Saturday 3 July 2010

52 FLOWERS: 15 St John's Wort

St John's Wort, Platform 2, Lowestoft station (photo Mark Watson)

railway bank, oxford 99

Some things you understand instantly. Nobody tells you how to love your best friend but the moment you see them you know how to love them completely. Nobody teaches you about boats, yet when you jump into a boat you feel the oars and know how to row, just as you know how to wrap the dead, to bake bread, how the scent of roses lifts your spirits. How do we know? It’s mysterious. No one can govern that kind of knowledge. It belongs to a part of us that is not written. Plants contain this kind of invisible knowing. Sometimes when you find a plant, when you look at the shape of its leaves or gaze into its colourful flower face, you just know. This is because you are understanding how they work in a particular kind of light.

When I first saw St John’s wort at the railway gate on that summer’s day, it flashed like a brilliant ladder of light across my consciousness. I knew everything about this plant. I didn’t have to visit it again or work with it in a seeing. It was complete vision. All I ever had to do from the moment I saw it, was bring this plant into my awareness, and it would tell me everything I needed to know. However, the inquiry Mark and I had commenced that year was based on communication. And consciousness is not just about knowing. It is expressing what you know and passing that knowledge on. The speaking out loud of what we know inside is part of our human experience on this planet. As vital as birdsong, or the roar of the sea, or the wind that blows through the willow trees.

“What did you see?” asked Mark when I returned, flushed with excitement from my discovery.
“I saw light.”
He looked at me sceptically. Light! Give me a break.
“What kind of light was that?” he asked.
“Oh, you know!” I said, rather irritated at having to explain myself.
“No, I don’t,” he remarked.

I started to huff and puff. Nobody ever likes to say what they know. You want other people to just “get it” too. But plant communications require speaking. So I started to stagger about finding words and getting very frustrated, trying to put a peerless abstract design into some kind of understandable narrative structure. What kind of light was it? It was the structure of light in all things, the interdimensional radiance that extends throughout the worlds and governs consciousness. As I started to talk about the solar architectural effect of this plant, I felt everything was expanding, reaching out in the darkness of myself, making sense. There seemed to be no limit to the extent of this solar intelligence. There is no place where I am not! I boomed out at some point and shocked myself.

“Oh, that’s very exciting!” exclaimed Mark. “I want to see that plant!”

This was our first energetic readout * - a speaking out of the plant’s inner essence as perceived and embodied by ourselves. It is an art this kind of speaking, and it formed the creative basis of all our practices. It also took a fair deal of practice to get it “right”. We are not used to speaking in this way, but the plants assisted our rediscovery of this archaic oracular art. And not just in ourselves. When we began working with other people it formed the principle part of our flower dialogues. Everyone was always surprised by what just came out of their mouths, by what they just knew, but had not articulated until that point.

Just-knowing and not expressing can often impede our participation in life on earth. Thousands of books and knowledge systems get in the way of our direct engagement with the planet. Our small minds are made busy with maps and theories and expert views and scientific studies. But these things never satisfy the heart and soul, nor do they ever replenish our physical beings. St John’s wort is a major solar herb, and as such urges us, as creative beings, to leave the maps behind and explore the territory, to invent new ways of understanding and relating with nature, new ways to describe our journeys. To just-know about life is like knowing the theory of love but never loving. Millions have loved before us, written about love, sung about love, but this does not stop us from wanting to experience what love feels like for ourselves. The knowledge of flowers is the same. You can never have enough of this kind of knowledge. It expands through the universe of our consciousness, seeking out what is not yet expressed, shedding its light wherever it goes.


At the beginning of our inquiry our principle plants grew in certain locations in Oxford that informed the meaning of our visits. Dandelion was one of the principle herbs of the common land of Port Meadow, agrimony of the academic Botanical Gardens. St John’s wort grew in the city wastelands. Its distinctive branched form and its signature dotted narrow leaves, red flower buds and star-shaped yellow flowers could be seen everywhere, down every rough and abandoned trackway. At high summer you could enter the wastelands between the allotments and the railway station, and be completely inundated by a shimmering cloud of gold: the vibrant shine of St John’s wort, the deep yellow of Oxford ragwort, and the lemony hues of evening primrose and great mullein. St John’s wort even spread onto the tracks themselves, like a flowery carpet of sunshine.

