Monday 27 June 2011

Lines down - Transition Themes Week #6

Last week our telephone lines went down in a storm. Thunder shook the house, heavy rain soaked the gardens and barley fields and a bolt of lightning struck the corner of the lane by Mr Moyse's. The whole neighbourhood lost their connection to the world. Various British Telecom vans appeared on different days in front of different houses. “We think it’s lightning,” they said and went away.

On Thursday there was another massive storm down the Waveney Valley. The power lines in the local market town went down and all the shops in the high street fell suddenly dark and silent. No one could trade (except in cash). The bank machines froze, the petrol stations closed. I bought my goods on tick and hoped we had enough fuel to get to the next village.

Then my own power lines went down. I got hit by a high fever and lay disconnected to the outerworld for three days. I shook and shivered and sweated and thought how quickly your world can get thrown upside down. One minute you are dandy and sauntering down the lane to blog from Philip’s daisy-surrounded studio and the next you feel incapable of cycling to the nearest wi-fi at the local hotel. One minute you were a bison chewing yarrow and sweet grass in the high steppes and the next the Ice Age had cometh.

“And then there’s the giant solar flare from the Sun,” remarked Mark blithely on return from a Transition Suffolk gathering and handed me another lemon and ginger hot drink. "Which could put out the electrical systems for years."

Hmm. Downer.

Outside the window there was a small hubbub: a tribe of house martins were sitting on the wire running their annual flying school across the garden. Their sleek metallic-coloured bodies skimmed past so close to the window you could almost touch them. They were so vibrant and fast and alive, needing nothing except their own ingenuity and skill to power themselves all the way down to Africa. In a flash all The Road-like thoughts had vanished from my mind. Change happens quickly both ways. That's the good news.

And so here we are on Monday down at the Community Centre, still out of contact and feeling more horizontal than vertical, hence this rather less-than-robust introduction to the week. I was planning to write a communications post about the terrifically exciting Social Reporting pilot we’re launching at this year’s Transition Conference, organised by Ed Mitchell (web coordinator for the Transition Network) and myself. But sometimes you just are not as vibrant and fast and alive as you’d like to be and have to be flexible. That one will come next time.

Meanwhile welcome to our Transition Themes Number Six where This Low Carbon Life crew and guests will reflect on different aspects of Transition groups, from food to economics: Jon Curran will be reporting about Norwich Community Bees, Simeon Jackson on a new Outreach project. We’ll be hearing all the latest from the fields of Norwich FarmShare's first delivery of veg to the city and Olivia Heal will reveal the alchemy behind lacto-fermentation for the Low Carbon Larder.

At the weekend Kerry Lane will be sending an "outpost" from her new Transition job in Scotland and we'll also be cross-posting from the regional OneWorldColumnon a blog on the economy and the environment by Mark Crutchley of Norwich Greenpeace. Because no matter how much our seemingly clever and powerful networks convince us money is the principle driver of life, the earth always comes first. Watch out for that storm!

Philip's studio in summertime; still from The Road; swallows on the wire, from Elena's post, Things I Like to Do in Summer, June 2010.

Saturday 18 June 2011

Power of the powerless

By Charlotte Du Cann

It’s daybreak and a small bird is tapping at my window for insects. Rain is sliding down the panes and the droughted barley fields that surround the house are drinking in the wet. It’s difficult looking outside to connect the physical presence of roses and a cloaked summer sea with the statistics of climate change and peak oil that keep appearing on my computer.

I close my eyes to know what to write in a time of confusion: the tweets and blogs of the week flash past my mind - the UK government's suppression of the facts about the future of oil, the increased militarisation of the US police force. On the surface the dazzling images of eternal growth, presidents, celebrities and omnipotent armies continue; underneath the facade everyone else raises the alarm. The world is running out of time.

Who is it who will join up the dots, connect one statistic with another? What is it in ourselves, raised to think in discrete and separate units, to defend ourselves in dualistic arguments, in flight-or-fight antagonisms, that has to break out and empathize with our kin? It's becoming clear we cannot hold on to the mindset that created these global problems we now face. We have to contact something else entirely in ourselves. Something the world's media rarely mentions.

