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The chapter gets on and about with other business, but at the end of it there is a series of passages in which Homer is gazing out the window of the room he shares with his first real friend, the heir to the apple orchard, Wally. Whose girlfriend Homer has fallen in love with: a fact which is causing him some distress. Distracted by the cool, hard glint of moon on the roof of the Cider House and thinking about whether or not he should return to the orphanage at St. Cloud’s, Homer poses his questions to the winking moonlight at the same time that Doctor Larch, an ether addict (the drug provides his only form of relaxation), is lying on the dispensary bed at St. Cloud’s “with both the stars of Maine and the stars of ether circling around him,” wondering how to get Homer to return to continue the work that the aging doctor will soon be forced to leave off. There is much flashing of light from the heavens as the two men consider their options, and then the sky goes dark and still. Dr. Larch gets up and begins typing a letter to Homer:
December 30, 2011:
Tomorrow marks my father’s birthday, were he still alive. I will be wearing Winter Star and hoping the evening sky is clear enough to glimpse the moon, the stars and Venus.
New Year’s Eve is not yet here, but the holidays have wound down for me and I’m happy for it. Christmas was wonderful: I got to spend it with both my sisters (a rare occurrence due to my one sister living in Florida) and I got to show off a bit by cooking Christmas dinner for ten. However, even when Christmas is very, very good, its week-long excesses catch up to me in a way that leaves me feeling edgy, and I’m always relieved when the final Christmas visit has been made, the last holiday meal consumed. Arriving home from a visit to my father-in-law’s house a couple nights ago, I knew exactly what I wanted from the day ahead: a long run through the silent and frozen farm fields near my house, a super-long shower or bath, and some time to wear and ponder the beauty that is Winter Star eau de parfum by California-based, indie perfumer Michael Storer. A decant of Winter Star was gifted to me by my blogging friend Meg (whose review of the scent must be read, as she makes lovely and deft work of putting a finger on exactly what kind of elixir this is), and though I’d only had occasion to wear it once in the days leading up to Christmas, its unique scent, so well-suited to its name, lingered in my mind in almost perfect detail. So much so that even though I’d forgotten to take it with me to my father-in-law’s house, by the time my husband and I arrived home I knew how I wanted to write about it—specifically, I knew what chapter of a well-thumbed novel it brought to mind—and only the thought of trying to connect the dots between the two gave me serious pause.
Winter Star is a perfume that conveys a notion of something cool, shining, and singular in the distance that is nevertheless tethered to (or resonates with) the human element. It’s a fragrance where lavender is used imaginatively, in such a way that it doesn’t register as lavender to the nose but lends a sense of icy chill to the spicy-green balsams it wraps itself around, making one think of anise—smelled in its purest form but not alone, for there is also the smell of dirty jasmine and musk tied to the opening chords of this perfume. (Is the slightly urinous jasmine I smell real or imaginary? The listed notes for Winter Star include carnation, lavender, bergamot, oakmoss, peru balsam, benzoin, tolu balsam, labdanum, musks, civetone musk and Helvetolide musk. It wouldn’t surprise me if jasmine was also part of the formula, but then again, my nose might be simply under the influence of the naughty civetone).
One would think the result would be a muddle—this attempt to marry the cool, almost mentholated green motif of the fragrance with something that smells akin to warm, humid skin, more than a bit lived-in. I have no idea how perfumers create their magic, but I find that in Winter Star I can smell both these extremes and the vibration between them, such that a very clear “picture” of the fragrance emerges. The anise-like smell is as remote and shimmery as the moon—creating a sense of vastness—but it is hitched to something that smells intimate and personal. For about ten minutes, the “dirty” notes in Winter Star are strong enough that I can understand how some perfumistas think of this as a sexy perfume, but the fragrance to my nose is more weighted on the side of green coolness, and the fleshy notes become distinctly creamier as the fragrance dries down on its balsamic base. The first thing I thought of when I smelled Winter Star was a long-ago night from my childhood, when my father took me and my sisters sledding on the lane that ran through our farm, on a night when the sky was brittle and the full moon bounced its light off the snow. There’s not a lot to this memory, just the remembrance of my father pulling the three of us on a sled up the steep hill of our lane … of looking up into the majestic and unknowable beauty of the Cosmos and, at the same time, hearing the crunch of my father’s footsteps, the familiar smell of his sweat floating out into the winter air, and the equally familiar smell of my sisters, bundled up next to me in their winter clothes. That’s what I smell in Winter Star.
