Climate, Culture and Essential Oils
The Japanese philosopher Tetsuro Watsuji contends that climate in a broader sense, prevalent in peoples spacial and temporal positions affected their sense of their role in the world. Looking to ancient views of nature as made up of four elements earth water fire air he identified three broad types of climate.
Monsoon: characterized by a combination of heat and humidity, typical of the area stretching from coastal East Asia to India.
Desert: found in regions such as Africa or Mongolia.
Pastoral; which dominates Europe
Watsuji argues that the elements of heat and humidity in the monsoon climate often take on such overwhelming force that woman or man is obliged to abandon all hope of resistance and is forced into mere passive resignation. The distinctive nature then, in the monsoon zone can be understood as submissive and resignatory. It is the humidity that reveals this character.
As the esteemed reader can easily follow this train of thought can be endlessly refined and adjusted to the specific sub-climates in the different regions of Asia. Beginning with a realization how the Vedas indicate the high degree of refinement of Indian sensibilities. The forces of nature were deified in virtue of their mysterious character. Sun, moon, sky, storm, wind, fire, water, dawn, earth, anything similarly conspicuous and attractive as well as the forest, the plain animals and everything, provided only that it obliged a sense of some aspect of the of its power in resignatory humans, became a spirit of a demon.
In fact in Thailand, Indonesia and other parts of South East Asia one can find examples where mountain worship, animism or folk religion have amalgamated with religions like buddhism, Hinduism and Islam.
If Watsuji is correct, aspects of ancient Asian world views maybe linked to the regions climate.
The reason why the ideas of Tetsuro Watsuiji are mentioned here is that they may well serve as a starting point for the deeper understanding of the idiosyncrasies of Eastern aromatics. Everyone appreciating aromatics and spice is aware that quite a large number of spices is indigenous to the lush climate of India or the Indonesian archipelago. Nature quite apparently produces more spice around the equator than in the Siberian Tundra.
So while Watsuji diagnoses a specific effect of the Monsoon climate on the culture and character of the people who live in it, this same climate is apparently also responsible for the enormous diversity of plant life in these regions.
The intensity of the equatorial climates is apparently such that green leafy herbs, as we know them from the European pastoral climate, are not so prominent in Indian and Indonesian cuisine for instance. Instead it is the resins and rhizomes – Turmeric and Ginger – or the berries such as Pepper where the aromatic molecules are somewhat more enveloped or protected from the intense processes of tropical growth and decay.
At this moment an Eastern aromatherapy is not a defined concept. But maybe Watsujis ideas can serve to get closer to the storied interaction of people with the aromatics of different climates and consecutively cultures. Developing a sensibility for the connection of climate and culture may just be another way to realize that many of the aromatics and essential oils we are using today really are representations of the plant world emanating from the pastoral climate. Notwithstanding the exotic interlopers that have become common as a result of discovery, colonialism and trade. Consequently we are familiar with Clove and Nutmeg due to these historical developments. However, given the enormous geographical expanse, the striking diversity of plant life and the intense cultural and religious density of the East there might well be a surprisingly unexplored fragrance universe waiting for us in the East.