Backyard Alchemy

By J.D. HO

junk pile in the woods

What is above is as that which is below, and what is below is as that which is above.

— principle of alchemy


Decades ago, someone dredged the creek on our property, then bulldozed the dredged rocks and soil up onto the banks. But before that happened, the land beside the creek was a series of dumps for the surrounding households. First the garbage buried the earth, then the boulders from the creek half-buried the garbage. The dumps are so extensive that they have literally changed the topography and elevation of the property. The layers of garbage go down, down, down, no matter how far I dig. Much of the garbage was burned, and its poisons leached into the soil, making it barren to all but the most invasive plant species.

On a cold April day in the Virginia mountains where we live, the sun shines, therefore I must be outside. “I’m going for the big kahuna,” I tell James as I stand at the basement door with my shovel. The big kahuna, a silly expression from my Hawaii childhood, is what I call large, heavy pieces of rusty metal in the woods behind our house. Nails and bolts and small things like that don’t count as anything. I head up the hill in the afternoon light. I shovel the soil that is mostly rocks, leftovers from the collision of mountains in this range. I pull at the exposed part of a bed frame. I lift boulders out of the way. I hear the faint roar of the lawnmower down the slope.

When we moved to the house, we accumulated a huge pile of metal while cleaning up the yard, and when we took it to the metal recycling center, we got $120 for it. Since then, I’ve been on a mission to unearth and recycle every last bit.

During my digging, I find an old fuse made in the USA, a reddish rock, and a rock sliced perfectly in two. I set these treasures aside for James. He appears a short time later.

“Stop,” he says. “You’re going to hurt yourself.”

“But I’ve got half of it out!”

“Well, then let me do it,” James says.

“No,” I say, like a kid. James has been complaining all day that he’s tired and sore.

“I want you to have your fucking bed frame!” he shouts, and begins shoveling. It’s a lingering bit of a fight that has lasted all day.

We work for a while. Then James says, “I don’t think it’s worth the effort.” We stare at the bed frame. I begin digging again. I want the bed. After a moment, James joins me, and we dig until the behemoth comes up in our hands.

Metal, in its coldness, its mysterious formation, its unyielding nature, and its usefulness, lends itself to obsession. Alchemists of centuries ago approached the transmutation of lead into gold with a religious fervor. They were mystics of a kind, even if their motivations were often materialistic. In his 1913 history of alchemy and chemistry, M.M. Pattison Muir begins with a greatest hits collection of quotations from alchemical texts. My favorite is: Copper is like a man; it has a soul and a body. Alchemists, Muir writes, “argued that minerals and metals also grow, change, develop,” like living things. My metal of choice is iron. It is in my blood. It is in our Virginia clay. It is a practical metal, abundant and useful. It is in most of the metal objects I find in my yard: cans from food and beer and motor oil, nails, screws, bolts, scissors, lawnmower blades, springs, fencing wire, barrels, buckets, roofing, a gun, and even an old car jack that will not come out from under a boulder.

I’ve long had an apocalyptic vision of the future: humans have used all our resources, and we have to mine our landfills in order to get what we need. I never thought I’d be living my fictional vision, but that is exactly what I’m doing. I am tunneling into the past, into the detritus of the residents before me, recycling trash for cash, trying to rehabilitate the soil so that it can provide lumber, firewood, food, and shelter for animals. I am an archaeologist of the garbage age of the Anthropocene.

When I walk in the woods or around town, now, it is habit to search for scrap. I pocket bolts, screws, washers, nails, and mysterious objects I can’t identify. Sometimes I bring them to James. “What is this?” I say, and he studies, puzzles. His mind is a visual encyclopedia of machines, of buildings, of tools. “It’s a wheel weight to keep a tire balanced,” he says, and it must be true.



Inside our house, my obsession with metal continues when James pulls the moldy drywall out, pulls down the sagging ceiling, and reveals lath fastened to the beams with hundreds of tiny, rusty nails. I stand on a stepladder and pull each nail out with pliers. I drop them into a plastic container, saving every last one. Removing nails from the house or from the earth reminds me of when nails were currency, worth more than the few cents I will get for them at the scrapyard. On his 1768 Endeavour voyage to Tahiti, Australia, and New Zealand, Captain Cook feared the fate suffered by an earlier ship, which had nearly broken apart after leaving the Pacific islands because the men had removed so many nails to trade for sex with the native women. Nails contributed to the spread of venereal disease. They contributed to the destruction of paradise, if there ever was such a thing.

