LITTLETON, Maine — A Littleton couple is using ancient methods to create natural healing products from their home.
Jennifer Noonan and William Sarante started Big Brook Botanicals and Massage Therapy last fall on the philosophy that healthy living comes from harvesting from nature.
Mainers notoriously find ways to fix, patch and survive the harshest challenges. Relying on that grit, the couple works outdoors even in winter and aims to live off what they forage, harvest, create and share. They manually distill oils and waters for their products outdoors over an open fire, rather than using an indoor distiller or kitchen equipment.
“I have a deep connection to the land. I strive for connection. That’s why this business is part of the whole picture and other people can benefit from this connection,” Noonan said.
Noonan, 45, leads the botanicals side, and Sarante, 31, is a state-licensed massage therapist.
A Maine native, Noonan has been wild harvesting for 20 years, since college. First it was mushrooms, then other edibles.
From their three-acre property that was once a fish hatchery, they plant perennial herbs and harvest native plants, including pieces of trees and branches they turn into essential oils for cosmetics, aromatic sprays, salves and massage oils.
The two prefer to live sustainably. Before they buy something, they’ll try to create it. They have the same goals for their budding business.
Sarante is from New York City, where he was trained as a massage therapist. The two met in western Maine, where Sarante apprenticed with biologist Arthur Haines of the Delta Institute.
About three years ago, the couple settled into their Littleton home with Noonan’s three children and wiry dog, Cookie.
After much planning, research and experimentation, they started Big Brook Botanicals and Massage Therapy late last year. The massage business and Etsy shop opened in December.
In the first few weeks, the online shop sold nearly 20 essential oil and cosmetic items. They sell directly from their home or online. Starting in the spring they plan to sell at farmers markets as well.
Essential oils and related products have become an $18.6 billion global business as people demand more plant-based products without fragrances or chemicals, according to a 2020 report by Grand View Research, a U.S. and India-based research firm headquartered in San Francisco.
On most days, the scent of distilling cedar, fir and oak drifts from the outdoor distillery. One recent afternoon after a snowfall, Noonan and Sarante were distilling northern white cedar from a tree in front of their home.
Noonan and Sarante use a centuries-old style of distiller called an Alembic, made of copper in Portugal. The equipment is placed outside and heated with a wood fire to create steam. A tube brings the cold spring water into the still’s condenser to keep it cool. If it gets too hot, it will ruin the plant oils.
The couple shreds branches to place in water in the copper pot. The water is heated, steam in the condenser becomes a liquid as it cools and the oil is extracted. The process takes about three hours outdoors and about an hour on an electric stove.
A three-hour batch makes about 5 milliliter of oil, so distilling batches for sale takes time.
“People deserve to put what’s natural on their skin and body, something that’s not full of chemicals, pesticides or preservatives,” Noonan said.
Sarante’s massage area overlooks the woods and Big Brook. He has worked with physicians, physical therapists and chiropractors, and uses different types of massage depending on clients’ needs, he said. He keeps his fees low, at $20 per half-hour, to help others, while also bartering when people don’t have money.
Bartering helps everyone, he said. A client might have stiff joints, and the couple might need food, so the trade benefits both.
“What we are doing is good for our peace of mind and what we’d like to see for the world,” Noonan said.