Monday, 3 February 2014

52 FLOWERS: 6 eucalyptus

sydney, australia 1997

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

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

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

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

And sometimes it clears other worlds too.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

iv glenelg, south australia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image Citation:(?) Dennis Haugen,

Image Citation:(?) Dennis Haugen,

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