Feng shui for Decorative Gourd Season, motherf*ckers!

A big ole autumn wreath to drive away depression.

A big ole autumn wreath to drive away depression.

HouseI play this game with some friends of mine, though quite honestly, I don’t know that they know they are playing. For the past couple of years, every time the air turns crisp, the grapes hang heavy on the wines and the leaves begin to change I wait to see which of them will post Colin Nissan’s funny essay “It’s decorative gourd season, motherf*ckers!” on their Facebook feeds.

This year, I couldn’t hold back, so I was the first.

If you’ve never come across this humor piece, I feel kind of sorry for you, since it is something of a rallying cry around here. You see, Fall drives me kind of nuts. I become all Rilke-wandering-the-woods, my insomnia kicks in for the holidays and I feel, all-in-all, like the world is going to hell in a hand-basket.

But what if that hand-basket were, instead, filled with colorful decorative gourds, lined with fake red maple leaves and placed artfully within the places that matter in your home to remind you that it is okay to rage rage rage against the dying of the light?

Is there feng shui for Seasonal Affective Disorder?

There is around here!

First, let’s take a look at that essay. My apologies if you don’t like swearing, but there it is again this year in all of its autumnal glory on the McSweeney’s site.

Just how influential is this tiny ecstatic rant about autumn?

When you try to google it it doesn’t even come up first anymore for all of the people who are linking to it, getting inspired by it, putting it as their Twitter covers, or otherwise appropriating it for their own projects. There’s even a decorative gourd season mug. I’ve been following its author, Colin Nissan, on Twitter for some time now, and I took note when he smartly decided to put it in his Twitter bio.

Poor guy. I imagine he’s going to spend the rest of his life being that guy who wrote “It’s decorative gourd season, motherf*ckers!” At least, until he writes something that hits as big. (I liked his last NYer humor column on married people doing bedroom play).

So back to SAD. If you read this blog you know that despite my best intentions I have been falling down the rabbit hole of feng shui. I must not be the only one, since my post “Feng Shui for the Book Lover: How to Pare Down a Library” is, to date, the most popular thing I’ve written on this website.

What I love most about feng shui is that it affords me a sense of control (real or non-existent) in this crazy world. It makes me feel like there is always something I can do when things feel off in my life. I don’t need anyone to tell me this is pure poppycock, but it has certainly allowed me to embrace some activities that I might have thought silly before.

Wreath-making, for instance.

Feng shui holds that your door is the most important part of your house — it is the entryway for all of the energies in your home. Its color should be auspicious, its placement front-and-center, and there is nothing blocking the entry. The door should open and close smoothly. The front door is something you should actively tend, says pretty much every feng shui expert ever.

At the end of last summer I decided to tackle the front door, which, for our 10-year-old, architecturally insignificant house meant getting a new mat, a new glorious paint color and some dusting and cleaning. Painting our boring maroon door bright purple was just one thing I did to bring the happy home. It wasn’t a color I would have picked normally, but after reading about color choices for homes on Red Lotus Letter I thought maybe purple would feel lucky (and it does). The project isn’t done yet, but last weekend I decided to channel my fiery autumnal energy, that thing that makes me feel like the caged pacing panther in that Rilke poem, and make a decorative wreath, motherf*cker!

So did Rilke have Seasonal Affective Disorder or what? Just check out his poem “Autumn Day,” which sounds to me like how I feel come October.

Poseyland, local flower shop was holding a wreath-making class so I went and made this autumn explosion wreath for our front door.

007See the one to the right? That’s the station I picked — slightly non-circular  with crazy wisps, just like me.

009The goal for me at this workshop was to practice restraint — how to choose just the right elements to celebrate the season without ending up with a cornucopia taped to a bunch of twigs.

011I was thinking about my mom the whole time. Since her retirement, she’s been dabbling in floral arranging. Perhaps using the word “dabbling” really undermines what she is doing, which is creating beauty. When she comes to visit we buy her one big bouquet and she drops these little beauty bombs all over the house.

017My new front door! It’s purple, and its high contrast for a Decorative Gourd Season wreath.

I’d like to thank Colin Nissan personally, not just for giving me a laugh come every autumn since 2009, but for sending me a text that says: “It’s okay! Girl, you’re a woman now! You can put a scary colorful wreath on your front door and then every time you see it you’re gonna be happy and you’re gonna forget that the sun is dying earlier every day!”

Does fall turn you into a modernist German poet? Tell me about it!

NPR on Fragrance Bans in the Workplace and Schools

Smell

PerfumeNPR has a great story out today on fragrance bans in the workplace — why some employers are considering them,

According to reporting by Yuki Noguchi, requests for fragrance bans are among the top five for human resources at workplaces around the country.

This isn’t just an imagined concern. Some genuinely have allergies triggered by the ingredients in some commercial fragrances, and some get migraines from exposure to perfume and cologne.

Having a fragrance-free policy can even earn building owners credits towards LEED certification, Noguchi reports.

