Alchemy

I’ve spent my entire life trying to spin gold from straw.

Like the Miller’s daughter in one of my favorite Brothers Grimm tales, ‘Rumpelstiltskin’, the idea of transforming something ordinary into something unique and magical has fascinated me. And that urge to create has never left me.

As a little boy, my urge to create quickly manifested itself. Anything remotely related to creating something from nothing was instantly enthralling. I vividly recall one of my favorite childhood summertime activities, one my saintly mother would likely have preferred I abstain from. Our northern Virginia home was, back then, surrounded on two sides by thick woods covered in mountain laurel, honeysuckle, and pokeberry bushes. The pokeberry plant is a young boy’s dream, producing generous clusters of dark berries that when crushed produced voluminous amounts of blood-colored juice. Stains from pokeberry, whether on clothing or skin, can last decades. For most budding juvenile delinquents, the pokeberry plant had only one meaningful use – it was perfect for throwing at one’s peers, particularly of the juvenile female sort. A secondary option was to throw the berries on a clean white sidewalk or the side of a house, conducting important field research into just how big a mess one could create before a responsible adult showed up to ruin the fun.

And of course, I may have engaged in a little of that, limited by the specter of my 6’4” Marine father’s potential intervention.

But pokeberries held another fascination for me. They were a potential and vital ingredient in a potent elixir. Carefully gathered and crushed into a bloody purple gelatinous jelly, they became a magic potion, the most poisonous substance known to man, or a secret formula surely capable of transforming a young lad into some incredible creature, or bestowing upon him any number of super powers. Of trivial interest, the pokeberry plant (some call it ‘polkberry’) is quite poisonous, although in truly rural settings it’s greens have been boiled and eaten as a poor man’s substitute for greens referred to as ‘poke sallet’. Tony Joe White even wrote a song about it in 1969, called Polk Salad Annie later recorded by the King himself. I spent a lot of childhood hours concocting my pokeberry creations. Even now, when I see those hanging clusters of berries, I get the urge to find an old mason jar and get to work.

The toys I loved as a kid weren’t bikes, army men, rockets, or skates, they were toys that allowed you to make something unique. One of my favorites was a ‘Wham-O’ creation called ‘Super Stuff’. Combining a pouch full of innocuous looking powder with some water, and shaking it for 20 minutes like your life depended on it, yielded a magical substance of clearly alien origin. I can’t quite recall what you DID with the ‘Super Stuff’ once you’d created it, but it’s gooey, slimy consistency, and the sharp unmistakable chemical smell emanating from it were far beyond the late 60’s technology that produced it. ‘Super Stuff’ taught me that perfection was fleeting and fragile. You could keep it in a container in the fridge for awhile, but it was only a matter of time before you dropped it on the floor where it became the world’s most effective, if a bit messy, vacuum cleaner.

Another of my all-time favorite toys as a kid was the ‘Strange Change Machine’. Place an ordinary plastic cube in an incubator heated to ungodly unsafe temperatures and you’d witness a dinosaur, a pterodactyl, a giant spider, or even a mummy unfold before your eyes. When you tired of playing with your creature, you’d heat him up and mold him back into a harmless plastic cube again. Sounds mindlessly simple, but it was an addictive, awe-inspiring toy to this 7 year old.

So powerful were the memories of ‘creative’ toys like ‘Super Stuff’ and ‘The Strange Change Machine’, I located both of them on the internet and purchased them just a few years ago. The lure of that pouch of ‘Super Stuff’ proved too tempting and I soon had it mixed and oozing through my hands. What can I say? When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child. But when I grew up, I pretty much did the same thing. I’ve never really grown up.

I haven’t found time of late to mash up some local pokeberries, or break out my Strange Change Machine (although it’s still in my closet!). But an alchemic obsession to create something amazing from base materials still courses through my veins. Discovering the internet in the early 90’s was like flinging open doors to the universe. Cruising and perusing was never going to be enough for me, I had to create something on the internet. After several dissatisfying years observing others try to create something special on the web, I lit out on my own with a couple dear friends, and built a couple websites of my own. Website creation is the ultimate exercise in alchemy, the literal birthing of ‘something’ from ‘nothing’. I’ve found over the years as my self-taught skills have grown, that I’m much more enthralled by the ‘making’ and ‘creating’ than I am by the finished product or actually enjoying what I’ve created. I possess no insight into why that’s the case.

