Dirt Perfume

Dirt Perfume
Lynn Peemoeller
June 21, 2014

I am both horrified and thrilled when my two-year old son digs his hands into a pile of dirt and embraces it. On one level I’m happy to see his fearless hands-on curiosity piqued by the earth and on the other, I think of all the potential pathogens that will cling to his skin. I think many adults share the same trepidations before plunging their hands into a pile of dirt. But who can deny that soil has a sensuous alluring quality?

Dirt perfume was a project commissioned by the 2013 Global Soil Forum for over 400 international scientists, policy makers and advocates to experience and appreciate the sensuality of soil. This annual event helps participants share information and create policy frameworks and actions linked to sustainable land-use development all over the world.

The fragrance was intended to create cartography of smell, stimulating a sense of place rooted in the earth, demonstrating that different places have different scents related to the soil. Four different soil samples from the Berlin/Brandenburg area were used to create contrasting scents; a ‘City’ sample taken from an urban construction site along the former Berlin wall, a ‘Zoo’ sample taken from the zoo in the Tiergarten, a ‘Forest’ sample taken from the expansive Grunewald forest blanketing the western half of the city, and a ‘Farm’ sample taken from an organic farm in the suburb of Spandau.

I should say, I’m no Nose. Or in other words, I’m not an expert perfume maker, or even a scent artist like Sissel Tolaas the Norwegian who has dedicated her life’s work to creating and capturing smell. So I knew the process would be challenging. The aroma of soil comes largely from the organic material found within it. So I made sure to include lots of in-situ leaves, twigs, and other detritus in my soil samples. After much tinkering I ended up with an alcohol infusion process that actually extracted a sufficient level of aroma from the soil samples in order to actually create a fragrance.

The science of scent and memory are highly related and often link to place. Scents of place if you will. You know what I mean if you have ever gotten off an airplane and smelled something peculiar and inexplicable in the air that reminds you that you are far away from home. In the same way, dirt perfume reminds us of familiar places. The four different scents are meant to evoke our subliminal attitudes towards soil and earth, potentially triggering personal imagery that recalls place-based memories and reinforcing our curiosity or possible attraction towards soil.

Is it possible to use dirt perfume to map spaces? I suppose there is some index for smell in the scientific process but there is certainly room to expand. But perhaps more interesting is whether or not people actually want to wear a dirt perfume as a personal fragrance. While I met only a hand full of takers at the Global Soil Forum, I’m pretty confident it would be popular among the 2 year-old crowd.