Embarrassment and the urban panopticon

It’s hard to be your witchy self when you’re always being watched.

I live deep in the suburbs, and while I appreciate the convenience of having useful amenities within walking distance, I can never truly relax surrounded by so many people. I struggle to commit fully to trances as even in my own home I could be and have been interrupted.

Some time ago, when walking home late one night I paused to enjoy the quiet and warm darkness.
I sat on the pavement with my back resting on a fence, legs tucked up and out of the way. The street was empty. Walking around the suburbs, I rarely see another human soul outside cars.
A man passing by stopped and asked if I was ok. I said I was fine but declined from further justifying my behavior; thinking him to be a responsible, concerned citizen. I did not wish to either lie or engage in a lengthy explanation.
In the moment that followed I realized it wasn’t compassion for my welfare that stopped him, but scorn. I was breaking a social norm; a cause for moral outrage.
‘It’s very weird. Sitting there in the dark. Very weird.’ I was at a loss for words at his tone and just dumbly agreed with a ‘Yep. Sure is.’
When I refused to engage further, he left in a huff. I wondered if he’d call the police.
It was a tiny microcosmic reflection of how much pushback I receive from society for merely existing. Much of the time I just wish to be invisible, but being an outsider removes my right to privacy and autonomy in the minds of many. The social panopticon of the suburbs leaves me feeling watched, scrutinised and judged. In the city I can sometimes disappear in a crowd, but suburbs are stark, territorial and judgemental; not a hive of blinkered workers but a landscape of tiny anxious kingdoms.

More recently pokemon go motivated me to walk to a place I was only fleetingly familiar with. An old racetrack converted to a park, with a man-made lake and vast lawns. It’s a friendly and engaging spot, raucous with birds. As I walked my thoughts turned to community, my own poverty and the private ownership of land.
Coming up a gentle hill on the return trip, I received a view of the shops I often visit from a different angle-how perspective changes things.

I paused looking at the remains of a dead tree; pondering how much science fiction idealistically divorces man from nature. An extension of the lie of endless, perfect suburbs. The total eradication of the wild, the untamed, in favour of wholly servile machines. Manufactured food and fake wood. It’s deeply troubling and unrealistic. I’ve never seen a farm on Star Trek.

Approaching the tree carefully, I touched it, gentle and loving. It was very tall, straight and old. I listened. It spoke. Dropping into a light trance I saw it was a native hardwood, uppermost branches kissed by the sun and whispering like ocean waves in the wind. It mourned the red-blooded creatures who had sheltered in its branches, who had died when it had been cut down.

The sound of a rustling plastic bag rudely snapped me back. A person had just passed me by, carrying their groceries home.
What they would have seen in me is a strange-looking person hugging a telephone pole.
It took a few minutes of self-talk to convince myself that even if they did see me (it was dark and I was wearing all black) that it doesn’t matter. I should not be embarrassed and ashamed. I have a right to exist, no matter how odd. The dangers of oppression are real but the walls are imaginary.

Nonetheless, snapping out of a trance state involuntarily leaves me jittery, disorientated and even woozy. The feeling that had caused me to shy away from trance work after one too many interruptions.
Like most people with PTSD I have a heightened startle response. The conversation with the tree was over, abrupt and jarring, like the lives of the creatures who had once sheltered in its embrace.

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.

The surprising truth about counterfeit Dragon’s blood

The truth is you haven’t been buying Dracaena draco, and the surprise is; that’s a good thing.
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Dracaena cinnabari in it’s native habitat on the Socotra archipelago. Photo credit: Wikimedia commons.

Part one in a series on Dragon’s blood resin.

The other Dragon’s blood; latex, dye and poison

In a modern magical context, Dragon’s blood is often erroneously assumed to simply be the resin sap produced by the Dragon tree, but as with most things in this world, the truth is more nuanced.

The Calamus, Pterocarpus and Croton genera contain plants which produce gums, latexes and resins which have been labelled as Dragon’s blood; these have been used medicinally and as dyes. One example, the latex of the Sangre de drago , Croton lechleri, native to South America, can be used as a natural adhesive bandage.
As for their use as pigments, due to the nature of vegetable dyes, kino gums may resemble blood when oozing from wounds on a tree but often do not produce a red colour pigment.

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The familiar kino of the Eucalyptus, Corymbis calophylla. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Outside of ethnomedical studies and natural remedies, these forms of Dragon’s blood are of less prevalent concern to modern paganism.

