World Sensorium: Nature and Culture

By Gayil Nalls

World Sensorium, a world olfactory social sculpture and single scent, is comprised of culturally associative aromatic phytogenic materials experienced in the olfactory domain. The study for the artwork’s creation surveyed the officials of 230 countries to identify dominant natural aromas retained through odor memory by a majority of people of each country. The study established that there are highly associative natural scents that work as olfactory imprints and memory triggers for large numbers of people of cultures in every region of the world.

Countries identified dominant associative scents through different processes. For some countries, the plant identified is so much a part of the cultural stimuli that it is referenced in folk songs, operas, and national anthems. The World Sensorium research revealed that these are smells that make people feel “at home” in the world when they leave their country of origin. The research process also had penetrating and revealing moments, an example being the time when representatives from the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C., and the representatives of the Permanent Observer Mission of Palestine from the United Nations phoned within minutes of each other, delivering near identical statements that the scent holding the deepest associative power for their people was that of the olive tree because of its ancient occupation of the lands and its symbolism of peace for which their people strived.

Also revealed in the research process was that it is common for different countries to have evolved unique cultural uses for the same plant and to relate to the source of the smell in culturally specific and different ways, including the semantic terms for the scent sources which are often correlated to cultural use. In Togo, citronella grass (Cymbopogon nardus), a highly fragrant grass that grows in clumps, is called “fever grass” and is primarily used to reduce fevers. However, on the island of Réunion, Citronella clumps are regularly divided and planted all around the homes to prevent mosquitoes from entering and so is often called “mosquito plant.”

In Australia, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that the most culturally important scent to all Australians was eucalyptus. The problem was choosing which species (of over 700) best articulated Australia’s customs and practices, past and present. After in-depth research and consideration, Eucalyptus radiata was chosen by Australia. Eucalytus radiata grows wild and has a fresh woody and cooling aroma that is known to be revitalizing to inhale. The oil’s properties are anti-infectious, anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, and anticatarrh and is an expectorant, so it has a long history of use in healing when inhaled directly, used as a tea, or as a wash for wound healing (Boland et al. 1991: 131).

The World Sensorium formula is comprised of 24 percent of various species of jasmine based on the world population of the countries identifying the variations of this flower as the most powerfully affective cultural and environmental olfactory cue for the people of their country. Jasmine is often associated with sensory pleasure and perceived as highly beneficial. Many people said that the soothing smell of jasmine flowers sensed in drifting waves through the night air as their favorite and most memorable scent. They said they had never rested better or more peacefully than in a situation where that experience was possible. Eleven countries officially cited jasmine; however, it is a highly cultural and treasured scent for many more countries too. Jasmine is a clear example of a natural floral odor with the intrinsic ability to influence both mood and the physical state of the body. The cultural practices now associated with the flower and its scent, like other cultural scents, were first (originally) biologically meaningful to people and that cultural practices were an evolving adaptive response. There are many elaborate cultural traditions that have evolved around the jasmine flower in a large number of countries.

Eight countries identified various species of rose: Bangladesh, Nigeria, Iran, Afghanistan, Syria, Bulgaria, Luxembourg, and the Maldives. France considered rose the most culturally associative scent other than lavender. Rose has long been associated with Islamic religious traditions. Iran described the monumental production and use of rosewater in their many religious observances, the most important being the annual Muslim hajj pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. When the Great Mosque is washed in rosewater, it is said that the scent of rose can be smelled miles away.

The aromatic gum resins (dried tree sap) of frankincense (genus Boswellia) and Myrrh (genus Commiphora) have been used since ancient times in spiritual, religious, and ceremonial rites. They both are traditionally used as incense and as anointing oil and greatly valued for their spiritual (the aromas aid in mediation and prayer) and medicinal uses. As components of World Sensorium, the molecular properties link the work to a long history of plants raised to the very highest cultural status. Myrrh was chosen by Somalia and the oleogum was distilled from wild harvested myrrh native to Somalia. Juniper was identified by Bhutan, Mongolia, and Tajikistan as an associative olfactory cultural cue because of it long history of use as incense for rituals of purification.

Many of the scents of World Sensorium are from foods and spices that are bountiful in substances that benefit human health. The smell of coffee and the coffee flower were identified by Uganda, Ethiopia, and Rwanda. Georgia and Germany identified the scent of grapes as highly associative. Other fruit scents identified as culturally associative include coconut by the Congo, banana by Cape Verde, pineapple by Guinea, and mango by Brazil. The scent of spices includes nutmeg by Grenada, paprika by Hungary, allspice by Jamaica, and savory by Bolivia. Réunion, Comoros, and Mexico identified vanilla (a product of the orchid) as the most culturally important scent. Food historians think vanilla was introduced to the United States by Thomas Jefferson, where it soon became an important ingredient in food, and later in fragrance (Collins 1994). Its popularity for generations, as both a scent and flavor, has made it familiar and comforting and so, memory provoking.

Possibly the most anthropologically important statement of scent related to cultural practices and social cohesion came from Palau as they recounted the centuries long use of turmeric (Curcuma longa), mixed with coconut oil, and how it is used in highly ritualized sequences of celebrations, ceremonies, and healing procedures for mothers after giving birth to their first child. Turmeric has been used in food, as a tea, and as a pain reliever for over two thousand years.

Many trees were identified for their culturally related associations, uses, and resulting odor memories. Species of pine were identified by United States, Austria, and Honduras, citing both curative and culinary use.

Other countries besides Togo and Réunion identified indigenous grasses. They are the United Kingdom, Lesotho, Central African Republic, Mali, and Western Sahara selection. The United Kingdom felt that all four of its countries were united as people who know the scent of the sea wind rolling through “lands of grasses.” The Republic of Ireland said that the smell “turf” was an important part of their history and culture. People remembered the smell of burning turf and thought of it as being able to prompt vivid memories of time with family and friends where stories were passed to the younger generation.

Although not all presented on this website, the World Sensorium research investigated the role plants play in the world, their relationship and communication with one another, human uses for them, their different cultural contexts (which can mediate perception), and their influences within the creation of World Sensorium (which is primarily composed of the essence of plants). The research presented the human biological and geographical experience as bearing directly and positively on the perception of World Sensorium. It also provides new understandings of the workings of human olfaction and established the interrelated nature of odor and memory, the natural environment, culture, and well being.


World Sensorium

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