Close your eyes and think of the last time you were immersed in nature. Imagine the beguiling combination of scents that mingled together under your nose as you took each deep breath of fresh air – perhaps an earthy pine, spicy moss, or sweet blossoms seasoned with raindrops. There’s nothing quite so cleansing as the fragrance of nature, and while many people may claim that such scents cannot be captured in a bottle, Juniper Ridge founder Hall Newbegin has dedicated his life to doing just that. Wandering through the wilderness of the American West Coast, Hall and his crew harvest wild ingredients such as bay laurel, redwood, Douglas fir and sage, and distill them to create the nattily branded Juniper Ridge collection of trail crew soaps, cabin sprays and backpacker’s colognes – bringing the beauty of nature into urban lives.
I grew up in Portland … and it rained a lot there. I went and looked back at the rainfall totals for Portland in the late seventies and early eighties – which is when I was growing up there – and those were extremely heavy rainfall years, so it wasn’t just my imagination! But because I didn’t know anything different from that, it still makes me happy when it rains.
I remember … going backpacking and camping with my family all the time. My folks are conservative on the political spectrum and so they made a big mistake taking their children out to the mountains and woods, because they raised four wildly liberal hippies.
The experience of being in nature … just gets to you. You show kids nature and they can’t help but love it – and I think that’s true of all people, not just kids. There’s that hypothesis from the Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson about biophilia – that we’re all hardwired to love nature – and I really believe that it’s true.
I live on a coastal mountain now … in Northern California. When people think of California, they usually think of beaches and sunshine, but the mountain I live on gets as much rain as Portland does, so of course I gravitated to that. The West Coast has some enormous pockets of wilderness – coniferous rainforest that stretches from Big Sur up to Alaska – and it’s one of the world’s premier primal eco systems.
When I was younger … I wanted to get away from the Pacific Northwest because, as with any place you grow up, it was ordinary to me. So I went to New York City for college and I fell in love with the culture. I was really into the music scene there and I saw Nirvana play before they were big. But as soon as I finished college I was so hungry to get back to the West Coast and to all the things I was previously running away from. I just wanted to get back to the outdoors and go exploring, so I moved to San Francisco and as soon as I got there I was out in the mountains again.
Everyone has an imaginary world … that they escape to. For my wife, it’s books, but I’m not that way – my mind runs to the outdoors. So I started learning about foraging for mushrooms and identifying all the native plants and how to make wild-berry jams and wild-herb teas and things like that. And it was just intoxicating. It’s like love – you don’t know why you fall in love but it just grabs you by the shirt and shakes you, and that whole time was like that for me. I was falling in love with something and I didn’t know what it was or where it would lead, I just knew it was the most riveting thing in the world to me.
I was sitting … in a herbal medicine class in Bisbee, Arizona, and I realised that I didn’t love playing doctor and looking at people’s bunions. What I really loved was being out there and digging osha roots in the mountains of New Mexico – when everything’s quiet and there’s that light conifer smell in the air. And there’s that moment when your trowel hits that root and a thick medicinal smell blows up in the air. It’s such a moment of beauty. I realised I wanted to bring people that beauty through a product – the experience of being in the mountains.
I didn’t know anything … about perfume or luxury products. I’ve never worn perfume but I’ve always seen the world through my nose. When I was out in the woods, I’d smash up a handful of redwood needles and just have that smell in my face.
I started Juniper Ridge … at the Berkeley Farmers Market about 15 years ago. I’d go out there in my truck and harvest plants during the week and then go and sell the products on the weekend.
We’re reinventing … the grammar of fragrances through the mountains of the West Coast. Two-hundred years ago at the House of Guerlain, people were crawling around in the Alps finding perfume ingredients and that’s how they formed their fragrance palettes. Really I’m just going back to the French techniques that they used to use before the advent of synthetic fragrance – techniques like steam distillation and infusion that actually go back to Roman times – and applying those to the mountains of the west.
When we formulate a new perfume … we hike out to the mountains and try to decide what the air smells like there. It looks ridiculous because we’re crawling around the ground smelling stuff to work out what is combining to make that place smell like it does. The goal is to get a snapshot of that place that’s a really specific scent. That’s the greatest challenge but it’s also the most fun, creative and beautiful thing that we do.
There are … more than 10,000 different species of plants on the West Coast, but no one has ever thought about those in terms of fragrance. It’s really a job that’s too big for one person in one lifetime. I could spend the rest of my life on the mountain I live on, Mount Tamalpais, just making perfumes there with the ocean, seaweed, blossoms, redwood forest and oak moss.
I lead hikes … every Friday on the mountain where I live and I never take money for it and I never would, because I feel like I’m repaying something back for all the great teachers I’ve had in my life.
I always find peace … outdoors. I’m a neurotic and anxious person. I have a lot of problems just like everyone else does, so I just get outdoors and hike. If I hike two miles and crawl around in the bushes looking for wild mushrooms and then it starts to rain, suddenly I’m deeply present. Those moments are ones to live for and I would hike all day to get that feeling of quietness and stillness.
I like the freaks … which is something I think we have a lot of on the West Coast. We don’t have the deep history that Europe or even the Northeast of America has. We’re the settlers – we’re new here. But we do have the way we look at things – the way that Alice Waters looked at American and French cuisine, or the way that Steve Jobs looked at computers – and that’s to choose to look at things differently. And when you think differently, you’re freed up to be a freak.
I’ve been influenced immensely by … the poet Gary Snyder. I used to carry his poems around with me everywhere I went in the mountains. My single favourite passage in the world that I have enshrined in my heart is one of his, where he says to wander off trail and off the beaten path. That, to me, is the most beautiful metaphor and I really think it defines the best thing about the West Coast – that we’re wanderers. All my heroes are wanderers.