From fishing to bean soup

The time grandpa lost his patience with me

My grandpa was a kind and patient man. He was slow to anger and quick to smile with us kids – but there was a time he lost his patience with me, a time with Jeff, and a time his dad lost it with him that I want to share. These stories have continued to be told in our family as the few examples of times when grandpa’s patience wore thin.

I don’t know when my grandpa started to take me fishing by myself. I must have been about my kids’ ages (7-10) when I became a good fishing buddy. We enjoyed fishing the Santa Ana River in Southern California together.

My kids when they were little, at the Santa Ana

I was a city kid. My dad didn’t take me fishing and my mom and stepdad do not fish. It was grandpa that introduced me to the river, that taught me about the currents, and that showed me where to cast my line so it wouldn’t scare the fish, but flow naturally so they would bite.

Grandpa also shared his love for photography with me, specifically black and white photography. One winter day, grandpa thought it would be fun to take me to the aspens to take black and white pictures in the snow and catch a little fishing on the way home.

Like I said, I was a city kid, wearing city clothes. A long sleeve shirt, light jacket, jeans, and tennis shoes. If you are unaware of how to dress for a day in the snow and at the icy river – it is not jeans and certainly not tennis shoes.

The day started out beautifully. The aspens were the perfect subject for our pictures – especially in the snow. Soon however, my feet started to hurt and I wanted to go back to the warm car, but I was a trooper and I didn’t complain. I don’t think I even had gloves on – I was clueless.

We had time to warm up in the car from the aspens to the river. It was a pleasant drive as grandpa told me stories and we watched the snow covered mountains and trees pass the window.

As we walked out to the river, I hesitated. I knew the further we walked out, the further we had to walk back – and I was still cold. But, grandpa loved fishing, he wasn’t going to let a little ice on the creek stop him (he had full waterproof waders on). His enthusiasm was contagious as we got to the river to fish.

It was cold – but it was also very pretty. Until I slipped on one of the icy rocks in the river. I fell – hard – into ice, cold water. That was it, I had enough and wanted to go NOW! Grandpa was concerned but I was okay and we hadn’t fished long. I was crying and making lots of noise – between my splash and noise, he wasn’t catching any fish anyways and we hurried to his green Ford Explorer and cranked up the heater.

It wasn’t major, but I know my grandpa was irritated with me that day. His tone was different, his actions sharper – he has lost his patience with me. I felt like a fussy baby, not the tough oldest grandkid of Jack Jones. I was wet and cold and at that moment couldn’t even enjoy the beauty of the snow – it was the only time I remember grandpa becoming irritated by me.

The time he lost his patience with Uncle Jeff

Grandpa told me a story about a time he lost his patience with my Uncle Jeff when he was just a boy. They were walking the river, fishing. My uncle, being a small boy was lagging behind, I’m sure, and his arm brushed against a purple thistle. If you’ve never touched a thistle, it stings! The sensation is similar to how I imagine a hundred burning pins. There is an easy way to ease the pain – you either hold the affected area in the cold water or put cold river mud on it. At the time, my grandpa was already annoyed with Jeff.

Maybe grandpa didn’t know how bad a thistle sting could be but after seeing why Jeff was crying, my grandpa did something uncharacteristic – he lost his patience and got angry. He told Jeff that those flowers didn’t hurt that much and grabbed the thistle firmly into his hand.

Purple thistle
Illustration by Ben Levitt

Now, I’ve touched thistles plenty of times, but never grabbed it to were the needles would press into my skin. Grandpa told the story about how his anger made him foolish and the pain made his eyes well up with tears. He told me it was one of the worst pains he ever felt and it was even worse because it was a pain he deserved because it came from anger at his hurt son. He told me the story to teach me not to touch thistles but also to warn me not to let the anger win.

The time grandpa made his dad swear

I never knew my great grandparents except through stories, but my great grandfather was a good, kind, and gentle man. He was a farmer that prayed and often shed a tear when he took an animals’ life for food. My grandpa was raised a Quaker and according to him, his father never cussed or swore but did have two ‘Yankee curse words’ and I want to share a time of when my grandpa made his kind and gentle father so mad – he said them both.

Grandpa as an adult was mischievous and a bit of a trickster so I can only imagine what sort of fun he must have been as a young boy. One time, he and his friend got the idea to trick his dad. They got a bucket, filled it full of water, and balanced it on the wedged door his dad would be coming through and then, hid and waited.

When great grandpa walked through the door, the bucket did not turn over and instead of having a bucket of water spill out on his head, he had a bucket full of water fall directly, with full force onto his head – and then spill on the floor.

My grandpa said he could still remember the sickening sound of the bucket hitting his father’s head and the extreme sudden remorse he felt. He had only meant to play a joke, not seriously injure him.

