Sunday, January 17, 2010

A Natural Perfumer Looks at How to Heal the Earth

 After the Haiti Quake:

Heal the Earth, Heal the People

photo source:

The Natural Perfumer is Not an artist 100% of the time, 
they're a caring person 100% of the time:

For me, our art is linked with our responsibility to the environment and other people.
The image above shows the stark reality of the deforestation of Haiti in contrast to its contiguous neighbor, the Dominican Republic, to the right (east). The first thing that came to my mind when the horrific quake hit was that the people of the cities of Haiti can't flee the city for refuge in the countryside, because their countryside is bare, eroded earth. When it rains, and it will soon, those hills turn into mudslicks, and mudslides follow. Haiti has been plagued by mudslides for decades due to the systematic deforestation of the countryside. Thousands of years of topsoil, created slowly by the breakdown of the underlying rock has been washed away because of the poverty of the people - they had to use the trees to survive, so they were cut down.

People so poor can't be concerned about leaving the forest canopy intact: they need charcoal now, for dinner tonight. So the machetes chop down the trees, saplings actually, since there are few large trees left there, and they set them on fire and create charcoal to be transported into the cities for food and heating homes.

Something as simple as an international effort to give solar stoves to the people, in that land of sunshine, could help immediately.

Long term? I'm taken back to my education in botany and agriculture, and my first reason for studying landscape management so many years ago in California: I wanted to learn how to prevent land erosion gullies that I saw everywhere in Northern California. Improper landscaping practices, including tree felling, caused the erosion problems there, also.

In undergraduate and graduate school, I researched the history of plains, valleys and waterways and the concomitant human settlement patterns and documented how those waterways and landforms, if improperly managed, resulted in the civilization declining, and sometimes going extinct. I presented a paper at the Council of Educators in Landscape Architecture on my findings, but with no funding, my research dwindled into nothing. Simultaneously, I was authoring a Primer and Annotated Bibliography on Alternative Futures Planning for Water Resources for the U.S.G.S. The dangers of not have alternative plans in place when and if a disruption of watersheds occurred were laid out. What does this prove? 

Well-meaning people, like myself have tackled these problems for decades. Many have led successful projects that have halted deforestation, protected watersheds, brought civilizations back from the brink of destruction - but the successes are few. 

So, for many years, I got more involved in design of luxury gardens, and the passion of my passions, natural perfumery. I didn't make the choice to not be involved in environmental efforts, my life just gently led me down another path.

Perfumery, in particular natural perfumery, is a luxury. We NPers import rare and costly aromatics from all over the world, they're delivered to us by FedEx, no muss, no fuss. We're proud to say we strive to source only organic, sustainable, wild-crafted yada yada. The finest vetiver comes from Haiti, we all know that. Recently, frangipani absolute from Haiti has appeared on the market. Luxury aromatics from the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Will those industries survive the next five years?

Many of the tropical, Third World countries we source our aromatics from also suffer from deforestation, if not for the same reason as Haiti. In Madagascar, many thousands of acres are as bare and vulnerable as Haiti. No vegetation, no birds or other animals, and no man can live there.

photo used with permission of Rhett Butler of Wild

Most natural perfumers know the intimate link between the earth, the people, and the fragrant bounty we use to adorn our bodies, uplift our souls, and in many cases, heal us.

We need to heal the land and people of Haiti. By that I don't just mean rebuild the cities and tend to those injured in the earthquake. They're facing months, if not years or generations of homelessness and possible hopelessness. The Haitians have an indomitable spirit, and now it will be tested to the maximum.

Where to start? With a seed, a rooted cutting, a plant growing in a pot. So simple.

A simple solution that needs to "take root" in Haiti.

I have deep roots in the Haitian community here in Miami, but I admit I have neglected those roots in recent years. I was the public relations person for the Haitian Roots and Culture Festival for many years, and I also assisted up and coming Haitian bands with publicity. Many of my neighbors are Haitian, and I shop in Haitian stores and live right next to Little Haiti. When I first moved in my house the fence was covered with a funky-smelling weed Momordica. I would see elderly Haitian ladies collecting the herb and that led me to find that it was used for a medicinal tea. So then I embarked on an ethnobotanical study of the use of local plants (many exotics transported in during the diaspora of Haitian and Caribbean peoples). It didn't work out, though, too many time constraints, I just had too many other businesses to tend to.

Now I regret not being more involved in organizations like Operation Green Leaves. I attended a few of their functions in the late 1990's, and contributed a bit of my expertise to their efforts, but really didn't get involved.

When hurricanes tore through Florida in the early and mid 2000's, I got involved with the Red Cross and local relief agencies. I renewed some of my old contact there this past week and worked for a few days helping coordinate collection and pick up efforts for supplies to be sent to Haiti. My fibromyalgia, however, made me quit that. Emotional and physical stress can trigger a "fibro flare", and between the demanding work of the relief effort and watching the misery of the people of Haiti on TV, and talking to my Haitian friends, I felt a flare coming on that could have sidelined me with pain and extreme exhaustion. I stopped just in time, but I realized at the same time I could not not be involved.

So I have decided to go back to the skills learned as a gardener and student, and work at helping the reforestation effort in Haiti. Can I dream that fragrant and/or edible plants and trees that I help establish in Haiti can be part of the solution? I hope so. I'm not a policy maker, but I'm good at raising money, coordinating efforts, and I sure know how to propagate plants, collect seed and teach agricultural methods. Here's a little look into my seed-testing work with Organic Gardening magazine. I wrote them in '94 or so and said "hey, why don't you have seed testers and writers from Zone 10"? :-) I have always been a bit pushy about "starting things" (natural-born activist) - and now I'm going to call the folks at Operation Green Leaves this week and offer my services to them.

I'm also going to call the daughter of the owner of one of the largest vetiver oil processing plants in Haiti and renew our acquaintance. Did you know that the vetiver plant is used worldwide to stabilize earth, to prevent erosion? A sustainable replanting scheme is probably already in place, and I'd like to learn about it. These are the same folks who helped bring patchouli plantings to Rwanda. (when I just revisited my blog I was shocked to see a man from Kenya had written me asking for help. I never saw that post! I'll write him now.)

So much to do, so little time. Please, everyone, get involved in any little way you can. The world is hurting, and people are needed to heal it.


  1. Great post Anya. It was good that you brought up that the earth needs healing, and the people need healing, and natural perfumes provide healing with the oils. It is a natural give and take. A giving and a receiving. We need to give back to the land.

  2. Anya,you wrote:

    The Natural Perfumer is Not an artist 100% of the time,
    they're a caring person 100% of the time:

    For me, our art is linked with our responsibility to the environment and other people.

    And just this two sentences made me feel happy and so close to you.
    That's the answer from the heart.

    HAITI is going through rough times and you show your support in your own way wich is such a beautiful way.BRAVO!

  3. Dear JoAnne

    I know your heart and I know your perfumes, and they are both beautiful. If anyone could give help and healing to Haiti, it would be you, and maybe one day you will find a way.

  4. Sense My Vibe

    Thank you for stopping by and commenting. The scope of the devastation in Haiti is overwhelming, and it is wonderful to see so many people helping them in any way they can.

    I am very grounded and positive that my deforestation choice is the best for me. I will do everything in my power to help reestablish the forest canopy there in my lifetime. If possible, I may find a way to contribute beyond my lifetime, via my will. I have to look into all this.


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