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Samburu County Frankincense and the mystery of the bicoloured Boswellia

A short update before I return to the Kenyan bush and comunication silence.
Though I’ll focus on the more current events in Kenya with the Samburu women since they are fresh, I will return in the next few weeks to expand on the equally important landmarks of my stay in Ethiopia which are, in brief-

An ethical Civet farm

My meeting with Civet farmers and exporters in Ethiopia was ground-breaking. We had a very productive conversation and co-created a basic plan of action to establish the world’s first model Civet farm that can provide an “Ethical” source for Ethiopian Civet paste and products to the West.
Though only the first of many conversations to come, both sides have their roles to play in the next year to make this happen for the benefit of the farmers, Civets, and the economy of this developing country.

We, in the West, now have the opportunity to be actively engaged in solving the problems and not just turn our backs on them with an ineffectual and counter productive boycott as we have for the past 40-50 years. If you are concerned about ethics in perfumery this may be an opportunity to get involved.

A fair trade in sustainable Frankincense

The second major landmark of my stay in Addis Ababa was meeting with my Somali  Frankincense co-op manager who shares my own vision of fair trade and sustainability.  Working directly with the western market, bypassing middlemen and benefitting the harvester communities with tools, training, education and medical facilities, he has signed yearly renewable contracts with the elders of 5 communities to work in mutual transparently for the benefit of the community and has committed to sell their resins to us. (Another opportunity to get involved in a worthwhile project). He has initiated a replanting program in the wild to maintain ecological sustainability and is working on a  long-term replanting and sapling maintenance program with the harvesters. This co-op will provide Boswellia Carterii, the higher grades of B. Frereana, (which we rarly see in the West), Myrrh and Opoponax.
At the moment we are discussing possible markets in the West and logistics of shipping. Professor Dagne may make his expertise and facilities in Ethiopia available for distillation of essential oils from their resins. I will keep you posted. If anyone has an interest in large amounts of these resins please contact me. For regular retail quantities, keep an eye on my shop.

A sustainable fair trade platform for the Samburu women

As some of you know, the purpose of my visit to Kenya is to help the resin harvesting  women of the Samburu tribe gain greater beneifit for themselves, their families and communities via a fair trade platform and co-op.

Originally planned as a 3 day visit to Samburu County, my host Andre of Indiginous Collective has graciously facilitated my request to stay an extra week in the field to make the most of our work with the Samburu.

We returned yesterday evening from 4 days in the bush so I could catch up on correspondence and other obligations. We drive back up Tuesday or Wednesday to speak with more women about the co-op and purchase their resins.

Death Stalker Scorpion under UV light
Nightly campsite visitors-Death Stalker Scorpion under UV light.

A short description of the last 4 days would be abbreviated as- gorgeous cool mornings and evenings, sun stroke days, pristine semi-arid plains, sand, magnificent mountains, adorable wart hogs,  ostriches, elephants, a thousand exotic birds, hordes of baboons, a ridiculously vast night sky blazing with stars, death stalker scorpions who phosphoresce under a UV light, lions, leopards, dry river beds with Ebony driftwood and not the tiniest shred of plastic refuse, water shyly hiding under the ground and in the desert air, herds of sheep, goats and camels, beaded women, pretty Moran warriors,  biting mosquitoes, big hairy spiders, and hundreds of square kilometers of mixed Myrrh and Frankincense trees growing naturally as if planted intentionally. As far as the eye can see!!

Commiphora, Boswellia and Acacia
Commiphora, Boswellia and Acacia as far as the eye can see. 

The Samburu have not had the exposure or experience with the “Muzungu”, or white person, as their cousins the Maasai. Pastoralists living in isolation and such hot arid conditions, their lives focus around their flocks which are entrusted to the Moran caste. When  the Morans reach about 30 years of age they can marry and a new generation of young men carries on with care and protection of the livestock. Elder men are the decision makers and are looked up to. Women do all the domestic work and care for the families. Work that takes up most of their day.

27-_DSC4051
Deep in thought, Ystalia harvests resins and is letting other women harvester know about the co-op and new market. She led us to her Boswellia Neglecta trees and other medicinals she collects in the area. Hubby in the background. Lovely people both. Photo Minna Kalliokoski

Our work with the women entails going through tiny remote villages which are basically clusters of oval, round topped homes made of branch, vine, thatch and leather. These “Manyatas” are residence to one or two extended families via dirt roads. Some may see a car once a month and most travel is by foot in the hot sun. Water is fetched from often remote areas though people like Andre are dedicated to creating easy access to clean water for the Samburu and their herds.

Likely the most important and unexpected result of this “tour”, was the wealth of information that was shared with us by the Samburu on the medicinal and cultural functions of many of the local trees, plants and animals. The Samburu have a well-developed medicinal, spiritual/mystical and astrological tradition. They have a strong connection to the planet Venus and their creation myth tells of their origin on Venus before migrating to earth. This is reflected in the Ankh/Venus type adornment worn on the forehead of many Samburu  women.

 

 

  The mystery of the bi-coloured Boswellia resin, Commiphora “Aqua Velva” and a Frankincense tree that squirts essential oil.

 

“Confounded and perplexed I was”, to hear that over the past decades botanists had aggregated 6 different types of Kenyan Boswellia under the name Boswellia Neglecta S. Moore. Currently it is considered by many to be the only Frankincense in the area. This in itself was enough to make me question the larger picture and accuracy of accepted distribution of Frankincense types in Kenya. So far, I belive we have come across 5 unique species of Boswellia in only 4 days.

If this discrepancy was not enough, imagine my raised eyebrow when I was repeatedly told the Samburu women collected 2 types of “incense”,  a black and a white from the same tree! Yes, 2 resin types from one tree. I had to get to the bottom of this.

Frankincense-Boswellia Neglecta
Frankincense-Boswellia Neglecta as know today.

If you haven’t had the pleasure of meeting B. Neglecta personally, it is known and accepted as a blackish, grainy, fragrant oleoresin that appears in a lumpy form similar to our northern spruce and pine saps, and not in the clear/opaque aggregate of tear shapes associated with other Frankincense types.

So how can both clear light tears, and most definitely solid black tar like resin be collected from one tree I ask?
We spent 4 days in the semi-arid broiling sun of Samburu county, speaking with harvester women from numerous villages and were taken to the hills where one woman gathers her Frankincense resin.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered for myself, with my own eyes, hands, nose, and mouth, that indeed, this particular Boswellia yields not one resin, but 2 distinct and disparate types of resin with completely different characteristics and fragrances!
When injured, the tree’s first response is as expected. It produces globules of a clear slightly golden oleoresin, sticky and particularly fragrant which harden into translucent tears.

 

Boswellia Neglecta-fresh sap
Boswellia Neglecta-fresh sap. 

 

However, what happens next is completely unexpected in a Boswellia tree.
The tree creates traumatic resin ducts, (TRDs), and changes the chemical composition of the oleo resin to a “Callus” resin product much like our conifers. A grainy therapeutic living bandage that not only protects the exposed surface of a wound, but facilitates the growth of special tissue and bark from the edges of the wound towards the middle. If a branch is stripped, it forms a barrier between the stripped portion and the healthy part of the branch protecting it from the spread of decay.

In our Spruce and Pine families this unique resin product is often of a brown colour. In the case of B. Neglecta this callus resin is black as pitch and of a rich deep woody frankincense fragrance. The callus resin of  the Spruce tree is a potent medicinal used to heal old wounds, ulcers on the extremities and slow-healing surgical wounds in Scandinavian traditions. One can only wonder what medicinal properties lay undiscovered in the callus resin of B. Neglecta.

This post is likely long enough for most people’s attention span, so I will till next time to tell you about the fragrant and brilliantly blue/aquamarine coloured Commiphora/Myrrh tree which I have dubbed “Commiphora Aqua Velva”. Its bracing fragrance does indeed remind one of the aftershave, but of course, it is much nicer :-).

At that time I will share another cool find. A unique and as yet unidentified Frankincense tree that squirts pure essential oil when pricked and is used by the Samburu as a fragrance and sexual attractant.

Many thanks to the talented Minna Kalliokoski for her photography and all her help on this trip.

Till then

Dan

 

 

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Post #100- Leaving the country

Card Number 0,The Fool. Says it all.

Well. Looks like I’m moving, and leaving Canada.
I say “looks like” because at this point I can’t see exactly how I’m going to get there. I’m just putting one foot in front of the other, one packed box on top of the other,  filling one garbage bag at a time, and tackling logistics one issue at a time. I figure if I keep going I will find myself at the other end, and it will be good.

Card Number 0,The Fool.  Says it all.
Card Number 0, The Fool. Says it all.

Packing up 40 years of creative work as a sculptor, craftsman, herbalist/apothecary, perfumer and impaler. Tools materials and finished work, plus 20 years of parenting and a trail of photos, artwork, and report cards.
Of course, it’s mostly cool and useful stuff which makes it easier to give away or sell. But still, it’s stuff, and every piece has an invisible string of responsibility back to me, depends on me, and should be addressed by me.

