Trees: Alchemical and Beyond

Mandala Tree 1

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.

Mandala Puzzle with Cabinet for BlogBefore 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.

Cynthea Tree Hugging

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.

Book Covers Cropped for Blog

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?

Abraham Book Picassa

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.

Late Summer Tree from Office Window
Late-Summer View from My VIU Office

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.”

Alchemical Tree McLean Soft Edges

Four Alchemical Paintings

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.

McLean Ebay Page

Notably, McLean also provides various audio-visual lessons regarding alchemy and its emblems, including this fascinating one focused on an Alchemical Tree.

YouTube Alchemical Tree Image

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.

Alchemical Child Image

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.

Cedar Tree Image

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.

Arjun Tree Image

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.

Delani, Sonnet, and I for Blog

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.

Sonnet's book cover

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!

Lindsay and Me for Blog

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!)

Pinecone with Silver and Pearl Necklace for Blog

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!


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Slayage, “The Hive,” and The Alchemists’ Council

Close Up

Last week I took a break from writing Book Two of The Alchemists’ Council to attend the ‘Euro’Slayage Conference on the Whedonverses in London, UK. If you are a fan of Joss Whedon, you likely already know about Slayage. If not, let me simply say for now that Slayage is a conference that brings together both fans and scholars to present academic papers and round table discussions on all things Whedon. Since first attending in 2006, I would name Slayage (in its various incarnations) as significant highlights of my life. Attending the conference and reconnecting with all my friends every two years fills me with utter joy.

If you would like to learn more about this year’s conference, here is a brief article, including a few details about Michael Starr who, among other contributions to the conference, designed 2016’s fabulous poster:


From my perspective, Slayage is integrally connected to The Alchemists’ Council. Joss Whedon changed my life as both a scholar and a writer; among other things, he taught me the inherent value of the fantasy genre. And my work in Whedon Studies over the years was a major influence on my decision to write the book. Most significantly, though, I met Jennifer Hale at Slayage in 2008. Jen not only recommended the book to ECW Press in 2014, but ended up becoming its editor. Indeed, it was at Slayage 2014 in Sacramento that she informed me ECW had accepted the book for publication. What a pleasure to be able to attend Slayage 2016 and explore London with her only a few months after the book came out! Here we are enjoying yet another fantasy world a few days before the conference began:


Onward now to “The Hive”! Given the prominence of bees in The Alchemists’ Council, I wanted to spend the day before the Slayage conference began at Kew Gardens in order to see a spectacular bee-themed art installation created by Wolfgang Buttress.

Hive Sign

According to the official description at the Kew Gardens website, “The installation is made from thousands of pieces of aluminium which create a lattice effect and is fitted with hundreds of LED lights that glow and fade as a unique soundtrack hums and buzzes around you. These multi-sensory elements of the Hive are in fact responding to the real-time activity of bees in a beehive behind the scenes at Kew. The sound and light intensity within the space changes as the energy levels in the real beehive surge, giving visitors an insight into life inside a bee colony.” Fortunately for me, several of my fellow Slayage friends, including Jen, joined me for this unique experience.

Hive Edited

When walking toward “The Hive,” seeing the metal as it glistens against the bright blue sky, one is initially impressed by the installation’s size and intricacy. The architecture alone thrilled me. The ability to view the structure from various angles added to the overall visual and sensory effects. Here are a few shots taken from underneath the structure (i.e. at the end of the path featured above), as I stood looking up into the hive.

From Ground 1

From the Ground 2

Those people are Jen and another friend (Tamy Burnett) looking down at me from above! The path continues upward past a wildflower garden meant to attract actual bees. This shot is taken from the path on my way to the top of the structure:

From the Path

Once inside, one is met not only with a variety of sights based on the hive design, but also with the sounds of bees humming and buzzing, which fill the space. Though impressive and moving, the sounds were muffled by dozens of human voices. I would have preferred to lie down on the floor to listen and observe in silence.  And a nighttime viewing would have allowed better appreciation of the flickering lights. But what can one do at a popular tourist attraction open only during the day? We made the best of it, and the experience was fascinating.

From Inside 1

From Inside 2

The exhibit also included information on local bees, including this one whose Latin name–readers of the book will note–resembles “Lapidarian”!  Perhaps Kew Gardens is actually a protectorate that the Council simply had no need to use in Book One.

Bee Info

Of course, Kew Gardens offered other treasures for someone who has built a world of characters named after trees. Jen and I spotted several of the namesakes from Book One, including Ilex and Cercis:

And at least one great name was suggested for a future volume: Fraxinus (clearly a member of the Rebel Branch).


Of course, the gardens were full of exquisite trees, including this glorious weeping beech, under whose beautiful leaves and branches my friends and I spent quite a bit of time.

Weeping Birch

A few days later, the book and the conference conjoined at the banquet. Here are AmiJo Comford and Ian Klein posing with their door-prize copies of The Alchemists’ Council at ‘Euro’Slayage!

I will also take this opportunity to once again congratulate Ian for winning not only a door prize but–even better–the award for best paper at the conference! Here he is with Mr. Pointy! (Yes, non-Slayage folk, we’ve heard the jokes for years.)

Ian and Mr P

And on a final note, I would like to offer a special thank you to Bronwen Calvert, one of the conference organizers. Amidst all the work she had to do to prepare for the conference and her own paper, she somehow managed to make me this beautiful bee bag as a “congratulations on the book” present. Thank you, my generous and talented friend!

Though I’ve been back home only two days, the countdown is already on for Slayage 2018! See you again then! In the meantime, as of tomorrow, I’m headed back to writing Book Two of The Alchemists’ Council which, by the way, is tentatively titled The Flaw in the Stone. So, as Whedon’s Angel would say, “Let’s go to work!”

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