World Sensorium ~ A Global Bouquet Attuning the Unity of all Cultures through Scent
by Laraine Pounds
Previously published, NAHA Aromatherapy Journal, Winter 2000: Vol. 10, #3.
If you were among the two million celebrants gathered in New York at Times Square greeting the dawn of the new millennium, you may have been surprisingly greeted with the delicate fragrance exuding from a four and a half inch square scent strip cascading from the night sky. You would have discovered, much to your delight, that this was no ordinary scent strip, but rather the long-visioned World Sensorium olfactory sculpture and public artwork by Gayil Nalls. The scent strip, artistically designed with a representation of the Earth suspended in the center against a gold background, radiates with multi-colored concentric circles overlaid with representational multi-colored aromatic molecular structures.
Ms. Nalls, a multi-media New York artist, began creating the planetary scent sculpture many years ago. In 1999, UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), and the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities endorsed the project for the Times Square New Year’s celebration with the purpose to reinforce a collective awareness of world’s humanity and its relationship with nature through olfaction.
The artist’s vision was to create a work about world unity. After exploring artistic mediums such as texture, sound and taste, olfaction was selected because of the subtle and direct influence scents have on human consciousness, including memory and emotion. “These specific scents are like cuttings from old cultural branches in humanity’s partnership with nature. And when they are blended together, they allow people to experience the diversity and unity of humankind, and its co-evolution with the environment, in a single complex scent.” (Nalls)
The concept of a world olfactory sculpture itself became important. It opened up many new ways of thinking about the world. The determining inspiration for the formula of the world scent occurred at New Year’s Eve, 1990, at the Berlin Wall while video taping another work. As Ms. Nalls was pulled up on the wall and becoming part of the human chain pulling others, it became clear to her that the formula would be based on the mathematics of population where everyone is counted. By morning, Nalls also knew that she would engage in official dialog with world representatives in identifying the olfactory markers.
This immense and daunting project required years of research, drawing on social and natural sciences. Nalls dedicated herself to determine the best possible way to identify the plants and to communicate with officials of each country. The decisions that were reached by the various countries involved the input of governmental agencies and the collective scholarship of many individuals from the participating countries. Over a five-year period, officials replied from 230 countries identifying fragrant trees, flowers, fruits, grasses, herbs, spices, and resins as national cultural aromas.
In giving their response, many countries acknowledged the spirit of planetary good will that was presented by the World Sensorium project altogether. Several countries recognized various possible choices when they submitted their ultimate selection. China considered the smell of rice and green tea before deciding on jasmine for its association with the higher self. Many of the chosen botanicals had connections with mythology and religion, and 95 % correlated with cultural healing traditions. The leadership of the Figi islands and the National Millennium Committee of Fiji, with representatives from all the islands, identified three scents for World Sensorium that they felt personified their country: Uci, Mokosoi and Coconut. Ultimately Uci was chosen for the cultural importance in being woven into leis for rituals.
Blending the World Sensorium exclusively from botanical sources became a formidable task as essential oils and other natural aromatic extractions were not easily available for all the botanical choices. For example, the plant Gorse was out of season when it was chosen by representatives from the island of Jersey in the English Channel. Ultimately, school children in New Zealand gathered the flowers in bloom which were distilled and sent to Nalls to be added to the blend. The White Indigo Berry (Randia aculeata), selected by the Netherlands Antilles, was found growing in a small plant reserve in Florida where volunteers harvested the white flowers for distillation under the threat of an imminent hurricane.
Determining the botanical names for the names of plants also proved to be a challenge. When Ms. Nalls was unable to resolve plant identification through her own research, she found botanical taxonomy assistance from scholars at the New York Botanical Gardens and ethno-botanists from the National Tropical Botanical Garden in Hawaii. For example, Vanuatu, a group of islands in the South Pacific, has one hundred and thirteen indigenous languages and three national languages. All of the indigenous languages had a familiar local name for the plant Evodia hortensis (Nasei), a native shrub. The true botanical name of “Gowe” from Senegal was only identified after the plant material was obtained and analyzed.
Russia and Western Samoa had never before considered a national association with a dominant scent, plant or flower, though selected the Birch tree and Ylang Ylang respectively in contributing to the project. Some countries chose trees or flowers that are identified in their national anthem, a popular folk song or opera.
This participatory aromatic project reminds us not only of the richness and diversity of plant life but also the varied cultural uses by human inhabitants of the Earth. For example, Citronella grass (Cymbopogon nardus), referred to locally as “fever grass” is used in the African country, Togo, as a tea to reduce fever in adults and children. In Reunion, Citronella is planted around the houses to prevent mosquitoes from entering. Niaouli has been traditionally used in New Caledonia for aches and pains, respiratory conditions, and cuts as an aid for infection. Choosing from over 700 species, Eucalyptus radiata was chosen by Australia, with a long history of use as a tea and for wound healing.
