Sunday, 13 April 2014

ARCHIVE: Being Here

A piece about writers and belonging originally written during a week on Place Making and Neighbourhood for the Social Reporting Project, May Day 2012 (a bit early I know but in 2014 the bluebells - and cherries - are already out . . .) 

Right now at Geldeston Locks Rita is sitting down with the crew to eat breakfast after a hard hour’s dancing in the rain and wind. We’ve just come in soaked from walking across the barley fields, waiting under the oak and hawthorn for the sun to rise (invisibly). Outside the birds are singing (wildly). The black poplar leaves are unfurling (like tongues of fire). The heavenly scent of alexander flowers and bluebells is in the air. We’re all still up at daybreak, in spite of everything, still here.

Most people are asleep in their houses. Maybe they don’t remember it’s May Day, or know why children on the greens of England are dancing round a birch tree. Still the Spring pushes the leaves out of dry wood, pours forth her beauty in the woods and hedgerows, out there, down the lane, in the neighbourhood. And true to this moment, to the revolutionary nature of the day, I’m breaking form. We are commanded, as social reporters, to be writing about our local initiatives, but I feel something collective has not yet been explored in Transition. It feels urgent, planetary, larger than all our projects and yet underpins them all. Bear with me.
The myth of community
It was Susie Hargus who first mentioned it. We were driving down the freeway in St. Paul Minnesota and she said: This road really split the community. And I looked at her, nonplussed. She was an artist and a dreamer and the crowd of unknown people who lived in her district hadn’t, up to that point, figured in anywhere in our conversations.

After that I kept hearing the word. In Bisbee, Arizona, in Oxford, England and then everywhere I went in Transition. People with a dreamy look in their eye, uttering the special mantra that transcended everything. Community! Pretty soon I worked it out. “Community” didn’t mean people in the district, it meant a group of people like yourself, who loved you for who you were, who made you feel good. Imaginary friends and neighbours, ideal playmates in a rocky time.
Maybe this is why the word Community alienated me. How can you be part of someone’s else’s idea? Or maybe it was because I had spent my bohemian youth with a band of fellow journalists, connected to a whole city (London), that I never yearned to belong to a set of people. It wasn’t until I returned to England after travelling that the word started to mean anything, as I found myself isolated from the human inhabitants in the lane where I now lived. An incomer, a renter and of no significance to the local rural, suburban and strangely, feudal society.

Writers, by their nature, are wary of traditional community, the status quo who judge and condemn any one who thinks out of the box, who pushes, like the Spring, for new life and liberty. What we love is neighbourhood and the pattern language of place. We love street trees and corner shops, we love the sun reflecting gold on the windows of the towerblock, the scent of rain on pavements, the local restaurant with its chairs outside, our conversations with market stall holders, the numbers of buses. This C2 bus I am catching now with Sarah Nicholl, that runs from Victoria Station to Parliament Hill Fields.

We love those names of places, our memories of journeys and meetings. Our bodies remember their curves and gradients, as we cycle towards the library, the office, the theatre, our feet remember street corners, canal paths, parks and bridges. My feet remember the way from Oxford Circus to Lexington Street, even though I haven’t walked through these back alleys for twenty years. I don’t have that network of media friends in London anymore, but I do have Transition. It’s a network too, of course, just one that is working for a different world. We’re on our way, Sarah and I, on this Spring night walking to Mildred’s to meet some of our Transition companions on the eve of a Peak Money conversation.

I haven’t been in Soho in a long long time, but in spite of all the changes I have gone though in that time, the changes the world has gone through, I look around the room and see it’s the same. These buildings have been here for centuries, hosting loud and boisterous conversations between people, the small rooms are rocking with words and laughter, the clattering of plates and chinking of glasses. It’s London. Fast, furious, communicating like mad with itself. I don’t live here anymore, and yet here I am. In my element. Home.
Making Myself (Our Self) at Home
What has this to do with Transition? Belonging is the core of everything. We have to be home first before we go anywhere near the future. Otherwise we will always be operating from the past as "non-belongers" -working from outside in, when we need to be working from inside out.

What I learned travelling is that belonging doesn’t depend on those alliances with friends or colleagues you once knew (or perhaps still know). It doesn’t depend on having a community you can call your own, or being tapped into the conventional circles made by institutions, by church, school, or family. Belonging is belonging to humanity, to the earth, knowing that how you act and move and give every day matters.

Belonging is loving the world wherever you are. It’s loving the city neighbourhood, it’s loving this country lane. It’s loving the plane trees of Hoxton Square, the damson trees in Philip and Irene’s garden, the rain as it slides down the window. It’s knowing that being in a place doesn’t depend on the people who live in the district, or what they think of you or you them. Belonging is something impersonal, and because it’s impersonal it’s more intimate, more generous than any idea of community. It’s feeling at home on a corner in Mexico City where I sit drinking my morning coffee, to the long road across America, edged with sunflowers, it’s belonging to the mountains and the desert, to the Thames, to the Ganges, to the California coastline, to this grey North Sea, with all its watery territories, all the tracks we make, the people and the animals and the birds, the indigenous blueprint of places, the vernacular of everywhere.
Breaking out
We can talk carbon emissions and climate change, we can talk community and Transition, we can think in numbers and statistics, tell our horror stories and hopeful visions, but nothing will change outwardly, the way we all wish it would (which is to say for real), unless we come from this kind of affection for the places we live in. Unless we break out of our “left brain” understanding of geography, class and history and start tapping into our “right hemisphere” collective lineage, connect with the people who have been speaking, singing, creating this pattern language for millennia. Everyone who keeps this sense of rootedness and fluidity alive in us all. Until we start belonging to the trees and the wind and feel our feet on the ground, at home with perfect strangers in all places, we are going nowhere. All our conversations – peak oil, peak money, peak everything – will be stuck within an old paradigm. Stuck in me and my idea of the world, separate from you.

We have to know the physical world as our home territory, we have to see each other as we really are: native, indigenous to this earth. We have to know we are the bio-diversity we talk about. We are the heritage seeds of the future. That each of us holds a planetary form, shaped like the sun we cannot always see. A true form that is also a colour, a sound, a frequency we sense when we feel light, relaxed, in synch with everything and everyone in the neighbourhood. When we do Transition from that place, it’s happening. It’s happening in London, in East Anglia, in Pittsburgh, in Japan, wherever we are. That’s the moment when we know what we are doing on the planet, in each other’s company, when we wake up. The reason we keep dancing in the rain.

Merry May morning everyone!

Images: Sustainable Bungay Spring Tonic wellbeing walk, 2014: Mark leading a Plants for Life session, Walking with Weeds, Bungay; Green Lane, Suffolk; Sustainable Bungay Give and Take crew, 2012; Children dancing at Geldeston Locks, May 2011


Sunday, 30 March 2014

52 FLOWERS 43 lilies

As Spring advances through the woods, here is an unpublished piece about lilies from the Radical Flowers chapter in 52 Flowers That Shook My World.

Halesworth, Suffolk 2005 I am standing in the darkened theatre. It is five o’clock and I am alone. Outside the wind is howling and it is freezing cold. Snow has been falling all day and we had thought of cancelling the performance - but in the end we didn't.

I have been working for this theatre all winter. Bracing all kinds of cold weather to keep it open - the frigidity of neighbours, the chilliness of the local council - and now it looks as though things are turning around, that spring might be coming after all. I go to the lighting desk and switch on one of the spotlights and then stand in its beam on the stage. 

It is a warehouse theatre with rough brick walls and seats for 200 people. As I face the shadowy rows, my voice booms out loud, breaking the silence: When the Blue Hare Jumps! And I smile when I hear my own voice. I haven’t done any performance for years and it feels like the moment when you first enter the sea or put your feet on the ground on a warm day. You know it so well, you have been doing this for an aeon, and yet it feels like the first time. I read through some marked passages and then I put the books down on the piano, and sit looking at the tiers of empty seats.