The layers to this particular issue seem endless. On the one hand, I’ve been that person sitting next to someone whose perfume talks louder than they do. I’ve entered bathrooms where someone must have bathed themselves in cologne and not been able to breathe. Even if fragrance can be a personal mood-lifter, some wearers aren’t considering just how cranky their perfume can make the rest of us.

But I also wonder if the whole issue would be moot if consumers were choosing natural fragrances which are far less off-putting, which don’t carry as far on the air, and which age a little more subtly on the body.

Just how far do fragrance bans extend — to your deodorant? Your personal care items? Body lotions? News like this makes me happy I work from home, where the only rules about environmental sterility are the ones I make myself.

What’s your take on fragrance bans in the workplace?

Artist Brian Goeltzenleuchter wants you to mine your childhood for scent

Brian

PerfumeThis week I submitted one very smelly piece of writing to Olfactory Memoirs, a participatory art project by San Diego-based post media artist Brian Goeltzenleuchter.

How does it work? Well, you pick a scent from your childhood and then you write a scent memory piece it in whatever form you choose. Memoir here is loose — you don’t have to adhere to any conventions of the genre. Some of the entries in the existing archive read like stream-of-consciousness (appropriate for scent, no?), some are in poem form, some haiku, others, like mine, feel like essay.

If you want to try your own and are having trouble getting started, Brian and his collaborators have put together this handy list of writing prompts.

I thought it might be fun to talk to Brian about why he’s doing this. Why get strangers mining their past for scent stories?

Brace yourself.

This is one very thoughtful super-sniffer.

In other words, if you share a scent-related memoir with one person this year, let it be him!

Q & A with artist Brian Goeltzenleuchter about the Olfactory Memoir project

Emily: Can you tell the story about how the Olfactory Memoir project come about?

Brian: One of my preoccupations as an artist relates to me finding great interest in other people’s passions. The stories they tell and consume, the objects they collect, the way they build worlds in which they can lose themselves. Basically, these are all examples of meaning-making engineered by people who make no claim to be “artists.” Call it an ethnographic dimension in my work. At first blush, it might appear to be an artistic liability or shortcoming – not desiring to develop an artistic voice of my own. But I love to hear other people tell stories. And I am good at collecting and representing multiple narratives to find connective tissue, discursive meaning, and radical juxtapositions. Olfactory Memoirs came out of this context. The project asks, What’s your earliest scent memory? It’s such an innocuous question. It doesn’t have an agenda other than to produce stories. And it has been my experience that stories beget stories. Producing and consuming stories is such a pleasurable way to learn about one another.

So I thought it would be interesting to tie this into my research in olfactory art and transmedia storytelling. Olfactorymemoirs.com was launched as a way to collect and archive scent memories of childhood. Down the road I will begin curating readings from the archive that will be performed in a transmedia environment which overlays conventional storytelling with scent compositions designed to unfold in temporal relation to spoken-word narratives.

Emily: Why is scent important for your collaborative art projects?

Brian: Scent is important insofar as it is a grossly underestimated sense; so many of our cultural biases are made painfully apparent through the various ways we have tried to keep the sense of smell at the bottom of a hierarchy of senses that has shaped the way we relate to the sensorium since the Enlightenment.

And yet, I’ve found that people are more than curious about the sense of smell. It feels like a zeitgeist moment in which we’ve come to realize that the visual can only tell us so much. Scent is wondrous. It represents, but not in the way an image or a sound represents. The volatile molecules of an odor change over time, which give it a temporal dimension. And, of course, the fact that it is the only sense that directly interfaces with our central system means that it’s the only sense in which emotion precedes cognition. For me it has all the elements for an engaging art experience.

Emily: Why does the project focus on scent and childhood in particular?

Brian: This project was sponsored by a Creative Catalyst grant for socially engaged artworks. “Social engagement” is a term that makes me bristle a little because it sounds like a euphemism for something more dubious. That, and the fact that it is often used naively by people who have not yet learned that there is no free lunch. With this project, I didn’t want to be didactic, nor did I want to preach to the converted. By focusing on childhood, a theme that I earlier referred to as innocuous, I felt it limited the risk of polarizing my audience, while simultaneously increasing the potential for meaningful reflection on diversity. Everyone has been a kid. And most people have memories of childhood that inform the stories they tell. By beginning with the all-inclusive theme of “childhood” I present readers with a range of childhood scenarios designed to resonate in collective memory and expand the complexity and diversity of what it means to “grow up.”

Why scent? Because it destabilizes our storytelling routines. You can infer a lot about a person’s identity from the way they mine their personal histories for narratives.

It’s not uncommon for people to possess and draw from a collection of narratives that in some way attempts to explain who they are as individuals. Most of us have told these kinds of stories so often that they become a little too slick. By asking someone to begin with a scent memory I prevent them from deploying story for tactical purposes. Instead, there is something akin to innocence or an unconscious working-out of things when someone begins with scent.

What made me remember that? And where did those details come from? I haven’t thought of that in years. I host writing workshops led by Judy Reeves, who for decades has been a writing provocateur in the San Diego area. She has so many good prompts that lead writers to arrive at scent memories that reveal a raw portrait of the writer as a child.

