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  • Lisa McMinn

Alchemy


Soap happened at Fern Creek today, as it does about once a week. I measure and weigh oils and butters, essential oils, goat milk, and lye. I don pink elbow length rubber gloves, my green Coffee Cottage apron, and safety glasses when I work with the lye.


Yes, true soap contains lye. Even the FDA says lye, that skull-and-bones-it'll-burn-blind-kill-you stuff, is an essential ingredient for organic, moisturizing, health-enhancing soap to be "true."


Traditionally lye started as an oak or maple, hickory or beech tree. We mostly manufacture it commercially now. Trees become lye this way: the tree is going about the business of being a tree, gets chopped down, and then is burned. The wood ash gets boiled or leeched out with water and becomes what the scientific community calls sodium hydroxide (NaOH), a strong alkali that, when mixed with water (or goat milk in my case) becomes a caustic liquid that can burn skin, blind, and cause death if ingested.


How is it something that toxic comes from oxygen-enhancing, life-giving trees? (Do trees have a shadow side?).


But that's only a small part of the story of tree ashes and oil. The bigger story is the alchemy, the seemingly magical creative process occurring when certain elements are combined, transforming them into something entirely new. So new that the caustic tree ash is no longer toxic, but can now be life-enhancing.


The grace of transformation. The taking of a damaged thing (the damage a necessary part of the alchemy mind you) and blending and stirring, stirring and blending with oils and butters--who by themselves are liquid-y and greasy and icky on the skin--and probably have their dark sides, too, until something new emerges. A rich, thick, delicious (albeit inedible) pudding poured into molds that firm into bars that cure for 4-6 weeks and then cleanse and nourish and moisturize the skin of babies, old people, and people in between.


But that's not even the end of it. At Fern Creek we have a septic system, so the tree--those ashes turned to soap--get washed back into soil and eventually become dirt again and some time later, because of the alchemy of dirt, become some other living thing.


Isn't that, too, an amazing grace?

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© 2019 Lisa Graham McMinn

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