Dirt – what is it good for?

“In the period of which we speak, there reigned in the cities a stench barely conceivable to us modern men and women. The streets stank of manure, the courtyards of urine, the stairwells stank of moldering wood and rat droppings, the kitchens of spoiled cabbage and mutton fat; the unaired parlors stank of stale dust, the bedrooms of greasy sheets, damp featherbeds, and the pungently sweet aroma of chamber pots. The stench of sulfur rose from the chimneys, the stench of caustic lyes from the tanneries, and from the slaughterhouses came the stench of congealed blood. People stank of sweat and unwashed clothes; from their mouths came the stench of rotting teeth, from their bellies that of onions, and from their bodies, if they were no longer very young, came the stench of rancid cheese and sour milk and tumorous disease. The rivers stank, the marketplaces stank, the churches stank, it stank beneath the bridges and in the palaces.The peasant stank as did the priest, the apprentice as did his master’s wife, the whole of the aristocracy stank, even the king himself stank, stank like a rank lion, and the queen like an old goat, summer and winter”

Patrick Süskind

I love the Wellcome Collection, its a fascinating place for those of a curious nature (without suffering the fate of our feline friends).  I popped along to visit a new  Wellcome exhibition, ‘Dirt – The Filthy Reality’.

It was a thought provoking journey from the cholera struck London of 1854 through to the female manual scavengers in India, a practice that although banned still continues today.   We live in such a sanitised society in comparison!  The social mores of  modern western society requires us and our surroundings to be super clean, fresh and fragrant at all times helped  along by the plethora of cleaning products for every part of our anatomy and home stacking the shelves .. to wash away our sins and the toils of our day.

From an olfactory point of view there is no escaping the link between ‘dirt’ and all its connotations; how we perceive ‘repellent’ odours versus those bordering on ‘acceptable’ depending on the context.  I had a quick thesaurus check (lots of fun!) and its interesting to see how the terminology for our ‘waste’ crosses the spectrum of wholesome and natural over into derogatory terms and allusions to moral character and gossip:

Grime, impurity, filth, sludge, smut, sleaze, slime, excrement, gunk, stain, tarnish, dregs, waste,

Soil, ground, clay, dust, earth, sand, stone, peat, moss, terra firma

Gossip: ‘dish the dirt’, get the lowdown

We seem to have such an ambivalent relationship with ‘dirt’, perhaps due to its euphemistic and cultural representations through history, its link to  sin, disease; being unclean & unhygienic; death; decay and its associations with poverty and lack; being bad, the repugnance and the negative connotations surrounding the smell associated with ‘dirt & decay:

  • sulphur,
  • rotting flesh,
  • acidity and  sourness,
  • damp, mould,
  • manure, sewage

There is a fine tipping point on the ‘dirt repugnance scale’ where acceptable smells are linked to more positive associations and  ironically dirt is synonymous with life and the  cycle of nature – out of decay and death arises life – very Plutonian! Think of compost, fresh soil, baked earth, hot sand, root vegetables (carrots, beets etc) and funghi, which are pleasant in their freshness and their representation of abundance, sustenance and growth; even the people who till the earth or toil the soil are perceived as honest, hardworking and practical…gardeners, farmers ..the alchemists of dirt!

Sooo, onto some aromatics – nosing through my natural perfumery palette what do we have that can provide a good ‘dirt’ or ‘earthy’  note, depending on whether you want to go for a funky, sinful, urban blend or an outdoorsy/nature blend?

  • Patchouli: there is an initial dampness, like old leaves  but with an undertone warm woody sweetness – like having a good roll around on a spring-forest floor!
  • Mushroom absolute: this is on my ‘to order list’ but it is describe as “a potent mossy, rooty-chocolatey aroma with a deep earth undertone” – I cannot wait to get hold of some, but feel it would be used very sparingly
Mushroom

Cepes Absolute – a funghi to work with in natural perfumery


  • Mitti attar: baked earth, quite warm and dry, like hot sand, with a fresh soil undertone.
  • Clary sage: amber-y, herbaceous note, I have a lovely Clary sage essential oil that on first sniff reminds me of the forest floor and green undergrowth.  In France, it is perceived by some ‘noses’ as having a ‘fresh sweat odour’ ..armpit central maybe if mixed with some Ambrette seed?
  • Cistus oil: possessing a sweet, warm, dry aroma with a spicy/animal undertone.  Used to create an Amber accord
  • Sandalwood: not dirty, but many feel it has a soft, musky skin note, so just on the sinful side, but its warm, smooth and woody.
  • Angelica root oil : slightly peppery top with herbaceous-earthy, with musky-spicy undertone.  Really intriguing – I do love this, but again use in sparing amounts – has a hint of an old-fashioned ‘drug-store’ about it.  There is also a seed oil and an absolute which have varying characteristics.

illustration of Angelica archangelica


  • Valerian: A bit ‘goat dung’!  I first smelled this as a student aromatherapist and it was a real ‘nose wrinkler’, whiffy and rather fecal/animalic with a warm, woody root note hence the need to dilute it heavily.  No wonder it is used as a sedative – its the proverbial knock-out drop – literally.  I have not used it in a long while – perhaps a revisit is in order!
  • Carrot seed: lovely – sweet and fresh initially, root-like,  earthy odour, but undertone is slightly spicy and wet – like freshly turned soil after a light rain

If you have some spare time and the materials, you may want to create some ‘juice’, anything from the sublime – a bucolic walk in the countryside to the ridiculous and truly funky – a visit to the rubbish tip; perhaps the opening quote may inspire you!  Otherwise, get your ‘dirt’ fix and check out Demeter’s Dirt perfume, strangely comforting!

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About The Perfume Mistress

"If the eyes are the windows to your soul, then the nose is the doorway to your imagination" The Perfume Mistress Hello, by day I am a clinical aromatherapist and tutor, with over 10 years of working with natural materials and essential oils, by night I delve into the art of botanical perfumery, reading and smelling all things olfactory. I have set up the 'Nosetrodami Club' offering scentsory talks, discussions and master-classes on all topics and themes olfactive. I also offer one and two day workshops in the art of natural perfumery, natural and organic body & skincare. My inspirations range from the mundane to the metaphysical, the hum-drum to the hyperbolic which you may see reflected in my posts.
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