Life & Style

October 1, 2015

A Scented Guide to California’s Marin County

Scouting for scents and stumbling on weed farms with Juniper Ridge

  • Written by Alex Tieghi-Walker
  • Photography by Carlos Chavarria

Mount Tamalpais is a geodetic monument to creation. Looming on the curvature of the earth high above the Marin hills, the pyramidal hulk was thrust 2,563 feet skywards by tectonic movement 50 millions years ago. Climbers and cyclists scaling the mountain look out over the Pacific ocean to the west, the wine counties of Sonoma and Napa to the east and the city of San Francisco just 18 miles south. The Miwok tribe called the sacred mountain Palemus, though today it is known as Mount Tam. Like Orion’s Belt or the Plough in the night sky, this readily identifiable Bay Area summit is hard to miss, and for the homesick and wayward, it serves as a reassuring monument of familiarity and shelter.

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Hall Newbegin has been scaling these slopes for nearly two decades now, collecting and foraging plant life and scents which provide inspiration for Juniper Ridge – the perfume company he established in 1998 with business partner Obi Kaufmann.

“The mountain provides plenty of fodder for Hall and his troupe of hikers and perfumers, who come out for days at a time with their ‘Field Station’, a biofuel van converted to use as mobile distillery.”

“I like to explore the un-trailed canyons one by one because I want to see what’s there: springs, secret redwood groves – that kind of thing.” Explains Hall, “When I find new patches, I mark them on the map and remember to come back.”

Hall is an Oregon-native who has learned about the mountain, and he remembers the redwood and Douglas fir groves with Google-eye precision. He begins this particular hike at the Pan Toll ranger station, a woodland cabin constructed in National Park Service Rustic-style; an architectural patois conceived in the early-twentieth century as a way to integrate utility buildings seamlessly with the surrounds of US wilderness.

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An ecotone is where two different ecological zones meet, and Mount Tam is a prime example of this natural two-scoop scenario: towards the summit, chaparral (thorny shrubland) and manzanita slopes are dry and weather-beaten. The cool, foggy lower canyons leading towards the Pacific are moist and the shape of redwood leaves converts the ocean fog into droplets of rain that slowly quench their deep roots.

“Marijuana does not belong in this habitat. The illegal farmers are trashing it with pesticides and are leaving garbage.”

Douglas fir, one of the fastest-growing conifers, sits on the edge of the canyon where its saplings take just two years to reach the height of an average person. These giants soar 80 meters into the air; imagine a 35-story skyscraper in your city and you have an inkling of the trees’ ability to arouse humility. These are only 150-years-old. Their forefathers would have been felled for the construction of San Francisco; most of the city’s buildings are built from the flexible, fire-retardant—and therefore earthquake resilient(ish)—material.

“People see wildlands as being self-managing but they’re not. The Native Americans were always cutting down trees to make meadows; they had no interest in these forests. So they’ve been managed for a while,” explains Hall, who ventures into the multiplex of flora on the slopes weekly. Not just limiting his expeditions to olfactory purposes, Hall has become somewhat a guardian of the slopes, alerting the park rangers of invasive species and ecological problems arising. Last year, Hall discovered a weed farm near Stinson Beach. “They had a three-inch irrigation mainline gravitationally fed down the canyon, I told the State Park about it but they weren’t very interested,” says Hall. “Marijuana does not belong in this habitat. The illegal farmers are trashing it with pesticides and are leaving garbage.”

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Coyote Bush, Bay Laurel, and Yerba Buena, the rich mint-like shrub, are native species, and are all extremely fragrant. The mountain’s rich bounty provides plenty of fodder for Hall and his troupe of hikers and perfumers, who come out for days at a time with their ‘Field Station’, a biofuel van converted to use as mobile distillery.

“So many perfumers talk about top notes, middle notes and all of that, but that’s not the way I work. If I’m in Big Sur, how do I capture those smells and bring them home?”

The Oakland-based team don’t limit themselves to the ridges of Mount Tam; in the coming spring they will be camping out in the Mojave desert, capturing the essence of one of the contiguous states’ most hostile environments, and they have explored both trails and off-piste routes in Big Sur, Point Reyes and other areas of remote natural beauty in the state.

“My aim as perfumer is to capture the scent of the mountain,” says Hall. “So many perfumers talk about top notes, middle notes and all of that, but that’s not the way I work. If I’m in Big Sur, how do I capture those smells and bring them home?”

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Hall’s technique is hands on to say the least – he burrows a small pit in the soil and nuzzles his gentle face into the earth. In autumnal months, the soil takes on a redoubtable fungus-like perfume; in this drier season it has an alkaline, mineral-rich cool to it. He clumps together different branches, furiously rubbing the leaves between his palms and arranging the squashed matter around the pit.

After outings like this, Hall takes his plant stash back to the Juniper Ridge warehouse on the Oakland-Berkeley border where a vertically integrated production line creates candles, soaps, incense sticks and perfumes. They even have a carpenter on site who magics bottle caps from slices of spruce. Often making limited batches (they created just 308 of their ‘Topanga Canyon’ perfume) their mission as scent-capturers, self-proclaimed ‘nature freaks’ and guardians of the wilderness is a particularly non-traditional approach to luxury product creation.

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“In terms of biomass, the western seaboard has nearly two-fold the density of the Amazon,” Hall explains. “The rainforests may contain more actual species, but the scale of the redwood groves is unprecedented.” Some species of sequoia have trunks so large that roads have been bored through to allow vehicles to pass directly through them.

Being able to tap into a resource so vast and changeable is impressive, and it’s clear that Hall and the Juniper Ridge team have their work cut out for them in creating ‘aromatic snapshots’ of the varied topography and diversity of the state and beyond.

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