What is the right response to the news for example that America houses 2.3 million people in gaol (up from 400,000 in 1980) and that those prisoners work for 35 cents an hour refashioning toxic weapons without any protection or rights? What is the right attitude when we we learn that jellyfish in the world's oceans are devouring vast amounts of plankton, affecting both the marine chain and the carbon in the atmsophere, that the bellies of fish everywhere are filled with plastic? What do we do with the conflicting stories inside that tell us about the land of the free and the plenty of the sea that anything is possible and there is always toast for tea?

Do we turn our faces away and say with a shrug: what can we do? Do we feel helpless and afraid and stop reading these reports? Or do we continue to read and see everything we do in the full awareness of the systemic breakdown and then take a radical step in our own lives?

"We are all part of the machine", said Theo Simon from the radical folk band, Seize the Day. We were under canvas at the Sunrise Festival in Somerset and the tent was packed. Simon was telling us stories of resistance - singing for the striking wind turbine workers at the Isle of Wight, taking part in the anti-cuts demonstrations in London - and how crucial it was we remember to connect with ourselves as workers, as cogs in this machine, because it does not work without us (and that the popular revolutions that overthrew tyranny in the Middle East only happened when the ordinary people joined with the students and activists). And most of all that we care for each other, that we come from heart. Even as we face the helmeted forces on the police line.


At the same time America was beginning to intensively incarcerate and tyrannise its own people, a movement began that David Korten documents in his book The Great Turning. To turn means to “walk away from the king”, to deliberately disengage oneself from the clutches of a 5000 year-old Empire. It is an act of dissent that seeks, on a personal and social level, to expand beyond the bullying imperialism of modern culture, in order to see life in terms of consequence, how every action we take affects our fellows and all living systems. It is to actively shift "from empire to earth community", inspired by what some might call the imperative of conscience.

In a time of increasing oppression and planetary fall-out, a decision becomes necessary: a decision only our hearts can make. We are not taught to value the intelligence and fair play of the heart. We have learned to like theories, the ideas of democracy, of love, of freedom, and play with these things in our minds, as if they were arbitrary, as if we had a choice. And perhaps at one time, we could fool ourselves we had a choice. But now, we realise if we are smart that we do not. Instead we have a decision to make: about integrity and the part we play.

In a state of fragmentation you need to hold fast and make meaning. In a restless time, you need to be still, to secure a foothold in whatever place you find yourself. In a present in which the future has been erased, you need to remember, to look forward. As the shock doctrines of the world exact their penance from the populace, an act of disobedience may be necessary. In such moments of extremity, you learn not to hold on to the grandiose abstractions of the mind, to textbook ideologies, but hold dear the things of the real world - the small move, the valuable encounter, the fragrance of the morning, the flower as it opens, the people who still walk beside you however hard the wind blows.

To live in harmony within the collective there has to be relationship and fellow-feeling. Communication between us cannot shut down. The empire depends on those feelings of helplessness, on our desire to escape and our lack of connection with one another and the planet. The heart is the only power within us that can break the mindset of empire. But to find the heart, we have to lose the one thing we are trained to believe is more precious than anything: our separateness.

Inside the mind there is a hostile god telling us: you are different and alone. But we are neither different, nor alone. We have been condemned to become the very people we once exiled ourselves from, trapped in what W.G. Sebald called in his peerless metaphysical work on history and landscape, the rings of Saturn. The Hebrews have become Egyptians, constructing watchtowers, oppressing their slaves, building ghettos. The Christians have become Romans treating the world as their bloody arena. Everywhere there is a consolidation of power, of elite, of privilege, of masters and the master races. The god’s voice dictates the minutes of every meeting, burns down the world with his apocalyptic thunderbolts and ire. What do you or I have? Nothing, except the diktat that enslaves us and keeps us apart.

