ALL THE IMPS. Lessons learned from Black Phoenix Alchemy lab.

I’d known about Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab, or BPAL as it’s known amongst its connoisseurs, for many years. One day I had a bit of spare cash and decided to give their offerings a try.

Lately I had begun using aromas as a calming stim; a form of autistic self-management to allay the stress caused by the sensory overload of being out in public.

Lavender regent is a motherly, patient, hardy, forgiving and persistent plant (yes, I intend to use my spirit classification system to refer to plants as well). People who have seen me in person will notice I often have a fresh lavender flower tucked behind an ear (aesthetic). When facing unfamiliar situations I’ll sometimes put a single drop of lavender oil on the lapel of my jacket. When I feel particularly overwhelmed it’s not too innocuous to bury my face in that and breathe it in. The sensation is like being hugged by a beloved grandmother or aunt.

I have a very keen sense of smell, so I’ve never been overly fond of wearing perfumes. Even the hair product I use is beeswax based and largely unscented. BPAL has a reputation for being unconventional however, and when presented with offerings with names like ‘Graveyard dirt’, I was intrigued.

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I ordered a bunch of imps (ok…I went a little overboard) and when they arrived I settled down with a jar of coffee as a palate cleanser, to test my impressions.

What do the words ‘graveyard dirt’ conjure in my mind? That fecund, deep smell of moist earth under a cool canopy of dappled shade. Being the tragically literal-minded autistic I am, what I want is a perfume that smells like actual literal dirt.

BPAL’s ‘Graveyard dirt’ smells like perfume. I can’t deny I was a little bit disappointed.

I foisted the ones I truly hated off onto friends as gifts and kept the rest-quickly learning to appreciate that the properties of a scent change when applied to the skin, and then over time as it’s worn. I’m still not overly fond of them however, as to my senses they seem distractingly artificial.

This led me to do some research on the nature of essential oils. One of the joys of working with wood is the smell. I’d recently completed a project using an incredible soft wood (which I have forgotten the name of and will edit in later). I quickly discovered that its oil is in fact poisonous. Oops.

Being highly concentrated chemicals, most essential oils are Serious Business, a business I’m not particularly knowledgeable about. I don’t think the tiny amount of lavender I use is of much consequence other than leaving an unfortunate stain on one of my jackets, and other than that I restrict my use of them to an old fashioned cold and flu congestion remedy.

This journey taught me that not being able to bottle the smell of rain on grass, the salt of the sea, old books or leather makes these experiences all the more precious.

Like taste, scent is fleeting, but unlike cake, scents won’t make my blood sugar skyrocket, so there’s that.

 

Sailing on Melbourne’s tall ship, Enterprize

The sea is a pivotal part of my paganism, so on the 10th of April I took a short voyage with some friends aboard the Enterprize from near my old home town on the Mornington Penninsula to the Docklands, to celebrate my birthday from a few weeks prior.

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The bow of the new Enterprize.

The original Enterprize was a timber two-masted, topsail schooner built in Hobart, Tasmania, in 1830. It was a coastal transport vessel and was used largely for coal, supplies and occasionally livestock.

Although Europeans had sailed up the Yarra river in 1803 on a surveying trip as far as Dights falls in Abbotsford, they did not return to begin the settlement of Melbourne until August of 1835, when the Enterprize was hauled upriver and moored at the site of what is now Williams street.

The original Enterprize disappeared off the Hobart shipping register due to being wrecked on the Richmond River in NSW in 1847, with the loss of two lives.

The new replica Enterprize was launched in 1997, constructed partly from reclaimed materials using traditional boat building techniques.  With an overall length of 27 meters, the rigging is hemp rope and the sails are hand-sewn flax cloth. The bulwarks are Cyprus pine grown on the Royal Melbourne Golf Course and the floor timbers are Jarrah wood salvaged from Melbourne’s old station pier. Below the waterline the hull timber once made up the floor joists of an old Freemantle wool store and the ship’s ribs include wood salvaged from New Zealand brewing vats. The heritage of these recycled materials gives her the feeling of being close in spirit to the original and not just an empty simulacra.

She’d been giving short passenger rides on the afternoon of the trip, so we got to watch her coming in to dock on Mornington pier from a distance as we walked down from the red sandy cliffs above.

After giving a quick offering of some whiskey to the boat and the sea off the end of the pier (I wasn’t able to get rum on short notice) it was time to go.

After a brief flurry of activity hoisting the sails where myself and my companions scampered about either trying to keep out of the way or be useful in helping pull rigging, we were off with a calm but favorable wind.

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The main mast.

Crewed by personable, good-humored volunteers, it’s a quiet ship that hums gently with a diesel engine. The crew love her and she seems happy to soak up their affection-especially the magnificently crafted solid wood steering tiller which happily invites touch. Constructed as faithfully as possible to the original ship, the Enterprize is a real Melbourne icon.

It was a peaceful voyage with a minimal crew and only a small handful of passengers. Although the bay was calm with only small waves, I was still stumbling about like a vodka-filled toddler for most of the trip.

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Port side rigging and bulwark.

Being a traditionally rigged vessel, after spending the afternoon and evening aboard I felt covered in a light coating of tar. The skies were clear and we were gifted with a beautiful sunset, and then a view of the clear night sky with far more stars than I’m accustomed to seeing deep in the light-polluted suburbs where I live.
The sea was playful and friendly as she usually is towards me and I felt content to simply enjoy the experience, staring out across Port Phillip and along the coast in the distance.

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Sunset.