Emily: What have you learned about humans’ relationship to scent and childhood from your ongoing project?

Brian: If I were to rephrase your question to read, “What have you learned about humans’ relationship to scent and memory,” I would say that scent memories are packed with details. Usually, surprisingly vivid details, such as the pattern of a dress your friend wore thirty years ago, or a dialog you suddenly remember verbatim, or the ambient sounds that occurred simultaneously with the smell.

This is not terribly linear in the way that written narratives often unfold in a sequential order. Rather, it comes as a collage of sensory details that not only adds a certain authenticity to the narrative, but in the right hands, can allow the author’s voice (at that time in childhood) to speak. That is a specifically moving part of reading scent memories of childhood; the author can assume the voice of herself as a child.

But to your question about scent and childhood, I’ve learned that our attachment to odors are incredibly subjective. I knew that there are cultural biases in smell, but collecting scent memories has taught me that individual bonds or aversions to smells are formed early, and often in unusual ways. One example is an olfactory memoir that was recently submitted to the website about the smell of pickled pig’s feet. The feet, which the author claimed smelled like silicone caulking, were an early memory of what he referred to as “the smell of truce” that would occur between he and his abusive father. Hearing his father pop the lid and smell the sour vinegar from the jar told him he could join his dad around the table for a rare bonding moment. Even 40 years after these moments, and although he has never popped a jar of pickled pig’s feet as an adult, he still salivates whenever he smells silicone caulking! Apparently the response is automatic.

Emily: I’m writing a book-length olfactory memoir myself right now and I’m finding that scent is a subject that you have to make sneak up in the writing to be effective. Do you have any thoughts on what writers need to do to use scent effectively in writing or storytelling?

Brian: I like the phrase “sneaking up.” In daily perception smell also sneaks up on us. We see a clean kitchen but smell the burnt toast. We can choose not to look at something but unless we hold our breath we are constantly confronted our olfactory environment. Why should it be any different in the way a reader experiences it on the page? Beyond that, I imagine there are additional challenges, since descriptions are often limited to what something smells like or how a smell makes you feel.

I have this ongoing conversation with a polymath of sorts named Richard Gleaves. Richard has a plan to counter the Anglo-American smell aversion that has limited the way in which we verbally describe smell and the perception of smell. His project would involve perceptual scientists and professional writers. The scientists would delineate the various phenomena and principles of olfaction that people are capable of receiving (as measured by scientific tests), but not necessarily consciously aware of, due to the existing gaps in their language and culture. Once this inventory of perceivable olfactory phenomena is established, the writers would be commissioned to collectively coin new language which artfully defines the perceptual inventory, with the goal of introducing the coined language into common usage. Such coinages would include (but not be limited to) new words, semantic extensions of existing words, and new metaphors. Maybe you two should collaborate!

Emily: What will happen to all of these olfactory memoirs you are gathering?

Brian: In addition to the website functioning as a participatory archive, which invites readers to become writers, there is a performance element that is in the works. The performance takes a hybrid form: A literary reading of olfactory memoirs that is choreographed to coincide with an orchestrated delivery of fragrances that I design. Throughout the performance these fragrances play the role of olfactory landscapes (“scent-scapes”) intended to add a sensory dimension to the performance by connecting audiences more deeply to the narrative texts read on stage.

Presently I am working with Dave Ghilarducci, a very talented artist with a deep engineering background. We are designing scent distribution devices that will release trace amounts of fragrance into the audience and then filter them out just as quickly. Dave is working on a keyboard that will essentially allow me to DJ the scents from a computer and disperse them simultaneously to a seated audience. We will do some preliminary test events in a couple of months with major performances expected in 2017.

Emily: Thanks so much, Brian!

If you’d like to contribute an Olfactory Memoir to the project I’d say retrieve those memories and tackle those scents to paper! If you decide to do it, I’d love it if you’d link to yours in the comments.

Perfume Review: Captain Blankenship’s vessels of imagination

A perfumer's head is always close to the ground.

Jana Blankenship, following her nose towards inspiration.

PerfumeThe more I get into natural perfuming the more I come to understand that when I connect with a scent I am connecting with an artist. And just as I have had to read everything Ann Patchett has ever written, or have followed Vermeer across geographies into the golden light of timeless domesticity, I was driven to smell the other fragrances created by perfumer Jana Blankenship to experience how a real scent artist experiences the world. To my great delight, all of the scents in Captain Blankenship scent sample package deliver a revelatory experience.

Based in the Hudson River Valley, Captain Blankenship is a vessel of imagination for artisan perfumer Jana Blankenship, who has been making a whole line of organic beauty products with the alluring tagline: Wild with nature.

If Portland’s OLO’s Dafne was my gateway scent into natural perfuming, Captain Blankenship’s Jaune was the one that tipped me over into obsession. I first came across it at one of those tiny shops on Portland’s East Burnside, Sword + Fern, which carries the loveliest tiny apothecary section of handmade self-care products. I was drawn immediately to the hand-drawn ship of its logo, which feels like a doodle from a daydream.