It was here that I first realised that the wastelands of the earth could be restored by the flowering of ourselves. In fact would only be restored that way. We would not be able to regenerate anything outside ourselves, unless we regenerated our own inner landscapes, until our true wild natures had burst through the broken rubble and tarmac of our own artificial city-based worlds. As within, so without, as the ancients had once told us. It was in this wasteland, surrounded by gold and the scent of buddleia that I became inspired to make tinctures and salves and flower essences. I collected the flowers of St John’s wort in a jam jar of sunflower oil and put it on my sunny kitchen windowsill for two weeks, and watched how the red blood of the plant seeped into the oil. It was a superlative remedy for kitchen burns. It was here that I began to write a series of short monographs on plants so others could connect with their “medicines”. I started to put these plant essences and tinctures into small brown bottles, printed up their instructions on coloured card and give them to anyone who was interested. Generosity was one of the influences you felt down in the wasteland, in the company of those sun-infused plants.

The monographs contained each plant’s energy readout, its mythological connections, and its physical uses. Each plant had a key word. St Johns’ wort was expansion. Its ladder of light, its interdimensional radiance, expanded everything I looked at, and as I engaged in communicating what I “just-knew” my life expanded like a vast network into the collective. Like the flowers that grew out over the tracks, reaching out towards the path of the commuter trains, shimmering in front of the tired faces of the passengers as they stared out of the windows, at a figure standing there behind the fence, amongst a blaze of golden-coloured radiance.

St John’s wort is a major herb of the European pharmacopoeia. It has been used for centuries as a nervine, as a sedative, analgesic and anti-inflammatory, a powerful tonic for the whole nervous system, for those suffering anxiety and hysteria. Recently it has been extensively employed as a herbal remedy for depression. Before industrialisation St John’s wort was understood as a plant of the spiritual realms. Its Latin name hypericum means “over an apparition” referring to the flight of spirits who found it obnoxious. It was used in exorcism, to chase ghosts and malignant spirits from the possessed and the “mad”. Even though most people don’t “believe” in spirits anymore, it is still used to calm those suffering from nightmares and for frightened children who wet their beds in the darkness of night. One of the main properties of St John’s wort is that it blocks the actions of certain conventional chemical drugs. It was this quality of preventing the conventional and the artificial in ourselves, in order that the intelligence of the sun may properly shine through, that formed the basis of the plant card:

“St. John’s wort is one of the great sun plants: a supreme universal connector. If mugwort is the doorway for the moon or intuitive, oracular self, St. john’s wort is the doorway to the sun or radiant self. This radiance may illumine and release even the darkest conundrum within yourself and by extension bring lightness and a sense of liberty to everyone you meet.

The radial structure of this plant is a clue to its effect upon the energy body: a sort of inner “architectural” expansion. Its own energy is extremely fast and dynamic and can accelerate the frequency of whomsoever comes within its field. From this perspective it is easy to understand why St. John’s wort is used by herbalists for depression. However if you wish to go deeper, to work at the root cause of this depression - rather than just “fixing” its symptom by giving yourself a sunshine boost - you will find it is related to a lack of interconnectedness with the living beings of the sun and earth, and the alienation and isolation felt by most human beings when cut off from this primal relationship.”

I realised it was by aligning ourselves with the workings of the sun in the natural world that we could put life back into our hands. As people appeared to take part in our flower work and speak out what they just-knew, I saw how these activities restored a sense of self in everyone and released them from the unnatural constrictions of their social and biographical roles. There was something about the abstract intelligence of St. John’s wort that enabled us to see ourselves as part of a moving and meaningful pattern, rather than an accidental appearance in a story or dynastic drama we did not create. As we stood together in the wastelands, we connected with the field of St. John’s wort all around us - the sun in our faces, our feet on the earth, feeling ourselves like beacons of sun in an earth body.


