My Father the Alchemist
One of the earliest memories of my father is the sound of an old typewriter, even ancient in those days, as he sat behind it with one finger clacking the keys and then slapping the carriage back at the end of the line.
That same typewriter sits on the floor where I write this now, under a small colourful Navajo rug, a remnant of my father’s and mother’s life in the American southwest when they met at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. The typewriter is an LC Smith.
The typewriter ribbon on it may still have, not my father’s keystrokes, but a brother’s and mine. Not long after Dad died of a stroke those many years ago, the next older brother and I wrote an incomplete adolescent novel that we thought was hilarious, modelled after a preposterous western novel series we were reading. You may know the type: the hero plays guitar flawlessly, his horse is magnificent, women fawn at both his feet and the horse’s, and he fights and wins every impossible gunfight without a scratch. We wrote our opus trying to make it even more ludicrous. We had an inkling that the world didn’t work like that.
Our writing gene must have come from Dad. He occasionally tried to write short articles for popular magazines based on information he gleaned from more obscure sources. He attempted a number of times to sell some anecdote or short funny saying to the Reader’s Digest, in one of their standing pages such as Life’s Like That or Campus Comedy. His offerings were always rejected.
When we lived in the foggy, rainy Pacific Northwest of Washington State before he moved our family to northern British Columbia in Canada, he worked as an architectural draftsman with aspirations towards design himself.
But I think he wanted to leave the United States and most of the 20th Century behind, and his lot as a ex-warrior who once fought a brutal war against the Japanese in the Pacific in WW II. That’s why he had his eye on the north, on Canada, on starting again as a kind of pioneer, supporting his family by living off the land and prospecting for gold. He wanted to re-invent himself.
He taught himself geology and began to collect small rock samples laid out on card stock, meticulously labelled. He began to learn about placer mining, dredging and sluice boxes.
He studied black sands and how to extract the gold they might contain. On the end of the wooden deck of the old 2-ton Ford army surplus truck that we would eventually drive to northern BC, he would lay out supplies and equipment for experiments he began on how to extract gold.
In our front yard he might spend most of a Saturday with a fabricated metal container he called a retort, using a blowtorch to heat it, pausing to make cryptic notes in a series of small notebooks. He bought mercury and carbon tetrachloride for use in his experiments. Mercury will combine with trace gold such as might be present in black sands, and when burnt off will release the gold, thus making it recoverable. I’m not sure what the carbon tet was for. As a solvent, perhaps he thought he could make the recovery of gold somehow more efficient.
Both of these materials are highly toxic of course and their fumes are not good to breathe. He worked outside and kept us kids from getting too close.
Dad ordered a one-man gold dredge from California which went with us north. I remember he was excited when it arrived. Two brick red pontoons for floating in a creek, with a riffle box running along one side, and a Briggs & Stratton gas engine at one end which powered the suction of the long rubber hose used to vacuum loose sands from the creek bed, and propel them along the riffle box in a slurry of water, with the hoped-for vast amounts of heavy gold dropping into the bottom of the box.
During this time he also became interested in alchemy, I discovered much later. If one associates alchemy with what we are taught in school about its primitive and fraudulent promise to turn lead into gold, then one may fear the effect of too many mercury fumes.
I think in my late teens when I returned from summer job or university, I found the lone alchemical text Dad had obtained on our log cabin’s bookshelves. I had never paid much attention to it before. Later, in my own developing interest in things hermetic and esoteric, I had the book shipped from home to where I was living in New York City.
Unfortunately the book is now lost, but I do remember that it was not primarily about processing dross into gold, but about participating in a work of inner transformation that leads to the Philosopher’s Stone and The Great Work.
Alchemy actually has a fascinating history that is not well served by what we’re usually taught. Sir Isaac Newton who founded the modern science of physics, was primarily a brilliant alchemist, not a brilliant physicist. He spent thirty years and wrote a million words on the subject.
The great psychologist Carl Jung similarly spent the last decades of his life investigating, thinking and writing about alchemy, particularly its spiritual and psychological expression.
Jung tended to think of the ancient alchemist engaged in the irrational chemical pursuit of turning lead or other materials into gold as someone struggling to enact an unconscious process of psychological or spiritual transformation.
However, probably Newton and certainly any who pursue that branch of alchemy called spiritual or philosophical alchemy would maintain that they quite consciously are working on themselves in a process of transformation. The curious and unique aspect of spiritual alchemy is that it incorporates not only the physical phenomena of transformation in the retort, but also in the adept who works through the operations and observes their result.
So in the end, I am left with questions about my father, enthusiastically repeating and revising his experiments at the end of the truck bed. He must have begun with the desire to get fine gold out of black sands, following well-known practice. Did he find a new wrinkle in the doing of it that fired him up as well as the retort? What was the carbon tetrachloride for? Did he for a moment amuse himself with the notion of mercury and sand transmuting into gold? Did he come to think of what he was doing as a way of refining himself?
Did he pursue on some level, ad hoc, on his own, in his backyard, his family unknowing around him, this ancient hermetic practice of transformation? Jung would say, yes, of course, unconsciously. The presence of the book would say, yes, at least he thought about it.
I will never know exactly what he thought he was doing. I do remember his keen enjoyment once in showing me how one of his new geology toys worked.
In the days before computers, he purchased a deck of elongated cards with open and closed small holes along the sides. Each card specified an individual mineral. The text on the card leading away from each of these small holes would indicate some characteristic of a mineral you were trying to identify: colour, hardness, streak (the colour left after rubbing it on rough porcelain), specific gravity, etc.
For each characteristic identified, you inserted a thin steel rod in the appropriate hole with the cards stacked and aligned together. Then those mineral cards with the open holes for that characteristic dropped from the deck leaving the remaining cards, and candidates for the mineral you were trying to identify, suspended from the rod.
With a surprisingly short list of characteristics identified, we narrowed down the possible cards to two or three for the mineral from his collection we were testing this on. I think the colour of the streak was the final successful sort. One card dangled on the rod, and what do you know, it was right! It was a moment of childlike joy for both him and the child at his side, who still remembers and wonders.