Next up we have the brilliant but deadly vermilion, also known as Dragon’s blood, or China red. This was traditionally produced from powdered mineral cinnabar. Cinnabar is a highly toxic form of mercury sulphide which was used in antiquity as a dye, cosmetic and in jewelry. Unsurprisingly you’re not likely to encounter this stuff on the market in its natural form, although vintage Chinese cinnabar lacquered artifacts are attractive to collectors. While cinnabar is very dangerous, with careful handling the lacquer renders it relatively inert.

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A wooden plate lacquered with cinnabar. Photo credit: Wikimedia commons

Finally, the form that most of us are more familiar with; Dragon’s blood incense. This is usually derived from either the Daemonorops or Dracaena genera; only the latter of which is also used as a dye.

The true Dragon’s blood tree

The Dragon’s blood resin you see for sale is very unlikely to be from the true dragon’s blood tree. It’s also worth noting that any form of genuine Dragon’s blood essential oil does not exist.

The popular houseplant known as Lucky bamboo, or Chinese water bamboo, Dracaena braunii, is actually a much closer relative to the genuine Dragon’s blood trees. Continuing the theme of misattribution, it is not Chinese nor a bamboo; it’s native to Cameroon in West Africa.

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Some lucky bamboo growing on my altar.

The family it belongs to, Asparagaceae, gives us the Agave used in the production of tequila and, as one could guess from the name, the vegetable asparagus.

When people talk about the Dragon’s blood tree, they are usually referring to Dracaena draco or Dracaena cinnabari. Although there are other Dracaena species harvested for their resin, I’ll be focusing on these two as they’re the most widely known and referred to. Due to its distinctive long trunk with leafy branches extending from the crown, these trees are sometimes called a Dragon’s blood palm. This is unfortunate because it is not a palm, while its impostor is.

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Not a palm. Photo credit: Wikimedia commons

Dracaena draco is a popular ornamental garden tree in Australia, whereas D. cinnabari is much less sought after due to its extremely slow growth rate and similar appearance. Given favorable conditions, the average Dragon’s blood tree takes 10 years to reach a height of just over one meter.

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My child. I picked up this D. Draco at Bunnings when it was only 20cm tall. It’s now 3 years of age.

Unfortunately both D. Draco and D. Cinnabari are threatened species; vulnerable to extinction in their native habitats. Both trees have an incredibly slow growth cycle, taking over a decade to reach their first state of reproductive maturity. Habitat loss, over harvesting, desertification, climate change and modern agriculture techniques all present hazards to their survival.

The common Dragon’s blood cane palm

Daemonorops draco, sometimes referred to as Demon cane due to its thorns, is cultivated in Southeast Asia, with much of the resin on the market coming from Indonesia and Thailand. Endemic to the tropics close to the equator, the Arecaceae family of plants also gives us raffia and coconuts.

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Not to be confused with the Araceae family like this Dieffenbachia dumb cane. Because whoever named them hated dyslexic people.

Daemonorops draco is the stuff you’ll commonly see for sale. I often see Dragon’s blood in stores labelled as Dracaena draco, but it’s increasingly rare and difficult to find genuine Dracaena resin.

Although it’s unfortunate that so many otherwise reputable outlets are mislabeling their product, the reasons I posited this as a good thing are threefold.
Firstly, Dracaena draco resin, due to its rarity is prohibitively expensive.

Secondly is the issue of the commercial exploitation of an endangered species, making the use of a plentiful alternative attractive. Harvesting Dracaena resin leaves the tree vulnerable to fungal infection which may kill it. Due to this vulnerability and their low numbers, it is favorable that the commonly available Dragon’s blood incense is derived from the plentiful and fast growing Daemonorops draco, as demand for the resin could not be satisfied otherwise.

Thirdly is a matter of personal opinion in regards to their aromatic properties. The rare D. cinnabari and D. draco are almost entirely scentless unless actively being burnt. As Dragon’s blood resin is used in all sorts of aromatic products beyond incense, such as soaps and papers, these would lose their appeal if Dracaena was used in things that aren’t intended to be set on fire.
Conversely the subtle but commanding, warm, masculine scent of Daemonorops draco is quite pleasant and apparent even when not lit.

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This red sigil chalk I made using palm Dragon’s blood should definitely not be set on fire.

Now that we’ve established the difference between these three types of Dragon’s blood resin, what about their aromas, magical uses and the mysterious Dragon’s blood ink?

In my next posts I will demonstrate the recipe for Dragon’s blood ink and explore the properties of Daemonorops draco, Dracaena draco and Dracaena cinnabari in greater detail.