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.

The Botany of Soap

I'm having a bit of a crush on the Indian Subcontinent at the moment, as you can tell from my last post and the one about night markets. This one is about soap from the Kerala and Tamilnadu regions in South India, the main regions that the local Indians originally hail from. I bought a few the other day not realizing that it would lead to a discovery of the complex botany of Ayurvedic herbal soap formulations and some thought on the green and ethical issues that they raise.

Take the Kayakalp soap for starters - it has 23 botanic ingredients. Interestingly the website description of them has clearly had a language makeover, the printed paper insert in the box I have raised a chuckle or two - for Myrrh which 'kills germs found in filth' and Acoras Calamus -'to dispel the offensive smell of perspiration'. Right on- because you want that in a soap.

Medimix, the one with the motif on it, has 18 (including the same one above for offensive smells). They are certainly interesting- Licorice, Neem, Coriander, Black Cumin, Cumin, Wild Ginger, Vetiver, Rose Colored Lead Wort, and exotic - Indian Bdellium, Himalayan Cedar, Bawchi, Daruharidra (Indian barberry), Jyotismati, False Black Pepper, Indian Sarsparilla,Bitter Oleander, and China Root.

Does one need 18 or 24 herbs in a soap? With properties that claim to provide actions from antimcrobial, antifungal to anti inflammatory and solutions to dandruff, psoriasis to presumably athlete's foot the logic is simple, head to toe cleansing and disease prevention - from a single product. This is revolutionary talk in the context of perceptions and practises in the modern world. Could we end the mountains of dumped bathroom plastic, prevent the ubiquitous use of antibacterial chemicals entering the planet's water supply (creating increasing antiresistant strains of bacteria) and the energy sap of producing multiple packages and marketing campaigns to sell multiple kinds of soap? A single product to wash your hair and body and combat disease and save the planet? Heresy.

Thulasi Herbal Soap is starkly minimalist by comparison, just Thulasi (also spelt Tulasi and Tulsi) or Holy Basil. Interestingly some googling reveals that it is a little controversial to have what is revered as a holy plant used in a product for the rather base act of bathing (see removal of filth and offensive smells above).

Chandrika is one I recognize as being fairly well distributed globally- you can probably find it in a health store or Wholefoods in the US. Just two ingredients Wild Ginger and Lemon Juice concentrate. The smell is is also fairly pleasant which brings me to the first stumbling block of these soaps- they smell more hmmm than mmmm. As a loyal devotee of Verbena soap almost entirely because of its smell, its hard to get past the lack of chemistry with how these soaps smell out of the box. Not unpleasant, but I don't love them. Oddly there seems to also be a standard color chart approach for a particular shade of 'ayurvedic green' a couple of them being a very unherbal 'approved color' or numeric one.

One ingredient consistent through all of them is coconut oil, and the couple I've started using have a rich, easy lathering quality with a soap that remains fairly hard. Love that. The marketing however focuses on the other aspect of coconut oil - this soap contains no animal fat- intended for a Hindu customer who does not want animal fats in their products, which also translates well for Buddhists and Vegans. If I didn't think about this before, that most soaps contain tallow or animal fats, I just had my awareness raised and my preferences retuned.

I can't tell if they all are, but a couple of them are handmade which makes their cost surprisingly cheap, in comparison to the higher end, hand made, boutique soaps that have become increasingly popular on the American high street and in the malls like Lush and a permanent fixture on Etsy. It's been a few days now and the smell is growing on me a little and I'm loving the easy lather. Without knowing the exact formulations, which part of the plants were used etc etc, its not known how robust the medicinal claims are but there's certainly enough pluses in other areas to warrant my continued custom. As soon as I finish my bottle of shampoo, I'll be doing the head to toe test. Wanna try them too? Thanks to the wonders of the internet you can via Amazon - I've put together a little selection here. Unfortunately, only two of the ones I have are available but there are a couple of other similar ones.

Temple Flora

There are Hindu Temples found in every city here with an astonishing amount of flora associated with them. At the temple gates I've seen banana trees with fruit tied to each side with palm and mango leaves strung across. Close by there is usually a handful of stalls that make available to the temple visitors, puja or devotional gifts or offerings to the gods. Each stall is stacked with trays of Betel nut leaves, Kaffir Limes, buckets of Lotus buds and a mass of garlands. Inside, the vendors ply their craft as garland makers expertly tying Jasmine buds, Chrysanthemums and Orchids into colorful scented garlands almost trance like, their hands in constant rhythmic motion.

The garlands are not restricted to just flowers, there are also garlands of leaves and grass. Each deity is said to have their favorite flora, Lotuses for Lakshmi, Durva or sacred grass for Lord Ganesha. There a rules too, for example, the Durva must be plucked while chanting continously and then cannot be brought home in your left hand or on your head. Each flower, fruit and leaf has its own significance and association, Jasmine for weddings, Neem leaves for the new Year. The simple philosophy that binds all this, that plants and flowers are celestial, pervades the oldest of the world's religions- although not strictly a religion. Along with the other tenet of Ahimsa or non violence there is something about this reverence for nature that seems powerfully relevant today.


The whole garbage thing is different here. There is some kind of recycling of specific things like newspapers and cardboard that goes on - it's a man with a flat bed truck and a megaphone who announces his presence in the neighborhood with a megaphone and you bring out your paper/cardboard and he pays you for them by weight. Otherwise, nothing else is separated and recycled. All garbage is then put out at the front of houses in cans or hidden quite elegantly in these concrete 'stumps'.

These renditions of tree stumps are really quite nice, and elaborate even. I'm not sure if they are prefabricated from a mould or if some artisan fashions the bark, branch stumps, etc in situ later once the structure is in place. There's various sizes and a variety of finishes from plain concrete - to the more elaborate staining with mossy bits like the one above. The lid can vary from metal, wooden slats or this organically colored plastic which lifts to reveal a deeper compartment than what is perceived from the outside.

All Posts: