Well, I’m Back

“But Sam turned to Bywater, and so came back up the Hill, as day was ending once more. And he went on, and there was yellow light, and fire within; and the evening meal was ready, and he was expected. And Rose drew him in, and set him in his chair, and put little Elanor upon his lap.
He drew a deep breath. ‘Well, I’m back,’ he said.” — J.R.R. Tolkien

 

Like a lot of people — Frodo included — I’ve always admired Samwise the most among all of the cast of the Lord of the Rings.  This is a guy who is more than a little awkward to the people around him; he’s clumsy, shy, and completely transparent while others plot, negotiate and manipulate.  Yet he also has an impenetrable sense of duty and responsibility despite attacks from all directions, and most importantly he never gives up even in the worst circumstances.

If you’re going through hell, keep going.  — Winston Churchill

 

Coming home from a once-in-a-lifetime trip to India in January, excited and inspired by everything I’d seen, smelled, eaten, and done, I was immediately confronted by a terrible situation caused primarily by an adult who should have known better.  It knocked me flat but in the spirit of Samwise and Winston, as well as having no other option, I kept grinding through it with the help of the UUH (Unbelievably Useful Husband).  It took its toll — and continues to do so — but one of the nice things about alchemy is that you get to fool around with various dangerous substances when you’re emotionally out of your skull.

So, of course, that leads us to the soap.

Cold process soap — the soap you make “from scratch,” with oils, butters and our favorite drain-sizzling, death-fog-producing meth-lab pal, sodium hydroxide* — is a product that lends itself to enormous creativity in technique.  From single solid colors, to textured tops, to embedded objects and to swirls and layers, you can attempt practically anything with this stuff.  That’s not to say the finished soap is going to work out the way you envisioned it.  In fact, I can virtually guarantee you some sort of surprise with nearly every batch, even those where you think you’ve got the formula nailed down.  The surprise factor multiplies exponentially when you’re trying something new — a new ingredient, fragrance, colorant or technique. Usually, these surprises are bad.

Accordingly, under intense emotional stress, I decided to check every box of the above.

But let’s back up a minute.  In Kochi, India, I’d seen a performance of Kathakali dance.  It’s extraordinary mythic storytelling, performed silently except for a drum, with dancers who have trained for years to learn a complex vocabulary of gesture and expression.  The costuming and makeup are both dazzling and meaningful.  I knew as soon as I reeled out of the theater that I had to try to reproduce something about the experience, and it involved the colors I’d just seen.  My plans (and posting here) were held up at home as the bad situation developed, but eventually I found myself with enough time and sense to put my hand to something useful.  I decided I’d make a soap involving the colors of one of the Kathakali dancers (the guy right up there).  And to try to recreate the overwhelming sensory experience of the dance, I’d try to use a technique called “tiger stripe.”

Now I’ve tried tiger stripe before.  It’s demanding.  It requires exquisite timing and a thorough knowledge of your formula and ingredients.  But when it’s done right, it can produce a really nifty-looking soap.

“Swirling Reef of Death.” Named for a St. Croix snorkeling site that isn’t.

Swirling Reef is a pretty straightforward coconut, olive, palm kernel flake, and castor oil soap, colored with ultramarines, micas, and titanium dioxide to get the white.  The trick to the technique is emulsifying the soap completely — in other words, incorporating the lye into the oils thoroughly enough to start the saponification process — without letting it “trace” too thickly to pour in stripes, one color atop another, into the mold.  You gotta move fast with this, which means you have to emulsify the base batter BUT NOT TOO MUCH, add your fragrance, separate out the amounts for your colors, mix your colors, and then pour like a madwoman.  (Preferably to the “Benny Hill” theme music.)

With “Swirling Reef” under my belt, I gathered all the materials together for “Kathakali Dance.”   I was trying a new fragrance and new colorants, which should really have been the first hint that this would end in disaster, but I was undaunted.

Well, it was a disaster.  The batter traced and thickened almost instantaneously.  In a panic I just glopped everything into the mold, eventually using a spoon to dig nearly solid soap out of the mixing container and smash it in.  The finished product smells great, lathers beautifully, and looks like something growing on the side of a wet barn.  I can barely bring myself to look at it on the curing rack.  It is a continuing reproach.  It is my Cautionary Tale.

So instead of giving up like any sensible person, I decided to try it again.  I tweaked the formula (abandoning the palm kernel flakes, among other adjustments) in the hope that it would stay liquid longer.  I changed some of my colorants to micas.  I did use the same fragrance — an exotic and intoxicating mix of wood and spices, flowers and rain — because it seemed so perfect for the experience I was trying to recreate.  And then I got the mise in order, turned up the music, and threw myself at it.

“Kathakali Dance” — iteration two.

The green mica morphed blue a bit on me — I’m going to stick with ultramarines for green from now on, I think, and the black didn’t come across as much as I’d like — but otherwise it’s pretty close to what I had in mind.  It’s curing on the rack right next to its cousin.  To me, both illustrate Sam and Winston’s principle of not giving up.

* I’m using a little hyperbole here, except for the “meth-lab” part.

http://www.greatcakessoapworks.com/handmade-soap-blog/

 

Blue Yonder Original Botanicals — The End of the Year Roundup

This year has been quite the experience for the Accidental Alchemist — I’ve tried everything from canning herb-infused jelly made from our own cabernet sauvignon grapes (you can read about that little fighting vine here), to using a pressure canner for the first time, to slaughtering chickens, dividing The Brave Little Valerian‘s root crown and experimenting with permaculture principles, preparing custom herbal teas, and making an herbal-based muscle salve from infusion to finished product.  With the other Alchemists who post here, I’ve learned about chickenkeeping, mushroom hunting, and cake decorating.

Making soap, though, is my special project, and I thought I’d put together a roundup of what I made this year.

Some folks know from reading the blog that I am in love with the Caribbean island of St. Croix, one of the U.S. Virgin Islands. Most of these soaps were inspired by the island in some way — the sky, the sea, and the earth.  Below are some photographs from the amusingly small, completely handcrafted “production line” of what we are now calling Blue Yonder Original Botanicals.  (You can virtually “tour” the actual Blue Yonder in St. Croix at www.blueyonderstcroix.com).

The Sky Series

“Morning Sun” is probably our personal favorite and the favorite of many of our testers (for whose patience I am profoundly grateful).  It is a classic olive oil, coconut oil, and shea butter formulation, fragranced with orange and litsea cubeba essential oils, and finished with a soap stamp hand-brushed with skin-safe mica.  It deserves its own position of honor for its gentleness and invigorating, get-your-day started scent.