How many strange performances have I watched from the back of this theatre? Tibetan monks blowing giant horns, arch-druids playing fairy harps, virgin choirs singing about loving Jesus, preachers playing cinema organs, Christians emasculating the words of Dario Fo, the immaculate words of Dylan Thomas twisted in the mouths of fools. A failed magician struggling through his last trick, children maniacally toe-tapping as their dancing teacher shouts: You can be special! you can be a star! Hundreds of nameless people filing in and out, watching these bizarre acts, sometimes a full house on a music night but mostly a handful of souls in anoraks, watching a smaller amount of people, doing their special thing, having their moment of stardom.

All these months I have been standing by the doors, turning the house lights on and off, watching in the aisles, turning the heaters on in the dressing rooms, pulling and pushing monitors, screens, wires, and now for one night, it’s going to be the other way round.

“Where do you want the mikes?” asks Trevor the lighting technician, as he bursts through the stage doors in a whirl of snowflakes. "Just here where I am standing," I say. And go downstairs to change into a red dress.

ii
Everyone loved the show. It was an open mic evening. I hosted, Mark was the compere. The woman who worked in the café turned into a singer who sang about a drowned fisherman, the administrators of the poetry festival became poets who spoke about love, the man at the box office sang a Venezuelan song about the star Venus, the usher who was also an antique seller recited a classical poem about Eurydyce. For one evening we were all so much more than we were in the day in our shops and offices. And there was a feeling, perhaps because it was such a cold evening and everyone had made this special effort to come out, perhaps because we were all together in this business of going to and fro from the stage, one minute audience, the next a performer, that something was happening. There was excited talk in the interval about doing more evenings. As I thanked everyone for coming at the end of the show a huge bunch of lilies was thrust into my hands. Thank you, I said and bowed.

“Everyone liked the singing, Charlie,” said Mark as we waved goodbye and started to lock up the building. ”Yes,” I agreed. But no one had mentioned my poems. Those poems the theatre manager had read about silence and the desert, the kind of silence when you can hear the stars, the leap of the salmon, the wind in the apple tree, about the time when the ancestors of the snow-bound north wait for a cat to arrive and tell them who they really are.

 I put the lilies in a vase and left them in the office. And then I turned out the lights.

iii

Stargazer lilies are the kind of flower you get as a performer.  Waxy blooms with pollen-covered stamens that command the stage like opera stars with giant candy-striped throats. They sit on pianos, in hotel lobbies, in funeral parlours, perfectly shaped for weeks on end, permeating these public arenas where sentimentality and artifice are at their height, with their strong and urgent perfume. These lilies arrive in great container lorries from the glasshouses of Holland each week, one of those cosseted hothouse flowers that poison and suck dry the watertables of Colombia and Africa, and enslave thousands of people everywhere. And all because we can’t quite look each other in the eye, at a time when we should be looking each other in the eye: the mother we wish to butter up; the lover who we want to get into bed; the friend we want to keep for our own reasons. The women we pretend we adore. The flowers that are a substitute for the feeling of the heart, that say Sorry and I love you and Goodbye and all the things we can’t say, because we don’t really mean them.

The reality is these lilies are expensive, where you are cheap. 

iv

Flowering plants are divided into two principle categories by taxonomy, the monocotyledons and the dicotyledons. The vast majority are the dicotyledons. The monocotyledons are a small and distinctive group. They are not just different botanically, that is in their structure, they differ in their mood and vibration. This is because they are governed by the reflective nature of the moon, rather than the sun. You can sense this in the way they appear in the darkness of a wood and possess a liquid nature that feels mysterious and indefinable. Hidden. Still. Many store their energy in reserves underground, in corms and bulbs and rhizomes. Lilies are monocotyledons, as are orchids and irises, gladioli and saffron. All flowers that are all highly sought after, prized, collected, presented. Special plants that need special attention. Flowers for special occasions, for special people.

I had not felt special that night. Even though I had enjoyed performing, I felt no one was listening to what I was saying. We had been able in that hothouse moment to sing our song and pretend we were other than we were. But somewhere we were fooling ourselves. And some part of me would not let that go by.

When the stargazer lilies fell into my hands,  I was very far from being a star. I  was working a 60 hour week in the basement office for £2.50 an hour, without overtime. Each night as I stood in the dark, as the people flowed in and out, as the galleries changed pictures, as the wineglasses filled and emptied at the theatre bar, I sensed these movements as if the building were part of my own body. But one thing I did not realise: this open mic evening was to be my farewell performance, my one and only appearance on this stage. I had poured all my life-force into revitalising this theatre and all that will come back from these endeavours is a powerful reek of lily flowers.

Is this all we have at the end of our time? I will wonder in a few days time, gazing at their frigid beauty, and imagine if that is how departing spirits feel as they look back at their earthly lives and see a pile of stinking glasshouse flowers perched on top of their corpses.

v

“Those flowers are just too much,” said Jo. I laughed. The office was filled with the perfume of  lilies and amidst the grinding machinery of the computers and coffee cups, the ceaselessly ringing telephone, the delivery men arriving, their grandiose forms seemed somehow ridiculous. I gave them to the volunteer in charge of the front of house flowers and she used them to brighten the underworld of the ladies toilet.

I felt ungrateful for putting them in the toilet.

“What are you looking at?” snarled the lilies. “This is where we belong. Have a good look. You are looking at yourself.”

I didn’t want to look at myself. I didn’t want to face the fact that no one gave a damn about whether I wrote interesting poems or worked all hours in this office, so long as they could get their entertainments, have their one shiny moment on stage. I didn’t want to face the fact that no one seemed to give a damn about anybody or their creativity, that there was no place for our hearts, for anything splendid that might occur in that theatre if we did. Only that the star-making machine went on and everybody played their roles and remembered their lines and made the correct curtsey and bow when they were expected.

I had stood there and felt splendid in a red dress, but no one was listening to a word I was saying. I could stand and hold everyone’s attention, but the earth of which I spoke could not enter the room. The words evaporated even as they came out of my mouth.  I could have just stood there (perhaps we all could) and made gestures. It would have been enough, sufficient.

It was a small moment in a small theatre on a cold night, and it was also all theatres, every night, as the earth turns on her axis, as these hothouses let out their sounds of lamentation into the air: fiendish fiddlers, shrieking sopranos, the moaning of choirs, the groans of orchestras, actors, dressed in outlandish costumes, repeating the same lines endlessly through the centuries, ballet-stars hiding blood-stained feet, sad-eyed comedians making us laugh, or what passes for laughter. What was I doing there, in those arenas of heartlessness? 

Sometimes we caught each others eyes as we passed by on the stair, as I handed the performers a cheque or brought them a drink on the house. We exchanged our looks of exhaustion. Some part of us was ashamed.

vi
I stood by the lilies in the toilet, by their impeccable stillness, and remembered a dance that had taken place upstairs one night last October. The building had been packed with people. You could not move on the stair. As the band struck the first chord in the theatre, pandemonium had broken out, as a hundred adolescent children released from years of good behaviours in their houses and schools, jacked up with alcohol and amphetamines, suddenly let rip. The building roared. Mark and the fathers rushed outside. "Get back in!" they yelled. But the youth of the town took no notice. They were pouring out into the streets, shrieking and laughing and vomiting and crying and dancing. The event was out of control and for a moment, as I leaned against the brickwork, I felt the foundations rock and laughed. 

It was mayhem, a consequence of repression, but at least it was alive. Soon enough they would become like the people in the audience, watching the flickering screens, listening to the singers and the piano players, the stiff, the anoraked, the dead moving through. Then I realised I was in charge of the house and they were bringing ruin down upon it. 

"What shall we do?" cried the mothers in distress, as I went upstairs. "You will have to stop the music," I said, "you will have to pull the plug," and went to talk with the neighbours who at that moment were hammering on the glass door.

