Wednesday 18 December 2013

52 FLOWERS: 25 agave

This is a story originally written for the Speaking Bush section of 52 Flowers That Shook My World. The section revolves around a series of plant essences made in the Arizona desert between 2000 -2001. It begins on the night we are about to leave for Mexico, where we will find ourselves waiting in a small town called San Miguel de Allende.

Four people are walking silently up the track with two dogs following behind. It is dusk and a full moon is rising as the light drains from the sky. We stumble over small red rocks and cacti, as we make our way towards the gully. When we arrive in front of the agave with its vast candelabra of flowers, there is an awkwardness in our silence I can’t quite fathom.

It is the end of Indian summer. These giant lilies now command the slopes with their tall stalks and ornate flower heads. Agaves are sometimes known as the century plant because they flower only once in their long lives. They build up reserves for this great event over years. The plant becomes like an artichoke with a heart full of ever-increasing sweetness, waiting for the right time. 

Then one day this heart bursts forth: a huge green pole shoots into the sky, branching into fifteen or more arms and unfurling gold honey-scented flowers beloved by hummingbirds, moths and long-nosed bats. Once the flowering is over the plant dies back: its cycle complete. Deep into the desert you can find ancient roasting pits where hearts of agave were once cooked and fed a whole tribe. You can use everything,  Fransciso once told me about his chief medicine plant: the leaves, the flowers, the root. You can even use its needles for acupuncture and to sew clothes. And use the agave fibre for thread.

The agave points towards the sky on the hillside, like the needle of a compass, directing our gaze towards the bony face of the moon. Here at the beginning, I think, and now at the end. I remember the plant on the red hill above the town, how it had anchored me, so I could chart my own position in a rocky time. It was the first plant to make itself known that summer, the first to come in a dream: its straight spire stem fusing with my back bone, pulsing with energy. I'm feeling the co-ordinates shift once more, as we prepare to leave. 

We stare upward into the flowers, the moon comes over the hill.  There is a stillness around us in the twilight, on the dark hill, but an unspoken turmoil inside.

I don’t make an essence with the agave flowers that night, but I do have a dream: in the dream a voice tells me:

It is important that the agave is the mother.


In Mexico, the agave or maguey has been used for centuries, not as a food but as a drink. The well of the plant, its heart, is filled with a sweet nectar known as aguamiel or honeywater. This is the foundation of pulque, the fermented drink that intoxicated the ancient tribes of Mesoamerica. When the European conquistadors overran the Aztec and Mayan empires, they brought to this once sacred drink their refined and barbarian arts: the beer-like pulque was distilled into the more potent mescal and tequila. Tequila became the national drink of Mexico. By the twentieth century this liquid silver and gold began to flow across its borders and found its way into the sophisticated quarters of every modern city. Now thousands of wild agaves are harvested each year to fuel not just the domestic cantinas, but all the cocktail bars of the world.

The goddess of the maguey is known as Mayahuel. Unlike most Aztec gods she is beneficent. She is so beneficent to humanity, providing them with rope, thread, paper, needles, food, soap, medicine, building materials and alcohol, she has four hundred breasts. Like most Aztec gods, this is a double-edged gift.


When we arrive at the town of San Miguel de Allende, everything looks the same. The old colonial buildings in their colours of rose and terracotta, ochre and acquamarine, their garden walls tumbled with bourgonvillea, the wonky cobbled streets, the shady square where people gather at dusk. Seven years ago it was a lively bohemian hang-out for long-distance travellers and American exiles. On the first morning we walk past the courtyard where we once lived. The gate is open and we peer in at the great tree that shaded the apartment block with its curly grilled windows and balconies. There is an old man there wandering about vaguely in baggy trousers:

“Can I help you?” he says, blearily. The place feels depressing, stagnant, unloved.
“I don’t think so, Mark,” I whisper fiercely, “Let’s go.”

Everything looks the same but it is not the same. Something has changed. Something I don’t understand yet. We go to the square where the urracas are gathering, like starlings in a European city, to roost for the night. Urracas are myna birds: they have oil-slick feathers and a wicked gleam in their orange eyes. And they like to talk. They have got so much to say to one another at the end of the day they take at least two hours to settle down within the thick shiny foliage of the trees. 