Handmade soap “Morning Sun”

 

Another favorite for our testers was probably the most exotic soap I’ve made to date — the stunning “Night Sky.”  “Night Sky” was inspired by the view of the stars in St. Croix, a view made possible by a sky so deep black that you can see clearly the Milky Way. (Want to know why? Go here.)  It is a coconut oil, olive oil, and coconut milk formula, colored with activated charcoal, and scented with a rich, deep fragrance oil of sandalwood and amber.  It was finished with a very light hand-brushing of copper, gold, and pearl micas.

handmade soap “Night Sky”

Sunsets in St. Croix are spectacular nearly every night, with bands of shaded color that stretch across the entire sky.

One sunset from Blue Yonder

 

That’s a banana tree to the far right — it took a bit of a hit in the last run of storms, but is still hanging tough.  The geographical feature close to the center, beneath the moon, probably has a real name but I call it “The Nose.”  In order to even try to replicate this, I had to investigate a new technique.  The soapmakers call it “ombre” or “ombre layering,” and it requires a level of preparation comparable to a moon shot, the ability to not panic when something doesn’t go as expected (not my strong suit), and a great deal of luck.  But in the end, what came out of the mold was “St. Croix Sunset, Emerging Stars.”

handmade soap “St. Croix Sunset, Emerging Stars”

 

How I managed to get even a hint of “The Nose” in there, I’ll never know.  But the colorants included activated charcoal, ultramarines in blue, violet and pink, an FD&C approved liquid soap colorant for the gold, and a dusting of mica in a olive oil, coconut oil, sustainable palm oil and castor oil formula. The fragrance, like “Night Sky” above, was a warm and evocative amber and sandalwood, but with light top notes of spice and Caribbean flowers.

Finally for the “Sky” series, this year saw a convergence of two events: a “blue moon” at the end of August, and the funeral of Neil Armstrong.  A “blue moon” is simply an “extra” full moon during a lunar cycle, and Neil Armstrong remains one of my personal heroes.  So when the blue moon occurred, I broke out the soapmaking stuff and got to work.  I’d made a small tube mold of goatmilk soap with crushed organic chamomile flowers that had been sitting for a few days, and I was pretty confident that it might withstand — without melting — inclusion as an “embed” in another soap.  So I formulated up olive oil, coconut oil, palm kernel oil, and castor oil, emulsified it, colored it with activated charcoal and ultramarine blue, did the pouring and embedding and crossed my fingers.

“Blue Moon (for Neil Armstrong)”

 

The fragrance came out very light, as they sometimes do for no explainable reason, but this one was an amber, milk and honey that becomes stronger in the shower.  It’s a very gentle and richly lathering soap that’s turning into one of my personal favorites.

The Sea Series

It requires a better writer than I am to describe the seas around St. Croix without resorting to the most tired cliches.

Sea breaking over reef

 

It is constantly changing in color, from deep blues to the most delicate of teals, streaks of green and purple, and always the white foam of the waves breaking.

 

 

 

The view from Blue Yonder, when the sea turned to rose

 

Some evenings, the sunset will reflect from the clouds and sky and turn the sea into a stunning rose.

 

 

 

The view from Turtle Beach on Buck Island

 

 

Buck Island’s Turtle Beach is where a flatfish is now wearing my husband’s wedding ring as a tiara.  The entire island, and the reefs around it, are designated a National Monument. It contains an underwater snorkeling trail, with signs explaining everything you are swimming through and gasping at.  That’s where we met the “Blue Tang Clan” and the “Squid Squad,” as well as one tense moment with four barracudas staring flatly, utterly motionless, at us. (These are fish who can appear to contemplate, better than any other fish I’ve ever seen, how easily they can turn you into chum.)  It’s also where we swam with a pod of wild dolphins and saw wild mongeese in the woods.

This level of sensory input is a pretty high barrier to overcome, and I’m still working on trying to recreate even a sense of the Caribbean sea in some of the soaps I make.

“Harbor”

 

“Harbor” was my first experience with a “fast-accelerating” ocean fragrance oil.  Some scents can speed up the saponification process, turning your soap batter into cement in seconds. (We call it “soap on a stick,” the stick being your stirring spoon).  I managed to slap a few pieces of Harbor into individual molds before the rest of it hardened into something you’d use to pave a landing strip.  The color, though, did come out very true to the blue you see in the harbors of the Caribbean, the scent very ocean-like and refreshing, and the lather was very good.

“Reef Sea”

“Reef Sea” was the result of the rest of the soap batch, which hadn’t contained the accelerating fragrance.  I mixed several ultramarine colorants and did a basic swirl to try to recreate the mixing of the colors of the sea as it breaks over a coral reef. The fragrance I did try was an evocative “island” scent, full of flowers and fruit, while at the same time carrying a whiff of salt and sea.

The next attempt was inspired by the photograph above from Turtle Beach at Buck Island.  Dozens of boats, from small two-manners to giant yachts, are moored at any time at marinas all over the island.  One of the most exhilarating experiences you can have is taking a half- or full-day deep-sea fishing trip, or taking a catamaran out to Buck Island.  Boating and sailing are intrinsic parts of island life, and I wanted to try to capture what it looks like when you are just heading out on a beautiful day.

“Blue Skies, Clear Sailing”

Boating isn’t all there is to the sea, though.  St. Croix is famous for “The Wall,” a ledge that runs along the north shore of the island and can drop to 13,000 feet deep.  It’s a favorite of serious divers — the diversity and richness of the sea life is stunning, as is the clarity of the water.  But even casual snorkelers can find sites that suit their level of swimming skill and snorkeling experience all over the island.  Most of these sites have names that range from accurate to hilarious.  My favorite has always been the “Swirling Reef of Death,” and I felt, when I discovered a new swirling technique (the “zebra stripe” or “spoon swirl”), that I had to get on it right away.

“Swirling Reef of Death”

Needless to say, the “Swirling Reef of Death” isn’t.  It’s a peaceful, warm, and beautiful spot that absolutely deserves a soap like this to maintain its reputation.  The formula is simple but classic, a basic coconut oil, olive oil, sustainable palm kernel oil, and castor oil formula with ultramarines and micas as colorants.  The scent is another island type — sandalwood and amber, with fresh flowers and fruit.

The Earth Series

“Rainforest”

The island is more than just the sea and sky cradling it.  St. Croix is small island that contains astonishing geographical diversity — the east end is drier, suitable even for cactus species, while the western half contains an actual rainforest.  Driving through the rainforest (you’d probably take Mahogany Road, named after the magnificent trees that populate the area) can be a hair-raising experience, but well worth the occasional alarm from washed-out stream-crossings and crumbling asphalt.  It is a place of such extraordinary color and variation that of course I made a soap.

