Found in the high desert of Southern Utah, House of Aromatics is a family-operated essential oil distillery run by Eric and his partner Amber. Eric hand-processes and steam-distills the oils from wild-crafted conifers and bushes found in the mountain near his home. Eric says, "Our mission is to provide the highest quality essential oil to the aromatherapy market. Supporting an active and live culture of sustainability within ourselves and our world is the foundation of our work."
Sean and I got wind of Eric's production while working in a nearby town, and were immediately interested in delving into his craft. Herbalism has been an interest of mine for a few years. I feel more inclined to look towards plants for healing and support rather than synthetic medicine, so I lunged at the opportunity to learn more about this world. As a bonus, we had heard great things of the town of Boulder, known to be a pretty eclectic musical-agricultural spot. We ended up spending a week at Eric's place, and were thrilled at what we discovered.
|digs for the week|
|outside our tipi, Pickles the cat was a common sight|
|hauling the Pinion...|
|...to the side of the road|
|Prepping the Pinion. Small branches and needles are ideal for distilling, so we leave behind the heavier branches and trunks|
|partially-processed plant material back at home|
|loading Pinion into a retort|
|stomping down the material to fit in as much as possible|
|securing the retort's lid|
Here's how the still works: A steam generator (he has both gas and electric) pump steam into the retort. The steam combines with the plant material, which releases its oil, or "essence". This steam-essence travels into the compressor next, where it is flash-cooled. The cooling processes condenses the water and allows the oil to separate.
|(apologies for bad lighting) Attaching the retort to the compressor|
|the compressor cools and condenses the steam-essence|
|This beaker collects the products below the compressor. You can see that the water is heavier, so the oil floats on top.|
At the end of the week, Eric poured off the oil that we'd been distilling. By plugging up the lower tube of the beaker and pouring water on top, the oil flowed easily out of the tube on top.
|the essential oil flows out of the upper tube|
There is essentially no waste involved in the process. Eric dumps the spent material from the still (called "marc") onto dirt roads to create traction and suppress dirt. The branches and trunks left behind from processing are used to prevent erosion at a ranch nearby. The hydrosol is used, and obviously, the oil is used.
|spent distillate material|
|loaded up and ready to dump on dirt roads|
A highlight of our visit was running Eric's table at the Boulder Farmer's Market while he played in the band. He, along with many community members, are fantastic musicians. It was a wonderful backdrop to hear the Dead, Dylan, Bob Marley, and various bluegrass classics around the house throughout the week during band rehearsal. It was an even nicer experience to hear them play at the market with the towns people cheering them on and dancing away. Boulder is the friendliest town I've ever been to. The folks are so authentic, eager to get to know newcomers, open-minded, and kooky. You can't go wrong with eating in Boulder; all the restaurants support their local farmers, who tend to be pasture-raising animals and organically-growing produce.
|Eric's table at the market|
After work, our favorite chill-out spot was near the top of the mountain. In contrast to the dry Pinion-Juniper-Sage ecology just down the mountain near Eric's place, the top of Boulder Mountain provided a glorious and diverse meadow, framed with large Ponderosa Pines and Cottonwood trees. A cool creek babbled nearby as we relaxed under the shade and digested the day.
When we first found out that we'd be working primarily with Pinion Pine, we asked Eric to tell us more about the plant and its uses. His response was, "you tell me at the end of the week". He has a very unique teaching style in that he doesn't actually do much explicit teaching; he facilitates your learning with encouragement and some guidance. The ability to find the answers to these types of questions ("How does this plant benefit me?") are already in us. Just as we're born knowing to hold our breath underwater, we intuitively understand what plants offer to us when we open our senses to them. It is encoded through countless years of our ancestors living among, reciprocating with, and feeling the benefits of wildcrafting. Unfortunately, these days most of us our out of sync with our ancient wisdom, but that doesn't mean that it is completely lost - just dormant.
After a few days of doing aroma-journaling exercises, and simply being immersed in the pine for a week straight, Sean and I shared our "Pinion experience" with each other and with Eric. There was an huge amount of overlap in what our senses were telling us about this plant. We both found it to be clearing, uplifting yet grounding, inspiring, and noticed beneficial effects on our sinuses and lungs. Turns out the traditional uses for most conifers are the above mentioned. Conifers in general support respiratory health; they have anti-viral, anti-bacterial, and anti-fungal properties (as I mentioned with the hydrosol), so it's great to give the oils a sniff or rub on your chest if you're feeling sick. Conifers (or "evergreens") are the ultimate symbol of consistency and health across cultures worldwide. I wish I could reach through the screen and offer you a whiff - I think Pinion is my favorite new smell.
Eric was quite the man to behold. He's been working this craft for over 6 years now, and every aspect of the work for him is a moving meditation. He's incredibly in-tune with his surroundings, always paying attention to the sounds of the forest and what he calls plant spirit. In his words, everything he's learned about Pinion Pine was from Pinion Pine itself. He's truly invested in his relationship with the woods, and said that the #1 thing he's learned after these years of being with the plants is gratitude. I've always heard that the best way to find true happiness is to practice gratitude, but many times these exercises are pretty anthropocentric ("I'm grateful for my parents. I'm thankful for my supportive friends", etc). Imagine if you could feel fully grateful for every blade of grass you step upon, and every tree you pass. What a full life that would be. And this is Eric's life.
|Eric's shrine. He lays this on top of a retort after every loading. It symbolizes his relationship with the pine, and the cooperative efforts to create the essential oil. Again, a showing of gratitude.|