, anything at all alongside our two children. For Adam has this meant pursuing any number of house projects, trimming his bonsai, replacing a light fixture, all the things we had put off for so long because of these two, tiny people who need our attentions like plants need the sun.
On one of those spring days in Oregon when the air was slowly moving from crisp to slightly hot, each of us engrossed in our work, I was making a soup of red lentils, toasted cumin, red curry and coconut milk and Adam was in the back brushing the snipped leaves of a tiny boxwood onto the ground when we had one of those peaceful moments that we knew could mean only one thing: Deep and utter calamity.
Boys are like little bombs sometimes. If they stop making ticking noises you know you are trouble. It had been quiet for too long. Much too long. Like at least 23 minutes quiet. How much trouble can a little kid get into in less than half an hour?
As I walked into the front of the house I caught a whiff of the curry toasting on the stove, a sweet milkiness in the air. Then it hit me as if I had walked into a wall.
Vetiver like I had jumped into a vat of it.
Vetiver like it was a curtain of it draped over my head.
Vetiver like it was a perfumed scarf dipped in the stuff and wrapped around my neck.
Vetiver is one of those perfume oils that you can’t smell without imagining the color green. It’s got a fragrant, rooty essence with just a touch of citrus and woodiness. The oil is made by steam distilling roots of the vetiver plant. It’s a grass that shares a lot of characteristics with other fragrant grasses such as lemongrass and citronella. Perfumers use it most often in fragrances for men, since it smells like Don Draper went on a boating incident down the Ganges: woody, smoky, earthy and thick.
I had read warnings about how powerful essences are in their non-diluted forms, but I was not prepared for what awaited me in my front office, my sanctuary, home to both my writing desk and my reading nook. There, I found my two little boys sitting over a spilled 2 oz. bottle of concentrated vetiver essence, which had already seeped out into a kidney-shaped spot in our tan carpet. My eldest son had found a way to climb four bookcase shelves to my oil stash.
Choking back my rage, I ran to the spot and grabbed the bottle out of the boys’ hands. We set to dabbing at the spot with a dry rag.
If I had been more vigilant, or more schooled in the ways of base notes I might have been able to contain the scent better. But my instinct was to move quickly and without much forethought or sensitivity for the moment and before I could think about it, I was going through the motions of cleaning up a spill. You see, when we ran out of paper towels I smartly reached for some of our family bath towels to blot at the stain. The syrupy brown oil came up quickly, actually, with a bit of blotting, some Formula 409 and a whole lot of good intentions. The scent, however, lingered, as scents do. It is the job of scents to linger. It is their calling to be there, lurking, hiding, outside of plain view, to surprise, to not even be noticed. Even more so if you get essential oils on all of your clothing.
The vetiver malingered. It malingered even more so when I took those bath towels and threw them in the washing machine with a load of whites. It kept on when took the whole lot of them and passed them into the dryer. And it was there, perhaps not as strong and resiny as it had been in the concentrated form, when I opened the door, reached in and wrapped my arms around a load of laundry that smelled as if it had been dried on grass mats next to the Ganges River.
For weeks thereafter, the vetiver has found every corner of the house. It has taken up residence in our nostrils. The scent sneaks up on us at the most alarming times — when we opened the door at the sign of a knock hits us in the face. In the bathroom, it sneaks in on the wings of a light breeze from outside. I can be cooking in the kitchen, something deeply innocuous like spaghetti, when its scent just about knocks me out. I have taken to rehearsing an explanation about base notes to our visitors, how tenacious they are, how long it took them to evaporate, how good they were in concert with other notes, how difficult to handle just on their own, the beauty in how they stick around.
It was even getting to Adam.
“Hey, what’s the aromatherapeutic uses of vetiver,” he asked me one day after lifting a pair of jeans to his face and taking a big whiff.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I’ve heard it is used to induce a shame-a-rang.” (For the uninitiated, a shame-a-rang is when you feel the shame of having done something shameful full force, again and again). “Or, if inhaled in the proper proportion, I’ve heard it makes you forget your wife’s darkest transgressions?”
A few weeks passed. By then, all of our clothes smelled lightly of vetiver, but it was easing up day by day. By now, when my son snuggles in while we’re reading Danny Champion of the World, I’ll get just a hint of it on the place where his neck meets his shirt. Diluted it is light and grassy, left to linger it is more than palatable.
In the right doses, vetiver smells nothing like an accident and everything like a revelation.