Tuesday, 23 September 2014

52 FLOWERS: 49 Vervain

Verbena05 Vervain is from the last section of 52 Flowers That Shook My World, Flowermind. It is one of the unpublished pieces that focus on the invisible, solar aspect of the plant world - some of the flowers and trees that have been connected with the 'spirituality' of different cultures and its bonds through time. 

A small flower with a long history for Autumn equinox 2015. 

brightwell-cum-sotwell, oxfordshire 02

It’s a beautiful little house. You want to walk up the path and sit there in the garden amongst the flowers. The people who open the door are friendly and will let you wander about the garden, sit in the wooden armchairs the former owner of the house once made with his own hands, rest by the shady pool where the flowers surround you in all their colours in the brilliant July heat.

Mount Vernon is the house where the 'inventor' of flower essences, Dr Bach, lived for the last years of his hard-working life. By the time he arrived in the small Oxfordshire village he had already formulated the first 12 healers of his 38 flower cannon and the second 7 helpers in the English and Welsh countryside. In the nearby lanes he found the last 19 and finalised a formula, known as Rescue Remedy, his famous and well-loved mixture of star of Bethlehem, clematis, rock rose, impatiens and cherry plum.

The year was 1934, a hard time in history but a great unleashing of modern expression and ancient wisdoms that brought many original thinkers and seers to the fore. There was a longing for a new world and there were radical moves away from conventional thinking towards a deeper consciousness. One was made by a young Welsh bacteriologist, who influenced by these spiritual explorations, left a conventional Harley Street practice, and began to work on a set of seven homeopathic remedies for chronic conditions of the bowel.

As he sat beside his patients in the Homeopathic Hospital in London, he found that it was not the physical disease but the mind-set and emotional state of the people that determined their treatment. The same temperaments needed the same remedy irrespective of the disease. He began to treat these bacterial diseases with great success (the seven Bach nosodes are still in use today) but disliking the impure nature of homeopathic essences, he started to work with wild flowers. The first plant he worked with was a monkeyflower by a stream in Wales. It was his first remedy: for Fear of Known Things.

For the rest of his life, the doctor worked with flowers. He walked the length and breadth of Southern Britain, from Wales to Norfolk investigating the effects of flowers on human physiognomy and eventually gave up his medical practice entirely.  From homeopathy he took the method of succussion to extract the invisible workings of the plant material and form the basis of the mother essence. And he also took the practices of proving and profiling.  

Proving entails working with the quality of a given substance or plant, testing it on yourself, noting its particular effects (most medicine plants or substance contain both cause and cure, so that if you deliberately take a treatment when you are well, it will bring on the symptoms that plant or substance will treat). Bach reversed this process: when he found himself suffering from various emotional and mental states he would walk into the countryside and find the flowers that could release him from his torments.  

Profiling is the matching of a type of personality to the corresponding energetic structure of a plant or substance (e.g. a belladonna type, an arsenic type). Along the homeopathic principle of like cures like, the remedy stimulates conditions within your being that releases constricting patterns. As Bach experienced his own states of bitterness, loneliness, anxiety and so on, he built up a canon of “types” that corresponded to the character of the plants.

The first flowers and trees he worked with he called the Twelve Healers. The number was no accident. Deeply esoteric, a Mason, with a keen interest in astrology, the Healers corresponded to the twelve zodiacal signs, Each plant represented not a personality but a soul-type. In the esoteric tradition, each person is present on earth to undergo one of the twelve lessons of the soul, based on the ancient principle of reincarnation. The flower essences helped to remind you of your particular soul-lesson, your challenges, your strengths and weaknesses. Illnesses occurred due to a clash or separation between your ego and your soul, and in these cases the Healers could act as a bridge.

Dr Bach played down the astrological correspondences of his work, preferring to promote a simple system of remedies. The second nineteen of his canon addressed the seven categories of emotional and mental state and make no reference to the soul.  His followers in turn, and indeed most modern practitioners, downplayed the spiritual aspects of his work. Fifty years later is hard if you go up to the door of Mount Vernon to see these underlying influences in the normal-looking brick cottage, amongst the familiar labelled bottles on the shelves. And yet they are there.

I had not taken any of the remedies when I sat in the garden. But I knew most of the plants and had explored some of their correspondences with Bach’s system.  I had stood under the shivering leaves of an aspen and shaken with unknown fears, dreamed of a honeysuckle that pulled me adroitly back from the past, felt the cleansing energy of crab apple blossom in a Welsh hedgerow. But some of the flowers did not correspond as neatly as the remedies suggested.. Some of them in fact struggled within the fixed and narrow band the flower essences had placed them.  One of them appeared to have no time for it at all.


As I walked through the gate at Mount Vernon my eyes lit up: a giant turquoise dragonfly, an aesthena, was resting on a dead rose, and beneath them there was a vervain plant in full flower. Before my mind had even time to name it, my face had broken into one of those deep broad smiles that come when you have wanted to see a plant for a long time and one day chance upon it. For years I had read about these “inconspicuous” wayside plants with their mighty reputations. And here suddenly it was. Vervain has been called the king of the herbs but you wouldn’t realise why at first glance. Nor it is easy to come across in the wild.

Once you find it, however, you know it forever. It has a dry bushy form with typical wavy verbena leaves, but it is the flowers that immediately arrest your attention – hundreds of tiny mauve and white flower that shine at the end of a myriad stiff stems. When you take a second look you see a complex head with a hundred eyes on stalks, looking at you like an ancient mythical creature, and you cannot but help stare back, your own eyes whizzing about, delighted, not knowing on which petalled point to rest your gaze. Oh, a seer plant! I thought, as I stood transfixed by its luminescence, as you might be caught spellbound by the sudden sight of stars in the nightsky.

Vervain is a traditional herbal medicine for the eyes, as well as a peerless nerve tonic, working on the human nervous system as an anti-depressant, relaxant, sedative and anti-spasmodic for tense and jittery stomachs. Its bitter-tasting leaves restore the body after illness, allay fevers and anxiety, migraine and virus colds. But it is more famous as a plant of the spiritual realms, as a talisman flower, a fortune-teller’s plant, a protector and luck-bringer that throughout history has been sought to ward off plague, avert evil, bad spells, calamity and in more modern usage, to heal holes in the aura. It was once an altar plant (its Latin name verbena means altar) claimed by both Druid and Roman priests and is the chief of the nine sacred Anglo-Saxon herbs. In some Celtic lands it was known simply as “the herb” and so highly regarded that you had to wait for one to be bestowed upon your garden.

In Dr Bach’s system. these high leadership qualities in the homeopathic system of “like cures like” becomes a remedy for righteousness, unrealistic idealism, over-enthusiasm (especially in regard to ambitions for humanity) and burn-out.

“Vervain is for those with fixed principles and ideas, which they are confident are right, and which they very rarely change, they have a great wish to convert all round them to their own views of life. They are strong of will and have much courage when they are convinced of those things that they wish to teach. In illness they struggle on long after many have given up their duties”.

Vervain was one of Bach’s core remedies, one of the original twelve. In his system of astrological correspondence in which the placement of the moon is an indication of soul-type, Vervain corresponds with those born with the moon in the fiery fixed sign of Leo. Which made the doctor of flowers  a 'Vervain'.


