Plant Chemistry in Flowering Seen Alchemically – Alchemy and Natural Science Part 2
By Dennis Klocek
In alchemical thinking polarities that reciprocate are the basis for forming models of how things change. Polarities occur in the four elements, the four temperaments and the three processes. Together these sets of polarities are the most useful problem solving ideas in the alchemical method of analogy.
The image is an alchemical mandala that can be used as a study tool for understanding most fundamental polarity is between levity and gravity. Levity and gravity polarity forms the inner ring. The dashed ring depicts the polar states of the four elements. The solid ring depicts the polar states of the four temperaments. The arrows up and down depict the action of the three processes. This diagram will be used throughout this series of articles to help depict plant chemistry from an alchemical perspective.
The theory of the four elements and the three processes has its most fundamental state in the tension between levity and gravity. The representative of levity is warmth, heat or hot. The representative of gravity is cold. Warmth and cold represent the dynamic of the balancing of the elements that are adjacent. Hot balances air and fire. Cold balances earth and water.
This balancing dynamic is known as temperament. In their reciprocation the temperaments of hot and cold balance many other phenomena. The domain of levity includes rarefication, reactivity, combustion and a drive upwards. The domain of gravity includes manifestation, insularity, deposition and a horizontal drive.
Among the four elements air and fire occupy the levity pole. Linear forms reveal the action of the levity forces. Among the four elements, earth and water occupy the gravity pole. Fields of points reveal the action of gravity. These basic ideas can be carried very far when doing research in natural science. Complex schemas for the transformations of physical properties found in organic chemistry can be made more understandable by translating specialist languages into the drama of the relationship between polarities that are interacting.
These polar pairs manifest in nature in the forms of things. Since forms in nature are manifestations of rhythms of levity/gravity polarities. Very workable classifications through the creation of form analogs are made possible once a basic vocabulary of linear and cloud like forms is understood. An example of one such analog is the molecular formation of chlorophyll, the green miracle that is the energetic foundation of all life.
The image of a chlorophyll molecule reveals a ring like head that absorbs light and a long, linear carbon tail that transmits the light into the plant chloroplast cells. The energies of the light are absorbed by nitrogenous pigments that make up the head. Mostly blue/ violet (short wave or chemical) and red ( long wave or thermal) light frequencies are absorbed. This is the light or levity side of the chlorophyll. The hydrocarbon tail activates the metabolism of the cells that receive the light energies from the ring.
In levity/ gravity language the head formation is a gravity sink for the energies of the light. Water soluble magnesium is a mineral that absorbs light and transmits it. Magnesium sits at the center of the ring. The ring form unites peripheral forces to a center. The peripheral forces, under the realm of levity alchemically always represent light. Magnesium gathers light into a mineral center, a picture of gravity. By contrast the tail is made of hydrocarbons arranged not in a ring but in a line. Hydrocarbons are the precursors to fats and oils. These in turn provide storage of light energies, and support combustion of substances into warmth. These qualities point to the pole of levity.
A plant in growing sends up a linear stalk under the influence of levity(air/light and warmth). What starts out in water soluble soil solution (gravity) is lifted upwards by the forces of the light and warmth (transpiration/ evaporation and enhanced chemical activity). Air that is warmed rises. This is the force of levity. But sap rising to the top of a 300 foot redwood tree is interacting with more than just temperature changes. Levity represents not only vertical motion but it also is a signature of processes of refinement of forms.
A pine leaf with its refined needles carries much warmth that is released in its bring flame upon combustion. The fine form of the needles suggest the paring down or combusting levity forces. An oak leaf with much calcium in its ash burns with a smoldering flame barely producing visible light. The thick, rounded form is a signature that the calcium with its gravity forces has overcome levity. The pine branch reaches combustion in a great release of light and warmth. That is a show of levity. The oak releases sparing warmth but deposits abundant ashes rich in minerals. That is a representation of gravity.
In general combustion of the water interactive leaves into the flower formation in a plant produces the incinerating living flame of a flower. The ash that falls from that incineration is in the form of a cloud of seeds that fall into gravity and are deposited on the earth. Gravity has led to levity that has led back again to gravity. This is reciprocation. Reciprocation, to an alchemist is a valuable tool for understanding hidden forces in manifest forms. Pictorial iteration or morphological iteration is a kind of thinking that can provide analogs to help study economy of scale in nature.
In this way it could be said that the form of the chlorophyll molecule is an analog of the structure and functional development of a growing plant. This is the method of analogy based on pictorial iteration or imaginative morphing. This essay uses the method of analogy as a way to observe plant growth processes inwardly through pictorial thinking in sequences. The pictorial method of thinking is known as morphology. It can be diagrammed with a mandala as a way of thinking about cyclic change.
The mandala of the four elements, four temperaments and sal and sulf processes is a very valuable tool for studying morphology rhythms in natural forms. For example, viewed as a mandala, the chlorophyll molecule reveals cycles of the four elements. The nitrogenous ring at the head of the chlorophyll molecule shows nitrogen (air/levity) and magnesium(earth/gravity) linked as polar principles. The earth and air polarity is activated by water soluble phenols that are acidic, light absorbing (and depositing) plant pigments.
The image is of light being deposited into the Earth; the analog of levity falling into gravity. In chlorophyll the water soluble phenol ring in the head of the molecule and the water avoiding hydrocarbon tail of chlorophyll unite an earth /gravity substance carbon with a warmth/ levity substance hydrogen. As a result both the head and the tail of the molecule bring levity/gravity polarities into reciprocation.
Pictorial thinking based on reciprocal polarities can be taken very far in plant study. For instance, plant growth is divided into two polar seasonal aspects. Early growth is supported by water soluble reactions. Later phases of flowering and seed production are supported by oil soluble reactions. This overall seasonal shift in formal pattern in the visible plant is an image of the invisible plant chemistry throughout the season. Those two images are the polar formative principles of the chlorophyll molecule.
By using levity and gravity as the paradigm for the complex forces in plants it is possible to simplify the most archetypal interactions of hormones and minerals that travel through plant saps. There is a genius in hormones, enzymes and minerals that guides the interactions. Science knows this as “enzyme promiscuity”. This means if an enzyme finds a precursor missing in a process it simply finds an alternative. Enzyme promiscuity goes across all enzyme reactions in all plants everywhere at all times. It is an invisible, archetypal, epigenetic genius.
Science of today seeks to pin down these reactions with finer and finer parsing into genetics and the (“quantum oscillation of virtual hydrogen”) creating ever more complex systems. Simplifying the overly complex jargon through levity/gravity analogs allows a person to read the plant in a shorthand visual language. That language can easily link solar length of day, and plant growth phase, with the action of hormonal plant growth regulators (PGR) operating at that time. These seemingly disparate data realm can be formed into a coherent field of resonant data pictures.
This can lead to the production of sprays that can enhance the particular relationships between gravity forces of deposition and levity forces of rarefication/ combustion that occur at specific times in the life of a plant. These influences involve shifting patterns of organic chemicals such as phenols, sugars, alcohols, lipids, proteins, hormones, enzymes and the minerals that support these formations in plant sap. These movements in turn are regulated by the length of the solar day.
The aim of this work isn’t to form a scheme alien to the present laws of chemistry but to simplify the maze of highly technical descriptions of inorganic chemistry that someone who wishes to enhance medicinal plant production has no hope of penetrating. Using the levity/gravity formal language a rational / imaginative modeling mode for medical plant experiments can be conducted that is in line with rational organic chemistry but is guided by alchemical imaginations.
The imagination can provide glimpses of the wholeness of the economy of scale that creates the tremendous unity of phenomena the natural world. In line with this we could cite the rhythm of the solstices and equinoxes as the base line for the unfolding of levity and gravity in the phenomena. Diagramming these solar rhythms reveals vertical and horizontal wave patterns that are accompanied in nature by plant growth. These solar rhythms represent the macro version of the micro levity/gravity form of the chlorophyll model. The time scales are different in all of these phenomena but the elemental patterns behind them all are the same.
The pictorial way of thinking and modeling is based on using visible natural phenomena as analogs to understanding invisible natural phenomena such as chemical changes. To understand how this works it is useful to think about the world in polar states that are in constant interaction for balance. The ancient mandala form is very useful for thinking about reciprocal changes. In the mandala each element must work in reciprocation with its opposite.
That interaction towards balance is called tempering. The four elements of earth, water, air and fire interact through four tempering influences of cold, wet, hot and dry. Together these transformations support manifold formative processes. The mandala helps to imagine these processes. The beauty and utility of this way of working is that what is true at one level of scale can be imagined with confidence as applying to another level of scale. Nature does not waste energies trying to reinvent its operating system.
In the alchemical mandala of the four elements, earth sits at the precipitating / gravity or manifesting pole associated with substances that have appeared from patterns of invisible forces into manifest visible forms. Invisibility characterizes the levity pole. Invisible forces in the growth of plants gradually lead through small form changes into visibility. This is seen in hormonal influences on meristem rhythms of cell division, then elongation, then differentiation. Alchemically this is a gravity manifestation that is the keystone for plant physiology.
The opposite levity pole represents rarifying substances that move from visibility towards air, light and warmth states. This is the pole of combustion where the visible forms of substances gradually release their warmth, rise up and become invisible. In this they leave visible ash as a record of their journey from gravity to levity and back. The fundamental dynamic between gravity and levity is characterized by the polarity of the elements, earth and air.
If there were only earth and air elements, the world would be made of dust. Earth and air have water to unite them. But water and fire are polarities also so if there were only water and fire elements the world would be made of clouds. Clouds produce rain when overcome by the gravity of the cold earth. Then and they grow up into the sky again as vapor in the levity forces in moist air.
The needs for polar elements to go through transformation by including a third element is the source of the four temperaments. The alchemical mandala illustrates that tempering patterns of forces act to intercede between the fundamental four elements. Forces must act to temper the extremes by leading them into each other. These modifying forces are the temperaments. Tempering means to bring an imbalance into balance by making small changes in the proportional relationships between the two polarities.
For instance, between earth and water the tempering force is cold. Earth with its deep attraction to gravity must be coaxed out of the gravity pole into encountering levity. Water does this due to its volatile nature of being composed of two gasses. The cold keeps the water in contact with the earth so that life an develop and so that the water doesn’t just fly of into expansive vapor.
On the levity side water is connected to air through the tempering action of moisture. For water, the moist tempering is a step towards the levity pole away from gravity. Reciprocally air is tempered by moisture towards water and the gravity pole. On the levity side air is tempered towards the strong levity forces of the fire element when all moisture leaves. This takes away a connection to gravity for the air. Air feeds flames and heat rises into fire when there is no moisture left to pull the air towards gravity. Heat amplifies into combustion in the fire pole and this tempers the heat into dryness.
To understand that imagine a stick drying out in a flame until it combusts releasing its warmth. It continues to do that until the levity is overcome by gravity and the ash falls into gravity. There is nothing left for the fire in the completely dry, burnt stick. Dryness had tempered heat. To complete a circle it is out of dryness that the earth element is tempered again into the gravity of dust and salt and ash. Out of these fallen corpses of previous life anew life can begin when the dry salt of the earth is tempered into cold so that the ash can eventually find a path to water and, then soil solution and plant sap on the way to new, as Goethe called them, “ becomings”.
Alchemically, the dry tempering induces a gravity response in the deposition of ashes and the salts that they contain. The salt forming patterns are known to alchemists as sal. Sal is characterized by levity (that is, air and fire) gradually being overcome by gravity (earth and water). This transformation is done when dryness tempers the heat to coolness causing ash to fall into gravity. In salt deposition patterns a solution is the highest levity state in which the dissolved salt is invisible. Precipitation occurs through the action of gravity when heat or air (levity) pushes water out of the solution. Salt precipitates out of a relatively clear solution. This is an analog for the drama of a spiritual potential becoming matter, that is; levity being overcome by gravity; that is, human souls born into bodies.
The polar state to sal is sulf or sulfur. This is not only the element sulfur but the possibility for solid things to become more refined through heat or combustion processes(refining metals for instance). It also refers to the capacity for some substances to contain a latent heat that is not sensible but is active in transformations. In human beings the latent or innate heat is linked to digestive capacity of mitochondria, a mysterious , warm, digestive force in deep interaction with the blood.
Sulfur as a mineral has a balanced inner fire that can be released in a beautiful blue flame kindled with a match. It is a rock that holds invisible fire in itself. The visible fire of burning sulfur leaves no ash. In most transformations in nature the invisible fire within, say, a piece of wood exits upwards into levity and leaves a dry ash in gravity as an image of the minerals that guided its original growth processes. Sulf compounds contain an invisible levity principle or warmth potential that is liberated through combustion. Combustion separates sulf into warmth and sal into ash.
In chemistry, the redox concept states that for every oxidation process for one substance there is an equal reduction process happening in the adjacent substance. According to chemistry, what is being reduced is the oxygen that moves from the reducing substance (reduced through loss of oxygen) to the oxidizing substance( gaining more oxygen). In alchemy a reducing substance is seen as sulf. It is becoming rarified by losing the oxygen.
The oxidizing substance would be seen as sal since it is losing its levity by accepting a deposition of oxygen. Oxygen has chemical weight. In re/dox oxygen is precipitating (SAL) into the oxidizing material by combusting (SULF) out of the reducing material. Alchemy would say that the oxygen in oxidation is forming an “ash”. Ash in alchemy is any thing that precipitates out of something that has lost its levity.
The ash concept in alchemy can seem confusing. Clearly carbon is an ash of life processes that has become an earth or “corpse” or “ash”. But using the alchemical gravity / levity process of thinking sometimes produces some strange concepts that require adjustments to habit of mind. In alchemy water is an “ash” of air. Water, the manifestation of the falling together of two gasses (air) precipitates out (SAL) of a rarified gaseous state into a visible liquid state. Even in the chemical formula of water there can be seen a kind of sal or ash process in the uniting of two gasses. Hydrogen, with much levity is overcome by the gravity force of oxygen. The two gasses cease to be rarified in a levity state of air and fall or precipitate into a substantiality known as precipitation or rain.
In this work I am indebted to the seminal alchemical text of Ernst Lehrs published as Man or Matter. Lehrs, a brilliant scientist and student of Rudolf Steiner, wrote this work linking that imaginative morphological approach to current physical science. It is a primer in advanced picture thinking.
Dennis Klocek, MFA, is co-founder of the Coros Institute and a faculty member at Rudolf Steiner College. He is the author of nine books, including the newly released Colors of the Soul; Esoteric Physiology and also Sacred Agriculture: The Alchemy of Biodynamics. Dennis is also an international lecturer.