The greatest work with this solar plant however did not happen in the wastelands or with other people but within myself. St. John’s wort traditionally banishes nightmares but when I took the tincture I had made from its flowers and leaves, it gave me nightmares. At the time the plant communications practice ran alongside our dreaming practice, and the appearance of flowers in our dreams informed an intrinsic part of our work with flowers. We would often put a flower or bunch of leaves by our beds, and notice what dreams* would occur the following night. St. John’s wort never failed to come up with some “dark conundrum”.

People respond differently to the energies of plants, especially when they are taken as a physical medicine. The nervine plants – skullcap, poppies, valerian - all have a distinctly downward effect on my own energy as a physic. Instead of making me feel relaxed, I feel lowered. Plants balance us. If you are highly strung and tense, nervines will bring you down.

However I was not in pursuit of plant remedies, but of plant knowledge. So I took the tincture anyway. Curious to know the structure and content of each plant’s world, I followed the tracks of St. John’s wort in my dreams. They led me down into subways of the dead, into terrifying shopping centre worlds where no green things grew, into building complexes, into broken lifts where you could be incarcerated for aeons. I moved through administration offices and crowded stations, where tramps and ghouls slept in corners. Sometimes I recognised an ex-colleague surrounded by a mounds of paper work, fixed in front of a computer. Sometimes I would find myself in the operations centre of these underground interdimensional places and cause great commotion. The alarm bells were always ringing. What did I do in these nightmare situations? I looked for ways out. I looked for the door where the sunlight fell. I found those doors and I ran out of them as fast as I could.

This is the mysterious action of the St. John’s wort herb. It helps us find our own ways out of dangerous artificially constructed realities and back onto the earth where the sunlight is. It is our incarceration in the mechanised world, the repetitive world of the mind, that makes modern people so depressed. Cut off from the revivifying earth-sun dynamics of nature, from natural interactions with one another, our spirits entropy, our hearts fail. St. John’s wort can show us the way out of these unnatural places, both as a physical medicine and as a spiritual presence. It is a key that opens a door.

There are often great blocks to taking this exit into a greater freedom, not just because we are used to living lives encased in architecture and surrounded by machines, but because in the darker recesses of our imaginations there lurk ancient fears we sense but cannot name. We are held back in all ways in ourselves: from exploring our own mysterious nature, our vast spirits, the intriguing and beautiful planet on which we dwell. Something stops us and keeps us quiet and in the shadows, hiding in subway corners like outcasts. Something stops us from going through the sun’s door. St. John’s wort, herb of midsummer, is connected to the “King” mysteries of the summer solstice. In the Celtic year this is the day on which the oak king, ruler of the ascendant year, “loses his head”, his crown, to the dark reign of holly or holm oak. In the manner of all sacred pagan kings he dies on behalf of the goddess. He dies on the sun cross of the year, so that life on earth can continue. St. John’s wort is named after John the Baptist who supplanted the oak king in the Christian era, and lost his oracular head to the “goddess” Salome.

These mythologies still resonate within us because they make sense of our being human in partnership with the land, in a way our materialistic and scientific focus on the planet will never do. But instead of looking at them, engaging in them, finding what they really mean beyond these barbarous acts, we push them away and so they remain in the dark conundrums of our dreams. Sometimes they terrify us. We could engage in them as modern people, in a way that does not demand our worship or sacrifice to any god or goddess, but first we have to face our cultural fears of being torn apart in the sun’s name for the good of the tribe, that if we prophesy or speak of our own divinity we will be betrayed and lose our heads to those in secular power. Everyone I ever met was trapped in some way by these terrors. The nightmares of sacrifice haunt us all and prevent us every day from speaking out what we just-know. That keep us from experiencing the ancient mysteries of the sun and earth that still move through our blood, through the arteries of the land, that will regenerate us all.

St. John wort is not about losing your head. It’s all about finding it.