Nothing happened in the garden. We sat in the doctor’s chairs. We sat in on the garden bench, and it felt comely and sound in the way you sometimes feel in Wales with the wild and mythic just out of reach beyond the tidy stone walls. The flowers were at their height and grew in profusion: monkeyflowers edged the pond, great stands of blue chicory and St johns wort surrounded the bench, roses tumbled over the doors. It was beautiful and yet something troubled me: what was it?

I found I could not speak about my experience. Afterwards I realised I had felt walled in  and unable to think for myself, trapped in the garden of a dead man. And then I had felt the flowers, all 38 of them trapped, like thousands of minute geniis in a bottle, waiting to serve sick and neurotic human beings who never would meet them, never talk with them or know their beauty and intelligence,, and I shuddered. After this day, I would not make a flower essence again.
Mount Vernon had been bequeathed to Bach’s devoted assistants and now has become a monument to the man and his work, as well as a training centre. Like many of the original spiritual thinkers and mystics of this time, Bach depended on his followers to transmit his discoveries. And, like other great men who depart and put their systems in the hands of followers, difficulties often ensue in the houses they leave behind. No one is ever the match of the original. There is a struggle to emulate the man who now takes on a holy hue: more Krishnamurti than thou, more Gurdgieffian than thou. Confined in the centres preserved by the faithful, it is hard to encounter the original energy of their creators. It is difficult to trace the doctor of flowers, to discover what led him to those conclusions about vervain. You are faced with a system that is fixed and perfected.: 38 formulas, 12 healers, 7 Helpers. You sit in the garden of Mount Vernon, and feel repressed by the quiet-voiced, white-coated people in the house.

You don’t want to and yet you cannot help feeling controlled by the business of healing, by the relegating of your soul to a type. You try and find out about the man, only to find that he has erased his own steps. His followers, adherents of the perfect system, offer few clues. You know however that the man was not perfect, he was impatient (many considered Bach an Impatiens soul-type) and that those chairs in his old consulting room were not constructed out of fancy, but from lack of funds (the doctor famously never charged for his flower treatments).

In between the glowing reports published out of Mount Vernon and in his own modest literary output you discover he died at 50 from exhaustion, weakened by a near-fatal illness suffered whilst working in a war hospital. Like many inventors and creators, Bach underwent a demanding alchemical process - the burning of dross, the darkness of melancholy, social rejection, the interior tussle with the formulation of new ideas, as he  faced the complexity of the cosmos, saw the stars of the vervain sparkle overhead. And yet of this personal struggle, there is no report.

The problem with spirituality is that it leaves out the creative, experiential process behind any original work. The creator is sacrificed for the system, his head laid upon the altar. He dismantles his own path in favour of the goal. What rules in his place are the managers of the system, the high priests of temples and pyramids, the secret masters skulking in Himalayan caves, under the Gobi desert floor.  

The doctor wants the ideal to work, the soul-types to work, for the pure and simple flowers to be the solution for all our ills, when we are on a planet teeming with bacteria and complexity.The doctor wants the hospitals to be clear calm places where the state of the soul is considered first before any remedy is sought, but the reality is they are filled with the maimed and the wounded from the trenches. In the ideal Bach world you move gently and quietly. You do not get impatient, get cancer, walk away from two marriages, face being struck off by the GMA and have to suffer every day.  

After an operation on his spleen in 1917, Dr Bach looked at death every day for nineteen years. But he doesn’t write  like this. He erases the underworld, the poison, the war hospitals, his own pain and poverty. He wants to get as far as possible away from those intestines and their filthy, chronic states, to render something intensely complex, pure and simple, without stain. All vice can be cured he declares, by flooding ourselves with its opposite virtue, as he sluices his ravaged body in cool water, dresses himself in white robes, sets out to make a flower essence in the purity of the early day.

Still the vervain waits in the garden, and still I feel uncomfortable with this altar plant within my sights. In his elegant, if now old-fashioned, pamphlet Bach begins his discourse with the statement that all disease has one cause, which is action against Unity and these actions are divided into types: “the real primary disease in man are defects: pride, cruelty, hate, ignorance, instability and greed. All these versions of self-love, every one can be cured by flooding it with our selfless devotion to serving humanity”. Our vice, he wrote, is our great challenge, “or there would no no need for our existence here”.

But when the people came to his surgery, sat in this room, in the depression of the Thirties, when the spectre of the Great War had ripped through every family and village in the land, did he see this too as their souls wanting a lesson?  Did he not ask himself, as they sat opposite him in those wooden chairs, that if this ancient, all-knowing system worked, that after all these aeons, we would have learned our lessons by now, and be treating each other and the planet in a more enlightened way?

And does not the plant with its myriad eyes still shine the garden by the gate and ask us to see what lies beyond the ever-whirling zodiac?


It is the in-between times in middle England, when we are returning from Wales, trying to find a home. The following day after visiting Mount Vernon, I go to Oxford, to walk the towpaths and the nearby territories of our former inquiry. Beneath the great lime tree thrumming with bees I collect lime flowers in a brown paper bag for tea, collect St John’s wort flowers in the resplendent wasteground for oil. It is a hot day, and the river sparkles and beckons with its rich scent of water. I sit on the bank and cool my feet in its green shallows; the river flowers - skullcap, purple loosestrife, hemp agrimony and gipsywort - shimmer all about me. A barge goes by slowly. Small boys leap off the bridge and splash into the pool by Port Meadow. The willows and black poplar leaves rustle in a small breeze.

In the garden you are in a small space, in limbo, and someone else is in control. People are looking out of windows. The plants by the river live in big time, outside history, beyond this control, out of the garden They don’t see the walls. They don’t even see you sitting there, unless you get down to their wavelength. They are getting on with life. You with your vices, your self-love, your controlling gardening shears, what are you getting on with?

Here I am considering the 38 flowers of the Bach canon, surrounded by those outside the system, considering myself as a social description, a soul-type, a personality, a state, and find I do not fit. Outside the garden, the wild plants live in their own worlds:  the horse chestnuts fly through the sky and rain conkers on the garage roof. The aspen creaks in the salt wild, the crab apple holds you in her embrace on a summer’s day. I have come to earth, like everyone else, to serve experience: to sit by the one who is dying, to suffer my own failure, to lose the sight of the land I have loved and my companions. To find a new home in a dark time. I have learned to forge meaning from all these experiences. Meaning can be found, I have realised, in the most difficult of circumstances, even in prison and war, as poets and seers frequently have told us. But this is not to excuse the prison, the empire or the wheel.

At some point you have to question the altar on which you lay your head.


Bach’s estotericism, his love for his brother masons with whom he kept close contact, even in his most isolated years at Mount Vernon, had bound him to a ancient wheel. His soul-types belong to a belief system that says all souls have to undergo the challenges of the twelve constellations. It is a rigid system that insists that earth is a kind of school of hard knocks for human beings, so that we can be made perfect, like diminutive well-behaved gods.

The problem with esotericism is that it is esoteric, that is hidden. Decrees about your destiny have made by special and high-ranking entities behind closed doors, and yours is not to question them. When you consider your soul’s challenge, you do not consider the parlous condition of the civilisation you find yourself in. Least of all do you look at the brotherhoods of man, secret societies, priesthood’s that are central to all of them.