On the Endeavour journey, Joseph Banks, the scientist who accompanied Cook, kept his plant specimens pressed between the pages of printer’s proofs of Paradise Lost. Milton’s epic could not have existed without metal. The letters used for printing were made of iron, and therefore iron allowed the existence and dissemination of the poem. Iron was in its pages and its imaginary, as if the destructive consequences of early industrial activity brought home to Milton the loss of Edenic nature. Not many of Banks’ bundled specimens survive, but one can imagine the stems, leaves, and petals twining with Milton’s words, as if poetry had the power to preserve such fragile life. “Ah gentle pair, ye little think how nigh / Your change approaches, when all these delights / Will vanish and deliver ye to woe.”

Right around the time we were buying this house and its numerous piles of garbage, James almost died after being bitten several times by a baby copperhead. He was working at a greenhouse, and when he reached down to get a tray of phlox, the snake injected him with all its venom. We were living in what we called The Shack, a little house on the greenhouse owner’s property, a place we had moved into because we’d been long jobless, and we had nowhere else to go. I was so angry at our lives that I sat in the hospital, stony and emotionless, while James’s arm doubled in size and the doctor tried to gauge if we were people who could foot the bill for antivenin. My own arm was injured at the time, a torn rotator cuff followed by frozen shoulder, and I could barely drive or move my arm. Suddenly, I had to drive everywhere and do everything while James recovered in a house that should have been condemned. It was a time when everything that could go wrong did go wrong.

I often think of our partnership while digging; I wonder why we commit to other people, what hope there is in it, what utility, when so much of it is daily struggle, arguments, trying to get by. There is a lot of garbage. Sometimes I find strange and wondrous things: a nutcracker in the shape of a crocodile, a glass rabbit riding a glass bicycle, pennies from the 1970s (back when they were ninety-five percent copper), evidence that some child’s bedroom was thrown wholesale down the slope into our yard. Shoes. I never realized how long it takes a shoe to break down.

A glass rabbit

There are bits of shoes left in ancient iron mines in the Forest of Dean, where King Charles I, to feed his greed, set up industrial-scale mining operations in the 1600s. As one writer observed in 1780, “There are, deep in the earth, vast caverns scooped out by men’s hands, and large as the aisles of churches.” One such mine is called the Devil’s Chapel, as if to mine was to worship Satan. I am like those miners of old, digging by hand, but I am making a different kind of chapel.

Today, someone would be considered crazy for thinking they could turn lead into gold, for thinking they could separate elements and transform them. But it’s possible alchemists knew they might never succeed, that obtaining gold was not the reason they kept on. I believe they found their daily practice fulfilling in its constant questioning, its uncertainty, its discovery. Sometimes, while digging, I ponder the fine line between simply being a quitter and quitting something because you’re wise and know how and when to cut your losses. My neighbor once asked me, “When are you going to give up on writing?” Like it was a matter of logic and economics. And when we bought this house—with the longleaf pine floorboards, the balloon frame studs thirty-five feet tall, the siding, all dating back to 1852—a friend said, “You have to wonder if it makes more sense to tear the house down.”

My grandparents were married for fifty years. They said terrible things to one another. They harbored resentments. They complained about each other. My grandmother once said she should have divorced my grandfather. I said, “Why didn’t you?” She said, “It’s too late now,” as if separating two things so long together was not physically possible. When my grandfather died, my grandmother followed ten days later. She couldn’t exist without him. They began life as two, then became one, and they couldn’t go back to the way they’d been.

M.M. Pattison Muir says that “the central quest of alchemy was the quest of…whatever makes life worth living.” Alchemists “regarded everything as influencing, and influenced by, other things.” Alchemy probed the limits of transformation. Can you turn a blade of grass into a rock? Can you turn a rock into gold? In essence, alchemy pondered the essential qualities of things. Their potential. Their relationships with the rest of the world.



“You should go get your PhD,” James said a few years ago. I was having a hard time finding enough work, and I missed an academic community, so I agreed. But I didn’t get in anywhere I was excited about. I didn’t get in at the nearby university, whose English program was not the best match for me, but which would have meant not moving.

On the trip to assess my options, we drove to Pittsburgh first. It was cold and gray. I spent all day in classes in dark buildings. All the tables were long rectangles that made it hard to interact with people. At the end of the day, James came to pick me up. “Pittsburgh is great!” he said. “It’s so beautiful! Look at these buildings! Look at the architecture! Wow, this bridge!” I sat there silently. Finally, I said, “The professors were nice.” The city, meanwhile, looked to me like Milton’s version of hell. Satan was in there somewhere, plotting the downfall of the human race.

The next day, we drove to Delaware, the other place that had accepted me. As we headed toward the coast, spring popped up. There were flowers, sun, the rooms on campus were bright with huge windows and nice tables. I liked the library. At the end of the day, James came to pick me up. He was crying. “I hate this pit!” he said. “It’s awful. There’s nothing good here. There’s nothing here!” I sat there silently.