Little boy grandpa and his friend stayed hidden out of fear as his father’s face grew red from the neck up and tears rolled out of his eyes down to the floor and he very quietly, but with great anger said “Rats … BEAN SOUP!”

And that is the only time my grandpa said he remembered his father cursing.

I found this image when I typed in rats and bean soup. Kind of funny (it was with a story of a soup company that made rat meatballs which isn’t as funny) but I liked it enough to add as a combo of the swear words – rats and bean soup.

Grandpa Jack‘s anniversary

Today would have been my grandparents 69th wedding anniversary – my grandfather passed away almost two years ago and my grandma just remarried this week. Needless to say, I’ve been thinking of my grandpa more lately. I miss him so much and I cry more now than I did a year ago. He was an awesome man.

My grandpa and I had a special relationship and part of that relationship was built on fishing. I love fishing because it is a connection to my grandpa, to his dad, to my children, to my husband, and to my grandpa’s family in general.

So today, I was going to go to the creek to remember grandpa, but it didn’t feel right. We went with the kids to celebrate his life but this was his anniversary and my grandma was freshly married.

I wondered what grandpa would have thought. He loved grandma with all his heart. His love was beautiful, their love was beautiful. It was an example for our family and for the many people they reached through their lives.

Grandma was sad without grandpa, her health deteriorated, and she began to feel she could not live independently. Her new husband makes her happy, he brings the bounce back to her step … at 90, my grandma is giddy with new love. I know grandpa loves grandma enough to want her to have that happiness. I can almost hear him chuckle with her at her girlishness. I’m crying as I write this. My grandpa had a great laugh.

So, I didn’t go to the creek, I painted. I painted a fish, a frog, a puma, and another rainbow trout for grandpa.

I think grandpa would like my paintings. I think he would place them on reading desk in the back room or on the bookshelf in the living room. I think he would be happy to see how we have carried out what we learned from him.

I miss him most with the happy times. He would have loved getting to know my husband better, seeing the great grandchildren with their growing personalities. He would be happy to know Mike’s kids live a country life, that Joe’s kids are as athletic as ever, and mine have their mother’s creative spark. He would love knowing we all keep the river in our hearts as a part of him.

So happy anniversary grandpa. We love and miss you forever – here’s some rainbow trout for you – I hope you enjoy them in heaven as much as I enjoyed painting them for you here on earth.

Bird singing the blues: Revival of a native tradition

When looking at the collective stories of any group of people it is not only important to look at what the stories say but also how those stories are attained. In his book “Reading the Voice” Zolbrod hypothesizes that oral poetry is meant to be transmitted from spoken voice to listening ear and that when it is encountered in a written form, it needs to be acknowledged that something is lost because the words are meant to be encountered not read. While the words themselves have importance; the rhythm, the tonal inflections, the language, and the experience of one person speaking or singing the poetry and the other hearing it are just as important. There are benefits and constraints to both the written word and the spoken word. Scholars have been working to put onto paper the songs and stories of non-written cultures in order to share and preserve them but what is lost is the context which must be in the least, acknowledged and ideally, experienced.

As I mentioned, there are benefits and constraints to both oral and written transmission of stories.  While documenting a story by putting it on paper or on a recording does give the story a level of authenticity and permanence that can’t be assured with oral transmission; it does not have the same power.  Written words do not change, they are fixed so generations from now, a person can read and know the stories.  The stories may even be recorded electronically so the voice is still heard, the body movements, and experience seen but that is still not oral transmission.  With oral transmission, there is a human contact that over time, becomes a relationship.  It means the student is accountable to an elder or elders.  These relationships also carry traditions, responsibilities, and guidance to the young people that seek them.  The drawback to oral transmission is twofold as I see it.  First, there must be a teacher for the student.  Oral transmission can’t occur unless there is someone willing and able to pass on the traditions.  The other drawback that may be seen as a positive by some is that the oral transmission can be fluid.  Stories, even when sung and passed down through the generations can change.  As seen with bird singing, the songs may lose their words because the singers don’t know the language they are singing or they may lose their sound due to younger singers trying to set themselves apart in pow wow competitions. Neither written or oral transmission is superior, they are just different and have different purposes.  For bird singing the transmission must be oral and experiential.   

For this paper, I will be looking at the transmission of a specific form of poetry, the bird songs of the local Cahuilla people. The Cahuilla people can be generally divided into three groups based on the geographical region in which they lived: Desert Cahuilla, Mountain Cahuilla and Western (San Gorgonio Pass) Cahuilla. All three spoke the Cahuilla language, had similar lifestyles and practiced the same traditions. There are a total of nine Cahuilla Indian nations (Green). This form of oral poetry was almost erased from the culture by the years of forced separation, assimilation, and education of Native children by the American government.  Its phoenix-like resurgence in the local Native communities is a testament to the power of the songs and their need to be heard.  Now that more people have been exposed to the bird songs, issues of transmission and legitimacy are being raised.  The question of what it means to be a bird singer has been raised and the importance of how the songs are learned is a major part of that discussion.  In this paper, I will attempt to offer a glimpse of the Cahuilla people through their songs.  Not the words of their songs, the experience of the songs and their importance to the people.