This is the time when the people of San Miguel also like to gather in the square - to talk, exchange news, before departing home for the night. The small bright-painted taco stands do a brisk trade. We go to sit below the trees and an American woman comes and sits beside us. And talks. She has got a big theory about the financial situation of the world which she wants to share. The non-stop talking is amusing at first but then it starts to be annoying. I like listening to the birds, but I don’t like being talked at by another human being as though I am not actually there.

Later we go to the bar where Mark had first met Robert and ordered him to join us in a play, and we drink our first tequila. A margarita, stone-cold, salt-rimmed, doused with the juice of tiny sweet-sour Mexican limes. It is shocking after so many dry months in the desert and runs like fire in our veins. We start to talk in that animated way you do after drinking tequila, or any distilled drink. But when the initial effect wears off, I feel an edge in the night creep in I had never felt before: an edge of darkness.

Walking back to the hotel, past the square where the birds are now quiet and sleeping, I realise I am in a different time. It is longer the time of singing with Ellen in our courtyard, of reading our books out loud in the café, of taking part in plays and workshops, of our great voyages to the mountains to take peyote, walking with Robert up the cobbled street, arm in arm, seeing women in men’s bodies and men in women’s, catching turquoise taxis with Julianne and Susie to the mineral baths outside the town. It is no longer the time of going to neighbourhood markets and coming back to my small kitchen to cook up great feasts, perfumed by chocolate and coriander, to lie down in the stormy afternoons, watching the turtle doves in the great pepper tree. 

It is a different time because I am different. But it is a different time for the town too. We left years ago, but something else has also gone.


Walking by is a move you make on the solar path. It was perhaps the first one I ever took. 

Before I knew Mexico and had just met Mark, he came by my London flat one day and said: Who’s Helen? 
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“There is a spirit here,” he said in that nonchalant way he had when talking about metaphysical things. “Quite naughty,” he added and looked across to an old oak desk, secreted in the corner of the room.
“I don’t know anybody called Helen,” I said.

I fell silent, imagining ghosts. I didn’t like the idea of my flat being haunted. I looked at the desk and it was at that point I realised he was talking about my grandmother.

“What is she doing here?” I asked.
“Perhaps you should answer that question yourself,” he replied.

We leave our spirits in places sometimes, and sometimes we need them back. Sometimes our spirits long to return to a place, but do not know how to proceed. The desk belonged to my maternal grandmother, who had been born in Lancashire and lived her married life on the edge of the Yorkshire moors. Who was this person, outside my small child’s memory of her? I caught a train North to find out. 

I went to the house where she had once lived, which I had never seen. I stood in front of this ordinary suburban house and looked into its neat garden. That’s when I knew what to do. I walked into the town and booked a room in the inn, and spent all day up on the moors. I needed to get in touch with something, I wasn’t sure what. I just knew I had to walk the territory my grandmother had once walked.

It was windy and grey up on the moor, but within its wide open expanse I felt at home. It was as if something unwound in me. I lay down in the springy folds of the heather, drank water from a dark brook, gazed up into the sky, felt immersed in the elements, my head full of sky and air. It felt good to be out of the city. I walked for hours in all directions. I did not meet anyone. As I walked around the land, in all that space, I thought about the person who shared my name, whom I hardly knew. When I returned to London the next day, something had shifted. Helen had gone.

After that I took to walking by places that had once held me in their arms: the country cottages of my childhood, boarding school classrooms, basement flats I had shared, terraced houses where ex-lovers still lived. I walked past them deliberately, but without a plan, sometimes pausing to look at the new painted door, or a familiar tree now in bloom. I took note of whatever feelings or thoughts arose, a detail my eyes caught, the sharp inner recollection as it surfaced. Most of these walking by sessions were uneventful. Sometimes I felt troubled as I stood there, or had dreams. Often I wept for no apparent reason, and afterwards felt clear. Whatever happened during the visits, there was always a feeling of release afterwards, of old nostalgias dropping away. What remained was the spirit of things. The essence of places and time.

My naughty grandmother sat in her Shropshire bungalow in a Bohemian black turtleneck, teaching my cousins to smoke cigarettes. She played Liszt on the piano, painted watercolours and invented a host of imaginary ailments, so that you knew never to ask how are you? on the telephone, or the talking would never stop. She called herself Helen, but her real name was Charlotte Ellen. Ellen was a maid’s name, she said. After she died, she led me back to the wild places, to the wide expanse of moorland under the Northern sky where her spirit had once roamed free. That was a different grandmother.

You walk by: something goes, but something else remains.

