One of the harder things to get across — to my students, to fellow teachers (at my school and away), and even to myself — is how much one has to learn by doing. It’s dumb, of course, that we have to keep experimenting and keep trying stuff. But I was chatting with a colleague yesterday about how much I want to learn to (and teach kids to) do basic carpentry and plaster moulding and … lost wax casting. For bronze working.
Ok, the last step is a little radical. I grant you that. No one is going to want their kids learning out to pour molten bronze into a mould they made themselves, and… who knows if they did it right? What? The teacher doesn’t know that the kids are going to be perfectly safe? Or even imperfectly safe?
So, I grant that one. We’re not going to be doing THAT anytime soon in my school’s design program.
But, hey… I’ve admitted here that I’m a magician. Not the kind who pulls rabbits out of hats, but the kind who waves wands about and tries to make real-world stuff happen. And one of the things real-world magicians did is alchemy, which is just a kind of primitive chemistry, if our history textbooks are correct.
Down under my countertop in the kitchen is a glass Mason jar wrapped in plastic. It’s gently cooking a Spagyric, a kind of medical preparation discussed in Paracelsus’s textbooks on alchemy and early chemistry. The steps involved in making a spagyric are not particularly complicated:
- Take a particular herb (someone had given me mint from their garden to try it on)
- soak it in highly concentrated alcohol for a couple of weeks without letting it touch metal or other reactive substances
- shake it daily.
- Separate out the plant matter from the alcohol and keep separate.
- In a fire-safe non-metal dish, burn the plant matter to ash.
- Cook the ash in the oven until it’s gray-to-white colored.
- Add the still-warm ashes to the alcohol.
- After a week, strain the alcohol through a coffee filter and bottle the alcohol so it can be dispensed in 1-2 droplets.
- Take 1-2 droplets as medicine, in a large glass of water.
Down under the sink is such a jar, somewhere between steps 8 and 9. I think… I think I did it wrong, somehow. Maybe the ashes were really more dark gray than white. Maybe they didn’t cook under the broiler for as long as they should have. Maybe I didn’t shake them every day. Maybe I didn’t prepare the herb as much as I should have. Maybe…
It’s all water under the bridge. There’s not a single step that I’ve already done that I can go back and change. But even the failure will be instructive, won’t it? Even this admittedly primitive chemistry (or is it alchemy’s first apprentice steps?) has taught me things I would never have found out, had I just left the process on a page, in a book.
The sound and smell. The accidental taste on the tongue. The way the wind carries away allegedly precious ash, and the heart-sink as I watch part of my experiment fail; the sudden resolve to do better next time.
These are things not found in books, friends. If you are not doing, and you are not failing, you are not truly designing. And our failure to let our kids fail at times, has serious long-range implications. We have educated a generation of readers and writers who largely hate to read or write, and often know nothing of what to do nor how to do it.
[…] also gave me a sense of what alchemy is for. I’ve made some spagyrics, which are tinctures of various herbs with the ashes/salts added back in, according to ancient […]
This post has been bouncing around in my head for a few days. It plays against Jonathan Strange’s elixer for inducing madness from Clarke’s Strange & Norrell (a spagryic made from a mouse plucked from a madwoman’s mouth), and the play with alchemic/scientific/intellectual refinement in Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle.
Seek out the thing you desire embodied in the world. Separate the essence from the dross. Encounter. Imbibe.
Magical/alchemical/scientific traditions offer different frameworks for identifying essence, different techniques for extracting and clarifying. But often I feel like the more central difference is the degree to which the transformative value is placed on the act or on the process. Fiction in which the magical product is separated from the magical process normally tells a cautionary tale, either a love potion story or a world of commodified industrial-magic.
You’re doing a good thing, an old and necessary thing, when you help people through the hurdles of learning a new craft in our world of commodified industrial magic.
It’s an interesting dichotomy you raise. The product separated from the process is often a tool of villainy — I consider the One Ring, for example, as a tool by which others may be enslaved. The hobbit, knowing nothing of process, alone is capable of resisting it. Or the Death Star, as another example, is a tool of terror utterly divorced from the process by which it is made.
On the other side, though, Narsil is refitted and reforged only after the Elven smiths understand that the time for its remaking has arrived. A Jedi is ready for service when he understands how to build his own lightsaber. Harry Potter and friends learn far more magic from their own studies than from their teachers — private studies rooted in a goal, and genuine and deliberate experimentation towards an end.