Hello and welcome to another installment of The Six, in which we each recommend/discuss three perfumes around a general theme. This month we are talking about wood notes in perfume — your cedars, your sandalwoods, your palos santo. In the fall, everyone suddenly wants to smell like a human chimney, like woodsmoke is wafting out of their pores. So we decided to explore that impulse; why do we burn to smell like lumber? Pull up a (wooden) chair and join us.
Diptyque, Tam Dao - RS
I recently did a huge book purge, and in doing so, found out that somehow a copy of French Women Don’t Get Fat had been living as a stowaway in my apartment for several years — a fact that chills me to my core. I do not remember purchasing the book (it must have come to me as a press copy) but still, some impulse made me wedge it onto my shelf, where it remained, emanating a dark energy, until I finally exorcised it from my life. You may or may not recall this book, but it was a massive bestseller about a decade ago, despite being more or less fatphobic (that title!) and ableist (the big tip in this book is to always take the stairs no matter what, which is not an option available to many). Americans are proud and self-righteous about most things, but they are also strangely willing to defer to the French at the drop of a hat when it comes to matters of aesthetics. Somehow we’ve just decided, en masse, that Parisians will always know more than us when it comes to how to tie scarves, or how to make a simple white t-shirt look like an evening gown, or how to not accrue cellulite despite a daily breakfast of butter croissants (spoiler: the latter is a lie!!!!!). There are still tons of French fashion blogs and influenceurs who have a vice grip on global trends; if Lou Doillon has messy bangs, suddenly everyone wants messy bangs. I’m sure that FWDGF was such a success because it plays so openly on this gullible deference; of course French women get fat, it’s just tres American to believe that they don’t.
This book is cursed, and not just because one of its main suggestions is that you eat only leek soup for weeks as a way of purging all carbs from your body. It is cursed because it castigates you from the first page. It’s like Geri talking to Roman on Succession, calling him a little slime puppy over the phone (for those of you not watching this show, stop reading this and go start). We love a touch of subtle negging in our diet books, a little wagging of the finger that kind of turns us on. Yes, I’ve been a bad little Americain, eating all these trans-fats. Punish me! Douleur exquise!
It has taken me longer than I would like to admit to realize that punishing myself is not an especially generative experience. Like all teenage girls who looked at a fashion magazine even one time, I learned early on to equate beauty and suffering, abnegation and accomplishment. It’s taken me the rest of my life to unlearn this. If you deeper into FWDGF, the author actually argues that this ascetic attitude is the opposite of what the French believe -- she asserts that French women allow themselves pleasures constantly, a slow trickle of hedonistic delights like an absinthe drip. They just know how to hold out. They wait for really good cheese. They wait for fresh cream. They wait for green olives as big as duck eggs. They do not care for cheap thrills. Or so this one book says. How true this argument is -- and how it squares with the fact that the McDonalds on the Champs Elysees sells more fries than any other McDonald’s in the world -- is up for debate.
But it doesn’t change the fact that somehow, even before this book emerged, the idea that French things were better, and finer, and simply more valuable than American things seeped into me through years of bombardment (I read Eloise in Paris at an impressionable age; I heard the people sing, singing the songs of angry men). So it makes sense to me that the first perfume I ever bought for myself with money I really did not have to spend was French, and that it was Tam Dao.
Tam Dao is a sandalwood scent that the Parisian house Diptyque has been making for sixteen years now, and in many ways it feels to me like the heart of the brand. Sure, Diptyque has other bangers -- the boozy white floral Olene, the powdery rose Do Son, the jammy fig Phylosikos -- but to me Tam Dao, which smells to me like an open window on the first crisp day of fall, wears as effortlessly and cool as we imagine French women wear leather jackets, slung nonchalantly over their shoulders. It’s the best sandalwood I’ve ever smelled, in that it is so clean -- it’s a linear wood, in that it contains no surprises. Just musky bark and a bit of fresh air. It’s smooth and simple, and it always makes you feel pulled together. This is as much of a lie as anything else -- we are all messy, effortful monsters -- but for a moment, it makes you feel excessively, impossibly French. Whatever the hell that means.
