(Note: This is not the introduction in the book, but a description of how I went about writing it)
Plants are central to the public debate about the ecological survival of the planet and the people. They are core to our experience of being alive, especially in the islands of Britain that hold more species of plants than any other in the world. We are completely dependant on plants for air and food and yet, as modern urbanised people, we know almost nothing of our essential relationship with them.
I began 52 Flowers That Shook My World as an inquiry and as a practice: how could we enter the flowers' territory on their own terms? What effects do their fragrance, their medicine, their shapes have on our imaginations, on our memories, our dreams?
I wrote the book in 2009, as a memoir of a decade spent immersed in the world of flowers and trees. To answer these questions meant working with the flower as a metaphor, in the way a poet looks at a tree as a bridge between the visible and invisible worlds - Edward Thomas looking at aspens at a crossroads, or Seamus Heaney at a hawthorn tree in winter.
It meant paying attention to plants mythologically, to their place within deep time, in relationship to the life of the spirit and our place on the earth, the way Robert Graves considers the ancient acacia or the Celtic holm. It meant encountering the flower, eye to eye, metaphysically, in the way Annie Dillard comes to meet a weasel in a split second, or the neighbourhood of a creek during the cycle of the year.
It meant taking a medicine journey with a desert bush in old Apache country, dreaming with the aboriginal eucalyptus in Western Australia, defending a patch of willow trees with a group of activists in Oxford, sitting beside the sea-kale at Sizewell power station, while the police patrol the beaches. It meant climbing birch trees in the winter cold and sycamore trees in spring rain, walking the lane at midnight listening out for the nightingale in the blackthorn.
It meant collecting bearberry and red root in the desert canyon; travelling with peyote in the mountains of Mexico and liberty cap mushrooms in a Buckinghamshire beechwood. It meant walking through a garden at night in Norfolk stoned on hemp flowers and having a rethink about narcotics, having a rethink about everything, using the flower as a lens through which to understand events, people, places, what it is to be a writer, to be female, to belong. It meant tasting the bitterness of wormwood in high summer, at the end of the millennium, at the end of a long road, as the world falls about our ears.
When I began the task I wanted to look at flowers the way Georgia O’Keefe once looked at the colour of the sacred datura, the way Gaston Bachelard looked at the shape of a bird’s nest, and bring a sense of the grandeur and mystery of being alive in physical form.
I wanted to know if a modern citydweller could recover their aboriginal ability to communicate with the earth; whether my fashion editor’s eye, trained to look for beauty and significance on the Paris catwalk, could do the same amongst the East Anglian heath and waterlands; whether as a writer I could write of the mysteries of nature, intelligently, pragmatically, without being dismissed as hippy, pagan, out-there, new age, or simply crazy; if I could transmit the depth of feeling you experience lying unmoored in a sea of bluebells in a wild wood, the expansion of mind you experience contemplating a monkshood flower in a historical botanical garden. I wanted to find out if it was possible to reconnect with our own ancestral dreamtime, whether we could live symbiotically with the earth as the Gaia theorists suggest. Whether, in fact, we could as a collective get back on track.
Most of all I wanted to experience the world of flowers fully, intensely, rigorously, the way you throw yourself into childhood, or first love affairs, which is to say utterly; to know desert rocks and juniper trees like Edward Abbey, to know the apothecary of wayside flowers like Nicholas Culpeper. I wanted to go into the world of nature the way Roland Barthes once went into modern society, sideways, surprisingly, to hold a flower and shake out its meaning, and in turn, let myself be shaken. It was, as it turned out, a radical move, because when I immersed myself in the fabric of these wild places, swung up high amongst the ancestral trees, I found myself coming to certain conclusions: about life on earth, about our Western world, about the future.
In 1991 at the age of 35 I sold all my possessions and went travelling in the Americas. I went in a moment of exuberance. I had until that moment lived an ordinary life, a bohemian city life, the hard-working, highly social life of a journalist, though in the part that people once called the soul I always sought an elsewhere, my own uncharted territory. The mountaineer dreams of mountains, I longed for knowledge and the spirit of endeavour.
One day a door swung open and I walked through it. I did not come back. I travelled for seven years, and in 1999 began an investigation into the linguistics of wild medicinal plants. 52 Flowers is a record of my travels and this inquiry: a collection of interior and exterior tracks that explore the relationship between language, people and the land. 52 encounters from the desert years, the middle years of a life that walked deliberately away from convention and contemporary urban culture -17 years of walking back home to earth.
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