Dory speaks whale

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Though we humans may have trouble understanding whale communication, Dory from “Finding Nemo” has no trouble expressing herself in their foreign tongue.

Whale songs

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Relatively little is understood about the songs with which whales communicate, yet they are a topic of enduring intrigue to scientists and amateurs alike. The sound of whales singing underwater is haunting, a noise of seeming primordial origin. Though whale songs may sound more like prolonged groans to human ears, they are actually incredibly complex, and according to, “similar to classical music, a whalesong consists of different themes which develop and build over the years.”

The oceans are apparently too polluted with noise now for whales to communicate from pole to pole, as they were once able. However, it has been proven that the songs of whales in Hawaii reach the whales in Japan and these Japanese whales alter their own songs accordingly. Scientists are able to use the newest technological advances in sound recording and analysis to study these dialectical variations, and perhaps at some point we humans will understand just what it is whales are expressing through song. Until then, we will continue to be awed.

How to be a whale watcher

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What you’ll need: Database of markings in order to identify whales sighted, dramamine

Songlist: Every Breath You Take (I’ll be watching you) by The Police, Swallowed in the Sea by Coldplay

Further reading: The Whale: In Search of the Giants of the Sea by Philip Hoare

Last night I looked at my parents’ pictures of their recent trip to the Pacific coast of Mexico. The beautiful flowers, brightly painted buildings, and humpback whales from their whale-watching expedition were a perfect antidote to the drab snow that still covers the ground here. I was going to save the topic of whale watching for the summer, but it seemed like a good day to think about warmer times.

When I lived in Provincetown, Massachusetts for a summer, I looked forward to becoming a “local.” I wanted the Portuguese fishermen to recognize me, the folks at Farm Land to remember my sandwich order (apple, brie, and sprouts in a whole wheat wrap). Provincetown, however, is one of those summer-vacation towns that balloons to ten times its off-season size, thus rendering me just another out-of-towner in the minds of the real locals.

One time, at the end of the summer, I felt like I fit in. I had gone on a whale watch with my fellow interns and boss in early August and, when a friend visited in late August, I took him down to the dock. We stood in line behind the rest of the tourists but when we got to the boat itself, the captain of the Portuguese Princess waved us past the ticket booth.

“They’re friends!” he explained to the confused ticket seller. And so we went on a free whale watch.

Now, I’ve spent most of my life as a landlocked Minnesotan, and so the idea of a whale watch is beyond thrilling to me. You not only get to spend a long afternoon on a boat (!) but also get to watch whales (!!!!!) I’d gone on maybe one or two before my summer in Provincetown, and assumed that the rest of the world shared my enthusiasm for boats and whales. Only when I brought this up to my roommate in Spain did I find out that not everyone wants to be whale-watching at all times (this roommate had had a bad experience once, having gotten seasick on a whale watch and vowed never to go on such an expedition again).

Escaping harpoons, calving, hanging out with the pod: what could be better?

Perhaps she didn’t share my lifelong love of whales. My favorite board game as a child was called “The Whale Game: Survival at Sea*,” a sort of Game of Life with whales, except less exciting. I used to beg my family to play it with me, which they at least saw as a step up from “The Ungame,” a game with no real start or end, no winners, and no strategy (my brother would only play this with me if he got to crush me in “Risk” afterwards).

As a way to channel my interest in whales into something better than an unexciting board game, I got a humpback whale adoption kit for Christmas when I was about eight. I chose to adopt a whale named Sod (we also got a Ouija board for Christmas that year, and I used it to help me pick which whale to adopt) and looked forward to getting updates on my personal whale from the quarterly newsletter. We got that newsletter for maybe a year, but there was never anything about Sod. I always worried that she’d died in some terrible accident. My poor whale.

I don’t remember what part of the world Sod was from, but I did think of her on that free whale watch in Provincetown. The day was absolutely beautiful–sunny, warm, exactly the type of afternoon a person (me) would want to spend on the water looking for whales. As the boat sailed away from Provincetown Bay, we saw a basking shark off the port side. Then, a half-hour later, we saw our first humpbacks, a mother and baby. And then two males, breaching out of the water. And another female by herself further on. The biologists on board identified these whales for us by name–these humpbacks were all locals. The kind of locals the Portuguese fishermen would recognize, the kind for which the Far Land folks would remember the sandwich order (plankton on rye). Though none of these whales was named Sod, the afternoon was perfect, punctuated by a pod of dolphins that greeted us when we returned to the bay. Who wouldn’t enjoy such a day?