“Rainforest” was my first experiment with completely herbal and clay colorants.  Some folks might know that I grow herbs, lots of them, and I was excited to try using them to color soap as opposed to my usual ultramarines and oxides.  So in order to try to capture the shifting variations of greens in the forest canopy, I chose comfrey leaf, nettle leaf, and French green clay as my swirl colors.  The formula was as basic as I could get it, just olive oil and coconut oil, because I had no idea about what these babies were going to do.  The fragrance was what I knew was a well-behaved sandalwood and fruit with a top note of lemongrass, and I put in some ground chamomile flowers for a slight exfoliation effect. Nothing accelerated, everyone behaved, and after a stint in a Pringles can mold (this was before I had the PVC pipe that I use now) I had “Rainforest.”  I stamped it with a little rubber leaf stamp I found in a long-abandoned kids’ art project box, and brushed it with just a little mica.

Enfleuraging Ginger Thomas flowers

Then there’s “Christiansted,” which was my first try at rebatching a soap into something new.  I’d made a soap that didn’t work out at all the way it was supposed to, even though it contained a very labor-intensive enfleurage of Ginger Thomas flowers that I’d made on the island. The stuff looked great when first poured into the mold.

Wow! Look at that color!

 

 

Sadly, the color did not hold, and I ended up with a white soap that the UUH (Unbelievably Useful Husband) disliked. Colors and fragrances can morph, intensify, and completely disappear on you in soapmaking.  It’s part of the alchemy.  I suppose tearing your hair out is too, which is why the medieval guys wore those ridiculous hats.

Shredding soap for a rebatch.

Yup, that’s the color it turned — a very nice white, but not at all what I was after.  I had to do some research on how to rebatch soap, which in my case meant creating another new batch up, melting the shreds into the new batch, recoloring, and refragrancing.  I was inspired here by the charming little harbor town of Christiansted, and I wanted to capture the colors of the buildings there.

The colors are worn to pastels by the sea and salt, battered by rains, constantly washed by the tradewinds, but remain beautiful and vibrant all the same.  I chose a Moroccan rose clay for what’s called an “in-the-pot” swirl, as opposed to a swirl you attempt in a mold (see “Swirling Reef of Death” for an example of the latter), and ended up with “Christiansted.”  It turned out to be one of my testers’ most popular soaps.

“Christiansted”
“Sea Glass in Sand”

“Sea Glass in Sand” was a bit of a stunt soap, my experimenting with adding glycerine soap chunks to my own cold-process goat milk formulation.  I was trying to recreate the experience of finding sea glass, which is ordinary broken glass worn smooth and jewel-like by the action of sea and sand, during a walk on the beach.  I used commercial glycerine soap for the chunks, as I don’t have the experience for doing it myself, and it is a complex and chemical process best left to the commercial operations.  This photograph was shot soon after cutting; in the weeks it has been curing, it has whitened so dramatically that it surprises even me.  The fragrance has “stuck” beautifully.

Finally, there’s “Turtle Tracks,” which is a soap I am absolutely delighted with.  On St. Croix, as on most Caribbean islands, sea turtles come up on the beaches to dig their nests and lay eggs.  The citizens of the island take their responsibility toward the turtles very seriously. Entire beaches, or areas of beaches, can be roped off completely; and in places where that’s not quite necessary, nests are clearly marked with “Stay Off” signs.  At night, when they’re ready, the little turtles emerge and make their dash for the sea. They leave very distinctive tracks behind, and one day I saw them at the Tamarind Reef Resort. While this isn’t a picture I took, it’ll give you an idea of what you’ll see when you go, and why I became so enchanted with the idea of making a soap about this heroic effort:

I knew I had to make it small, like the turtles, so a guest-sized soap seemed appropriate. I had a little left of some jojoba oil that I had infused with mullein flowers, organic yarrow, and Ginger Thomas from the island; to that I formulated coconut oil, olive oil, shea butter, and castor oil, and added a little ground chamomile flowers to give the appearance of the sand. Recreating the turtle tracks was the hardest part.  I ended up using one of those cheap little sponge eyeshadow applicators and a tiny brush for the mica to pick the tracks out from the “sand.”

“Turtle Tracks”

While the island provides a lot of inspiration to me, I also began to experiment with fragrances as well as formulas for different reasons.  For one person, I developed a rose absolute and vetiver fragranced shea-butter formula that is now and forever will be “Tracy’s Rose”:

“Tracy’s Rose”

 

“Phoenix”

 

There was “Phoenix,” a shea-butter formula with an oatmeal, milk and honey fragrance. I did do some new work with stamping and mica-brushing.
New molds can give “usual” formulas very interesting new looks.
And lastly, I had a special request from a very special person to make a Chocolate Soap. Now I had some things to consider; in the house there were allergies, so I had to avoid any oils or butters that might be nut-derived.  Coconut oil was okay, so I could use that.  I wanted to avoid any colorants if possible, and I knew that any fragrance that contained vanilla would naturally darken the soap to a chocolate brown.  I researched the safest chocolate fragrances and planned out the pour.  My task was clear; the end result was “Chocolate Pie.”

“Chocolate Pie”

Right now, a soap is curing that required a completely unique fragrance mix, and that I’ll introduce at some point in the near future.  Creating new fragrances from infused oils, fragrance oils, and essential oils has been an unexpected and delightful surprise from the soapmaking venture I’ve gone on this year, as well as learning the physical techniques of pouring and swirling, cutting and curing.  With the generosity of the UUH I now have beautiful and useful devices for cutting, planing, and finishing the pieces that I’ve made.

“The Tank” — wire soapcutter handmade in Hong Kong.

I’d like to thank everyone who tried my soaps, gave me feedback, and listened to my moaning about all the trials and tribulations.  It’s only going to get more interesting from here on out at Blue Yonder, and I’ll keep you up to date.

 

Dinner May Be Alchemy, But Fishing It Up Is Magic

Frigate bird over St. Croix seas The bellwether.

That’s a Magnificent Frigate Bird, commonly seen soaring effortlessly over the seas and reefs surrounding St. Croix, and it’s magnificent for more than one reason.  Its enormous, tilted wingspan (over 6 feet in most instances) allows it to soar for hours, even days, without touching land.  (The only other bird known to do this is the Common Swift). Frigate birds snatch flying fish as they jump — a stunt I’d pay good cash to see, considering how wicked fast those slippery little freaks zip inches over the waves  — and pick off smaller fish that come close to the surface without even wetting their feathers.  They’re also thugs to other birds, harassing them until the victim drops their dinner. Yes, even birds push each other around for their lunch money.