All Western esoteric traditions and healing systems originate within the sanctum of Empire and everything within them, hidden or on show, is made to serve its cause: the vervain that lies on the bloody Roman altar, the laurel leaves inhaled by the priestesses of Delphi, the mushrooms taken by Aztec high priest, the flower essences that consolidate our consumer lifestyle. When healing asks us, as Bach does, to consider the soul, it puts all responsibility of the world’s difficulty on our shoulders and diverts our gaze from Empire. You did something wrong, now you need to fix-it! If you were good and clean, these diseases would not come to you! In this taking of total responsibility, in performing this perfect service expected of you, you are leaving something vital out, something that the vervain is supposedly curing: your acute sense of injustice, the fire of your indignation, your self.

“We should strive to be so gentle, so quiet, so patiently helpful that we move among our fellow man more as a breath of air or a ray of sunshine, ever ready to help them when they ask: but never forcing them to our views.” (from Vervain – The Twelve Healers)

 On the great wheel of reincarnation, you quietly accept your lot, whatever you station. Like the caste system of India, it is a matter of karma, not history that you are where you are and who you are. You do not question whether there is any real sense in the human world, or that it is fair that the man in the mansion is the man in the mansion and that you serve him. This is not because you are not capable of asking such a question, but because you cannot see the manifested world clearly, as it is; you see it divided into vice and virtue, morally shaped, idealistically-bound, by the spirituality and the gods that you admire.

July 2002 - Meadowsweet - Thames
Unbound, I sit by the shining river, feet immersed in green water, beside meadowsweet and purple-flowering mint. By 2002 I have listened to too many quiet and humble people, with their all-powerful opinions about the cosmos, with their ideas of perfection, of ultimate reality, with their squeaky-clean ideals, with their temple fantasies about Egypt and Rome, with their notions of Mother India with her masters and karmas, followers of the world’s wise healers and all their wise wounds. I have sat in the Quaker House library and come to my own conclusions about the great white brotherhood of saints and martyrs. I have argued too many nights and days with fellow travellers across blue tables, where the only reason we are at odds with another, are in a realms none of us wish to look too deeply into.

We should have looked at all the ramifications, and deconstructed the wheel. But we didn’t. We were too busily persuading each other to flood ourselves with virtues, to shakes our souls free from entangling relationships, playing doctor, medicine man, priestess and missionary. To see the wheel you need to look at everything, all at once, objectively, with your vervain eyes. And though it appears noble to alleviate suffering, to offer advice, no one in this business of helping and healing is able to look at what created that suffering in the first place, with the facts of history in front of our eyes. Without considering our own experience within that history, we are blind.

And the plant, the vervain that stands by the gate in the brilliant July sunshine, what does it have to say? The vervain flashes its lights. Switch it all on! The plant is no way the servant of any civilisation or its gods, of Jupiter or Thor, Jehovah or Ra. It is entirely a being in its own right, in whom we seek guidance on how to proceed along the way. The vervain includes everything, all stars in the sky, not just one. Spirituality works within a narrow band, a duality of right and wrong, within the simplification of an artificial linear system, rather than within the complexity of living systems. Its creed: if only you people behaved properly the world would be all right! Its spokesmen, the priests and the doctors, speak on behalf of the wheel of humanity, not for the earth or the human heart. To question its supremacy, you have to go to the river, feel its flow around your feet, revisit the garden in your mind’s eye, with the flower that stands beside you.


Originally the plant did not come alone. It came with two companions, which the flower guides will tell you are watermint, the wild mint of the English river, and meadowsweet, the rose of the wetlands. The guide books do not say why these humble plants once held special divinitory powers for the Celts, any more than they say why vervain is chieftain over the nine herbs, the Anglo-Saxon lucnunga, which include the other great roadside plants, plantain and fennel. You have to see for yourself why this is so.

I did not come across vervain during our original flower inquiry in Oxford, but I did find it in French Joe Canyon one awkward afternoon with Mimi and Francisco. There was a stand of the American blue-eyed vervain under a white oak. I sat beside the flowers among the scratchy grasses a while, and afterwards went swimming in a waterhole. I realised that this trio of ancient 'visioning' plants were about seeing in time. The meadowsweet was about seeing into the past, the watermint, the future. Vervain was about the present, about seeing in all-at-once time, many eyes in one place time. Seeing what is staring you in the face.

Born in a fallen house in a fallen time, I could never make any claim for purity, nor did I ever seek to become an immaculate abstainer, born-again, an example to all unfortunates. How could I? The solar path is an alchemical path, a medicine path, a poison path. The old habits you kick become your katchina; your once before loves, your materia. The blue pill, the tin of tobacco, the glass of vodka, the elicit affair. These substances are neither your shame nor your enemy, resisting them has given you the inner strength to walk from Empire. Like all creators, your struggle has kept the flame of spirit burning inside your heart. With this flame you can hold the poison of the rose:  spring cherry, wild plum, crab apple, meadowsweet,

The poison of the rose is particular. The source of prussic acid and cyanide, it is a taste you sometimes catch biting into the kernel of an apricot or peach. The poison’s characteristic odour of bitter almonds is most striking in meadowsweet, once highly esteemed as a strewing herb in Elizabethan parlours and dining halls. When you bring the fragrance of this rose to the doctor’s house, something unexpected happens.

In Oxford the queen of the meadow stands tall in the waterlands: fluffy-headed, scented, mysterious. The wild mint by the bank stands like young god, laughing, with horns on his head. The Thames sparkles alongside them. United with its companions, the vervain flashes its lights, no longer dusty and dry by the roadside. In the Arizona canyon I had swum alongside the little garter snake in sharp-cold rainwater and afterwards lay naked on the rocks to dry. Something troubled my heart as my companions gathered their healing plants beneath the shadow of the red rocks. Something vital between us was missing.

You enter the garden, coming from the outside, bringing your experience of those difficult moments with plants and flowers with you, bringing fluidity in your wake. The meadowsweet and the mint live beyond the garden, in the wild lands, in the watery meadows, everywhere that is moist and free-flowing. Bringing succour to the dust-headed king, chief of the nine herbs of the wayside.

Meadowsweet brings back the poison of the past. Dr Bach, scrubbed clean, white robed,  pure-minded, sees the building of god beautifully constructed. It matters not if you are born high or low, he says, everything will make sense in the end. There are challenges to face, but no shadow. Disease will one day be conquered. The hospitals will be quiet meditation places. The light around us is ever-lasting. The earth is god’s garden. All manner of thing shall be well.  As we look through his eyes, we are look towards this uplifting future, but the past is weighing hard upon us.

The meadowsweet lives outside god’s empire, tall in the damp woods, in the marshlands, carries the pain-killing properties of aspirin in her tough stems and leaves, her ability to decrystallise, to release all trapped energies in her fragrant and flowing presence. The rose enters the room, with her faint odour of cyanide. The doctor stands amongst the flowers redeemed from the margins, god’s chosen healers, without history or mythical association, without any poison in their veins: American monkeyflower, Himalayan balsam, African blue cerato, Dutch honeysuckle.

The meadowsweet brings wildness and complexity into the garden and floods the order of Empire; brings her poison to the doctor’s door, poison that would cure a broken spleen and heart.


dsc_0612 Like all seer plans, vervain is a tranquilliser. A tea from its leaves brings you into a relaxed state so you can access your heart and imagination, your own flowermind. It brings a stillness that allows you to find the inner pathway to the sun, in the darkness, in the deep night time of your soul. Sometimes what you behold are not images, but feelings. In Dr Bach’s garden, I had felt claustrophobic. This feeling of being spiritually trapped was not personal, it was alerting me to souls that were held trapped on the wheel, like so many genii in tiny brown bottles. Somehow I needed to find my way out of the garden.

