The process of extraction is also charged with human concerns. The trees undergo a process of ‘bleeding’ and ‘scarring’ before the milky resin can be collected. Sap emerges from the exposed orange wood, swelling and congealing to form droplets known as ‘desert tears’.
The resin is farmed across the southern Arabic Peninsula where it is known as oilbanum, or al-lubān, translated as ‘that which results from milking’. It seems we perceive these trees as so much more than firewood and splinters.
Differences in soil and climate produce variations of the resin, with the purest and most sought after is collected at the final tapping of the year. This late resin is almost opaque and potently aromatic.
Historically the highest grade of frankincense was produced in Oman, but more recently Somalia has taken over as the premium exporter, supplying in bulk to the Roman Catholic Church.
The true magic of frankincense can be found in the ephemeral nature of the smoke. Once ignited these milky rocks dissipate into smoke, curling upwards before disappearing, filling a space with an otherworldly aroma.
The smoke travels from the altar, beyond the pulpit enveloping the worshipers with a common sensory experience. Our vocabulary falls short when describing the heavenly scent. We may identify woody and earthy reminders, perhaps hints of lemon and a certain level of spice, but our experience of the aroma is far more complex.
Our olfactory senses are connected to our limbic system, the area of the brain that deals with emotions and memory, creating deep emotional connections and transporting our minds back into the past.
To me, Frankincense smells like last Christmas. It smells like the two priests who used to pop in my local pub after the service. It smells like festive scented candles and my mum’s perfume, now woven through her scarf.
Words by Sophie Vent. Images by Emma Leafe, Creative Director of UME Collection.