Jaune

Jaune was a revelation for me — a rose-based scent that smelled fresh and light. Until Jaune, rose perfumes had always seemed plucked from a cake in Miss Havisham’s dining room. But then there was this — cascading roses in the prime of their beauty in a garden with lemons, sweet orange blossoms. And there is someone serving vanilla tea there, not in a frumpy floral teapot but in a glass pot, where you can see the leaves unfolding. When I wore Jaune I felt like I carried this scene with me, and as is changed on my wrist it felt like the sun moving across the sky.

CB2

Scent samples from Captian Blankenship come in tiny vials with a hand-made bag dyed with natural indigo.

Seawolf

You wouldn’t expect a wolf to smell so sweet, but that is the allure of Seawolf, Captain Blankenship’s Seawolf. It’s surprising meeting of earthy forest notes such as pine and fir with lighter florals like ylang ylang cut through with grassy palmarosa and vetiver make it feel very much of nature but not by nature. It has patchouli, myrrh and frankincense, lending it something of an exalting spiritual dimension, but the effect is very cathedral-of-the-forest, not a trip-to-the-altar. I adore this scent for its ability to transcend so many categories to create its own.

Wolf Moon

Wolf Moon is the darker component to Seawolf’s light run through the ancestral forest. It meets you with the light floral of honey blossom which quickly develops into a warm foundation of smoked frankincense, and iris root. It’s the woods that might await you if you stepped off the path, over there where the moonlight is shining through. It gets silkier as it develops. I would want to smell this one on someone but not on myself.

Hiddensea

This scent meets you in a hothouse of citrus made more interesting with blooming florals of jasmine, orange blossom and neroli. It feels like an imagined place, as if it were possible to build a solarium on top of the sea and fill it through with uplifting botanicals, and every now and again this floating greenhouse would tip towards the reeds on the shore. I could see myself sequestering myself from the world and floating around with this one.

Do you have a favorite indie perfumer that I have got to try? Please share in the comments!

In Praise of Nowstalgia: The Sadness in Happiness

A photo to show this actually happened.

A photo to show this actually happened.

airstreamTwo weeks ago, at a tiny, footprint-shaped lake near Mt. Bachelor, we found ourselves picnicking with over 100,000 Cascade frogs. As we stepped near the edge of the water, the pond rolled in a black wave of flapping polliwogs disturbed by our footfall.

You can never feel truly alone in the wilderness.

And then there they were, framed by the deep lines of woods and lake – after three years, eight days, 10 hours and 43 minutes on family rancor (but who’s counting?) – my boys, helping each other. My 5-year-old was showing his brother how to hold a tiny, slippery frog in his hand so he could keep him cupped inside but not crush him. My younger son: listening patiently and following his older brother’s lead. The frogs jumped around their feet in primal flight mode.

My boys crouched down together and snatched two tiny frogs out of the grass. My older son dropped a half-inch long slimy frog into my younger son’s soft palm, and in the crisp sun of an Oregon mountain summer, the world stopped for me.

I got that feeling again. It’s a feeling I can’t help but notice more and more in these hazy, long afternoons of summertime: Nowstalgia.

Nowstalgia is what I call that split second when I can sense that a memory is being created, and instead of being happy for the calamitous beauty of this moment, I’m already nostalgic for how much I’m going to miss it years from now. It’s a truer version of the term bittersweet, an idea far better for capturing how quickly a life passes and how intimately we feel the passing.

Nowstalgia. It is the tinge of melancholy that seems to come along with every moment of joy for me. It’s the part of me that can’t seem to let me get completely swept away in what is happening before my eyes. It’s the sadness in happiness — the knowledge that even though I can tell myself to lock a moment into my long-term memory, the past has shown that I just don’t work like that.

Fact: My memory is the worst kind of paper rubbing of what happened. Even with a photograph I tend to remember only how I felt about things. Every time I tell myself to commit a moment to memory – remember this moment! – it is gone within a week.

If I were chasing happiness I know I could just sit back and relax. Nearly every day there is a new study or book or article confirming that happiness is found in the moment, in accessing the NOW (thank you, Eckhart Tolle), or in reaching the flow state of activity that allows time to slip away and perfect convergence with the presence.

Life is painful enough, you say. You don’t have to go and live  your happy moments as pain, too!

But when you’re someone who feels deeply, it becomes difficult not to see even the brightest moments as some blips within a grander context. The children will grow up, they’ll be fighting again in a minute and we’re all going to die someday.

My husband says I’ve been waxing nowstalgic since he met me in 2001, but I haven’t yet determined how long I’ve been feeling nowstalgia’s tug. I don’t know if it’s something that deepens when you have children, or have read too many books, whether it’s just something you’re born with that gets more prominent with age or whether it’s just a writer thing. But I do know that by identifying the feeling with this very silly word I’ve been able to accept it as something odd and beautiful when it appears.

The Cascade frog is endangered — you can remove them from the lake to the tune of a $1,250 fine. With Nowstalgia, I run the risk of endangering every moment of joy. I’m not going to let it take nowstalgia ruin my days. I’m going to let it roll through me like a tiny wave and then, gosh darn it, I’m going to go catch some frogs.

