Distilling Western Juniper in Copper June 29 2018
Crooked River Aromatics: Part I
Every year I travel to Eastern Oregon's High Desert to harvest Western Juniper needles for essential oil distillation. I usually go alone, so that I can relish the silence and slow outward expansion of the senses.... but this year felt perfect for company. I called on my good friend, Willow, and asked if another desert adventure together sounded right. Our last escapade to Death Valley was a botanical adventure of grand geological proportions. It took us all of 25 minutes to arrange the details of our trip: food list, supplies, destination. I knew that anything I did not bring she would, and visa versa. We were aligning ourselves like small arrows towards the Crooked River valley, just south of Prineville Oregon, in the heart of Western Juniper country. We wanted to go where there was no potable water or trailer hookups, where we could look at birds and search for aromatic plants without being bothered by other human creatures.
We found our campsite near dusk, alongside the Crooked River, an isolated meadow with tent sites affording open views of Chimney Rock. Mountains on all sides curling and sloping with magnificent basalt formations. Columns of stone tipped by wind and ice. Juniper, gnarled and rightfully serious, as any creature that has survived hundreds of years in the high desert deserves to be.
A quick survey told us that this was our best discovery yet – we had landed like mergansers, smack dab in the middle of an ecological oasis: dozens of unusual wild flowers lined the banks of the stream as a sky-river of swallows flew over snow-cold currents. Bats were joining the birds and the moon was already up, shining on the grass in tandem with the sun. Double illumination. It is wonderful when you can find a friend to travel with who loves the same things. Who also carries an axe and a sharp knife. Who looks for wood, and the best tent site, and the sweetest swimming hole with the same camp smoke-varnished eyes.
Our first night fire blazed hot with juniper and western sage. The moon tracked the night in a perfect arc over the mountain across the river. No one joined us, and the enchantment was now thick…..we soon realized the site had taken us in and that secrets would be forthcoming. Willow glimmered silver on the river banks next to sweet wild rose. Tequila, and stories, and metallic eye-shadow made our faces beautiful. We had years of catching up to do, but this was ok, we were in medicine space: the space where time falls away and meaning is clear. The space without boundaries or judgement. Friends who have come to this place together are connected forever. Distance has no meaning. The heart chords are tight and strong and youth on age is irrelevant.
In the morning I awoke early –Redwind Black birds behind my eyelids, pitch and meadow perfume on my mind. I had every intention of sleeping, all clocks having been banned, but the air was like golden balm, and tiny unknown pollinators were buzzing about. The botanical diversity was joyous…there is nothing like being in the desert near an isolated water source....no where else I feel more alive or grateful to be so. Irises, several varieties of willow and Cinquefoil, spiny Teasel and feathery red grass, lupine, locoweed….all growing amongst a stand of wild mint. The same wild mint that used to grow near my home. The same wild mint that was my first harvest plant as a young, trespassing teenager, sneaking onto my neighbors land to steal skirts of mint to be worn home on running hips, and dried for tea. The same wild mint that died out when the neighbors clear cut the land. The same wild mint that I have looked for ever since. The same.
This place said: I know you. And I replied: it is true.
The gold light is finally broaching our protective bowl of mountains and I start to harvest the wild rose petals as I breathe in the scent of Western Sage and Western Juniper. I gather some of the dried juniper berries and brittle amber tears of juniper pitch, knowing these will be perfect in perfume. At camp I tincture the rose petals in 190 proof alcohol.
All day we wander and harvest…..we discover our camp is covered in a parasitic plant in the Sandalwood family, called Bastard Toadflax, which quickly becomes the butt of all of our jokes. Tobacco Sage is blooming everywere, and naturally becomes our favorite adornment - soon our hair curls around her bouquet of mint, sage, tobacco, juniper, smoke and dust.
Late afternoon we venture up-canyon. The gravel washes are blooming with Skullcap, Penstemon, Balsam Root, Lupine, locoweed, and many more. We split ways – one moving upward toward a basalt tower, and the other down into the dry streambed. Later, as black thunder approaches, we reconvene at the base of the canyon, called back with whistles , both carrying piles of wood wrapped in scarves, both with news to report: bobcat prints, lightning, mystery bird, Bastard Toadflax!!!
We fly into camp like a pair of Cedar Waxwings, battoning down tents and hiding our dried goods from the rain. In total agreement that few things are as exhilarating as a good storm in the high desert. Easily set into the silence of a dark, sheltered evening beneath ink-churned skies.
The next day we leave camp to harvest juniper. This is when we find Mimulus Nannus! Tiny tiny little monkey-flower who you will step on if you don’t look closely! We also find this strange and beautiful saprophytic Broomrape, Orobanche fasciculate, who I was hoping to meet on this trip. This plant lives off the roots system of adjacent Western Sage, who rules this country with her silver hands. Golden Current grows near an unusual species of Artemisa with dark-green fruity scented leaves and long, wicked white spines...I do not know her name, and it drives me crazy. We harvest juniper branch tips in the sweaty heat, from all ages of trees, some with berries and some without - we want the whole smell of juniper country to go into our burlap bags. Later I will distill these for essential oil. Our pruners and gloves are sticky with resin.
Back at camp the scent of wild iris wafts across the river. We build a huge fire and share council as the evening burns down. We are glad we can find joy in just being in a beautiful, still-wild place. We agree we could stay here much, much longer. But we have to go back, car full of pitch, petals, branch tips, and little mint plants destined for a new-old home....though we do pull over one last time to say goodbye to this sweet little Prairie Clover (Dalea purpurea.) Stay tuned for Crooked River Aromatics Part II, where the juniper we harvested is distilled into essential oil, and made into desert perfume.
To explore more aromatic treasures look here: