An alchemy of violets

3 am 3 June 2021 Sleepless again.

The moon rises in the east, a rosy crescent; it drops a trail of golden light across the mirror of the bay. Overhead a whirl of starts; frog chant fills the air.

We walked at Sober Island today. The sea rolled in, crashing noisily against the shore and the wind was cold but bracing. Every day a little more of the path to the headland crumbles into the sea and the juniper swathed scrub is red with salt spray. Many of the remaining grizzled black spruce–more bush than tree-turn slowly to skeletons: twisted whitened forms scoured of bark and needles, branches reaching back landward as if shaken by and fleeing a permanent storm.

It was low tide; bladderwrack wavered in the suck and surge of each wave. The day was bright, cloudless, the water so clear that we could see the sandbars in the island bays in the lee of the wind. It was an illusion of course, this vision of islets floating in tropic blue seas–the water is still brutally cold as the sea wind tells us, but warmer days are coming.

After our walk we visited a bit with some elderly neighbours. They were preparing for surgery and going through their papers looking for the life insurance policy–“death insurance” they called it. Meanwhile the dog gnawed on bones drawn out of the splay of a seal carcass: I called the remains of the skeleton her “bone storage system” since she comes back again and again.

We gathered rhubarb from our neighbours’ patch and close by, in a dell, I found a broad scattering of violets, the last of the season. I plucked them and dropped them into my hat; I wanted to try to make violet flower ink.

The recipe was simple:

  • 1 cup of flowers
  • 2 cups of water
  • 1 teaspoon of vinegar
  • 1/8 teaspoon of salt
  • Put all of the ingredients in a small saucepan. Boil for 15 minutes. Strain out petals and add 1/4 teaspoon gum arabic. Honey may be used in place of gum arabic if needed.

When I boiled the flowers, the violets released their colour into the water. At first the colour broke from the petals in flecks and patches of blue, then dissolved. Soon the violet petals were leached white and the water a luscious rosy colour. I was missing a key thickener–gum arabic–so on the advice of various friends tried honey and maple syrup instead. I dropped purple spatters on paper–the syrup turned the wet ink a viscous iron colour–but everything dried to pale shades of green of greater or lesser stickiness.

So this is what it looks like when you write with flowers: verdant; fleeting. For a brief moment I felt as if I’d become an alchemist.

Given time, each thing becomes another.

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