Saturday 31 July 2010

Big Society or Big Con?

We are, though we may not be aware of it, taking part in a social experiment. It's called the Big Society and formed a key part of the Conservative electoral agenda. But is it what it promises: an enlightened "devolution of power to the man and woman in the street", or is it an offloading of governmental responsibility?

Yesterday in Bungay a small band of people gathered in the Library courtyard and began to shovel earth into raised beds made from recycled bricks. We were laying foundations for a "Living Library", a garden that will showcase "Transition" principles ranging from carbon reduction to the restoration of the honeybee. This is one of many community gardens that have sprung up in towns and cities around the world. All of them made by people who know that engagement in neighbourhood projects brings social cohesion. And that in challenging times, the ability for people to hold together, is vital.

This is an entirely different scenario however to the one David Cameron envisages. Most self-organising initiatives work towards creating a new, fair and sustainable world. The dismantling of the public sector in favour of charities and volunteer groups is framed within an old philanthropic paradigm. It pays no attention to urgent planetary issues such as climate change or peak oil. It hands over decision-making about energy and planning to local people without regional or governmental strategy or resources to back them. It does not seek to reorganise society along more equitable lines, let alone ecological ones. Because the real power structures, steered by the interests of big business, are guaranteed to continue. It is localism firmly set within the global economic growth model.

Although this experiment clamours to dispense with State bureaucracy, its main function is to mask the public sector cuts already underway and devalue the meaningful nature of work. Our corporate-shaped world has already reduced workers to replaceable “human resources”, giving them almost no say in their destiny. Our civil liberties have been eroded - our rights to strike, to protest, to stand up for ourselves. We have been told to work harder for less money. Now we are being told: work for nothing.

Like "Care in the Community" the Big Society presupposes there are local people who are willing and competent to take on the skilled work of librarians, teachers and healthcare workers. It presumes anyone can do your job. And though there is no doubt that grassroots activism can unleash enormous potential both within individuals and communities, it is another thing to rely on volunteers for essential services within a top-down framework. Volunteers can be notoriously unreliable, having no obligation to turn up or consider their fellows. Within a hierarchical structure, volunteers are sometimes esteemed more highly than workers. This puts a huge strain on the "real" staff who often have to carry their load.

This may seem a small thing to consider, but it is these everyday working relationships that make for happiness in a society. The fact is without respect for what you do, you falter. Depression and defeat set in and this affects the mood of homes, workplaces and enterprises everywhere. For the want of a happy librarian, the whole town was lost. A real Big Society would cherish its workers and be empathic towards the unemployed. Fellow feeling unites us and makes us resilient. Divided we fall big time.

So the Big Society would make sense if it included everyone in its remit. If it were designed by people who really cared about the community. But the reality is it's a decree from on high, declaimed by millionaire politicians who do not depend on public services - a hazy piece of marketing that opens up the organising structure of the collective to further privatisation and fragmentation. The idea is Big, but its not much to do with Society.

For more information about Bungay Library Courtyard Garden

Saturday 10 July 2010

Becoming the Media: Pattern 4.8

“The problem is The Media,” said the man in the audience.
“But there are the articles if you look for them,” another responded. “You just have to search on the web.”

“The problem is not so much the media”, I added, “But the fact we give it attention and therefore power. You’re waiting for Them to change and notice you, instead of concentrating on the fact we are communicating right now.”

We were in the Chaucer Club in Bungay after Nick’s economics lecture, and in the Transition way were holding a free-form discussion between thirty people. It’s not the ordinary kind of thing that happens in the Chaucer Club on a Wednesday. And yet it felt like the most ordinary thing in the world.

For years, like a thousand other writers, I struggled to get published by The Media. We love how you write but we don’t love what you write about, was the general consensus. The market didn’t want to know about dreams or plants or neighbourhood food exchange, or East Anglia, or the fact that life is not quite how it is officially described. A stack of manuscripts grew under my bed. Still I kept writing. Because, well, when you’re a writer that’s what you do. And meanwhile wherever I found myself I helped out with communications: drafting letters, press releases, events programmes, website copy, posters, flyers, leaflets.

And then last year I discovered blogging. Suddenly I didn’t have to wait for publishers to read the synopsis, for editors to reply to my emails, for my agent to make that call. I could just type words into a box, upload any number of lovely photographs and press a button. Whoosh! There it was. For the whole world to see if it chose. And I wasn’t alone: I was in a community of communicators who wanted to express what they were experiencing, part of a crew on a joint creative project.