The bush by the gate lights up your mind, so you see everything-at-once, in all its complexity. The flower essence guide will tell you that this remedy for 'overdoing it' can be seen in the plant’s  structure, the way it branches out rigidly in many directions. All that effort just for those small flowers! The stiffness of the plant is your stiffness. Like cures like. But this is to not acknowledge vervain as a plant of seers. Standing at a certain distance, your body experiences the plant in its entirety, as it appears like a globe. You get the vervain total effect: it electrifies your circuits, lights up mind, body and heart in a split second. That’s when you realise why it is the king of the herbs, commanded by the regal lion of the firmament.

With all your strict vervain eyes, with your switched-on heart, you are not fastidious, You look straight on, at all the ramifications. The spiritual system wants everything neat and tidy, boxed up and numbered,  a solution for every problem, with all the bad things and inconvenience out of the way,but the earth is not neat and tidy. It is vast and complex, a free-form interweaving of myriad lifeforms, in which each human strand with its many subtle hues, with its stories and experiences, runs through like a silvery thread flashing through silk. As you see a tiny corner of this fabric is revealed to you, a microscopic strand of many dimensions that reveals the giant complexity of the whole. Our unique and subtle appearance in this web cannot be relegated to a formula. If this were so, the earth would be a machine. And it not, it’s a transforming matrix of dimensions, most of which we cannot see in daily life, and some we will never see. And the very nature of this creative and transformative process means life can neither be  pure, nor simple. Anymore than bacteria, whose archaic forms constitute the very soil which feed the plants so life can happen, can be cleansed forever from our hands.

To see  with your vervain eyes, is an art, a voyage into the unknown, a task. The work it exacts is to acknowledge with unwavering clarity what appears in front of your eyes and translate it into daily terms. It is to see what is. What is requires you look unequivocally at what lies before you, without dismissing what you are seeing, fighting, superseding it but keeping it steady within your sights. From here you ask questions and receive readouts. You question what you see. Switch it all on! Nothing hidden, no god, no ulterior purpose, no esoteric principles, no masters, skulking in caves for aeons. Only you and what you see. You hold a fixed position because, belonging to Leo, the sun is not going anywhere. You can’t leave yourself out because without you, without the sun, core of the self of all human beings, nothing is seen. You are the eyes of the cosmos, the light that switches itself on in the dark. What you see in the dark doesn’t happen without you. To see with the heart means you cannot let the mind interfere with its eternal say-so, with its great tuppence worth of opinions and criticisms, but most of all with its predilection for ideals.

Ideals blind the seer. To hold an ideal means you desire to see things as they should be, rather what than are, within the movement of transformation. With the vision of perfection before you, you start wishing that everything on earth were otherwise that it actually is. Spirituality promotes the ideal perfect state without pain, from which you have fallen because of your imperfection. Believing suffering is wrong, you start constructing realities where pain does not exist. Realms where masters walk in robes, temples where everything is pristine and orderly. Suddenly you are not on the earth, in time. You are inhabiting a perfect, clean world in the future. You wish you were as you imagine you can be in your mind-sphere. You start erasing and excluding those things that are not perfect, with simple clear cut choices of all spirituality (good and evil, right and wrong, love and fear). The system you have invented you realise is perfect, but you are not. Pretty soon you end up not being that important. Soon you are irrelevant, squeezed out. You are a number, a soul-type who fits or does not fit the system. Spiritually, politically, it’s a dangerous road. War is the worst of its manifestations, Dr Bach’s 38 flower canon is a less dangerous system than most, still I feel squeezed in the garden, on an earth whose only raison d’etre is that fallen human beings evolve and learn their lessons.

The stems of the vervain are rigid because they hold the light, the structure of light intrinsic within all living forms. When you bring the structures that hold of the world to light, you see whether they tally with the living systems or not. This ability to look at any individual and collective action in this multi-light (of the vervain) enables you to ask the question: for what purpose this war, for what purpose this inequality? Does my action bring liberation? Does it serve life? Does it bring the light of the sun to bear within all things?

When you ask the question, you realise that all artificial systems of the world- political, religious, scientific, medical – serve only mystify and divert the human ability to see what is. None of them encourage our innate ability to directly perceive the fabric of life.  To see into the river of life, into the fluid and dynamic non-linear dimensions is a radical act, the dangerous act of creators, since the Empire is founded on rigid and linear system of duality. They require allegiance to the perfection of the artificial mind. But the hearts of seers and creators are not loyal to empire, they are true to the sun, since it is the sun that brings the light to see in the dark.

After the Great War, when new world orders were being drawn up and new world servers recruited, two of the century’s greatest seers, Rudolf Steiner and Krishnamurti walked away from the theosophical spirituality that influenced Edward Bach, and forged their own ways of seeing the hidden dimensions of the world. Both conducted their own individual investigations into the perception of reality, and spoke and wrote about their findings.  Some of their most illuminating insights come from their direct encounters with nature: Krishnamurti walking in the early morning light amongst the live oaks of California, encountering an owl under his bed in India; Steiner in Austria and England, investigating the alchemical effects of wood ants and bees, wild camomile and horsetail within the living soils of the planet.

The sprit shines like the sun, permanent, endurable, but the soul walks a different path. Like the moon, waxes and wanes, brings tears, redemption, inspiration, keeps close to us in our lives, hold our accounts, makes the changes in our spirits possible. Bach’s vervain soul has a fiery core, ruled by Leo, the lion-king. In his small book, this fire flashes when he speaks of animal vivisection, the cruel relatives who trap their children, the friends who bind you to their will.  To be free is the path of all souls he says. Krishnamurti looks at the world of matter with his eagles eyes, his rishi’s eyes. All is laid bare beneath the Brahmin’s gaze. Steiner, like some forest salamander, glowers strangely amongst the ashes of his crucible, looks deep at the workings beneath your skin. Though their work is engrossing, illuminating, somehow there is something not quite human about the way they look at you.

 Doctor Bach leans quietly forward, his round Welsh face like a full moon, as he shines a light into your heart. There is no penetrating analysis of the people who came to see him, nor in the flower’s alchemical workings. You are not shown the interiors workings of beehives, or behold the cosmos or the face of the tigers. You find his words, pious, almost frustrating. And yet, it is the inconspicuous doctor, whom you  accompany, as he walks through the gate and goes down the Oxfordshire lane, to drink a beer and to sing a song with the people of Brightwell-cum-Sotwell on a summer’s day.


PIC (4)
  Dr Bach sought out the wild flowers and in a time of crisis, which was his own  and that of history, they came to his assistance. His followers in white coats, may not follow him out into the Oxfordshire hills or along the seashore of the Norfolk coast or speak with the humble vervain of the wayside. But inspired by him, some of us go and sit in the canyons.

When we sat beside these flowers, these bushes and trees, we realised to release yourself from the wheel you have to look at consciousness itself. You need to go beyond spirituality and esotericism, and look at the role of the seer with your own heart and inner eye. You have to imagine the relationship between the sun and its technicians that forms the basis of all consciousness. And find a way out of the garden.

The Empire prowls the world seeking ancient wisdom. It seeks secret knowledge, like physical treasure, as a power, a tool of supremacy. It goes to the temples and pillages the tombs of kings and sages, scours the constellations, looking for signs and star-gates, mighty position and talisman. Where is the secret of immortality? It must be here! No one finds it. Great Thoth has hidden it somewhere, the seekers declare. The shrewd and wily philosopher, Derrida, stepping outside the pyramid, overhears a dialogue behind closed doors at the beginning of Empire.