For eight years, I worked at Noli Indian School on the Soboba Reservation in Southern California.  It was there I witnessed the revival of bird singing.  Today, if you attend a pow wow or similar function in Southern California you will likely see several bird singing groups, each with their own set of songs, sometimes the same words just sung in a subtly different way.  The practice is so prevalent that it is hard to believe that the tradition was almost lost when the last ceremonial singer, Joe Patencio, passed away in 1977. A group of men decided to make an effort to bring the songs back to the people.  With the help of a grant from the California Arts Council, young men within the tribe were partnered up with mentor bird singers to help the practice continue to the next generation (Sing birds, 2009).  It was their passion and dedication for sharing the songs with the young men of the tribe that brought this tradition back to life.  

Working at Noli Indian School, I learned a lot about bird singing and had the fortune to listen to many of the elders like Ernie Morreo, Alvino Siva, Anthony Andreas, and Sat Torres in person before they passed away.  Also, I had the honor to work alongside Kim Marcus, the man responsible for so many young native youth learning their songs and culture.  Mr. Marcus is the school counselor, culture teacher, distinguished elder, and bird singer at the school.  It is due to his efforts that bird singing is such a large part of the culture of the school.  In culture class, boys make gourd rattles and girls sew ribbon shirts and ribbon dresses worn by the singers and dancers. Songs are a part of the everyday life of the school, not something learned as much as experienced naturally.  Those that want to learn can practice and perform at school functions and weekly during lunch breaks.  Elders within the community are often present on campus helping transmit the songs to the next generation.  Many bird singers perform with the students and the school has its own group that performs at local cultural events to educate people about bird singing, this is Mr. Marcus’s group, the Noli Bird singers.  This group includes Mr. Marcus, elders like Willis Torres, students that are establishing themselves as bird singers, and students that are just learning bird singing.      

In my eight years at the school, I saw a handful of students that actually bore the label of bird singer.  Bird singing can be practiced by any of the students but only certain students labeled and respected as actual bird singers.  Since there are no longer any practicing Shamans, the official title of ceremonial bird singer has been lost but there is a difference in stature of a boy that is learning the songs and a boy that is a bird singer.  These boys were also usually in a lineage of bird singers, they came in knowing their culture and the school just nurtured their growth. Some of the boys I watched become bird singers were Bo Bullchild, Joe and Dominic Duro, Julio and Daniel Briones, William Morrell, Dusty and Rocky Rhodes, and Adam Trujillo.  To “be a bird singer” is more than just memorizing the songs and performing.  A young man couldn’t just sing the songs, he had to know what they meant.  This means the young man has to learn his culture, learn his language and adhere, or attempt to adhere to the code of conduct of bird singers.  They had to carry themselves in a manner that befitted the respect they received from the community.  For instance, bird singers are not permitted to use drugs or abuse alcohol.  If a singer is using drugs or drinking excessively, the other students would become upset with them and help them to get back on the path.  Out of respect, singers should stop singing when they know they aren’t living an honorable life. This has led to some tensions within the community as many of the younger singers bend the rules, especially the use of marijuana and alcohol. 

The songs have importance because they hold the history of the tribe and to sing them in the wrong way is to take power from the songs.  It is important how they are taught and practiced.  Both student and mentor need to recognize the sacred nature of the songs and the relationships that grow from their transmission.  The relationship between elder and apprentice bird singer is a special one, not unlike the relationship between Guru and disciple. This is because of the sacred nature of the material.  It isn’t just teaching, it is mentoring.  It is a care relationship not unlike father and son.  “The transmission of Dharma requires language, encounter, and human relationships” (Tsyogal) just like bird singing.  Some people try to learn the songs by listening to the recordings and imitating them but this is the wrong way.  It must be transmitted just like Dharma, by acquiring the language, encountering the songs and their ceremonies and by building relationships with elder singers.