But aside from their superb aerialism and obvious antisocial personality disorder, frigate birds are also incredibly useful.  I’ve learned that when an offshore fisherman sees one or two of these guys circling an area, that means that there’s almost certainly some serious sportfishing action going on right there, right now.

Unbelievably Useful Husband (hereafter, “UUH”) and I found this out when we booked a fishing charter for our next-to-last day in the little house on the island.  We’ve gone sportfishing before in Hawaii, where UUH solidified his reputation as “Tailfisher.”  For some unknown reason, every time he actually caught a fish, it wasn’t in the standard operational mode.  You know, fish bites hook, hook gets stuck in fish’s mouth, guy reels fish in face-first.  Nope, not nearly interesting enough for UUH.

For him the fish would evade the hook, but somehow would get the line wrapped around its tail, so UUH would drag it in backwards in a comic reversal of the usual process.  How he managed this multiple times was one of those mysteries that deserved further investigation, and we were eager to see if he could replicate it in the Caribbean. So friends of ours found the Island Girl II of St. Croix Deep Blue Charters, a superb custom 45-foot Hatteras that works off the Christiansted area of St. Croix, and we began the experiment.

The Island Girl II is run by a husband and wife team  — Ben, the Captain, and Megan, the First Mate. (Island Girl I, we discovered, was crushed and sunk by a yacht during Hurricane Hugo.)  After the usual confused period where the charterees load on about six times more beer and food than they need, which turns out to be exactly the right amount, we were off into the Caribbean Sea.

The Island Girl II in full display is an impressive sight. The multiple rods and lines are spread out in perfect geometries, interconnected in complex but aesthetically beautiful ways with connectors and hooks and even rubber bands.  The reels are polished, golden, wickedly functional works of art in themselves.  As the boat moves farther out, the baited lines take flight, extending and then disappearing into the vanishing point as the wake surges behind.  We had a pretty calm sea that day, with a warm sun and few clouds, so it was tough not to doze off.

One thing I did notice in my sun-induced stupor, though, was the constant communication between the captain and first mate.  They were constantly scanning the skies — looking for frigate birds like our lead player.  Frigate birds are great bellwethers; they’re the pathfinders to what you want.  Fishermen know that they tend to circle over groups of small fish hovering near the surface, hoping to evade larger fish hunting them.  When you see a few frigate birds in one place, you know that the party’s on down there.  First Mate Megan carefully tracked and circled the boat right at the birds that were spotted, as Captain Ben ensured that the bait was correct for what we were after.

It didn’t take long after that before there was a loud BZING!, one of the reels began buzzing frantically, suddenly there was great deal of frenzied activity, and apparently the fight was on.  UUH was in the chair.  There appears to be a great deal of physical work involved, and as I try to avoid that as much as possible, I was quite happy to simply observe the process. There’s a constant chatter of “ease up,” “let him out a bit,” “pull him in,” “he’s running, he’s running,” and the whole event has the adrenaline of a Top Gun dogfight.  This fish didn’t breach the water much, but as the churning water kept coming closer and closer to the boat the tension became so excruciating everybody watching had to have another beer.

 

 

One brief but brutal side-of-the-boat struggle later (a word of advice — don’t get into a fight with Captain Ben, especially if he has a big stick) the fish was eventually brought aboard.  It was a mahi-mahi, which folks also call a dolphin. They’d been hunting the little fish that the frigate birds had spotted.  In the water, they are even more gloriously incandescent than they are on land, though considerably less delicious.

The end of an era.

It was a victory for us, but sadly, UUH’s unbroken record as “Tailfisher” has now been broken. It cannot be disputed that the hook is actually in the fish’s mouth.

It didn’t take long before there was another BZING, another challenge accepted, and our friend Denise was fighting a fish to the boat.  These guys are no slouches and it takes a while, but eventually we had another dolphin on board. Two big, beautiful mahis later, we returned to dock.  If you’ve caught fish, tradition demands that you put a flag up indicating what you’re bringing home.

Dolphin flag — a successful mission!

 

Captain Ben was kind enough to fillet them for us so we’d have dinner that night.  The scraps he produced during the precise, exacting filleting process (this guy could teach knife technique to surgeons) he threw to a group of tarpon fish loitering near the boat.  They obviously knew the routine:  fishing boat coming in = dinnertime.  Tarpons are pretty much useless except for entertainment; they’re big but bony and unpleasant-tasting, so no one eats them, but my God can they put on a floor show.  Several bars on the Christiansted harbor boardwalk have tarpon gangs in the water that hang out waiting for scraps, and it’s nearly irresistible not to feed them something simply for the amusement value. Kids are transfixed. Hell, I was transfixed. We took about fifty pictures of the tarpons just fighting over mahi scraps because . . . because . . . well, because. It was the sun, or the beer, or something.  Anyhow, look at these fish! The expedition was fantastic, and the dinner was even better. The expertly filleted steaks were probably the best meal we had on the island. A few days before while grocery shopping, I’d found irresistible a bottle of Tamarindo Bay Caribbean steak sauce and bought it on the spot without knowing exactly what I’d do with it. The answer was obvious the minute we got home with two chunky, perfect mahi steaks.  A few minutes marinading in the sweet but tangy, unmistakeably Caribbean sauce — this stuff would be great on anything up to and including truck tires — and they were ready for the grill.

On the advice of a brief website search (how on earth did I ever do anything before the Interwebs?), I put the steaks on a piece of foil and then directly on the little house’s big Weber grill on the porch.  The foil makes it easier to flip the steaks without sticking and breaking.  About three minutes a side and they were ready. A simple side salad was all that was needed.

It was the perfect farewell meal to St. Croix.  Our thanks to Captain Ben and First Mate Megan of the Island Girl II, our friends Keith and Denise Murphy, the mahis that graciously provided our dinner, and especially to our bellwethers, the Magnificent Frigate Birds that helped it all happen.

 

 

Day of the Iguana

After a morning of wrestling large, aggressive fish into a boat, we came home and my first thought was to take a dip in the pool.  I found what I thought was one of our geckos gone wayward, floating motionless in the water.  I feared he had drowned.  I picked him up and put him on the deck, and when I did, I felt his little claws clutch against my hand.