My other adult pursuits follow the same pattern. I am a rabid and enthusiastic cook. While others might cook out of practical need or view it as drudgery, designing a meal and carrying it through to fruition is one of my favorite pastimes. My loving wife is ambivalent about food in general. She would happily accept a couple of boiled hotdogs for Saturday dinner. She doesn’t always seem to understand that cooking is a joy for me. Why? Because I’m making gold, or trying to! I may resort to a recipe once or twice a year, but even then, I’m mixing it up, adding, subtracting, always trying to make it my own. For me, cooking is the ultimate alchemy – finding the perfect combination of tastes, smells, and consistency by the careful preparation of combination of just the right ingredients. The meal itself is only an afterthought. It’s all about the mystery of the result.

A decade ago, enjoying a tailgate spread with some friends at an NFL game, someone handed me a cup of beer. It may have been the best sip of anything I’ve ever had. And when I asked where he’d gotten it, he uttered those magical words…’I made it’. And that sparked my immediate 10 year obsession with beer making. As advised, I started with ‘extract’ kits, beers that are essentially planned for you, with even the malt pre-extracted. Basically, you add the ingredients, boil, cool, and dump in your yeast. 4-6 weeks later, you’ve got beer. The beer was good. But the Alchemist in me decried the experience as unsatisfactory. How much more magical might be finding the grains myself, deciding on which hops to add and when to add them, what yeast to use, and what other magical ingredients to add? Something from nothing – does it get any better? Perhaps I’ll create the world’s first pokeberry brew. I’ve made beer so full of homegrown blueberries the foam was purple. I’ve brewed beer with roasted homegrown pumpkins that could complete any perfect Halloween. I’ve even created my own custom labels for special occasion beers. And of course, many beers have been consumed, but that is of little import. It’s all about the brewing.

I’ve also reconnected with another childhood love, the home garden. My beloved Mom indulged my obsessions early in life, allowing me to cram a home garden into a 4’ x 4’ space in our back yard in Franconia, Virginia. When summering at the beach, we’d plant cucumber, cantaloupe, and anything else we could think of in the sandy backyard of our double-wide beach lot. We were terrible gardeners. But when I finally had my own place, smack dab in the tobacco farming community of Stokesdale, NC, the call of the garden was soon ringing incessantly in my ears. I could’ve gone the usual, moderate route and just made a trip to Lowes or Home Depot and found whatever I wanted. But that held no allure for me. Instead, I bought every book on gardening I could find, ordered ridiculous amounts of seeds of almost every kind, and soon turned my bedroom into a large greenhouse. Nearly every vegetable I plant I grew then or since, I’ve grown by hand, as well as many of the flowers in my yard. I enjoy the vegetables (although I probably give away more than we ever consume ourselves), but it’s really about the amazing transformation I help bring about from seed to plant to fruit back to seed again. This past summer, I began combining my alchemic efforts, taking super hot homegrown peppers, drying them, and combining them with sea salt and other ingredients to make some pretty amazing flavored salts.

In a few short months, I’ll move on to my next adventure – backyard beekeeping. Like many of my beloved hobbies, at its core it’s about the magical transformation that occurs when, under just the right circumstances, simple everyday ingredients become something amazing and unique. Granted, I don’t know how to make honey. But I’m going to create the ingredients and environment it takes for my new friends the honey bees to do it. And when I get that honey, I’m going to make my own mead and who knows what else with it.

Because that’s how I roll.

Even more than my wife wonders it, I wonder why I am the way I am? Who really knows why they are the way they are? Why does what fascinates us, fascinate us? Why are we driven and passionate about that which passionately drives us? I really don’t know. But what I do know is that my little brand of alchemy makes getting up every day worth getting up every day. The thought of creating something, anything kicks my pulse up just a few notches. It always has.

So get out of my way. I’m about to make something unbelievably cool.

And there’s nothing you can do about it. 🙂

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