Neptune’s Treasure: Confronting the Anthropocene with the Ancient Aroma of Ambergris

Ambergris found in New Zealand. Image from Ambergis NZ

I find examining human history more comforting than considering the ever-encroaching future promised (or threatened?) by talk of the Anthropocene. This preference informs my work as an artist: I use aroma as a link to an earlier time, on the belief that we can access the past through esoteric smells. My current project aims to focus on a lesser-known scent of the past that stimulates perhaps disturbing ideas associated with the Anthropocene. I am planning an exhibition that will use the olfactory story of ambergris to recall the history of whaling as an early foundation of America’s energy economy.

In my artistic practice I have developed a method of working with scent as a creative medium. Using a small steam distiller, I extract essential oil or hydrosol (scented water) from plant material I have collected from places I visit. These extractions represent the local landscape through aroma, molecular structure and symbolic meaning of the materials gathered. Aromatic materials, alchemical possibilities and cultural symbolism are central to the work. We respond to scent viscerally, at first, not logically. I believe this makes fragrance a potent vehicle for exploring arcane history, which can include truth and myth.

Presently I am considering coastal regions and aromas associated with the sea. This will culminate in an exhibition that focuses on ambergris (a secretion of the sperm whale) as a precious and mysterious substance, a perfume fixative and a rare luxury commodity made even more scarce by the depleted population of its source. The exhibition, entitled “Neptune’s Treasure” (an old sailor’s term for ambergris), will present olfactory artworks that use ambergris as the base material.

Though ambergris itself has been known and its uses recorded throughout history, for a long time the source of the material was a mystery. Speculative origins include the spittle of sea dragons sleeping on sea rocks drooling into the ocean or an odorous gum exuded into the sea from the roots of coastal trees in the South Pacific. In fact ambergris is a waxy substance created in the digestive tracts of sperm whales. It starts as a secretion formed as a protective means in the digestion of cuttlefish and squid beaks, which can irritate the whale’s intestines. The waxy formation is ejected from the whale as waste and floats on the surface of the ocean for years, curing in the salt, sea and sun. This process of transmutation that occurs on the high seas, as well as the individual whale’s unique biology, make each piece of ambergris one of a kind. Ambergris is most valuable when it has turned a very light grey or white, transformed from a useless fecal smelling black turd to surprisingly delicate white gold washing up on a remote beach.

Grey amber, as sailors referred to it, became (and still is) incredibly valuable as a fragrance enhancer and fixative. Ambergris is used in perfume in a similar manner to musk, as a base component to which middle and top scent notes can be added. Natural perfumer Mandy Aftel recounts that in the 17thcentury and earlier it was also used in medicinal concoctions, embalming practices, as protection from plague, and as food flavoring, identified and traded as early as 1000 BCE.

But the olfactory story of ambergris is enmeshed with America’s whaling history and its influence in building the country’s early, burgeoning fortunes. For ambergris is only one item of value that is produced by the bodies of sperm whales, and I can’t help connecting it with thoughts of industrial era commercial whaling practices. The capital that fueled the young American republic was bound up with whaling, particularly during the industry’s peak, from the mid-18th to the mid-19th centuries. Prior to the discovery of fossil fuel, “American whale oil helped light the world, illuminating, powering and lubricating the first phases of the industrial revolution.” Sperm whales in particular were sought for their superior spermaceti, an oily, waxy substance encased in their enormous heads. Spermaceti burned more brightly and more cleanly than average whale oil. From the darkest depths of the sea, we humans harvested a means to shed light over the earth.

That harvest, involving the boiling down of whale’s bodies, was succeeded by the exploitation of fossil fuels, themselves the product of heat and pressure applied to organic materials, and made useable by human beings through further refinement. Whaling may have declined due to the discovery of oil—or the development of oil as an energy source may have been stimulated by the decline in whale populations. In either case, looking back on whaling makes us confront the economy of energy production and consumption, pointing us forward in time to its result, the Anthropocene.

Grand Ball Given by Whales (Vanity Fair, 1861)

Grand Ball Given By the Whales In Honor of the Discovery of the Oil Wells in Pennsylvania (Vanity Fair, 1861, via Wikimedia Commons)

However, associations I have traced between ambergris and the Anthropocene are far from the only intrigue the substance has for me. On a more personal, visceral level, I am deeply engaged in the mystery and lore of ambergris as an object of curiosity. I believe much of the wonder is generated through the desire and speculation conjured by written descriptions coupled with lack of access. For years I have read descriptions of the scent of ambergris without ever having an opportunity to smell the real thing. Because of its rarity and its known magical properties in fragrance formulas, ambergris is often worth its weight in gold. As of the writing of this post, gold is priced at $38.76 per gram, while natural ambergris is available at The Perfumer’s Apprentice for $50 per gram.