The name “Gold Leaves” summons up perhaps the single most representative image of autumn. This is what fall is selling, or rather this is the primary tool for anyone using fall as a way to sell you something: A vista of red and gold and brown trees arrayed across a landscape, wide-lensed and distant. The crisp new blue sky in the morning on the first day when you need a sweater. Yellow leaves pressed into the sidewalk on a rainy night. The treetops in Central Park gone bright and tawny, as though the park itself had gotten dressed up for the colder weather, abandoning the green informality of summer. A tall line of trees along a river, lit up in golds, furiously begging everyone to look at them before they wither and fade.
All of this is beautiful, but it is also a Pinterest board about fall. Golden leaves don’t smell like anything; you can’t do anything about them at all, other than look at them. This time of year is a huge dose of feeling with little recourse to action. Golden leaves are connected to an activity, leaf-peeping, a hideous out-loud term that I learned about in my twenties on the East Coast and couldn’t believe anyone actually said with a straight face. But even this archaic-preppy-bourgeois term is about a kind of longing and nothingness, reaching for something that offers no landing point, no destination toward which the reach can extend. “Let’s go and look at the leaves” is very silly but also kind of sad and poignant. I feel so much and all I can do about it is… drive by some trees?
This empty destination is the crack where capitalism gets in, of course, which is why those of us who love -- or just feel something big about -- fall often associate it with things we can buy, sweaters and lattes and boots and pencils and soups and produce and decorative gourds. Buying stuff is always there, lurking in the places where we feel too much and don’t know what to do with those feelings. This perfume is very beautiful. It is, technically, a woods scent, but to me it smells almost too clean, and not woodsy enough. Golden Leaves is the right name for it, because it smells not quite like fall, but like all the things that fall is telling you to buy. There’s a lot of cozy-forest in here, cedar and oakmoss specifically, and a lot of warm-indoors spices, the gentle-hearted open-window-in-a-kitchen undercurrent of cardamom, but there’s an equal or greater amount of white flowers, and white florals always smell like money to me. This is a perfume that smells like cashmere. Not cashmeran, the actual perfume note, but cashmere as in the thing we are all supposed to buy in fall if we want to be considered elegant, cashmere like the time I bought cashmere sweatpants I couldn’t really afford because the air outside had turned sharp and ambitious and the sky was piercing blue in the morning and I wanted to be someone richer and cleaner and better than I was.
I like this perfume, and I think it’s a good fall option if you’re looking for something subtler than most woods scents. But I also distrust it, in the way I fundamentally distrust my love of fall. On me, the floral notes fade into a gentle woodiness like a very fine-knit sweater, but your mileage may vary. I suspect there are people on whom this just smells like a classy, muted, white floral, boring and monied in the way that fall, for all its promises about decay and regret and new selves and last chances, is often secretly boring and merely about buying stuff. So many things that are supposed to be good turn out to be one more quiz from the world at large about how rich you are and how small and clean you can make yourself. I love fall, but I understand that everything I love is essentially untrustworthy because I love it, and that most things that call up large emotions in me are also trying to get me to spend money I don’t have. I love expensive sweaters, too, and the idea of knitwear, and the thought of being the kind of person who would own knitwear and buy it every fall, secure in their budget, a deep drawer full of soft expensive things perfectly folded. This sort of love is a trapdoor; nothing you pour into it accumulates. The beauty never resolves into action; the blue sky is not a place to go, and the bright leaves don’t smell like anything. But the idea of them smells beautiful, like woody flowers and soft spices, and like sweaters, and not like leaves at all.