He recovered pretty quickly and hung out on the deck for a bit, then scuttled for the shade underneath the fence.  Unbelievably Useful Husband took a good look at him and said, “I don’t think that’s a gecko.  I think that’s a baby iguana.”  And you know what?  I think he’s right. Whatever he is, he needs to learn to swim. At least if he wants to live long enough to look like this:

Iguana at Tamarind Reef Hotel, St. Croix. Avoided pools and ocean, apparently.

Soap and the Caribbean

It’s been a busy couple days for the Alchemist.  If you’ll recall, the first attempt at a genip syrup off an Ancient Document (a Virgin Islands newspaper from 1973) did not have a good result.  From perfectly good genips I ended up with a burned, wretched mess that went directly into the garbage.  The second attempt, however, was focused entirely on getting juice, and to do that I relied on my technique for persuading it out of prickly pears.  Five bunches and a dollop of water over a very low simmer for hours seemed to do the trick.

Genip juice Now that’s more like it.

I ended up with about four cups of the strained juice, which was a lot more than I expected.  But this was a good thing, because I intended to do two things with it — use some of the juice as the liquid to dissolve the lye in my first island-made soap, and the rest to make a syrup in the way that I knew how.

The only problem I had is that my lye hadn’t arrived.  Without lye there is no handmade cold-process soap, so day after day went by with my anxious checking of the USPS tracking site, only to find that my sodium hydroxide languished in Sebring, Florida, for days (is there good sightseeing there, or what?) and then took a few day trips out of Catano, Puerto Rico. I just hope it found a good hotel.

I’ll note this was no fault of the supplier — Essential Depot, which unlike most soapmaking suppliers can ship everywhere.  As far as I can tell, they’ve got the docs to ship to the moon (sodium hydroxide requires special permissions and papers to ship across the street, apparently).  Their customer service is first rate.  They picked up a problem in my shipping address instantly, fixed it on the phone, and my package was on its way the same day.  I’d recommend them to anyone trying this out.

On Tuesday night, literally minutes after I’d left the post office in yet another fruitless quest, I learn from the USPS tracking website that the package had dropped.  Of course it was too late to pick it up then — the office closed literally seconds after I read the email (/banghead) — so it was all up to Wednesday.  I set up the mise as well as I could, considering that I was jerry-rigging more than a bit of the usual setup.  But I’d found some locally-made, beautifully clear coconut oil sold by our local Rastafarians; I had genip juice; I had some light-colored olive oil, and that was basically my formula.  70% olive, 30% coconut, a 34% lye concentration and a whole lot of prayer for my first island soap.

I was stuck here without essential oils, fragrance oils, or any of my usual colorants, so I tried a couple things.  First was the attempted infusion of fresh red hibiscus flowers into some coconut oil.  Guess what? Hibiscus flowers, while water soluble into a fantastic tea,

What do you want me to do again?

will not give it up in oil.  They sit there, get soggy, and look more and more resentful. Same deal with the Jamaican sorrel and ginger tea.  So I gave up the oil infusion idea, measured off the correct amount of genip juice for the soap formula, and popped a couple of the teabags into it.  In a few minutes II had a gloriously deep red color.

 

 

Now I know that soap colorants, especially herbal ones, can change, morph, or even disappear without as much as a text message (FU HAHA SOAP NOOB), so I wasn’t too overjoyed. But I was hopeful.

 

When the lye arrived and I ripped home with it, I started the process right away. I was using a Pringles can as a stunt mold (because it was easiest, really) and had it propped up inside a hideous vase left behind by the previous owners.  I prepped the lye outside on the concrete driveway, because I had no clue as to what would happen and decided I’d rather not burn a hole through either myself or my kitchen floor if something went horrifically awry.  When the lye hit the sorrel-infused genip juice**, it turned a violent neon green, the juice itself started swirling bright orange, and then it rippled back through a dark red as the lye dissolved.  After the shock of this hallucinogenic color experience had dissipated I raced back inside, strained it into the prepared oils, and started into it with the stick blender that had taken me two days to find on island.

It took forever to “trace” (emulsify and thicken up during the saponification process enough to mold), and by the time it did, it was the most hideous color I’d ever seen — a horrific greenish brown that looked like it had been scraped from the bottom of an abandoned boat and then left in an abandoned basement inside a diseased bucket, and that had me thisclose to tossing it all into the garbage.  But I kept the faith and molded it.  And this morning, I tossed the can into the freezer for a half hour or so and then unmolded and cut it. The color had deepened and evened, and it’s possible that it might redden over time — herbal colorants are tricky creatures and while a cold-processed soap cures, the colors can change.  What you can see, here, is how the soap is “sweating.”  While soaps taken out of the freezer frequently do this, this particular soap was suffering just as much as we were in the heat.

Ahh, outside breezes.

 

 

So at first I took it outside where there was a light wind that I thought might help dry it quickly.   And then I started worrying about sudden downpours, birds, and bugs, and concluded that technology was obviously the answer. The next step is to leave some here with our friends, to see how it cures in the Caribbean, and to take some home with us to keep an eye on it there.  But it is my first real island soap, made with island ingredients in real island heat, humidity and wind.  My curiosity on how this simple formula will come out is overwhelming.  While it isn’t the sexiest-looking soap out there, it’s got the advantage of being The First.

 

 

 

Happy Hour at Blue Yonder

Nearly every night here on the island there’s a short, brutal downpour — the type that can wake up us statesiders with our hearts pounding and the conviction that the roof is coming off.  Imagine a cartoon where the character steps outside and has a bucket of water thrown on him — that’s what they’re like.

You’d think with all this water, it would be easily available to all the critters, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.  One of the crucial components that brought the bananaquits back to the feeder was adding a dish of water along with the sugar dish.  So every morning, when I refresh the sugar in the dishes that were brought in and washed the night before, I always make sure to fill up the water dish as well.  The idea seems to be a hit.

Bananaquit, St. Croix Next time fill ‘er up a little higher, eh?

A Curiously Curated Collection Of Croix Critters (And A Beach)

By “curiously curated,” I of course mean that “these are pictures that I’ve managed to take and vaguely resemble the object at which the camera was pointed.”  I’ve got a great camera — the Canon PowerShot SX20IS is nothing to sneeze at — but it does take some getting used to, and I’m no natural with technology, as Unbelievably Useful Husband will attest.

Bananaquit, St. Croix Bananaquit, posing for his official portrait.

