I wake to soft morning light, a pale glow on the worn linen curtains in my bedroom illuminating that dawn has just arrived.
As I push back the fluffy duvet and emerge from a warm cocoon of bed, the rest of the household still sleeps. Even the dogs. I make my way to the bathroom and then the kitchen, where I add water to the blue enameled tea kettle and set it atop a hissing flame. Then I open the front door and step outside the greet the day in my usual way.
Wearing hemp yoga pants and a green flannel shirt, crossing the unswept wooden deck, I feel the smooth coolness of boards and dried, cylindrical cypress leaves beneath my bare soles. In a heartbeat, the coastal air wraps around me with an alluring perfume of woodsmoke. Someone in the neighborhood must be burning an early morning fire, and the scent drifts and intermingles with the fragrance of Monterey cypress and a faint, salty tang of the sea.
Though it is only early August, for a brief moment, the cool temperature of the morning air and aroma of woodsmoke catapult me forward to autumn—though I might just as easily have been transported to camping somewhere wild and sitting near a fire pit.
Our olfactory sense is astounding. Wired directly to the limbic brain, which is largely responsible for our emotions, the stimulus of scent bypasses the higher processing centers and affects us in an immediate, primal way. Situated at the top of the nasal cavity, the roots of the olfactory bulb—the nerves most directly exposed to our exterior environment—detect molecules of scent in the air we breathe.
Years ago, when I was actively practicing as an aromatherapist, I taught a 50-hour course at a local massage school. Alongside the properties and benefits of essential oils, I shared with students the beneficial ways we can use scent to induce the “relaxation response” (either with clients or in our own lives): triggering the parasympathetic nervous system to become dominant, and releasing a flood of positive, health-inducing benefits. When we create a positive association with a scent (such as in massage, an aromatic bath, sweet incense in a temple, the smell of onions cooking, etc.), the beneficial physiological responses in the bodysoul can be invoked simply by encountering that particular aroma again.
Woodsmoke. Lemony-green scents of Monterey cypress. Marine-infused air. Each of these is stirring something in me in the moment as I stand quietly, welcoming the morning. In the hush of this early hour, I can hear the sea a half mile distant, a welcome voice that fades in the noise of the day.
Barefoot on the earth, in my usual manner, I cast my senses wide and greet the holy—everywhere, in each thing I see. Laying hands upon the great Monterey cypress that watches over and graces each day with timeless, windswept beauty, I offer my prayers. Golden grains of organic millet I scatter gladly along the deck railing and faded red bricks, food for the little winged ones who will soon arrive to feed, knowing I have brought their daily breakfast.
Turning back to my cottage, I reenter the house just as the kettle reaches its boil and set about making my requisite pot of cheer—a favorite loose leaf, black tea blend that my dearest friend in England regularly sends to me.
Outside the windows, the sky brightens in its song, graced with whispers of pink and soft blue. I set the teapot atop the cast-iron warmer that holds a tea light, and prepare to settle in for the rest of my early morning ritual: lighting a candle and a stick of incense, penning the first creative sentence of the day on a clean sheet of paper (then folding it up and setting it aside as an offering), and then some pages of longhand writing in a notebook as the day arrives more vividly.
A wooden match sparks to life with a sulphuric hiss, igniting the resinous stick of piñon pine incense. I place the glowing stick in a wooden holder on the mantel (“chinmeypiece” my UK friends call it) and return to the table by the window, preparing to settle in and write. In mere moments the first aromatic molecules fly across the room to reach my nose, and the invisible smoke unlocks an immediate response in my bodysoul: a deep breath, a sense of opening and expansion, a peacefulness. Bliss, even.
For twenty years I have burned sticks of piñon incense, ever since falling in love with the wood’s fragrant scent when I first dwelt in Taos, New Mexico. In the cold months (sometimes even on a summer evening), I was repeatedly intoxicated by the aroma of piñon burning, its fragrant spirit rising up from kiva fireplaces in adobe houses to perfume the sky. It is a smell that triggers in me a profound sense of well-being—of being home in a place that deeply nourishes, rooted to earth and soul. The very scent of piñon smoke creates a sense of sanctuary, reweaves my connection to spirit, and somehow invokes the most creative, authentic part of myself to come forward.
Ever since Taos, along with a candle and a fountain pen, piñon incense has been part of my writing ritual. Occasionally, I run out of these precious resin sticks (especially when I lived abroad and had to order them), and when I don’t have their comforting scent, I long for it—a sensual element missing from my life.
What an exquisite gift of nature, this scented resin that gives a perfumed smoke. Similarly the scent-ual extractions from flowers, roots, stems, leaves and wood that we popularly call “essential oils”—a term that I think is curiously perfect, conveying both the essence of the plant along with its value in our life. At the risk of sounding overly dramatic, I sometimes think that I couldn’t live without these healing gifts of nature. (Of course I could, but what a dulled existence it would be, like living in a derelict, industrial section of urban warehouses without any sense of semi-wild nature.)
In a real sense, everything that sustains humans is a gift from the plants (and microbes), even the very oxygen we breathe. Yet ignorantly or selfishly we take it all for granted.
For a sensualist soul, being enfolded by by natural “aromatherapy” is part of the deliciousness of life. Nothing synthetic, thank you, like all those horrid air “fresheners” and cloyingly scented candles. Or commercial perfume. Increasingly, everything from dish soap to deodorant is scented in the most obnoxious, chemically-fake way that dulls our senses rather than heightens them.
Perched by the front window I sit, fountain pen in hand and poised to write, inhaling the moment. It is fleeting, this wisp of smoke that triggers my sense of bliss. Soon the scent will mostly fade into the background as I habituate once again to its presence, the woodsy, balsamic notes diminishing and then lost amid the other inputs of the morning… the frequent clatter of my thoughts. The dogs will rise to greet me with wagging tails and the day will gradually shift, pulling me into a different mode of work, duties, and social interactions.
If you read this journal regularly, you know how these simple moments seduce and compel me to write about them. Everyday, life is well-stitched with little, ordinary minutes that, if we are paying attention, are really sensual celebrations of life—the fragrance of fresh rosemary crushed and chopped in the kitchen, the feel of a fine tool in the hand, the warm touch of our lover’s fingertips, the sweet juiciness of a sun-warmed peach, a mosaic of dappled shade beneath a noble tree. Yes, I write recurrently about such things.
Across the room, a thin stream of smoke rises from the stick’s glowing tip, a ghostly blue serpent spiraling up and outwards, finally disappearing as a fragrant prayer to mostly forgotten gods.
A new day beckons softly with unspoken promise. Before long, the usual distractions and demands will carry me downstream from this quiet place, but until then, I am simply breathing in, breathing out. I’m savoring the sweet, smokey scent of a smoldering stick rolled in resin, the expansiveness in my chest and belly that it invokes, along with a sense of the goodness of life… and realizing once again that nature’s gifts are uncountable.
It may be fleeting and ethereal as piñon smoke, but I will offer something of value to the more-than-human world today. Tomorrow, too, and every day henceforward.
Like Nature does, may we all give ourselves away in beauty.