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Lead to gold and the magical couscousiere

Alchemist at work.

For all those who pre-purchased, or are otherwise waiting for my promised February distillation of Frankincense Frereana, the wait is over.  Since selling out of the first distillation, packing up and moving, I have finally set up  shop on the other side. Though by no means at full steam yet, orders are going out, the first tinctures and oils are macerating, and the drip drip, drip of a still has been heard again.

Fresh distilled Frankincense Frereana-2013 harvest Somaliland-Fairtrade
Fresh distilled Frankincense Frereana Somaliland-Fairtrade

This also means that there are a number of Boswellia Frereana essential oil bottles back in stock in the Etsy shop.  As usual, this is a small and intimate distillation, not a factory or production run. The advantages of such a small distillation are evident in the quality and nuances of this oil. With a deeper amber note than the 2014 distillation, it opens with hints of Nutmeg, sweet candy, and citrus with a slight floral bouquet. It dries down around the amber, disclosing warm leather and musk, to settle, eventually as a soft amber with a halo of delicate, sweet and muted,musky floral tones.

 2015 Distilled essential oil of  Boswellia Frereana-Somaliland

Since I am starting from scratch here in many ways, I am led forward as much by circumstance and opportunity, as by intent. I find myself building an essential oil still from a Couscousiere. A Moroccan kitchen contraption that is optimized to steam large volumes of couscous. A simple device, but one that should lend itself particularly well to steam distillation of essential oils. Especially to the aromatic seeds such as Cumin, Coriander, Dill, and Carrot to name a few.

Couscousierre pot still
Couscousiere pot still

The problem with still designs sold for home use is they often have a relatively small chamber for raw material. When one considers the miniscule percent of essential oils present in most sources, (often less than 0.1%), and the sheer quantity of material that is needed  just to squeeze a few drops of essential oil from a distillation, one realizes quickly that their first “classic” still may only have the capacity to give them floral waters, and only deepen their yearning for a vial of self-distilled pure essential oil.

Couscousiere pot still with cat
Still pot with cat

It can be a disappointing experience with time wasted going over procedures to make sure one didn’t make a mistake. More often than not there was no mistake made in the operation of the still, but in assuming one should make the purchase based on limited information provided by the seller who omitted mention of the yield of essential oil the device could process. There are a few companies online that provide specifics on how much essential oil to expect from your home still, but they are the exception.

This Couscous pot has a top fitting sieve that will hold 8 liters volume of Coriander, Dill , Caraway or Carrot seed, Allspice or Back pepper.  The size of the holes is fortuitous. Because it is suspended above the water there is little chance of splash over of water from the pot to the condenser and receiver.

The pot easily takes 12 liters of water which will carry off most if not all the essential oils in the material. I intend to set up a reflux or water return system after I have it running properly, to siphon the distillate waters back to the pot for extended operation. It looks promising.

Alchemist applying lute, (gasket putty), to seal distillation vessels. Some things don't change.
Alchemist applying lute, (gasket putty), to seal distillation vessels and keep the insides inside, the outside out. Some things don’t change.

At a later date, I will address the drawbacks to adapting this pot, or maybe I’ll mention them now…….

OK, I’ll address them now,

The drawbacks here, are my pet peeves with any improvised pot still ie., gaskets.

A tisket a tasket, I wish I had a gasket.

Something soft and something round,

something bought or something found.

outides out and insides in

Make it firm and make it thin,

a tisket a tasket, my pot-still needs a gasket, or 2.

A gasket, a gasket. I know I saw something that would be perfect. Hmmmmm.
A gasket,,,,a gasket. I know I saw something that would be perfect.