The songs tell the creation story, track tribal migration and history and reinforce native language transmission but they also foster a code of conduct in the community. They are a major part of tribal gatherings and bird singers are respected members of the community, members that are following their cultural calling and keeping the songs alive.  Being a bird singer is no small task.  Bird singers are often asked to perform at gatherings and ceremonies.  In the community, if there is a death, the bird singers will be asked to sing.  On the night of the wake alone, the singers will sing from sundown to sunup, often in a small room with tobacco smoke hanging in the air.  The bird singers are often exhausted both mentally and physically after these events.  Many times, Mr. Marcus would hardly be able to speak after perfoming the songs for a passing tribal member. The importance of teaching the young people culture, especially the bird songs is highly stressed at Noli Indian School as well as on the reservations. “A 1990 census revealed that there were only about 35 people left who could speak the Cahuilla language. The language is nearly extinct, since most speakers are middle-aged or older” (Green).  Soboba tribal hall hosts weekly storytelling nights, language classes, and basket weaving gatherings. Many of the other local reservations have similar events and most have annual gatherings and pow wows where bird songs are sung and danced.  Each day Noli School begins with tobacco offering and prayer, at least once a week bird songs are performed at lunch, often with community members in attendance, and special events occur throughout the year like presentations from community members and the annual gathering. 

The important lesson is not the songs themselves necessarily but the way they are taught and what they have to teach.  Since these songs are taught through practicing together, there is a strong bond that develops between the elder singer and his students.  Most men teach the songs to boys in their direct family; sons, younger siblings, or nephews.  Even with the resurgence of the tradition, the tradidion struggles to survive intact.  Life on the reservation is a struggle for the young men and many from the reservation die young or find their way into the prison system. Sadly, two of the bird singers I saw emerge from the school Dusty Rhodes and Joe Duro died shortly after they graduated high school from gun violence while others ended up in prison, or fell prey to addiction or crime.  This is part of the reason many boys at Noli School do not have that strong male role model to teach them the ways of their people.  Many of the families were led by women because it was the women that were the ones that raised the families and become elders.  This is where men like Kim Marcus and many others stepped in to give these boys instruction on what it means to be a strong, Native man.  They were taught what it meant to have cultural pride and a heritage.

The way these songs are taught are by experience and social interaction.  The men and boys get together and sing.  They sing at social gatherings like funerals, fiestas, and even just backyard get togethers, anywhere can be a place to sing.  At first, a boy will just shake the gourd rattle with the others, next he will hum along but eventually, he will sing. By the time the boy sings, he will have spent enough time with the elder singers to have learned much more than the words to the songs, they will have taught him about his culture and how to be a man.  They will have created bonds that hold the young man to have respect and act in a manner that is culturally acceptable.  This is why the method of transmission is so crucial for keeping the bird songs alive.  In our world today of electronic media, the songs have been recorded, the words and stories will no longer be lost but the tradition, the language, and the social interactions are also in jeopardy of being lost.  Now that the words of the songs, the performance aspect is safe, the sacred needs to be protected.    

The revival of bird songs has brought some mixed feelings about the future of bird singing. “The loss of the Cahuilla language, infusion of money from Casinos (in some of the bands), contemporary western culture and issues of mixed blood have all affected the intention of the singers and the purity of the bird songs” (Sing birds : following the path of Cahuilla power – National Film Network).  The culture of the Cahuilla people was almost destroyed through the over 100 years of forced assimilation of reservation youth.  Now that the culture is being brought back to the reservations, the people need to decide how much they will allow the old rules to bend in order to attract the younger people to participate.  This is not limited to Native cultures but can be seen universally. The issues have to do with who can participate, how they need to be taught, and how they must behave once they are taught.  This is not a matter of who is allowed to participate in social gatherings or simply want to know about the songs, which is open to everyone.  This concerns becoming a ceremonial bird singer; one that has the respect from the community, sings at special functions, and learns the sacred songs.  I will attempt to introduce and look at each of these issues.  I am only trying to look at the arguments, I am not trying to take any position on the subject.  They are part of an ongoing conversation within the bird singing community and in many Native communities.  There is no wrong or right answer, just a conversation. 

First, there is the matter of exclusivity.  The battle to keep the culture alive has not been an easy one through the years.  It makes sense that after struggling so hard to revive the culture, the people are now very protective of that culture and do not want it put under the scrutiny of those that do not understand the context.  Bird singing is a sacred tradition and the songs hold power.  Some members of the community argue that anyone that wants to learn the songs, if they want to do it from their hearts, should be permitted to learn.  They are more concerned that the songs do not die out.  Then there is the other side which wants to limit the songs to members of the tribes that traditionally practiced those songs.  They may talk about blood qualifications and tribal enrollment.  The matter of blood quantum and enrollment is a huge, heated issue in the local tribal communities especially since the economic boon of casinos hit those communities.  Members that have identified themselves with a tribe for generations have been and continue to be disenrolled to increase the payouts for the members that are still enrolled. I admit to feeling slighted as an outsider when I hear that tribal members want to exclude outsiders from learning their traditions.  This is natural but I have to look at it from the perspective of the people that are trying to protect their dying culture. It is not about keeping people out, it is about preserving the specialness of the songs.