I have a passionate relationship with bananaquits. On a trip to Barbados, I had the fortune to visit a place where bananaquits would eat sugar out of your hand (they’re colloquially called “sugarbirds” for just this reason) and fell in love with the colorful, curious, pugnacious little birds. I was delighted to discover that they are St. Croix’s island bird, and that a large group lived in the Ginger Thomas stands that line the hills beneath the house. During our earlier trip this spring, I persuaded mobs of them to visit a bright yellow soapdish I’d filled with Turbinado sugar and placed on the top rail of our deck.  They eventually allowed me to get quite close; my favorite picture from that time is now the centerpiece of the “Contact Me” part of this site.

This time of year, though, things were different.  The Ginger Thomas stands aren’t flowering with the profusion they did in the spring,

Ginger Thomas blossoms — there are only a few now.

and the birdsongs sounded like the bananaquits had moved far down the hill.  My placement of the sugar dish remained sadly unvisited.  So I began from the beginning, placing the dish on the railing of the lower deck, and waited patiently.

It took a few days, but one eventually visited, and then more came.  It was a little different than the spring, though; the birds seemed to be taking turns instead of mobbing the dish.  They were also enormously shy; instead of jumping away a few feet and protesting furiously whenever I appeared on the deck, they’d always eat and bolt for the bush.  It took a week, but I eventually moved the sugar and water dishes back to their usual places on the top rail, and they kept coming back.  They are still shy, though, and I have to try to take pictures at pretty extreme zooms.

I did notice that we had a visitor that I’d never seen before.  He was a dark bird with a very different beak than the bananaquits —

The new guy.

a short, seed-crunching, all-business finchy beak, like the ones I saw on our house finches at home. He was also pretty pushy, able to drive off the bananaquits when he decided it was time for lunch. Curious, I did a little research and found out that he was a St. Lucia Black Finch.

 

Did you hear the kids?

We also discovered that he had a wife.

The Finch Family are regular visitors now to the sugar dish, as is an increasing number of bananaquits.  They aren’t the only avian travelers that pass through, though.  There’s a quite dramatic and impressively large-lunged gray kingbird that’s staked out the power wire above our house as his Preferred Perch.  He’ll occasionally cruise through the Ginger Thomas stands — I believe he’s a bug-eater, watching his spectacular aerodynamic performances.  When he lands he’s hard to miss.

Gray Kingbird Another Blue Yonder resident.

A few others that I haven’t been able to catch yet in pictures are the Anguillan hummingbirds (lovely dark black hummingbirds, the males with an iridescent green crest), a yellow warbler who spent about fifteen minutes closely examining our habits last spring, and what I do believe is a kestrel that has been examining our household as a potential hunting ground.

But the most ubiquitous denizens of the household are, without doubt, the geckos.  They’re also known as “anoles” and they are welcome guests in and around any residence, because they are harmless, shy, and ant and bug eaters par excellence.  Right now appears to be mating season,

Gecko, Anole I’m ready for my closeup, Mr. DeMille.

because some of the bigger ones have been staking out the front porch as prime performance territory.  I don’t know a lot about the St. Croix ground lizard, but I have noticed a few repeating patterns; wherever there’s a smaller, dark brown lizard skittering through the bushes or across the porch, there’s almost always a larger green one in the sort of “desperately casual” pursuit you can see in some urban twentysomething bars.  And once a sort of trembling equilibrium is reached — the little brown one peering from the leaves, the green one posing on a rail — the green one  will Begin to Dance.

Look at the size of this thing!
Gecko, St. Croix ground lizard, anoleYou ain’t seen nothin’ yet, honey.

He’ll inflate and deflate the throat sac, which is a brilliant yellow, while pumping himself up and down on his front legs.  It’s better than “Riverdance” and a hell of a lot less expensive.  After a few minutes of this, everyone will freeze into immobility for a while.  Then the little brown one’s eye will be caught by the other guy carefully posing on the wall, she’ll skitter through the bushes again to take another observation spot, and the whole Dance will begin again.

I realize that this post has been a bit “Animal Planet,” but the creatures here are some of the most delightful features of the island.  However, I realize my responsibility, so here are some shots of St. Croix beaches.  This location is one of the most beautiful on the island.  It’s the beach ringed by the Tamarind Reef Hotel, a resort I would recommend to anyone.  It has a spectacular snorkeling area, unbelievable white sand, delightful, knowledgeable staff, and SEA TURTLES NEST THERE.  The turtles are carefully guarded, so you don’t need to worry, but it’s not uncommon during certain times of the year to see baby turtle tracks heading down the beach to the ocean.

Tamarind Reef Hotel beach

The beach features several jetties where an extraordinary variety of fish have made homes.  We’ve seen everything from giant pufferfish, trumpetfish, mass blue tang clans, and an extraordinary flying gurnard.  (Please look that last one up on the web.)  But, you know, there’s more than just undersea life that makes the place home.  This guy and his cousins live there too:

No one expects the Iguana Inquisition.

 

Burning the Genips

These are genips:

Genip, quenepa, Spanish lime The noble Genip, a.k.a. Melicoccus bijugatus, if you’re feeling Scientific.

This fruit comes from a tree in the soapberry family — not very promising, I know, but go with me on this — that’s either native or naturalized to most of the Caribbean Islands and to Central and South America.  It’s also got more names across these places than Jupiter has moons (63 to date, in case you’re astronomically oriented). A small sampling: quenepa, kenepa, canepa, kenep, talpa jacote, xenepa, and Spanish lime.  For a small, bunching, and largely unprepossessing fruit, that’s a lot of monikers, and the fact that the Jamaicans call it an “ackee” (NOT to be confused with that other ackee) only adds to the confusion.

What that brittle shell is hiding.

Here in St. Croix they are ubiquitous, and I picked up a bunch for a dollar from a truck parked on the side of the road.  (You can also acquire the insanely delicious Caribbean lobster, various fish, papayas, bananas, coconuts, and mangoes the same way.  I heartily recommend this approach.)  The fruits have a thin, brittle outer shell.

In the usual method you crack the shell between your teeth, spit it out, and then chew and suck off the sweet, orange, fibrous flesh that clings somewhat stubbornly to a large central seed.  Some folks believe that it’s a bit too much work for too little reward, but I love the citrusy top note, followed up with a warm and delicately sweet flavor that just bellows “YOU’RE IN THE TROPICS” to your taste buds.

But that’s not enough for an accidental alchemist.  Nope, I decided I was going to try to make some syrup from the genips.  For all good alchemists every project begins with research into ancient documents, just as for all good software programmers every project begins with a T-shirt.  Astoundingly, I found a reference in the Virgin Islands Daily News from 1973, preserved by Google with all its dark arts.  Genip Syrup

The recipe recommends popping them out of their shells, which is an easy and unusually enjoyable experience, putting them in a pot, and dumping some sugar over them to extract the juice.

