“Oh, spleen, spleen!” sang a small vivacious woman in the basement kitchen of the Oxford house. We had just returned from Arizona. Miche was from Africa, and our paths were about to cross in a very unusual way.
“I am constructing an altar to the spleen at a food conference,” she explained.” I’m an artist.”
“Do you know about red root?” I asked her, “The ceanothus bush? It’s the best medicine for the spleen I know. Especially if you have a difficulty with your mother.”
“Oh, you’re witchdoctors!” she laughed. “Where can I find some?”
“Round the corner,” I said. “It’s in flower right now.”
“Come on, I’ll show you,” I said. So we set off into the dusk at a fearsome pace with a pair of kitchen scissors.
Miche was a high-performance cook as well as an artist and she lived round the corner in a studio piled high with books and bowls and cooking pots. She ran an outfit called Kitchen Ritual, and created all manner of culinary and environmental art events, from ecological rite-of-passage feasts to workshops in community kitchens. As we went off in search of the blue ceanothus flowers, she began telling me about the events she had started based on the five elements of Chinese medicine. She had already held a picnic in the summer based on the fire element of the heart in Port Meadow. But she wasn’t sure how to proceed with the spleen dinner and the season for it, harvest or Indian summer, was drawing to a close.
“Oh!” I said, “What a lovely idea! Let’s do them together.”
So we did.
They were called the Organ Dinners. Miche brought her kitchen ritual, we brought the plants. She brought her artist’s flair, we brought our spiritual perspective. We were a good team. We invited people we knew in Oxford. There were usually about seven of us and everyone would bring food based on the season and the flavour associated with the organ. Sweet, sour, bitter, pungent. We dressed in the colours of the elements and took turns to host the events as the year turned. I brought Eliot Cowan’s book, Plant Spirit Medicine, based on his Five Element acupuncture practice. After the dinner we would sit in a circle and ask the questions about the element that ended each chapter. Earth, water, metal. In this way we put our attention on the organs as seats of consciousness and connected with the energies of the season. After each event Miche, Mark and I would look at everything that had taken place with our artist and medicine eyes and cohere our findings. Like everything else we embarked on in these years, all these meetings were an experiment. We did not know where they would take us.
The organ dinners took place in Miche’s studio flat with its African-style ancestral fire. The meals were always high-spirited, noisy, full of colour, zest and energy; the food was delicious, as most people we knew at that time were cooks.
The speaking circles were more difficult. I knew from experience that you can’t do earth medicine shows without finding a devil or two hiding in the cooking pot. Each dinner was challenging in its own way, and brought up the emotions held by each organ: sadness, grief, fear. The spleen dinner brought up mother issues, the lung dinner father issues, the kidney dinner childishness, sex and an underlying primordial turbulence. But we weathered these storms in the name of art and communication. Until it was my turn to host the dinner for The Liver. Liver is governed by the element of wood, the element for Spring. It is the organ of the warrior.
I sent out the invitations on green cards and suggested everyone brought a twig from a tree and be prepared to talk about it as part of the evening. It was to be held the day after the Spring Equinox, after Miche arrived back from Africa and we returned from Wales.
At Isis Lock there stand some fine alder trees.This is the year we have begun working with the Celtic tree alphabet and late March is the time of fearn, the alder. A letter known as “tear of the sun” in reference to its position within the equinox, the time when the year shifts out of the watery depths of winter, and into the light realms of spring. It is also the tree of Bran, and that afternoon I went to these alders to remind myself of his warrior-seer communications, when I came to sit by these trees at the lock where the canal meets a tributary of the Thames. I used to like sitting there at dusk watching everyone walking home along the towpath, the swans and ducks gliding by. Sometimes there would be a tramp sleeping under the bridge. But we did not mind each other’s company.
Alders grow by the bridges, guardians of all the water places. They stand tall, with their straight up trunks. Although they seem dark their bare branches have a fine purplish sheen, and if you look closely at their catkins which follow the willows’ in February or March, you will find they are all the colours of the rainbow. This is a tree famous for its dyes (red from its bark, green from its flowers, brown from its twigs) and if you cut the tree, it bleeds red like a man’s blood. Once highly sought after for its long endurance under water, to construct harbours and bridges and underwater support for the sea-cities like Venice, its wood still has many domestic uses: turned into clogs, chairs, spinning wheels and cigar boxes, charcoal, fishing nets and brooms. It’s an exciting tree. But you would have to have an interest really in alders to appreciate their useful beauty. And perhaps, like me, you would have to have some affinity with the sombre, a familiarity with the dark descent, the deeper places, with time and structure, with the ancestral realms of Bran where he waits, like the ferryman, in between the living and the dead, between the dark and the light part of the year, holding the doorway of the equinox open.
