52 Flowers - A Radical Return to Earth (Chapter List)
The life of a flower runs like a luminous thread within the living fabric of the earth. Each has its own language, its own structure and its own mystery. How 52 flowers weave through human life giving it beauty and meaning, is the subject of this book. Its narrative revolves around real-life experiences in the years 1991-2008, as the author sets out to explore the relationship between wild nature and the human heart and imagination, leaving an old city-based world behind.
The 52 flowers that appear during this exploration work as a lens through which to see events, people and places during a time of personal and collective transition. Encountered metaphysically, metaphorically, mythologically, they appear in the wild places and neighbourhoods of the world as catalysts, as bridges between the visible and invisible worlds, within deep time, in relationship our place on the earth.
Central to the text is a formal inquiry into wild plants and trees begun in Oxford in 1999, in particular those medicine plants that have guided human consciousness for thousands of years. The book’s eight chapters look at these flowers from different perspectives, as well as document the different methods of the inquiry. Each has its own theme and introduction.
INTRODUCTION: THE PATH OF FLOWERS
“People have walked these tracks towards the sun and sea for thousands of years. Their shape lives in our dreams, etched within our ancestral bones, in the structure of our voices; they run in lines across England’s chalky hills, through the deep forests and deserts and wild mountains of the world.”
Our brave new world has grown old: everything in nature has been explored, exploited, explained, the fabric of life itself appears to be unravelling, losing its energy, as rainforests crash in distant lands and freakish vegetables appear on our tables.The auguries are full of portent and signs; we watch the weather nervously outside the door. Are these the prophesied endtimes, or is it simply that our civilisation is transforming itself, letting go of old forms, its addiction to shiny illusions, the way all civilisations have done through time?
Who are we who walk through this uncertain world?
We are born, son or daughter, low or high-class member of a society and nation, with characters that fit or do not fit our position. And yet there is part of us that belongs to ourselves only, that resonates with a life beyond these social categories, beyond the history of cities and civilisation. That part connects us with the earth, with our originality, with the mysteries that surround us everywhere in nature. That part walks a certain path through the phenomenal world, sings its way through deserts and adversity, making meaning of every step.
The aboriginal calls this path the way of the ancestors, the mystic, the way of the Tao, or the way of the heart. Belonging neither to a tribe, nor to any spiritual tradition, I call it the solar path, a metaphorical term for a deliberate life that follows the path of the sun, that has echoes in the ancestral worlds, and yet there is entirely new.
For the writer this life begins when you enter the first log of the journey, when you begin to question yourself and the culture you were born into. The introduction begins as I read about the authentic life, the radical life in the works of Jean Paul Sartre and George Orwell as a schoolgirl under the holm oaks of the Suffolk coast and ends when I leave a fashionable London life of photographic shoots and parties, and take to the road. My decision to break free has been influenced by the appearance of a wild plant known as Mexican wormseed.
It has also been influenced by an ancient Underworld myth, the Greek myth of Persephone. Persephone, the Kore, goes into the underworld at the request of her grandmother, the earth’s wild ancestor Rhea. She enters Hades to rectify a world set out of balance by her domesticated mother, the corn-goddess Demeter. It is a myth that instructs us how to rebalance our over-civilised world; a myth of regeneration that tells us how to redeem our wildness and realign ourselves with the living systems of the earth. Persephone, falling, holds in her hands the poet’s narcissus; those who followed her path into the dark carried golden keys of mistletoe and a scarlet poppy.
With 52 flowers in my hands, I set out on the journey.
The first chapter follows the husk-breaking years, in which I leave the city with my fellow explorer, Mark Watson, to travel through the transformative geography of the Americas. The plants encountered during this time range from the Hopi sacred Cottonwood tree in Arizona, to the Eucalyptus of the aboriginal Australian outback, to the unknown Mexican herb, Epazote, that appears in a dream and inspires me to unhook myself from my former life as a journalist in London.
Travelling through these vast landscapes was as much about physical experience as it was the charting of an inner territory. Passionflower is about writing and the seeking of a place in which to begin the alchemical task of restructuring oneself, what Gary Snyder once called “hard yoga for Earth”. The plant is the exotic vine that scrambles over the Mayan ruins of the Yucatan rainforest.
TWO: BUSH SCHOOL
The wild ancestral lands provide the correct terrain for the initiatory rite of passage that connects the human being with the mysteries of life on earth. For modern people these direct encounters with the non-human worlds often happen with hallucinogenic plants. Sometimes known as “breaking open the head”, they shift our consciousness away from our industrialised mindsets, allowing us to experience the earth as a free-flowing and complex living system in which everything is related.
The chapter centres around key events with five hallucinogenic and narcotic plants and fungi that have opened “the doors of perception” for thousands of years: from the Morning Glory and its relationship to the pioneer discovery of LSD to the “plant teachers” Peyote and San Pedro in the sacred mountains of Mexico and Ecuador.
THREE: PLANT COMMUNICATIONS
The plant practice, begun in 1999 in Oxford, was a deliberate and structured inquiry into the inner and outer worlds of flowers and trees. This entailed both experiencing the wild plant in its natural habitat and exploring its inner workings by employing a technique used since archaic times to encounter the hidden worlds of nature - “so that imagination can meet memory in the dark,” as Annie Dillard once called this creative process.
