Olfactory Report 3: The lure, the cure, the smells of the forest * Catherine Haley Epstein

Several years ago I made a scent about forgetting: forgetting your ego and the glorious connection we feel to people and things when we do this. Most scent is evocative and reminds us of things past. How about scents that explore the eternal sunshine of the spotless mind? What does forgetting smell like? My conclusion: forgetting smells like the forest.

I drew the connection after years of reading the G-rated, PG-rated then grizzly versions of fairy tales, where everything transformative happens to characters in the forest. Countless stories of people young or old, male or female, beast or bunny, would enter the dark wood and incredible things happened. It was as if the forest was a magnet for stripping facades, revealing truth through disorientation, and demanding us humans to understand we are not in charge. Mother nature at her finest, protecting us at once, and reminding us of our humility. And it always began with the seemingly innocuous walk in the forest.

“Maybe you are searching among the branches, for what only appears in the roots.” – Rumi

While trees are the visual signal of forests, we are now more savvy explorers. We know that the forest air does not just smell of conifers, there is rot, soil, scat, and water to consider. We are also now aware of the mycological aspect of the forest, the hidden network of pulsing life beneath the forest floor. This mushroom maelstrom is the forest version of the subway system in New York City in its aggressive vitality and lifeforce of the forest: unseen and without precedence. And if you have not yet watched Fantastic Fungi, please do. It will open your nose and mind to the extraordinary hidden universe where the forest’s nervous, digestive, and respiratory system resides.

Forest bathing, or shinrin-yoku was birthed in Japan in the 1980s, and continues to thrive as a mental health and general wellbeing practice. While a forest bath consists of experiencing the tree environment with all of our senses, research has shown that phytoncide, the volatile compounds the trees give off, inhaled by humans has an impressive effect on our health. Scientists have studied the human cells after visiting the forest versus human cells having a walk in the city. Apparently the scents and the negative ions in the forest air have such a positive effect that it remains in the cells up to seven days after the forest walk. Don’t be dissuaded from the title of this research report, “forest walking increases natural killer activity”, it’s actually good news. A natural killer (NK) cell plays important roles in immunity against viruses and immune surveillance of tumors. In other words, our protective cells get busy after walking in the forest, and not so much in the city. Cortisol levels go down, and the good feels go up. One of forest bathing gurus, Qing Li, MD, shares that his home office smells of Hinoki Wood continually by using a diffuser so he can have the artificial effect of tree smells throughout the day.

Despite our knowing instinctually over thousands of years that the forest is a boon for our health and wellbeing, we have not yet had great success in incorporating its scented elements into the city. Urban planners have made the mistakes of bringing eucalyptus into an area to hide military bases because eucalyptus grows so fast, only to realize the leaves burn grass with its acid. Or bringing in neat, medium-sized trees into the urban landscape in the 1950s for their cute white flowers, only to have them stink of vomit and other bodily secretions in the Springtime.

This month in New York City, there is a touching gesture by artist M. Dougherty where they have recreated a forest smell at the gallery Olfactory Art Keller in a show titled /Forest Bath which is up through March 13. M’s practice weaves notions of humanity and technology, where the organic, such as a forest, inspires investigation into what our true natures are. From a timed ultrasonic diffusor a passersby can smell the artist’s version of the forest smell on the sidewalk in front of the gallery. Upon entering the gallery the artist has created cubes that emit scent, each emblematic of an element in the forest. They researched the smell by studying the gas chromatography research of the forest air. The resulting scent is a combination of the more formal elements revealed by science, and the artist’s own infusion of their “forest floor” where they diffused the soil and grass from their home.

“Forest Bath: Mushroom Flower 6", from M. Dougherty installation at the Olfactory Art Keller gallery, courtesy the artist. Image is of an organic looking cube of roots and resins with a white background.

“The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.” – John Muir

Recently I had the pleasure of stumbling over a beautiful essay by David Haskell. In “Eleven Ways of Smelling Trees” he writes eleven vignettes set to different time periods and scenarios, where a tree’s odor is the protagonist. They range from 1870s smelling of a juniper tree to now, where woodsmoke is the bittersweet remembrance of fireplaces past, and now the worrisome totem of forest fires permeating our weather systems. He has also written many books on the topic including The Songs of Trees: Stories from Nature’s Great Connectors, and The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature. This essay is also in a podcast format.

If you are interested in further exploring the innards of the forest, and understanding the root cause of cooperation in the forest that brings about its magical smells, please read Suzanne Simard’s upcoming book Finding the Mother Tree. And for your studio, here are some notes of twigs, forest, and wood you might consider studying: Cedar Tree, Douglas Fir, Hinoki Wood, Scots Pine, Spruce, Ponderosa Pine, Sugi (Japanese cedar), Geosmin, Mushroom absolute.

Now go take a steamy forest bath and tell me how it went!


—About the Author—

“Olfactory Report v.3” printed in a green square over a mossy forest theme.CATHERINE HALEY EPSTEIN is a multi-disciplinary artist, award-winning writer, designer, and curator. She wrote a book titled Nose Dive (2019) which explores the intersection of creativity with the science and anthropology of scent. She is the co-founder of the Odorbet, a growing vocabulary for our noses which resides online and in a growing database offline for now. Articles of note include “Primal Art: Notes on the Medium of Scent”, Temporary Art Review (2016). She writes about contemporary art and practice and culture at her platform Mindmarrow. She conducts workshops on the use of scent in creative practices, advises companies on scent-related projects, and continues to collaborate with artists and writers on unique initiatives that explore intersections between art and other disciplines. She is currently a candidate for her master’s at Northwestern University. You may follow her on Instagram @mindmarrow, or email her at  catherine@mindmarrow.com with questions on the nose front, or if you are interested in contributing to the Olfactory Report!

Read Catherine’s previous dirty, sexy Olfactory Report HERE!