Full many a glorious morning have I seen Flatter the mountain tops with sovereign eye, Kissing with golden face the meadows green, Gilding pale streams with heavenly alchemy
Sonnet 33, William Shakespeare
During my years studying Shakespeare and his contemporaries, followed by more years as a curator, the word alchemy was something that I occasionally had to engage with. It fascinated me in an abstract way, but I found the idea to be faintly ridiculous and laughable if anything. I also felt that making gold from base metal seemed to me to be something likely to cause more harm than good – with something of the con artist about it.
In my imagination, the word alchemy conjures up JK Rowling's Harry Potter books. Or an image of a dusty old pseudo-scientist, bearded, black-robed and pointy-hatted. The Alchemist's bespectacled eyes sore and red from poring over too many old tomes. So when the word alchemy kept appearing in my sub-conscious over and over again during my year of walking in the hills of Southern Austria, I pushed it away – I did not feel that the word held any meaning for me and my quest.
How wrong I was.
In December I decided to walk the same thirteen mile walk every week for a year, I had no idea whether I would be able to do it, or whether I would have the strength and the necessary willpower to complete fifty-two walks in fifty-two weeks. Having no job and little money, I saw it as a project, a way to give my life structure in the wake of my redundancy and release me from the grip of depression. I had no idea that something so simple and free and relatively easy (unlike, say, running a marathon) would have a life-changing effect on me.
It was a bitterly cold day in March when the word alchemy suddenly became relevant to me. It was time for my weekly walk, but I prevaricated drinking endless cups of coffee. Eventually, I set out with my hat pulled down, and my scarf pulled up, my many layers of clothing only faintly keeping out the rough wind. The sky was dull, grey and miserable, the fields scorched by frost, brown and lifeless. Walking with my eyes cast down, I did not expect to see anything of real beauty, but the sight of a single bloom, a bright gold-yellow coltsfoot, transformed the moment and lifted my spirits. The coltsfoot is one of the very first wildflowers to be brave enough to break through the cold earth in spring in Austria.
One of the many things that I came to understand and appreciate during my year of walking, and my two years of researching and writing my book Walking into Alchemy: the Transformative Power of Nature, is the interconnectedness of things - the coltsfoot - Tussilago farfara is a member of the daisy family – Asteraceae - with nearly 24,000 species, the coltsfoot is, therefore, a member of the largest family of flowering plants. Many of these are yellow-gold: sunflowers, dandelions, hawkweed, arnica and many have long been cultivated for their medicinal properties. Remedies from herbs that can be freely collected - this surely is alchemy at work?
Once I allowed my mind to latch on to this concept, I saw that I was mining gold as I walked, and this happened more and more. On winter days when the sun sets early, almost every week I watched as the day ended in a burst of blistering yellow-gold over the Karawanken mountain range. In summer I watched the verdant landscape become burnt and cooked to topaz: golden wheat, golden haystacks a field of toweringly high sunflowers.
In October the turning of the leaves to russet made the leaves look gilded. I picked orange-yellow chanterelle mushrooms, and we ate them for supper. I scrumped a few golden apples too. Everywhere I could see a new beauty that I had for many years been unable or unwilling to see.
But it was only on the last walk which I completed on January 1st in the golden light of the late afternoon as I stood and looked over the Lavanttal valley that I knew that a different kind of alchemy had taken place. It was not in the naming or the seeing of beautiful things, but something within me had changed. My leaden sorrow was transformed into the feeling that the future may, at the very least, be tinged with gold, and I had not changed the landscape, but the landscape had changed me. What I experienced in that year was an absorbing mixture which enlivened my senses. Sound: bird song, the sound of the rhythm of my feet in snow and ice, or silently passing through lush meadows, the wind in trees. Smell: the scent of sap, the cold, clean smell of snow, damp grass; mossy earth. Colour: a monochrome palette moving into an explosion of colour in summer and back to black and white. The textures, the tastes – I even drank snow. These things not only assaulted my senses but caused a chemical reaction in my body and brain – producing feel-good endorphins, raising my serotonin levels and aiding my recovery.
