Joel Leonard is afraid he may be coming down with a cold. As we walk along Copenhagen’s lakeshore, the February winds have caused his nose to run. His adopted city, Joel has written, smells to him of “Baltic salt, cold mud, broken reeds on the lakes’ surfaces, and damp woolen coats.” Removing a black leather glove, he reaches into his coat pocket and pulls out a handkerchief, which he presses gently to each nostril. Joel, who is sixty-two, hasn’t blown his nose since he was four years old. “It ruins my sense of smell,” he told me once, his native Bronx accent untamed by forty years in Denmark.
Joel’s nose is bulbous and robust, webbed with broken capillaries like a road map of some seldom-traveled region. The fragility of his nose is just one of the many challenges Joel faces in founding his livelihood on something as transient as smell: it demands abstemiousness. Joel has to avoid not only nose-blowing but also steam baths and hard liquor, two staples of the Scandinavian lifestyle, particularly during the dark and frigid winters.
We’re headed to a yoga center where this afternoon Joel will be leading a scent-meditation session. A light snow has begun to fall, speckling the shoulders of his black cashmere coat and the mustard-brown shawl he’s thrown around his neck. Joel is short and a bit paunchy with a leonine froth of white hair. White tufts of eyebrows wilt over his eyes, and a permanent flock of furrows rises into his forehead, giving him an expression at once bewildered and hopeful.
Joel is a fragrance designer and scent-meditation teacher. He runs his business out of his one-bedroom apartment, where he lives alone. He has no employees; he has never found anyone with a kindred sense of smell. Companies come to Joel when they want to infuse scent into a product they’re trying to market, or create a suggestive aroma for a public space. In his scent-meditation sessions, Joel burns incense and anoints participants’ foreheads and wrists with a series of fragrant oils, whose scents progress from subtle to intense. He has found that when his clients experience their own odors and breath merging into the shared aroma of the room, their individual boundaries dissolve into a kind of olfactory communion. Joel also teaches koh-do, an esoteric Japanese scent-meditation game akin to the tea ceremony. What ties these pursuits together is Joel’s belief in fragrance as a form of nonverbal communication that can liberate us from ourselves and connect us to each other. He draws on ancient traditions—Sufism, gnosticism, Aztec religion, and particularly Buddhism—that have used scent as a means of communication between the individual and a higher realm, and translates these concepts for the modern world.
In his book Perfume: Joy, Scandal, Sin, professor Richard Stamelman describes perfume as “a fable about the impermanence of life,” “the essence of absence.” In Joel’s world, smell is about the present moment, and it’s possible to smell with a sort of nonattached attachment. “If I smell a flower, first it’s a floral scent, then it’s a rose, then it’s a rose in rainy weather, then it’s a rose in rainy weather with the sun going down, then it reminds me of smelling a rose in a garden by the sea as a child. I think, Wait! I’ve got it! And then it changes into something else.”
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