Writing needs publication. It’s an out there, read-all-about-it communication thing. One-way conversations, undelivered messages, songs sung in an empty room just don’t enter the fabric of the world.

Transition is about showing other ways of doing things in a world that is seemingly controlled by marketing and a highly manipulative press. This world is undergoing a radical process of change, however it’s officially “run” by a status quo determined to keep everything fixed (i.e. in its favour). Transition creates its own independent media because the conventional media that shapes our general perception of How Things Are is deliberately selective. It focuses on highly negative events that drain our emotions and induce powerlessness, whilst distracting us from reality with the comings and goings of “stars” and an illusory and oil-dependant life-style.

What you focus on expands, as the old adage goes.

So it’s important we make our own media because no one else is covering what we do or see. There may be local reports about Transition events or projects (covered by a separate pattern) but rarely people from the inside writing about Transition itself. People talking about what it is to go through this shift, people giving value to small ordinary things, sharing their storehouses of knowledge and experience, putting their attention, not on the rich or famous, or the disasters and dramas of history but the things that hold people together, the things that matter: like plants and dreams and neighbourhood food exchange and East Anglia.

Most of all when you make your own media you find all about you people with great gifts and talents, with vision and intelligence, who would never be noticed or published by The Media. These blogs give us our voices, and in turn we give those sounds and images back to the world. On This Low Carbon Life there are journalists, editors, designers, artists, scientists, people who are expert in computers, communication systems, sustainable food systems. That’s just one small community blog in Norwich. Imagine if you gave voice and value to the people in every community in the land what kind of world we would see . . .

Making our own media: bees busy at work last week in one of the Bungay Community Beehives; writing on the kitchen table, Arizona; Elena and John at the TN Seedling Swap, Andy's pots, Kerry's ragrug; Helen and Kerry reskilling; Mark and Josiah (and Iris) in the Transition kitchen.

Friday 9 July 2010

Deep Dive

1990 Skiathos, Greece. “Jump now!” Andy said “And open your eyes!” and we did. Out of a rickety boat in the bay, into the inky depths of the Aegean and it went all the shades of blue from indigo to ultramarine - complete, huge, unfathomable. “Deep blue!” he yelled “Deep blue!” navigating without fear amongst the rocks in the dark sea swell, caressing the horizon with his eyes, looking for dolphins.

1998 Byron Bay, Australia. We had been doing the dreaming practice all morning with Sarah. “Let’s go to the tea tree lake,” she said. “There’s something amazing that happens there.” So we walked down to a warm still pool where the roots of the tea tree go deep into the water and stain it red brown. We swam out to the middle. “Now,” said Sarah, “You have to dive down as deep as possible, then just let yourself float up. Keep your eyes open and look up. Whatever you do, remember the light!”

We all dived down together. I opened my eyes. It was almost completely dark-brown. Then I looked up and saw a dim golden colour above me. As I floated up from the dive it got stronger and stronger, until it burst into a shower of diamonds as I surfaced with my two companions at the same time and burst into laughter. We were all laughing and splashing water around us. Amazing we all agreed. And immediately dived down again.

Nothing really “happened” at the lake. It was an intense experience for a few moments but in those moments, naked, diving into the brown and golden water, bursting through the surface of the glittering sunlight, we had become different beings. It was as if our modern European histories no longer existed, our city biographies. We were suddenly just three human beings in the middle of their lives, enjoying the earth together, starting again at a certain point in time . . .

2010 Southwold, England. The sea is green and brown, wrinkled, flecked with afternoon light. I am swimming in the shallows with my eyes shut and my dolphin companions are no longer with me. It’s an old working sea, the North Sea and the place I am swimming, this East coast pleasure dome, is old too. It seemed for so many years, those years when I was travelling and writing that the world would change for the better, that people would come to love the Earth again, and now floating in these small waves, I am wondering whether it ever will. Sometimes I feel old and so very tired.

And yet I swim: abandoned to the wild water, immersed in all that light, everything dissolves in the ocean's vastness and fluidity. I stop creaking, the pettiness of the mind falls away. Time loses its hold and I stretch outwards to the horizon. I feel I belong to everything. To the whole world. All those difficulties we face - climate change, peak oil, economic meltdown - are because we forget this small thing, the relationship we come to experience, the cosmic embrace of the sea, the eternal avenue of sweet limes, the expansive month of July. How when we remember anything is possible.