Obtaining true natural ambergris is therefore a challenge. For the exhibition I will create “aromatic shadows” which will give visitors olfactory perceptions of this unique and bizarre ingredient. What experience do I have to produce—that is, what does ambergris actually smell like?

Mandy Aftel describes the olfactory profile as an “incomparably lovely, sweet, musky odor that seems to combine perfume, the sea, and some primordial animal scent.” Exact description can be complicated because each piece of ambergris differs, creating unique variations on the theme. According to New Zealand Ambergris, the aroma is difficult to pin down in words, due to its odd combination of sweetness and raw animal potency, the contradiction being part of the attraction. “Ambergris is often described as being musky and having a sweet earthy aroma unlike any other or a mossy fragrance reminiscent of the damp forest floor. Add a dash of ocean spray, a hint of cigar, a good amount of sweetness and a little odour of the stable floor to complete the recipe…“

Synthetic replacements for Ambergris exist and those I have encountered firsthand. Ambroxide (brand name Ambroxan) seems to be the most popular and widely used. After smelling ambroxan, a student of mine claimed she would be happy to wear that singular molecule as her personal fragrance. Ambroxan is a key component in the make up of ambergris’ scent profile. Like ambergris, it is an important fixative, which will create a light, airy, sweet, clean effect and amplify certain notes in a perfumery blend. It has a soft, enchanting smell and a radiant effect.

Many people are averse to the idea of synthetic scent materials, as though they are not natural. Yet, they are simply isolated components of more complex organic compounds. In the case of ambergris, it is an animal material that can’t be hunted, but is generally scavenged on shores all over the world. The Endangered Species Act of 1973 prohibits possession and trade of ambergris. But this rule tends to be overlooked, since ambergris can be obtained without hunting whales. It is most likely to wash up on coasts which lie close to the feeding grounds of sperm whales. Western New Zealand has been the locale of many rich finds. Unsuspecting people walking the beach often find large ambergris deposits lying in the sand.

In perfumery, the seashore is an elusive and desirable aroma, particularly the salty smell of skin and hair after a day at the beach. Sweet sun warmed skin, fresh sweat, marine air, the significant scent of iodine and sulfur from seaweed and decomposing micro plankton in the wet sand. This combo hits you in different frequencies at particular locations and it’s not simply the beauty of the odor, it’s the attraction to the place and the associations with pleasure, leaving the material world behind. The marvel of ambergris is its ability to melt into skin and aromatically conjure this oceanic illusion as no other material can.

I like to think that the preciousness of ambergris directly correlates to the preciousness of Earth’s resources, like the ocean, and sea creatures, like whales. I also appreciate the mysterious and strange process, in the ocean depths, of a sperm whale feeding on a giant squid and producing, by human standards, a heavenly and transformative aroma.


Why Say “Weed” in the Anthropocene?


White clover growing in the lawn outside the New York Hall of Science, where the author and Environmental Performance Agency collaborators held the workshop “Plant Talk, Human Talk: An EPA Training for the Beginning of the World” (image by the Environmental Performance Agency)

In my post last week, I used a recent study on the urban evolution of white clover and its coverage in the popular press to start thinking about how traits described as “weedy” relate to Continue reading

“Contrasting the effects of natural selection, genetic drift and gene flow on urban evolution in white clover (Trifolium repens)”

Marc T. J. Johnson, Cindy M. Prashad, Mélanie Lavoignat, Hargurdeep S. Saini. 2018.  Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, vol. 285, no. 1883, published on-line July 25, 2018: pp. 8-33.
Urbanization is a global phenomenon with profound effects on the ecology and evolution of organisms. We examined the relative roles of natural selection, genetic drift and gene flow in influencing the evolution of white clover (Trifolium repens), which thrives in urban and rural areas. Continue reading

There Goes the Neighborhood: Urban Coyotes in Pennsylvania and California

Coyote in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco

This post was co-authored by Christian Hunold, Drexel University
and Teresa Lloro-Bidart, Cal Poly Pomona

Coyotes have incorporated themselves into nearly every major city in North America. Coyotes’ ability to thrive in cities testifies not only to the Anthropocene’s blurring of human-wildlife boundaries; it also undermines the idea that Continue reading

Sensing High Water in Venice

Venice High Water

Flood warning siren in Venice (from Sounds Like Noise)

Visiting Venice this summer suggested some intellectual bridges between cities (see our previous series on the Urban Anthropocene), and our new theme (Perceiving the Anthropocene). How do cities help us perceive the Anthropocene— Continue reading

Seeing Artful Traces in the Geologic Record

This is the first in a series of posts on Perceiving the Anthropocene.