Palo Santo, the “holy wood” of South America (it is native to Venezuela, Peru, and Ecuador) has been around for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, but it has only recently had a capitalistic wellness glow-up that allows Brooklyn boutiques to charge $25 for a bundle of three sticks as part of an “aura cleansing kit.” Obviously, this upcharge (as a child growing up in New Mexico, local herbalism stores used to sell hunks of palo santo for fifty cents each at the register) is colonialism at work, an erasure of the material’s indigenous roots and its authentic usage by shamans in folk medicine. A lot of people just know that it smells nice -- sweet and unctuous, like Carolina barbecue sauce -- and that it can clear a funky odor from a stuffy room. And that’s fine, I suppose. But part of me always feels strange when I see the wood in baskets at pricey stores; I wonder how it got there, who harvested it, how much they were paid for their labors. And I also feel a little strange when I encounter a perfume that costs $180 that uses palo santo oil as its main ingredient.
And yet, one of the truths about wood is that for an organic material that is so stuck in place as it grows, it travels; it has adventures. Pine logs swim miles and miles down wide-mouthed rivers. Cherry wood moved for centuries between continents, carved into the clawfoot legs of high-backed chairs. Frankincense, the sticky gum of Boswellia trees, has been traversing oceans for as long as humans have been tracking it. Wood itself built the ships that allowed other wood to move; if anything, it is a stationary material that leaps long distances. So Palo Santo, which sometimes comes to us from as far as the Galapagos Islands, was bound to spread. It’s just important to remember, when wearing it -- and it is a joy to wear; Carner Barcelona’s version is warm and gooey and resinous and tangy -- where it comes from, what its sacred origins are. It does not just magically exist to cure what ails you; it did not just appear out of thin air. It has spent centuries making its way across rainforests and borderlands, and it contains all those years, all that history, all those hands who nurtured it and chopped it and sent it on its way. When and if you wear it, the holiest thing you can do is tell its story.
Tom Ford’s fragrances are hilarious and I love them for it. When I say they are hilarious, I mean that they’re meant to be hilarious. Everything they do is on purpose. They are very, very serious, and at the same time they understand that everything serious is a joke, and in fact the more serious something is, the bigger a joke it is. Nothing is a bigger joke than masculinity, and the joke is how seriously it takes itself. Oud Wood is perhaps the ultimate supermasc wood perfume, with all the notes that one might shove together if one wanted to make a fragrance that smelled like it was wearing three suits and smoking fourteen cigars. Sandalwood AND vetiver AND cedarwood AND birch tar AND patchouli AND incense AND murky, funky, smoke-and-body-odor oud all crowd in, yelling, vying to be the most important. It’s a very well dressed sausage party, a campy museum exhibit about the idea of maleness in the twentieth century. But then, of course, like most of Ford’s fragrances, it can’t resist adding in a bunch of sweetness. Vanilla and tonka bean arrive in the base notes, so that at the end it smells like all these big manly things, plus burned sugar, because really everything is candy. It smells autumnal, but in a hilariously aggressive way, like if a Magic Mike XXL stripper decided that his male entertainer persona was Mr. Autumn Man. As with many of Ford’s perfumes, part of the joke is that it also succeeds, seriously, at the serious thing it’s mocking. This fragrance is genuinely very sexy; it really does smell like putting your face right inside the old-wood paneling in an ancient cigar bar. It’s a costume, but the costume is great, it looks great on you (it looks great on everyone), it does what it says on the box. Wear it on a very cold day so you can smolder. Coming to the stage, put your hands together and your dollar bills in the air for Mr. Autumn Man.
The summer I turned 28 years old, I did just about the dumbest thing that a person who adores New York City can do: I took a job in Washington D.C. I say that this is dumb, not because D.C is a bad city, per se, but because it is a very bad place to live if you are still in love with New York. I’d just been through a big breakup and was looking for dramatic, chaotic change. So I went to work at NPR, which made my parents proud and had a killer health plan and provided me with so many free tote bags that I started leaving them in public places for strangers to take. I realize that for some people, this would have the top of the mountain: to wake up every day and walk into those hallowed halls of radio, which always smelled like burnt coffee and old books, so close to the mall that you could eat at the cafe inside the Air and Space Museum during lunch hour. As for me, I lasted about seven months.