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Do you have any favorite new words to describe a feeling? 

Follow Emily on Twitter @emilygrosvenor!

Book review: For an anniversary gift, The Picnic beats all else

Excerpted from The Picnic by Marnie Hanel, Andrea Slonecker, and Jen Stevenson (Artisan Books). Copyright (c) 2015. Illustrations by Emily Isabella.

Excerpted from The Picnic by Marnie Hanel, Andrea Slonecker, and Jen Stevenson (Artisan Books). Copyright (c) 2015. Illustrations by Emily Isabella.

GrapesMy husband and I are preparing for our ninth wedding anniversary this week, and since I’ve never been one to go for the traditional gift items (9th is leather? really?), I’ve decided that #9 must be the year of the picnic.

It can’t hurt that I recently got my hands on a copy of one of the most beautiful cookbooks I’ve ever laid my hands on and it is completely devoted to the art and practice of picnicking. I say art because picnicking is one of those things that can be taken to the nth degree — you can do it easy and pick up sandwiches and head to a park or you can create the most exquisite spread possible with the kind of finger foods that make your guests ooh and ahh for hours on end. Either is perfect any time, but for us, this year, we were going for the latter.

The Picnic: Recipes and Inspiration from Basket to Blanket was written by my Portland friend Jen Stevensen (of Under the Table with Jen, food stylist Andrea Slonecker and magazine writer Marnie Hanel, all founding members of the Portland Picnic Society. These women really know how to do it up, and have shared their knowledge from almost half a decade of picnicking through Portland’s long summers in a book of exceptional loveliness with illustrations by Emily Isabella. The book is essentially a how-to on approaching picnicking as a high-style art, but it is approachable and has options for both casual plein air diners and the more practiced picnic style-setter. It’s divided into the categories: 1 From Basket to Blanket, 2. Bites 3. Salads 4. Plates 5. Sweets and 6. Sips.

You can't feel this image, but The Picnic feels like a party invitation made at a letterpress studio.

You can’t feel this image, but The Picnic feels like a party invitation made at a letterpress studio.

The basket

On a recent trip to Pennsylvania, where I grew up, my mother gifted me with my great-grandmother’s actual picnic basket, the same basket that sat on the top of our refrigerator for my entire childhood. I’ve been cleaning it and displaying it on my own fridge for the past month, eager to get it out. It has these gorgeous hand-carved handles that just break my heart.

If you don't have an heirloom picnic basket (I realize this is a high order, Goodwill often has a good selection.

If you don’t have an heirloom picnic basket (I realize this is a high order), Goodwill often has a good selection.

The setting

We had high plans to get to a nearby park and wear seersucker and really do it up, but we found ourselves with a late morning without our two kids in the house and huzzah! a backyard primed for a blanket. For harried parents I can’t think of a lovelies solution than the backyard when the house is empty!

The menu

I could eat from every one of these recipes every day, but I chose a selection of recipes inspired by the book.

Beet hummus with crudite

Beet hummus with crudite.

This shocking pink hummus is a nice alternative (and has even more vitamins).

Classic deviled eggs

Picnic1

Bring the components separately and pipe on site!

This is the point at which I should mention that I could eat a deviled egg every day of my life and still not have enough. This book has not one but 12 different options! for deviled eggs, including eggs with caviar, horseradish and other bitey alternatives. But the big win is the suggestion to fill the eggs ON SITE using a piping bag or simply a twisted sandwich bag. This was the highlight of the picnic — so fun!

Hawaiian poke salad on cucumber

Cucumber rounds with Hawaiian poke salad

Cucumber rounds with Hawaiian poke salad

This is another one you can assemble on site to great effect. The book suggested a smoked salmon on cucumber finger food, but I’m a giant poke salad fan so I decided to try that instead. There’s nothing like eating raw fish out in the open.

Chocolate cakes with bourbon ice cream

Warning: Don't eat marigolds!

Warning: Don’t eat marigolds!

The best part of this book is how it offers simple picnic hacks to elevate the experience. One of my favorites was 99 Uses for a Mason Jar. I decided to bake some small chocolate cakes directly in a Mason jar (using Orangette’s Winning Hearts and Minds Chocolate Cake recipe from A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes from My Kitchen Table. Then I plopped a scoop of Bourbon vanilla ice cream on top.

Excerpted from The Picnic by Marnie Hanel, Andrea Slonecker, and Jen Stevenson (Artisan Books). Copyright (c) 2015. Illustrations by Emily Isabella

Excerpted from The Picnic by Marnie Hanel, Andrea Slonecker, and Jen Stevenson (Artisan Books). Copyright (c) 2015. Illustrations by Emily Isabella

I’m starting to think that with a July anniversary every year should be a picnic year. Now I have the basket, I have the company, I have a killer chenille blanket and have the inspiration for the next one. Next time we might actually make it to the park or to one of wine country’s picnic-worthy vineyards.

If you’d like to meet the creators of The Picnic: Recipes and Inspiration from Basket to Blanket and even picnic with them, the Portland Culinary Alliance is featuring the authors and the book tomorrow night at the Altabira City Tavern. It’s going to be a giant potluck on a stunning 58-acre farm. Read more about the event here.

