Connecting with the Spirit of Sandalwood

This post is part of a series that profiles each ingredient in Balbec's three upcoming vibrational fragrances. These fragrances, composed of flower essences and essential oils explore frequencies of sovereignty, benevolent connection, and dreaming/imagining anew.


Balbec’s second vibrational fragrance explores frequencies of benevolent connection. In such a fragrance sandalwood (Santal album) would ideally find its place. It is warm, grounding, and expansive in the base chord, and the wood note is also a tenacious fixative in the realm of natural perfumery where ephemeral sillage can be a challenge.  However here sandalwood is absent, but its story helps us consider how we choose to connect. Ultimately all ingredients are also educators-- signals to the body and mind of the powers of attunement.

A hemiparasitic plant, the Santal tree that produces sandalwood from its heartwood and roots does not grow independently. By way of its haustoria (root structures with fine filaments that infiltrate the root systems of host trees), the Santal tree obtains water, mineral nutrients, and organic compounds required for its growth. Several trees perform host and nitrogen fixing role for the Santal trees--among them acacia and rosewood. While parasitic plants receive organic and inorganic nutrients from host plants, they in turn positively influence the ecosystem. For example, it is possible that root parasitic plants are able to make nutrients from host plants more bioavailable to other host and non-host plants.

Sandalwood’s (Santal album) high sesquiterpenol content accounts for its place among the most effective sedative essential oils and affects the body both through inhalation and transdermal absorption. Apart from its widely appreciated fragrance, which Stefan Arctander describes as a “soft, sweet-woody and almost animal-balsamic”, sandalwood is highly valuable in aiding the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system. Sandalwood has a tranquillizing effect. It promotes calm and concentration, eases depression, insomnia, anxiety, and grounds. Santal album is clinically proven to lower blood pressure, slow the heart rate, and promote white blood cell production, further assisting in healing wounds. In traditional Chinese medicine, sandalwood (Tan Xiang) is used to calm the visceral spirit shen, move the Qi, clear heat and damp, and tonify the lungs and uterus.

For 4,000 years, sandalwood has been used in India. However, the story of sandalwood and humans’ commodification of it in the last century presents a complicated story of connection between humans and nature and humans and humans that is fraught with abuse of power dynamics. Given the pace with which people have lived within the last century, and the increasing shift to living primarily in the fight or flight sympathetic nervous system, the acute focus on sandalwood is unsurprising. But herein lies the problem; the great grasp for sandalwood has missed the point and lesson of sandalwood altogether. The result: sandalwood in its finest form has vanished.

Especially since the 1970s, a spike in demand for Mysore Santal album led to severe overharvesting and unsustainable practices, and since then its price has increased at least 200 times. East Indian Santal album is now listed on the IUCN’s Red list of threatened species. 

The distinction between legal and illegal Indian (mis)management in harvesting and export for mass market perfume industry has been a blurry one. At the human level, greed throughout the supply and demand chain has weighed most heavily upon the wage and day laborers on the ground--those most marginalized by structures of the global money framework. They have had the greatest amount of energy siphoned from them to sustain higher ups in what has become a charged trade. An example within the last decade is the 2015 police massacre and subsequent attempted cover up of 20 such laborers in Andhra Pradesh.

To legally obtain sandalwood in India is ostensibly difficult. However, sale and export though much diminished, continues as sandalwood’s value as currency is deemed more important than its inherent value. Interestingly, what is left is of degraded quality, even in those places acclaimed for terroir.

“Even within the state [of Karnataka], Shivamogga, Sirsi and Sagar are known to produce a high-quality wood that cannot be matched by the other places. So important is the quality of soil, water and air to the tree that with the general environmental degradation having affected all the three, even the sandalwood growing in these very places has lost some of its scent.” “What Happened to the Soft Sweetness of Sandalwood?” Deccan Herald 5.27.2019

East Indian Santal trees begin producing oil at 15-20 years but have traditionally grown in the wild to their full maturity—anywhere from 60-100 years-- before the heartwood and roots are harvested for oil. It is this oil (for those who remember or those who have managed to collect and age it--for it ages beautifully), find incomparable to any other Santal album oil or any other sandalwood variety. This is sandalwood from old heavy santal trees grown in the wild which unfortunately no longer exist.