I had to look at myself, in the red dress, in the ladies toilet, packed with the young and the reckless in the dark. Lilies are all fierce flowers, moon flowers, and the moon does not let you get away with anything much, especially when you stray too far from the path. Underworld stories recount how foolish starry-eyed females who fall down there by accident, find themselves on a hook and learn to get smart and get out. Lilies are the flowers given to the Madonna just before she is ravished by the angel, the flowers gathered by the daughters of earth just before they are raped by the lords of darkness. The flowers signal some kind of recompense for an action illegally taken, their scent covering up a crime no one can quite detect. Or really wants to. 

But we should find out about these things, look at ourselves in the underworld mirror and see what lies inside this bouquet a stranger has just delivered at our door. Because as we sit gazing up into the stars, into the spotlights, adoring the divas and the divas stand adoring all our special attention, a price is being demanded from all of us, and if we were wise, we would all take notice of what this price is.

And start refusing to pay it.

viii

The cherished flowers of the English spring are all wild members of the lily family. As the winter wanes they set the woods and meadows and gardens alight with their underworld lamps - narcissus, crocus, bluebell, snake’s head fritillary, Solomon’s seal – and every window in the land shines with the golden hue of daffodils. 

The weekend after I handed in my resignation Mark and I went to see some acquaintances who had come by the theatre and invited us to see their snowdrop display. They had retired to an old house in a village about 25 miles away. We had a love of flowers in common and wild birds and poetry, and so I thought, shared a kind of egalitarian outlook on life. I had once sent them some wild belladonna and tutsan seeds I had gathered for their garden.

It was a perfect house with everything in its place. Small chairs with writing desks. Renovated fireplaces. Collections of china and paintings. Larders full of home-made preserves. Glasshouses full of interesting plants. A successful stargazing house. When we arrived I talked animatedly about what had made us resign as managers of the theatre but something made me stop. I was out of place and out of order. “I thought you cared about the workers!” I joked with my host across the dark oak table. “I don’t anymore,” he said without a smile.

So the mood shifted and everyone began talking instead about so-and-so’s said review of so-and- so’s book, what was happening on television and in the cinema, what their various children were doing working for various charities in the city, and how the British empire was actually a very good thing. I grew quiet and my hands grew cold. There was a fire but it seemed very chilly. Afterwards we sat in the drawing room like characters out of a Sheridan play and drank small cups of coffee and made even smaller conversation. A former theatrical agent spoke about the humanist funeral services he conducted in which the end was really The End, none of this Christian nonsense about the afterlife. No soul. No spirit. No karma. No underworld. No scales. There was a celebration of the human biographical life, a relevant poem recited or song sung, and then, curtains! As if our human appearance were just a show and we were actors without any kind of other life.

Afterwards we went into the garden. It was the end of February and there were all kinds of green-flowered hellebores in the beds and a daphne bush with its sharp pink blossom. But most of all there were snowdrops, the first wild lilies of the year, sprinkled about the meadow, under the trees, shining in that immaculate way they do, even on a grey Sunday afternoon. There was something about their purity, the way they hung their heads quietly, gazing inwardly at themselves, perfect, self-contained, the very opposite of the actress and her gaudy artifice. And I loved them in that moment and knelt down on the wet ground to inhale their sweet fragrance.

As I did something in me rebelled. I just couldn’t say what I knew I was supposed to say. I was there to admire the garden but I couldn’t admire the garden. Never underestimate the power of the small, the snowdrops once told me. For the want of a nail, the kingdom was lost.

“Hello snowdrop,” I said as I knelt down, as my hosts stood beside me. There was an awkward silence.

I had forgotten my lines.

What happens when we forget our lines? What happens when we stop admiring the perfect house with its perfect collections of objects, when we stop worshipping the shiny divas and thrusting scented lilies in their hands, when we no longer wait to sing our one and only song in an empty theatre, with the snow whirling all about us?

Will we come out here on this winter’s day and kneel in a garden by a wild flower and remember somewhere quiet, deep inside us, about another kind of show?


Images:with snowdrops in Dunwich Wood; garden crocus; wild daffodils at the tumulus; star orchids, Mexico; with bluebells at Frostenden Woods. All photographs by Mark Watson

Saturday, 15 March 2014

What's Your Position As The Ship Goes Down?


It's the question the man keeps asking us, as he storms the stage and curses the thousand-year-old myth of exile that has wreaked havoc on the planet and the erstwhile robust psyche of the human race. Psychotherapy has betrayed us he thunders, it ignores the Earth, it takes no account of social justice and no longer speaks with the dead. We are divorced from our collective daemon and are paying the price. The gods are fed up! he declares. They do not fit in our heads. They want out!

The man is James Hillman, famous psychologist, delivering a lecture on Jung and classical mythology. Tall, erudite and very very annoyed, he beats against his chosen subject like an eagle caught in a snare. Sometimes you are in a place and you are not sure why you are there. All around me the audience to this Olympian tirade are calmly writing notes for their essays and quite a few of them are making their way to the ‘bathroom’ and back. It feels as if I am the only person wondering how to answer the question, and another he mysteriously keeps repeating:  

What are we going to do now, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean?

James Hillman is dead now, but true to his profession and mine, I keep the unanswered questions tucked under my own wing. In 1999 I am looking at dreams in the city of Oxford and the Indian god Varuna has visited me. Dark-coated he strode down the aisle of a church and delivered a message: Consolable grief we can help with, inconsolable we cannot, with the underlying information that Separation is arrogance.  

Varuna is a primary, underworld god, ruler of the watery nagas, who carries a noose in his hand in the shape of a snake. He storms through the dark church because he is the keeper of the cosmic law, which is not the law of human beings or their religions. In his peerless 'essay' on civilisation, The Ruin of Kasch, Roberto Calasso outlines the relationship between the primordial god and his worldly counterpart, Mitra:
The civilising sweetness of Mitra, ‘everyone’s friend’, can only exist insofar it can stand out against the dark and remote background of the sovereignty of Varuna. ‘Mitra is this world, Varuna is the other world,’ the Satapatha Brahamana clearly states. Mitra is the world of men; Varuna is the rest, perennially around it, capable of squeezing it like a noose.
When the world only runs according to the laws of social contract, Varuna’s nooses tighten around 'those who did not know these were the results of many sentencings under a law no one could decipher anymore.' Varuna comes before Indra, before Shiva, before all the monotheistic gods and the myth of the Fall. He is akin to the classical Titans, kept trapped under mountains or banished to the oceans. But no matter how invisible these beings are made out to be, there are consequences to ignoring their ancestral laws. And a life lived knowing there are consequences to every action takes a very different shape to one that assumes, so long as Mitra’s laws are kept, you are free from any feedback loops.

And you may ask: why are you telling us this dream 15 years after you had it? Because,even though we might know there are consequences to our civilisation’s acts scientifically, which is to say with our reasoning minds, I am realising, as the storm advances, we need urgently to remember how to speak with the sea.

Console is an interesting word here. It means with soul, with sun. The gods can console the human being, Varuna tells me, but if he or she is inconsolable, this is not because the god cannot help, but because human arrogance will not let the spirit in. If you insist on separation and sorrow, you block the gods’ entrance.  

The dream was preceded by two others: one took place in a church in which a small boy was possessed by the ghost of a woman who had hanged herself, and the other at the mouth of Hades where Second World War soldiers were wandering out, shouting 'You are supposed to save us!' In both these dreams I was trying to intercede as an intermediary, and failing because I was stuck a place of inconsolable grief, among the furious and lost.  

To get out of ‘hell’ we need to ask an underworld god for help. That’s a deal most of us resist because to let spirit in means undergoing radical change. It means taking on knowledge you would rather not have any responsibility for. But, you know, forced to choose between increased consciousness or oblivion, there sometimes is no choice.

When you discover the world is not as you thought, the heart demands you make a move: when you stumble upon the reality of the abattoir, the maize field, the garment factory; when you take the red pill and look at the graphs of Arctic sea ice, financial bubbles and oil production; when you suddenly notice the barn owl no longer flies past your window, or the hares leap in the field, you can respond in three ways: you continue to listen to the band and repeat to yourself I’m OK, the ship is OK; you can sit on the stairs and lament that it is happening; or you can head to the lifeboat. Obviously, you tell yourself, that is the correct position to be in when the ship goes down.  

But what if you can’t make it to the lifeboat on your own? What if you find the lifeboats were sold off long ago to pay the shipping company’s debts, and you are not, you suddenly realise, a passenger?  

restoration drama
1308-jeremy-deller-1 You can do physical things to mollify those thousand-year-old consequences: I have reduced my carbon emissions to four tonnes a year; I forage and cut my own wood, wear second hand clothes. I haven’t been to a supermarket in seven years. I don’t fly, or use palm oil or buy tomatoes grown by modern-day African slaves. But, key as those responses are, this is not the realm that Hillman was talking about on that warm spring night in Santa Barbara as the millennium turned. The place where Varuna lives in a dream.  
 

To fully redress the balance, we need to live along the horizontal axis of feeling and spirit, in a world that only admits the vertical - body and mind. In order to be guided by our fiery spirits we have to feel, in a world designed to prevent you from doing anything of the sort. Rage, grief, despair, sorrow, are emotional states that keep us in lock down, wringing our hands and justifying our position on the stairs. The heart however can be consoled in time. It is consoled by the world that holds it dear, and because it is never alone.  

Jeremy Rifkin, in his book The Empathic Civilisation, describes how each age in Western civilisation consciousness expands, relative to its energy production and communications. At this point we are moving from a psychological age towards what he calls the dramaturgical. Empathy expands with our ability to play different roles and thus understand the shared mortality of all creatures. He suggests that unless we learn to empathise and feel together on a planetary level, our ability to withhold or weather collapse will be impossible.

When you track dreams you realise you cannot analyse them psychologically, or they disappear like deer into the forest. You learn quickly that the storyline is not important, or the fact that your mother or your ex-best friend are once again making you feel like a dishrag. The first key thing in a dream is your position within its drama, and the second key thing is how you move from that position out of the constricting space it holds you in. The third is that, when you make the move, you can see that things change in many dimensions at once. Your dream is not a personal problem, it is a collective state.  

Civilisations hold us in repeat dramas, like Sebald’s Rings of Saturn. We are doomed to keep following the mechanics of the plot, unless we can break into the action, deux ex machina, and change its course. Dreamwork is one way of seeing how to do this. Following the track of myths, as Hillman did, is another way, so long as we do not become more fascinated by our pathology than the world’s freedom. The gods, once our way-showers, become easily trapped by our clever ‘left-brain’ minds, filed under ‘Symptoms’ and ‘Syndromes’. They get mad in there, and we get sick. 100 years of Psychotherapy and the World is Getting Worse, as the learned doctor once wrote.  

When you face the consequences of your unexamined, civilised life, you make moves to restore the world and your place within it. You have a practice, adopt a warrior attitude, you prepare for the future with less energy and money, empty yourself so that you are flexible, free to respond without some ghost or untempered ego in the way, knowing that each small move matters on levels you do not always see. 


Most of all you can break out of your mind’s silo and initiate yourself into the tribe -- become one of the people. But however you move, you know you can’t do this stuff on your own. Somehow you have to decipher the law. Our ways of understanding life in graphs and linear narrative are not cutting it at this point because the planet is not shaped that way. Its laws are not made of words or mathematics. Varuna speaks in winds and ocean waves and his law governs worlds of never-ending chaos and creativity. We can no longer peer into our human problems as if we were Freud, and our ‘issues’ a hysterical woman from Vienna. In a dramaturgical age, we are all actor and director and playwright, and frequently find ourselves waiting in the wings, spear in hand, woefully under rehearsed. The Earth, we realise, is our stage. Without it, we are meaningless.
 life

finding our star, (not) following the wrong god home
Last night I went to Westleton Common and looked at the stars with a group of local astronomers. The Common was once a quarry and is famous now for its tiny heathland flowers and nightingales. The group has just formed and each month they hold a ‘star party’ and you can go along and watch nebulas, galaxies and the moons of Jupiter through a several large telescopes. We were invited by Malcolm who has a smallholding in the next door village and whose organic vegetables we have been eating for 12 years now.
  
There is something extraordinary about meeting strangers in the dark (torches impair night vision) and it seemed to me, only on a piece of common land among people who are keen to share their knowledge, would you find such a feeling of friendship and ease.  


Up above us the constellations burn in the vastness of space and time. They have scientific names like M57 and the Trapezium, and also older mythic names, conjured by civilisations that came and went before our own: Aldebaran and Pegasus, the Crab Nebula, Orion the Hunter, his Dog and the North star by which we set our course. Thanks to the telescopes I now know that the Seven Sisters are in fact a host of luminaries, and that Betelgeuse who shines red at the tip of the cosmic bull’s horns is old and dying. The sun will become a planetary nebula too one day, says Malcolm, as he describes the fall of our home star into its final form as a white dwarf. 

'And then what?' I ask.
'It becomes a black dwarf.'
'And then?'
'That’s it!' he declares and we laugh and go in search of the Orion Nebula.

 In some ways you might say that we are short of modern stories to explain our position in the universe: we have looked so far into deep space that we cannot see the blueprint of the heavens so they might parallel our lives, or the drama of the solar system in which our planet, Earth, plays a distinctive role.

 
Maybe we need to know that the ship is always going down because that is the fate of all things in the universe, and that our struggle and desire to hold firm and burn brightly in the night sky, in spite of our inevitable mortality, is what makes sense of everything, whether we are a 4-billion-year-old star or a butterfly who lives for three days. That is what gives us meaning and dignity and frees us from Varuna’s noose as a people.  

To shine means we have to deal with the darkness of ourselves and our collective, which is the ‘sacrifice’ described by all mystery and spiritual traditions. We have to lose our untempered powers and pleasures, so our hearts may weigh as light as Maat’s feather. Civilisations fall because, as native and archaic myths tell us, we fall into matter and neglect our light and fiery natures and our connection to dimensions beyond the one-dimensional here and now.  

Though the astronomers can give us facts and the mythmakers and astrologers stories, our life together under this night sky is always a mystery, something unknowable, something you cannot pin down with word or image, number or symbol. But, if on a clear night you can let that mystery in and let it move about you, you might discover everything that ever needs to be known. That’s a paradox only the human heart can handle.  

Sometimes I do not know entirely who I am: there is a lot of space and time now, where there used to be history and culture and closed doors. I am more actor than storyteller, and so perhaps in this brief role as messenger I can enter and answer Mr Hillman’s question at this point in the play:  

What do we do now, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean?  

Open your mind; set the gods free. All hands on deck.


This post was originally published on The Dark Mountain Project blog

Images: We Sit Starving Amongst Our Gold and A Good Day for Cyclists by Jeremy Deller at the Venice Biennale (photographed by Susan Eyre). Deller's English Magic is now on tour in London, Bristol and Margate; still from Life of Pi, director Ang Lee (2013)

Friday, 28 February 2014

The Free Press Gang

I should have started writing this an hour ago. I awoke in time, but I was listening to the world outside as darkness shifted into light. The stars drained from the sky, a vixen yipped, an owl called among the trees. It was silent for a while. Then it happened: a small sweet sound in the moment that Latin America calls the madrugada, the time just before dawn, and I knew it had begun. And there is such a feeling inside when you hear it, one bird singing after another, all calling out: Spring is coming, Spring is coming, I am here! Are you?

I wish I could convey in my human words the sound of the robin redbreast, as he starts up the chorus, the bird that sings through the night and through winter, against all odds and heralds the day. But you know, some things you have to experience for yourself.  What I can tell you is that soon the chaffinch and the wren will join him, and in March the blackbird too.