How about you? What’s your favorite go-to picnic recipe? My plan is to become the Queen of the Deviled Egg.

A Field Guide to Pistils Nursery in Portland

Pistil's Nursery on N. Mississippi takes greenery and makes art out of it.

Pistil’s Nursery on N. Mississippi takes greenery and makes it art.

airstreamI’m not a plant person, but I’m definitely married to one. We have over 100 bonsai in our backyard and a growing collection of wee trees, as well as the most insane slow-growing rainbow of a succulent collection.

So while on assignment this week in Portland for AAA Via, and with my anniversary looming (in a good way), I thought I’d explore an uncommon garden store:  Pistils Nursery on N. Mississippi.

If you adore plants, you’ll find a welcome home here, but even if you’re not that into greenery you might discover that Pistils is really about living art — finding the inventive ways to incorporate plants into your lifestyle whether you’re a great friend of fronds or really have some black thumbs.

The store definitely has that curated curiosity vibe that makes shopping in Portland so fun in general, but I think it does especially well at finding creative solutions for people who live in cold, gloomy places (ahem, Oregon) or in apartments that don’t get that much dependable sunlight. Succulent displays, vertical solutions for small spaces and leafy green tropical foliage if you’re wild at heart — the options are many.

Tiny Cacti

Take for example these tiny cacti. Adorable. Left alone to grow and watered but barely, they might be the funniest houseplant gift I’ve seen. I could see this being a really sweet gift for someone who has migrated from the southwest and is homesick or just can’t care for anything that needs high maintenance. It might also be a good breakup gift.

Tiny cacti might be the perfect gift for black-thumbed friends with a sense of humor.

Tiny cacti might be the perfect gift for black-thumbed friends with a sense of humor.

Build-your-own Terrarium Bar

In the middle of the store you’ll find an old Chinese medicine chest filled with various types of pebbles, sand, larger rocks and other materials for setting the stage of a terrarium. You pay by the scoopful and can choose a vessel (I’m a fan of the hexagons) from a wall, everything from slim glass containers to fishbowls to apothecary jars. You also have your choice of perfect terrarium plants, all of them priced individually. The Pistil’s staff can help you pick the right plants for your tiny world.

At the terrarium bar, the world is your, um, tiny enclosed dome you control mwah ha ha.

At the terrarium bar, the world is your, um, tiny enclosed dome you control mwah ha ha.

The wall of vessels 

The wall of vessels, which I’ve only partially captured here, shows you a range of options for your container. Below a row of air plants add to options for low-maintainance terrariums.

Terrarium choices abound.

Just a small selection of the terrarium choices.

Self-care wall

Pistil’s also carries a fine wall of self-care items — salves, lip balms, lotions, washes, soaps and the like. Most of them are by local or regional makers, though there are a few from farther afield like San Diego and one from South Africa.

Tropical plants for indoor living.

The self care stock includes some of the city’s best small makers.

Portland Apothecary

There’s a special focus in the self-care sectionon Portland Apothecary, whose founder is a former employee of the store. Portland Apothecary is interesting because it combines traditional herbal medicine with self care (think soaps, lotions, face oils, misters). They make a fun Summer Solstice Mister, herbal teas and limited edition herbal extracts.

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Marimo Moss Balls

Finally, I give you what might be, for me, the most exciting thing to find at Pistils. These are Marimo moss balls, a traditional Japanese decorative home item often passed between generations. Legend holds that two star-crossed lovers were so distraught at being kept apart they decided to throw themselves into a river and became these moss balls, which float around in perpetuity, becoming larger slowly over time.

Marimo moss balls for your underwater garden.

Marimo moss balls for your underwater garden.

The moss consists of a rare form of sea algae that only grows in certain places of the globe (Japan, Australia, Iceland for example). They need very little care, but you do have to change their water every two weeks and shake them up a bit so every side of them sees some indirect sunlight.

If you live elsewhere and are interested in getting a set you can order them directly from Pistils.

I’m going to do a longer post on these soon, but in the meantime, I’ll leave you to behold these tiny fuzzy, Fraggle-like globes. I’d say their about five steps up from the pet rock, don’t you think? What’s the traditional anniversary gift for nine years? Please tell me it’s moss ball.

The Most Fragrant Rose in Portland

The Young Lycidas smells better than it looks.

The Young Lycidas smells better than it looks.

airstreamA rose is a rose is a rose. Unless you are at the Portland International Rose Test Gardens, where every rose is a thing to behold unto itself.

I’m in Portland all week while my eldest son is at Zoo Camp, so I’m taking the time to do a little traveling by nose.

What is traveling by nose you ask? Well, just seeking out the sensual travel experiences that incorporate smelling. It’s a great way to really focus on what you’re doing when you have just a little time to travel.

My first task was to find the most fragrant rose at the International Rose Test Gardens. Now before you go sniffing every bloom in the place (though I recommend that, too), know that the “most fragrant” has already been designated by the American Garden Rose Selections. According to that group, the most fragrant rose in the test gardens is located in section C1 and is the Young Lycidas.