This fieldwork and investigation into plant intelligence led us to develop dynamic ways of communicating with the land with other people. This chapter charts these early experimental exchanges, beginning with our first contact with the common Dandelions of Port Meadow and ending with a search for Suffocated Clover, a tiny member of the pea family first discovered by the poet, George Crabbe, as I gather material for a weekly botanical exhibition on his native Suffolk shore.
FOUR: MEDICINE ROOT
This chapter looks at the technology of plant medicine, as the practice explored ancient and modern ways of aligning our bodies and minds with the natural systems of the planet. Amongst the jars of the world’s apothecary - old world botanicals, new world power plants, Chinese remedies, Ayurvedic spices – we find new discoveries with six flowers, from the founding plant of the homeopathic system, the German monkshood to the Mexican folk remedy, the wild bignonia of the desert, Tronadora.
Our intent was to seek knowledge, not to become practitioners of medicine. However the inquiry did involve working with healers, making remedial tinctures, being called upon for spiritual and practical assistance and facing the challenges medicine people have had to confront for thousands of years. As I undergo my own world-shaking experiences with a dying friend, a Vietnam vet and a modern Huichol shaman, I reconsider what medicine might mean in the future and the path that was once called the good red road.
FIVE: SPEAKING BUSH
How can you hold a dialogue between people and the earth about the future? How can you find your own place within the territory? The bushes of this chapter are the shrubs and cacti in the high desert of the American South West. The text documents our struggles to hold a “council of all beings” with the thorny plants and the spiky humans of the borderlands, and centres around the making of two sets of original plant essences in the years 2000-1, The Speaking Bush and The Snake Sequence. It is both a salutation and a farewell to a land and a people we had visited for many years: to the Turtle Island of Bearberry, Red Root and Snakebroom and to the America of the Queen of the Night cactus and the Creosote, a bitter-leaved bush known as la gobernadora.
It ends with an equally bitter-tasting herb, the “end of the world” plant, Wormwood, as we return to live in England at the turn of the millennium.
SIX: TREE DIALOGUES
This chapter primarily takes place in Europe where trees have been revered since archaic times as the dispensers of wisdom, justice and right government.
As I sit beneath and within the boughs of the oracular world trees, I search for instructions on how to proceed. Within a thousand year old evergreen Holm Oak in France and among an equally ancient grove of English Oaks, I receive radical new insights into the correct relationship between human beings and the wildwood; under the Crack Willows of Oxford, where the Levellers once met, I am challenged to join an ecological protest group; under the Peepal tree of Sarnath, where the Buddha gave his first discourse, to see what it really means to release oneself from the wheel of karma. As I investigate the Celtic tree alphabet and the ancient solar calendar, I consider the role of ancestors and elders for the future, and the nature of time on the earth, what Jorge Luis Borges once called the greatest of all mysteries.
SEVEN: RADICAL FLOWERS
The Path of Flowers was a personal journey that took place in the collective world, one in which I learned everything about the radical nature of the heart and what it takes to become an independent female being at home on the earth. All the flowers of this chapter look at what prevents these native female qualities from flourishing within our present culture: our unwise diversions into fashion and entertainment, our forgetting of our ancestral heritage. The pieces are set around dramatic events during 2002-6 - connecting strands of Wild Cotton amongst deportees in Texas, resigning from a community theatre with a bunch of Stargazer Lilies in my hands – as well as strong reconnections with origin and deep time - Elder at New Grange in Ireland, Heather on the ancient heath of Dunwich.
Opium Poppy investigates the role of narcotics in the modern industrialised world and the alchemical process of “kitchen work” as I am employed behind the scenes and below stairs and find I can no longer talk at middle-class parties.
What is a wild plant beyond its botanical name, its use for human consumption or aesthetic pleasure? Can we enter the flower’s territory on its own terms, beyond our monocultural control of the “environment”? What effects do their fragrance, their medicine, their shapes have on our imaginations, on our memories? How do they enter our dreams?
The final chapter looks at the mind and the liberating power of our imagination. This was the final phase of our inquiry as we investigated flowers that inspired a new earth-based perception of the world: letting go of our restrictive “city minds” in a hot spring in a glade of Yerba Mansa in California, confronting terror and control in a lightning storm in a canyon of Golden Columbine in Arizona, in the Quaker House with the Magnolias of Mexico City; breaking spiritual illusion in Rishikesh with the Hibiscus of Kali and the Marigold of Shiva, in Dr Bach’s Oxfordshire garden amongst stands of starry-eyed Vervain. The book ends on the East Anglian Coast, as I walk home along the shingle, following the track of the flowering Sea Kale, and crossing the path to the sea where the narrative first begins.
As I near the journey’s end in the company of these deep-rooted ancestor plants of the seashore, I become aware that you can only know your own nature by being with wild nature itself. And that this is a question entirely of relationship. As the return to the heartland always is.
Welcome to my blog - a collection of pieces written for collaborative and grassroots media, including The Dark Mountain Project, This Low Carbon Life, Transition Network, EarthLines and One World Column (East Anglian Daily Times).