You see you think writing is a solitary thing but it isn't. If you sing in a choir, play ball, act in an ensemble, write, as I do for a small Transition newspaper, you know that being part of the chorus is everything.

we have to talk about comms
The dawn chorus is a song that has been going on for millions of years. It begins as the sun lights up different parts of the globe and it never stops. That's something I learned from an artist called Ansuman Biswas, whose project, Far Player is part of the book I'm editing about Transitional arts practice, Playing for Time - Making Art as if the World Mattered.

Voicing who we are and where we are in time is part of being human. For thousands of years artists and communicators have sung in the day, we've sung praises and lullabies, shared stories, and learned, through the art of writing, how to convey our thoughts and feelings across the globe. But equally as people we have been silenced. Our voices have been crushed and misshapen by a succession of Empires that have attempted to control us. Now, as we struggle within the modern vice of corporate-controlled media and marketing, many of us want to explore and voice another sound, another story. One of those stories is about the Transition movement, in essence how we, as a people and as a network, respond to the triple drivers of climate change, resource depletion and economic breakdown.

For this however, we need to talk about comms (as communications are referred to in modern organisations) because although human communication is a bio-diverse, multi-levelled exchange it is frequently treated as a monocultural one-way broadcast (I am getting my message across to Them). Sometimes it is presented as a dialogue (you can give your comments on My Message, or you can tell me how I should be communicating and I will incorporate your ideas).

But the fact is none of this is really communication: it is control of information, and you can't have communication and control in the same place. Communication is a subtle thing: you can say or write beautiful and intelligent words and yet if you have no fellow feeling, no desire to make contact, to connect, they fail utterly as communication. Likewise, if the people are not open to receive what you are saying, it also fails. Sometimes the lack of connection is because none of us really care. And sometimes that lack is due to the silo conditioning that we have all been brought up in.

For a long time, let's say almost four years, I wrote hundreds of blogs about Transition. I wrote them as part of this project which I started up and edited from 2011-2012 and as part of the Transition Norwich This Low Carbon Life community blog which ran for every day for three years. I've written news bulletins and press releases, a column for the Eastern Daily Press, a quarterly newsletter for my own TI, Sustainable Bungay, magazine articles, thousands of tweets. And all of this you could say was a way of communicating Transition. But nothing has got near to the project I am now part of, editing Transition Free Press. Because this is a publication in its own right: it is not part of a corporate strategy, or a mainstream business. It is pure editorial run by seasoned Transitioners, and in a time where the media is controlled every which way by government propaganda that is an extraordinary thing.

You can write deeply and passionately, as I found out, in a blog, but they all (including this one) only go one way: down the page. And so rather than go deeply and passionately into 'comms' and how it has or has not worked for me, I want to talk briefly about why I feel the paper reaches places other comms does not, and how writing can teach us how to live in a co-operative universe. Here are four small keys:

Latitude OK so the paper goes across, rather than down, and it is all in the same place, physically, in your hands at one time. You open at the News and end at Sport, and in between you flash past every subject Transition engages in: energy, grassroots democracy, alternative currency, CSAs, community arts, wellbeing, people, projects, plants, places . . .You can in the space of a few minutes flick through 24 pages and see what Transition means as a culture, a whole new way of living on the planet. It's a multi-voiced operation. It's a We thing. During the pilot over 100 contributors wrote stories, telling us about their projects, writing them from the field, from experience. Here I am! Here we are!

So Latitude means that in Transition you need to have all these subjects at your fingertips from the big picture to the small detail: you have to know about fracking and you have to know how to split logs. You're smart, practical, love the earth, work with your fellows, and most of all you love to listen and give value to other people's stories, as well as speak about your own. You might not know how to run an alternative currency in your own neighbourhood, but you know the people that do, you know how it works. You know that it matters.

Attitude You have to know the reader is not the enemy. The reader is someone you don't necessarily know, that you are happy to sit alongside with. You don't want to download your sorrows. If you are making a point, you learn to take it out. A lot of Transition comms can be quite evangelical, and as result non inclusive. My ecstactic moment of conversion. We are not preachers. We are writers and communicators. Writers know that the moment of inspiration lasts about one second. What matters is that you get up every morning and sing your song. You're part of that dawn chorus. I am always writing the same poem, as the poet Pablo Neruda once said, as he wrote in his house by the sea, in hiding on the run, as thousands of people stood in the stadium listening to him.

If you have got through the main struggles of Transition and are watching how the world is going you know we don't have time to carry on about our small grievances. What this person said or didn't say to us. We are writing in the face of vast opposition: a mega propaganda machine, and people - including our fellow Transitioners - who are trained to criticise every move we make toward creating a liberated and connected world. Neruda was facing the shock doctrine of Chile. The thrush, now singing outside, is facing the suburbanisation and industrialisation of the countryside. Six years on we're still singing. We're not going to stop. I'm always writing the same blog, the same editorial.

Spring is coming.

Rigour The word count on the paper is strict. On-line you can go on forever, but on TFP you stop at 500. It is also objective, particularly in the news section, so this is not your opinion about something (unless you are writing for our Talkback pages) this IS the something. Facts needs checking, quotes need finding, pictures need to be 300dpi and work as images. It needs to convey in that short space what you are talking about so that person you have been sitting next to can say to their neighbour or Transition group: hey have you heard about community hopgrowing, we could do that! and then 50 people start growing vines in their gardens and allotments (this is true by the way Farnham Hoppers grew out of a TFP story about a London hop project).

It's not time to be indulgent. It's time to listen to who else is singing in the neighbourhood.

Skillshare/Knowledge Share A big part of the paper is about sharing skills. If you want to break out of silo mentality, join in with your fellows and make yourself and your community/network resilient, you need to have a communicator on board. That means in yourself and also in your initiative. For me one of the best - and also most challenging parts - of TFP is reworking the copy with the contributors. Writing is a skill. You sometimes have a gift or a knack for it, and sometimes you have to learn it. Editing is the skill to shape and hone copy so that it works as an engaging piece of journalism, but also holds the essence of the culture we are conveying in every page: the art and beauty and intelligence of downshift.

I could carry on writing, because you know the material is abundant. There are so many stories to tell, so many projects that show what bright thing can come out of darkness and a hard winter. I want to tell you about all the great people who are in this comms network: our distributors around the UK, our contributors around the world.
And I wanted to introduce you to all our new editors: Amy Hall (News Ed), Gareth Simkins (Energy), Michaela Woollatt (Assistant Features/Education), Tess Riley and Eva Schonveld (Food and Drink). But you know I can see the deadline coming. You only get a small margin to sing your song, and you can't be late. Others are waiting for their turn. You have to be on time, the earth has to keep spinning, we have to find our note. Spring has to come.

If you want to see how I feel comms best works in Transiton: have a look at our small resilient grassroots paper. Even better if you are a Transition initiative or social enterprise, a small business or low-carbon group, do become one of our distributors and sign up for bundle. Or, if you are not connected to an initiative, do become a subscriber. Because we can't do communications without each other, dear reader. And if you have a story, do get in touch. Whatever you do don't stop singing. Because, whatever it sounds like or feels like in the hour before dawn, we are listening. We are here.

Images: above reading the paper in front of the Sailor's Reading Rooms for TFP4; winter edition front page; Assistant Features Ed Michaela Woollatt (Transition Nayland) in the field, News Ed, Amy Hall (Brighton) on the move

This post was originally published on the Transition Network

Sunday, 16 February 2014

EARTHLINES Life in Transition - The Gathering Time

The new spring issue of EarthLines is published this month and now mailing to all corners of the wild-loving globe. The magazine is published three times a year and my column, Life in Transition follows the shape of the seasons. This current issue's is called Halycon Days and is about the role of the artist and finding an alchemical space at midwinter. 