By limiting the amount of people that learn the songs to specific individuals, the members are trying to protect the way the songs are transmitted and also keep the power and sacred nature of the songs alive.  While tribal members may also approach the songs in the “wrong way” just like an outsider, it is less likely that they would do so if properly exposed to the culture. When too many people learn a tradition, the tradition begins to weaken.  People begin to learn the songs without the traditions, they do not understand the power of the songs so the songs begin to lose their power.  We as humans value that which is limited, like time or gold.  If everyone could sing the songs, eventually they could lose their meaning, especially when the people singing the songs do not know the language.  It becomes more performance than ceremony and loses its power.

 One way to protect the bird songs from becoming performance pieces is to limit the way these songs are learned. In my mind, this seems to be a bigger issue than the first.  The manner of transmission has everything to do with what is sacred and powerful about the songs. The songs are not something that can be learned from recording or books.  They have to be learned experientially and through human interactions. Many would also argue that to sing the songs, the singers should know the language and understand what they are singing.  While many of the young singers know the songs and their meanings, not as many know the individual words they are using.  When the singers do not know the individual words and their meanings, it is more likely for them to sing the songs incorrectly, the songs just being sounds not actual words.  This is a criticism from some of the elders that do not just want to see the practice of bird singing survive, they want to see the transmission of language and culture to follow that practice. 

The last issue raised is the code of conduct for bird singers.  This is a difficult line to balance when trying to keep a tradition alive.  Similar to the issue of who can learn the songs because it is about protecting the power of the songs.  Reservations are known for their alcohol and drug problems.  Many of the young men that want to learn the ways of bird singing also want to experiment with drugs and alcohol with their peers.  The problem with this is what to do when a singer becomes involved with “small” infractions, like smoking marijuana.  For some members of the community, this is not seen as a “big deal” but others lose respect for the singers when they do these things.  Respect from the community is crucial for the songs and singers to have power in the community.  At all bird singing events on campus, the respect for the songs was maintained and emphasized.  Staff members and often other students would remind each other to remove hats and cease speaking as the songs begin.  The respect for the songs gives them the power and by holding themselves in a place of honor with a code of conduct helps to give those singers their respect within the community.

The future of bird singing is much brighter than it was thirty years ago but it is still a shaky future.  With high rates of death, incarceration, alcoholism, and drug use on the reservations it is easy for young men and women to stray from the cultural traditions.  I saw the young bird singers struggle with trying to stay on the path.  Even some of the older bird singers stray occasionally.  It is a difficult responsibility to hold the position of ceremonial bird singer.  Not only to keep a code of conduct but also to perform at so many functions all over southern California.  It is a daunting task that not many young men today are willing to attempt.  The songs may live on but the traditions and culture that are transmitted with those songs are still on shaky ground.    

It is important for the Cahuilla people to keep their songs alive but it is also important to humanity.  We are at an interesting time in history.  With technology and globalization, cultures are mixing and melding at a rapid pace.  This is at the same time wonderful and alarming.  It is amazing and wonderful the amount of information one can find simply by turning on the computer but what is the cost of this convenience?  Globalization can also be called assimilation into a larger world community and when assimilation occurs, often so does a loss of the original culture.  This is not always a bad thing, some cultures need change but they shouldn’t be forgotten.  By looking at the issues facing the Cahuilla and their attempts to revive their cultural tradition of bird singing, we see our own desire to connect to a larger cultural context and what that means in a society of instant information.  The transmission of stories, language, culture, and the mentoring to the younger generation are issues that face all of humanity not just the Cahuilla.

Works Cited

Green, Mary. “The Cahuilla People.” The Cahuilla People. Augustine Band of Cahuilla Indians. Web. 22 Mar. 2015. <http://augustinetribe.org/cahuilla.html&gt;.

Sing Birds: Following the Path of Cahuilla Power. No Special Ability Productions, 2009. DVD.

“Sing Birds: Following the Path of Cahuilla Power – National Film Network.” Sing Birds: Following the Path of Cahuilla Power – National Film Network. National Film Network. Web. 22 Mar. 2015. <https://www.nationalfilmnetwork.com/store/ProductDetails.aspx?ProductID=1110&gt;.

Tsyogal, Yeshe. Lady of the Lotus-born: The Life and Enlightenment of Yeshe-Tsogyal. Boston: Shambhala, 1999. Print.

Zolbrod, Paul G. Reading the Voice: Native American Oral Poetry on the Written Page. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1995.