This morning I awoke after drinking the golden limeflower tea. It was a perfect morning. Complete in a way only a summer's day can be. And so we took our breakfast down amongst the dunes and faced the sea that was calm and sparkling. There was no one on the beach. The larks sang overhead. A fishing boat ploughed through the golden water and then Beth appeared with Jessie her African lion-hunting dog and we talked neighbourhood apples trees and about a writing project she calls the Ladies of the Lane and I call Honouring the Elders. Then we all went into the sea together.

It's on mornings like these I know we live in amazing times. So long as we take the deep dive. Into the blue, into the sea change. Remembering to keep our eyes open.

Taking the plunge: submerging in the pool by Marko Modic, Ecuador 1991; showing Ollie how to face the waves, Southwold 2009 - the sequence of photos by Andy Croft that began this blog; Beth, Jessie and me by the sea by Mark Watson

Thursday 8 July 2010

Herbs for Resilience

"That’s very precise," said Erik. "The eighth of July."

"I know ," I said "But it’s true. Every year that’s the day when I start noticing them."

We were talking lime trees. Those extraordinary trees with sticky heart-shaped leaves which for most of the year appear inconspicous beside the showier oaks and horse chestnuts. But suddenly in early July they burst dramatically into flower. And every year I make a journey down the coast to an avenue of great limes and pick some of the flowers for tea.

Because if you want to go to heaven for five minutes drink a cup of fresh limeflower tea.

Fragrant, golden, tasting of honey.

Limeflower gathering is a very rewarding kind of foraging. The flowers are easy to pick and easy to dry. The trees are abundant, dripping, laden with flowers, so there’s no chance of reducing stocks. And what more lovely way to spend an hour: standing, paper bag in hand, beneath a lime tree, immersed in their awesome scent. You’re never alone when you do. Because every bee in the district is there with you foraging for its sweet nectar. Everywhere is humming.

There are three kinds of lime and all are good for flowers. The small and large leaved limes in the country, the common lime frequently planted in the city (several huge ones in St Benedict’s Street). The tea is one of the world’s great downtimers. You can mix it with other heart herbs (lemon balm, hawthorn flowers, rosehips) or have it straight before you go to sleep. It’s a flower that uncoils the springs inside and won’t weigh you down like valerian. Those relaxing flowers will put you on a different wavelength altogether. Out of the mind’s urgency and into the expansiveness of the heart.

I haven’t got a pic of limeflowers yet because it’s early (six o’clock - now added! ed.). But here is a downtime tea I’m drinking right now (rose, lavender and chamomile - divine!) and above some resilient herbs I picked from just outside my door. They are all stalwart members of my medicine cabinet. Elderflower and yarrow tea deal with any shivers in a chill. Marigold is a great anti-inflammatory and lymphatic cleanser (I’m using it right now as an eyewash for conjunctivitis). Rosemary, sage and horsetail, all excellent tonics.

The small daisy-looking flower is chamomile which I grew from seed (thank you Erik!). At the beginning of the year I decided I would put together a Herbs for Resilience Toolkit. Some simple wild and garden plant medicines that fellow Transitioners might like to know about. Plants I’ve used through the years that have been useful remedies or tonics. I’ll be writing about all these flowers and leaves in more depth later in the year.

Meanwhile here are one or two good tips about foraging. Rule one: Go for it! Walk out and tune in. Put a pair of scissors and a brown paper bag in your pocket, grab a flower guide and step into the green world of the neighbourhood. You’ll find the plants and trees everywhere once you decide to look. Rule Two: recognise what you need. Get a feeling for those plants appearing in front of you. Certain ones will grab your attention at different times. Those are the ones you need: for your body, for your mind, energetically.

The planet’s wild plants are stronger medicinally and nutritionally than anything cultivated. The native ones most of all. When I went on a wild plant walk at the Transition Conference the herbalist told us that wild greens contained ten times the minerals of commercially-grown plants and recommended putting a handful in with your stir-fries and salads through the year. Here she is talking about the daisy, a substitute for the rarer mountain-growing arnica, whose leaves can be mixed with chickweed and dandelion earlier in the year .

With the flowers of summer: take from the most abundant and least grimy places and only what you need. Shake out insects. Dry in the airing cupboard (in the paper bag or on a tray) and store in jars. You’ll find yarrow is on all the roadsides at the moment, horsetails in every damp patch and sun-loving rosemary and sage growing in neighbourhood gardens if not in your own (be bold, ask for a sprig if you don’t). Elderflower is almost at the end of its season (but keep an eye out for its marvellous berries later on).

And it’s the eight of July: so dear reader look upwards as you walk down the street today. You might find yourself in heaven very soon.

