Scents of a place

The Escape! festival is coming up in Tauranga from June 1-4 and I’d like to particularly recommend to haiku poets Scents of a Landscape (10am, June 3) and the Beyond the Visual writing workshop (1-4pm, June 2), both with Laurence Fearnley. See the full programme here.

A perfume from Saudi Arabia that evoked the country’s landscape crystallised a business idea for Tauranga couple Serena and Harold Jones – using scent to create a unique sense of place.

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Serena Jones, co-owner of Queenstown Natural Perfumiers.

The result is Queenstown Natural Perfumiers, which debuted its collection last year. “Our natural environment is New Zealand’s true luxury. It’s totally amazing and often undervalued,” says Serena Jones, who has studied botany and horticulture.

“Queenstown Lakes is among New Zealand’s finest landscapes so we sought to find and express the region’s essential scents.”


After 2 years of research and development involving professional perfumiers in New Zealand and France, the keen trampers and bush walkers released four scents – Mountain Herbs, Wilderness Berries, Lakeland Flora and High Country Tussock.

The perfumes will be available to sample at the Escape! festival in Tauranga early next month as part of Scents of a Landscape on Sunday, June 3 with Harold Jones, who is also a poet (AUP New Poets 4), and award-winning novelist Laurence Fearnley, discussing the power of scent to enhance feeling, awareness and memory.

Watching her two dogs on their morning walk inspired Fearnley to try a new way of mapping the world – by sniffing things.

“They seemed to be having a great old time running round, sniffing at everything,” she says from her Dunedin home, “so I started smelling the flowers and foliage of native trees and weeds and it got really interesting.”

Before she knew it, Fearnley was also recording in the notebooks she always carries urban scents like recycling bins, cooking, exhaust fumes and body odour, as well as those of the harbour and Dunedin’s parks, hills and bush.

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Laurence Fearnley. Photo: Graham Warman

One of the benefits of her scent mapping has been to realise that a landscape doesn’t have to look beautiful to engage attention. “Broom and gorse are quite scraggly but in flower the scented landscape is phenomenal. Down my street are wild sweet peas and wild honeysuckle which aren’t what we think of as high-value scents, but they’re beautiful all the same.

“I’m learning from the landscape and engaging with the weather as well – rain, wind, temperature all bring out different scents. For instance, when there’s a dusting of snow on the hills, there is wood smoke from fires. It gives a kind of structure to the seasons and creates a greater sense of intimacy with the landscape.”

An Auckland Museum grant and the NZSA Janet Frame Memorial Award, both in 2016, offered a chance to research “The Grand Māori Perfume” as detailed in the journals of naturalist and missionary, the Reverend Richard Taylor.

“But the more I got into the research, the less comfortable I began to feel,” Fearnley says. “It raised the question of when does a plant [taramea, golden Spaniard] stop being a plant and take on greater cultural significance and did I have the right to explore it?” Questions to which, as yet, she has no answers.

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Aciphylla or Spaniard, pictured near Middlemarch in Central Otago. Photo: Sandra Simpson

With 10 novels, two non-fiction books about mountaineering and a win in last year’s Landfall Essay Competition to her name, Fearnley is working on two books, although not concurrently, something she finds impossible to do.

“I’d done three-quarters of the essays for a collection about scent but missed fiction so started a book about a woman creating a timeline of New Zealand based on scent. The book itself is structured like perfume development – opening with ‘top notes’ [attention grabbers], developing through the ‘heart notes’ and ending with ‘base notes’ [what lingers after a story is told].”

Scents in the novel include Māori perfume, a corner diary in the 1960s, and David Lange’s 1985 Oxford Union debate quip, “I can smell the uranium on [your breath] as you lean forward”.

“It’s been really interesting to think of a specific time and link it with a scent,” Fearnley says, “although I haven’t yet worked out what uranium smells like, if it smells at all.”

From her childhood she recalls the smell of gasworks, “almost a phantom smell now”, the sickly-sweet fragrance of her mother’s hair-removal cream and beech forest, turpentine bushes and celery pine at Arthur’s Pass.

The scent of ferns also evokes strong memories. “It’s a mix of green leaf and the dustiness of old paperback books. My father loved ferns and I always associate this scent with him.”

Brought up in Christchurch, she has good memories of family trips to camp, tramp, climb and kayak but is concerned that landscapes in, say, the Mackenzie Basin, are becoming more crowded with tourists and lifestyle blocks.

“I like, and need, quiet spaces. I thought that if I can learn to appreciate unloved areas, bits of scruffy landscape, then I might find those empty places again and so far that seems true. The dogs don’t mind what it looks like so long as the smells are interesting.”