I am sitting alone at the computer on this cold day with rain falling gently outside, slightly melancholy, but also very happy and glad to be alive. In this increasingly grim worldwide coronavirus pandemic situation, where people are dying in droves, losing their jobs, scared for the future ; isolated, fearful and angry, I am grateful to be living here in Japan, where the population doesn’t think twice about wearing a (totally non-politicised and legally-non mandatory) mask – since the very beginning of the crisis, from a shared feeling of mutual understanding and common sense coupled with the silent but very admittedly very forceful group mentality which punishes those that stand out – others’ eyes tell you should be wearing one – but still totally sensible and vastly impacting the case numbers and death toll compared to many other countries; allowing freedom in terms of movement and normality of our daily lives and a cautious sense of vague optimism now the first vaccines should soon be on their way to those who are fortunate to live in the world’s richest nations like this one. Enforced conformism aside, you can’t help being impressed on a daily basis by the mutually beneficial collectivism that I instinctively feel is the right way to go in times of disaster like this (the hospitals are filling up here, alarmingly, but nothing like the almost calamitous scenes we are witnessing in the US and the rising lockdown situations back home and in Europe). Still, here, and everywhere, it is going to be a strange and bereft Christmas/ Holiday and New Year season, with many unable to see or afford to be with their families and friends, sealed off in what is almost like solitary confinement. I feel lucky to not be in such a situation, and really feel for those who are. I hope that things get better for everyone from now on, if we can get through what is likely to be quite a brutal global winter.

From the personal standpoint, I also feel emotional, lucid and blessed; today is a Significant Birthday; I have turned a corner – which I suppose should theoretically be making me feel old and past it; decrepit and depressed that I am no longer in the first flushes of youth; far from it, but which is instead making me feel vital and thankful for everything I have in my life despite a certain undeniable poignancy.

D woke me up this morning at 6:30am with a cup of Earl Grey and a cupcake with a single candle on it. I opened my eyes to see the blurred vision of the flame glowing unerringly on my pillow, waking up slowly as he went around the house quickly picking up presents from various hidden cupboards and closets to lay on the futon for me to open before he had to go off to work. A record player for upstairs, and some old records, and a new LP of spoken poetry by Lana Del Rey, which I have been enjoying listening to these past few hours just sprawled on the blankets in the bedroom drinking coffee, looking through a wonderful scrapbook of photos that D’s mum Daphne sent of the two of us over the years as well as a collected book of the classic Flower Fairies from my sister – a charming and whimsical creation which had great significance for me as a child, having even actually looked like one of them when playing the lead role of Peter Pan in the school musical – all green pop socks and face glitter and acorn green hat – when I was ten years old.

There was a hilarious snow globe with a picture in the centre of Burning Bush, again from my sister; some chocolate; Japanese stationery; a plant from Yoko; a coffee bean grinder (I always make it fresh after I get up)……and of course, most exhilaratingly — some perfume. I don’t actually know if there is anything more exciting than a gift-wrapped box containing a bottle of luxurious scent, particularly when it is something you wouldn’t usually be able to feel justified on splurging on in a regular pay month because of the cost. As you know I often snap up vintage bargains a few times a month, but rarely these days actually go out to buy an expensive niche perfume as I just don’t have the money. To my delight, I received three high end fragrances centred on vetiver – my main go to theme in perfume these days – to add to my collection, as well as the Juemon Tou vanillic incense that I wrote about the other day from Kamakura which D had gone back to buy and which I will delight in using over the next coming months. Lining up to gorge my eyes on the boxes and bottles (naturally I have mislaid my phone under all the wrapping paper in our messy bedroom so can’t take any pictures) I felt very spoiled – and exceedingly pleased.