The second margarita is served in a hotel by the municipal gardens where English-speaking films are sometimes shown. Tonight there is a documentary directed by the artist, Julian Schnabel, about the Cuban poet, Reinaldo Arenas, called Before Night Falls. It is a story about a man who loved nature and freedom and, like many radical poets, fell foul of the petty bourgeois nationalists and their repressive regime that followed the revolution. Arenas survived the horror of the Havana gaol by writing letters on behalf of his fellow prisoners, and later escaped to live and die in poverty in New York from AIDS.

All the way through the film an American couple are talking behind us, their voices grating and sharp in the darkness, interrupting the film:
“Shhh!” I tell them. At first politely, and then annoyed. “Be quiet”! I say loudly and glare at them.

Eventually the couple leave, but the atmosphere is jangled afterwards: an edge of darkness before night falls. On our way back to the hotel Mark and I stop by the square and drink hot chocolate and thick maize pancakes, known as gorditas. The Mexican women sit in front of their napkin-covered baskets with flowers in their shiny dark hair, smiling.  It feels good to be out in the open air.

Mexico is not a light place. Its long history of conquest, inquisition, genocide and revolution, are as dark as any modern nation’s. There were dark things in the gringo quarters too when I lived here. There were paedophiles, alcoholics, failed Hollywood movie stars, disturbed Vietnam vets, bankrupts, drug addicts. Seven years ago, I didn’t notice them. These dark things were covered over by our singing in the cafes and our theatrical performances. By the self-absorption in our writing and travelling. But they were also covered over by something else. San Miguel was a stronghold in those days for new age spirituality. While the Mexican townspeople gathered in the ornate turquoise churches, the gringo community came together in spiritual gatherings, ecumenical services, discussion groups for 'lightworkers'. Amongst the congregations were healers, bodyworkers, horse whisperers, edge dancers, leaders of drumming circles, new men and women who ran with wolves. A lot of adventurous metaphysical work went on behind these colonial walls. Some of these things I took part in. This was before I had come to my own conclusions about the new age among the red geraniums in Santa Fe.

In 1993 the American Dream was not just about materialism, it was the spiritual dream of the world. Most seekers at that time believed that America, with its exploratory, future-looking spirituality and native tribal heritage, would lead the way in a quiet revolution of consciousness. But seven years later, as I walk by, there are no longer notices for these paradigm-shifting events. The meetings are not happening. Some of the people we knew then still lived in these coloured houses with their orange trees and tiled fountains, but they are talking in a different way. The preacher who once spoke luminously about god is talking about land rights. The owner of the café where we once sang and gave readings is talking about the prostitutes in Cuba. The dress shop owner who looked after our cat is talking about witchcraft and dangerous neighbours. No one is talking about poetry anymore.

You hold on to these spiritual dreams for a long time, hoping one day they will come true. You hold on to the idea of an 'American' future as beneficent and evolutionary, but that does not mean the idea is real. You held on to the idea of your grandmother, when she was someone else entirely. She lived in a house which was silent, unknown to you. But that did not mean she was not there. 

In the Mexican town where the gringos live, something is wearing thin and the talking is not covering it up. A skull is showing through. Underneath the suburbia of my grandmother’s life, the bones of a landscape were appearing: granite, shale, gneiss, basalt, flint.

Above our heads, the full moon rises over the rooves of the town in a clear and endless sky. “I call it the summer of death,” said the American teacher who used to sing with Mark in this cafe. We were on our way to have supper in a house where Mark once lodged,

Before there was talk of paintings and spirit in this house, now there is talk of lawsuits and property,  about a young man dying. The kitchen feels enclosed and full of shadows. It is not personal this moment: it feels bigger than that, as if this once-bright lifestyle had become endarkened, was downgrading, fragmenting. On hills above the town the gringos who were once Bohemians are building villas, with maid-service and swimming pools. But down in the square the dream is not holding. I sip my third margarita out of a sticky blue glass and find myself unable to speak. When I wake up the next day, I feel stiff and poisoned and decide not to drink tequila anymore.


It’s important that the agave is the mother means the agave needs to flower. Without the flower life does not continue. The moth does not arrive in the night to drink its copious nectar; it is not pollinated, it does not set seed. The agave does not flower when its heart is ripped out to make tequila.