To discover the heart and re-enter the living systems, we have to let go of the god that rules the mind. We have to let go of our house rules, our temple rituals, our positions of absolute control. We have to have the courage to enter a state of not knowing the way all writers do when faced by a blank page and the fire of inspiration has yet to come. We have to let go of form and experience feeling, let the words arrive in a different order.

I open my eyes. The sun is flashing on the ocean, the wind rippling through the green cornfield, the bird is in the air.

I walk out this Midsummer morning.

Video based on Bill McKibben' op ed Keep Calm and Carry On; police raid on Transition Heathrow; wild rose and solstice sunrise, Suffolk by Mark Watson

Thursday 16 June 2011

Medicine of the Heart

I once loved a man called Marko who had scars all the way down one side of his body. He was an artist and photographer from Slovenia. He climbed mountains and down into caves and sometimes for his art would scale cathedrals and towers and stage all kinds of death-defying happenings. During one of these events he tore across an icy lake at high speed in a gas-fired chariot and it blew up underneath him. His body was covered in burns and he lay inert in a hospital bed for weeks. He thought he was going to die.

One day, the nurses put a little baby in his room. The baby was completely wrapped in bandages. Marko was six feet seven and when he told me the story I imagined them there lying together in that hospital at the brink of a civil war, the tall man and the tiny baby and how in that encounter something extraordinary happened. The man started to struggle for his life.

The nurses put the baby there on purpose, he told me. I had given up. But when I saw the baby was worse off than myself I had to make the effort. My heart went to her.

This is a medicine story. And if I could tell you all the medicine stories I heard in my travelling days I would. Because those stories are about how life turns around just as you think it’s about to end. We need more than anything now these stories of restoration and regeneration because they hold an opportunity. If there is one theme that unites them all it is this: the transformation moment comes when you realise it’s not just about you.

Here is one of another kind: I am in Italy aged 29 and a man called Francis is putting a wild pigeon in my hands. It was caught in the chicken coop today. When you hold something in your hands, you are responsible for its freedom, he is telling me. You have to know what that feels like. Years later when we have parted ways and our life journeys have taken us to opposite sides of the world, I will ring Francis as he lies dying and he will describe to me the shape of his room and the terrace garden he has made outside. And that night I will dream of a wild pigeon that is beating itself against the window in my room and I will go to the window and set it free.

I didn’t know what to write today: I was going to write about ringing up my MP to talk about the NHS reforms, about Micheal Moore’s documentary Sicko and the terrifying consequences of privatisation. I was going to write about the EU’s directive on herbal remedies which has effectively banned thousands of years of human relationship with medicine plants.

I was going to show all the herbs you can still grow or find outside your door that help with all those ailments the pharmaceutical companies claim are dangerous unless licensed: thyme (anti-bacterial), rosemary (tonic), marigold (lymph cleanser), chamomile (anti-inflammatory), st johns wort (spirit reviver), nettle (mineral boost) dandelion (urinary tract), elder flowers (fever and chills) and berries (immune booster). How the best thing I ever did for my inner well-being was to banish self-pity and the feeling of having done something wrong. I was going to talk about how our global industrialised food system causes so many modern illnesses: heart disease, obesity, cancer, diabetes, allergies, the collapse of the immune system, depression, attention-deficit and other childhood difficulties and that to radically change what we eat is not only better for ourselves but also the planet and the people of the world. And then I began thinking about medicine.

Medicine is not the same as health, nor is it to be confused with healing. At one time there was a lot of talk about healing the planet and “dealing with your stuff”. But most of us didn’t deal with it, or if we did it never did what we imagined it would: make everything OK in the world. We sat at the edge of our neuroses and complained about our parents not treating us right. We went to therapists to take the pain away. We did special diets and exercises, looked at our reflections in the mirror and said we loved ourselves, laid our hands on each other’s bodies, imagined we were important shamans, said mantras and meditated, and still the world was burning in front of our eyes.