Genips in sugar. I’m just following the instructions.

After a curiously unexplained period of this extraction, you’re to wring them out and then add a ton more sugar.  So I wrangled with the proportions a bit, because I didn’t have a gallon’s worth of genips, put them into a pot, and sat around.

After a curiously unexplained period of time I noticed not a lot of juice seemed to be presenting itself, so I shifted gears a bit to something I did know how to do — get juice out of prickly pear fruits.  This technique requires that you warm the cut fruits over a very, very slow heat for (again) a curiously unexplained period of time.  So I put a lid on, started up the simmer burner, and congratulated the genips on their brand new sauna.

Now let me tell you, genips are tough little brats and just as they don’t want to give up their fruit when you’re chewing on them, they don’t want to give up their juice even while simmering.  I noticed that while the sugar had liquified, I wasn’t getting a lot of anything else out of these delinquents.

So I popped in about a half cup of water to encourage the process.  That seemed to turn the trick.  Once the water started simmering, I got a marvelous, citrusy fragrance wafting through the air, and a quick taste screamed “GENIP!” from the liquid in the pot.  I did the little alchemist woo-woo dance (yes, that’s the official name) and decided to work on something else while they continued to simmer out all their wonderfulness.

There are multitaskers, and then there are non-multitaskers.  While admitting that you are a poor multitasker is a great mark of shame, well, I’m Cat and I’m a terrible multitasker.  By the time I surfaced for air and remembered the genips, they’d burned — the water had simmered away, the sugar had burned and hardened, and the genips themselves were mean, shriveled, dark orange and blackened balls that essentially seethed with resentment at me from the bottom of the pot.  I didn’t even have enough energy through the despair to take a picture of this disaster.  Into the garbage it went.

What I did, though, was go out the next day and get five,  not one, bunches of these punks from the truck at the side of the road.

Then we will fight in the shade!

Because even through the disaster, I have some great ideas.  I have some soap stuff that I managed to figure out how to ship here, and which should arrive in the next day or so.  I think a simple genip juice (no sugar) would be an excellent water for the lye mix — or at least the kind of experiment that makes alchemy worth doing.  And I think I’ve gotten the line on the syrup workings.  It’ll be a pretty interesting next few days.

 

The Very First Thing Is Food

The view from Blue Yonder’s deck.

Back on the island. Once the incredibly long, unbelievably painful series of flights is over, all you want to do is settle in a bit. But the fact remains that everyone needs to eat, and there are a number of great restaurant and takeout-shop options on St. Croix.  Here, the portions are usually very generous.  What you do is eat what you can, and then take the rest home with you.

What we’ve come up with for some time now is what we’re calling “Blue Yonder Hash.”  It involves everything you’ve brought home, and one incredibly important ingredient:

The magic dust.

This little packet is what will make every leftover meat, fish, potato, artichoke dip, breadstick, and vegetable you bring home from a restaurant  into a brand new, utterly delicious dinner. This little package costs practically nothing, is stupidly easy to prepare, and creates some kind of alchemical glory out of whatever you throw into it. I think the only thing we haven’t thrown into it is truck tires.

The process is fairly simple.  You must obtain an onion and saute it in some nice butter until it softens up a bit.

Think of the onion as the goalie.

Following this, you start up another pot.  This pot is the Vigo Red Beans & Rice, shown above.  It needs some water, a little butter, a little boiling, a little stirring, and some simmering for about 20-25 minutes. That’s it.  So while that’s running, you pull out every leftover you’ve got, slew them over a cutting board, and get to work.  Trim the fat off the meat (do not fail to do this), even things up, but don’t be afraid about putting everything from pita bread to artichoke dip to both breaded fish and grilled fillets in there.  Throw them all in, turn the heat down (the onions should be soft and browned by now).  Heat on low, let everything think things through for a bit.

All the leftovers, simmering gently with the Goalie Onion.

In a short time, the Red Beans and Rice will be ready.  Here’s the big fun: slop it all in, mix it all up, and heat slowly for a few minutes.

Everybody into the pool.

Here’s where Gordon Ramsey and I will probably have a major difference of opinion — I agree, this doesn’t look like a five-star entree, but I’m not throwing it out.  I’d get canned out of Hell’s Kitchen faster than a tuna if I’d offered this.  But I will tell you a few things: it is very, very delicious, will save you a great deal of money from eating out every night, and will keep even the most boo-yah divers, snorkelers, swimmers, runners, hikers, and even beach bunnies going for many hours after eating it.  It’s one of our mainstays at Blue Yonder and we stock the cabinets for our renters with the Vigo packets.  After a long day of diving, snorkeling, and wading through the cutting Croix sun, sometimes you just want a nice little pot of easy, fast, economical and warm comfort food in front of the television, on the deck, or under the stars at the pool.   (For us right now, it’s in front of the Olympics). Because even if you’re the toughest, meanest unit on the mainland, the Croix sun and heat is going to tire you out, and this is a nice way to handle the dinner problem when you’ve got leftovers and you’re too tired to move your legs to the car.

Tonight, at the Kid’s request, we’re trying a new mashup with the Vigo jambalaya mix, some leftover hamburger, superb bacon (Cheeseburger in American Paradise on the East End where we live), a little artichoke dip, maybe some good cheddar cheese, and we hope a few exciting Track and Field finals.

A Day’s Alchemy

But the daily we have always with us, a nagging reminder that the dishes must be done, the floor mopped or vacuumed, the dirty laundry washed . . .  Precisely because it is so important, so close to us, so basic, so bound up with home and nurture, it is considered to be of less importance than that which is done in public . . . This may be an example of a familiarity that has bred contempt, a kind of hubris that allows men and women alike to imagine that by devaluing the bonds that connect us to the womanly, to the household, to the daily, we can rise above them.  — Kathleen Norris, The Quotidian Mysteries

But it is in this work — the daily, the tedious, the repetitive — that our deepest alchemy can and does reveal itself.

For most of us, the day has a predictable routine.  For me during the summer mornings, it’s making coffee, ensuring the cats have breakfast, opening the windows and screen doors to bring in the fresh morning air and the birdsongs, and then a little later making breakfast for Unbelievably Useful Husband. (The Kid is usually sleeping in.).  There’s usually some kitchen cleanup that needs doing during all this, and probably a laundry bump, and the dogs always desperately need to go out just when I’m involved in something requiring my total attention. (This set of behaviors is called “clearing the decks.”)  But breakfast is always a pleasure to cook.  If you recall from “Belay those Olallieberries,” we make our own bacon:

Homemade smoked bacon. Maple syrup, molasses, honey, brown sugar, and a bit of sweet cherry smoke.
Sliced homemade bacon. Ready to go, Captain.

