Like his ancestors, Ben Clark lives off this land. His great grandfather Josiah “Si” L Ferrin raised cattle and homesteaded off Buffalo Valley Road; his grandfather, Harold Clark, built the road to Hoback Canyon. Two years ago, Clark decided to work the land in a very different way, by wildcrafting the flowers and natural materials found in abundance on the sixteen acres left of his family’s property near Fall Creek Road in Wilson and turning them into all natural aromatherapeutic healing agents.
Clark returned to his roots to transform the barn in which his mother, Barbara Clark, one of the valley’s foremost 4H leaders, kept her horses into a sanctuary he now calls the “Healing Barn.” Inside, he knocked down stalls to make way for an open-air distillery where he now produces essential oils and hydrosols (aromatic waters) infused with sage, pine and wild owers. From his land, he gathers wild owers such as fireweed, arnica and yarrow in the summer and pine and sagebrush throughout the fall. Inside the barn he cooks them in a beautiful copper still he’s named Tic Tock, and makes them available through his company, American Wilderness Botanicals. These natural essences have healing properties that he recommends for inflammation, circulation and skin sensitivities like eczema.
A massage therapist who used to run the spa at Lost Creek Ranch, Clark was inspired to create his own products after meeting Jackson native Ann Harman, author of “Harvest to Hydrosol” and founder of The Circle H Institute, which researches and documents the medicinal properties of plants. “There is an art and a science to doing this work,” Clark says. “One of the reasons plants produce essential oils is for self preservation. They can attract or repel insects depending on what they need, whether it is pollination or a defense mechanism to keep predators at bay.” Animals have this natural tendency too. After years of watching the elk herds migrate through the meadows of his backyard, Clark learned that they are “attracted to what they need. For instance, they find pedicularis when their muscles are sore.”
Extracting essential oil from the bark and resin of species like lodgepole pine, Clark is sure to use the whole plant. His process, which came directly from Harman, is thousands of years old. Plants or flowers in full bloom are pressed down into the copper cauldron, with about a three to one ratio of water added to it and heated up with an electric coil (formerly an open flame) underneath. It is then sealed with rye flour until tiny bubbles appear, a trick used since the middle ages. When it gets to about 180 degrees, the steam starts to release hydrophobic chemicals, which separate from the water to make essential oils and hydrosols. It can take all day to create four or five gallons of hydrosol out of 180 pounds of water and 60 pounds of plant material. The water is transferred from one side of the copper still to the other where it is cooled and filtered out into three different products—the head, the heart and the tail, much like a brewery. The end result can be bitter, sweet or earthy. He combines the three products, until they taste “clear as water.”
Hydrosols can be used to sooth sore muscles, aid in digestion and calm the skin. They can be applied directly with a spray bottle, put in a humidifier or diffuser, added to tea or mixed with other products to create soaps, lotions and candles. “Ben is doing what people did for thousands of years, making medicine with plants they live around,” says Harmon. Clark’s most popular product is his sagebrush oil, which comes in two varieties—Wyoming and Basin Big—with two very distinct scents. “You can’t find sagebrush essential oil anywhere else,” he says. “Thank God they don’t mass produce it.”
While Clark likes to reap the healing bene ts from the earth, he feels a strong responsibility to honor the legacy of the land and is particularly interested in the combination of Native American herbal remedies, pioneered by the Shoshone, and the Canadian French trappers’ preservation of plant extracts using grain alcohols. The only foreign product you will find in the barn is salt from the estuaries of Brittany, France. He uses mud from the Gros Ventre river for mud bath treatments and stones from Fish Creek for hot stone massages. “Anything that’s not local I want to get from the French to denote the French trappers who settled here,” he says.
Clark not only makes hydrosols and essential oils for American Wilderness Botanicals at The Barn Healing Center, but he also rents out the facility for classes in candle and soap making and botany. The barn hosts two therapy rooms, for massage and body treatments with products that come from the local forests and rivers. Clarke’s sister teaches a wildlife photography class there in the summer and he is offering a class about harvesting and hydrosols. His mentor, Anne Harman, who now lives in Washington, hopes to come teach there soon.
“Being born and raised here, I have always loved the land,” Clark says. “It is sacred. You have to be a steward. So why not use what you have as much as possible?!”
About the Author
Julie is a freelance journalist who loves to connect community, explore in nature and share ideas with TedX Jackson Hole. When she is not writing, you can find her on her yoga mat, teaching people how to turn with breath on the ski slopes or chasing her two kids around town. She grew up in Rochester, NY, and went to school and worked in Boston, Chicago and New York before finding her place here in the Tetons.
Photos by David Bowers