When it comes to vetiver, a note that seems to currently reflect the state of my soul for a number of reasons, I mainly use a perfectly balanced natural essential oil from Java that I wear neat on my skin but that I also scent coats and sweaters with. It lingers beautifully, develops over time, meaning you have a basic ‘scent layer’ already there, mellowed and advanced, to follow you around suavely automatically, but which you can also ‘top up’ and elaborate on at any time by choosing a perfume for the day on the wrists and neck to complement the overall vetiver theme. I don’t generally buy vetivers that are just vetiver, as I consider them redundant and mostly overpriced, but if there is a scent that carries the note in a way that can’t be matched and performed by the pure oil, embellishing it in a way that adds heft, layer, refinement or mystery, then I am all for it. My parents had wonderfully sent me a bottle of Maitre Parfumeur Et Gantier’s Racine via France (I haven’t had a bottle since 2004), an eau de parfum that is sharp and fruity and very elegant and which I will have to try to resist using up to quickly as I know it will be perfect with my vetiver absorbed coat: I will feel cool, put together, and invincible. D had also bought me a full bottle of Hermès Vetiver Tonka, two small bottles I have gone through very easily in the past as the nutty, warm coumarinic texture of the tonka and sandalwood in the base somehow suits me perfectly; the final accord inviting and sexy simultaneously. While I used to consider this perfume a touch too ‘goody goody’, too well behaved, it is now that very comfort that I sometimes crave now that I enter my pre-dotage and warm my slippered feet afore the raging fire like Nat King Cole feasting on sugar-glistened chestnuts; Vetiver Tonka also goes deliciously with the darker smelling oil on my coats, adding an ‘above layer’ of cozy that creates fine contrast. These are scents I will certainly treasure and try to use as sparingly as possible, or else, knowing me realistically, just go all out for it and stride pleasurably about outside surrounded by these gorgeously gourmet intricacies added to my person, surrounding me with a certain very dignifying and lordly extra-presence (thanks so much mum, dad and d xx).

Yet another vetiver-hearted perfume I received on this bounteous day was the sylvanly magnetising Hywl by Aesop, a grave and ascetic frankincense / Japanese cypress with a hint of thyme fused with vetiver that feels like getting lost by yourself in a wintertime hinoki forest (thank you so much denise!!). The frankincense here is not on the ethereal tip like some more religious-influenced olibanum, but rather dark, dense and burnt – quite masculine and a fragrance to put you in a focused mindset when you are feeling strict and want a clear head. Something I really feel like right now after this year of insanity and collective terror. Vetiver lurks broodingly in the heart of this scent, alternating with the frankincense, while the coniferous notes never quite dissipate, clinging to the vetiver in the base in an expertly blended natural perfume that is single minded and contemplative. I will wear this one when I need to feel confident and authoritative: again it will work perfectly with all my vetiver infused clothing and scarves.

Why vetiver? Why does it feel so right for me at this moment, this year?

I have been through extended vanilla, amber, oud, and patchouli phases the past; tropical flowers and coconut in summer, as well as citrus all year round : certain ingredients and notes match your personality and feelings in a particular time and space. Vetiver strikes me as being particularly complex and multi-faceted however – less monolithic than any of the above, with both deeply relaxing and reflective qualities as well as a certain cold dignified aloofness, while also somehow being quite fiery and aggressively sensual when the right moment strikes. It is extraordinarily versatile; in a perfume such as Shalimar it anchors the voluptuous excesses in a pronounced if subliminal note that is a stroke of intuitive genius; the same goes for the vanilla-vetiver base accord in Molinard’s tobacco theme Habanita. Alternatively, the green grassy tang of real vetiver essence is ideal in sharp green perfumes – No 19, obviously, with galbanum, iris and ylang ylang/neroli, but also Calèche, and many a floral aldehyde; without the base layer and sangfroid of vetiver they would feel too flighty, and florally volatile.

Vetiver oil is very pronounced in its physiological effects on the body and mind: I read a fascinating article which compared the effects of vetiver essential oil favourably with diazepam (valium) : on mice who were given either the anti-anxiety medication or vetiver, the results were strikingly similar. And in a year as unfathomably stressful as this one (after I finish writing this, in a rush as time is slipping, I will have to go to my school as I do every Wednesday, where there are no windows, no social distancing, only masks, it is perilous: : I have just learned to shut it out and pretend it is not happening even if that in itself has psychological consequences), we all need to be earthed; calmed, brought back down – have our raw nerve endings soothed and coated after all the mayhem and the now mercifully ended brain virus – I don’t want to talk about that any more, but it was……………….well it nearly took me over the edge, on top of everything else; there has been a continuing onslaught of stress all over the world this year, which is one reason I think I have been so drawn to wearing this naturally serenifying ancient ingredient.