It wasn’t the job (I was coordinating literary coverage, so mostly I just had to read stacks and stacks of books; that part was great). It was the place where the job was located. I could never find my rhythm in D.C. I missed New York with even more homesickness than I felt during the summer that my parents left me at a “rustic” sleepaway camp and I immediately contracted scabies from my bunk. There are few cities where you can more or less seamlessly transplant a New York life -- London, maybe, or Toronto -- but most places require a willingness to adapt, to let go of what you had before while seeking out the familiar. When diehard New Yorkers move to L.A., they let go of walking and skyscrapers, but they quickly find simpatico minds (mostly other New Yorkers who move to Los Angeles). When New Yorkers move to Chicago, they lose salads and above-zero winters but they can still commune with the hard edges and smokestacks. When New Yorkers move to Paris, they might feel briefly out of place, but soon settle into feeling worldly and whimsical and superior. And when New Yorkers move anywhere that is not a grimy city, somewhere with redwoods or salt air or a single post office or tumbleweeds or visible stars in the sky, then they simply reset and exhale and wipe the slate clean and feel reborn (can you tell I am currently yearning for this).
But when New Yorkers move to D.C...WELP. (Only Boston might be worse. Sorry, Boston). Obviously, it is a nightmare place right this minute. But I lived there during the previous administration and it was still not an environment I could ever sink my teeth into. For one thing, D.C. is a city that thinks it is cosmopolitan, in that it is technically the capital and has world-class museums and well, the Kennedy Center. But it doesn’t function at all like a fused metropolis -- it’s more a collection of isolated neighborhoods masquerading as a unit (and some of those neighborhoods are in other states). It’s a commuter hub that empties out at night; you can walk down major streets after 5pm and not see a soul. Everyone wears the same baby blue oxford from Brooks Brothers seven days a week (I knew I was in trouble when I saw men in button-downs at Sunday farmers markets). Also: every restaurant has a TV in it and that TV is always on, and that TV is always airing a talking head with a shellacked blond helmet talking about how we should consider both sides. Let’s put it this way: if you took the lobby of a totally nice, totally suitable Residence Inn by Marriott and turned it into an entire city, it might feel something like D.C.
Don’t get me wrong, the place has charms. The leafy backstreets of Georgetown. The al fresco cafes of Mount Pleasant. The U street corridor with its strong cocktails and secret vintage boutiques. Greasy fries from Ben’s Chili Bowl at 2am. The 9:30 Club. Cherry blossoms. The fluffiest injera you’ll ever eat. Politics & Prose. Marble steps everywhere, green everywhere. The basil goat cheese ice cream at Jubilee. Record stores owned by old punk rockers who swear they partied with Fugazi. Walking into the National Portrait Gallery for free whenever you want.
Still, I desperately missed the energy of New York, the kinetic variety of it, the ostentation, the style. I found myself taking Amtrak north every Friday night and squatting in my old apartment until the landlord found a new tenant (I still had a key and had left my sofa behind). One freezing night on that sofa -- I’d disconnected the heat when I moved -- I realized I was happier to be shivering in Brooklyn than I ever felt when cozy in my apartment on T Street. Right then, I made a pact with myself that I’d be home by spring (and I was).
When I moved back -- and started writing full-time, met my partner, met Helena...so much luck that it felt like New York was throwing its arms around me after I’d been at sea -- I had only one regret. My apartment in D.C. was tiny but gorgeous, a one-bedroom in an old Beaux-Arts building from 1901 called The Albemarle ( if D.C. has one huge advantage over New York it’s that it has a glut of glamorous pre-war housing that is actually affordable). It had a black-and-white checkered kitchen floor and ornate crown moldings and a deep bathtub. But what I really loved, what made my heart stop when I first walked in, was that it had a working fireplace. The HOLY GRAIL of amenities, and as rare in New York as a seat on the 6 train. I took to that fireplace like I was a scullery maid; I lit kindling every night, even when it was hot outside. I loved the ritual process of it -- selecting the wood, crunching up newspaper. My favorite wood to use was silver birch -- it smelled incredible, even when it was smoldering. It smelled like the year the building was made, like one century turning over into another, like gaslights in the snow.
