Smell is in some ways a forgotten sense. It affects us each day in almost undetectable ways – undetectable, at least, by the conscious mind. Aromatherapists use this knowledge in the therapeutic application of essential oils (volatile oils extracted from aromatic plants). My mom was one of the early aromatherapists in the United States and began to use these aromatic oils in her massage sessions in the late 1970s. The power of scents was ever present throughout my life, and was (and still is) a way of life for our family. In 1989, my mom founded The Atlantic Institute of Aromatherapy in an effort to provide quality education in essential oils. Her legacy is something I’ve come to cherish and strive to embody myself. But, I’ve come to learn that essential oils are actually an invitation to connect with the plants from which they are derived.
I grew up with a direct connection to the natural world. I remember running into the garden and rubbing the plants in my hands to smell the aromas. I recall my mom always being close by to say, “That’s sage, that’s thyme, this one is rosemary.” She seemed to contain within her an ancient wisdom of the plants, always inserting comments on how one helps with coughs or connects us to the divine. It took me years to realize that the vials of aromatic oils she collected and used medicinally in our home and her massage treatments were derived from the plants I was so curious about.
As I got older, I started to sense I held a disjunction between the use of the plants’ healing abilities and the plants themselves. I understood the use of the essential oils much better than their plant sources. I could tell you all about how smelling rosemary essential oil can open the peripheral circulation in the brain, but I couldn’t tell you much about how to grow the plant or harvest it for this purpose. However, my mom always kept a close connection with her garden, spending many early summer evenings or winter afternoons tending to it. Despite my curiosity, I didn’t put in much effort to cultivate her green thumb. I was much more interested in learning from books than the earth and chased scholarly pursuits for many years.
Recently, that energy has turned toward learning the intricacies of building a successful business. I founded Upward Spiral in 2009 and just this year opened a healing center that offers therapeutic massage and aromatherapy treatments and products for our community in Tampa, Florida. Ironically, I have found this process very similar to what I know about growing a garden. It takes constant tending. I’m always trying out something new and seeing if it takes. If it does, then I’m working to replicate the same process the next year. It takes consistent awareness, observation, and work, much like gardening.
Part of running a holistic healing center has included continuing my mom’s aromatherapy education business. This began as my way of honoring her for all the hard work she has done over the past forty years. Several years ago, I decided that I couldn’t in good conscious let her hard work slip away in the sands of time. If I didn’t learn the craft of working with essential oils, her work in some ways would be lost.
Deeply honoring one’s parents in this way could be considered a form of what David Chidester calls in Patterns of Transcendence: Religion, Death, and Dying “ancestral transcendence.” This can be seen in the śrāddha rituals in India, which include the offering of rice balls to represent the past three generations of father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, or in the totemic ancestor worship found among the indigenous cultures in Australia. It is an honoring of their lives, their energy, and what they have created in this world. We are all facing the inevitable outcome of death. Honoring those who have come before us allows our ancestors to live beyond death. In some ways, it allows us to feel that we can live forever, too.
I have noticed that focusing just on working with essential oils, without knowledge of the plants themselves, is limiting to my worldview and the future of my work. Though these are plant extracts, I don’t know a single aromatherapist who makes their own at home. Essential oil production most often uses steam-distillation and one would need their own still and pounds of plant matter to produce their own oils. We have done small-scale distillations in our classes for demonstration, but the yield is usually only a few milliliters – not enough to use therapeutically beyond one treatment.
Since virtually all the essential oils I used were produced and bottled other places, there was a disconnection between aromatherapy and herbalism for me. But, I have begun to feel the pull to learn more about plants themselves, outside of just the essential oils contained in vials that come from countries all around the world. When all I have to do is walk outside my home to come in contact with living plants, why wouldn’t I begin to learn about their healing properties? I may not be able to make my own essential oils at home, but I can absolutely make my own herbal remedies at home from plants I grow.
I’ve also started asking myself how I can allow this connection to the world nourish my spirit? So I’ve begun exploring my own relationship with plants, and not just the aromatic oils that are in the vials on my shelves. I can see now that knowledge of plants and their healing properties is not directly tied to growing up with a mom identified as an aromatherapist, but it is the fulfillment of a destiny of some kind: my own.
My work is no longer about continuing my mom’s legacy or anyone else’s. It’s about acknowledging the whole history of humans learning how to work with the world around them. When I sit and think about how long humans have lived on this planet, how many generations have gathered, perfected, and passed on knowledge of how to work with plants and how to live among them, I am in awe. Taking on the mission of being someone who continues that knowledge has so much more weight than the mission to continue just what my mom started. Learning about plants feels like I am connected to the whole population of humans, alive and passed, on a much larger scale. Going through my everyday life with this connection to the past and future feels as though my vision in both directions extends thousands of years: each day I am living in honor of my ancestors and in hope for my children and the generations that follow. I dare say that each day I am living more fully as well.