Michelle Krell Kydd’s free “Smell & Tell” sessions usually meet downtown on the fourth floor of the Ann Arbor District Library. I’ve been to several of them with my perfume-collecting, oil-blending wife, Lindsay. Each time, we are given fragrance-dipped strips of blotter paper and invited to share our olfactory impressions. Close your eyes and breathe, she urges us. How many different scents are you smelling at once? What are you inhaling? What’s it doing to your mind?
Dreams and memories resurface. The imagination stirs. It’s a pleasant workout for the brain’s limbic system. One fragrance made me think of pear trees and wild roses reflected upside down in still water, as described in a poem by Friedrich Holderlin. Lindsay’s comment on the same blend was “this smells like the incense they used to sell at the Grande Ballroom.”
Kydd, whose powers of olfactory discernment are extraordinary, describes herself as a walking smellopedia. A veteran of the beauty and perfume industries, she has an unusually expansive range of expertise. Rarely does one encounter an individual so well versed in chemistry, botany, brain science, cognitive psychology, communication, and human nature. She is robustly bookish; Chilean poet Pablo Neruda is one of the dedicatees of her blog (glasspetalsmoke.blogspot.com), which touches upon topics as diverse as the music of Brian Eno and Clancy’s Fancy Hot Sauce (which she calls “The Umami Mother Lode”). Among perfumers, musical terminology abounds; one whiff of perfume is like a chord made up of top, middle, and bass notes. A pretty fragrance is like a melody, familiar yet different every time.
Our first “Smell & Tell” session dealt entirely with oak moss derivatives. We marveled as she explained how the essence of lichen is refined and blended into exquisite perfumes. Another evening was devoted to an earthy scent derived from the roots of a tropical bunchgrass known as vetiver. After being given little cups of vetiver tea to drink, we sampled a heady selection of elegant, vetiver-based perfumes. Months later, Kydd conducted a “Scent Hike” out of doors at County Farm Park, assisted by county parks naturalist Shawn Severance. Again attendees were invited to sip tea—this time brewed from various plants and flowers growing all around us.
“Smell & Tell” is predicated upon the idea that comparative discussion based upon personal impressions can engender tolerance and compassion in the world. Kydd’s mission is to expand individual and collective consciousness through community-building exercises in which everyone’s perspective is accepted, respected, and embraced. Sensory evaluation builds mindfulness. Words can engender clarity, neutrality, or confusion. We’re not here to agree on everything. Each of us plays a role in constructing reality. We are connected, she says, like one human organism.
Kydd’s “Smell & Tell” series returns to the downtown library December 19.