Agave is a terrifying plant to consider in Mexico. Its thorns were once used to prick the skins of sacrificial victims - known as flowers because of the blood that spurted from their chests when their hearts were ripped out. As these cultures degenerated and the rites in their city temples grew more frenzied and mad, priests demanded thousands of the people’s hearts be given to satisfy the insatiable lust of their god, Huitzilopochtli, There could no more brutal and literal expression of the 'spiritual' price civilisations exact from the human heart. You could be deceived by the temple statues of sorrowing saviours and dancing devas in other countries, but when you look at the carvings of Mexican gods with their spiky and horrifying faces it is impossible to gloss over their barbarity. Even the abundant Mayahuel is hard to look at with her four hundred breasts.

What is not hard to look at are the real flowers of Mexico. For in late September there are flowers everywhere: morning glories tumble down the walls in midnight blue, sky blue, scarlet and magenta; lion’s ears, wild tobacco and trumpet vines spring exuberantly between the cracks of every building; sunflowers and devil’s claw overtake every vacant lot. A vase of fragrant tuberose permeates our rooms in the old hotel. We talk about our dreams on a balcony under a poinsettia tree, and spend each day walking by, without a plan. Mark collects coral beans from the street and puts them in his pocket, takes photographs of prickly poppy and castor oil plants. I step across carpets of wild dahlia, zinnias, and marigolds on my way to the mineral baths. In the cool courtyard of the bellas artes school I sit with my notebooks, surrounded by monstera leaves and bamboo. 

We are released into endless balmy afternoons: from the hard martial grip of the American desert into the warm and bountiful arms of Venus.

On one of these afternoons I go to a lecture on cosmic time at the library. It takes place in a room where an artist is quietly at work painting a mural of Quetzelcoatl, the feathered-serpent of the morning star who was banished from the Mesoamerican pantheon, because he had no taste for sacrifice. The Aztecs and the Maya are famous for their intricate calendars of cosmic time which revolve around the axis of Venus. When the conquistadors came they forced everyone to live their lives according to linear time – the time of the clock – rather than original or ancestral time, thus making their rigorous balancing of past and present unnecessary. 'Now' became this monodimensonal moment, rather than a 'now' in which all time and all dimensions are held. 

In linear time there are no cosmic consequences. But in Mexican culture, the lecturer informed us, the creation does not begin with birth but with death. Life comes from the bones of the ancestors. There are always consequences. When someone in the audience asks the lecturer about the ancestors he looks nervous and starts to backtrack. It is all right to talk about ancestors as if education has got them under control, filed under history and mythology, but not as if they were still here. Not as if they were real. The conquest destroyed them, he repeated, several times.

But we all knew, even though we could not say this to each other, that the conquest had done nothing of the sort. We were in Mexico after all, not the United States.

We get nervous because at some point the agave has to flower. At some point you have to pay. At some point the ancestors say the past is not in balance with the present and if you don’t do something about it, they will. All ancient peoples know this and make the balance in their own ways, whatever the conquest says.

In 1993 I did not go to fiestas, but in 2001 I do. The patron saint of the town, San Miguel, the archangel Michael, slayer of dragons, is celebrating his victory at the end of September. The gate leading to his church is covered with marigolds and tonight great rockets will be thrown into the air and bonfires burned in his honour. By early morning the streets are lined with people, craning their necks, up and down the stony hills, as the procession winds about the town. 

Down the street it comes: a band of musicians and floats, and suddenly you see scores of men and women, dancing with feathers like the rays of the sun coming from their heads, led by enormous puppets with large and small heads that seem familiar, but why I cannot say. It is a parade of all parades. As the procession goes by everyone breaks out cheering in a wild jubilation. Huge smiling beings, hoisted on great poles above our heads, bob above us. They are dancing with each other, in coloured skirts, horn-headed, whirling, sometimes diving into the crowd, leading the great snake of rainbow-coloured, feathered people through the streets. 

“Who are they, Mark?” I ask.
“They are the ancestors!” he replies and laughs. 

And it seemed to me in that moment as if we had not laughed for a very long time indeed.

52 Flowers That Shook My World - A Radical Return to Earth is published by Two Ravens Press (£9.99).  For further info contact

Images: agave flower stem in Southern Arizona (CDC); Mayahuel  from the Códice Borbónico (1530s Spanish calendar and outline of life in the New World (wikicommons); graveyard at Heptonstall, Yorkshire (CDC);Mexican sunflowers in the street in San Miguel de Allende (Mark Watson);marigold-studded Cathedral gate for the feast of St Michael, San Miguel de Allende (MW)

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