Myrrh was chosen by Somalia. Oman, and the Dhofar province in particular, proudly claims to produce the best quality of Frankincense in the world. According to popular belief, the Greeks are believed to have offered Frankincense to the moon goddess there. In modern times, men continue to scent their beards and hair, and women scent their clothing by holding an incense burner under their skirts. A special triangular incense burner is available in the village market for draping clothes for incensing. The ancient Japanese culture also enjoyed the tradition for scenting robes and hair using Sandalwood, various species of Aloeswood and other fragrances. Yemen also chose Frankincense acknowledging its historical value for use in worship, embalming and fumigation.
Frangipani and Ylang Ylang flowers were popular national choices. Lavender was chosen by France and Croatia. Six countries including Bulgaria, Bangladesh, Iran, Nigeria and Luxembourg chose various species of Rose as their national fragrance. In Iran, Rose is closely associated with Islamic religious occasions and wedding ceremonies. Bulgarian Rose is said to have been used by the royalty and people of Bulgaria for over a thousand years for health and beauty rituals. The use of rosewater was described as important to many religious observances in Iran such as the annual Hajj Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia and washing the graves of family and friends. When the Great Mosque in Iran is washed in Rosewater it is said that the scent can be smelled a mile away.
Based on the world population of the countries selecting various species of Jasmine, variations of this floral note ultimately comprised 24% of the World Sensorium global bouquet. The Jasmine flower has enjoyed many traditions of use by a variety of countries. In Djibouti, on the eastern coast of Africa, men wear Jasmine in their hats and the women thread the flowers on a string to adorn their hair. Jasmine is worn on the head under a cloth by the bride at her wedding. In Kenya, Jasmine flowers are thrown in celebration at weddings and are used to cover the marriage bed.
Foods and Spices
There were many foods scents honored in the World Sensorium blend, including mango (Brazil), coffee (Uganda, Ethiopia, Rwanda), grapes (Georgia, Germany), cashew (Guinea-Bissau), coconut (Congo), banana (Cape Verde) and pineapple (Guinea). The spices nutmeg (Grenada), paprika (Hungary), allspice (Jamaica), savory (Bolivia) and vanilla also enjoyed fond representation. Vanilla was chosen by Reunion, Comoros and Mexico as the official scent. Mexico selected vanilla as the most culturally important scent, believing that the Olmecs grew Vanilla plantifolia, a member of the orchid family for centuries.
One of the most striking uses of a plant oil is the traditional and current use of Tumeric mixed with coconut oil used in Palau with a ritual celebration of the mother after giving birth to her first child. Because childbirth was often a fatal experience for Palauan women in early days, Palauans honor the births of a women’s first child with a series of healing ceremonies which also acknowledge the importance of the woman as the bearer and caretaker of the new family line. These ceremonies are still practiced today.
Pine was selected by representatives from the United States, Austria and Honduras. The American spokesperson cited thirty-five different species of Pine native to the United States, with several well known species being helpful for respiratory problems, colds, sore throat, muscular aches and pains as well as making turpentine. Stemming from local appreciation of the pine tree, a “pine tree shilling” was minted in Massachusetts in the 1770’s.
Other honored trees included Fir (Canada), Magnolia (South Korea), Sandalwood (India, Indonesia), and Manuka (New Zealand). Bhutan, Mongolia and Tajikistan selected Juniper mentioning uses for incense, rituals of purification, and care of the respiratory system. Vanuatu, an archipelago of many islands in the southwestern Pacific Ocean, chose “Nasei” (Evodia hortensis) mentioning the many uses of the plant and its leaves in some detail. It is planted as a marker for important sites such as traditional dancing grounds and graves and is often planted near one’s house to provide easy access in making medicine. The leaves are used as a body decoration by both men and women in ritual dances as well as indicating a promise of good faith when an exchange is made.
A poignant moment in the creation of the World Sensorium was the day the representative from the Israeli Embassy in Washington and the Palestine representative from the United Nations called Nalls by phone within minutes of each other to report that their national choice was the Olive tree because of its long revered association with peace.
Grasses and of the Earth and Sea
Several countries identified indigenous grasses and turf as their aromatic selection. England acknowledged her “rolling lands of grasses”; Western Sahara her grasses of Cymbopogon; and the Republic of Ireland her “turf”. The vast areas of peatlands are a very significant part of the history, culture and economy of Ireland. Peatlands, also known as Boglands, were formed in the midlands 9,000 years ago, composed of the partly decayed remains of a variety of plants, trees and where depths are as much as 45 centimeters. The smell of burning turf was described as evocative for reminiscing times of the past, when sitting around a turf fire and listening to stories handed down from past generations was a main form of recreation and socializing.
Representatives from the small islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon off the southwest coast of Newfoundland chose the scent of fresh seaweed (Ptilota serrata huetz) blowing to shore after a gale as their national fragrance.
As a collective experience, the World Sensorium fragrance represents many diverse and creative uses and appreciation of the aromatic plants of Earth, including the social role of scent since antiquity. The project also encourages our personal recognition of what enriches our lives, especially from the world of aromatics.
Laraine K. Pounds, RN, MSN is the Boulder Director of The Institute of Integrative Aromatherapy which offers the Integrative Aromatherapy® Certificate Program, as well as specialty workshops in Aromatherapy. Laraine is a Clinical Nurse Specialist and co-founder of NAHA and the Alliance of International Aromatherapists (AIA).