Homemade Wildcrafted Incense and Creating Intentional Space
There is no denying that our sense of smell is a powerful tool of association. Smells bypass the verbal parts of our brains to link us directly to memories and emotions. This can work in ways that are profoundly pleasurable and also in ways that are profoundly painful. PTSD symptoms are often triggered by smells, but so are treasured memories that we can only access through this particular sense - like a skeleton key that fits the drawers in our mind that thoughts alone can’t open.
As you’re reading this, I bet you are thinking of a particular smell that functions in such a way, reminding you on a visceral level of an emotion-based memory. Maybe it’s the smell of fir trees that brings with it the childhood excitement of holiday celebrations, or that any time you smell lavender you are transported to the relaxation of your massage therapist’s office. Whatever it is, take a moment to recognize the power that that particular scent holds to you and also recognize that you can intentionally *create* something with that much power over your senses. Pretty magical, right?
If we make a point to be intentional with our sense of smell, we can create incredibly strong associations with a little more control. One way I like to do this is through the use of homemade incense. When I blend a batch of incense, I know that in the future the smell of that particular batch will remind me of the time and place I’m in right now - where I’m living, what season it is, how I’m feeling, and the general mood of this specific chapter. I like to burn my current batch fairly frequently for a while, and then store some away in a safe place for when I want to take a wander down memory lane in the future. (Who knew you could time-travel just by burning things??)
Incense can also be used as a ceremonial tool. If you make a point to burn a particular scent when you meditate or pray, you’ll start to associate that smell with that activity and each time you burn it you will have an easier time getting into the brain state of deep focus or flow. This can be a helpful tool if you have a regular spiritual practice, or even just if you practice self-care activities like progressive muscle relaxation or other guided relaxation.
Of course, you can buy a particular incense to use for these associations, but I much prefer to make my own wildcrafted incense out of foraged ingredients. It’s much easier than you think it will be, and doesn’t require any specialized ingredients! The kind that I make isn’t self-burning so it requires a bit of charcoal. I use this technique because it doesn’t require any fancy binders and is a lot more forgiving in terms of ratios.
Herbs: Use dried and ground herbs as about half of your mixture. Of this mixture, try to include a variety of bitter and sweet herbs or roots. Here are some examples:
Bitter: sagebrush, mugwort, yarrow leaves, juniper berries, wormwood, white sage, rosemary, thyme, etc.
Sweet: rose petals, lavender, yarrow flowers, fir needles, cinnamon, etc.
Resin: For the other half of your mixture, use some form of resin, preferably powdered. You can buy commercial resins like frankincense or myrrh or you can gather your own from conifer tree sap. If you gather your own, be mindful of how you are affecting the tree. I personally do not gather resin directly from any trees but instead look at the base of the tree for pieces that have fallen off. Resins that are still on the outside of the tree are forming a protective barrier to shield a wound or potential point of infection and thus are still serving an important purpose. Besides, there’s usually plenty to find on the ground below. Only gather hard resin, not soft sticky sap. Hint: To make it easier to crush pieces of resin, try placing them in the freezer for a few hours to make them brittle instead of sticky.
Binder: You should only need a little bit of this to bind everything together into a stable “dough.” You can use honey, water, or even dried fruit soaked in a bit of wine (my favorite.)
- Begin by getting centered. Gather all of the ingredients that you think you might want to use and place them on a clean table. It is much easier to let creative inspiration flow when you don’t have to go rummaging in your pantry over and over. Gather anything else you might need - some tea and/or wine to sip, a mortar and pestle, etc. Light some candles, put on calming music, and take a few deep breaths. I also like to have a charcoal briquette burning already when I begin so that if I’m curious how a particular herb will smell when it burns, I can place a bit on the charcoal to test it out.
- Decide on your herb mixture and grind that into a powder. As mentioned above, I like to have a combination of bitter and sweet herbs to add balance to my blend. As you add each ingredient, say a quiet statement of intention. For example “with this mugwort I add the ability to stay focused as long as is needed” or “with this lavender I add the ability to shrug off all stresses of the day and feel calm.” You can also add a few drops of your favorite essential oil at this point, though be careful not to overshadow the other lovely smells in your blend. It’s nice to allow your subconscious to take over and direct things at this step - don’t overthink your ingredients too much.
- Once you have ground your herbs into a powder, add about an equal amount of resin. It’s much easier to work with pre-powdered resins but if you are grinding your own, be sure to freeze them first so they are brittle. Smash them into smaller pieces in your mortar and then pulverize those further. The resin may soften a bit but the herbs will help keep it from getting too terribly sticky. It’s okay if small lumps remain.
- After your mixture is pretty well and evenly blended, add a little bit of your binder to help it stick and mix in well. You want a stiff dough-like mixture - it should be crumbly on its own but stick together when you squeeze it.
- Roll your mixture into pea-sized balls. You can roll these in more powdered herbs to keep them from sticking. As you finish, place them on a ceramic plate or bit of parchment paper to dry.
- Allow them to try for at least several days and up to a couple of weeks (depending on the humidity of your climate), turning every day or two so they dry evenly.
- When you are ready to burn one, place some sand into your incense dish and then place a charcoal briquette on top. Light the briquette and allow it to burn on its own for about 30 seconds, or until it is evenly hot (it will probably still look black or glow very faintly orange.) Place your incense ball on top and enjoy!