Tom fumes silently in the front seat of the Field Lab van, who’s now-silent hull rests lifeless at the crest of an immense glacial valley. The craggy granite of the Sierra Buttes cuts a hard line across the distance.
“At least we are stuck in the most beautiful place in the whole world?” Obi offers.
Tom glares at him in the rearview mirror, remembering the closest town is Truckee, a full day’s journey to replace the van’s starter. Hall gives it a try. “This harvest was totally worth the breakdown man,” he says, gesturing at the heap of tiny pink Ribes flowering at his side, percolating their sweetness into the shared air.
Tom softens a little at the sight of them. “I suppose it’s not that big of a deal,” he relents. “There’s just so many other plants to harvest and this will eat up most of our time up here.”
“Look, I’ll head into camp and get the fire started for the perfume still, then tomorrow we can enfleurage these and harvest Mountain Ash blossoms,” says Jordan, sure that a solid plan will bring Tom around.
It works, and the four Juniper Ridge wilderness perfumers get to work on their respective jobs: Obi and Tom head to Truckee and don’t make it back to camp until midnight, Hall heads down to the PCT (the Pacific Crest Trail, which runs near here) and collects samples of lichen, moss and soil for future workshop experiments, and Jordan heads back to camp to get the coals going for the production of White Fir essential oil, a project that will take all night.
Despite the mechanical difficulty, it ends up being a flawless trip for the Juniper Ridge Sierra Granite Harvest Team. The breakdown is followed by three days of joyful routine: nightly gatherings around the campfire followed by hungover mornings spent greeting the sunrise over strong coffee. The team climbed into the (now repaired) van and headed into the deep backcountry of the High Sierras, collecting samples of Alder, Wolf Lichen, Arnica, Lodgepole pollen-cones, and the beautiful Sorbus (Mountain Ash) flower.
On the final day, the guys spend the afternoon on a big granite slab, drying off after a swim in Deer Lake, cracking beers under the setting sun. They discuss what this harvest will be, letting themselves get poetic with the epicness of the landscape unfolding around them.
“I’ve been coming to this place a few times a year for the past twenty years,” says Hall. “There’s an intimacy born out of this kind of familiarity, and coming here is like seeing an old friend, giving him a warm hug and then settling in to see what’s new and what’s dependable and remains and will always be the same. Hello Ponderosa, Jeffrey Pine— John Muir’s favorite tree,” he adds. “Hello sugar pine, snowmelt, tree pitch, granite varnish… Hey lake at sunset.”
“There's an intimacy born out of this kind of familiarity. It's like seeing an old friend."
With a cold Coors in one hand, Obi carries on Hall’s sentiment. “I grew up in this forest and I feel a responsibility to deliver the truest, most beautiful snapshot of it. It’s a joy to participate in the spirit of John Muir when he was describing the importance of returning to these mountains. A lot of times, the beauty of what we do is simply reminding people that wildness exists. It’s deeper than something conceptual, more than words— it moves deep.”
Tom, the woes of travel long forgotten, muses for a while on how this depth is what has kept their formulations getting better and better. The four talk about what direction to head in this year, how they could best reflect the immensity of the wilderness around them.
“It’s an impossible task to really capture this place,” Hall says, “because there are a million different things happening: the moist soil is alive with thousands of fungi, the air has subtleties we can’t begin to describe, hundreds of species of plants— and yet trying to do it is so fun. Let’s have fun with this one guys. With the ingredients we’ve gotten this week, this will be our truest, most complex Sierra Granite Perfume yet.”
After a week in the Buttes, the van rumbles on down Highway 49 back to Nevada City. The guys, tanned and tired, are a bit melancholy, as is the case after any harvest, but something about this one was special. Sure, the normal shit happened— van breakdowns, whiskey romps around the bubbling perfume still, Hall’s awesome gourmet chicken feasts— but there was more than that, something that has the guys waxing on in hushed tones about the big picture of what it Juniper Ridge does and why it matters, a special feeling of accomplishment, of honest participation in the delivery of something creative and intrinsically beautiful.
Hall cuts to it, as he concludes, “It doesn’t matter if you’ve ever been here. You know this place in your dreams, in your childhood memories, in moments of drunken-like joy of jumping into a mountain lake, tasting a wild huckleberry, drinking from a cool clear stream after a long hike. The hum of a city feels like it could be a thousand miles away when you can shut it all off for just a second. The anxious part of your mind calms quickly and you start breathing deeper, inspired by a clear transmission from some subterranean, primitive part of yourself.” The remainder of the ride back to the Oakland workshop is quiet, everyone’s thoughts busy moving back and forth between the awesome fun that was had, the amazing amount of beautiful work that was accomplished and the simple hope that the van doesn’t break down again on the way home.