*When I was researching for this post, it took me forever to find an image of this game, probably because it was so unpopular. The only reference I found to it on was this listing, in which the game is being sold for $75.00. I have no idea why it would be worth that much, but it makes me think I should dig up our version of “The Whale Game” from the basement–maybe its unpopularity makes it a collector’s item now?

The perfume of old books


Now I smell like Julia Roberts! Or, wait, like Elizabeth Gilbert? Or like a book?

The New Yorker’s Book Bench (my favorite blog) encountered three scents based on Elizabeth Gilbert’s best-seller “Eat, Pray, Love” last summer sold through the “Fresh” product line (which seems like it could easily fit into Gilbert’s original title). The “Eat” perfume, apparently, smells like lemon, plum, and rose; “Pray” has notes of patchouli and juniper berry; “Love” is a mix of mango and sandalwood. The clever book-benchers contributed their own ideas about how perfumes based on classic books would smell. Here are some of my favorites:

  • “Great Expectations” Splash. Romantic overtones with just a hint of “moldy old mansion.” The perfect scent to wear while not eating your wedding cake. Comes in a bottle swathed in yellowed lace.
  • Essence of “Mrs. Dalloway.” Floral, with irises and roses, and notes of madness.
  • “Grendel” Musk For the Monster in You. Apples, shocked grain, a swampy mixture of sulfurous dragon smoke, and the blood of thanes. Notes of
    existential yearning and a hint of regret.

That made me think of a few book scents of my own:

  • Solitude Body Mist

    “Madame Bovary” Eau de Toilette. An avante-garde and intoxicating perfume for elegant French women. Though shocking to men, women will find the scent quite familiar. Strong on the pheromones.

  • “One Hundred Years of Solitude” body mist. Banana base notes, hints of clay for the pica-enthusiasts, fresh laundry smells that will make you feel heavenly. A perfect alchemy for the senses. Inexplicably cold as ice. Keeps on the shelf for one hundred years unless devoured by ants first.
  • “Original Sin” by Eve. Sinuous, top-notes of apple. Not for the modest.

And everything smelled like vanilla…


Just two days ago I was bemoaning the downside of March melting: the smells buried under months of snow suddenly uncovered. I woke up this morning to find that Minnesota happily solved my problem by dumping several more inches of white powder to cover it all up again (this is when I remind myself that I should be careful what I wish for).

What would the world be like if everything smelled like vanilla?

Six years ago, the New Yorker featured an article about a product called Odor Screen that would have solved my problem without me needing to bring out all the snow gear I’d just so carefully packed away. Odor Screen is a drug free gel that alters one’s perception of scents. As it says on its website, Odor Screen “provides the human olfactory pathway with a source of cross-adapting odorants, thereby altering perception of the malodor.” It is specifically marketed toward military, medical and service professionals who must encounter smells on a daily basis that could induce nausea, depression, loss of appetite, etc. The American version contains vanilla, which is supposed to relieve stress and bring about a feeling of relaxation (there were plans, at least at the time of the New York article, to market the same product in Asian countries with a green tea smell so as to be culturally specific).

The man who tested out Odor Screen in the New Yorker article visited those places in New York that are particularly pungent, such as the Fulton Fish Market and underneath the Manhattan Bridge. To his delight, instead of smelling fish, garbage, and stagnant water, all he could smell was vanilla.

It’s an interesting idea that, instead of trying to make the world around you smell better, you can just alter your nose to perceive it as pleasant. Certainly our noses help us avoid danger when we smell something off, but I’m sure there will be many times this spring when I’d prefer the scent of vanilla to the sour grass. Looking outside, I wish this Minnesota white-out was a vanilla-out instead. Excuse me while I go shovel…

The museum of lost smells


Kakofonous A. Dischord from The Phantom Tollbooth

Recently, a friend and I were talking about sounds that are quickly becoming obsolete, like the scratch of a record player or the screech of chalk across a blackboard. I’m pretty sure I’ve heard about a place that keeps such sounds digitally catalogued, a modern version of The Phantom Tollbooth‘s Kakofonous A. Dischord, Doctor of Dissonance who kept sounds in apothecary-type bottles.

It occurred to me that a similar place could exist for extinct smells, yet documenting scents is so much more difficult than recording sounds. The Museum of Arts and Design in New York will attempt to do just that this November. Chandler Burr, who wrote the profile of Jean-Claude Ellena I discussed yesterday, is curating an exhibit called “The Art of Scent: 1889-2011.” This exhibit will “trace the evolution of modern perfume, from Aimé Guerlain’s Jicky (1889), among the first to use synthetic ingredients, through midcentury classics like Edmond Roudnitska’s Diorama (1949), which Mr. Burr calls ‘one of the greatest Abstract Expressionist perfumes in the world,’ to several contemporary fragrances.”