Transmuted interpretations

The elements in the crucible of the classroom combine in a specific way to transform my base comprehension of alchemy into something precious, something new; new interpretations for alchemy. The transmutation of knowledge was as deliberate as any alchemist in a lab mixing elements to transform metals with both students and teacher as alchemists attempting to create something of value. The purpose of this paper is two part. First, to introduce and validate organic and intellectual alchemy by showing the similarities with traditional alchemy. Next, I will attempt to demonstrate that while the similarities within these interpretations are how I relate to alchemy, the differences in value, personal cost, and availability of both creation and elements is what defines that value and ultimately, these versions of alchemy as transmutations, not replications of alchemy.

At first, I had a great aversion to the study of alchemy. It was very foreign to me and the idea of taking something and attempting to change it into something better bothered me. Also, I am a lover of nature and I mistakenly thought that to accept alchemy was to betray nature. I had the idea that to embrace alchemy, one had to concede that synthetic could equal or transcend nature. So, while I acknowledged that great things had been accomplished through the alchemist’s attempts to recreate or improve nature, I was still uncomfortable with the idea of attempting to transcend nature. Not to mention the idea of individuals spending all of their time and wealth trying to find a way to get more time and wealth seemed ridiculous to me. Alchemy seemed so remote and slightly ridiculous to me until our third class session when we listened to Judy Collins sing William Yeats’ poem “The Song of Wandering Aegeus,” talked about James Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Way,” and Dr. Evans Smith discussed the idea of the artist as an alchemist. All of a sudden, this topic which seemed so foreign took on a whole new meaning and became relatable. Alchemy isn’t just a quest for everlasting life or how to make gold, it can be about change and creation.

Suddenly, I could relate to alchemy. I enjoy art and while I am not by any means an artist, the idea of transforming colors or raw materials into something better, something beautiful is familiar to me unlike the mixing of metals. The attempt of art is to take raw materials and create something of value is like the alchemist taking base metals and mixing them in different combinations to solve the mystery of the puzzle to make gold. Affecting change on the canvas or on a lump of clay and creating something of value can be argued to be a form of alchemy. To differentiate this form of alchemy, I will call it organic alchemy because even though it is deliberate; it is not the traditional alchemy of crucibles and laboratories. To take the idea of organic alchemy a step further, I found I could relate to organic alchemy through my role as a parent.

The alchemical process didn’t stop there with my understanding of and relating to alchemy. From traditional alchemy to organic alchemy, I thought I should also include what I will call intellectual alchemy. While an artist affects physical change on raw materials, so too does an author take mere words and create whole new worlds. This change happens within the mind, it is not a physical creation like with traditional and organic alchemy but it is a conscious attempt to change and create. Authors aren’t the only people to practice intellectual alchemy, I will show that teachers are intellectual alchemists, and we use selected materials to create knowledge and understanding within a specific topic.

The concept of organic alchemy became relatable through my misinterpretation of the William Yeats’ poem “The Song of Wandering Aengus” and because of the name of the character from “Finnegan’s Way.” I like to call it a miss-interpretation because I saw the poem through the female lens, specifically through the lens of motherhood. It may have been because it was sung by a female or because I have recently become a mother to a little girl or most likely, both of these elements come into play. While the poem is a love poem of a man to a woman, I read it as a poem from mother to daughter. In this reading, the mother is the organic alchemist and her precious creation is her child. Like an alchemist, so engrossed in their pursuit for gold, this misinterpretation was so powerful and resonating with me, I did not even stop to think of any other interpretation until I started to do research. I do know this was not Yeats’ meaning when writing this poem but the alchemical process from adding this poem, having it sung so beautifully by Judy Collins and heating it in the crucible of my mind made this interpretation of the poem and alchemy. Here is my miss-interpretation of the poem as it relates to organic alchemy and parenting:

“I WENT out to the hazel wood,

Because a fire was in my head,”

Here we have a deliberate capitalization of the word WENT, the act is deliberate, it is the authors decision to actively make a change. To start the change, “she” goes out into the hazel woods, hazel is associated with creativity. The author wants to make a change through creation and the fire in the head is how the crucible gets heated. Here it is like parenting since it is with the deliberate act of trying to have a child, the parent thinks they will create something more precious than gold and better than themselves.

“And cut and peeled a hazel wand,

And hooked a berry to a thread;”

Here the interpretation is purely personal. Fishing and especially by using a stick and berry makes me think of fishing with my grandfather as a child and fishing with my son now. He taught me to value simple things, like a homemade fishing pole and we always fished with salmon eggs which are small, red and round and look like little berries. He instilled in me a love of fishing and an appreciation of nature as a small child and I hope to do that for my children and grandchildren. It makes me think of so many generations constantly trying to create something better than themselves.

“And when white moths were on the wing,

And moth-like stars were flickering out,”

The moths are out so it is still dark outside and they are white, pure and new. The next line with moth-like stars flickering out actually indicates that it is during a time of transition from night to early morning, the beginning of a new day. This relates to the beginning of the alchemical process of creation.

