TREES AS “NEW THINGS”: Over the past few months while finishing edits on The Amber Garden (Book Three of The Alchemists’ Council), I’ve embraced the philosophy of trying new things. One such “new thing” has been jigsaw puzzling. And one of my favourite puzzles so far has been the Pomegranate Artpiece version of Paul Heussenstamm’s Mandala Fruit Tree. When finished, I adored this tree image so much that I framed it to display in my living room.
Before long, as exemplified by the flowering trees of both a Songbird Garden Puzzle and a Seasonal Diamond Painting, my “new things” revealed a decidedly arboreal theme.
LIFE-LONG CONNECTION(S) WITH TREES: Being drawn to trees is not new to me. Indeed, my most poignant childhood memories include walks with my grandmother into the woods where we would lie together on blankets of clay-coloured pine needles and stare up into the forest canopy. To this day, recollection of those moments brings me calmness. Over the decades since those early years, that love of trees has never waned.
Not surprisingly given my affection for trees, combined with my graduate work on medieval mysticism, my first novel (The Elijah Tree) focused on a young boy who has a mystical vision inside a tree. A while later, as serendipity would have it, my first co-edited academic book (Reading Joss Whedon) featured trees on its cover.
Trees, then, have spread their roots throughout the intermingled aspects of my life: leisure, creativity, and scholarship. But what do they have to do with alchemy or The Alchemists’ Council?
REAL-WORLD ALCHEMY AND ITS TREE(S): The Alchemical Tree (also known as the “philosophical tree”) is described by Lyndy Abraham as “an ancient symbol used to represent the course of the opus alchymicum, the growth of gold and maturation of the philosopher’s stone, the alchemical process itself” (see page 150 of A Dictionary of Alchemical Imagery). Abraham also notes that “[t]he alchemical tree takes many forms, from a tiny plant to a great old oak or world tree” (150) and, furthermore, that “[i]n some instances, the tree represents the prima materia” (151). This and other such concepts within alchemical scholarship led me to feature the Alchemical Tree in The Alchemists’ Council—albeit in transmuted form, like most of the alchemical concepts I use throughout the series.
THE TREE(S) OF THE ALCHEMISTS’ COUNCIL: In the Book One scene that follows this request to “[p]icture a tree,” Cedar explains Council’s Alchemical Tree to Jaden. Throughout the series, this complex but central concept of Council dimension represents the very heart of alchemy, one that both figuratively and literally sustains the alchemists. The Tree’s connection with Lapidarian Quintessence grants Council members the potential of everlasting life.
REAL-WORLD ALCHEMY AND THE TREE OF LIFE: Given its association with Eternal Life, the Alchemical Tree has also been read by scholars through its connection with the Tree of Life. Georgiana D. Hedesan elucidates this connection in “Reproducing the Tree of Life: Radical Prolongation of Life and Biblical Interpretation in Seventeenth-Century Medical Alchemy” [Ambix 60.4, 2013]. Throughout the article, Hedesan outlines associations between the Tree of Life and alchemical elixirs for prolongevity. As she notes, Roger Bacon believed “a medicine similar to that contained in the Tree of Life could be obtained . . . by alchemical means” (345) and Jan Baptist Van Helmont contended, “The new arbor vitae [Tree of Life] could be harnessed as a powerful remedy by alchemical means”; notably, for Van Helmont, the Tree represented “the peak of alchemical practice, destined only to chosen ones” (352). Given Cedar’s detailed explanation of Alchemical Tree to Jaden, she and the Elders of the Alchemists’ Council would certainly concur with these early philosophers.
ADAM MCLEAN’S ALCHEMICAL WORKS: In March 2019, to symbolically bring renewed life and alchemical transformation into my home, I purchased a painting of the Alchemical Tree rendered by Adam McLean. McLean, whom I have mentioned several times within News from Council Dimension, is the renowned scholar who maintains the vast and informative Alchemy Web Site. Now displayed in my entranceway, alongside three other paintings, is McLean’s “Alchemical Tree from a Samuel Norton engraving 17th century.”
These and various paintings by McLean are viewable via this link on the Alchemy Web Site. If you happen to be interested in purchasing McLean’s exquisite alchemical art for your own collection, click one of these two links to his Ebay pages: one and two.
Notably, McLean also provides various audio-visual lessons regarding alchemy and its emblems, including this fascinating one focused on an Alchemical Tree.
TREE NAMES AND CHARACTERS: In addition to integrating the Alchemical Tree itself into The Alchemists’ Council, I named most of the characters for trees or tree-like plants to symbolically represent each one’s initiation into alchemy and place on the Tree. As readers of the series will gradually come to understand, these tree names are not associated with geographical locations—neither those of characters’ originating countries nor their original places for Council contact.
Regional specificity would have proven impossible given 1) various trees (such as cedar) are found throughout the world and 2) several characters are created in alchemical vessels rather than born in the outside world.
TREE-NAME TRAITS: Thus, instead of geographical associations, my initial intention was to link traits of trees with character traits. Cedar, for example, shares characteristics of cedar trees. As noted on Gardenerdy, “most Cedar trees . . . have a long life. Western Red Cedar trees . . . have been known to . . . live for more than 1000 years.” Likewise, Arjun (Terminalia arjuna) is known for its healing properties—a particularly poignant aspect of Arjan’s role in Book Three.
Finally, as with outside world names (Cynthea, for example) variations in tree-name spelling occur. For example, Terminalia arjuna has variant names, as can be seen here or here. Of the myriad alternate names, I chose Arjan precisely because this spelling (unlike Arjun) is less common and thus more consistent with my character’s unique role on Council.
AN ALCHEMICAL BRANCH OF WRITERS: Of late, figurative trees have also been flourishing in my life. Thus I have begun to see connections with other writers as parts of an alchemical tree—one that helps us sustain one another and nourish our rhetorical alchemy of transmuting words into texts. This summer I joined a writing group, two members of which—Délani Valin and Sonnet L’Abbé—are featured in the picture below.
Over the last few years, in its ongoing support of local authors, the Nanaimo News Bulletin has included articles about our respective works; so, if you’re interested in reading more about our writing, here are some links: Délani, Sonnet, Cynthea. Note as well that Sonnet’s newly released book of poetry is now available: Sonnet’s Shakespeare.
AN ALCHEMICAL BRANCH OF SCHOLARS: Another branch of connections for me is one that includes my academic colleagues and students. Today I’d like to acknowledge one former VIU student in particular. Lindsay Church will begin her M.A. in English at the University of Saskatchewan in September 2019. Her major project’s focus will be on the use of medieval alchemy in fantasy literature, including The Alchemists’ Council series. I eagerly anticipate her insights into this expanding genre!
A FEW FINAL THOUGHTS ON TREES IN MY LIFE: Throughout the summer, I’ve been wearing this silver cone to remind myself of the inspiration trees have brought to me. The real cone, which I found when visiting my friends Joan Coldwell and Ann Saddlemyer in early August, appears to be from a Coastal Douglas Fir. (But if any reader wants to correct this guess at cone identification, please let me know!)
The academic year is about to begin, so my intended post on the alchemical child may have to wait until the spring. However, during the upcoming fall term, I will return briefly to News from Council Dimension with an update on the soon-to-published Amber Garden!
Until then, LONG LIVE THE QUINTESSENCE!
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