Alchemy, Aromatherapy, and Distillation: An Interview with Cathy Skipper

Cathy Skipper is English by birth and spent much of her adult life in rural France, where she farmed, trained and worked as a herbalist and aromatherapist, and taught practical herbalism, botany and aromatherapy. Together with her husband Florian Birkmayer, she founded Aromagnosis.com. They live in New Mexico and offer courses live and online centralized around the work of Carl Jung, alchemy, aromatherapy, aromatic molecules and the mind. Her new book The Alchemy of Menopause helps women transform “the time of life” they often dread into an opportunity to become one’s true, powerful and unique self.

Aromatica Poetica: You began as an herbalist. Can you tell us a little about how you became interested in the healing power of plants, as well as the difficulties of negotiating the scientific and spiritual modalities of healing–if that’s even the correct duality to invoke?!

Cathy Skipper: I trained at The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London in Theatre Studies to begin with, but shortly after graduating moved to France where I did not speak the language and so found it difficult to work in my field. I spent some years trying to live off the land. I got very interested in ancient crafts and self-sufficiency and learnt the art of felt making and basket weaving. I also learnt to work with heavy horses and spent some time living in a yurt and traveling with a horse and cart.

In 2005, I finally settled in the Beaujolais region of France and ran an organic farm making wine    and producing blueberries. I created an aromatic garden that became part of the tour for people visiting to taste and buy wine. I had always been interested in plants and their healing properties, but really spending time and investing my energy into the aromatic garden was the turning point. I realized that I wanted to work seriously with plant healing. I went back to school to train as a herbalist at l’Ecole Lyonnaise de Plantes Médicinales in Lyon and the rest is history.

The difficulties regarding herbal medicine in France were huge, as ‘herbalism’ was basically outlawed. Also France as a country had never dealt with its role in the history of the witch hunts in Europe. More women were killed during the witch hunts in France than any other European country. So there was definitely a feeling of fear coming from the collective unconscious and making it difficult for people to work openly. I think this underlying fear also forced the school where I trained to make sure they were not seen as a sect–another fear of the French culture. They did this by strongly emphasizing the scientific aspect of herbal training. This was a good thing as it gave me a solid grounding. It was from this solid grounding that I was able to complete my training in more ‘spiritual’-based approaches, such as intuitive plant communication and energy work.

Today I enjoy weaving these different approaches together in the way I work. I see them as highly compatible as part of an approach that looks at the ‘whole’ person.

AP: How did you first become interested in distillation, and for those who’ve never distilled, can you tell us what that process is like?

CS: I learnt to distill as part of my herbal training. In France, aromatherapy is an integral part of herbalism. Learning about distillation was part of the program. After finishing my herbal training, I taught practical herbalism, botany and gardening at the L’Ecole Lyonnaise de Plantes Medicinales’ and taught students how to distill. I loved the fact that we could go directly from the garden or the wild to a hydrosol with a small, transportable copper still. I also quickly realized that hydrosols were an important plant extract on many levels. They were effective as medicine for physical symptoms, very safe to use, had powerful energetic qualities, could be used in cosmetics and food and also smelled good.

Sunbeams bathe a stille.The distilling process is ancient. The earliest traces of distillation go back to the remains of a clay still found in Pakistan that is 5000 years old. The process has not really changed since medieval times when they added the cooling system to it. The process involves liberating the aromatic volatile molecules from the plants using steam. The plants are put in water, which is heated up. The steam that is produced breaks through the plant cells where the aromatic molecules are stored liberating and aerosolizing them. These light volatile molecules are carried by the steam and through the curved tube of the alembic into a serpentine coil where they are cooled and condensed. They come out of the still in the form of a hydrosol, also called aromatic water.

I think it is important to say here that the earliest distillers were alchemists. The process was central to alchemy. Distillation was often referred to as sublimatio in alchemical terms, which describes the symbolic process of how a base substance is transformed into a higher substance through an ascending movement. Another way to put this is that the unique spirit or soul of the plant rises above the denser plant matter. The distiller is also an important part of the process. I think an awareness of the transformation and influence of the distiller in the process makes for a more complete hydrosol.