In 1920 Alfred Watkins, merchant, amateur archaeologist and inventor of the pinhole camera, stopped his horse on the brow of a hill in Herefordshire and saw in one flash, the tracks and leys that spread across the islands of Britain, like a golden interconnecting web. He was 65 and spent the rest of his life charting those leys, working out their meaning and their origin, and communicating them to everyone he met. His book The Old Straight Track is a meticulous account of what he saw that day: a network of paths and beacon mounds, water places and mark stones, the workings of an ancient people who once aligned all their routes of exchange, across mountains and lakes and moors, according to the mysterious workings of the sun. These paths once existed everywhere on earth. They are the songlines of the world.

Sun visions are like that. You stand one summer’s day and look at the hills, or the plants, or the inner workings of yourself, and suddenly you just know. You only see this once, in a flash, though you might spend the rest of your life working out what you have seen. Once you have seen the pathways of the sun, you see them in everything. It makes sense of everything you experience, every relationship you have, every communication you have. The light extends into all parts of your life, expanding the knowing of yourself in this life on this earth, beyond all stories, all dramas, all nightmares. There is no place where I am not. Once you are aligned with these pathways in yourself, you are walking your way home. I could happily spend the rest of my life, showing you the solar tracks of the universe I once saw in a humble “weed” growing by a railway track in Oxfordshire.

IMAGES St John's Wort, Platform 2, Lowestoft station (photo Mark Watson) close up of the flower; (photo Mark Watson) drawing in the plant log (Charlotte Du Cann)

*FOOTNOTES 1) Energetic Readout Readouts are energetic messages that relay an encounter with a plant being. During our joint flower work we conducted these readouts after visiting the plants, in a simple and formal way, agreeing to a time and place in which there would be no interruptions from the outside world. In this hermetic space (usually around a table or in a small circle at one of our houses) we would take it in turns to speak of our experiences, to ask questions, make notes. Sometimes we placed a spring of the flower or tree in the middle of our discussions, or drank a tea of its leaves. 

A readout gives a composite picture of what was felt, thought, what was exchanged, what happened in the environment during the visiting. This includes a physical description - for example your response to the shape of the plant - however the main emphasis is not on visual appearance, but on its energetic effect. You are speaking from your memory of being within a plant’s vibrational field, and how you speak about your encounter is as important as what you say. Your mood, energy, the positions you take up in the dialogue, are all indicative of the plant’s innate character and qualities merged with your own.

As in seeings one person’s affinity with a plant may be stronger than another’s; some readouts can be longer and more complex than others. However since all these readouts are explorations, there is never any qualitative difference between them. Moreover they take place within the structure of the dynamic dialogue, which is to say, an intentional dialogue that is consciously building creative links with the plant world. So everyone who takes part is also present to ask questions and encourage whoever is speaking. All readouts are co-operative engagements. They are not one-person performances or lectures.

2) Dreams Dreams are a key way of finding out about the energy fields and intelligence of plants and how they respond to and interact with our own. From the beginning of the practice plants frequently appeared in our dreams, either spontaneously, or on invitation. They came as themselves, as abstract patterns, or in figurative form. Mostly you felt their influence within the scenario of the dream itself. In the dialogue that followed the dream, we would explore this territory, noting our positions, feelings, actions taken during the dream. If, for example, the plant was directing us in finding our way out of a certain situation, this was its medicine, its action, upon our physical, emotional or mental states.

Some plants operate more than others in the dream world and have a strong influence on our imaginations and have done so for thousands of years. Mugwort, a traditional, dreaming plant, came at the beginning of the inquiry in the form of a naked young woman who appeared in a prison cell. “I have beautiful breasts,” she informed me. When I paid attention to this fact, Mark and I found ourselves outside the prison. The situation it helped us out from was always indicative. I found once a group of lavender coloured beings in a public toilet, who offered to give me a hand. Lavender is a peerless cleanser for any kind of mental pollution - head medicine found in “the heads”. In a dynamic dialogue, as you energetically speak of your experience, such plant-human communications have a resonance and an impact that is hard to relay in words.

(From Chapter 3: Plant Communications in 52 Flowers That Shook My World - A Radical Return to Earth)

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