Photos: elderflowers, Greek mountain sage, marigold (calendula), common horsetail, chamomile, yarrow, rosemary; limeflower tea; rose, chamomile and lavender tea; pushing daisies at the Transition conference; walking down the lime avenue Suffolk.

Wednesday 7 July 2010

Stoneleigh Revisited

Last night we listened to the second half of the Stoneleigh talk at the 2010 Transition Conference, where Transitioners asked questions about the coming bursting of the finanical bubble.

At about midnight the cat jumped up to be let out of the window. And I looked outside into the warm starry night, into the garden and across the fields and marsh to the sea beyond. What has any of that got to do with this? The moon was a bright sickle over the trees and Jupiter shone brilliantly. On the horizon the oil tanker lights flickered.

The recording was of Nicole Foss responding to questions put to her after what was for many a wake-up call to global financial instability. This thing is going to blow! We knew in our minds that unregulated markets had created virtual wealth, but we hadn’t faced the reality of its consequences.

What should any of us do? Well, some of those answers were practical: putting cash aside and waiting until the price of land came down, investing in tools. Making sure you were in a place where your face fitted. Some of them were ways of seeing the decade that lies ahead, opening ourselves to the reality of a financial deflation. The way Greece is being pushed to the periphery of the eurozone, the way feed-in tariff guarrantees are unlikely to be upheld, that Governments do not play fair and fascism is likely.

But the ones that struck me were those to do with the people in Transition. Those of us who were mentally prepared for such times, showing communities there are other ways of doing things and recognising individuals who may have no money or seeming skills, but are incredible social beings. Who can hold a centre, when everything else falls apart.

Yesterday Helen rang me and said she couldn’t write the blog this week. She is inundated with Knit-In squares. A thousand of them in all the colours of the rainbow. Her original plan to have enough squares for a mammoth woolly to hang over the County Hall balcony for the Pride celebrations has come true. She has been sent squares from all over the world as well as all corners of Norwich. “It caught people’s imaginations,” she said.

In Bungay this week people are coming to the Library to see our Transition community garden being built. A plan was drawn up after the permaculture course in January but the working party had been waiting for funds. Out of the blue Sustainable Bungay was given £500 by the Bungay Society and so now we can forge ahead with the brickwork for the raised beds. Our fruit trees have just arrived in huge pots, between the rainbutts and the plantswap tables. Suddenly everything is ready to go!

In between the cracks of the system different things can happen. Seeds that were lying dormant, that you never thought were there, break through. You can’t expect them, but you can notice them. You can open your window at night and see Jupiter blazing in the heavens.

Because as well as the imminent financial meltdown there is also a new mood out there in the bigger picture. Of a possibility of something else happening. This is not a grandiose thing that has come out of board rooms, universities and temples. It comes from the bottom up, from the streets and shanty towns, from the people at the end of the line. People pulling together, reinventing their lives and their neighbourhooda. Something that’s happening everywhere - from small moves in East Anglia to the big movements in South America. From Mark on this blog to Oliver Stone’s new documentary, South of the Border.

To tap into that mood is important because if things really go to the wall the way Stoneleigh talks about and within a short timeframe, we’re going to need to hold together. And what holds us together are not the sentiments of Empire, nor the bullying tactics of corporations, nor the glitterati of society, but something far more ordinary. Something that catches the imagination, sparked by people you would never expect to matter. Who have been working in the community and on the land all along. The people in charge of the lifeboat.

The new push: photo op for the Bungay bike strategy outside the Library Courtyard; looking at the big picture in the Big Group process, Day 2, 2010 Transition Network conference; seakale flourishing outside tSizewell Power Station against all odds.

Monday 5 July 2010

Fruits of Our Labours

A month ago I wrote a post about Malcolm and the Strawberries. They were in flower at the time and Malcolm reckoned, in spite of all adversity, this year would be the best crop ever.

It was. There were so many strawberries he and Eileen didn’t know what to do with them. There was an abundance of ripe scarlet berries. The sudden July heat ripened the whole crop in a week.

On Sunday morning Mark and I went over and picked pounds of fruit and had a strawberry feast: strawberry jelly, strawberry coulis, compotes (with rhubarb) and jam. Lots of jam. The whole house was steeped in the fragrance of roses. It’s that time of year. Suddenly after all that waiting, after the patient sowing and repotting and watering the rewards start coming fast. And you have to start eating and cooking and preserving to keep up with them. Blackcurrants and gooseberres under the greengage tree, broadbeans and tomatoes among the pots. And a new wonder - cucumber!