In my book ‘Perfume’ I write that vetiver is a ‘grounding and relaxing essence that tranquillises the spirits into an almost otherworldly state. Stabilising, emotionally cooling, and described by aromatherapists as a ‘nervine’ in its ability to tone and calm the nervous system, I sometimes use the essential oil – viscous, earthy and dark green/ brown coloured – in my bathwater and completely forget about time. Also known as khus in Indian cultures, vetiver is used in religious ceremonies for its focusing properties and spiritual balance. Once, when I was travelling alone in Malacca, Malaysia, I entered the Sri Poyyatha Vinayagar Moorthi Hindu temple, where the priest, garlanded, naked except for a loin cloth, was meditating in the silence, smeared from neck to toe in khus paste; a dark, almost dank, green, soil-like smell with grassy and lemon overtones that put me in a trance the moment I set foot in there. The cool of the stone walls, the hushed, solemn atmosphere and the hypnotically scented darkness, formed a startling contrast with the blazing sunshine outside’.

This experience occurred almost twenty five years ago – half my life time. But it had a profound impact on my understanding of vetiver, colouring my appreciation of it. Reading further on the use of the oil in Indian culture this morning, I find that wreaths of the dried grass are used to drape murti – garlands of flowers and grasses that are placed over statues of the Hindu god Shiva: protector of the universe with an all-seeing eye, but also the destroyer: this is a conceptI can relate to. Not in trying to compare myself to a deity, of course, but in the sense of searching for truth in the chaos of disinformation and lies, particularly this year, in smashing what I felt needed to be smashed (it has been a year of ranting and raving from the offset, when the Diamond Princess cruise liner docked in Yokohama bay and the beginnings of the pandemic were first causing alarm bells). What felt like righteous anger to me, in other words. Yes, I have been aggressive and angry but it has felt warranted. And only by striving to pierce through what is wrong do you find clarity. And peace again.It seems fitting, therefore, that this god should be fested with dried vetiver roots specifically, as alongside the notes’ often chic delicacy in its outer stages there is also a fervour: a richness and masculine strength. Known as one of the strongest and resilient plants in the world, the roots of the vetiver plant are used to shore up the soil over railway bridges and other places needing mooring in many countries prone to cyclones and the like to prevent erosion, to prevent flooding – because this is a plant that is made to resist. One of nature’s great aromatherapeutic discoveries, used for millennia in medicine and in perfume, vetiver, for me, is simply a natural solace. And like its counterparts, and fellow integrating, enhancing and reinforcing natural tree and leaf oils of sandalwood and patchouli………..it improves with age.


Filed under Flowers

34 responses to “HEART OF VETIVER

  1. Beautiful prose. Perfect companion for an early morning espresso. Happy birthday!

  2. Robin

    The happiest of returns to you on your 50th (???!!!!!). Despite your advanced years, I will — thanks to this piece — be thinking of you fondly in your green socks and acorn hat and glitter. (PHOTOS!!!!!)

    This was so good to read I can’t even say. I devoured it so quickly I will have to go back later and give it a slower, proper read.

    Oh, Duncan my dear, thank you for giving Neil a whole bottle of Vetiver Tonka. I think I’d implored him once to consider splurging on one — I’m a big fan and my gut said he would enjoy it more and more as time went on — and you must have had the same instincts. I also think it’s quite a youthful vetiver, so that even though your man is entering deep pre-dotage he won’t smell a day over 35.

    “Yes, I have been aggressive and angry but it has felt warranted.” In that one sentence, dear N., you have made me feel quite mighty. If you can justify your aggression and anger — and it has been warranted — then maybe one day I can feel the courage of my own convictions. My (a year older, wiser) hero.

    • Thanks Robin x

      Yes, when he asked me what I wanted for my birthday and I thought about it and realized I would love a scent that is special but also easy to wear. It is very expensive so I would never fork out for it on my own. When you are in the right mood it is so warming and comforting.

      On Monday I am going to meet the Miller Harris people again and for that I think I will go with Racine for the elegant factor.