It went like this: when the artifex of medicine, Thoth asks the king for his bless his new invention of writing, The Pharoah Sun-King shakes his head: writing is a substitute for the real thing. You say the text is a tool for remembering but because of your tool the people will lose their memory. You say it will contain wisdom, but the people themselves will not be wise. The text will become more powerful and all-knowing than themselves. The king said it was a poison, a phamakos. And from that time on all writers and inventors have suffered Thoth’s fate, the fate of the pharmakon: they invent a cure that is also a poison.

When Dr Bach invented the flower essence, he substituted the remedy for the flower. Soon enough the people thought the essence was more important that the flower. In fact they did not know the flower,, nor the territory in which it grew. While his flower essences were sold in their millions in the health boutiques of the world, his healers and helpers were vanishing from the English countryside: the water violet was quietly disappearing from the dykes, the elm trees could no longer grow tall and stately as once they had, the rock water had became poisoned and it was hard to find the small scherlanthus in any neighbourhood. Meanwhile the creator found himself in a wilderness, a holy goat loaded with the sins of the world upon his shoulders.

To redeem the pharmakon, the creator of all kill-or-cure medicine, you need to look at the doctor, at the heart of the man, who suffered like all men. To redeem the creator is to look at the flower, in all-at-once time, with the poison of the rose. It is to look at the origin of all things, at the role of the sun and its technicians within ourselves.

In the spirit of leonine generosity, Dr Bach left his methods for people to make the essences themselves with the flowers and trees of the wild places. Which all modern practitioners of flower medicine, all plant seers around the world have followed until this day. As indeed I had until I walked into his garden and found myself shudder. Soon after we left Oxfordshire, we found a house, and one month later, walking the lanes of the East Anglian countryside, found large stands of wild vervain, in full flower, along a sandy track. Oh, You are here! I exclaimed, as I stood among their great constructions of dotted light. 

There was the sound of the wild ocean behind me and a heathland before me. The land was in restoration, recovering from long agricultural use, skirted by small woods of larch and hornbeam and wild rose. I sat down by the track and felt at home. That’s when I knew why vervain is the chief. When you look for the origin of all things, you find the sun. When you sit in the wild company of the flowers and ask life’s great questions, you find the tablets of wisdom inscribed in your own heart. This is the way home, said the doctor, smiling, as the heather and the gorse glowed in front of me, as the wind soughed in the pine tree, the centaury shone along the cliff edge. Your medicine is everywhere, I said and laughed, as the vervain, shimmering, became alive with bees.

Images: vervain (whole plant); Mount Vernon; vervain in Leonhart Fuch's De Historia Stirpium Commentarii Insignes, Basel.1542; Dr Bach; meadowsweet by the Thames; single flower; heather, Suffolk

Monday, 1 September 2014

Doing the Butterfly Shift - new edition of Transition Free Press out today!

TFP06_2014-09_CoverToday is publication day for Transition Free Press No 6, one of the big deadlines I've been working towards this summer. Now distributed to UK Transition initaitives and posted to our subscribers we've also just gone on line.

Some highlights include: Tom Crompton on intrinsic values. 350.org's Danielle Paffard on being radicalised. Rob Hopkins on telling the story of Transition through brewing, Kate Rawles on seakayaking; plus standing alongside First Nations, foraging for scarlet mushrooms, saving seeds, fermenting rose petals, getting to the root of plant medicine, getting into maker spaces and most of all tuning into the zeitgeist which this autumn all about climate action. Here's the editoriial I wrote on behalf of the TFP collective.

This changes everything

There is a story that has sustained us through these changing times: it’s known as The Butterfly Shift and is based on the biological transformation that happens when a caterpillar turns into an imago. At first the immune system of the caterpillar defeats the ‘imaginal cells’ of the new form. Then the cells re-emerge, but this time hold fast by joining forces.

The caterpillar is the dominant narrative of Industrial Progress, chomping its way through the planet’s ecosystems, and the governments and corporations who follow the ideology of ‘free market fundamentalism’. “Our economic model is at war with life on Earth,” as Naomi Klein says in her new book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. It’s also at war with every emerging butterfly that stands in its way.

One of the inspirations for Transition Free Press was The Occupied Times and the conversations that many Transition groups were having with local Occupy camps in 2011. The media we wanted to create would cohere the ideas and actions of many different grassroots enterprises under one colourful wing.

So true to its original blueprint, our autumn edition focuses on the people and communities everywhere who are resisting the assaults of the global caterpillar and at the same time making steps to transform our culture into something completely new. Because, as Klein clearly states: “Climate change isn’t just a disaster it’s also our best chance to demand and build a better world”.

 In 2012 Occupy tents were torn down, Transition Initiatives ‘burned out’. We realised that raising awareness and planting radishes in our windowboxes was not enough. We had to start up collective projects in the real world. We had to change the story and use words as they were originally meant to be used: as a medium for connection between us; a reminder of what being human really means. That, as storytellers and change-makers, we need to keep the door open in a time of cultural lockdown.

In this sixth issue you can find our signature mix of the practical, political and the philosophical. In line with a renewed push towards climate action this autumn, we’re focusing on fossil fuel divestment and climate activism. We are also showing how the humble acts of fermenting cabbage and saving seeds are also radical acts of liberation, why in the face of increased corporate control we are out digging fields, brewing beer, helping our neighbour, telling our own story, doing art in whatever place we find ourselves:

Bv5LwwiIUAAdk4bBecause Transition is not just in what we do but how we do it. The caterpillar mindset is cold, unkind, and solitary. The future of the butterfly is warm, open, spontaneous. It works together with its fellows and is at home on the Earth. When activist Danielle Paffard describes taking part in the Viking protest at the British Museum, you can’t help noticing these ensemble acts embody a certain intrinsic spirit: they're witty and colourful and alive, and when they take place everything else feels gloomy and somehow out of date.

“One of the most amazing things was this song which everyone was invited to sing. It was a way for people to engage, but it was also really beautiful. It wasn't what people expected of a protest. That song changed the dynamic of everything.”

Because it’s not just about listening, it’s also about singing. When you do, you’ll find you are not on your own. We are all out there.

This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein (Allen Lane) will be published on 16th September; Mirko Bonne, one of the five writers on the Weatherstaions project, Free Word Centre: gathering beetroot at Leigh Court Farm, Bristol, from the documentary Voices of Transition (photo: Milpa Films)

Sunday, 17 August 2014

This summer I went swimming . . .

Dear Reader, I have not abandoned this blog! I have been inundated with editing stuff for three big deadlines this high summer: the book Playing for Time (now at the publishers), the sixth edition of Transition Free Press (going to press on Tuesday) and Dark Mountain 6 now in production.

In between I have been sneaking out to the beach to go swimming, digging the garden, and foraging for plums and cherries. And in the long warm evenings drinking a glass of one of Mark's luminous herbal refreshers.

Above is one of the radiant daybreaks of the year - Lughnasa down at Southwold. And below is me emerging from the River Waveney at our Sustainable Bungay annual picnic in the pouring rain.

"We are resilient in the face of climate change! I called out to bemused tourists in Falcon Meadow, as we tucked into our low-carbon lunch and Nick's awesomely strong parsnip wine.