I’ve never grown a cucumber before. I’d taken them for granted. But it’s a really exciting plant. A big vigourous climber with showy yellow flowers and tendrils, now joining the long trails of morning glories and passionflowers around the conservatory. Up to the solstice things grow in a steady, upward swing. You feel sort of in control of things. After midsummer they grow out, everywhere. There’s a seismic shift. You go outside and the lawn has turned into a savannah. The trees have doubled in size. The world is full of insects – bees, dragonfly, thunderbug, hoverfly, butterfly. Everything is thirsty. Suddenly you’re in demand.

Amongst all this wild exuberance and activity the big vegetable moments come and go: peas and sugarsnaps, French beans and young turnips, spinach and courguette. I have learned in my eat-in-season, love-it-while-you-can years to relish each one and eat as much as possible in those days, the way I put flowers in a jar beside my bed to absorb their fleeting beauty - mock orange, honeysuckle, peony and rose.

Because very soon the moment will be gone. It will be replaced by another. You want to be there for that moment, as if it were the only time you were experiencing it. With everything you have. That’s the way I’ve learned to love the earth. As if you will never see summer again. Holding the moment in your heart. and then releasing it, like a bird in your hands.

Right now in strawberry season, I can’t look at another strawberry. I am strawberried-out. But in my larder are a row of intense red shiny jars. One day when the snow falls, when the evenings grow dark, or it’s just been grey too many days in a row, I’ll come back to those jars and open one and the room will fill with the fragrance of summer, with the memory of how it is when the world is full of light and the days stretch endlessly in front of you, the air is filled with the scent of hay and the sound of skylarks, and the butterflies begin to appear, as if from nowhere.

My first cucumber among the sage flowers; Mark and the strawberries; strawberry jam.

Saturday 3 July 2010

52 FLOWERS: 15 St John's Wort

St John's Wort, Platform 2, Lowestoft station (photo Mark Watson)

railway bank, oxford 99

Some things you understand instantly. Nobody tells you how to love your best friend but the moment you see them you know how to love them completely. Nobody teaches you about boats, yet when you jump into a boat you feel the oars and know how to row, just as you know how to wrap the dead, to bake bread, how the scent of roses lifts your spirits. How do we know? It’s mysterious. No one can govern that kind of knowledge. It belongs to a part of us that is not written. Plants contain this kind of invisible knowing. Sometimes when you find a plant, when you look at the shape of its leaves or gaze into its colourful flower face, you just know. This is because you are understanding how they work in a particular kind of light.

When I first saw St John’s wort at the railway gate on that summer’s day, it flashed like a brilliant ladder of light across my consciousness. I knew everything about this plant. I didn’t have to visit it again or work with it in a seeing. It was complete vision. All I ever had to do from the moment I saw it, was bring this plant into my awareness, and it would tell me everything I needed to know. However, the inquiry Mark and I had commenced that year was based on communication. And consciousness is not just about knowing. It is expressing what you know and passing that knowledge on. The speaking out loud of what we know inside is part of our human experience on this planet. As vital as birdsong, or the roar of the sea, or the wind that blows through the willow trees.

“What did you see?” asked Mark when I returned, flushed with excitement from my discovery.
“I saw light.”
He looked at me sceptically. Light! Give me a break.
“What kind of light was that?” he asked.
“Oh, you know!” I said, rather irritated at having to explain myself.
“No, I don’t,” he remarked.

I started to huff and puff. Nobody ever likes to say what they know. You want other people to just “get it” too. But plant communications require speaking. So I started to stagger about finding words and getting very frustrated, trying to put a peerless abstract design into some kind of understandable narrative structure. What kind of light was it? It was the structure of light in all things, the interdimensional radiance that extends throughout the worlds and governs consciousness. As I started to talk about the solar architectural effect of this plant, I felt everything was expanding, reaching out in the darkness of myself, making sense. There seemed to be no limit to the extent of this solar intelligence. There is no place where I am not! I boomed out at some point and shocked myself.

“Oh, that’s very exciting!” exclaimed Mark. “I want to see that plant!”

This was our first energetic readout * - a speaking out of the plant’s inner essence as perceived and embodied by ourselves. It is an art this kind of speaking, and it formed the creative basis of all our practices. It also took a fair deal of practice to get it “right”. We are not used to speaking in this way, but the plants assisted our rediscovery of this archaic oracular art. And not just in ourselves. When we began working with other people it formed the principle part of our flower dialogues. Everyone was always surprised by what just came out of their mouths, by what they just knew, but had not articulated until that point.

