using scent to talk
about forest succession
& atmospheric science



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native forest
prospect park, brklyn



basswood, aka American linden, Tilia americana, bloom

bitternut hickory, Carya cordiformis, nut oil
oak moss, Evernia prunastri, lichen
tulip tree, Liriodendron tulipifera, bloom



In 1867, Prospect Park opened, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. They left undisturbed two native forests, called the Ravine and the Midwood. These forests were dominated by oak, hickory, and chestnuts. Prospect Park changed dramatically after the Great Chestnut Blight; by 1911, not one chestnut remained in the park.1 The tree species we selected for this combination— basswood, dogwood, and tulip tree—are the most fragrant of those present pre-European settlement in such a forest type. Also included: hickory nuts as a carrier oil, and a lichen traditionally used in perfumery that grows on oak bark.   

1. Newman, Andy. “Returning Chestnut Trees to City Where Blight Was First Found.” New York Times, City Room, 23 March, 2011.

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circa 1976 
prospect park, brklyn



ginkgo, Ginkgo biloba, foliage, fruit 
Japanese flowering cherry, Prunus serrulata, bloom, bark
white mulberry, Morus alba, foliage, bloom




The ginkgo tree was introduced in 1784 and later, favored by Architect Frank Lloyd Wright, made its way into many North America cities including Brooklyn. 3,000 Japanese flowering cherry trees were gifted to the United States from Japan in 1912, which led to the National Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, D.C. All of these varieties can currently be found in Prospect Park. They are the heritage of European settlement on this continent.

‘Circa 1976’ refers to the bicentennial which celebrated 200 years of nationhood shaped by a growth economy mindset and the environmental impact that followed in its wake. NYTimes Magazine article “Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change” By Nathaniel Rich, cites the 1970s as a pivotal moment in the history of climate change.2

2. Rich, Nathaniel. “Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change.” New York Times Magazine Interactive, 1 Aug. 2019.

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near future 
prospect park, brklyn



tree of heaven, Ailanthus altissima, bloom 
shortleaf pine, Pinus echinata, needles 
wild persimmon, Diospyros virginiana, fruit 

 

Foresters are experimenting with ‘assisted migration’ planting southern trees species in northern states as “…the climate will [likely] change 10 times faster than many tree species can move.”3 Using an experimental forest in Rhode Island as reference, we included temperate species predicted to do well in this region, such as persimmon and shortleaf pine for this scent signature. Also included is the invasive Tree of Heaven predicted to thrive in the park given hotter, drier conditions. 

3. Velasquez-Manoff, Moises. “Can Humans Help Trees Outrun Climate Change?” New York Times, 25 April, 2019.

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“The aroma of a pine forest on a warm summer day is down to volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Cedar, cypress and eucalyptus owe their pungent aromas to their unique blends of these organics. With climate change, we are set for more VOCs and a more fragrant world.”5


The Science      

The chemical profile of a forest—determined by ecosystems, plant matter, and environmental conditions—results in a unique ‘cocktail' of atmospheric reactions.4 These in turn affect the level of tropospheric ozone and aerosols in the atmosphere, which can both reflect and absorb solar energy and, when combined with anthropogenic pollution, lead to effects like ozone smog which impact climate and human health. The type of trees in a forest, take for instance a rainforest replaced by a palm oil plantation, “will shift the chemistry in the sky above.”5 However, the complexity and invisibility of these interactions make it hard for us to comprehend such changes. Interestingly, the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that trees emit are also responsible for the smells we perceive on a walk in the woods. 

4. Toma, S., and S. Bertman. "The atmospheric potential of biogenic volatile organic compounds from needles of white pine (Pinus strobus) in Northern Michigan.” Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, vol. 12, no. 4, 2012, p. 2245.

5. King, Anthony. “A Volatile Question”. Chemistry, 28 January, 2016.


The Project      

Forests pre-logging smelled different from today's forests, and that smell is ever-changing as forest succession and climate change march on. This project is a sensory teaching tool to talk about the delicate complexity of our forests in a warming climate. We are distilling essential oils from dominant plant species during specific time periods in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, to create scent combinations that map forest succession. Our olfactory sense is know to trigger memories—and by association, one might say that smell is linked to time in human perception.

Fragrance is relatable across cultures and generations due to its long history in human civilization. After all, perfumes are used to change our bodies’ personal atmosphere—reminding us that, like trees, our being is an open-ended system permeable to environmental changes. 










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