On the way to Joshua Tree proper from the Low Desert by way of a west-easterly boomerang on California 62, one passes several vintage shops on this gusty drag at the corners of such streets named like Geronimo and Cherokee. Inside, amongst the rando touristy tchotchkes and overpriced nostalgic absurdia, between artisanal soaps and license plate art, one often finds the simple pleasure of rolled, dried foliage for smudging, and on one recent trip, wild local lavender had been made cylindroid by some blessed desert celebrant and put, tagged purple and marked $8, in a basket on a low obstructed shelf, waiting for an olfactive radar to catch wind.
A unique find, unlike the common, taut white sage stick, the stacked airy branches of lavender dry out into a more hollow tool, easier to light, and chromatically a velvet-brown that just hints of its once-violety iridescence. Upon ignition, the burner might often be surprised: the smoky effusion is musty, like a not-entirely fallen backwoods fort, and less typical of the pastoral fragrance so commonly known to refresh through summer inhale.
I recently roasted some coffee, an organic small-lot Colombian and a dry-process Brazil, both, in particular, suited toward a lighter fire than long. My primary coffee tastes and my present roasting gear both, however, skew toward long. Nevertheless, any fresh roasted coffee is a good one, and any instance when a roaster goes beyond a firing planned begets a batch of beans for diversion.
Smudging, too, is a roasting process, its immediate product one of smoke — burning as brewing. And, for anyone who knows the pleasure, roasting coffee is a smudging, too.
The recent experiments with the Colombian and the Brazil to find the edges of a light fire brewed into something that did not ignite atmosphere with heat, that is to say that when brewing coffee by a hot process — drip, French press, et cetera — the chemical reaction between heat and grounds causes an inflorescence of aromatic flavor, typically reacting upon acids. In this case, two South American coffees lost their sense of terroir, that delicious dirtiness of Earth that those regions are excellent at expressing in cup, and leaned instead toward the fruited quality one expects of an African produce.
The interesting thing about coffee roasting, about coffee smudging, is that the process expresses multiple dimensions of smoke: wet mossyness, smoldering hay, charring wheat, chocolate, charcoal, and death. The progress is the best way to gauge the level of roast. In other words, the best way to produce brewable coffee is to know how to breath it.
A smudge stick will offer you multiple dimensions of air consistent with the intensity of roast you give it, as well. Unlike cedar, which preternaturally resists attempts to ignite its dried wood, lavender has multiple rev-ready gears to pleasure.
Coffee, after a hot brewing, like a fine wine, is, at its best, a staged, occasionally stilted, presentation of chemistry. It deserves torque through all stages of transmission.
Tightly stacked loose-dry lavender takes fire with ease. The torque can be fierce. The smoke comes quickly. Whipping the stick back and forth like a squeegee to aura, the herbs smolder even more, like harried puffs to cold campfire suddenly enlivened. Because the stems of lavender are thin, thinner than cedar, resistance to a persistent burn is negated, so depositing such a stick into an extinguishing damper is not always successful, as these evolved wicks efficiently draw air down through its pocketed leaves. A mildly hot stick of lavender damped will smolder peacefully and reveal notes to its smoke, unfelt handheld or waved by. The key is to understand how dried foliage, in the ritual of smudging, is a type of transmission, a type of stick shift.
There is something about coldness under which olfactive identity really screams; the acridity of a starting engine, or the memory of a winter’s barren front yard for any midlife New Englander. Cold(ness) has its own smell. Yet the cold acts as a turbo.
Despite losing its earthy character, and despite, unfortunately, having took up just too much roasting smoke, the individual sets of Colombian and Brazilian beans did need a cooling element even long after their exposures to heat took hold. Frustrated with the individual hot products of these two roasts — foursquare, but not for the better, mostly, over-smelt coffee like a corporate bellwether — I mishmashed the two batches and hoped the resultant atmospheres would be cooperative. This hot brew was no improvement, initially, so mugfuls found themselves sitting… sitting… sitting…
Yet, aren’t there few activities better than sitting after a good smudge?
I noticed, tonight, while sitting, in the dark, on my patio, underneath star blanket, that my lavender stick shift, next to me, was smoldering, damped.
I brought it toward my face to sense the heat coming from inside; the embery orange glow was imperceptible in the ambient Low Desert light around me, and the whole stick was indiscriminately warmed from the active burn. A facing would certainly do.
Cool frankincense — the recognition was immediate and vivid.
Desperate, the day before, for a rush of caffeine before I ran late-Sunday errands, but without the time to brew a new cup before the stores began to shut, I found somewhere, waiting for me, an abandoned cold cup of the South American mishmosh brewed maybe four or six hours earlier. Cool frankincense. My senses did not first believe it, but second-sipped, it was true.
Chemically, the main constituents of lavender, coffee, and frankincense typically differ: lavender, primarily linalyl acetate and linalool, common volatile compounds especially present in herbs; coffee, loaded with gustatory, heat-transformable fatty acids; and frankincense, offering thujene and incensol acetate, a union of typically herbal and eponymously incensed air markers. In general, these three elements sit on disparate sections of an olfactive color wheel, across different parts of a sensual valley.
As the sun sets behind the city of Joshua Tree, coyotes, one by two by twenty, howl and coo. The symphony is upsetting, daunting, and revelatory. Joshua Tree proper sits in a bit of a bowl-like valley itself, and so the reverberation these creatures create conversing across town is a proseminar in echolocation. Stilled, quivvering from High Desert nightchill and a subsiding, but thudding instant terror, one isn’t entirely sure how close or far these beasts sing once their song blooms. And so many of them seconds-in — now fifty by eighty by two-hundred-plus. This song happens in heat, too, for instance, in the solitude, due north, of the Mojave National Preserve while a full moon above sweats under a 90-degree nightfall. But the cold desert valley, like a New England front lawn, seems to absorb the usual and transform the hidden, enlivening the often unnoticed elements of an atmosphere into a momentary, inescapable smoking of the memory. The cold hardens, cleans our palette.
Research exists that frankincense causes psychoactive brain activity, and too much coffee makes one hallucinate, and the erotic grip of a breezy lavendered hiking trail captures private, frisky lovers from the outstanding world like no other. And underneath these and every natural element, ready to burn, inherent antitheses wait to boomerang us around our expectations.