I stood by the bridge under the tasselled dark tree, at the final lock before the Oxford terminal and the Thames, and looked into the water. A rat was floating belly up. For some reason I thought of Eliot’s poem The Waste Land, of the fisher king fishing in a dead canal, of lands that should have been set in order, of a culture that is fragmented, not connected, dying.
Then there was a great silence inside myself and outside myself. I looked along the canal, at the mud that was thick and churned on the towpath, at the woodsmoke that curled up from the narrow boats moored alongside it. A robin sang amongst the bare trees and then there was silence again. I waited in the frigid, almost-spring air and suddenly I heard the words:
I jumped in shock, my mind racing to ask: what is over? Who says it’s over? But somewhere inside I knew already. So I didn’t ask. I ran my hands softly down the tree’s straight trunk and carefully cut a sprig of alder to take back for the table - a sprig that held last year’s cones and this year's coloured catkins and emerging shoots of green.
The fourth organ dinner is as usual exuberant. There are noisy cheerful greetings at the door, and great relish as we share our spring-based dishes: shoots and leaves, sharp and sour tastes, steamed beets, olives, live yoghurt, cleansing, vigorous fuel for the liver and blood. Everything is green and lively, Will’s extraordinary nettle soup, Mark’s fragrant sauce made from Mexican tomatillos. We exchange news and then, impatient for business, I suggest we talk about our trees.
At first everything flows: Will talks enthusiastically about the ash, Mark soberly about the silver birch, Miche lightly about the flowering quince. But then I take up the alder sprig and start to talk in a big sombre voice. As I begin talking I notice that no one is really interested in what I am saying, but somehow this is not making any difference to my flow of words. I continue with an alarming amount of energy. I just can’t stop speaking about this tree, about descent and ascent, about water, about bridges, the equinox, warriors. Everyone starts shuffling in their seats and yawning. I am way too intense. I am remorseless. What has got into me?
I am pushing for something. What am I pushing for? Something deeper, more transformative, more real than this evening’s meal, this artistic happening, but my companions do not want to go that way. Everyone has arrived late and has some other party to go to. One guest even telephoned beforehand to ask me whether he should come here, or not.
“That really is not my responsibility!” I snapped.
Oh, it was very wood! Right from the beginning.
I was pushing for something and all the time knew that something was not going to happen. Pushing is the energy of the wood element - branching out, moving forward, getting out of stagnation, growing upward and out for new life. An energy that often translates as anger, the thwarted emotion of the liver. As I talked I could see the energy for these kinds of meetings was running out. Asking those five element questions felt suddenly artificial and creaky, as if we were just going through the motions. Everyone looked bored, even Miche.
How do you feel when your plans are thwarted?
How do you feel in windy weather?
How is your sense of direction?
What new ideas or concepts have you come up with?
What are your dreams in life? Your hopes for the future?
We had been able to participate in the family organs: the father lung, the mother spleen, the child kidney, but this is wood warrior was a problem. It was something nobody knew about. Something that lives outside the family house, outside the artist’s studio. The warrior in the archaic world is the activating force within the human collective. He is not a romantic knight, or a warlike barbarian, but an initiated member of the human tribe. And the liver is about his initiation.
No one signs up for initiation. It comes towards you from the outside, foisted by mystery traditions and bush schools, by witchdoctors and medicine men, the business of elders and ancestors. If you are a modern person, you sometimes fall into initiating circumstances by accident, and spend years working out the subtle ramifications of your strange experience. But whatever way it happens, your self-obsessed consciousness is violently opened up to the primal forces, the ancestral forces of the planet and you are made aware of what being human really means on the earth. You are in this process wrenched away from your home and pushed into the collective. After this process, you become adult, sober, an individual who is an intrinsic part of the group. You have duties towards life. You are not the same person you were before.
