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.