Now we don’t have time or money or resources to lie on the psychotherapist’s couch or fly off into the Amazon rainforest for ceremonies. We have to wise up quick and see that health is not a personal quest for a better life anymore. To face the reality that climate change and peak oil bring to communities everywhere means we have to become physically resilient, mentally agile and emotionally clear. We need to make wise decisions, to deal with complexity, to see the world in terms of systems (rather than in black/white, good/bad polarity) and for this we need to be fired up. We need to be deeply and powerfully connected to that place inside where the medicine stories speak to us. We need our hearts.

In industrial societies we are taught to think in data and facts and figures, to be non-aligned with natural life. We are programmed to be out of step with the rhythm of our own blood and heartbeat, out of time with the rhythm of the year. We are trained to sit still and escape into our minds, into the feel-good places with artificial sounds and frequencies. Unconnected to our real selves, to our wild and free spirits, we remain trapped in ways that are hard to see or articulate. Shrinking away from the hostilities of the world we live in a contracted state that is also a state of emergency, locked into the repeat cycles of grief, hope and despair. The living systems of our bodies which need to be in harmony with the living systems all around us are artificially set apart.

To be truly healthy, as Paul and Mark have already suggested this week, we need to realign ourselves with the natural world, relax, slow down and step out of those concrete boxes that keep us hemmed in. This is as much a work of imagination and feeling as it is physically walking outside the door. The shapes of earth are round, sinuous, warm, fluid; they’ve got rhythm and colour, depth and movement. They are shaped like mountains, like snaking rivers, rippling grasses, the undulating coastlines, our bellies, our hair. Everything in nature beats in accordance with our hearts. Everything has correspondence and is related by its kinship.

The shapes of civilisations on the other hand are unforgiving: hard-edged, geometric, superficial, exaggerated and cold, their colours, harsh and unreal. None of them bear relation to us, except to our indoctrinated minds. We are educated to believe that the artificial systems of our civilisation are superior to the living systems of earth and that our natural correspondence with them is not only unnecessary but dangerous. These systems require huge amounts of energy from both ourselves and the planet to uphold. Because they are mechanical however they are always entropic. At some point the strain they exert on the natural systems creates too much toxic by-product and those toxins begin to affect the whole. We get sick. The world gets sick.

Many of us are aware of this. Some of us are aware that these artificial systems are poised to break up, unless we radically reconfigure the ways we use energy and consume resources. What we’re not necessarily aware of is the kind of medicine the earth and ourselves possess. And that between us we have the knowledge and the wherewithal to rectify koyanisqaatsi , our world out of balance. But to do this we have to give up the control of our minds, our obsession with power, and above all we have to give up our hostility. We have to come from a deep and fiery place inside in everything we do and be prepared to let everything go.

In this endeavour the way we have been artificially configured works against us: the world’s empire keeps up its hostile broadcast, 24/7: it dictates our thoughts, runs through our emotional bodies. We experience everything personally, but it isn’t personal. Our fears are not unique psychological problems, but the result of being socially intimidated into a particular perception of the world and giving our vital life-force to uphold it.

The empire shuts us all down, keeps us small and silent in its low repressive vibration. Stuck inside our interior narratives, we allow the old power structures to hold sway. Everyone tells us it is our problem, that we don’t fit, don’t succeed, don’t feel at home inside our own skins. We feel overwhelmed by responsibility. We close down, protecting ourselves from civilisation’s furious gods and systems, while we wait for a magical elixir, for the paradigm to shift miraculously on its own. But the fact is it doesn’t shift on its own. We have to shift. We have to move our bodies, our minds and most of all our feelings and make space in that fearful clutter that lives in our heads and our bodies.

We have to move out from our defensive positions, from our stuck inner worlds to be the kind of bold, radiant individuals that can deal with the challenges of powerdown, of constructing a just and meaningful low-carbon world. That's a big medicine. Maybe the strongest and bitterest medicine we ever came up with as a species.

In modern life health is considered as a physical concern and sometimes a mental one. We know it objectively as something that goes right or wrong with our bodies. We fear sickness and old age and keep death at arm’s length. We look at our human form critically, obsessively, as if it were a defective genetic machine that needs servicing, rather than a fluid mysterious intelligence that shares the same asymmetric shapes as moving clouds or ocean waves or the tail of a tiger. As a touchstone for an extraordinary work of alchemy.