AP: We met through your Hydrosols course at the School for Aromatic Studies. There are a few items that you distill in that class like clay and beeswax, that one does not always think of as aromatic, although of course these have very distinct and recognizable smells. Can you talk a little about how you decide what to distill?

Cathy kneeling and smelling before a class.CS: For beginners to understand it is easier to talk about aromatic plants and aromatic molecules but actually non-aromatic plants and other non-plant materials can be distilled. In fact anything can be distilled. I found when exploring distillation, at the beginning of my career, that non-aromatic plants such as nettle, plantain and chickweed were extremely powerful. Through their hydrosols they were easy to contact energetically, such as for plant communication. The non-aromatic plants all tend to have a similar aromatic signature, sort of like artichoke, but they have very distinct and easily accessible energetic signatures.

I think it is important to point out here that herbalists in 17th-century England, such as John Parkinson and Nicholas Culpeper, used a large variety of what they called aromatic or distilled waters. Most of these were made from
aromatic plants. They were more interested in the healing powers of these aromatic plants than their perfumes. England has never been known for its hot climate. Therefore aromatic plants were a lot less common there compared to Mediterranean regions. In the Mediterranean, aromatic plants were distilled more often for their aromas and perfumes.

As you mentioned in your question, we have distilled clay, which, as would be expected, smells of the earth and has very grounding energetics. We have also distilled beeswax, which gives a most exquisite hydrosol that blends smells of honey with the energetics of safety and home. That is the delight of distilling. There are no boundaries to what one can explore from roots to fruit to flowers to bark to dirt to any other natural substance. In terms of what we decide to distill, it really is going by feeling. Life happens. We come across new plants and trees. If the circumstances feel right, we collect some, always leaving an offering.

Plant communication happens throughout the process. Sometimes we are lead
down very interesting avenues, such as when we decided to distill yerba mansa roots. As we distilled we wondered why we were feeling like we had taken something psychoactive. After some research, we found that yerba mansa root contains elemicin, which is a precursor for mescaline. For more on that read “The Spirit of Yerba Mansa.” Before you distill a new plant or substance you never know what you will get. That is part of the joy of distilling.

A jar fills with hydrosol under a still's spigot.AP: Here at Aromatica Poetica, we love all things distilled! In your lovely and intriguing milkweed hydrosol you use wine to coax out the aromatic molecules. Can you tell us a little about the relationship between alcohol and the distillation of plants?

CS: We used white wine for our milkweed distillation to separate and preserve the unique powerful aroma of milkweed. This is challenging because although the aroma of the flowers is beautiful and pungent, it is delicate. The flowers also contain a lot of a very bitter “milk” (hence the name). If we had distilled the flowers as usual in water, the resulting hydrosol would have been overwhelmingly rich in the aromas of this milk, a “greenness” and artichoke flavor that dominates and masks the delicate flower aroma.

We found the solution in an old book entitled The Still-Room. In order to preserve the delicate aromas from certain flowers such as jasmine, lilac etc. the flowers were macerated in a good quality white wine for half an hour before distilling. They were then taken out and the wine that carried the flowers’ aroma was distilled. You have to add several batches to the wine to concentrate the aromas before distilling. We tried it. We were excited by the finished hydrosol. We will be experimenting further with this method in the future.

AP: What does fragrance mean to you? Do you personally “wear” fragrance? Do you recognize in perfume a simply aesthetic pleasure? Or are natural aromatics always working on a level that goes deeper than delightful?

CS: Fragrance is very important for me. It has become central to my life. I realized the power of scent when I had the aromatic garden in France. I remember how sometimes typical “tough guys” would turn up to buy wine. We would take them into the garden before tasting the wine and invite them to close their eyes and smell the plants. I was always surprised at the transforming effect the aromas had on these people. They would become child-like and really enter into the different scents and share what the scents brought up for them.