After escaping Polyphemus’s cave, Odysseus, ignoring protests from his men, shouts back in anger at the giant:

Cyclops! If any mortal asks you how
your eye was mutilated and made blind,
say that Odysseus, the city-sacker,
Laertes’ son, who lives in Ithaca,
Destroyed your sight.

— Homer, The Odyssey, IX.502-506, Emily Wilson, trans.

Odysseus’s announcement functions like a signature Continue reading

Video of “Cities and Our Future” panel discussion

Earlier this spring, Cindy Simon Rosenthal offered a series of three posts on the topic of “Cities and Our Future: Governance in the Anthropocene.” On March 6, 2018 (rescheduled
Continue reading

“A sociometabolic reading of the Anthropocene: Modes of subsistence, population size and human impact on Earth”

Marina Fischer-Kowalski, Fridolin Krausmann and Irene Pallua. 2014.  The Anthropocene Review, vol. 1, no. 1: pp. 8-33.
We search for a valid and quantifiable description of how and when humans acquired the ability to dominate major features of the Earth System. While common approaches seek to quantify Continue reading

Urban Metabolism and Degrowth, part 2


It continues Part 1’s discussion of two readings: “Democracies with a future: Degrowth and the democratic tradition,” by Marco Deriu, and “De-growth: Do you realise what it means?” by Ted Trainer

Co-authored with Robert Bailey

Manif EPR Lyon Bellecour banderole décroissance

The Party for Degrowth, rally in Lyon, 2007. © Yann Forget / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0.

Continue reading

Urban Metabolism and Degrowth, part 1

Democracies with a future: Degrowth and the democratic tradition
Marco Deriu. 2012.  Futures vol. 44, pp. 553–561.
ABSTRACT (partial):
The interrogation of a possible connection between degrowth and democracy inspires some questions of political epistemology. Is degrowth a socio-economic project which can be simply proposed as an ‘‘issue’’ and a ‘‘goal’’ in the democratic representative system, without discussing forms and processes of the political institutions themselves? Continue reading

“Urban Metabolism and the Energy Stored in Cities: Implications for Resilience”

David N. Bristow and Christopher A. Kennedy. 2013.  Journal of Industrial Ecology, vol. 17, no. 5: pp. 656-667.
Using the city of Toronto as a case study, this article examines impacts of energy stocks and flexible demand in the urban metabolism on the resilience of the city, including discussion of Continue reading

“Environmental Crises and the Metabolic Rift in World-Historical Perspective”

Moore, Jason W. 2000.  Organization & Environment, vol. 13: pp. 123-157.
This article proposes a new theoretical framework to study the dialectic of capital and nature over the longue duree of world capitalism. The author proposes that today’s global ecological crisis has its roots in the transition to capitalism during the long sixteenth century. The emergence of capitalism marked not only a decisive shift in the arenas of politics, economy, and society, but a fundamental reorganization of world ecology, characterized by a “metabolic rift,” Continue reading

Urban Metabolism

Following our series on “Cities and Our Future,” I’m pleased to introduce the second of our special programs on the theme of the Urban Anthropocene. Starting today, and running through April, we will have a series of posts that take up the idea of “urban metabolism:” the analogy between cities and organisms that focuses attention on the systems by which cities obtain resources, and generate and dispose of wastes.

Continue reading

Reviving Municipal Housekeeping

This is the third in Dr. Rosenthal’s three-part series on “Cities and Our Future: Governance in the Anthropocene.” Here are links to the first, and second posts. She will present her ideas at a panel discussion on the OU campus on March 6, 2018; here is the poster for the event.

Roots of Municipal Capacity-Building

In the late 19th century, a movement for municipal reform gained prominence across the nation, led by the emergence of Continue reading

Green Cities, Red States

This is the second in Dr. Rosenthal’s three-part series on “Cities and Our Future: Governance in the Anthropocene.” Click for the first post.

Cities have variously been characterized as “limited” (Peterson 1981), “dependent” (Kantor 1995), and “ungovernable” (Ferman 1985.) Urban scholar Paul Peterson in his seminal work, City Limits, concluded that cities are seriously limited by Continue reading