In the early days of recorded Alchemy, clay and ashes were among the standard materials for “Luteing” or sealing a vessel prior to distillation or processing through the fire. With the addition of vegetable oils such as Linseed, animal hair, plant fiber, cloth and many other ingredients, one could produce a waterproof luteing that would suit and seal a steam or hydro distillation. Today we have access to a boggling plethora of materials, many, we had never even dreamed of back then. If you have an inclination towards theories of reincarnation, then you likely notice the benefits of continuing one’s work in this era are growing daily. If you are reading this, you might wonder what brought you here and give a bit of thought to the idea of reincarnation. You never know why you are drawn to things.

Alchemist at work.
My messy study-Alchemist at work. Ora et Labora.

The world we live in now is an improviser’s emporium of materials. An upcycled’s utopia,  a craftsperson’s  cornucopia. But with it also comes a risk of sensory overload with the abundance of  new materials,  processes and technological breakthroughs, the infinite possibilities that surround us. It can be easy to lose our focus, our connection and appreciation for the earth’s bounty, forget that everything is magical, that everything is alive in its own way, and deserves, even demands our respect.

The modern day alchemist/craftsperson/artist/scientist and creator is likely to spend as much time in communion with the Divine and the creative spirit for the answers to technical  conundrums, as in the quest for intellectual/spiritual enlightenment. But then, don’t all paths lead to the same destination?   Are we not ourselves transmuted when we transmute the dull and leaden into radiant gold?  Shaped and molded by our relationships?

Spiritual and physical alchemy are not distinct paths, but one the reflection of the other. Each making the other possible. Two sides of one coin. We are transformed along with the materials, relationships and processes we engage with.  Lead to gold baby. Lead to gold.

Well, back to work and making magic with my couscousiere. Till then, Artist, craftsperson, or scientist, wherever you are in your creative journey,

remember to always take clear notes

Your future self will thank you.


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Culpeper”s Complete Herbal & English Physician


Nicholas Culpeper‘s  books and “herbals” have been considered classic and well-respected references for hundreds of years now.  Packed with recipes, plant profiles and lore, Culpeper sets out the proper way to identify plants, diagnose and treat patients based on astrological rulerships, “The doctrine of signatures” and Galen’s philosophy of humors.

English: "In Effigiam Nicholai Culpeper E...
English: “In Effigiam Nicholai Culpeper Equitis,” portrait of Nicholas Culpeper, etching, by printmaker Richard Gaywood. 126 mm x 90 mm. Courtesy of the British Museum, London. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Not only do they give us a peek at medical and herbal practices of his times, but woven between the lines, one finds a wealth of information on traditional plant alchemy and medical  astrology. Some of this more esoteric information is in the open and presented as a matter of fact, some lies a little deeper for those who have the eyes to see. His books are a “must read” for anyone who has an interest in plant alchemy, traditional European herbalism and medical astrology . This particular volume contains some of his most important writings. I will transfer the book to it’s own page in a few days so it can be easily referenced. Enjoy!


culpepper planetary rulerships
View of celestial influences on the body of woman-Planetary Rulerships
culpeppersenglis Planetary rulerships
View of celestial influences on the body of man-Planetary Rulerships

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Surfing the Solstice Dark



Every year, from the Winter Solstice


till Spring or so, many of us struggle with our inner darkness. The long  nights and lack of sunlight resonate with our own shadows, drawing them to the surface.  Like clockwork, yearly, we experience the ebb of light and the rise of darkness within. Just as the oceans, we respond to the rhythm of  Nature.



How do we relate to darkness? In ourselves, in others, in the world, ?

 Personally, I usually just fumble along. We are not taught how to navigate through our internal darkness, our fears and negativity, our despair, resentment, anxieties, our skewed perceptions of self and reality.  We have a label for it now, Seasonal affective disorder, S.A.D., which at least gives us a little bit of comfort knowing we are not alone, nor completely bonkers, but, beyond firing up our happy lights every morning for what seems like a longer period each year, digging up our therapists number from the bottom of the pile, reconsidering  antidepressants, (which seem ineffective for most of us), we pretty much have no effective tools for coping with this annual shift in perspective other than hunkering down in our metaphoric bomb shelters till the wave of darkness subsides on its own.  This is possibly the only instance procrastination works in our favour.