This piece which came out in autumn charts the treasures of the summer gatherings of 2013 . . . slightly out of synch as we look forward to Spring and I can hear the thrush singing in the garden! However its main theme is perennial: holding the centre, working with frequency, dreaming with dolphins, the medicine of roses and the memory of the heart. 
                     
The year is tipping. Already the geese are flying overhead, coming in from the North, and the owls calling out to each other from the oak trees. A shift is about to take place that will take us from the gatherings of the summer towards the introspection of winter. I’m looking back at the sunlit months of swimming in the sea, among the long reeds and rainbow-finned fish of the River Waveney. Outside sunflowers are falling over in the garden, spider webs hang from the fennel stalks. Along the marshland the sea asters are blooming and my pockets fill with their sharp-tasting leaves, with samphire, blackberries, hazelnuts, wild cherries.

It’s a gathering time, and not just of hedgerow fruit I will store in my larder for the frosty months ahead, but some other sweetness I found this summer, unexpectedly, as I walked out the door one midsummer morning. 

Daybreak, Mendip Hills. It’s raining softly and I am standing on an old fort under an ash tree. The fort is surrounded by long grass and vanilla-scented orchids and you can see right across the soft undulating contours of Somerset from here. It would be easy to feel you were in a paradise on this quiet morning. However you know that underground there is another story going on. For this is the summer where fracking and badger culling will soon bring official savagery to pockets of the English countryside. For the six activists who have organised the gathering in the field below the hill, this weekend is a kind of reprieve.
 
I’m at the Radical Herbalism Gathering where I have been invited to gave a talk called Plant Communications. In a stripey big top with straw bales as seats, 75 people have cheered and clapped as I read about walking out into the neighbourhood in Oxford to connect with plants. That's an extraordinary feeling when you are a writer and live most of your life in silence. To experience that words about flowers can make people roar. 

In this gathering we’re discussing community health, plant knowledge, foraging, indigenous medicine, land rights. I am having a conversation with an Italian anthropologist working with an African tribe in Kenya. Their forest has been grabbed and enclosed as a carbon sink, so Western consumers can keep flying and off-setting their conscience. The women are beaten and raped when they are caught holding ceremonies under the baobabs that have been their ancestral trees for thousands of years. They are deprived of their plant medicine and have no money for Western pharmaceuticals either when they get sick. It is hard to know how to proceed from this point. How do you live in a dominant culture that has no fellow feeling for creatures, for the preciousness of spring water, for the freedom to roam in a forest? How do you not despair, or tear yourself apart?

Afterwards I go to a bell tent that is filled with the scent of roses. A circle of people sit and drink cups of flower tea, as the herbalist asks us: what does this flower feel like? If the flower were a being what kind of being would that be, what would it feel like to spend the weekend in their company? We laugh, and all know we do not want to be anywhere else.

Everyone begins their inquiry on the outside of a plant, with information, he tells us. The nearer in your imagination you go towards a relationship with the flower, the more you get to that feeling you have now with this rose.

Sometimes I feel as if I live in a nation at war with its own homeland, an alien culture desperate to destroy the body of its host. In the camp that feeling at the centre of flowers is bringing a hundred activists and plant people together in the heart of midsummer, in a land brambled with wild English roses. That’s a kind of medicine you don’t find on prescription. 

Midday, Cornbury Park, Oxfordshire A young man is singing an old folk song about a noble murdering his brother with toxic nightshade berries. We are sitting beside an ornamental lake in the company of one the most poisonous plants in Britain, deadly nightshade, otherwise known as belladonna. I have just finished a talk called The Plant Lexicon and I’m leading some of the audience around the Wilderness festival in search of wild things.

For some reason sitting beside this plant is the only place where I find myself at peace. All around us there is a sybaritic stream of entertainments that seems never to stop: cricket matches, reconstructed battles, acrobats swinging from the high wire, grand dinners in marquees, people in headdresses and masks and costumes, all talking loudly. 

When I stood up in the tent where the Dark Mountain Project is hosting a day of music, words and improvisation, I was not sure how to begin. So I told everyone the dream that began our inquiry to find the hidden lexicon of plants and trees. It took place not for from here in a wood outside Oxford.

I dreamed I went up to Shotover Hill at night, I told them, and went inside a massive oak tree. There were tunnels that led into the deep earth and, as I entered one, I became aware that most of what was happening in Britain was happening underground in the dark. At the roots of the tree there were several men who stood before me, with wooden masks on their faces made of oak leaves. Can you see us? they asked me several times. “Yes,” I said. “I can see you.” And then the men began to climb out of the roots of the tree and walk out of the wood.  

Dreams are mysterious things. Underground things. Sometimes it takes a long, long time for them to reveal their meaning. All round this park, the great oak trees seem to burst through the parade that is whirling around their roots. They are the only things that seem real.
 
Late morning, Hampshire downs. I am giving a talk called Rewilding the Self – The Earth Dreaming Bank and like all talks I’ve given this summer most of it is improvised. I’ll start at the beginning, I said as I stood on the Woodland Stage at the last Uncivilisation Festival.  

So I told the story about how the dreaming practice began, in Santa Barbara, California, where one day cycling along the boulevard I saw everyone on the beach running toward the sea. Without thinking, I left my bike and followed them. The ocean was full of leaping dolphins and we were swimming out to meet them. No one said a word. We just jumped into the sea together: a pod of humans swimming towards a pod of dolphins. We were laughing and shouting with excitement, as we swam way beyond the beach. And then suddenly we stopped as we encountered the presence of dolphins - fierce, wild, free, hunting in sychronicity together. “They are talking!” shouted one boy next to me, “Put your head under the water!” 

Click click click. Underwater you could hear the sounds of a joyous language shared between the sea creatures, an intelligence that was beyond our grasp. A code we could not use to communicate with them or with ourselves. Quietly and separately we returned to the shore. On my way back to the motel, I noticed a poster: it was for a lecture called The Aboriginal Dreamtime. 

That lecture gave us a structure so we could explore and map the territory of dreams, I told the audience. But it was the desire to speak with wild dolphins that came first.
 
working with the fabric 

For a long while in the Transition movement we held conversations that were urgent and burned us like fire. We spoke of peak oil and climate change and awareness raising and working in groups. Then the conversation shifted. It became about doing stuff in community, about social enterprise. It spoke of inner work and visioning but mostly this was of a domestic future people wished for, rather than a dream that came unexpectedly one Spring night about oak trees. I realised I needed something else to make sense of my life with people, all those encounters with dreams and flowers. 

For a long while in the Dark Mountain Project the conversation was about collapse. Then the focus shifted towards creative imagination. I was intrigued when I first went to the Uncivilisation Festival, by its intellectual debate, by its radical edges, by the challenge of finding a new narrative. And then I found what I was looking for amongst the people who were singing and storytelling around the fire. It was a conversation in a language I recognised. Click click click. 

Our rational mind will bring us interesting data about the edges of the world: information about resources and management and Latin words, and often, against our wishes, it will bring war into the room. But it will not bring us back to earth. It will not restore us. If we wish for a future aligned with the earth we need to speak a language that’s made of colours, shapes, sounds, light. And, most of all, of frequency.  

The frequency you feel in the company of the rose, or the dolphin, with your fellows who love the earth the way you do, is light and free from restraint. When, through practice, you disentangle yourself from the Empire’s nets and amusement parks, you experience this frequency as an immense blue space all around you, a sense of lightness and ease and connection. 

It takes a long time to “see” how this frequency is made by all creatures who dwell here: the songs of thrushes, the shapes of butterfly wings, the scent of pine trees, the taste of cherry plums and the sunlight that bounces off the sea. Hemmed in by civilisation’s noises and images, it is a challenge to hold that frequency wherever you go. The hostile forces that destroy wild creatures, chop down forests, suck water tables dry, do so to maintain civilisation’s illusory grip on the planet. They can only do this because the people are kept isolated in a low hostile frequency, and turned against each other.

