Excerpts from the work by David Crow
If the tranquil heaven of sages gone to bliss had a fragrance, it would be sandalwood. The scent of “chandan,” as it is called in Sanskrit, is said to be the auric perfume emitted by those whose minds have cooled the flames of worldly passions, who are free of all attachments and egoistic cravings, who have transcended all sufferings of impermanence and ephemeral transitory existence. If purity of being, openness of heart, and loving kindness born of inner peace had a smell, it would be that of the finest golden oil suffused throughout the heartwood of the oldest sandalwood tree growing in the deepest forest of its native land. If there was a single aroma that evoked the memories of devotion, remembrance of the Divine, and aspiration toward enlightenment within the collective soul of the innumerable beings that have passed through this world, it would be that of sandalwood’s blue-gray smoke curling upward from the temple censer.
No other aromatic tree has played a more central role in spiritual culture, religious ceremony, perfumery, and medicine than Sandalwood. No other aromatic tree faces as uncertain a future, a future of almost insurmountably complex ecological and economic pressures. No other aromatic tree is causing as much distress and concern among those who know its value than the rapidly dwindling population of old-growth sandalwood. And nothing would represent such a triumph of long-term environmental wisdom and sustainable forestry than sandalwood groves planted today yielding their treasured nectar eighty years from now.
The history and probable fate of sandalwood is a story of irony, while its potential role in the future global garden depends on nothing less than mankind achieving an evolutionary ability to think of coming generations’ wellbeing. While representing the quintessence of compassion, generosity, and all that is good within the human mind and heart, wild sandalwood trees have nonetheless been decimated by greed, corruption, mismanagement, and ignorance. This small sensitive evergreen, that refuses to flourish without specific symbiotic and parasitic relationships with other plants, has been loved to near-extinction by religious-minded seekers and by enjoyers of beauty everywhere, who have unknowingly created and supported an uncontrollable black market of poaching, bribes, and smuggling.
It is written that sandalwood is one of the oldest incense materials in the world, and that for at least 4,000 years its soothing aroma has filled homes and temples. But people have lived in and around sandalwood forests longer than the imagination, let alone recorded history, and when people dwell in such intimacy with nature they know well the plants and their uses. Over the millennia the tree was carried from its original primeval setting in Indonesia to China, India, Australia, and the Philippines, eventually taking its place on the world stage. Ever since, its wood and oil have been sought after, traded, and utilized for a wide range of purposes, from house-building lumber impervious to the jungle’s voracious insects to the fixative base note of fine perfumes.
To a Balinese carver it was a fine-grained hardwood waiting to become a statue or an elegant rosary to accompany the prayers inhaled and exhaled by those absorbed in meditation. To a Siamese temple builder it was an enduring wood with a calmative smell disliked by destructive white ants, whose terrible tiny mandibles reduced structures of other materials to pulp and sawdust. To a Persian physician it was an oil with a slightly bitter resinous taste and pronounced antiseptic and anti-inflammatory powers. To an Indian attar maker it was the unsurpassed liquid receptacle of distilled floral essences, an alchemical medium of such unique digesting, aging, enhancing, and stabilizing properties no other perfume base would suffice. To a noblewoman of the early Roman Empire or an aristocratic Athenian of Aristotle’s Greece, it was a viscous pale yellow treasure carried in amphoras by sail and caravan from distant shores, an unctuous delicacy with a soft, sweet, woody, and slightly animalic balsam aroma, most pleasant for anointing oneself for events both social and sensual. To a woman of a Burmese village it was a paste to gently cover the body, bringing relief from the searing tropical heat. To a Chinese herbalist it was an ingredient of decoctions that cured hyperacidity and intestinal spasms. To a Japanese incense maker it was a beige-white powder the consistency of talc, the foundation of numerous subtly nuanced recipes to be rolled into sticks and cones and sold to common householders and palace priests.
Humanity does not need more weapons. It needs a balm that promotes peaceful sleep, reduces stress and tension, calms anxiety and nervousness, pacifies irritation and anger, and frees the mind from depression and fear.
The world does not need more disease-causing toxic chemicals and mutated biological experiments, concocted in secrecy and spread across the globe in defiance of scientific reason, human sanity, public health, and democratic process. It needs an unguent that cools fevers and inflammation, an elixir that stimulates and strengthens the immune system, a purifying decoction that disinfects the mucous membranes, and a salve that cures skin diseases.
Society does not need more electronic gadgets, microwave-based communication systems, high-tech entertainment devices, faster computers, and fancier software. We need to anoint each other with noble fragrances that promote emotional openness, quiet the mind, build inner strength, overcome isolation, enhance intimacy, and support truthful communication. We need spiritual aphrodisiacs that help men transform pathological lust into passionate love, and help women transform their fear and hatred of men’s violence, aggression, and stupidity into nourishing powerful sensuality.
Every time I share sandalwood oil with others, the healing power emanating from the old tree’s fragrant heart is profound and unmistakable. It is living testament to why we should be concerned about the great ecological loss that is occurring, a loss that is impoverishing everyone in ways we cannot even imagine. It is an urgent message spoken in rare aromatic molecules, secrets whispered from the wise mind of an aged tree to the ancestral memories sleeping in our brain’s primitive limbic system, reminding us that we are intimately related to the distant groves in all places where desperately needed medicines are vanishing.