Winter solstice
Winter solstice (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Eventually the darkness does pass on its’ own. Nothing sophisticated about this approach to maintaining our sanity and equilibrium.  It is, in essence, reactive, an instinctual response to threat which just adds to our feelings of vulnerability and helplessness.  There must be a better way to navigate through life and our winters, right?  How do we heal childhood wounds, pain and  grief?  Loss? How do we contend with defeating  feelings and thoughts that can drive us to drink, escapism, self loathing?  How do we eliminate or heal those destructive thought patterns and dark feelings that keep us from being the most we can be?  Can we do more than just hang in there and resist being swept away,? More than just get by?  We are taught by example to be afraid of the dark within us, ashamed of our “flaws” and “imperfections” . We deny them, avoid and escape them, hide and repress them, project them on others, or express them with self-destructive behaviour. There must be a healthier, more productive and useful approach!

English: 2010 Mavericks surfing competition. T...
English: 2010 Mavericks surfing competition. The image was taken from a boat. (Photo credit: Wikipedi

2010 US Open of Surfing 2

Fellow gardener and blogger Steve, at Naked Nerves, pointed out, in a simple and elegant post, (well worth reading!) “Going within at Sun’s return” that if we attune to the current cycle of Nature and the Winter Solstice,  we will find  a unique opportunity, and the  perfect time to work with our shadows.  They are surfacing  now for good reason. If we can embrace and accept these dark parts of our selves at natures’ peak of darkness, work in harmony with Her rhythm,  we can ride this waning wave of dark, supported by Natures own yearly movement  from darkness towards light and renewal.  Now, with greater ease than ever, we can work with our fears, our shadows, the monsters under our beds, our shadow selves, and transform them. Acting now, and not resisting the dark winter wave, means we can surf  it, propelled forward by the natural crest, of diminishing dark and increasing light.  If we can shift away from fearing,  fighting, denying or repressing our dark shadows. If we can, befriend the dark inside us, we could ride this wave of darkness, all the way to its’ inevitable destination of  light and Spring renewal. A journey, both symbolic  and practical, on which there is potential for great personal growth and an increase in our light and happiness. A much more elegant and dignified way to deal with darkness. 


Winged Sun Return and Regeneration
Winged Sun-Symbol of Return and Regeneration

Shadow is just as important as light. Nothing to be ashamed of, we are all made of the same stuff, but, some of us cope better, or hide our dark stuff better. It is there in us all. Darkness, in this context, is just as real, and just as much of an illusion as light. We have within us, all the light and joy in the world, and all the darkness and despair. Neither of these is who we are. We are but the observers and experiencers.


staff of hermes-janeadamsart
staff of hermes courtesy of Jane Adams.

Neither is good or bad, and darkness is simply half the duality of life. There would be no bright Full Moon without a dark new moon, no long Summer days, without short winter hours, no lush fertile valleys without bleak frigid mountain peaks. There would be no light or growth, no emancipation or victory within us, if there was no darkness, no challenge,  fear or shadow within us.  And this, the darkest part of the year outside, is the prime time and opportunity to consciously work with, and grow through, our shadows and darkness. We can ride this natural wave of dark, if we can get past our fears, and our instinctive, reactive responses, and our resistence. We can surf  this wave of  Solstice dark.


Astrologer working by the stars
Astrologer working with the stars

This is one of the great secrets of traditional Alchemy.  Timing our actions.  Studying Natures rhythms and cycles, so we can harmonize our processes with them, not work against them.


There are obvious correlations here to the ocean, tides, Sun/Moon, the emotions, concious, subconcious, and the element of water. I leave these for you to contemplate and plumb, at your leisure.


Wishing you all an inspired  and productive transition to the light. (Winter).





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