You need a sharp intelligence to disengage yourself from the snares of Empire and a strong will to walk past the lures of entertainment, but when you do you find you’re not alone around that fire, underneath the trees. What breaks the nightmare are the feelings that are stored in the heart. Stored in your child memory, in your ancestor bones. 

That’s what we discovered in the dreaming practice all those years ago in Australia, in America, in England, and perhaps most extraordinarily in the bastion of the rational mind that is Oxford. The joy of the dolphin is at the centre of everything. That’s what the earth tells you in your dreams. You are my heart.

That’s what I found when I left home this summer and brought back with me - the radical medicine of the wild English rose. When you gather and hold the centre, what does not feel at home will fall away. 

Images: cover of EarthLines, Spring 2014; speaking at the Radical Herb Gathering, June 2013; the parachute stage at Uncivilisation, August 2013; roses in my garden hedge, June 2013

Monday, 3 February 2014

52 FLOWERS: 6 eucalyptus

sydney, australia 1997

The first sound I heard in Australia was cool and melo- dious, like a flute. It struck a clear note in a moment of confusion as we arrived unannounced at Andy’s flat in Elizabeth Bay at the turn of the year. Other people were coming and going through its doors: family, friends, colleagues. Andy is starting  a new life here. We are just starting the dreaming practice. It’s a time of change for all of us. In ways we don’t yet know.

Today I went and searched the neighbourhood for this sound. And then I found it in a small square: a black and white bird singing invisibly amongst the blue-green leaves of a tree. That’s when I noticed the eucalypts and their waving crown heads. And now I can’t stop looking at those gum trees on street corners, with their pale peeling bark and strange spinning-top fruits, with the bold singing magpies and brightly coloured parrots that fly out of their branches. There is something in the way they shift and move in the sea breeze, the scent of their leaves. Their sharp and musky scent.

The eucalyptus, native of Australia, is one of the most famous trees on the planet. It was widely planted on every other continent during the last century, primarily in fever districts, as its deep roots could dry up any malarial marsh. The sharp-scented oil from its leaves was found to be able to combat not only malaria, but also relieve joint pains and skin ailments, fevers and dysentery. Today it is one of the most useful plants of the medicine chest, clearing colds and catarrh, acting as a topical antiseptic and disinfectant, anti-fungal and insect repellent, and is a principle ingredient in vapour rubs and cough medicines. Its young sickle-shaped leaves make a fragrant tea that can induce sweating, stimulate kidneys, kill yeasts and inhibit micro-organisms of all kinds.

The scented cool breath of the eucalyptus tree blows across the body of the whole world: relieving, releasing, shifting, clearing.

And sometimes it clears other worlds too.

ii

Andy is standing on the balcony and I stand next to him. “Look!” he says, “I can just fish from here!” And we look into the water and laugh, as we stand in silence next to each other, by his pots of Greek kitchen herbs: thyme and oregano, mint and bay.

In this person’s presence you do not need to say anything, because it has always felt as if you share the same soul, the same body, because you can look at the same world. It feels as if you have seen this same world forever. And yet, in this moment, I find myself not gazing into the sea below but out towards the gum tree and its vast head of silvery, watery leaves, into the vast red lands of Australia that stretch out beyond the window.

Have my keys, Andy says suddenly, and then leaves us behind in the room and goes out. As he does the eucalyptus trees across the bay begin to move in the warm Southern wind, the wind of the new world.

This wind moves through the corridors of time with its clear scent, moving along forgotten shelves and rooms, disturbing the past, through white-washed cells and deserted terraces, larders with herbs, musty bookshops and theatres, whistling through the ropes of a blue boat, creaking in the night sea, that rocked us once to sleep.

You don’t just leave people sometimes, you leave whole continents. Andy is the last person I know from my old world. And when we leave each other standing here, I will not go there again, or if I do it will not be that place with him in it, the world where he led us through crowded streets to the city market, or down to the rocks to bathe, down to the inky-blue Aegean sea, in all that incandescent light.

Once there was a young man, sleek-headed, holding a trident and a belt full of fish, climbing out of the sea; there was a girl with dark hair, walking down the hill, carrying marguerites. Once there was a eucalyptus in a Greek square. I remember the scent of the leaves, as I walked over them, their sickle shapes under my feet. On the island where the sea was dark, the wine was rough, the sky was blue. Or was it the other way round?

The summer of youth lasts forever in those moments. But when you are older, you can’t hold each other captive there. In our youth we have all the light of the Aegean in us. Love comes quickly. But as we grow older, our light and love become dim, unless we seek them in the vaster, deeper places of ourselves. We can hold on to the memory of ourselves and those who remember us, but this is to live our lives held in a certain pattern. In this none of us are free to move or change. We keep each other’s innocence, but for this we pay a high price, and so does the planet.

I have to leave the sea-encircled country of our youth behind, and enter a new continent, the land of the ancestral tree. The birds that sing amongst its silvery head of leaves are calling me, away from the room where the people come and go, and into the dreamtime interior of this red land. Where the people sit, where the emu waits, under its scented and stippled shade.

iii

The eucalyptus is a fire tree. It flourishes within the heat of the desert sun, in the forest fire, its roots plunged deep into the soil. The fiery oil held in its leaves drives out the cold in the human body, dries up the marshy land of colder continents. When it is scorched by fire, the tree grows new skin, the shoots jump out of the land. It stands in all shapes, all colours, surviving the drought of centuries and millennia of aboriginal hunters with firesticks driving out the game from its shade and underbrush, making space and light for food plants to spring up. The fertile ash feeds the soil. Everything starts again.

The modern world sits like a mirage over the fiery desert lands of Australia. The aboriginal way of life, symbiotic, slow, all connected, its dream lines woven across the planet for forty thousand years, lies underneath and waits. It has a feeling for time that these sea-cities with all their restlessness and competition do not know. The fire comes and scorches the trees but afterwards it begins to grow again from the inside. Their roots are sunk deep, indestructible. The seeds rain down on the desert floor, crack and burst open their pods. Regeneration starts.

When you begin to dream a fire comes and scorches your old life away. A new one begins. It is not the same story you were told. Or rather if you looked at the story you were told, you might find the bones of this life, waiting there among the ghost gums, in the bones of yourself, in your dreams, for regeneration to begin.

iv glenelg, south australia

In many ways this unknown land is familiar. It is covered with olive trees and vineyards and gentle grassy slopes. On the beaches there are small shacks where you can eat fish, as if you were in Greece. The sand is filled with tiny coloured shells and fossils, the sea in the bay is dark blue and warm. But I am not looking for another Greece.  I am reading Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines.

I am sitting in a cabin, holding a dialogue with Mark about a dream. It lasts seven hours.

In the future, when I say I work with dreams, people will ask me if I have read Bruce Chatwin’s Songlines. When I say I have, they will stare into space and the conversation will end. I will come to realise that mentioning The Songlines means the people know about dreams and the dreamtime. It means that looking at their own dreams, following their own ancestral tracks, has already been done for them. So the subject is now closed.

In centre of The Songlines, Bruce Chatwin sits in a caravan on the edge of the Western desert, surrounded by small notebooks, fragments and inscriptions from his life on the road. The Songlines is a famous account of aboriginal dreamtime, but this forms only part of its text. The central story is of a man, a writer, coming to the end of the road. In the caravan, he shifts through the scenes of his travelling life: his memories of migrating people, strange hotels, nomad Africans and Arabs, monarch butterflies in New York, quotations from Rimbaud, biblical musings, tatters of blue rag blown in the wind, the dazzling eternal smile of a hundred year old woman, the scorched remains of a prehistoric fire. He is searching for an answer: Why is man restless? Why is he aggressive? 

Chatwin sits in The Red Room of the Transvaal Museum at the end of his search, holding a hominid skull, millions of years old, in one hand.  In his other he holds the fanged skull of an ancient cat, dinofelis, whose cave man once shared in terror until he discoved fire. We are restless, he says, because it is our nature to sing our way through deserts, through thorn bushes, using our intelligence to outwit a ruthless predator.