We live most of our lives on that head and body vertical axis, whereas most of our meaning, our connection with life and with each other, with all creatures on the planet, happens on the horizontal one: the axis of feeling and spirit and the bridge between the two, our hearts. If there is a crisis in the world it is because our hearts as a people have not been in play. You cannot connect with the restorative capacities of earth with the moral, monodimensional, clocktime, right-and-wrong mindset of the industrial world, you access it with your creative ancestral imagination, with your deep, feeling heart as people have done for thousands of years.

To connect with that heart is the work of medicine. It’s a story of empathy and a story of liberation. Something stifled in us needs to come alive, break out and remember. We need an encounter with life to do this. We need to rekindle a relationship with all living forms, with our own form, know our breath as the breath of life, like the wind that blows through the leaves, learn to be fluid, not hold on to things, experience time and neighbourhood in a different way. And to recognise everyone who crosses our path as kin. As someone who can open the door.

Listen! Francis said and put an egg in my hands. I put it to my ear Tap tap tap: a chick was pecking its way out of its shell into the unimagined vastness of the world. I had been wrapped up in myself, far away from earth, and suddenly I was looking into his eyes. I wanted to get through to you, he said.

Pictures: wild rose, Hen Reedbeds, 2010; wild hops and blue lupines, medicine jars, Arizona, 2001; swimming with Marko, Ecuador, 1992; foxgloves, Sizewell Belts, 2011; morning glory 2010

Wednesday 1 June 2011


There is a region in Norfolk called Poppyland because, as the summer sun burnishes the cornfields, the poppies appear in their thousands amongst the green and golden stalks. The poppies arrest the eye, scarlet red, the colour of blood, and stir something unnameable in the depths of ourselves.

Last week Bungay Community Bees went into the local primary school to teach children about honeybees. What do bees love more than anything? I asked. Flowers, cried the children. But amongst the seven flowers I had placed in a honey jar the poppy was the only one they recognised. They did not know cornflower (is that a bluebell?) or common thyme or dog rose. They were eight years old and had never put a quill of white clover in their mouths and sucked out its nectar.

Afterwards I realised they were growing up on weed-free lawns without a direct rough-and-tumble relationship with wild things. But still they knew the poppy: we gazed into its stamens, at the blue pollen the honeybee collects as it races around the flower, and then we raced around the playground in circles and in figures of eight, in imitation of the waggle dance. This is the complex dance that communicates the way from the hive to the flowers. We were following the tracks creatures have made on this earth for millions of years, shapes that still live in our imaginations no matter how much we are educated to live in squares and boxes. No matter how our machines and chemicals try to eradicate the beauty of deep nature from our lives.

Poppy seeds are amongst the plant world’s most enduring time-capsules and they were once known as flowers of the underworld, the flowers of the mysteries. Their colours are all arresting - the blue Tibetan poppy, the yellow Welsh poppy, the huge scarlet Oriental poppy, the glamorous orange poppies of California. And all of them possess the medicine of memory as they do forgetting. Civilisations come bearing opium poppies in their hands: you find the mauve and white “plant of joy” in Sumerian texts and in Egyptian frieze gardens (with yellow mandrake and blue cornflowers); seed pods of opium are among the nine circles of wild flowers in the tomb of the boy-king Tutankhamun. Before pesticides suppressed their germination wild blood-red poppies were found sprinkled throughout the cultivated world, amongst the wheat and barley, reminding the cities of the price they pay each time they sow a field, or build a house. Or go to war.

Poppy girls
When I was eight years old I learned a myth about those flower tracks that underpins the whole of our modern world. The myth of Persephone and Demeter. In The Classical Myths of Greece and Rome we read that young Persephone, stooping to pick a wild lily, falls into the kingdom of Hades and becomes his sorrowful bride.

But this is not the story that the initiates of the archaic worlds learned.