“I dropped the berry in a stream

And caught a little silver trout.”

Since the berry makes me think of fishing with salmon eggs it makes sense that these lines relates to biology of creating a child. The egg that the author drops into the stream is her own and the stream which represents the father’s contribution also represents change because it is always moving. It isn’t just putting these two elements together that creates the new precious material it is putting them with something that combines and changes. The trout is the child and like a little silver trout, a small baby is slippery and wriggly when it is pulled from the stream, the place where the elements combined and transformed or born.

“When I had laid it on the floor

I went to blow the fire a-flame,”

Here it the author lays the creation on the floor and goes to the work of getting the fire started. I live in the mountains and our primary source of heat is a wood stove so I often set my daughter on the floor with some toys and make a fire for us. To me, these lines represent how quickly the time goes by as a parent, people often say it’s like they blinked and the child had grown. Which is represented in the next six heartbreaking lines, the moment you turn your back the child is grown and speaking your name. Then she is a glimmering girl who calls your name, she is has a blossom in her hair so she is already a child. Next she calls your name and runs and fades away through the brightening air. Children as they grow naturally pull away from their parents and eventually move away and create their own life and family and into the brightness of the future.

“But something rustled on the floor,

And some one called me by my name:

It had become a glimmering girl

With apple blossom in her hair

Who called me by my name and ran

And faded through the brightening air.”

I could not accept the interpretation of the author’s daughter growing to the point that she fades away into the future but that was reconciled through the next six lines:

“Though I am old with wandering

Through hollow lands and hilly lands,

I will find out where she has gone,

And kiss her lips and take her hands;

And walk among long dappled grass,

And pluck till time and times are done”

The author says if this separation from her daughter were to occur to she would wander the earth to find her and kiss her lips and take her hands and walk with her until time and times are done – how breathtaking is that? I see no comment is needed on these lines, they stand so beautifully on their own.

‘The silver apples of the moon,

The golden apples of the sun.”

The last two lines I interpreted as showing that this poem is both personal and universal. An apple is literally a fruit, the product of the parent. It is also round and contains the seeds for the future, a continuation of life through the generations, an attempt to have a part live on forever. Silver and moon represent the female and the golden and sun represent the male. I saw two possible interpretations for the male and female. The surface interpretation that they represent the parents that created the child but it could also be showing that this poem and its sentiments are universal. Since the apples are the fruit that will transform and holds the future then they are the children so this poem relates to how mothers feel to all their children, their silver daughters and golden sons, precious metals and precious creations. This is organic alchemy, a deliberate transformation of two base elements to create something precious.

Sometimes as with alchemy when the elements mix, they do not make a better creation. There are sometimes problems like mental illness which was the case for James Joyce and his daughter, the writer of “Finnegan’s Way.” As pointed out in the lecture in class, Joyce may have intentionally named his character Nuvoluccia to try to transform his daughter through a different kind of alchemy. Intellectual alchemy, changing something through the mind, he remade his daughter Luccia without the schizophrenia as the New Luccia. The artist as an alchemist. Parenting is also so much more than the organic alchemy of creating through the combining of elements, it is also very much a long process of intellectual alchemy. The parent is like an alchemist toiling away for endless hours, often into the middle of the night to effect the transformation from themselves into something better. They try many different elements to effect change in order for the child to transform and improve. This is also like teaching.

The teacher is an intellectual alchemist. They take a selection of elements and combine them into something new and valuable. Had Dr. Smith not combined the exact elements of the poem, the song, and the interpretation of the artist as alchemist, I would not have made such a lasting personal connection to alchemy, which to me is gold. A transformation occurred intellectually that was purely intellectual but it was a combination of elements that created something new and better. The thing that is beautiful about intellectual alchemy is the ability for it to be shared with many people at once. For each student, there is a different creation based on what they bring to the crucible classroom. Each element is necessary for that exact transformation because they each add something to the mix so it is like a recipe in alchemy, attempting to mix the elements for something precious. The teacher like the alchemist toils away night and day over the betterment of their recipes and creations, always striving to improve their lessons and products they create. They also have to choose between the many elements of texts to assign and materials to be included and left out. The teacher, like the alchemist, has an endless combination of elements to experiment and attempt to make a precious creation. The creation of something precious, gold and silver apples.

This leads us to value, how do we determine what is precious and how does availability of creation and elements transform value within the three methods of alchemy, traditional, organic, and intellectual. First to look at what is valued, what is the precious creation the alchemist is pursuing and what elements does the alchemist implement in that pursuit. Next by looking at the availability of the elements and products and how this defines value within each form and inevitably separates each practice of alchemy.