Just-knowing and not expressing can often impede our participation in life on earth. Thousands of books and knowledge systems get in the way of our direct engagement with the planet. Our small minds are made busy with maps and theories and expert views and scientific studies. But these things never satisfy the heart and soul, nor do they ever replenish our physical beings. St John’s wort is a major solar herb, and as such urges us, as creative beings, to leave the maps behind and explore the territory, to invent new ways of understanding and relating with nature, new ways to describe our journeys. To just-know about life is like knowing the theory of love but never loving. Millions have loved before us, written about love, sung about love, but this does not stop us from wanting to experience what love feels like for ourselves. The knowledge of flowers is the same. You can never have enough of this kind of knowledge. It expands through the universe of our consciousness, seeking out what is not yet expressed, shedding its light wherever it goes.


At the beginning of our inquiry our principle plants grew in certain locations in Oxford that informed the meaning of our visits. Dandelion was one of the principle herbs of the common land of Port Meadow, agrimony of the academic Botanical Gardens. St John’s wort grew in the city wastelands. Its distinctive branched form and its signature dotted narrow leaves, red flower buds and star-shaped yellow flowers could be seen everywhere, down every rough and abandoned trackway. At high summer you could enter the wastelands between the allotments and the railway station, and be completely inundated by a shimmering cloud of gold: the vibrant shine of St John’s wort, the deep yellow of Oxford ragwort, and the lemony hues of evening primrose and great mullein. St John’s wort even spread onto the tracks themselves, like a flowery carpet of sunshine.

It was here that I first realised that the wastelands of the earth could be restored by the flowering of ourselves. In fact would only be restored that way. We would not be able to regenerate anything outside ourselves, unless we regenerated our own inner landscapes, until our true wild natures had burst through the broken rubble and tarmac of our own artificial city-based worlds. As within, so without, as the ancients had once told us. It was in this wasteland, surrounded by gold and the scent of buddleia that I became inspired to make tinctures and salves and flower essences. I collected the flowers of St John’s wort in a jam jar of sunflower oil and put it on my sunny kitchen windowsill for two weeks, and watched how the red blood of the plant seeped into the oil. It was a superlative remedy for kitchen burns. It was here that I began to write a series of short monographs on plants so others could connect with their “medicines”. I started to put these plant essences and tinctures into small brown bottles, printed up their instructions on coloured card and give them to anyone who was interested. Generosity was one of the influences you felt down in the wasteland, in the company of those sun-infused plants.

The monographs contained each plant’s energy readout, its mythological connections, and its physical uses. Each plant had a key word. St Johns’ wort was expansion. Its ladder of light, its interdimensional radiance, expanded everything I looked at, and as I engaged in communicating what I “just-knew” my life expanded like a vast network into the collective. Like the flowers that grew out over the tracks, reaching out towards the path of the commuter trains, shimmering in front of the tired faces of the passengers as they stared out of the windows, at a figure standing there behind the fence, amongst a blaze of golden-coloured radiance.

St John’s wort is a major herb of the European pharmacopoeia. It has been used for centuries as a nervine, as a sedative, analgesic and anti-inflammatory, a powerful tonic for the whole nervous system, for those suffering anxiety and hysteria. Recently it has been extensively employed as a herbal remedy for depression. Before industrialisation St John’s wort was understood as a plant of the spiritual realms. Its Latin name hypericum means “over an apparition” referring to the flight of spirits who found it obnoxious. It was used in exorcism, to chase ghosts and malignant spirits from the possessed and the “mad”. Even though most people don’t “believe” in spirits anymore, it is still used to calm those suffering from nightmares and for frightened children who wet their beds in the darkness of night. One of the main properties of St John’s wort is that it blocks the actions of certain conventional chemical drugs. It was this quality of preventing the conventional and the artificial in ourselves, in order that the intelligence of the sun may properly shine through, that formed the basis of the plant card:

“St. John’s wort is one of the great sun plants: a supreme universal connector. If mugwort is the doorway for the moon or intuitive, oracular self, St. john’s wort is the doorway to the sun or radiant self. This radiance may illumine and release even the darkest conundrum within yourself and by extension bring lightness and a sense of liberty to everyone you meet.

