It is one of those rare fall days when where the world is so clear and stunningly bright that everything alive seems to be reaching up in gratitude. The pineapple sage blooms like fireworks exploding in slow motion. Dahlias I have never seen open proudly show their rose-burnished faces. Seeds and leaves fall with sighs and whispers of relief. The bay, the jasmine, the white sage and blue cypress: I am certain they are all rejoicing. My crab apple, grown from seed, mirrors my mood with impeccable accuracy: hundreds of doll-sized apples surprise like rubies in the sun while flocks of jubilant strawberry finches eat their fill.
All of this occurs as my copper still steams away. The Western Juniper (juniperous occidentalis) and Blue Cypress (Cuppressus arizonica) “Blue Ice” housed within offer up their fragrance freely – a gift given willingly and with noble grace. If only everyone would offer up knowledge and love the way the plants release their perfume.
Distilling Western Juniper alone is always an intense challenge. The spirit of the plant is like that of a very very old woman who is well past the point of tolerating any nonsense. Like a pioneer with an iron-cored work ethic, juniper begs the question “What exactly are you doing with your life?“ Distilling flowers is ethereal, dream-like, often blissful work. Distilling Juniper is a powerful lesson in staying focused and firmly grounded. It becomes a time of intense self-analysis for me when I make choices about which portions of myself to keep and which to cut away. There is no room for self-pity, pride, or anything other than absolute stark honesty. Sometimes this process is brutal but by the same token it is crucial. Having worked with this plant I can see why it is prescribed as an aromatherapeutic treatment for addiction.
Harvesting juniper has become a solitary journey for me. This last spring I ventured into the heart of the Oregon Badlands wilderness area to set up camp amongst the most ancient junipers in the state. While juniper is considered invasive throughout most of the area, this place is home to one of the only native stands of old-growth trees. Twisted, wind-devoured, roots stubborn in basaltic stone, these elders survive where little else will grow, many of them being over 1000 years old. I harvested branch tips from berry-laden trees around the perimeter of the wilderness area, walking through a fire-formed landscape where the soil is composed of ash, cooled lava fragments, feathers, bones, and the decay of Western Sage, Rabbit Brush, and Juniper. Nothing survives here without an iron will and powerful adaptive strategies. The whole place smells like endurance. I came home covered in the ash of Mt. Mazama and Newberry Crater, with an open space in my heart.
I decided to add Blue Cypress to this distillation because I wanted something to smooth and offset the seriousness of the juniper. Most evergreen trees have a small period of growth in the fall when the oil content is high, and the Blue Cypress was smelling particularly lively. The aroma is vibrant, tangy, tart, with a trace of a syrupy note akin to Atlas Cedarwood. These notes bound perfectly with the deep, sharply resinous, dried wood and tanned leather aspects of the juniper. I distill for 2-3 hours, shut off the still and let the charge rest for 6-12 hours. During this resting period an enzymatic reaction occurs that breaks down the waxy cuticle over the needles and allows for more oil to be released in the second portion of the distillation. Juniper has an insanely high odor intensity. It also contains the toxic compound thujone, and thus the oil must be used wisely. Thujone levels are highest in the summer so I only distill this plant in the early spring and fall.
As we are gifted with this window of autumn sunlight, plants are sinking their roots deeper into the ground, thriving, saving this extra energy for the coming winter. The world feels in balance – perfectly set between an upward desire to grow and the impending need to settle into sleep. Even on the hardest days, when my heart wants to give nothing, this botanical world is ever-yielding. Distillation has become my act of reverence – prayers for peace and healing rise up with the perfumed steam. Each plant, each distillation infuses me with a new understanding and appreciation for this delicate, exquisite world we live in. There is a certain harmony that comes when our inner landscape matches that of our outer, when our intentions are carried out in our daily actions. Inside of me the bell flowers bloom and the golden grass sways. The light falls brazen on a land that glows like hammered copper after a long, hard burn. Everything delicate, once thought lost, nestles safely inside tiny seeds and little bottles , all housed within my hope-chest heart.