Normal service will be resumed in September Have a good month everyone!

Monday, 7 July 2014

ARCHIVE: When the experiment fails

This piece was originally written for Social Reporting Project, as part of a series looking at the 74 Transition Ingredients and Tools in The Transition Companion. Looking back at six years in the movement and now editing the sixth edition of Trnsition Free Press, this still seems a key subject. We think of Transiton as a thing, a goal, a perfect state, when it is process, something you go through and experience with others:, some of it painfully, some of it joyfully, some of it yawning and wishing the meeting would come to an end. Creativity is often the only meaningful way to navigate its existential territory.

I was going to write about Communicating with the Media, a nifty tool in the second section of The Transition Companion. I planned a practical exploration of the business of writing press releases and cultivating a positive relationship with local newspapers and radio. But then whilst Becoming the Media - creating the preview issue of the Transition Free Press - I stumbled upon a subject which was closer to home, nearer the bone. More urgent, I reckoned, than raising awareness of our local projects in the mainstream press.

The title of the second chapter is Deepening, and contains some of the harder aspects of Transition. The start up phase of initiatives is often exuberant and exciting. People are attracted to the buzz, full of hope and expectation. They stand up in rooms and declare what we (you) could do. Deepening is when you first hit the wall. Ideas and fancies about downshifting turn out not to be the reality of downshifting. Those big words fade in the light of day. You realise that you have to get on with the people in the room and do the work. Power struggles happen in deepening. Things don't go according to plan. People leave and let you down. You let people down. It's awkward because you don't know anyone in your fledgling initiative that well. The groups start to falter. What do you do?

Celebrating Failure is perhaps the least understood ingredient in the book. Because we live in a culture of success. No matter how we talk about losing being part of the game, it's still losing. Victors take all, stand on the podium crowned with laurels, king of the castle, biggest banker on the block. No one wants to be in the beaten team, on the bottom of the pecking order. But to be in Transition means we have to understand this win-or-lose mindset as an old order we need to transform.

Interviewing Shaun Chamberlin for the paper, he talked about the new book, The Future We Deserve, in which 100 authors write 500 words on their take of the title:
What was interesting in it was dissensus. The recognition that Nature doesn't decide by consensus on the ideal life form before it creates it. It just creates and creates and some things work and some things don’t work and I think Transition follows that “dissensus” approach - we don’t try and have a universal plan for everything. If someone wants to do something they go and do it. As Rob wrote about the punk ethic (here's three chords, now start a band): Here’s three ingredients, go and start a Transition initiative. That is that creative energy that underlies dissensus. Let some of the projects that we undertake thrive and let some of them die and don’t feel that everything we do has to succeed.
In a creative frame, you try everything. You start with the idea of communicating some key tips about the media but then a more pressing subject comes up. So you change direction. From the creative perspective everything is material. There is no loss or failure. You carve your piece out of the mud, the clay falls to the ground, you sweep it up and use it again another time. Nothing is wasted. Everything is compost and you need that compost - those past events, meetings, open spaces, clashes, those wasted leaves, those dead heads. You need that stuff to rot down in order grow nourishing and beautiful flowers for the future.

In Deepening all the expectations of how life should be come up for examination, and it is wise to know Transition is not what you think it should be at all. But of course you don't read the manual. Your ego hits the wall, you are challenged in all directions. Most people at this stage, rather than let go of their defence systems, or their lifestyle, leave and blame Transition for not living up to their shiny idea of it. That's not the failure of Transition, it's the challenge of our society. We don't live with the messy paint box of dissensus, we live in the pure and airy ideals of the mind, and the vicious battleground of the will. I do it my way. Publish that email and be damned.

If we had heart we would realise that everything we do in Transition is to create a future that is not apocalypse, and in many ways we are blind to what this might look like. We are feeling our way ahead and "failures" are merely telling us that some paths are the ones we don't need to go down. Try again. Move your attention somewhere else.

Valuing experience

OK, so this is the theory. What about the practice? In 2009 I helped organise the second Transition East gathering in Diss and before the event interviewed 29 initiatives on the phone. I collated all the information and posted it on a regional blog. I asked everyone the same questions. How were they doing, how many people were in the initiative, what kind of town, village were they in etc? Everyone cheerfully answered the questions. Do you have any difficulties? I then asked them. There would be a hesitation and then suddenly a huge outpouring would happen. Ten minutes would turn into an hour. Up until this point no one had mentioned dificulties. We weren't sure how to handle them. But the fact is the difficulties were not "wrong". They are our experience of change, how we know what to focus on, and what not.

Today many of those initiatives do not exist. The initiative I have been in (Norwich) is a shadow of its former self. The 14 groups that began so exuberantly after our Unleashing in 2008 no longer exist. The core group disappeared. The Heart and Soul group faded away. In April the monthly bulletin was not sent out, as it had been for the last three years on the first of every month. No one noticed. Or if they did, they did not say anything.

What does this tell us? Some territories are not fertile ground for Transition. Something holds groups together and if it's missing the group will disband. At some point you realise that you need to put your time and energy into projects that feed back, and not just because you can do them or that you are expected to. You need to go with the spirit of the times, be amongst people who understand that the project matters. That communication matters. That Transition is not a hobby, a once-a-month feel good community thing, it's for real.

Some of this stuff is bitter stuff to swallow. And we don't like bitter, we like the sweet and sugary things in life, the triumphs and the happy moment. But bitter, as all medicine people will tell you, is the taste of the heart. It's what tells you what is good and not good for the system, how you grow up and take responsibility for your actions. How experience teaches us to shift out of being the haughty me-against-Them people who want to rule the universe and become fellows with all beings on the planet.

The loss of these groups told us that power struggles are not for the future, nor is old-fashioned spirituality, hierarchy of any kind, hostility or control. It taught us that you can't really co-opt the future. It doesn't belong to big business or to the institution, and it will slip out of the Empire's clutches at every turn. In Norwich we learned that our Transition Circles brought a key aspect into the fabric of Transition - personal carbon reduction. We have one circle left still meeting, but the legacy of all that great experiment lives on. It's in the comments pages of the Transiition Free Press, it's in the interview with Shaun Chamberlin. It's just taking another form, working with a new mix of people. No blame. No loss. No failure. Just celebration.

P.S. There is only one real tip I would add to the media tool in the book and it's this: journalists are people and finding the story is what we really care about.

Photos: Untitled piece by Maria Elvorith for the cover of The Future We Deserve; Banner for February edition of Transition Norwich news bulletin; Transition East Gathering 2009 at Diss; with Alexis Rowell, News Editor of Transition Free Press (photo: Sarah Nicholl)

Saturday, 21 June 2014

EARTHLINES: Halcyon Days

Happy Summer Solstice everyone! My copy of EarthLines magazine arrived today, so I am publishing the column I wrote for the previous Spring issue - an upside down post, as it was written at the turn of the year. Today it is a beautiful midsummer day and we got up at dawn to see the sun rise over the sea. Outside the barley fields are stippled with poppies, the larks are singing, grass snakes basking on the compost, the garden filled with peas and beans and clover, roses and long grasses. Later we will have a picnic in the dunes and go for a swim. It's been a hard time in a fallow year, but today is a day of light and air, a blue day, and I am walking out . . .

Today is a halcyon day, one of the fourteen that fall each side of the winter solstice. Years ago it was believed that on such days, the mythic Alcyone, transformed into a kingfisher, could nest by the shore in peace because the god of the winds her father had calmed the waves.

