This post is about how I fell in love with wild sagebrush, the silvery green plant that inspired so much in my journey with home distillation. Super quick note before getting started: I harvested (translation: illegally picked) my first batch of sagebrush before I knew about ethical wildcrafting. If you plan to go foraging for plant matter for any reason, for the sake of the ecosystem and for not looking like a jerk, please adhere to this general code of conduct! I also don't recommend pulling plant matter from any space next to highways. They're dangerous as well as just nasty in terms of pollution, exhaust, etc. Boring mandatory disclaimer aside, let's continue!
When I first spotted the sagebrush, I was only mildly interested in it. I was about a quarter of the way into a road trip to my best friend's wedding in Salida, Colorado. For miles and miles as I cruised through Eastern Oregon listening to podcasts, faded green shrubs flew past my windows. At the time, the sagebrush was just part of foreign scenery that I couldn't relate to, other than breathing the bitter air that came through the car's AC system.
After driving for three hours, I saw a familiar sight. On the side of the road was a dead hawk, its mottled and striped feathers ruffling in the light desert wind. I turned on my hazards and pulled over to inspect it. (Well, my family nickname is Creepy Nature Girl. Why not?) Semis careened past me at a leisurely rate of 80+ mph, and I thought about how dumb I was to pull over like this. Surely, the dead hawk was evidence of the danger of highways! I knelt down next to the animal whose essence -- in an instant -- was in the process of being wiped from its ecosystem. It seemed so small in that vast space of bitter green. Its lack of movement confirmed its helplessness, and then I felt small. Here we were, both of us traveling in straight lines on missions of our own, so easily erasable.
I examined the hawk and its lifelessness, and then looked up at the blotchy sun-faded landscape beyond. For whatever reason, I impulsively yanked on a twig from a nearby sagebrush plant. It was resilient and refused to release from the dry earth. I went back to my car to get the scissors I'd packed for pre-wedding shenanigans that might require them... you never know when they may be needed! I wanted the sagebrush not because I planned to distill it (I wasn't interested in distillation at the time); I just wanted a memoir from the journey, especially this particular moment.
After trimming a few stems, I began thinking that the sagebrush would make great smudge sticks for gifting family members and friends later that year, and so I got greedy. I spent another 15 minutes in the area further back from the highway, hastily trimming woody fragrant twigs from the plants. I threw them into a cardboard shoe box in the backseat, then continued my drive. I didn't think about it a second time during the rest of the trip to Salida.
A day and a half later, I arrived at the ranch my best friend's parents had rented, and it was of course abuzz with excitement, nervousness, exhilaration. After catching up with the beautiful bride-to-be, I started to unload my things. By then, the sagebrush had been curing in my hot car, drying rapidly, releasing its sharp oils into the air for many, many hours. Each time I opened one of the car doors, a whoosh of clean, fresh, astringent air escaped. I hadn't noticed the smell that much while driving! Because I'd been sharing the small space with this strange plant for most of the ride, my clothes were infused with desert air. I remember at one point later in the weekend taking five minutes alone in the car, letting its sweet medicinal character gently wash over me, filling my nose.
Why did I like this scent so much? I guess because it was so alien. Additionally, it cleared my senses in a way that was different from the spicy-sweet-green conifers I was used to. Everyone thinks of mountains, waterfalls, and temperate rainforest when they think of Oregon, and so did I until this trip. I'd always been so used to the spicy-sweet resins and balsams of evergreens, of damp moss and decaying vegetation, the earthiness of fertile soil below that teems with billions of bacteria and organisms that cling to the bottom of your hiking shoes. In reality, that ecosystem only accounts for a third -- maybe less? -- of the state's surface area. Much of Oregon is vast, barren, not as deeply forested, and in some areas intentionally thinned by federal employees via controlled fire. I was reminded on this trip that the state's West side is just so, so different from the East side, and that Oregon's ecology is actually incredibly diverse.
When the whirlwind wedding weekend came to a close, I packed up my car. Again and again, as I opened the hatch to load my gear, I was reminded that I needed to capture sagebrush's scent. Like, needed. Whenever I touched its suede-soft little leaves, the oil clung to my fingertips. It opened my nasal passage, and made me feel alive, virile, wild. I nestled the shoe box among other items in the backseat, treating it with greater care this time.
When I returned to Corvallis after the wedding, I put the sagebrush into a corner bedroom in our house with the hope that it would cure even longer. I opened it just once every few weeks to ensure there was no mold. In retrospect, this was unnecessary given its antimicrobial chemistry. Whenever I entered the room, I was greeted with that now familiar scent of desert air. This small cardboard vessel seemed to be an aromatic Pandora's box whose olfactory contents I didn't want to let escape, mostly because 1) I coveted how expansive it made me feel, and 2) I was very concerned I wouldn't be able to retain the scent for perfumery use and personal reflection. So I began researching stills.
A few months later, my first copper alembic still arrived. I had ordered it through an online manufacturer. It was hammered and soldered, by hand, in Portugal. I unpacked it gingerly, amazed that not a single flaw could be seen despite its journey over thousands of miles to my front door. It was beautiful. It was shiny, rosey-pink hued copper with an elegant swan neck. I had spent weeks researching the process behind distillation, and for a home operation of my size, the alembic method would suffice. I liked its aesthetic much more than the industrial and sterile looking stainless steel and glass stills out there. Something about this onion-shaped primitive machine that harnessed physics made me feel connected to people from many, many generations ago.
And so my first distillation began...!