Hall Newbegin is a wilderness perfumer who lives on Mount Tamalpais. He started the wild fragrance company Juniper Ridge out of his kitchen back in 1998. Juniper Ridge distills colognes and perfumes from real plants, bark, moss, mushrooms, and tree trimmings Hall finds hiking the backcountry. You may have seen his soaps, incense, and sprays for sale at General Store, Heath Ceramics, Gravel & Gold, Steven Alan, Welcome Stranger, and even the Exploratorium.
I was lucky enough to tag along on one of Hall's foraging expeditions last week. We were collecting plants for a special Art in the Age simple syrup collaboration.
After the hike, Hall gave me the lowdown on what it takes to be a forager.
What would you consider foraging gold?
For me, the beauty of foraging isn't about finding rarities, it's about immersing yourself in nature and engaging your animal senses in the beauty that's all around you. There is endless beauty in the most common of plants — a redwood forest, oak woodlands, sage chaparral, a square foot of wet earth right beneath your feet, overflowing with life and ten thousand species of little critters that we'll never know about.
I do find rare flowers from time to time, and when I do, I just sit down next to them and try to drink in every detail, because they're only out for a second and then they're gone. I would never harvest a rare plant. I only work with plants that are utterly abundant and aren't being impacted in any way by the harvesting. Rarities are just that, and they need to be admired for their beauty and left alone.
Do you ever have foraging fake out, as in things that look good but are really poisonous?
The simple answer to that question is no. If you're paying attention and learn your plants there is no way you could ever make a mistake and eat something poisonous. You'd have to be unbelievably careless to mistake a poisonous plant for an edible one.
We're animals and until about the last two seconds of our evolutionary history, we depended on wild plants for our day-to-day survival. Do you think our bodies have forgotten how to interact with the natural world? Of course not. We all have this incredible capacity, even if it is laying dormant, to understand subtle differences between plants based on smell, visual differences, intuition ... It's like we have this superpower just sitting quietly inside of us, waiting to be exercised. And it always feels good to exercise those primal muscles deep inside of us. So tap into that Pleistocene part of yourself — hit the trail and for god's sake, don't treat nature as a museum. This is your heritage as a human and an animal — you're not separate from nature, you're part of it, so dig into it! Crush pine needles beneath your nose, brew up wild herb teas, crawl around on the forest floor on a wet day, and just smell all that's there to be smelled. Every inch smells different.
Have you ever eaten something poisonous by accident?
No, never. And not because I'm smart or anything (far from it). You'd have to be ridiculously careless to eat something poisonous. People who aren't familiar with wild plants think that everything out there must be poisonous. There are exactly three plants on Mt. Tamalpais that could potentially kill you dead — learn those ones first and then you can start developing your identification skills to sort out the prime edibles. Just get a good book; your body is primed to learn this stuff, it'll start making sense pretty quickly.
Is there a foraging etiquette?
If you're a forager you have a moral responsibility to take care of the places you harvest from. If you're really paying attention and digging into the place, this really doesn't feel like a responsibility because it will come naturally, born out of the love you have for the place. I'm always weeding out the invasive plants, making space for native grasses and coastal prairie. When I trim plants, I usually do it grazing style—take a little bit from the top of the plant so it can keep growing, and I watch my harvesting spots carefully, like a garden, to make sure I'm not having a negative impact on either the plants or the place.