I am taking an unusual break in a stormy time. Outside the rivers are retracting from the flooded meadows, and the sun is low and radiant in the sky; its tawny light suffuses everything. I am attempting to tame the huge hedges that surround the garden with a pair of shears: hawthorn, elm, oak, cypress, ivy. Pausing for breath something comes to me I do not expect. The fragrance of violets, and the sound of a blackbird singing quietly to himself in the rockrose. Spring embedded in winter.

Sometimes we need a lucky break, a halcyon day when we can rethink things and notice what is under our feet, or lies embedded deep inside ourselves. Sometimes this comes in the form of a stranger, reminding you of something you had forgotten, and sometime a handful of midwinter days you wrest for yourself, so you can practice your song for another year.

An alchemical conversation
I’m talking with Chris Thornton from South Australia. He has driven from his native Midlands to hold a conversation about Transition and communications which is the subject of his PhD. He is researching how Transition can make a space, to reconfigure our sense of self, as creatures that live in the wider social and biological sphere. How communications can shape a new kind of personal narrative, that includes human and non-human others.

How do we do that in a culture that is focussed entirely on individualism and perceives the world – including the wild world – as objects under our control?

How do you start to fulfil your objectives? he asks me. I laugh and say it doesn’t really work like that, with agendas and remits, from theory. Look, I say and point to the box that sits on a table between us. It’s filled with differed coloured apples evenly spaced from one another and lined with the summer edition of the newspaper I have been working on all year.

Here are the apples we picked in the orchards of the Emmaus community in Ditchingham on a sunny day last week. You can read everything into that box. You can read relocalisation and climate change and the economic downturn; the fact I am storing apples to last all winter in my larder. And if you look at the page, it’s an interview with Anne-Marie Culhane about the Abundance project.

That’s where, like many people, I first came across the idea of redistributing fruit in the community and started to write about it. It’s the basis of all the grassroots media I have been involved in. Now think about an 24/7 apple bought in a supermarket, flown in from Chile or somewhere you have never been. That apple doesn’t say anything. It is just an object that you eat every day, as a global consumer. These apples however say everything about us as activists, our reconnection with neighbourhood, winter, the earth. They are all about relationship. Key to taking us back into that relationship is the artist.

Gary Snyder once said that artists act like mycorrhizal fungi, transforming old dead thoughts and liberating energy from the forest floor. They are integral to the vitality and meaning of the community in which they live. That’s why, for me, any kind of redemptive cultural shift has to have creativity at its heart.
Sometimes you wait a long, long time for someone to ask you for the knowledge you have been holding in your heart, it seems for an aeon.

Outside, after the conversation, nothing has changed. It’s the same world. My inbox is still flooded with requests to save the tiger, the rainforest, the NHS, how we can halt another fossil fuel frenzy from destroying another pristine place on earth. But something inside has changed. A knot has untied. I realise I'm not waiting anymore.

An alchemical meeting
I am in Bethnal Green with fourteen contributors to the book, Playing for Time. We are exploring a section of the book about transitional arts practice, how it can be defined through the diverse practices of the people in this room. On the floor is a map of the book with its many sections laid out in bold aboriginal colours: land, water, rites of passage, food growing, activism, ancestors, reclamation . . .

Is this a key tenet of a collaborative practice? we ask each other in pairs, as we test nineteen of them out. I have a small clipboard with Change written on it, Anne-Marie has one with Thinking in Systems. We are engaging in a dialogue, how allowing change keeps a door open for other things to come in and how the artist has to hold that possibility no matter how hard the wind is blowing to shut everything down in the room.
When you think within the ecological systems of the earth, you are not stuck in the tramlines of argument, I say suddenly, you are not stuck in an old story. Maybe it’s not even about a narrative with a linear sequence, but takes another shape entirely.

Anne-Marie laughs. Outside the leaves of the cherry trees have turned amber and gold and float past the elegant 18th century windows. Sometimes you don’t know what you know until someone asks you the question and then waits for the answer.

We learn to wait because we don’t know the answer yet. It is not where you think it is. Some of it is embedded in the apples in the room, and some in the spark that reignites the relationships we once had by virtue of being human on this planet. One thing I know: it’s the artist who hosts the space in which that reconnection happens.

An alchemical space

Next year I am curating a garden. It’s a small garden in a small town, created four years ago by my local Transition initiative, Sustainable Bungay. It sits in the courtyard of the local Library, and this winter I am designing a programme of events and workshops around the plants in its central bed: woad, indigo, dyer’s greenweed, yarrow, St John’s wort. Each plant in the Dye Garden is a portal through which to look at our key relationships with plants: the fashion industry (cotton), the use of colour (madder), the rural world (hemp). We are surrounded by textiles and yet we never consider them. What would the world look like if we did?

One tenet I learned from paying attention to dreams: if you stop and pay attention to small things great riches will be revealed. The humble leaves of woad become a doorway into the fabric of the world. The plant takes you back in time, to the archaic and medieval worlds, it puts colour and yarn and imagination and belonging back into your hands. Takes you into blue.

The technological world goes so fast and furiously that we never get to look deeply and truly at the wonder of ordinary things. We never really know what we know. So though we imagine we can only properly experience the world by visiting every desert, hill and city, we only ever know it superficially as consumers. You can’t possess the earth, you can only behold its beauty and complexity when you become part of its vast and interlocking systems. You might catch it just for a moment, but that moment brings everything your heart desires into play. You just have to make the time and the space.

EarthLines is a magazine dedicated to nature, and today I wish I could write more about the natural world, which is the deep love of my life. I wish I could tell you I have spent this year up the wild mountains of Britain, or followed a Blue Ridge creek in the course of a year, or followed the footsteps of Patrick Leigh Fermor across Europe, and then written of all my adventures. I wish I could share the insights I once had under a madrone tree, or the medicinal properties of wild indigo.

But the truth of the matter is I have spent this year working with people, in small spaces, editing pages of a book and a newspaper, and all my encounters with the wild world have been ones that have caught me unawares. A summer dawn among the dunes, a sea holly bush covered in blue and tortoishell butterflies, swimming down the Waveney alongside rainbow-finned fish. A deer in the headlamps as we travelled home down the back lanes. The bright new moon and Venus just before the storm surge. The big places, deserts and the hills of other geographies, now lie deep inside in my memory: Mexico, Arizona, Chile, Greece. They frame every small action in my home country. Sometimes the scent of violets brings them back. A kingfisher spring in sere winter.

Why do I not strike out more into the wind-rippling marshes, march along the Eastern seaboard, catalogue the mushrooms as I once did in my local wood? Some part of me knows that unless we can join forces as a band or network we will lose hold of the places and creatures we love, that to connect in the spirit of regeneration we need conversations and gatherings, an alchemical space where things can turn around and we can forge another identity for ourselves as a people. Where we can let go of the arguments that divide us and divest ourselves of an old and unkind story.

What breaks up the false dominion of monoculture is the presence of diversity and kinship, the sound of many different voices in unity. The meadow, Darwin once observed, is resilient because of the beneficial connections between each plant, insect and organism that flourishes there. To thrive in a hard time we need to know ourselves as that chalk land meadow; we need to be that coral reef, we need to be that primary forest and the mycorrhizal fungi on the leafy floor. We enter the system by paying close attention to our home country, to the small places, at the edges of things, in the spaces where there are no agendas, in the question and the pause, your laugh out of the blue on a halcyon day.


