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.

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