The radial structure of this plant is a clue to its effect upon the energy body: a sort of inner “architectural” expansion. Its own energy is extremely fast and dynamic and can accelerate the frequency of whomsoever comes within its field. From this perspective it is easy to understand why St. John’s wort is used by herbalists for depression. However if you wish to go deeper, to work at the root cause of this depression - rather than just “fixing” its symptom by giving yourself a sunshine boost - you will find it is related to a lack of interconnectedness with the living beings of the sun and earth, and the alienation and isolation felt by most human beings when cut off from this primal relationship.”

I realised it was by aligning ourselves with the workings of the sun in the natural world that we could put life back into our hands. As people appeared to take part in our flower work and speak out what they just-knew, I saw how these activities restored a sense of self in everyone and released them from the unnatural constrictions of their social and biographical roles. There was something about the abstract intelligence of St. John’s wort that enabled us to see ourselves as part of a moving and meaningful pattern, rather than an accidental appearance in a story or dynastic drama we did not create. As we stood together in the wastelands, we connected with the field of St. John’s wort all around us - the sun in our faces, our feet on the earth, feeling ourselves like beacons of sun in an earth body.


The greatest work with this solar plant however did not happen in the wastelands or with other people but within myself. St. John’s wort traditionally banishes nightmares but when I took the tincture I had made from its flowers and leaves, it gave me nightmares. At the time the plant communications practice ran alongside our dreaming practice, and the appearance of flowers in our dreams informed an intrinsic part of our work with flowers. We would often put a flower or bunch of leaves by our beds, and notice what dreams* would occur the following night. St. John’s wort never failed to come up with some “dark conundrum”.

People respond differently to the energies of plants, especially when they are taken as a physical medicine. The nervine plants – skullcap, poppies, valerian - all have a distinctly downward effect on my own energy as a physic. Instead of making me feel relaxed, I feel lowered. Plants balance us. If you are highly strung and tense, nervines will bring you down.

However I was not in pursuit of plant remedies, but of plant knowledge. So I took the tincture anyway. Curious to know the structure and content of each plant’s world, I followed the tracks of St. John’s wort in my dreams. They led me down into subways of the dead, into terrifying shopping centre worlds where no green things grew, into building complexes, into broken lifts where you could be incarcerated for aeons. I moved through administration offices and crowded stations, where tramps and ghouls slept in corners. Sometimes I recognised an ex-colleague surrounded by a mounds of paper work, fixed in front of a computer. Sometimes I would find myself in the operations centre of these underground interdimensional places and cause great commotion. The alarm bells were always ringing. What did I do in these nightmare situations? I looked for ways out. I looked for the door where the sunlight fell. I found those doors and I ran out of them as fast as I could.

This is the mysterious action of the St. John’s wort herb. It helps us find our own ways out of dangerous artificially constructed realities and back onto the earth where the sunlight is. It is our incarceration in the mechanised world, the repetitive world of the mind, that makes modern people so depressed. Cut off from the revivifying earth-sun dynamics of nature, from natural interactions with one another, our spirits entropy, our hearts fail. St. John’s wort can show us the way out of these unnatural places, both as a physical medicine and as a spiritual presence. It is a key that opens a door.

There are often great blocks to taking this exit into a greater freedom, not just because we are used to living lives encased in architecture and surrounded by machines, but because in the darker recesses of our imaginations there lurk ancient fears we sense but cannot name. We are held back in all ways in ourselves: from exploring our own mysterious nature, our vast spirits, the intriguing and beautiful planet on which we dwell. Something stops us and keeps us quiet and in the shadows, hiding in subway corners like outcasts. Something stops us from going through the sun’s door. St. John’s wort, herb of midsummer, is connected to the “King” mysteries of the summer solstice. In the Celtic year this is the day on which the oak king, ruler of the ascendant year, “loses his head”, his crown, to the dark reign of holly or holm oak. In the manner of all sacred pagan kings he dies on behalf of the goddess. He dies on the sun cross of the year, so that life on earth can continue. St. John’s wort is named after John the Baptist who supplanted the oak king in the Christian era, and lost his oracular head to the “goddess” Salome.

These mythologies still resonate within us because they make sense of our being human in partnership with the land, in a way our materialistic and scientific focus on the planet will never do. But instead of looking at them, engaging in them, finding what they really mean beyond these barbarous acts, we push them away and so they remain in the dark conundrums of our dreams. Sometimes they terrify us. We could engage in them as modern people, in a way that does not demand our worship or sacrifice to any god or goddess, but first we have to face our cultural fears of being torn apart in the sun’s name for the good of the tribe, that if we prophesy or speak of our own divinity we will be betrayed and lose our heads to those in secular power. Everyone I ever met was trapped in some way by these terrors. The nightmares of sacrifice haunt us all and prevent us every day from speaking out what we just-know. That keep us from experiencing the ancient mysteries of the sun and earth that still move through our blood, through the arteries of the land, that will regenerate us all.