These roses were named after the short poem “Lycidas” by Milton.  They bloom in clusters or alone and tend to droop a bit.

Good luck finding C1, by the way! Not only is it difficult to find in the garden, there is the problem of the roses I met on the way to the Young Lycidas.

In the meantime, I might have gotten a little distracted by some other roses.

057 062 066 073 075 076 080 082 089 097 102Now that you’ve thoroughly geeked out on roses, back to business. The Young Lycidas is actually in the miniature rose testing section. You can find its row by finding this sign.

110Then, I looked for the flowers themselves, which are full and round, large and deeply cupped. Their petals don’t seem to be arranged in any particular order. Kind of like chaos in a little ball.

Indeed, they are not the most beautiful roses in the bunch — but would you expect any different? The world of smells is so divorced from the world of visual beauty. Rank things can smell beautiful, beautiful things can smell awful. You have to go through the world inhaling it all to find out.

Hold on, I’m almost there!

092This is what always happens to me. The closer I get to a goal the more profound my conviction that I’ll never reach it. That last 10%. But then, when I was sure that I’d never ever find the smelliest rose in the garden and of course it doesn’t even matter because yes, they all smell and each is its own and why even pick the most fragrant, I found the Young Lycidas.

The Young Lycidas smells better than it looks.

The Young Lycidas smells better than it looks.

Except that the first one doesn’t even smell that good. Kind of stinky, actually. Like old roses that haven’t been dried properly. And then I smelled the next one and there is only the fairest hint of fragrance. And I started to wonder about these people, these rose people, like what is UP with their sniffers?

But then I happened upon the one that was blooming at the height of its scent. It hasn’t quite opened yet but is no longer in its tight little bud.

So we learn the only rule about the fragrance of the Young Lycidas. It changes right under your nose.

There is a delicious fragrance that changes markedly with the age of the flower; starting as a pure Tea scent and changing to a blend of Tea and Old Rose, with intriguing hints of cedar wood.– David Austin Roses

But isn’t that how real beauty works? Temporal, passing, catch it while it is there and die a little inside when it goes away.

Lavender Week!: How to Cook with Lavender

Lavender is a versatile herb that can perfume many household staples; but use it in moderation.

Lavender is a versatile herb that can perfume many household staples; but use it in moderation.

perfume-1Lavender is one of the most versatile culinary herbs — used correctly, you can take many of the foods you use regularly anyway and perfume them lightly with the herby, floral, slightly astringent smell of one of the world’s most alluring scents.

But be careful. A little lavender goes a long way. Use it too much and it will completely overpower the other flavors in your dishes. The goal is to add subtle lavender fragrance, not a perfume bomb you can smell half a mile away.

If you are using the lavender from your own garden, here are some steps to preparing the flowers for use in cooking:

Dried lavender will retain its oils and freshness for several months if stored properly, in an airtight container.

Dried lavender will retain its oils and freshness for several months if stored properly, in an airtight container.

  • Harvest the lavender. The blossoms are ready when the brilliant purple flowers have emerged and have not yet begun to wilt. If you are cutting lavender yourself, cut the stalks a few inches above the plant’s woody growth and gather the lavender into a bunch. Tie it together.
  •  Dry the lavender. You can always use lavender fresh, or you can hang it up or lay it flat to dry it. Note: If you are cooking with fresh lavender, use three times the number of flowers as in a dried lavender recipe.
  •  De-stem the lavender. You can use the whole stalk in cooking, but many people prefer to remove the flowers from the stalk and store them separately.
  •  Store it well. Store lavender in an airtight container in a cool, dark place. A Mason jar is a good choice.

Buying Lavender

If you don’t know exactly what has been sprayed on your lavender or on the lavender in the field near you, it is a good idea to buy from a reputable lavender farm or from an online lavender dealer. Byrne and Perry’s Chef Products carries a great Culinary French Lavender, harvested in the Provence.

Grow your own lavender and you won't have to worry about what pesticides might be lurking on it.

Grow your own lavender and you won’t have to worry about what pesticides might be lurking on it.

Cooking with lavender

Here are some ideas for perfuming your food with lavender.

Lavender butter

Smeared on fresh baked goods, there is nothing that feels more special than a specialty butter like lavender butter. Take  (½ pound) of room-temperature butter and top it with a tablespoon of dried, ground (if desired) lavender. Mix the lavender and butter together in a mixing bowl. Chill it for two days to let the lavender flavor develop. Use it directly atop your favorite bread, scone or muffin.

Lavender sugar

Lavender sugar can be used in any recipe calling for cane sugar, so the opportunities are limitless! Use about 1 tablespoon dried lavender for every 2 cups of Wholesome Sweeteners Organic Fair Trade Cane Sugar. If you have an Electric Spice and Coffee Grinder with Stainless Steel Blades, or food processor, grind the lavender for about 15 seconds to develop the lavender flavor. Add a cup of granulated sugar to the process and blend well, about three or four quick presses on a Cuisinart. Store the lavender sugar in an airtight container such as a Ball Jar  and use it in all of your favorite sweet baking recipes that call for sugar.

