Harvesting Wilderness Perfume with Juniper Ridge
Story & Photos by Justin “Scrappers” Morrison
He asked me to stuff my face into a hole in the dirt. “Turn off your brain and just breathe it in,” he said. I’d known Hall Newbegin for less than an hour, but did as he said—and it totally worked! With a few deep breaths I was set free from all the busyness in my brain. The odor of sticks, mud, and wild animal poop became a doorway to another world. It felt mysterious and oddly familiar, like the smell of birth and death at the same time. I fell in love with that dirty little hole.
Hall moaned orgasmically as he leaned in. “Mmmmmm… oh, Gawd. Mmmmmmmmm. Oh, Gawd! Mmmmm… OOOOH Gaaaaawd!” Spitting dirty pine needles out of his mouth and beard, he said, “It changes me almost immediately. I get my nose in here, and mmmmm… gawd, it’s just like a different thing. It’s not about your frontal lobe and exercising that adrenaline and exciting things. It’s about your animal senses and getting into your body. I find that nothing changes my brain the way dirt does. It’s just instantaneous. It’s got to be some deep evolutionary thing. It just instantly takes me someplace.”
This went on for about 20 minutes. Two grown men face down on the ground, inhaling dirt on the side of Mt. Hood. Just a typical day for the wilderness perfumers of Juniper Ridge.
“If someone drives by they’re going to think we’re freaks, but who cares.” I agreed with Hall that this was some freaky shit, and I asked what the heck was in this dirt. It smelled like a taste and tasted like a feeling. It was so many things, I couldn’t put my finger on any one of them.
“It’s like that Lew Welch poem. ‘Draw a circle in the earth and there’s 10,000 things you’ll never know.’ There’s so much in there, so much. God knows what species of mycorrhizal mushrooms and critters and everything are in there. And if you go deeper or shallower, it’s always going to change. It’s a stew. It’s so many different things, and you can never nail it down. It’s kind of beautiful that way. I’m going to take some of this dirt back for distillation. Right out of this hole, because I like this hole.”
After harvesting dirt, we clipped spruce branches, picked sprigs of yarrow, and then got into the van to go up the mountain past the timberline.
The Juniper Ridge van, or “Field Lab,” is their mobile distillation unit loaded with all the stuff you need for putting a place’s smell into a bottle. “With all wilderness perfume, you’re getting the goo out of the plant. And there’s like a dozen different methods that we use. There’s steam distillation, cold temperature distillation, smoke distillation, enfleurage, infusion, tincturing… all those techniques are about getting the goo out of the plant.”
The van helps them scout around for smelly plant goo. It’s how they’re able to make Sierra Lakes Basin cologne, Siskiyou deodorant, Topanga Canyon beard oil, and other products.
As we drove up the mountain, I listened to Hall talk about the origins of Juniper Ridge. Before he started distilling plant goo and selling it at the Berkeley farmers’ market, he was simply a fan of the wilderness. One day when he was out smelling something wild, the thought hit him: “Whatever this is, I want to make it my thing.” So he set out to become a wilderness perfumer. But it’s not like they teach this stuff in school. It took him about 10 years to figure it out. The techniques are more than 100 years old, French, and were forgotten once petroleum made synthetic perfumes cheaper to produce.
The next day Hall’s friend Tiandra Cummins joined our party, and we drove the van 10 miles deep into the woods above Trillium Lake. The road was so raw and bumpy that the windshield came unglued. Hall and Tiandra reached out the side windows to hold it in place as we pushed into the woods.
Once we got to the trailhead, I was happy to be out of the van and started hiking. It took a while before I noticed that no one else was coming, so I headed back and found them hunched over, inspecting and identifying little plants and mushrooms. This wasn’t going to be an endurance hike. This was going to be some mellow quality time with nature.
Juniper Ridge loves nature. If they didn’t, they’d go out of business; you gotta have wilderness to make wilderness perfume. They give 10% of their yearly profits to groups like Oregon Wild, Ventana Wilderness Alliance, Friends of the Inyo, Pacific Crest Trail Association, Washington Wilderness Coalition, and others. It’s like paying a shepherd to protect sheep you plan to shear to make a wool blanket, except the sheep farm is open to the public and the sheep are feral.
Along the trail, we came across a grove of noble fir trees. These trees get swollen sap blisters about an inch big all over their bark. You can cut them open with a knife, and the pitch oozes out right into an awaiting glass jar. It’s super easy to harvest and doesn’t hurt the tree. I popped one open and it squirted all over my face. “Money shot,” Hall laughed as he milked sap from another tree. It wasn’t sticky; it was oily and smelled so freaking good. Hall rubbed it on his face and beard. “This is the stuff that goes into our perfumes,” he said.
When you consider how Juniper Ridge interacts with nature, it’s enough to make you want to join them. According to Hall, “Sometimes I feel it’s just half my job turning people onto this.”