      What a year.

  3. Happy birthday!
    Sounds like you received wonderful & thoughtful gifts.
    I’m a vetiver lover too. I am wearing Jo Malone’s Blackberry & Bay on this brisk Himalayan autumn morning whilst sipping locally grown dark roasted coffee (YUM!). My bottle of JM’s B&B seems to have degraded to just grapefruit and vetiver, which is quite a lovely combination by itself. The earthy green of the vetiver is nicely contrasted by the bracing sharp citrus.
    There is a syrup made of vetiver that’s made in India called khus sharbat. I love it mixed with ginger ale or lemon lime soda in the summertime. Spike it with gin if you are feeling naughty 😉

  4. matty1649

    Happy Special Birthday Neil. What lovely and thoughtful presents you’ve had. I love Flower Fairies books too.The illustrations are charming.
    I enjoy Guerlain Vetiver.

  5. Very best wishes for your coming new year; it’s sure to be so much better than last year. i never before considered the beneficial aspects of vetiver but it makes a lot of sense as you lay out your experiences and the research. i have Encre Noire and have not explored the material closely enough. so off to Perfumers Apprentice for some oils, and a new powerful synthetic version. i have read that in woody essential oils research shows both natural and synthetic have the same mood enhancement effects, also true for jasmine. Glad for that, makes it accessible. thanks for your sharing your happiness in your gifts and new perfumes, it’s a pleasure to read.

  6. Tara C

    Happy 50th Neil! I am rapidly approaching 55 myself, trying not to let that number make me feel too over the hill. You received wonderful gifts – Vetiver Tonka is one of the very best Hermessences, and I can imagine after reading your description how lovely that Tou must smell. I’m promising myself not to hoard my special perfumes any more, to spray lavishly and often. I am also pushing myself to reduce my focus on those things that distress me and move my attention to the things that consistently make me feel good about myself and life. Faire abstraction des choses qui fâchent. Wishing you a good year of love and health!

    • You too. And I love that French quote.

      Now that we can at least have the overwhelming sense of relief about you know what, I do feel that genuine optimism feels more plausible ; in reach.

      • Tara C

        Absolutely! Can’t wait for Jan. 20th. It will make this horrid year more tolerable, even though I don’t have real hope that the pandemic will improve until next summer. :-/

  7. Happy significant birthday! How wonderful to receive the most apt presents from those who know you best. I am waiting for a new vetiver essential oil that I ordered to arrive, and then I will have vetiver from five countries to compare side by side. They are all quite different.
    Best wishes for the coming year!

  8. Robin Wright

    Congratulations on your milestone birthday, Neil! It sounds as though you you received some wonderful and thoughtful gifts. I’m very happy for you. I loved reading this today; your writing comes alive on the page How well-put “this year of collective insanity and terror.”

    • It really has been like that though, hasn’t it, and we are still not out of the woods by any means.

      Writing is a definite form of catharsis ; for me and hopefully the reader as well : a connection that can heal.

  9. Tora

    HAPPY BIRTHDAY, NEIL!!!! You received some lovely presents, and I know how much the vetiver note means to you, and has brought you so much comfort and ease. Duncan picked out some lovelies! Patchouli does for me what vetiver does for you. This morning I am wearing Sticky fingers by Fransesca Bianchi, yummy patchouli, leather tobacco fragrance. I need to dip my toes more into the vetiver well. I may order some of the Hove Vetiver, which I hear is quite good. I like the sound of the MPG Racine. Here’s to being half a century!! XXOO

  10. Grayspoole

    Happy Birthday! I hope you enjoy your celebrations and lovely gifts. “Happy and glad to be alive “ sums up my perspective as 2020 comes to an end too. The idea of being coated with khus paste, with its calming effects, is also strangely appealing in this annus horribilis. Might have to look into this…

  11. Sounds like you received many glorious treasures for your landmark birthday, and they are all well deserved.
    I have loves the scent of vetiver for ages and you have opened my eyes to how beneficial it can be on the psyche, which we definitely need this year.
    I advise you to keep celebrating your special day all the way through to the new year.

  12. MrsDalloway

    Happy happy (extended) birthday! Vetiver Tonka is the best.

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