Perfumes displayed at the Osmotheque

But Mr. Burr is not the first one to think of such a presentation of smells; The Osmotheque in Versailles, France labels itself “The International Perfume Conservatory” whose mission is to preserve the classic fragrances of the French perfume industry (apparently, the “international” aspect only comes from the tourists–non-French perfumes have no place here). The Osmotheque’s largest claim to fame of recent note was recreating Marie Antoinette’s personal perfume (they were probably more faithful to her scent than I was to Cleopatra in my own experiments).

Yet, of course, the Osmotheque and Chandler Burr’s perfume exhibit deal in synthetic scents. As far as I know, there is no shrine to the naturally beautiful, the smell of biting into a ripe plum on a sunny afternoon, the smell of pavement after an August rain, the special blend of woodsmoke and nutmeg that reminds me of Christmas. These are the kind of smells that trigger wonderful memories for me, the kind of smells I’d want to preserve.

What smells would you preserve if you could?

How to be a perfumer


What you’ll need: a memory for thousands of scents, a good nose

Songlist: Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit

Further reading: The Perfect Scent: A Year Inside the Perfume Industry in Paris and New York by Chandler Burr

March is an exhausting month in Minnesota; if it gives any continuing sign of winter, such as adding to snow to the ground instead of melting it away or obstinately staying below 40 degrees F (both of which it seems be doing this week) we throw up our hands in disgust. Yet when that first really warm day comes and reveals what’s been hiding under the snow for the last six months, we suffer a different kind of disgust. Thus in March I find myself longing for good smells.

I felt that way yesterday when I exited my front door and saw two pumpkins in my front yard, soggy and scummy from being left out since Halloween. To combat this distasteful image, my mind immediately went to a 2005 profile I read in the New Yorker of Jean-Claude Ellena, a professional perfumer who had just been hired as Hermes’s first in-house scent designer. In the article he is tasked to create a scent for the 2005 collection that would center around the Nile. To do so, he takes a trip along the Nile and decides that his perfume will be based on the aroma of green mango.

New Yorker articles have provided inspiration for many of my career whims, and this Ellena profile almost convinced me to change my undergraduate major. Not only does he get to take exotic trips, his main goal is to create the illusion of beautiful scents. The science behind smell is fascinating, as well. In a different New Yorker profile, this time of Michelle Hagen, flavorist for Givaudan (the largest flavor and fragrance manufacturer in the world), writer Raffi Khatchadourian describes the sense of smell thus:

Smells, for the most part, are fed directly from the nose to the “pre-semantic” part of the brain where cognition does not occur, and where emotions are processed. The bypassing of the thalamus may be one reason why smells can be so hard to describe in detail, and also why aromas stimulate such powerful feelings.”

While difficult for most of us, describing smells in detail is an essential skill for professional perfumers and flavorists. At the beginning of her apprenticeship with Givaudan, Hagen used Benjamin Moore paint chips to help her memorize the scents of approximately one thousand chemicals (“California Lilac was ethyl isovalerate; Mellow Yellow was gamma octalactone” the article tells us). Though it took him a long time to learn the science (“ten years to know, twenty years to master” he says) Ellena is now capable is identifying the country of origin of a specific floral essence as well as whether it was distilled by stainless steel, aluminum, or steel. Ellena says that his nose doesn’t smell any better than anyone else’s, he simply has better means to understand what it is that he’s smelling.

Girlfriend, you wearing "Cleopatra's Secret Perfume," too? What a coincidence!

When I was a kid, I had a perfume making kit that included five bottles of fragrances: jasmine, heliotrope, lily-of-the-valley, peppermint, and apple. One of the “experiments” was to make what the creators of the kit called Cleopatra’s Secret Perfume, which was heavy on the jasmine and included all of the other ingredients, besides peppermint. I remember feeling very grown-up, wearing a scent that was not only “secret” but also the very same one Cleopatra once donned.

Indeed, there is an element of the mysterious in the science of scent. Both Ellena and Hagen reference their jobs as creating illusions. Both of them work with chemical compounds, but both of them must make a consumer completely unaware of those compounds. “With me, one plus one equals three,” Ellena says in his profile. “When I add two things, you get much more than two things.” Perfume itself is used to create an illusion: the concept of a fragrance’s sillage refers to its ability to make people believe that a woman is still in the room once she has left. No wonder, then, that perfumers work so hard to master the art of sillage and women are so interested in wearing such perfumes.

As I look out at the flattened grass of my front yard, yellowed and damp and no doubt covering other decaying material, I wish someone could create an illusion to mask its scent. The kind of sillage, for instance, that would make a person believe spring was still in the air, and had never really left.

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