Alchemists are often characterized in modern times as bumbling would-be wizards at best, greedy charlatans at worst. They’re portrayed as fumbling hopelessly in cluttered laboratories, unenlightened madmen trying to turn lead into gold. The reality is more complex, of course.
Alchemists were up to plenty of things, many of them having to do with relating to the natural world—and understanding its processes of transformation and transmutation—in philosophical and spiritual dimensions that transcended traditional religious thinking, both Christian and pagan, and preceded modern scientific thought. The whole “lead into gold” thing was but the most lucrative of the alchemical —or hermetic—practices in the eyes of the monarchs and rulers. Alchemy’s material prima as Peter Lamborn Wilson writes in the recent collection Green Hermeticism: Alchemy and Ecology, “can be found ‘on any dung hill.’ Hermeticism changes shit into gold.” It’s an image memorably realized in Alejandro Jodorowsky’s 1973 film The Holy Mountain wherein the thief character takes a dump in a fancy bucket, and Jodorowsky, playing an alchemist, distills those fresh turds into a hefty chunk of golden bling.
Such fantastical processes are well known to dirt-worshipping gardening sage Tim Dundon, the beneficent caretaker of California’s most famous compost pile and the kindly warden of the tropical forest that has fruited from its rich humus. It’s here that Dundon, a scientist-poet in the truest hermetic sense, finds hope and salvation in the transformation of death into life—of rotting organic matter into nutrient-rich soil—that takes place daily in the fecund jungle he maintains on his one-acre yard.