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The Art of Wandering

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On a Friday morning in the San Bernardino mountains, a large pack of hikers is gathered around a man wearing a wide-brimmed hat. The man is rubbing a sprig of yarrow between his hands, while telling the group about the smell of the plant, the terrain the plant thrives in, and the evolutionary history of this dry-grass, conifer-dense terrain. He tells everyone to pick a sprig from the green plant on the ground, and people step forward to do so—hesitantly, delicately. “Smell it, eat it, rub it on your neck. Don’t be afraid of it,” he says. The man’s name is Hall Newbegin, the founder of a Juniper Ridge, “a wilderness fragrance distillery” based out of Berkeley. Hall’s business—and life—revolves around plants, specifically, the olfactory properties of plants.

On Juniper Ridge’s website, a tagline reads, “the mountains in a bottle … is what we do.” Juniper Ridge makes plant perfumes and colognes—out of bark, moss, mushrooms, tree trimmings, whatever flora they find while hiking, camping, and “crawling around in mountain meadows,” they write on their website. “We’re hikers and backpackers, not fashion or luxury-industry types … we smell the wet earth beneath fir trees, and spend whiskey-fueled hours arguing over the scent of a wind sweeping over a glacier.”

This, of course, sounds romantic, but for most urban-dwellers, even those that love a good weekend camping trip, harvesting—even touching—wild plants, is far from natural. We enjoy being in nature, relish the visceral feeling of relaxation and even sublime that nature imparts, but, as Hall points out, we treat nature like a museum, something to be looked at, but not touched. Hall is passionate about changing this attitude, which is apparent in his directives on this morning nature hike. He cites Gary Snyder and his book The Practice of the Wild as major influences and quotes Wendell Berry, who said, “You can’t know who you are until you know where you are.”

We are on the grounds of YMCA’s Camp Whittle for CAMP, a creative conference for designers, writers, photographers, entrepreneurs, and small-business owners. On the first night of the conference, Hall speaks at the campfire about starting Juniper Ridge in 1998, with little knowledge about business and a whole lot of debt. He had grown up splitting his time between the suburbs of Portland Oregon and the wilderness of Mount Hood, but didn’t begin distilling essential oils from the plants he found until he was in his twenties, living in the Bay Area. He began wandering through mountains, through coastal trails and forests—and wandering was the essential act for both his creative pursuits as well as for starting a business. Entrepreneurship, he said, is an act of wandering.

The intersection of business and creativity is one fraught with tension: on one hand, we’re told to pursue what we love to do; on the other, we have to make money to survive. The sweet spot, of course, is to find what you’re passionate about and make money while doing so, but the latter often comes slowly. Hall is a wilderness man, first and foremost, but he’s also a businessman. During his talk, he admits that his biggest mistake when he started Juniper Ridge was not understanding the margins of his business, which left him severely depressed and in debt. But the failure was important, he says. More important than just failing, he tells us, is not to beat yourself up over it. The path of wandering requires failing and flailing. The path of wandering is the path of discovery.

As we’re walking on the trail, picking yarrow, rosehips, mustard flowers, wallflowers, pine, and fir along the way, Hall tells us about the wildfires that happen as a part of the forest’s evolution. Rather than a purely destructive force, the fire is regenerative, an integral part of the ecosystem that allows the plant species to recycle, re-grow, and even spread their seeds. The fire, which seems to be deathly and harmful, is actually vital to proliferation, new growth, and a healthy climate—which seems to be an apt metaphor for failure in business, like Hall had mentioned the night before. Failing, it seems, is not a death; it is the beginning of new life, an opportunity for growth, a step in our evolution.

(Photo courtesy of The Unique CAMP)

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