Friends have been a boon in letting go of things while helping me keep the business rolling.
I have set them up with tools, stills and water baths, beakers and flasks, furniture, and materials that need an appreciative home. With any luck, I’ll be able to do one last distillation of Wild Ginger before I leave. An opportunity to demonstrate how to use the stills to their new owners. If you are close by and would like to lend a hand, I can use all the help I can get. You might find something you could use and help us both by giving it a home…

Apothecary's Garden-Teaching Gardens at Churchill Park, Hamilton
Apothecary‘s Garden-Teaching Gardens at Churchill Park, Hamilton It won’t weed itself…

Another feature of these exchanges, is that all  these friends are gardeners, herbalists or natural perfumers and have offered to step in to help manage the Teaching Gardens and Apothecary’s Garden in Churchill park in my stead. This responsibility, and what to do with my cat were 2 unresolved stresses from this move. Though I hope I’ll be back early summer to address continuity and future growth in the garden, it is a relief to know there are those who would carry it forward in the right spirit if I was wasn’t around.

 Bottles and test tubes with perfume trials,  experiments and explorations, won't come with me, back to the earth they go.
Hundreds of bottles and test tubes with perfume trials, explorations and experiments won’t come with me, back to the earth they go. Lucky I sometimes listen to my own advice and took clear notes of each formula…

This is my one-hundredth post.

 

Averaging about one a week for two years. There is a rhythm and prose to the timing with this move. Something old ends.  A new cycle begins. I only have a feeling for where this is leading, and that will do just fine for now.

I have learned so much in the 2 years I’ve written here. I have met many incredibly  talented, inspired and inspiring people through this blog and my Etsy shop. I have found kindred spirits all over the world and made new friends for life. People have written me profound and touching words of appreciation and support, the kind of words that make all the challenges feel worthwhile.

Witch Hazel Oil-2014-Etsy
Witch Hazel Oil-2014 in the Etsy Shop

To those who are placing orders over the next month, bear with me. I have no idea how I’m going to keep the business running while I shut down on one end and start from scratch on the other. Especially through Christmas sales. I’m aiming for “seamlessly”, counting mainly on momentum, agility, intuition and trust, (which keeps me from getting paralyzed by the vertigo of dread and the sheer scale of what I’m trying to do in the time I have to do it)..So, I’m not looking down at this point.  This move takes up all the time between opening my eyes in the morning and closing them at night. That and drinking coffee. I keep meaning to play a few minutes of Halo 4, but alas, no time!! If business continues to grow as it has, I’ll get an X-Box on the other end.

 

Why am I moving and where to?

Still in my 60th year, my second Saturn return has pushed and pulled me for two years now. It has tossed me back and forth, up and down. Spun me around then back the other way. If I was using a washing machine metaphor then I would say it hasn’t been on the delicate cycle. It has shaken the change out of my pockets. So change it is.  I get it.

I am moving to Israel. It positions me only 3 hours from Ethiopia and Somaliland where my Frankincense co-ops and suppliers are located. My friend and essential oil distiller, Professor Ermias Dagne is based in Addis Ababa, minutes from the airport.

Professor Ermias Dagne at his farm just outside Addis Ababa.
Professor Ermias Dagne with his beloved Aloe species and other medicinal and aromatic friends just outside Addis Ababa.

 

Recently the opportunity arose to work directly with an Ethiopian Civet farmer.  This is big news!! An Ethiopian supplier with good quality Civet paste and an ambition to modernize and develop the Civet business, has offered to partner with me to create ethical and cruelty-free Civet products. He has a Civet farmer who wants to work together on this. This is the first scenario that doesn’t require I do it all myself. (That really was a daunting thought, and the only visible option when I returned in the spring from Ethiopia!). Being so close to Ethiopia, I will have much more time and flexibility to work with the Civets and could be directly involved in the operation. Again, “Ethical Civet” may not be possible, but we won’t know till we try.-See my posts- Ebb and Flow and Ethical Civet a glimpse from the mountaintop.

My mother just turned 90, and my father is not far behind. Now is a good time to hang out with them. Before I accrue any regrets.

Shipping from Israel is very reasonable and puts Canada Post to shame. It costs over $8.00 to ship one 10 Ml. bottle of essential oil from Hamilton to Toronto. A distance of 60Km.

It costs $1.90 to ship the same bottle 6000 Km. from Israel to Toronto and only takes a couple of days longer to arrive. Such a drastic reduction in cost can only be a good thing.

Labdanum flower, Cistus_creticus
Labdanum flower, Cistus_creticusin Crete

I will be close to the sources of fragrances I adore. I could visit Nyktaris who harvests Labdanum using traditional methods in Crete, the Mastic farmer’s co-op in Chios, the collectors of Onycha by the Red sea, and will  have easier access to the amazing Burserae, Commiphorae and Dragons blood trees of the island of Socrata.

Cypress, Turkey, Persia and other countries were on my imaginary grassroots fragrance tour while raising Nathan and daydreaming about what I wanted to do when he had grown up and left home. That time, apparently, has come.

Nathan-All growed up
Nathan-All growed up

Well then,  here’s to the fool, the adventure, and the journey. Here’s to new beginnings and the next 100 posts.

Dan