Book time Part 1: Essence & Alchemy

I’ve just finished moving back into a house of my own after so many years of living out of a backpack. The most joyful aspect of this was not now having more than two pairs of shoes, or getting a desk rather than a mattress or coffee shop to work at, but being reunited with my books. I sent my fiance a jubilant photo of my bookshelves, to which he cried, “how are there so many? What on earth can ALL those books be about?!” And I didn’t have a straightforward answer, you know. But my books really have influenced me & my illustration over the years, even lots of books you wouldn’t expect to have done so.  And I feel like I owe a few of them a substantial debt. 

So, wanting to give them their dues, I want to introduce you lovely humans to some of my very favourite books & talking through how they’ve shaped me & my work. In no particular order at all, (and remember some of them might surprise you), this week I want to start with ‘Essence & Alchemy‘ by Mandy Aftel.

I bought this book while working at a natural cosmetics shop. The job didn’t necessarily require perfume knowledge, but I was so happily lost in all the wonderful new smells I ended up infatuated accidentally. I love nature, too, especially trees, so the books’ concentration on natural perfumes really deepened my appreciation for plants, & how complex their scents can be. I love that the characteristics of the plant can be felt in their ‘essences’, (one of the products produced by scent harvesting a plant), & that in scent we’re given something less concrete, more spirit, than touch or sight. So when we get to smell a plant, through the most ethereal of our senses, we get to experience the very soul, heart, or essence of the plant.

Take patchouli for instance. It’s earthy, dry, woodsy & spicy, & reminds a lot of people of the 60’s. How visceral, but also how subtle, is the change when I burn patchouli in the room I create in.  When I return to the room, I notice the scent, but rather than think, “oh, how beautiful patchouli is, what a lovely flower”, I am brought unconsciously into a different space by the smell.  I am taken out of my laundry & emails, into a space to create in, a different, underground world.  Although other things help create this world too, like clutter picked to inspire but not force itself on my putty-brain, & light bright enough to create but dark enough to be gentle on infant ideas, it is the scent that works fastest & most powerfully.


Frankincense is a base note, & absolutely one of my favourite smells. It is built powerfully of dense earthiness tempered by spice & passionate fire, has a long use in churches & smells strongly of incense, which gets me into a solitary creating mood. Rose brightens my spirits & softens my heart. Cinnamon wakes me from ennui & creative grey patches, & brings me to brave play when I’m a stuck in the mud with creating the same-old same-old. Oakmoss is always perfect for me, smelling earthy but also fresh, like rain on mud. I’m not particularly taken to sweet scents, but I do like a balsamic, which is a strong vanilla note with an undertone floral, woody or spicy.

This book also introduces the basic principles of making perfume, an idea to me that is pure magic. Making potions, lotions & bubbling brews ties my love of cooking to my love of perfume, & I have written a couple of texts about potion-brewing witches already. The ‘alchemy’ part of this book, concerned with things archaic & transformational, has fed into my love for fairy tales, spell books & magic totems that brave heroines search out, as I write & draw in my scented studio. I am currently working on a fuller text for the ‘Valentiny Story’ I posted here a few months ago, which stars Misty the witch & her journey discovering her courage to brew her own spells from her own natural talents, rather than relying on a spell book someone else wrote! I know people say often that writers write themselves into their work, but I think I might be more obvious than most writers in that ;P

If you were ever curious about magic, nature, history, scent & spirit, this book is super recommended. And on the gentle sea breeze from Falmouth I send you sweet perfume, my cupcakes! Talk soon 🙂


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