Years later, I still dream about that fireplace. I remember how most nights, so lonesome and adrift in a city I knew I would leave, I didn’t sleep in my bed at all. I simply curled up on the rug in front of my hearth until my eyelids got heavy.
Fumidus, by Profumum Roma, smells like birch as it burns -- sticky tar, peat moss, Christmas trees. It’s so smoky that someone may ask you if you’ve been making s’mores. It’s the good burn of strong whiskey down the throat. It’s a scent that has bite and depth,the flinty pop of an old-timey camera. When you wear it, you smell like a fireplace. Like you could be, even for just one cold, nomadic, season, someone’s idea of home.
This is the time of year for ghosts, so I guess I’m gonna write about another perfume that reminds me of the Pacific Northwest; I’m so sorry. I’m sorry to have to mention again that I was a kid in Northern California in the late ‘90s and that things were different then or at least they seemed like they were and then as soon as I was old enough to actually go out and live and party in this supposed utopia, it was gone. But even when it was gone, all the redwood forests and eucalyptus groves and old mossy hidden highways and rainy beach cliffs still smelled the same despite the fact that this place as I’d known it had disappeared, and maybe never had existed at all. Smell is deceptive like that, promising that the closed door of the past is a portal, or promising that things we only imagined to be real might still be grasped. Heretic’s Poltergeist is meant to smell haunted. It is dark and green and smoky and to me it smells like old growth redwood forests and hiking in them after rain, on an evening when it gets dark earlier than you expected. But I think it might smell haunted to you, too, even if you have never been to this part of the country and have no associations with it.
The perfume’s creator talks about having been inspired by “the smoke of blazing burn piles filled with scorched leaves and timber,” the controlled burns that keep these forests healthy, necessary to their survival. Much of the longing that arrives at this time of year, the weird and sudden urgency of it, is about the contrast and relationship between cold and warm. We seek out warmth because warmth is no longer abundant outdoors. Fall is famously the time when people get into relationships - “cuffing season,” when the playfulness of summer evaporates. We go inside and hunker down with whomever is available. The urgency of the coming cold and the general drama of the sudden-changing weather, the sense of death and anticipation in the air, make it easy to fall in love or tell ourselves we have; when it is cold outside, everybody looks like a warm room.
Cuffing season is a big part of why this time of year is so haunted; anything that’s about love is also about ghosts. Fall crowds with the specters of past relationships, the people we met on crisp nights, with whom we went on long walks in the chilly air, with whom we snuggled into sweaters and went indoors and stayed cozy, the people who looked like warm rooms until they didn’t. Many of my biggest relationships started in fall, or got serious then; many of my worst break-ups happened in fall, too. Cuffing season is also the last break-up season of the year, the final stop on the highway before the holidays and the winter. All these ghosts arrive, everyone crowding into memory together, the smell of smoke in the air.
Poltergeist’s mossy green and pine notes smell like a walk in a very deep forest, but the many types of smoke in the fragrance (incense and frankincense and labdanum) also smell like a glowing-warm house that appears out of the dark in the middle of that walk in the forest. The house is both welcoming and nerve-wracking. There are probably ghosts in there. But this time of year is about everyone and everything you’ve ever loved too fast, every time you have impulsively dived toward warmth and eventually been hurt by your own desire to go inside the house in the middle of the woods and sit at the stranger’s hearth. The appeal of the season is not so much the coziness as the ghosts. What we like about it is the reminder of what we have lost, and what we are going to lose. If fall is about closeness it is also about everyone we have broken from, ruptured with, and all the houses from which we have gone back out into the cold and the dark of the woods. The controlled burn that inspired this scent is a haunting: Letting things die on purpose, so that we do not rot entirely, so that eventually we can grow, so that the next season can come again. Loss is often itself a renewal. I’ve never been back to the old growth forests in California, but I know that they smell like ghosts, mossy and dark and tinged with heavy smoke, like someone else’s fireplace just out of sight, burning off the rot, turning our faces to the cold.