Images: summer solstice sun, Southwold beach 2012 (Mark Watson); gathering fruit for Abundance project, Grow Sheffield; The Dye Garden, Bungay Community Library; cover of EarthLines 9

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Walking the Flower Path: Bluebell of Scotland

Last month I went up to a Dark Mountain gathering called Carrying the Fire in Scotland. As well as giving its director, my friend Dougie Strang a hand and taking part in the launch of Dark Mountain 5, I was giving a talk called Walking the Flower Path, which - according to the programme - would recount some ways of encountering plants and creating a shared narrative.

I don't usually prepare for workshops, as their shape and intent depend on who comes, what the place is like and, most of all, what plants are present. Sometime I wait for a dream to appear to direct the show, sometimes I am inspired by the journey, or the people I meet around the fire, or across a table.

This time nothing happened. On the train I sat in front of an empty notebook. The mountains amazed me after so many years in the flatlands. Morecombe Bay took my breath away. I saw a short-eared owl on a bridge and hundreds of tadpoles in a lake. I helped hang bunting from the rafters of the performance space and pitched my tent under the hill. I sat with Jack in a coffee shop in Moffat, and listened to everyone speaking differently. It was the first place I had been to in decades, where I could imagine living outside East Anglia.

But the plants were not speaking to me. On Sunday just as the last revellers and singers and storytellers were creeping into their beds at daybreak, I got up and walked around the garden of the Lodge, originally built for grand hunting parties: dark pines and redwoods soared above lawns scattered with daisies and sorrel and lady's mantle. I collected bugles and wood stitchwort from under the mossy ash trees. It was raining quietly, though the birds were singing like thunder. 

I made some coffee and sat in the empty dining room, watched a woodpecker searching for ants among the grass outside the tall windows. Peck, peck, flick, flick. I was on at nine o'clock and still had to prep the stage after last night's music. I sifted through my worn copy of 52 Flowers, with pieces of paper marking passages that were good for reading out loud. They stuck out of the pages like rabbit ears. I should have been terrified, but I wasn't, and then in that slow, sure Spring morning, a flower flashed blue out of the corner of my eye, and the memory came of a dreaming I had had once about Scotland. It had formed part of the introduction to a workbook that Mark and I were writing in 2006 called Speaking with the Heart, based on several of our practices. That's it I said. I will talk about the Six Doors that can open you up to the plant world: Botany, Territory, Medicine, Dreaming, Foraging, Ancestors. 

I don't know at this point, but Alastair McIntosh, who is giving a Sermon about the silvery path of the Sith at 11, will call me up on stage to retell this dream. Sometimes you have to speak a dream outloud to a room full of people because it is the right time and place. Alastair will talk about how you need one foot in the logos and one in the mythos to walk true on this Earth and his words will thrill me in a way I have not been thrilled in a long long time. It made me rethink that workbook and the direction of my life. Here is the original passage and the dream (that is in fact two dreams):

The harebell is a very small blue flower shaped like a fine bell. You could miss it. It grows in the wild dry heathy places in late summer, often in the shade of gorse, and most plentifully in the north where it is known as the bluebell of Scotland. At the time of our visit, I had just had a dream about the neighbourhood Big House where the 'owners' had had to get all their furniture out of the main room lickety-spit because the real owner, a small woman from Scotland, was returning. The front room was off-limits, but they had broken the rules.

The harebells we went to visit live down the lane where they grow in a small group under an old oak tree. The road was full of acorns and the autumn sun was in our faces as we sat on the bank by the small flowers.

"Are these the leaves?” asks Mark. 
“Yes, “ I say, touching the spindly foliage. “They look so fragile and yet they are as tough as old boots.” 
“What have they done to the land?” he says suddenly extremely gruffly, staring over the bare farmland. I put an acorn pipe in my mouth and grin at him. 
“Whose land?” I laugh and do a little jig amongst the acorns. The plant has made me suddenly feel very light and carefree. 

That night I have the following dream:

I am remembering a dance I once knew from a Scottish dancing class, called the Strathspey, with my primary school headmistress and her daughter. I am aware the headmistress is actually not “above” me in any way but is just there helping me remember the steps. There are also other people in the 'set' with whom I am going to do a figure of 8 once I have mastered the first part of the dance. I look down at my feet and they are wearing my big Indian brown boots and I can hardly believe these are my dancing shoes. But they are. 

The Strathspey is the measure of a Scottish country dance that goes at half the speed of a normal Scottish reel or jig. Its slow measure gives a certain elegance and deliberation to whatever shape the dance takes and belongs uniquely to that land. In the dream I am remembering this measure I once danced with both these people. The headmistress was my dancing teacher 'in reality' as her daughter was my dancing partner when we were about nine or ten.

The shoes are 'Indian' because I bought them in a street bazaar in Delhi. When we are looking at this dream in the practice and considering these small details, each of them assumes a life of their own. The shoes, ordinary brown shoes, take on a significance beyond their normal situation by the garden door. I am looking at them and remembering what I said about the harebell being as tough as old boots and the shoe seller in Delhi who smiling asked if I would not rather have a dainty pair of ladies dancing slippers. “No,” I said “I want a pair of shoes to walk the land in”. They are ordinary but they have also become extraordinary, like a pair of shoes you would find in a folk tale.

This is the moment when your focus shifts everything you see: because you are not seeing just with your everyday eyes but into another dimension entirely. You might hold an ordinary empty cup in your hand and know you need water from the nearby spring, and suddenly the cup, the water and the spring become The Cup, The Water and The Spring and your replenishing this vessel the very quest of your whole life. This kind of seeing has a very powerful effect on the way you experience the world because ordinary objects and events become imbued with an ancestral resonance and spiritual meaning.

The mind, seeking information and entertainment, skims over the surface of physical life. Restless, unsatisfied, it picks things up, names them, categorises them, prices them and then drops them and on to the next, valuing nothing in its pathway. The heart, however, sees into the fabric of things and their intrinsic relationship with the dance of life and you. You value things that come across your path or catch your eye. These doorways are like small keyholes: the iridescent flash of a kingfisher wing that reveals the riverbank, a peacock butterfly that heralds the Spring, the tiny dream detail, the small flower at your feet, that leads you into another earth which until that moment you had not seen. 

You see your brown earth walking shoes, you see the connections your feet make in these shoes, the way your feet dance the elegant dance of the Strathspey, how they are remembering the figure of 8 in this country dance from Scotland you learnt many years ago, how the small woman from Scotland is really the owner of the house and is coming back. It’s her house, her land. She is small but she is tough as old boots. Like you. 

You are seeing this because, like the dance, your perception is going at half the speed. A completely different tempo than ordinary time, a tempo in which all connections are made. You see, in the fast jig of ordinary time Mark and I are sitting by some small insignificant blue flowers on a C road in Suffolk, and yet in another time, once upon a time, strathspey time, we are keyed into the extraordinary fabric of the earth, the lives of plants and of ourselves. The small blue flower is remembering this dance in us, and leads us at the head of the set - fleet as a hare, blue as moonlight, ringing its tiny bells.  

52 Flowers That Shook My World - A Radical Return to Earth is published by Two Ravens Press.
Images: walking up the hill 1 to create a Life Cairn for Lost Species with Andreas Kornevall;  wood stitchworts; ash trunk; walking up the hill 2. All photos with kind permission by Bridget McKenzie.