After sunset, pulling in towards the city, Hobson’s bay glittered with sleepy, golden Sunday evening lights as we approached, the sky smudged with smoke and steam.

Cruising up the Yarra back to her home in Victoria Harbour highlighted the contrast of a Melbourne young and old as we passed the new shipping control tower then the old one, abandoned since 1985.

The busy shipping lanes were quiet and largely deserted and dormant; solitary human figures moving about on shore looked out of place, like the peculiar figures in a Jeffrey Smart painting. A lone man jogging along the wharf,  a hooded figure hunched over at the edge of a floating 24-hour boat refueling station.
A huge European freight ship stood silent in the distance; the vast temporary car lots used for moving imported cars off ship lit but empty.

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The Brutalist underside of the Bolte bridge.

The harbor is a vast and awe-inspiring vista of industry, huge machines and ships that are peculiarly alienating in their immensity, dwarfing any human.

We passed serenely under the Westgate Bridge while the crew folded the sails, then under the festively glowing Bolte bridge, until we were back on dry land all too soon.

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Cruising along the Yarra river with the Bolte bridge in the foreground.

The Enterprize runs regular trips of varying lengths (and prices) making it accessible to a broad range of people. I highly recommend the experience to anyone with an interest in Melbourne’s heritage, sailing or the sea to give it a try. She’s a gentle ship, but the capricious sea has caused her deck to see plenty of digestive carnage from seasick passengers. Be sure to take some ginger first.

Dragon’s blood ink: The search for a recipe that actually works

Unsurprisingly, making Dragon’s blood ink is not as straightforward as all the online tutorials with the same copypasted (mis)information make it seem.

The recipe that can most easily be found online is a combination of alcohol, gum arabic and dragon’s blood resin. I put this to the test, and found success hinges on the qualities of the ingredients.

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Dragon’s blood ink and resin.

Part 1: the experiment.

The alcohol:
First test, Polmos Spirytus rectified spirit. It’s the highest purity alcohol (95%) available to the general public in Australia. It’s also $70 per 500ml. I wasn’t willing to spend that much money on booze I’m not going to drink!
So we move down the price scale to vodka. Most vodkas are around 37% alcohol, the rest being water. Due to this high water content, the resin was reluctant to dissolve, and when it did, the drying time was prohibitively long.
My next unsuccessful experiment was with methylated spirits (denatured alchohol). Although cheap, it smells dreadful and leaves a foul smelling residue behind when used as an ink due to the additives which make it undrinkable.

Finally, success with Isopropyl alcohol (IPA). It’s only $9 per 250ml, 99.8% alcohol and evaporates quickly and cleanly. It can be found at specialty electronics stores such as Jaycar.

The gum arabic:
The purpose of gum arabic in ink is to increase the viscosity of the fluid, allowing it to grip the brush.
The problem: gum arabic isn’t soluble in alcohol. Trying to dilute it in water first and then adding it to the alcohol resulted in a stringy, goopy mess.

I couldn’t find any alcohol soluble equivalents, so I left it out.

The resin:
As I covered in my last post, there are primarily two types of resin on the market. Daemonorops draco is not alcohol soluble. If mixed with alcohol, this palm draco resin may turn the alcohol a muddy brown colour, but will quickly settle to the bottom.
Dracaena cinnabari and Draceana Draco will both readily and quickly dissolve in alcohol and are suitable for creating ink.

Part 2: The recipe

What you’ll need:

  • Dracaena resin.  Elfhame’s Apothecary were very kind to provide me with some genuine D. cinnabari, or ‘medieval dragon’s blood’ for testing. It can be purchased here.
  • Isopropyl alcohol
  • A storage jar with a secure lid
  • 2 beakers, open mouth jars or
    measuring cups.
  • A brush or other writing implement
  • Some patience

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Step 1:

Powder the resin.
Because my mortar and pestle are quite large and the material very precious, I wrapped it up in baking paper and crushed it using the pestle alone, which minimizes wastage.
As it is quite readily soluble in alcohol, D. Cinnabari does not need to be crushed very fine.

Step 2:
Pour the powder into one of the open mouth containers. Add the alcohol and watch as the blood red colour instantly begins to seep into the liquid, quickly transforming it into a rich, black-red fluid. The process is quite captivating to watch and the resemblance to real blood is striking.

Step 3:
Let it settle for a couple of hours, then gently skim the alcohol off into the second container by carefully pouring it and leaving the bark chunks behind.
Due to the way in which Dracaena cinnabari is harvested, there will be a substantial amount of bark debris left.
Repeat this process until the alcohol runs relatively clear, leaving behind only spent fragments of bark.

Step 4:
Leave the second open mouthed container with no lid in a warm, dry place and allow the alcohol to evaporate down.
Due to the nature of the ink I didn’t find it necessary to filter it further.
Use a brush to make some test marks to gauge the correct concentration. When enough alcohol has evaporated to create the right concentration of pigment, bottle it in a sealable jar. If it becomes too thick, simply add more alcohol.

Conclusion:
It should give a luxurious red ink, but not be too thick as to remain tacky while drying.
Note: keep alcohol on hand for cleaning brushes/writing implements, as it won’t wash off using normal methods. For this reason I recommend using a fine paintbush for writing, as they are easier to clean.

The process is a little messy, but very simple and easy. By making it yourself, you can be assured the ink is genuine. As pure Dragon’s blood ink dries scentless, this also opens up the possibilities for experimenting with adding fragrances and resins to create Bat’s blood or  Dove’s blood ink and other concoctions.