At the end of the process, I had much more understanding of alchemy – for this arcane art was never only about wealth of a material kind it was always a quest to find the elixir of life and I feel that I did find the recipe for that. We can all become alchemists by merely walking up and out and into alchemy.
I also discovered when I had nearly finished my book that there is something called Spiritual Alchemy.
What is Spiritual Alchemy?
Spiritual alchemy is a quest, not for the material gain, not for gold, but for personal renewal. Contact with the natural world is often seen to be of central importance, and such a pursuit often follows a period of depression or other adversity.
There are seven stages in both chemical and spiritual alchemy.
The first is called 'calcination'. In chemical alchemy, the material to be transformed is first burnt and turned into ash. In spiritual alchemy, breaking attachments to worldly possessions is the first goal; I instinctively knew that I had to unshackle myself from debt and from possessions that I could not afford to keep. The packing up of my life in England and lifting the burden of my mortgage were the first step, and I immediately felt that a great weight was lifted from me.
The next stage is dissolution. In chemical alchemy, this involves taking the ashes from the calcination process and dissolving them in water. In spiritual alchemy, it's a releasing of the structures and the systems that define our perceptions of ourselves. This I found very hard; I have always been embarrassed by my inability to fit in and to conform. I desperately wanted to give up my nine to five job and pursue a creative role for myself but lacked the courage to do so. I was, it seemed, always defining myself using the wrong criterion.
After this comes separation: in chemical alchemy, the elements from dissolution are separated and filtered. In spiritual alchemy, the conscious mind has to give way to the unconscious mind; this is difficult because painful memories re-surface and have to be reconsidered. Unexpectedly, the walks gave me time alone and made me think, and I had no option but to filter out the bad and separate the good. After a few months, this enabled me to re-evaluate my emotions and memories. I was also able to create new narratives. I began to see connections with things I had long forgotten to remember: favourite passages of music and paintings, while thankfully, my love of Shakespeare returned.
In the procedure called 'conjunction', the chemical alchemist creates a new substance from the separated elements. In spiritual terms, the unconscious and the conscious must now come together. Having been acutely aware of the social structures at play in the world. In so many ways bound by them, I began to feel more able to prevent them from having ultimate influence over me, and I have continued to feel this since I completed the walks.
For me, the most challenging part of the procedure has been my reappraisal of politics, war and religion — those three essential aspects of life which we are actively dissuaded from discussing in everyday life. It took me many months, and during my hours of walking, I constantly thought about world issues. Walking in the year of Brexit and the rise of Trump made this perhaps inevitable, but it also afforded me an opportunity to think about and analyse my personal view of the events.
In the fifth step, fermentation occurs by adding bacteria and other living organisms to the substance to continue its breakdown. The equivalent here is that suffering and adversity begin to come together, and the conscious and the unconscious, now newly united, can recognise and appreciate beauty.
Distillation in chemical alchemy occurs when solutions are heated and condensed in order to purify them; this is the most crucial step in spiritual alchemy because purification is achieved through various forms of contemplation or meditation. I could not have contemplated so much and meditated on life so deeply had I not removed myself from my daily life and immersed myself in nature.
The ultimate goal of the chemical alchemist is to coagulate and crystallise the initial substance into a solid state in order to produce the infamous Philosopher's Stone and gain the ability to turn base metals into gold. In spiritual alchemy, it is the bringing together of dualities, an awareness that the inner world and the outer world are not different but reflections of each other. I feel that I can now reflect the person I am, perhaps the person I always wanted to be. I feel less as if I want and need to hide and obfuscate. I still often hide behind humour, but I am now able to do this in a much more controlled manner.
Finally, I chose the walk quite randomly, from the many that had been laid out by the local town council. The Q3 route officially begins in the centre of the town of Bad Sankt Leonhard, at the Paracelsus well (Q stands for Quelle or spring). Paracelsus (1493/4-1541) was a chemical alchemist and a physician. In defiance of the ideology of his time, he argued that the body is a chemical system and that balance and good health can only be achieved if it is in harmony with its environment.