When you make decisions with another person, and things go wrong, you don’t know whose fault it was. You can blame yourself, or you can blame the other person—their wants, their needs. In times of stress, James cries or complains. I become a rock. My strict Asian upbringing kicks in. I respond by working harder, longer, refusing to spend money. I occasionally stomp around and dig up heavy things. I often blamed him for breaking down and crying in Delaware that day. I couldn’t stand the idea of making him unhappy just so I could go to school. We moved to Pittsburgh, but, in retrospect, I never should have gone back to school at all. What was it I wanted? I didn’t get it there. James never found work. Even had I been happy in Pittsburgh, we couldn’t have afforded to stay. The year-long Pittsburgh detour was one that almost broke us.

But the city known for its iron ore and its steel manufacturing deepened my metallurgic obsession. The city’s industry had boomed during wartime because iron and steel were so important during the Civil War and the World Wars that followed. As Ovid writes: “Then destructive iron came forth, and gold, more destructive than iron; then war came forth.” Milton takes up the same thread in Paradise Lost, where it is Satan who pioneers the practice of mining and uses the materials to create cannons to fight God and angels.

Metal contributed to war in the most mundane and ordinary way, too: armies need food, and the invention of canned food meant soldiers could travel farther. A Frenchman named Nicolas Appert figured out how to “can” food in the Napoleonic era. The process originally used champagne bottles, then wide-mouthed glass jars, then, finally, tin. Cans were invented before can openers, and soldiers used their bayonets to obtain their food, which seems like a metaphor for something. Canned food powered Napoleon’s army, then the soldiers of the Civil War, the war fought in the mountains and valleys surrounding my house. As I dig up can after can, I wonder if I’ll find scraps from the meals of Union and Confederate soldiers.

This year, in the city nearest us, people turn out in huge numbers to protest a highly publicized but small gathering of white supremacists who have been brought together and emboldened by social media. They may be fewer in number than in the past, but their voices seem louder and more vicious. They are heavily armed, but the police do nothing to stop them from gathering. A friend and I tie RESIST signs to trees. A protestor, a young woman, is killed. In the south, the past echoes loudly; it shouts its injustice and its hate. In response, I feel compelled to do the best I can with the tiny dot of earth that is mine, as if I can make up for all the ruin I see around me. I will feed birds, butterflies, bees. I will get rid of invasive weeds. I dig up a century in order to give things the room they need to grow. Downtown, I collect bags of ginkgo seeds off the streets because ginkgos grow in polluted soil. I make a tree nursery, and the ginkgos all pop up in spring, little hopeful stems almost unrecognizable as trees. I steal Osage oranges that have fallen to the ground at the post office. I bring bags and bags home and scatter them in the woods. I collect redbud pods, hickory nuts, acorns, juniper berries. Something, god dammit, will grow. It will put shoots up from the garbage. It will send roots down. It will bust through glass, as some trees have already done, their roots tunneling through soda bottles and cans revealed by the erosive forces of the creek. I hope the trees are angry, as I am angry on their behalf, as I am angry at those who destroyed paradise—the parts of paradise under my own feet and the parts I have never seen. I hope the trees’ rage fuels them, as it fuels me. I hope they hurl garbage out onto the road in revenge.



What has been broken so badly takes longer to fix than it took to break. Our house must be taken apart before it can be restored. James guts it, and I fume at our lack of walls, our lack of light switches. The winter wind blows through the old wooden clapboards. I curse James down to my winter boots, and all the way up to my fuzzy hat. I curse him along my scarf, and into my mittens as I clomp around the house dressed like I’m on an Arctic expedition. We go back into the past in order to proceed into the future. James can’t leave the kitchen where it is; he wants to put it where it was long ago, when there was no running water, no electricity, just a woodstove searing the floor with coals, spattering the walls with grease. “We have a kitchen,” I say. “But it’s a horrible kitchen,” he says. It was so full of mold when we bought the house that I couldn’t stand in it for over a minute without getting sick. James tore everything out to begin again. “I want you to have a healthy house,” he says.

In my obsessive way, I keep receipts for everything we’ve purchased to fix the house. I keep receipts for all the loads of moldy drywall we’ve paid to take to the landfill. I keep the scale tickets itemizing the cash we’ve received for the scrap James has taken to the metal recycling facility. The metals have classifications: aluminum cans, “irony” aluminum, clean aluminum, tin, #1 copper, clean yellow brass, dirty yellow brass, and electric motors. Ounce for ounce, copper fetches the most money at the scrapyard. James reports that the ferrous metal guys are friendly and easygoing, but the non-ferrous guys, who examine and weigh what you bring, are grumpy, suspicious, and exacting. Ferrous metals are easy to identify by their rust, by their magnetism. Non-ferrous metals, less so. Perhaps the higher price paid for non-ferrous metals makes their sellers prone to cheating, prone to theft, as when people find that their air conditioners have been enterprisingly divested of their copper wire.

