The problem with being a certified perfumoholic is how it can spill over in unexpected ways into other aspects of life and associations that don’t have too much to do with perfume and more to do with what that particular scent and mood represents.
Once upon a time not too long ago, I wrote a nothing little short story that grew legs in no time and kept on walking, before it hopped, skipped, ran and evolved into a full-blown novel that wasn’t at all what even I expected. These were before the days of perfume blogging, before the days of friends on several sides of three oceans and help for desperate situations. These were the days when I debated with myself for weeks before I finally gathered up the courage to send an email to a perfume house so impossibly refined and indubitably sophisticated, I agonized over a French dictionary and my own oxidized French for three whole nights before I just gave up the ghost and wrote them in English.
Time to email Parfums Serge Lutens and request the famous Petit Livre des Parfums. I was some sort of grownup now, and I was getting awfully peeved at reading so many purple-prosed reviews of Lutens perfumes on perfume blogs and not having a clue. Nothing could be that good. I was too old to be that intimidated.
In no time, I received a nice, fat, fragrant envelope and a nicely signed card that I still own today, and braced myself for this Brave New World ahead. I knew that this was…a moment from which I could never turn back, and my olfactory universe would never be quite the same again.
One in particular caught my attention out of the many that I felt I must some day own, or else die with a severe sense of deprivation. As a perfume, it checked all the right boxes. Green, smoky, both ephemeral and earthy, it was like nothing else I had ever smelled, and evoked an emotion I had never felt before. It made me feel stronger, walk taller, it made me feel…invincible.
Chêne. A liquid ode to the mighty oak tree in all its aspects – the green of the leaves, the smell of sap, the sweet, vanilla-tinged fragrance of its wood. It was…love at first sniff.
It wasn’t long before a large decant found its way into my greedy little hands and Chêne found its way onto my green-craving skin. I never suspected I would enjoy feeling quite so much like Joan of Arc at the moment she walks into the French camp and demands a horse and an audience with the French king. Suddenly, I was Boudicca and Hippolyta and the living embodiment of every female warrior who ever breathed, and there would be no tragic ending here, no chink in this armor. I would never be punished for my transgression in thinking I was equal to anything or anyone, and I would not be intimidated…ever again.
Back to those ever-colder, ever-darker November nights not so long ago, wrestling with the Devil and a few demons of my own making, trawling the murky depths of my subconscious for a story I didn’t even know I needed to tell. Over the next few months, perfume too began weaving its seductive trail through the storyline…as the description of a mood or invocation of an atmosphere, as a bribe, or as a foreshadowing of events to come.
Above them all stood Chêne, my protagonist’s favorite. At her first meeting with a prestigious New York literary agent, she reflects…
I wiped my sweaty palms on my skirt, pulled at my suede boots and tried to forget a bra strap was slowly but surely sliding down my left shoulder. I should have worn something else besides Chêne, something safe and innocuous and familiar, but Chêne was my invisible armor.
And at a much later point in the story, after triumph and tragedy, the Devil, no longer what even he once was, decides to pay a visit and remembers:
Skin like silk, a perfumed promise of deliverance, that low, feline growl at the back of her throat, that green and sappy, sweet and smoky trail of Chêne at the back of her neck that drove me mad.
It’s no coincidence at all that the three perfumes my protagonist specifically describes as wearing at different times in the story are all Lutens/Sheldrake creations, nor that when the Devil takes a four-year vacation, he leaves with a bell jar of Chêne, one reminder of that latter-day Joan of Arc who stole the heart he didn’t think he had.
Herbal and green, Chêne starts as a surprise and ends as an aria to all the glories of the wood it celebrates. Cedar and thyme and a deliciously boozy rum dance out into the air off my skin. Instead of slouching, I stand up straighter. When first the birch and next what must be immortelle arrive, I’m talking back, I feel safe and protected and somehow invincible. Life can throw me whatever surprises it likes. Nothing will occur that I can’t handle. My invisible armor sparkles in the sunlight that bounces off the leaves.
Many hours later, the rum, birch, immortelle and sap give way to a furry tonka bean and smoky, burning wood, the scent of a bonfire flaming on a Midsummer’s Eve beneath the boughs, but this is no heretic burning at any stake for her hubris at challenging the status quo, this is a celebration of life and every living creature that breathes and loves. The eerie, earthy, aroma of sap and all that grows, the scent of the oak itself, sacred to Jupiter, and an intimation to be aware that not all that rustles in the undergrowth may be benign. Some creatures may bite, some may sting and all of them are hungry for that taste of green, effervescent life.
If ever a perfume smells…atavistic, this would be it. Proud and pagan, unapologetic and primeval, this is the quintessence of Wood, quintessence of Oak, a sophisticated ode to all that grows just below our ability to articulate it.
Nevertheless, we can grasp it, we can understand it, we can look up in awe at that majestic, sacred tree …and feel its essence in our bones and in that ancient part of our memories that hides just beyond our words.
Wearing Chêne, I can go out into the world and meet…literary agents, editors, Very Important People of any stripe, and present them with the Ten Most Important Reasons I Should Be Heard, and more to the point – knowing that I will be. I’m a latter-day Joan of Arc, although I won’t burn at any stake for my hubris and my own choice of divinity might be unorthodox. Yet I can accomplish whatever I choose with whomever I meet.
Now, Your Majesty, I shall need a horse and a sword. Where did you say those cowardly, lily-livered Anglais were hiding?
Notes according to Basenotes:
Sap, cedar crystals, black thyme, silver birch, rum, beeswax, oak, undergrowth note, tonka.
Image of Joan of Arc from Wikimedia Commons