As I write this the Stromboli volcano off the coast of Sicily has been spewing smoke, gas, bits of the inner earth, molten material overall into the air and sea. Columns and plumes of smoke, mushrooms and horses’ heads speak primal warnings to us that something from below has risen. Reminders that under the appearances of things, under our very footfalls something quakes and rumbles threatening to alter and cover our very daylight hours. Volcanoes feature in six of Emily Dickinson’s one thousand and seven hundred and seventy-five poems. The following, in particular, appeals to me.
Volcanoes be in Sicily
And South America
I judge from my Geography –
Volcanos nearer here
A Lava step at any time
Am I inclined to climb –
A Crater I may contemplate
Vesuvius at Home.
And certainly of fire and smoke I’ve been close to and at home with, I’d have to speak of the earth and fire and smoke of the kiln. Up ahead we’ll visit the peat bog outside the Laphroaig distillery where the good dank, dark earth is cut, but for now, let’s consider the burning of the peat.
We sampled a jar of peated malt, meaning we stuck our nose in and breathed smoke and barely in a greenhouse on fire. A crunchy chew. Centuries and then thousands of years and millions more to shape one millimeter per year, and then one meter over one thousand years. Each pour of malt mires the drinker in boglands stretching further than ancestry.com can discover. A fire lit today burns and smokes old earth mixing this and that, then and now. Let’s take a step to the chamber of sparking and smoking time, a small room of changes–the cooking-stove, the burning-place.
Brick, metal, earth, fire and smoke. Here is where Laphroaig maintains a unique status among the three distilleries of the southeast coast of Islay–smoking on site twenty-five percent of the barley used for their bottlings. Andrew Jeffords writes, “The fire is begun with dry peat, then moister bricks and the loose chaff is put on to produce maximum smoke.” This is the nigredo in alchemical terms, this is the blackening and cooking that ends the germination of barley, drying out the seeds and slowly browning them toward the black.
Tools of the trade. Shoveling in peat, stoking the fire, feeding flames, vegetal matter smothering just a bit to release smoke. The rope I’m not sure about. It’s an object hung on a hook next to what I believe and recognize what it’s there for, meaning the shovel. The rope known and unknown to me, a thing still in its own world and time without a precise definition as work. A useful and yet un-useful thing. Consider Heidegger in Being and Time.
. . . useful things are always in terms of their belonging to other useful things: writing materials, pen, ink, paper, desk blotter, table, lamp, furniture, windows, doors, room. These “things” never show themselves initially by themselves, in order then to fill out a room as a sum of real things. What we encounter as nearest to us, although we do not grasp it thematically, is the room, not as “what is between the four walls” in a geometrical, spatial sense, but rather as material for living. On the basis of the latter we find “accommodations,” and in accommodations the actual “individual” useful thing. A totality of useful things is always already discovered before the individual thing. (68)
What we don’t immediately know of why some object hangs upon a wall allows it still some space of its own. What the knowledge of some thing, and what does that do to it?
Metal doors closed. Time to smoke some barley. Here are Laphroaig’s words on the magic within,
According to their foundation stone, Laphroaig’s peat kilns were built in 1840, making them almost as old as the distillery itself. The kilns themselves look out over the bay, and it is here that we burn the peat in order to imbue the barley with the distillery’s signature smoky, medicinal flavour. Unlike the majority of distilleries, we peat before we dry. In a process lasting around 17 hours, the smoke or ‘peat reek’ rises up through the perforated drying floor into the kiln. Here, the vaporised oils – the peat’s phenolic compounds and other wood-based smoky flavours are absorbed by the damp barley. In terms of flavour making, we burn our peat at a relatively low temperature, a ‘cold smoking’ process that is responsible for the tarry note typical of Laphroaig. Once done, the barley is dried using hot air recycled from the still house.
Doors to heaven and hell. Both necessary in order to mold being, the kiln used to fire shaped-clay into a hard, polished surface. For William Blake the same is true, meaning what burns and corrodes serves as a medicine, much as a taste of Laphroaig may be described as medicinal.
The ancient tradition that the world will be consumed in fire at the end of six thousand years is true, as I have heard from Hell,
For the cherub with his flaming sword is hereby commanded to leave his guard at tree of life, and when he does, the whole creation will be consumed, and appear infinite. and holy whereas now it appears finite & corrupt.
This will come to pass by an improvement of sensual enjoyment.
But first the notion that man has a body distinct from his soul, is to be expunged; this I shall do, by printing in the infernal method, by corrosives, which in Hell are salutary and medicinal, melting apparent surfaces away, and displaying the infinite which was hid.
If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite.
For man has closed himself up, til he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.
Laphroaig was sold in the United States during Prohibition as medicine. I mean, just taste it. Even Blake’s cherub with a flaming sword would be at first taken aback. Within the doors of the kiln and the doors of perception, transformation smokes and that transformation always includes matter of space and time, not transmuted for abstract reasons, but to work on the very nature of the tool closest to us, ourselves. All in all, behind the steel doors I hear damp earth, dry earth, flames and decay breathing smoke to wash what once germinated into a slightly charred, tasteful body waiting for a bath in new water. Breathing. Puts me in mind Of Tool’s “Pneuma” from their just-dropped album Fear Inoculum. All the alchemical references you need to begin the day and end the night. Sláinte!