There is copper in our walls, in the wiring chewed by mice and squirrels. As James rewires the house, I take all the old wire, slice off its sheath with a utility knife, remove the three smaller wires inside, then strip those with a wire stripper, slowly, painstakingly. Thinking about metal keeps me from crying. Metal has no tears. I stubbornly refuse to buy a stripping machine that would make the job easier, because the machine would cost as much as the wire is worth. Instead I channel my frustration into tearing the sheathing off. The bundled wire sits, waiting to be recycled, waiting for a new life. It shines.

The glass I dig up brings nothing. The only place to recycle it is twenty-five miles away. I save it up in buckets, then take giant loads of it to the recycling center. Someday, it will be bottles for fancy glass-bottled Coke, sitting on a shelf in a fridge in a boutique grocery store. Sometimes, while I’m digging, I think there must be something better to do in this life than crouch in polluted soil, scrabbling for fragments of iron and shards of glass. I will never get to the bottom of it all. It’s been building up for longer than I’ve been alive, for longer than the years I’ll have been alive when I die.

But with religious fervor, I pull iron and steel from the earth under my feet. I am turning it into something. Some cash. Some land not made of garbage. There is some element of trying to regain paradise. I think of this place before the garbage, before the highway, before invasive species galloped over the mountains, flattening everything in their path, before kudzu, ailanthus, bittersweet, knotweed, autumn clematis, privet, autumn olive, and stilt grass. There was a time before these things. There was a time before iron, before the railroad built by steel.



For a freelance assignment, I wrote about René Réaumur, the eighteenth-century French naturalist. Like many scientists of his day, he didn’t confine himself to one field. He studied ants, chickens, spiders, math, and metal. He wondered about regeneration in crayfish and corals. He invented a thermometer. He grew to be my favorite scientist because, in his wide-ranging curiosity, he saw the connections between all things. To him, metal was not unlike a crayfish. It had a spirit and a way of being. It had utility and mystery. It could hold up under the application of abstract mathematical principles and philosophical ideas. It was subject to the same laws of the universe as every other thing. It had a wondrous soul.

One day, out by the creek, James finds the first crayfish. He brings it to me in a plastic cup. It looks at us. “They only like clean water,” James says. “Maybe the creek isn’t that bad.” Over the months, he finds more of them buried under leaves. He discovers their cavern under a boulder that towers over me. He takes on the project of restoring the creek banks, bringing cuttings of dogwood from work, discarded ferns, trimmings from a sycamore tree. All these things, he plants in hopes that they will take root and grow. I feel like he is building a chapel, not just for us, but for crayfish, for frogs, for all creatures who wander through seeking shelter or solace.

Committing to another person is like inventing a can when you haven’t yet figured out a way to open it. In the first spring at our house, James digs garden beds for me. He builds a compost bin. In the steep hillside, one of the few places in our yard that is not a dump, I plant lettuces, carrots, beets, cilantro, squash, and chamomile. One of my employers gifts me with 150 strawberry plants her husband couldn’t deal with, and James and I frantically try to get them into the ground before they die. I dutifully pinch off all their blossoms so their roots will be strong. I pile compost around them after the deer uproot them. In the second winter, I pray them through the cold. James builds little shelves in the basement windows, so I can start my seeds early, before the last frost. And we go on.

Alchemy is often compared to mysticism and religion. What they have in common is blind hope, faith, and work. Sometimes, you do things with no guarantee that you will get anything in return. Paracelsus, the famous sixteenth-century doctor, wrote that alchemists were diligent and hardworking: “They do not spend time abroad for recreation, but take delight in their laboratories. They put their fingers among coals, into clay and filth, not into gold rings.” There may be no reward beyond a few cents for my spending countless hours, hunting and pecking and dropping nail by nail into a bucket. There may be no reward for collecting all the shards of glass. I can’t make them into anything useful. I can’t sell them. There may be no result from my planting hundreds of seeds. But I keep planting them. I hope that someday this landfill will be a forest of ginkgos and hickories and Osage oranges. Birds will fly in the trees and eat among the leaves. I will grow everything we need. Faith is sustaining. It keeps us going when we are knee-deep in garbage. No matter how long I dig, I can’t see the end, but I believe it’s there.


J.D. Ho received an MFA from the Michener Center at the University of Texas in Austin, and now writes and farms in Virginia.

Photos by author.


Backyard Alchemy

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