We only work with natural botanical scents and that is enough because the field is vast. My husband Dr. Florian Birkmayer has named the aromatic molecules from plants the “molecules of connectedness.” Time and time again, I am amazed at their power in guiding us inwards as we explore the depths of our psyches. They have become the guides that we use with ourselves, and also with people in our work.

Our work is based on the seven alchemical stages that C. G. Jung identified as representing the stages of the journey of individuation. Each time we work with them, they reveal an intelligence and connection with us that is beyond words. I believe the aromatics of a plant carry the plant’s intelligence. We are interested in plants that show us what they know and can teach us, rather than using plants as products and misfocusing on symptom relief. Each plant has its own signature.

Through the perfume and energetics of these plants, each of us can build our own unique relationships with them. You will never find me without my medicine bag, which always contains at least three or four small bottles of essential oil at any given time. They accompany me on my day like loyal friends.

AP: How did you become interested in alchemy? And how does the alchemical process inspire your current teachings and writings at Aromagnosis.

CS: I became interested in alchemy thanks to my amazing husband. I had always been intrigued by this word alchemy that seems to hold a magic and mystery. We recognize this mystery in our cells, but the word has been mostly incorrectly used in modern language. I knew nothing about alchemy except for the little I had gleaned from reading a book about making spagyrics. Florian was a Jungian analyst and had studied Jung’s approach to inner alchemy for many years. I went to a class Florian taught in London about essential oils and the seven alchemical steps and instantly it clicked with me. I thought to myself: I want to incorporate those teachings into an experiential class for aromatherapists and herbalists and anyone who’s a seeker really. There was also a spark between Florian and me on another level. The rest is history.

We now teach our alchemy class live and online. It has become the basis of all our other educational programs. What really made it work for me is the beautiful and practical method the alchemical steps provide. I had been working with students on the theme of healing the healer in France. In my work I was trying to address the underlying emotional and spiritual aspects of imbalance and disease. Yet I still had not found the right method, which could really embody my work. Until I found alchemy!

Then a lot of things started happening at the same time–synchronicity, as Jung would say. I became ill, I moved continents from France to New Mexico. I left my former life behind–25 years in rural France, can you imagine–and discovered this work simultaneously. This gave me the chance to experiment with alchemy and aroma in my own life. I have been doing this intensively now for over two years. It has taken me on an unimaginable healing journey.

From this journey, I have gleaned much of the wisdom I need to teach this work. I have become my own laboratory–like a good alchemist. The great thing is that the alchemical stages create a foundation for so many other areas that we feel called to work with. For example we will soon be teaching a class applying our approach to trauma and addiction, and another on the empowering journey towards menopause as seen alchemically. And there are more to come!

Drums and a walking stick overlook a valley.

AP: Please tell us a little about the class you teach with Florian, “Aromatherapy & The Medicine of the Soul: the Wounded Healer, the Alchemical Journey and the Sacred Union.”

CS: This is our foundational class. It is available online and we regularly teach it live in various locations. Basically, it is a transformative journey inwards, through the alchemical stages, using aromas as our guides. We cover the Jungian concepts and language in a practical way. We introduce some of the core themes that constitute our approach. These include the wounded healer and the molecules of connectedness, for example. This is a journey, and we start by preparing. Then we voyage through the stages intellectually,
experientially, spiritually and emotionally. Our goal is to provide this method to anybody who is interested in this work. Participants have shared that they get a visceral feeling through their experience in the class. So in addition to the necessary intellectual information you also get a true inner feeling of the stages. Only if you know these feelings viscerally, can you continue to use them in your own life and work. It gives you the tools to translate negative, difficult, and challenging life experiences, which all of our lives are full of, into the fuel for transformation.

Our class is unique. Florian and I married not only our own professional backgrounds, but also Jung’s ideas with aromatherapy, into a new and useful method for soul work and personal evolution. The class has been so successful that we are planning an intensive, five-day teacher training program of our method. We plan to offer this class live in New Mexico in autumn 2018, for those who want to teach this work themselves and combine it with their own approaches.

*To stay up to date with Cathy and Florian, and to sign up for their wonderfully informative newsletter, visit Aromagnosis.com.*