In traditional alchemy there are two primary pursuits, gold and endless life. Both of these are limited which gives them high value. They also both have attractive qualities that give them obvious desirability. Gold equaled wealth and to possess gold was to have wealth which represented comfort, stability, protection, and power. Who doesn’t want all of that? The problem is that if gold could be created, it would no longer be limited. In this case, success in the creation of the precious metal would devalue the gold because it would no longer be limited. The same applies to the other quest in traditional alchemy, life. Part of what makes life so valued is that it is limited. We cherish the time we have specifically because we don’t know how much we have but we do know it is limited.

The elements used to pursue these precious creations are unlimited. Alchemists used combinations of metals, in different amounts, using different shaped crucibles with various heats to attempt to create gold. They used elements from nature and basically any combination they suspected could lead to the universal elixir. The elements for creating the precious goal had an unlimited supply because there were endless combinations. Compared to the goal, the elements have little value but many alchemists spent fortunes chasing the precious outcomes. The personal cost was high even if the elements are unlimited, the acquirement of the elements and the necessary equipment came at a large cost. The cost was not important to the alchemist because the goal was so valuable and to achieve it was worth the great cost. To give an example of personal cost and value, I will relate my current situation.

As I write this, I have my six-month-old daughter sleeping on my lap. It isn’t ideal but it is limited. While it would be easier if I could put her in her bed and type more comfortably, her desire to be with me is endearing. Part of me enjoys holding her as I write. I know that it won’t be forever that she will be sleeping on my lap. Too soon she will be the small girl with an apple blossom in her hair. Because it is limited, I embrace it and enjoy what I can but if it was endless it would lose value. As pretty as it may sound in poetry, if I were actually to hold her all the time until the end of time, it would lose the endearing quality. The ability to endure through the personal costs like back pain and difficulty doing most any task is due to the fact that it will not last forever. It is for only a short time so while it can at times be difficult, it is something of high value. If it was to be endless, it would lose value. Time with children is especially limited, they are growing and becoming more independent progressively through time. This gives childhood and children value because it has defined limits that can only be kept by transforming them into intellectual creations through memory.

For organic alchemy, specifically parenting, the elements are limited and as a consequence, so is the creation. For women, the limitations and personal cost are much higher so motherhood often has higher value in many societies. In American society, parenthood and the creation of a family is the highly sought after quest of many unsuspecting organic alchemists. They desire to create something new and better by using the elements of self and partner which makes them organic alchemists. Art is organic alchemy and parenting is part organic, part intellectual alchemy.

Intellectual alchemy differs from the first two interpretations of alchemy because it does not produce a tangible product. An author may write their words on a page, transmuting them into something that exists within the world but the actual process of creation in writing is purely intellectual. Teaching can also be a form of intellectual alchemy with the goal of transmutation of knowledge. Besides not having a tangible precious creation, intellectual alchemy has the added distinction of multiple alchemists. I would argue that both the teachers and the students are the alchemists and the elements. The teacher is the head alchemist, the one that chooses the elements to include in the lesson but the students are also working toward the goal of acquiring knowledge and understanding. Intellectual alchemy is unique since it requires at least two alchemists and the transmutation which occurs in the minds of the alchemists.

Knowledge while not tangible, is highly valued. The elements used to create it are endless but at the same time, limited. The teacher as an alchemist has a wide assortment of materials for the procurement of knowledge but it is also limited by circumstance. Teachers can only assign so much reading which means with each element they are choosing to add, they are choosing to leave something else behind. Also, each individual brings their own set of elements with experience and interpretation to the material. For each person in the room, knowledge is usually acquired but it is different for eachc individual. Intellectual alchemy is the easiest to successfully practice but the results are never the same. The precious goal in this alchemy is attained and still valued.

This is a major break from the other interpretations of alchemy. Intellectual alchemy increases in value as it is shared. The knowledge created does not lose value from multiplication because it is still precious and unique to each individual. The personal cost of knowledge leads us back to traditional alchemy, time. All of these things cost us time. While science has managed to extend the time we have on this earth, it is still limited and that limitation is unknown to us. Time, our most precious resource which has yet to be produced by the alchemists will remain the common thread to all that is precious because it is the only thing that truly can’t be replaced. It can be transformed into memory and story telling but not duplicated.

 

Works Cited

Smith, Evans Lansing. “The Romanticism to Postmodernism.” Third Session: Alchemy and the Hermetic Tradition. Pacifica Graduate Institute, Carpenteria. 8 Nov. 2014. Lecture.

Yeats, William. “Poetry Archive | Poems.” Poetry Archive | Poems. 1 Jan. 1899. Web. 21 Nov. 2014. <http://www.poetry-archive.com&gt;.

Collins, Judy, and William Yeats. “Judy Collins – Golden Apples of the Sun.” YouTube. 14 Dec. 2009. Web. 21 Nov. 2014. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=alIUW_JY03I&gt;.