I am looking at these modern men, holding my sprig of alder. Not just these men, but at all men I have met here in Oxford, living on the alternative edge of our civilisation. As I talked I realised these men were not like the A girls. They had not participated in any of our plant or dream work. We had met in the world of action, in the kitchens where they worked, in political meetings. We had climbed trees together but we had not spoken with the trees together. Men often have a strong affinity with trees, with the wild places, but their inner lives can be more conventionally shaped, more mentally focussed, which means they are often wary of anything spiritual. Their ambition is in the constructed world, rather than in the world of relationships, or centred on their inner happiness. These men are not for the establishment, and yet somewhere they hold allegiance to the establishment, because they yearn, like all men, to succeed, to belong, and the civilised world has not been made by deep, mature, feeling, wildwood warriors. But Bran is a male underworld god and he gives no quarter to this upperworld. When he brings his sprig of alder, he brings a kind of initiation few modern men ever get to experience.
As I speak a gulf begins to widen between us. It was not there before. Initiation makes a bridge between the world of spirit and the world of matter. Unless this bridge is forged you live your life in the world of matter. No matter how intelligent, how ecological, how radical you are, your existence is governed by objects and intellectual facts. You have not the spiritual technology to cross the river. Your will, your ego, your intellect, your drive for sex and power, keeps you within the world of the senses. What does it mean to be a warrior? It means you have allegiance to the mysterious spirit of life; you wrestle with the desires of the world, take certain responsibilities on behalf of the earth. It is a mood and an attitude. Something breaks through your old world and teaches you this mood: the encounter with peyote, the entry into the hermitage, years of travel, the desert, the practices, the solar path. You learn to build a bridge across the water.
One day you cross that bridge.
I am speaking in the alphabet of the trees and can no longer reach my companions. I am speaking at the spring equinox, and unwittingly influenced by its requirements. In the centre of the table, amongst the dishes, is a sprig of gorse, the female vowel ohn that signifies this solar turn of the year, the moment of ascent into the light, as the autumn equinox, is the moment of descent into the dark. The gorse bursts into flame in March, its shocking gold flowers scald the eye as it sets all the wild commons and scrublands on fire. It would have been easier to have invited the A girls. They would have been teased by the men, played dumb, brought ease and fluidity into the room, taken off the edge of this sharpness. But that would be not to face this moment, governed by the gorse, prickly, bright, uncompromising.
The young men regard me, like three fair-haired brothers of a folk-tale, ten years between them, at the gorse-covered edge of the solar path. The trouble is I like them, far better than the A girls with their princess self-obsession, and I always have. I like their intelligence, their cameraderie; the way they make me laugh. I feel a freedom roaming about the city in their company. But freedom is not what I see with the alder and the gorse held now in my sights.
The liver dinner falls under my command. As the commander you sit in an uneasy chair. In all these organ dinners, there comes a point where the exuberance wanes, and those who lead them, become still. We realise we are facing the challenge of the element in question. We are no longer at a party, we are involved with a medicine, the impersonal energies of the Chinese system. All around you you experience what needs adjusting and transforming in the social world in which you find yourself. You feel incapable of the task. Those who went before me faced this dilemma with the elements of earth, metal, water. Now it is my turn, with wood.
The warrior sees the world beyond the five senses, informed by the organ that transforms all ingested poisons, discerns what is of benefit and what is not. This room we sit in, full of warmth and light, piled high with cooking pots and books, appears like an island; outside the house the rivers of the city flow, the underworld rivers of Lethe and the Styx, the gargoyles amongst the towers gape and grin, the leaves of the tree rustle quietly at the end of Isis lock. The warrior gazes at the people before him, unbound by personality, by a common narrative; feels the darkness of the night pressing inward. This is no longer Charles who steered us downriver towards Limehouse docks, nor Arthur leaping carefree into the lake of Cader Idris. These are not the men in whose houses I have been generously sheltered. These are men with the ghosts of the machine world all about them, pressured by the academic institutions of the world, men indentured to the wheel.
In the cities of the world, I have already borne witness to the brightness of men broken upon the wheel, already been shown the fate of spirits trapped in their constructions. What business do I then have lingering in this kitchen, wishing for a good time? I have seen men, passionate in their defence of the earth, with their fiery spirits thwarted, wasting their life-force in antagonism, battling against the system, burned-out and suffering, eating ashes. I have lived in the world that praises only the hard and the heartless, mother’s boys, good pupils, company men, that calls this anger and frustration a psychological problem. But it is not: it is the energy of wood. The energy pushing for initiation and spiritual growth. What movement then is required by me?