The lessons of biodynamics and terroir will tell us that innumerable things happen within the full life span of a plant—to the Santal tree, to the host tree, to the soil, to the land, to the oil and its constituents, and to the people who consume it.  Things that cannot happen in the flicker of an eyelid.


Ethical and sustainable sandalwood?

The period in which the real sandalwood went extinct is relatively recent, so the memory and desire for it remains. However, desensitization to what sandalwood once was has brought commercial opportunity. People and companies are willing to have something of it rather than nothing at all. The terms ethical and sustainable have been good for business, but have not addressed the deeper attributes of sandalwood nor the ecosystems from which it comes.  Sustainable sandalwood for business considers Santal trees to be mature when they begin producing oil; most companies have decided that fifteen years--rather than the 60-100-- will do.

A 2017 Bloomberg article entitled: “This Sandalwood Plantation Is About to Make Its Owners a Lot of Money: Australia is challenging India's dominance in exports of the aromatic wood” portrays Australian Santal album set to meet a rising demand in sandalwood that in 2017 was predicted to increase 5 fold by 2025.

“The parasitic trees—prized for their aromatic wood and essential oil that’s used in perfumes, cosmetics and medicines—are approaching maturity, more than a decade after they were planted”.  As the company in question is backed by New York-based private equity and insurance firms, the choice to control the definition of what constitutes a mature tree and expedite oil harvesting for profit is unsurprising. While the sandalwood does serve and certainly contains beneficial properties, it is a sandalwood produced for its exchange value at mass market, rather than a sandalwood produced for the qualities of its fullest expression.

Sustainable Indian and Sri Lankan companies challenge Australia on the basis that wild grown Santal album is superior to plantation grown Santal album. However even they aren't likely to wait the 60-100 years to harvest the Santal tree at its full maturity.  Doing so would mean missed windfalls of opportunity in the commercial perfumery and pharmaceutical markets.

One of the more positive aspects of the "sustainable" sandalwood businesses within Sri Lanka, India and Australia would be the creation of local employment. Through researching websites of the companies only and not going beyond, equitable employment appears to be an important part of the sustainable endeavor. I haven't traveled to these plantations myself to verify, nor have I seen reports that counter the claims.  

I have chosen to leave sandalwood out of Balbec's second vibrational fragrance, not because the sustainable options lack beneficial properties of Santal album, but because it is harvested too early only to meet the needs of a highly lucrative and corporatized trade. Benevolent connection also signifies presence, curiosity, and an interest in the full expression of a being.  And so that interest would extend to the Santal tree and the sandalwood oil harvested from it.  


What’s left then?   Ma Griffe, Lemurian Techniques, and the Aztecs on Breath.

In terms of fragrance alone, for the tangible, three-dimensional Santal album sandalwood: 1) It is still possible to track down those selling their collected cache and part with a small fortune to obtain some (one of the few perfumers selling it within the last few weeks has released a limited amount of 100 year old sandalwood for $250 per 3 mls.)  2) There are other varieties of sandalwoods aside from Santal album—grown as described above for the commercial market. They do have beneficial properties and smell good--to give us a sketch. But it’s a limited tactic, using a specific frequency to find another. *nb, in Balbec's  Moisturizing Oil with sandalwood, vetiver  and frankincense, Santal spicatum is used. 

Plants are also pointers or energetic educators, and we can achieve some of the biological effects of sandalwood by using it as a reference. On the brink of imagination, there is memory: Jean Carles created Ma Griffe after he had completely lost his sense of smell. Then there are/were/ may have been the Lemurians, whose sensitivity was such that they only needed to approach a bloom or fruit or part of the plant to find themselves participating in its energy. As an important gift Santal album is to activate the parasympathetic system, this is something we can still receive at levels of our choice.  Breath work alone can activate the parasympathetic system. The ancient Aztecs believed that breathing correctly accounted for 52% of health.  Along with breath are other activities or choices that stimulate rest, repair. With stronger immune systems and a sense of well being despite circumstances of perceived lack and limitation, we are better suited to continue a practice of connecting benevolently. 

So in spirit, Santal album in its full expression informs the second vibrational fragrance. Anchoring it in this third dimensional vibrational fragrance is the oil from one of its host plants—Acacia farnesiana, in the form of cassie absolute. More on that later.

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