For them the Queen of the Underworld was not a foolish girl, but the personification of wisdom, the being the ancient seers and medicine men consulted in the deep wild places within themselves. And maybe that was why I began to question, so many years later, that famous six-month bargain Pluto made with Demeter, why Persephone is never depicted in the upperworld of the sun and earth. Why she only exists in the land of the dead.

When I began my own inquiry, I found our civilisation does everything in its power to keep Persephone in her place. Persephone is supposed to return each spring with the flowers and bring the wisdom of the night and winter with her. Without her her “mother” Demeter is a foolish, weeping woman, incomplete, without any knowledge of the mysteries of birth and death that reside in the roots and seeds of the wild earth. The truth of the matter is that the world constructed by the classical philosophers and their inheritors, the scientists, could not exist if she were alive in all of us.

Persephone was originally the Kore, an aspect of the three-fold Moon goddess, and what is happening in the “official” myth is a splitting, a fragmentation of the female psyche in order that the patriarchal mindset can hold its invisible sway - the kind of story that psychologists like to use, while keeping us all inside the domestic realms of Demeter.

The mythologist Carl Kerenyi writes that originally Persephone did not “fall” but went into the underworld at the request of Rhea, her “grandmother”, the ancestor of the wild earth, to put the world of agriculture, the world of civilisation, back into balance. Once there she did not ally herself with her dark father but with her wild ecstatic half-brother, Dionysus and their fall-and-return mysteries made a way for human beings to remember their glorious origin, a way open to all those who journey into the wild, uncharted territory of themselves.

Persephone does not belong to the cultivated world. She represents the parts of us our culture makes no place for except as an untouchable. She lives in wild places, in the deserts, amongst the thistles and tares. To find the kind of knowledge she represents we must search those parts of ourselves that are not subject to a bargain between matriarchy and patriarchy; to treasure those parts of the female being, of the human being, most people leave out or throw away on the garbage heap for the sake of a convenient life. It’s the wild flowers that grow down in the underworld that guide us, as they have always. The flowers live in a country we cannot always see but sometimes feel in our hearts. They appear and call us to return to our original nature. We have to find the way because it is the one that will restore the earth when we follow it.

52 Flowers That Shook My World

In 2006 I began a book that traced the relationship between flowers and the human imagination, those circular and winding tracks that are buried deep inside. It’s a record of a 10 year exploration into the linguistics of wild medicinal plants and a description of a practice I developed with Mark that began with some questions:

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 practice is about encountering nature from what some call the right-hemisphere (as opposed to the controlling rational left hemisphere), and some the flowermind. It means working with flowers metaphorically the way poets look at a tree - as a bridge between the visible and invisible worlds - Edward Thomas with aspens or Seamus Heaney with a hawthorn tree; mythologically, in deep time, the way Robert Graves contemplates the acacia or Celtic scarlet kerm-oak; metaphysically, in the way Annie Dillard comes eye-to-eye with a weasel, or follows a creek during its year cycle. The practice took me travelling: on 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, contemplating under the Buddha’s pipal tree in Sarnath; with peyote in the Sierra Madre mountains, with liberty cap mushrooms in the Chiltern beechwoods, through a night garden in Norfolk stoned on hemp flowers, having a rethink about narcotics, 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.

I wanted to know if a modern citydweller could recover their aboriginal ability to communicate with the earth, if we could 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; 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, I found that our Western world, our future, depends completely on our reconnection.

I came to see that the long and winding road will still lead us home, so long as we keep an ancient bargain our ancestors made with the earth thousands of years ago. It’s this negotiation with life we are having to wake up to now and remember, and this is as much a work of our imaginations, as it is ecology, or any kind of climate science. Because now is not the time to fall asleep in poppyland.

Poppy pix: amongst the poppies outside the (now closed) Queen’s Head pub, Holton; bee flowers in a honey jar, Bungay Primary school; opium poppies outside deserted school, Reydon; sea poppy, Kessingland Beach; California poppies, Chiricahua mountains, Arizona.