We recently experienced a few days of haze. What looked like a gray misty day was in fact smoke from forest fires from the neighbouring island of Sumatra. This is apparently a regular occurence caused by the clearing of agricultural land and an unpleasant one. There was a noticeable acrid smell, impairment of breathing and a disturbing visible omnipresence - an omen of the crisis we keep being warned about. Thankfully the other elements of wind and rain over a couple of days brought things back to equilibrium.
Curiously, I had only recently been thinking how I quite like the smell of smoke, of the gardening kind. What is now outlawed in most US cities, the burning of garden debris is still allowed here. It's a guilty pleasure walking around particularly at dusk and catching sight and scent of a gardener's small tidy pile of leaves and twigs sending up a curl of smoke. It is pure nostalgia, triggering memories of playing outside as a kid with a small fire sputtering in the corner of a garden. There also seems to be some peculiar olfactory recipe of dry and damp botanic material that makes it particularly reminiscent or particularly pleasant.
Smoke is also prevalent here in its use in worship. Outside of Catholic churches, Hindu and Buddhist temples incense is used pervasively by the Chinese who practise an amalgam of Taoism and Buddhism. Besides huge coils of incense as pictured above, hanging in the doorways of temples, small shrines are ubiquitous in restaurants, shops, gardens and porches with a pot of jossticks. It is also not unusual to see someone with hands clasped and stretched upwards, standing outside their home or shop waving a josstick, sending it's delicate smoky prayer, heaven wards.
Despite an interesting assortment of botanic ingredients neither the Chinese nor the Indian variety of incense appeal to me as something I might want to enjoy in the background as I might a scented candle. I do however like Japanese Cedar incense. When I lived in San Francisco, my little cottage perched on Potrero Hill which housed a few Japanese antiques somehow was the perfect venue for the occasional subtle scent of Morning Star Cedarwood. I also recently tried Juniper Ridge's Cedar incense wildcrafted from California Siskyou Cedars. These are less incense like, without added perfumey smells and more like a natural fire- much like the small garden fires described above that I've been reacquainted with.
To round off my ruminations on smoke, this weekend I will miss smoke of my favorite kind- the fake machine made kind. Most years I've been up in Mamaroneck where Jim has the best haunted house in the neighborhood replete with a full graveyard, rigged skeletons and other demons that sit up, bushes that rustle and the one that never fails to scare em- the letterbox that flaps (just when you think you've made it safely down the drive, and up the porch steps). All hand pulled behind the scenes and orchestrated by evil maestro with knife through head whose indoor staff whip into action on the cue of 'we have customers'. The outdoors staff (grave diggers, lost souls) drag shovels around and appear mysteriously. The smoke machine, a relatively new addition has been temperamental of late, hopefully it won't let down the attempts of evil Jim and his crew this year.