Lavender vodka

Using a funnel, drop about a ¼ cup lavender flowers into a bottle of your favorite vodka. Take out the funnel and close the bottle. Shake, so the flowers mix throughout. Store in the freezer for three days. Strain the vodka into a separate container, using a fine-mesh sieve, a cheesecloth or a paper towel. Squeeze the bundle with the flowers in it to extract as much lavender flavor as possible. Pour the vodka back in the bottle and store in your freezer for use in a lavender vodka tonic with a splash of lime. If you’re inspired to try more botanicals in your cocktails, check out The Drunken Botanist: The Plants That Create the World’s Great Drinks.

Lavender balsamic vinaigrette

Lavender can add a quick, floral kick to any basic vinaigrette recipe. In vinaigrette recipes calling for a combination of balsamic vinegar, oil, honey and ground pepper, add 1 tablespoon of fresh lavender (or a third of that of dried) for every 1½ cups of vinaigrette.

Lavender-roasted chicken

Poultry invites new herb combinations, and lavender will be a real surprise to your guests. Create a rub for roasted chicken using about a tablespoon lemon juice, 1 teaspoon lemon zest, 1½ tablespoons dried lavender, 1 teaspoon dried thyme, 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil and 1 tablespoon honey.

Lavender and blueberry anything

Of all the fruits you can perfume with lavender, blueberry is my favorite. And lucky for us, they usually are in season at the same time. Try putting lavender sugar into your favorite blueberry cobbler at the height of the season, bake some lavender directly into blueberry lavender scones, or infuse some milk with lavender and pour it atop fresh blueberries. About half a teaspoon of lavender is usually a good fit with a pint of fruit.

Salmon and lavender

Create a rub of lime zest and lime juice from two limes, ½ teaspoon thyme, ½ teaspoon dried lavender, 1 teaspoon pepper, 1 teaspoon sea salt and 1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil. Rub the seasoning mix on salmon fillets and bake as you would in your favorite salmon recipe.

How do you use lavender? If you are inspired to try more recipes with lavender, I highly recommend Sharon Shipley’s The Lavender Cookbook.

New Updates for Your 5 Senses: Can you really smell one trillion scents?

5Senses

In my quest to rage against the purely digital life, I’ve started compiling new information on what we are learning about the senses. Here are some of the latest sensual discoveries in the world of science and medicine.

Smell

Remember the startling statistic released last year by Science that the human nose can actually smell more than a trillion scents? Now, some researchers are calling bunk. Gizmodo has a great article out on why the statistical model used to reach that model is just that, and not based in reality.

“We disagree with several aspects of the 2014 study,” said Rick Gerkin of Arizona State University, who, along with Jason Castro of Bates College, authored a rebuttal paper that appears today in the journal eLife. “First, the assertion that humans can discriminate between at least one trillion odors is based on a fragile mathematical framework — one that’s capable of creating nearly any result with small variations in the data or the experiment design. So the result in question could be tens of orders of magnitude — a factor of one with dozens of zeros after it — larger or smaller than first reported.” — Gizmodo.com

Touch

People with autism have brains wired differently to respond to the sense of touch, according to this article by the Simons Foundation for Autism Research about a new Yale study.

“People without autism automatically interpret the social significance of the touch and start revving up the parts of the brain involved in processing social information,” says lead researcher Kevin Pelphrey, professor of psychology at the Yale Child Study Center. By contrast, he says, people with autism “perceive the non-social aspects of touch, but they don’t perceive the significance.” — Sfar.org 

Hearing

A new type of headphones allows bicyclists to hear traffic while listening to headphones. A Royal College of Art student completed the headphones as part of her graduate project. She was studying on the RCA’s Design Products course, created the Safe+Sound headphones after noticing a large number of cyclists wearing earphones while travelling on London’s busy roads.

“Eliminating your sense of hearing puts you and others around you at enormous risk,” she said. “Yet I can completely understand the desire to move to music.” — Emma Roper, quoted in DeZeen Magazine

Taste

A Huffpost article explores the phenomenon of the “supertaster,” or the genetically based ability some people have (roughly 25% of the population) to taste at deeper levels than their family members. The article takes that idea and applies it to the kids who are picky eaters.

“Different sensory experiences impact appetite, comfort, and curiosity around food, as do personality traits like being a risk-taker vs. preferring the familiar. Understandably, a history of pain or discomfort with eating or digesting, or food allergies can also negatively impact how a person relates to food.” — Katja Rowell, Huffpost.com

Sight

Digital eye strain is on the rise. Rage against the tyranny of the visual by focusing on your other senses, or do as this article suggests, which is to incorporate a diet rich in vision-enhancing nutrients to battle eye strain.

“Approximately 10 million Americans suffer from macular degeneration, and that number is set to rise exponentially in the next few years. Some experts believe that delaying the onset and progression of the condition can be found in a diet rich in eye-healthy nutrients.” — TechNews.com

That’s all for now. Go smell some roses! Follow me on Twitter @emilygrosvenor