The tree extends into space, wild and free, unconstricted by the architecture of this world, bursts through its mental abstraction, its economic systems, its chimerical illusions, its roots reaching deep into earth and water. Holding the alder sprig, your feet moored like roots into this physical earth, you become connected with or to the ancestral earth and its implacable laws; your warrior eyes open and see, not just in linear time, but in original time, all-at-once time. You see in the room the world of the city, as it floats above the earth, sucking its energy for its own designs. You are watching an ancient machinery in action, as it freezes the living beings before you, holds their hearts in its heraldic grasp. It is a sobering moment. Before everyone has been chattering and laughing, now there is silence and a cold and stiff feeling in the room; people are restless, wanting to go to parties, to have a drink; you are not chattering, you are speaking from the depth of your ancestral being. The solar year is turning. It is an exact moment. Precise, clear, severe.
Either side of me sit Miche and Mark. They hold a certain commitment, as creators and directors of these dinners.We observe everything that happens around us. It is all of our difficulty at this point. It would have been good if we could have met, all six of us, in the same spirit of enterprise but the fact of the matter is we have not. The manufactured world requires everyone to talk above themselves, as if death does not exist, as if the solar year does not exist, as if this organ dinner has no medicine, the spiny bush with its shiny flowers has no meaning. But when you hold the alder, you speak its wild language and you are responsible for what you see and your allegiances. The action that you take at this moment has consequence. Nothing can alter what you see.
So I fall silent at the head of the table. A river runs through the room and we stand on either bank. The bush and the tree divide us. Robert Bly’s book about male initiation, based on the archaic folk-tale, Iron John, speaks about the wild man who takes young men away from the family compound and brings them into the male mysteries. Boys needs older men to push them down into the darkness of the kiva, out into the wilderness into their vision quest, he says. Except of course, in modern life, there is no kiva or wilderness or wild man; we do not live in tribes that consider the sacredness of the sun or earthly life. None of us chose to wield the circumcision knife. We live in times of transition: so we have to initiate ourselves, become our own ancestors, our own elders, make our own way. The poet imagines that fathers are capable of instigating this alchemical work, so their young men can grow like trees, become guardians of this earth, rather than spending their life-force constructing and consolidating power. But the patriarchs and mentors of the civilised world are not the wild men of the woods or warriors. My companions before me already carry the karmic sins and ambitions of such men upon their shoulders. Already they are sold downriver.
How should we then proceed? When I can cross into their world, but they cannot enter mine? To be initiated demands the loss of innocence. It demands the adolescent who runs away, runs rampage, runs eternally back to the compound, to the playground, to his student life, is no longer given any quarter, any place in ourselves. In short it demands that all of us grow up.
Because the alder sprig changes everything. Something that is not human, not domestic, not educated comes into an established world and shakes it. Something that smacked of the hairy one, the one who lives under the water, the wild wood, the other, was entering our lives at that moment demanding all our adolescent friendships came to an end. You want these men to follow your lead, but they are not with you. They will never be with you. The fact is the solar path is not about others. It’s what you have to do that matters. And I had to break away. It was the movement of the warrior. I had to cross the equinox bridge.
You are alone, the alder was saying to me, down by canal. It’s over. If you want to restore this wasteland, you have to restore yourself first. This work of restoration is a self-only task.
The alder, the letter fearn, marks a bridge in time in the cycle of the year. A pivotal moment, when you leave the nourishing dark, the months of incubation, of dreams, of building a foundation, and push upwards into the light. In the heavenly map this is the moment you cross over from the watery world of the cosmic fish in which you are connected to everyone and enter the ram’s territory of fire, the singular warrior’s field of Aries. When you leave the karma of a cycle of time behind and push forward into what you do not yet know. Tonight, as I let fall the alder twig, I know it is the end of the line. I have no choice but to go through the lock, to leave the city canal behind me.
The alder is called tear of the sun because to live in the sun’s radiance means you depart the dark waterlands which have been your home for so long. You shed a tear because you loved your companions of those experimental underworld years, and you are a social creature. You loved the ease of communication; you loved these exuberant dinners. The feeling of being together in a band, of sharing the same house, of going up mountains together, cooking together, laughing together. And you loved yourself amongst them, in all that gaiety and conversation.
But you love the earth better. And it is because your allegiance is to the earth that you go forwards, push out into the river, into the future, alone.
Unpublished flower from Plant Communications chapters in the original version of 52 Flowers That Shook My World - A Radical Return to Earth
Paintings: Alder/Bridge/flight by Lucy Voelker (by kind permission of the artist)