. This is what the bacon looks like, when it’s sliced and ready for cooking.  Unless you have a meat slicer, you can’t get the see-through, weirdly clingy, paper-thin slices of commercial bacon, but a sharp knife and a steady hand creates a pleasantly thick piece that will fry up beautifully in the pan.

 

Frying homemade bacon. In the pan, slow and steady.

Homemade bacon requires a bit more time and care to cook.  All that lovely maple syrup, honey, brown sugar and molasses will burn in a flash if the heat is too high, so slow and steady wins this race.  You’ll not see any of the strange gray bubbly water boiling out of it as in commercial varieties; just bacon fat, rendering cleanly and purely and stupendously fragrantly as you cook.  Frequent turning makes sure each side is browned and crisped evenly.  A quick blot on a towel, and there’s breakfast.

No magic here except for heat — judiciously applied to an egg and some meticulously spiced, cured and smoked pork belly.

Cooks (usually women) since the dawn of more-or-less civilized time have understood the principle of judicious heat; it took medieval alchemists a lot longer to stop blowing up their labs.  More fire is not necessarily better.

Once the breakfast cook and cleanup and various animal and house-tendings are done, it’s usually time for the garden walkabout. Today, I noticed that the beautiful Gulf Fritillary butterflies were bombing around the garden again; I talked about them a bit in “The Passion of the Passiflora.”  It was the time of day, though, when the sun had just dried the dew off the herbs. Herbalists say that this is the time to harvest what you need — it’s supposedly when the essential oils contained in the herbs are at their height — so I armed myself with a basket and scissors and got the job done.

Herbs from home garden.Lemon verbena, tarragon, golden lemon thyme, various basils, oregano, and more yarrow aerials were up today.

Once you’ve harvested an herb, the clock starts ticking — you have to decide what to do with it.  Some people swear by freezing tender herbs like basils in ice cubes, saying that the technique reliably preserves the flavor and texture of the leaves.  I have no doubt that this is true, but I also have no room in my freezer because it is almost entirely occupied by a million pounds of olalliberries.

Home-grown herbs ready for dehydrating. Off to the Lab.

So off to the McGuffin the herbs will go — the Excalibur dehydrator that lurks in the Lab. I have a nine-tray model, so there’s usually no issue about running out of space. Once they’re done (a few hours at 95F for most), I’ll take them out and garble them, and then put them into my herb bottles. There — unirradiated, unpesticided, and uncrushed, they’ll retain their flavor for a long time.

The Gulf Fritillaries were still in the back of my mind even as I was fussing with the McGuffin.  I saw a few of them dancing while I was out harvesting, weeding, and watering the garden, so I thought I’d take a look at what was happening to the Passiflora incarnata.  Sure enough, we had our annual visitors.

Gulf Fritillary caterpillar on a Passiflora incarnata. Oh, there’s more than one of me.

Caterpillars don’t move fast, but the butterflies do. These butterflies move like fighter planes, fast and unpredictable, and I have about ten thumbs with this camera, so my brilliant idea to try to catch a picture was probably hopeless as a start.  Hope springs eternal, though, so I planted myself next to the Passiflora and waited.  One butterfly circled my head about fifteen times before she settled down.  When I took the picture, I realized that she was overseeing two large caterpillars directly below her.

Gulf Fritillary adult butterfly and caterpillars on Passiflora incarnata. Mom, checking on the kids.

As I appeared to be entirely harmless, she stayed only a few moments before she decided that she was required elsewhere.

Adult Gulf Fritillary and caterpillars on Passiflora incarnata. Everybody looks okay. Off to yoga.

There were other household management things to do, some of which can take hours.  But after all that was done, I had a few other things to do:  I’d been infusing a jojoba and fractionated coconut oil with yarrow and mullein flowers, and it was ready for pressing and straining.  Yarrow is well known for surface skin-repairing and smoothing effects, and has been used since the classical age for stanching the bleeding from battlefield wounds.  Mullein is spoken about frequently as an assisting herb for lung conditions (Native Americans are reputed to have smoked it).  Another of its reputed effects, though, is as a healer for deeper tissues and structures even in a carrier oil.

Jojoba and fractionated coconut massage oil, infused with herbs Yarrow, mullein and Ginger Thomas herbs, infused in jojoba. I think gold costs less than jojoba.

Some minutes wrestling with cheesecloth and multiple strainers later, I had the oil I was after. I’m probably going to use it in a soap, though I’m not sure which formula yet.  Jojoba and fractionated coconut oil have absolutely marvelous moisturizing and smoothing qualities on the skin, and the herb infusions, I hope, will only amplify them.

 

 

Finally, I saw from my calendar that a curing soap was about ready to make its way in the world.  Making cold-processed soap (e.g., soap that is made from scratch, with specifically chosen oils, waxes, butters, and other ingredients, saponified with lye and left to cure for several weeks to harden) is a practice that requires patience.  It is also one of the best examples of ordinary alchemies that exist.  From a bowl of liquid oils and fragments of lye arises something entirely different.  It’s been changed in its essential nature by a chemical reaction that must have seemed like  magic for most of human history.  (Soapmaking isn’t the only process where this occurred — in the Middle Ages, alewives would mix their wort and then cross themselves and say a prayer, as the wild yeasts would begin the fermentation process.)

This soap is part of the “Sky” series I’ve been working on.  It was inspired by a photograph of the clouds, sea and horizon taken from Buck Island on St. Croix, in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Handmade soap, inspired by St. Croix “Blue Skies, Clear Sailing”

It was made with pure coconut, olive, palm and castor oils, and colored with ultramarines. The fragrance is “clean and marine” with just a touch of musk and citrus to deepen it.  I cleaned up the edges a bit, made sure it was pH safe, and told it to say “Cheese” while I took its picture.  While it’s not gold — the goal that every medieval alchemist was after, if not the elixir of eternal life — it’s still a pretty good thing to have made at the end of the day.

The same goes with breakfast, and dinner, and bacon, and herbing, and growing things, and even doing laundry and dishes and cleaning up after the spills and flaws and damages of daily life.   Each action requires some kind of applied change, a thoughtful — even if passing — alchemy to the circumstances around us.  And even if they are the things that Kathleen Norris mentions as so basic, so bound up in home and nurture, the “little things” that we disregard now in preference for the public, it’s worth remembering what Sister Teresa of Calcutta said:  “Be faithful in small things because it is in them that your strength lies.”