But as I mentioned, riding home the other night in the car, I found myself thinking about the scent of Winter Star and a favorite chapter of one of my favorite books: The Cider House Rules, John Irving’s novel about a physician who runs an orphanage in rural Maine in the first half of the 20th century. It doesn’t reference winter, but it beautifully evokes this seemingly incongruous but very human sense that the infinite cosmos—so foreign to us in every regard—somehow connects us to one another and to the answers we are searching for. Dr. Wilbur Larch has just received a letter from his favorite orphan, Homer Wells, who was never adopted and thus grew up at the orphanage, the recipient of Larch’s tutelage in the ways of obstetrics and other, more controversial medical procedures. Homer recently left the orphanage to live and work with a wealthy apple-orchard-owning family on the Maine coast, and because he is happy there, he struggled with what to put in his letter to Dr. Larch:
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Star of Wonder: Michael Storer Winter Star eau de parfum
“I remember nothing so vividly as kissing you,” Dr. Larch began, but he stopped; he knew he couldn’t say that. He pulled the page from the typewriter, then he hid it deep within A Brief History of St. Cloud’s, as if were another particle of history without an audience.
David Copperfield had a fever when he’d gone to bed, and Larch went to check on the boy. Dr. Larch was relieved to feel that young Copperfield’s fever had broken; the boy’s forehead was cool, and a slight sweat chilled the boy’s neck, which Larch carefully rubbed with a towel. There was not much moonlight; therefore Larch felt unobserved. He bent over Copperfield and kissed him, much in the manner that he remembered kissing Homer Wells. Larch moved to the next bed and kissed Smoky Fields, who tasted vaguely like hot dogs; yet the experience was soothing to Larch. How he wished he had kissed Homer more, when he’d had the chance! He went from bed to bed, kissing the boys; it occurred to him, he didn’t know all their names, but he kissed them anyway. He kissed all of them.
When he left the room, Smoky Fields asked the darkness, “What was that all about?” But no one else was awake, or else no one wanted to answer him.
I wish he would kiss me, thought Nurse Edna, who had a very alert ear for unusual goings-on.
“I think it’s nice,” Mrs. Grogan said to Nurse Angela, when Nurse Angela told her about it.
“I think it’s senile,” Nurse Angela said.
But Homer Wells, at Wally’s window, did not know that Dr. Larch’s kisses were out in the world, in search of him. †
†The Cider House Rules, copyright © 1985 by Garp Enterprises, Ltd. (William & Morrow Company, Inc., New York, 1985, pp. 255 & 262)
Images: MacKenzie Thorpe's "Out with Dad," scanned from a Christmas card I bought; photo of perfume bottle is from Basenotes.net.
Michael Storer Winter Star eau de parfum was at one time a limited-edition fragrance, but if my understanding is correct, can still be purchased from the perfumer. Although his website is currently unavailable due to a redesign, he recently let Basenotes.net know that he can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. (He’s also on Facebook.)
How do I say, “I miss you” he wondered—when I don’t mean, “I want to come back!”?
And so he ended the letter in his fashion; he ended it inexactly. “I remember when you kissed me,” he wrote to Dr. Larch. “I wasn’t really asleep.”
Yes, thought Dr. Larch, I remember that, too. He rested in the dispensary. Why didn’t I kiss him more—why not all the time? †