Hester L. Furey
“Nothing is lost, nothing is created, everything is transformed”: Lavoisier’s Law, paraphrased from Elementary Treatise of Chemistry (1789) by Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier.
When I planned this issue of Eyedrum Periodically a year and a half ago, I had no idea what lay ahead. Since then the journal has been hacked twice. I have changed my job status and moved out of my house, selling, throwing away, or storing most of my possessions. After 35 years of practicing yoga and 26 years of teaching college, I have been going through yoga teacher training and facing the limitations of my body and sanity. Most importantly I renewed vows of serving my communities in my writing work, getting back to my roots in journalism and scholarship. I still have no idea what the future holds, but I am committed to honesty, to being real. That may seem like a strange starting point for an issue on alchemy, but hear me out.
In the 1980s, right about the time I was in college, Foucault was discussing in his lectures the true meaning of “Know Thyself,” the inscription on the walls of the oracle of Delphi. Most people think of it as a sort of celebratory statement, but he established that its context was critical, meant to make a young would-be ruler aware of his limitations. A few years back, a student overheard me discussing composting with someone and said, “isn’t that… you know, kind of dirty?” Fearing I already knew the answer, I asked, “where do you think dirt comes from, hon?” “The hardware store?” he ventured. Soon afterward I decided to make “How Do We Know What We Know?” one of the organizing questions for my Critical Thinking classes.
Alice Walker said in a 1983 NPR interview that her novel The Color Purple was “about change.” How could it be, she wondered, that the wife-beater of family legend had become her benign old grandfather? And this, she claimed, gave birth to the novel. Likewise, in a 1990 PBS interview Maxine Hong Kingston told Bill Moyers that her work addresses the problem of finding beauty and order and endowing her subjects with immortality – which she accomplishes by putting “our violent, horrible past…. through a process of art.” As she described her “laboratory” of a story-telling and meditation retreat in preparation for what became The Fifth Book of Peace, Moyers asked whether she feared the “danger” of readers deciding for themselves about the truth of her stories. Kingston said, “All human beings have this burden of life, to constantly figure out what’s true, what’s authentic, what’s meaningful, and what’s dross.”
Pseudo-science or proto-science, the body of experimentation known as alchemy includes both the now-discredited telos and discourse of the search for a philosopher’s stone, a literal search for gold, and the pragmatic and often valid rational pathways to chemical discovery embodied in the career of Lavoisier and many others. Alchemical practitioners, usually acting in communities, did much of the trial-and-error legwork for modern fields of chemistry, metallurgy, and medicine, but are now derided because most did not adhere to a materialist view of the universe. Lavoisier himself was a casualty of the French Revolution, sent to the guillotine, accused of adulterating the people’s tobacco, then exonerated 18 months after his death. Newton’s shameful box revealed that his scientific discoveries were driven by heretical convictions. We now prefer to classify the alchemical tradition into “true” scientists and kooks, but in their own time these figures worked together (or, in the case of Newton, were one and the same person) and held in common the search for a mysterious process of transformation and for widespread applications of a set of metaphors inherited from the ancients. Their crime of the alchemists seems to have been not knowing their limitations, not asking enough questions about what they thought they knew.
When I decided to quit my job, I went south for the matriarch’s blessing. Then I headed to the coast for a soul-food journey. First the trickster reminded me that you can still get lost here, yes ma’am, right out in Hazlehurst, Georgia. I began at the Hostel in the Forest. After not much sleep I stumbled out to the common area and ran into friends from Atlanta, who insisted we must go chant in the glass bowl yoga building. From there I went to St. Simon’s Island to take a moonlight cruise up the Altamaha River. It was overcast, but I was beside myself with fan-girl joy because I got to meet Jen Hilburn, the Altamaha Riverkeeper. I’ve wanted to go kayaking on the Altamaha for years but could never make it work, and James Holland, the first Altamaha Riverkeeper, is one of my heroes.
I learned many things on this trip. Some of them I can print. For example, only about 190 water keeper organizations are members of the global Waterkeeper Alliance, and of those, 7 are in Georgia. I knew already that the Altamaha was one of the largest river basins on the Atlantic coast and the third largest contributor of fresh water to the Atlantic Ocean from North America. Amazingly still almost entirely in its natural state, the river is home to over 125 endangered species; it is the 7th most endangered river in the United States (our Flint River, by the way, is #2 on that list). The Nature Conservancy called the Altamaha one of the world’s last great places. And I knew before I started out that the number one enemy of the river was a Wayne county pulp wood company called Rayonier.
Rayonier uses more water from the Upper Floridian aquifer than the combined coastal counties of Georgia, but does not pay for it in any way, never has. I was aware that Rayonier was responsible for miles-long fish kills on the river, but what I didn’t know is that they’ve been doing that and worse since the 1950s. They used to use kerosene to cut the pollutant foam, but stopped after they were compelled to construct a water treatment plant in the late 1960s following the overgrowth of a bacterial slime that threatened fishing industries downriver. They still consume 59 million gallons per day and dump waste products into the river. They are at the bottom of industry standards worldwide. It’s so bad that Hilburn said, “if ONLY we could get third world environmental standards enforced on the Altamaha.” But the Georgia Enviromental Protection Division is still undecided, after ten years of deliberation over a 20-mile affected stretch of the river, whether the company’s waste products actually count as pollution.
Here’s the part that got me: most people think that Rayonier produces lumber and wood-pulp products. Their number one product is a cellulose-based Chinese cigarette filter. (Other products include diapers and tampons.) Not only is Rayonier destroying Georgia’s natural resources and contributing to the ill-health of people in Asia, but cigarette filters are the most littered items in America and the world. Their toxicity is well established. Their chemical components add up to almost 100% poison/carcinogen: acetone, arsenic, ammonia, benzene, cadmium, formaldehyde, lead, and toluene. These are the products Rayonier sells. I’m sure that stuff they dump in the river, the bits they can’t sell, is just great drinking, but the fish don’t seem to live long in it. My next research project will gather statistics about cancer rates in people downstream. The consent order Rayonier signed in 2008, agreeing with the Environmental Protection Division to reduce the color content of its effluent that was “potentially” a violation of the Clean Water Act, will expire in March 2016.
Of course any student of mining will find all of this information redundant. When my students try to tell me about the various conspiracy theories to which they subscribe, I say,“you don’t have to work so hard. You’re going through all this elaborate, tenuously connected encoded crap when the real conspiracies are right there in front of you, verifiable. Read history. Read the news.” And everything horrible is defended “because it provides jobs,” but there could be good jobs.
I approve of the growing movement to grant rivers the rights of personhood, but we needn’t go that far here. Imagine, only, a world in which we care about understanding this planet, the welfare of our state, or whether our children and grandchildren have clean air and water. We have this amazing source of information – river basins and wetlands are essentially the lungs of the planet –, and Georgians could have jobs monitoring, studying, and protecting the river basin, guiding limited groups of eco-tourists, teaching sustainable practices. Our state could make a pile from protecting our environmental resources, from simply doing what is right.
How much have we been accepting on blind faith? How do you know what you know? What don’t you know? Where does your water come from? Your food? What would it take to get to the moral place that would let us see the “gold” in our rivers and other natural resources, preserve what we already have? How would we have to change? And how could there be a “danger” that you, reader, will decide for yourself what is true, meaningful, and authentic? The only danger is that you will not.
Hester L. Furey