St. John wort is not about losing your head. It’s all about finding it.

In 1920 Alfred Watkins, merchant, amateur archaeologist and inventor of the pinhole camera, stopped his horse on the brow of a hill in Herefordshire and saw in one flash, the tracks and leys that spread across the islands of Britain, like a golden interconnecting web. He was 65 and spent the rest of his life charting those leys, working out their meaning and their origin, and communicating them to everyone he met. His book The Old Straight Track is a meticulous account of what he saw that day: a network of paths and beacon mounds, water places and mark stones, the workings of an ancient people who once aligned all their routes of exchange, across mountains and lakes and moors, according to the mysterious workings of the sun. These paths once existed everywhere on earth. They are the songlines of the world.

Sun visions are like that. You stand one summer’s day and look at the hills, or the plants, or the inner workings of yourself, and suddenly you just know. You only see this once, in a flash, though you might spend the rest of your life working out what you have seen. Once you have seen the pathways of the sun, you see them in everything. It makes sense of everything you experience, every relationship you have, every communication you have. The light extends into all parts of your life, expanding the knowing of yourself in this life on this earth, beyond all stories, all dramas, all nightmares. There is no place where I am not. Once you are aligned with these pathways in yourself, you are walking your way home. I could happily spend the rest of my life, showing you the solar tracks of the universe I once saw in a humble “weed” growing by a railway track in Oxfordshire.

IMAGES St John's Wort, Platform 2, Lowestoft station (photo Mark Watson) close up of the flower; (photo Mark Watson) drawing in the plant log (Charlotte Du Cann)

*FOOTNOTES 1) Energetic Readout Readouts are energetic messages that relay an encounter with a plant being. During our joint flower work we conducted these readouts after visiting the plants, in a simple and formal way, agreeing to a time and place in which there would be no interruptions from the outside world. In this hermetic space (usually around a table or in a small circle at one of our houses) we would take it in turns to speak of our experiences, to ask questions, make notes. Sometimes we placed a spring of the flower or tree in the middle of our discussions, or drank a tea of its leaves. 

A readout gives a composite picture of what was felt, thought, what was exchanged, what happened in the environment during the visiting. This includes a physical description - for example your response to the shape of the plant - however the main emphasis is not on visual appearance, but on its energetic effect. You are speaking from your memory of being within a plant’s vibrational field, and how you speak about your encounter is as important as what you say. Your mood, energy, the positions you take up in the dialogue, are all indicative of the plant’s innate character and qualities merged with your own.

As in seeings one person’s affinity with a plant may be stronger than another’s; some readouts can be longer and more complex than others. However since all these readouts are explorations, there is never any qualitative difference between them. Moreover they take place within the structure of the dynamic dialogue, which is to say, an intentional dialogue that is consciously building creative links with the plant world. So everyone who takes part is also present to ask questions and encourage whoever is speaking. All readouts are co-operative engagements. They are not one-person performances or lectures.

2) Dreams Dreams are a key way of finding out about the energy fields and intelligence of plants and how they respond to and interact with our own. From the beginning of the practice plants frequently appeared in our dreams, either spontaneously, or on invitation. They came as themselves, as abstract patterns, or in figurative form. Mostly you felt their influence within the scenario of the dream itself. In the dialogue that followed the dream, we would explore this territory, noting our positions, feelings, actions taken during the dream. If, for example, the plant was directing us in finding our way out of a certain situation, this was its medicine, its action, upon our physical, emotional or mental states.

Some plants operate more than others in the dream world and have a strong influence on our imaginations and have done so for thousands of years. Mugwort, a traditional, dreaming plant, came at the beginning of the inquiry in the form of a naked young woman who appeared in a prison cell. “I have beautiful breasts,” she informed me. When I paid attention to this fact, Mark and I found ourselves outside the prison. The situation it helped us out from was always indicative. I found once a group of lavender coloured beings in a public toilet, who offered to give me a hand. Lavender is a peerless cleanser for any kind of mental pollution - head medicine found in “the heads”. In a dynamic dialogue, as you energetically speak of your experience, such plant-human communications have a resonance and an impact that is hard to relay in words.

(From Chapter 3: Plant Communications in 52 Flowers That Shook My World - A Radical Return to Earth)