Chatwin walked through the empty quarters of the world, tracing in his imagination the pathways that exist in space and time. He visited nomads, sleeping in their tents, travelling by foot and in open trucks. He admired their proud and fearless ways, their disregard for possessions, their ready smiles, rigour and generosity. Once walking towards the ancient city of Persepolis, he noticed his nomad guide take no notice of the grand ceremonial tents erected by the modern rulers of Iran, as they passed by. When they arrive at the ruined city, Chatwin gazes at the megalomaniac inscriptions of its former tyrant-king: I fought, I slew, I conquered.
Again I tried to get the Quashgai boy to look. Again he shrugged. Persepolis might be made of matchsticks for all he knew or cared – and so we went up into the mountains.
 Why did the young man not care about the city? Because the city was not in him. To live as a nomad, as a free man, to go home at the end of a long red road, means you live by different laws. It means you walk a track invisible to the naked eye and so you pay no heed to cities. At the end of The Songlines three old aboriginal men lie dying in the bush, at the conception site of their ancestor, the native cat. They are smiling as they lie under the ghost gums, as they become the ancestor, returning to where they belong.
They knew where they were going.
The book revolves around a collection: of nomads, travellers, calamities, curiosities, bold women in flowery dresses, young philosophical men living in the wilderness, people that come and go; the writer observes them meticulously, weaves and embellishes his text around their knowledge and their stories. But people, however interestingly or beautifully they are shaped, are not ancestors. People are not where you belong. The ancestors lie in the waterholes: when the sun appears, they arise, they dance and sing, they are the ancient creators of everything; they go on journeys, make camp, meet up, fight, love, depart, go back in. Their tracks across the land make meaning of everything. They are what make you belong. You find them in the mountains, in the clouds, in the animals, in the trees. In the dreamings of honey ants and whales. In your own dreams.

Where you do not find them is in the cities, in the service of the male conqueror: I slew! I conquered! I am the supreme lord of everything I see! The cities fall and are burned away in time. What is left when they go? There is a wind that blows across the desert, singing through the rocks and the spinifex. That sound you follow. And so we went up into the mountains.
Bruce Chatwin wrote The Songlines in the mountains of the Mani, where the Titans, those old creators, once stored their wisdom, in the golden age of nomads. Four years later his bones will lie buried there, amongst the olive trees and anemones.

In the space, in the heat of the bush, by the restless sea, in the shifting shade of the eucalyptus tree, something is taking root in my own imagination. It’s the idea of return, of going back.

v

The second sound I heard in Australia was the sound of a didgeridoo. I heard it in the streets of Adelaide one day, though could not find where it was coming from. The didgeridoo, the primordial, ceremonial Aboriginal instrument, is made from the trunk of a eucalyptus, hollowed out by termite ants. It is blown using a technique that allows the breath to flow ceaselessly through the old tree. It creates a sound like no instrument of civilisation; the roaring wind of the earth that runs through the interior of yourself, through your blood and sinew. It runs through your bones and shakes them to the core. When you hear it, you know what is missing in your life. What’s missing in all of our lives.

The travelling writer does not look inwards, explore the interior of himself, his blood and sinew and bone; the conquerors of cities do not look at themselves, we do not look at ourselves. We are observers, collectors, commentators, patrons, connoisseurs of the Other. Our eyes search always outside ourselves, documenting people, placing the world under our control. We amass huge amounts of data, photographs, insights. Where is it all going? Where are we going? Our possessions pile about us, our notebooks, our anecdotes. Our world shrinks. Our bodies crumble. We find ourselves talking with nobody listening. The wind in the desert calls us. The sound of the earth reverberates through the city streets. But we do not like to look within. We do not look at ourselves in the mirror. We stare into space, repeating our mantras, believing our right of passage to be guaranteed.

Perhaps we are afraid of what we might find in our reflection: our cat-like ancestor, our arch-enemy staring back at us, rich in tooth and claw. Dinofelis, the invisible Beast.

vi

We lack the technology for this endeavour. We lack the law. We only know how to consume and possess the earth and one another. The aboriginals have all the technology, all the laws. We think if we read The Songlines we have these things down. But this is not the truth of the matter. The book is not the territory. The Dreamtime is a white-fella expression, and the way of the tjuringa has nothing to do with dreams, or dreaminess. Our night dreams are what we have left, as city people, of a once vibrant imagination, remnants of our aboriginal ability to live in the ancestral world that co-exists with the physical earth. Tracking our dreams can be a way back to the ancestors. It is a slow way, a hard way. A small tool. A humble beginning. Because we are obliged, though we do not like to do this, to face ourselves and all our conquests to clear a space for this way.

The journey through Australia changed us, slowly, irrevocably. It was partly our dialogue about dreams, the way our attention was turned towards our interior lives, to face our childhoods, relationships, houses, histories, those captivities that kept us so aggressive and so restless. But it was also the place itself, its searing light, its vast unknown nature, the bone-slow tempo at which everything happened. Time changed as we moved through the emptiness of the bush. Something opened out inside us.

I caught a glimpse of something in the parks, under the eucalypts that grew down by the sea. I saw how everyone gathered under their shimmering shade, sharing picnics, from whatever country of origin, and later in the rainforest, where we swam naked, how there was a peace and silence between us all, the men, women, children, as the hot wind shivered through the slender groups of gums. As the cities of my memory, my recollections of people, all that old nostaliga slipped away, these aboriginal-shaped gatherings appeared before me. Out of the blue. Then I realised I was looking at the future: the future of the people and the land. The bird-singing trees were freeing up my mind, so I could see it. And there was just space after that. Space and silence became part of our lives.

vii

Under the great eucalypts of the Western karri forest, I put my bare feet on the earth. The canopy soars far above me, the karri leaves lie dry and crackling underfoot. We have been travelling for seven years. In this seventh year we have traversed the continents of America and Australia. We  have seen so many places, mountains and cities. Now we are turning inward. The fleeting outside world no longer engages us as it once did. People do not engage us as once they did. We have travelled lightly in these winter months, untrammelled by the history of nations and houses. As we moved, following these small red roads, swimming in pools in the filtered light of the gums, I felt there was something missing in our lives, something deep and urgent I could not quite put my finger on.

When Carlos Casteneda went into the desert to find out about peyote he found don Juan. He found another way of life that demanded he give up his own. He erased his personal history, his attachment to everyone he knew, so he would no longer be entangled in their lives. “Why do you follow the path of heart?” he asked the old seer. “I do it for freedom,” he replied, “And for the love of this beautiful earth.” When I came to Australia I found myself amongst the eucalyptus trees and their fire and wind medicine that clears the head of old worlds. I found myself facing the kookaburra, who talked to me from the tree.

After the fire you are free to be new. You can start again, like a green shoot, in all that space and light. Most of all, you are free to dream, to dialogue with the fabric of this world. It was the beginning of a songline, and the end of a long hard road.

From the forest floor I pick up a jewel-coloured parrot feather and a giant karri cone and go back to the little cabin by the lake.

“It’s time to go back to England, ” Mark says when I appear at the door, holding the feather and the seed in my hands. 

“Yes,” I say and smile. “It’s time to start walking.”

This 'flower' was originally written for the opening Germination chapter of 52 Flowers That Shook My World - A Radical Return to Earth  (Two Ravens Press) that covers our travelling years before the Plant Practice began. For further info contact Charlotte theseakaleproject@hotmail.co.uk

Images (Creative Commons); Australian Landscape by Albert Namatjira ; eucalyptus flowers; cover of The Songlines; Mimi rock painting; karri tree by Dennis Haugen, bugwood.org
Dennis Haugen, Bugwood.org

Image Citation:(?) Dennis Haugen, Bugwood.org

Image Citation:(?) Dennis Haugen, Bugwood.org