The Curious, Mystical World of Fragrance Foraging
It's around lunchtime and I have spent the last 10 minutes lying facedown in a meadow, sniffing at dirt and grass. I’m somewhere on Mount Tamalpais in Marin County, just north of San Francisco. It’s a mystical place that has long inspired art and awe, and a fitting spot for a sourcing expedition with Juniper Ridge, the Oakland-based fragrance company.
Seventeen years ago, founder Hall Newbegin started brewing fragrances in his kitchen from what he foraged on hikes. These days Juniper Ridge is stocked everywhere from Whole Foods to Barneys, but despite its growth, all its perfumes continue to be made entirely from plants harvested in the wild. Its clients are “city dwellers who appreciate story over commodity,” says Obi Kaufmann, who has the nebulous title of chief storyteller, which translates in real-world terms to head of marketing. The main product lines—Big Sur, Sierra Granite, Mojave, Siskiyou, and Cascade Glacier—are site-specific scent portraits, evoking everything from the piñon-juniper woodlands of the high desert to the sage-covered mountains of the California coast.
There’s a little magic on Mount Tam. Jack Kerouac called it “as beautiful a mountain as you’ll see anywhere in the world,” and it has always served as a kind of refuge for residents of the Bay Area, from the gold prospectors to the hippies to today’s tech tycoons. Despite its proximity to San Francisco, it still feels remote, with its mountain lions and forests of sequoias that dwarf most buildings down by the Pacific.
I’m one of a dozen or so friends Newbegin has invited here on a trip to research the ingredients of this year’s version of Winter Redwood fragrance, one of their most popular lines. I’d met my fellow foragers—among them an herbalist, a fashion designer, and a park ranger—at Mount Tam’s Pantoll Ranger Station on a crisp, clear morning. We immediately veered off anything resembling a trail, instead making our way deep into a canyon of redwoods, where the light is dappled by the leaf canopy 200 feet over our heads. Here we spotted bear’s-head tooth and oyster mushrooms, and popped pitch blisters on Douglas firs, rubbing the sap behind our ears.
Soon enough, we will turn to the business of making a fragrance, gathering redwood needles to be mixed with ethanol and distilled into a tincture, and laurel blossoms to be preserved on the mountainside that same afternoon. Together with Douglas fir, sage, and whatever other plants, barks, and moss we encounter, it’s vegetation like this that will eventually be boiled down to become a unique spring edition of the cologne.
But first, we must get to know the mountain—face-first. Climbing out of the redwood canyon, we arrive at a patch of pristine grass and are instructed to lie down on our stomachs. “Get sensual with it. Connect with the place,” calls Newbegin, a 47-year-old with a straw hat and graying beard. A self-described “nature freak,” he is soft-spoken but magnetic, the type of guy who will casually slip Heidegger and Iggy Pop into the same sentence. “Real fragrance stirs up profound, complex things in us,” he explains, passing around yerba buena, Douglas fir, and wild iris to blend in our hands and inhale. “This mountain will flow through you. The anxious mind starts to calm down.” He’s right. I breathe in my herb mixture, feel the sun on my neck, and am aware of that rare sensation: joy.
After six hours of hiking we make our way down to Steep Ravine, a campsite with million-dollar views of the Pacific. As we sip Old-Fashioneds made with yerba buena and small-batch whiskey, Kaufmann reads the writer Wallace Stegner’s 1960 letter to David Pesonen in support of protecting the American wilderness. “We need wilderness preserved…because it was the challenge against which our character as a people was formed,” he reads. “The reminder and the reassurance that it is still there is good for our spiritual health.” It might as well be Juniper Ridge’s mission statement.
We should all cultivate a relationship with a place, whether it’s a mountain or a forest or Central Park, Newbegin says. “I want folks to experience the happiness you get from being in the wilderness. Get outdoors, smell the wet earth.” The next day, I check Instagram. True to his word, Newbegin is back on Mount Tam, posting a selfie with his nine-year-old daughter. The sun is bright and he’s beaming, clearly grateful for another chance to commune with the mountain.
Obi Kaufmann’s hiking sketches are often incorporated into Juniper Ridge packaging.
A member of the group lies facedown in a meadow to inhale the scent of the earth.
Juniper Ridge founder Hall Newbegin addresses the foraging party.
Foraging for herbs in a redwood canyon, to make one of the company’s signature scents
Juniper Ridge’s Obi Kaufmann
Sunset on the cliffs near Steep Ravine campsite
To capture the herbs at their freshest, the Juniper Ridge team makes tinctures in a mobile distillery on the mountainside.
Sitting around the campfire at the end of the trek