Sunday 31 March 2013

52 fLOWERS: alder

canal, oxford 02

“Oh, spleen, spleen!” sang a small vivacious woman in the basement kitchen of the Oxford house. We had just returned from Arizona. Miche was from Africa, and our paths were about to cross in a very unusual way.

“I am constructing an altar to the spleen at a food conference,” she explained.” I’m an artist.”
“Do you know about red root?” I asked her,  “The ceanothus bush? It’s the best medicine for the spleen I know. Especially if you have a difficulty with your mother.”
“Oh, you’re witchdoctors!” she laughed. “Where can I find some?”
“Round the corner,” I said. “It’s in flower right now.”
“In October?”
“Come on, I’ll show you,” I said. So we set off into the dusk at a fearsome pace with a pair of kitchen scissors.

Miche was a high-performance cook as well as an artist and she lived round the corner in a studio piled high with books and bowls and cooking pots. She ran an outfit called Kitchen Ritual, and created all manner of culinary and environmental art events, from ecological rite-of-passage feasts to workshops in community kitchens. As we went off in search of the blue ceanothus flowers, she began telling me about the events she had started based on the five elements of Chinese medicine. She had already held a picnic in the summer based on the fire element of the heart in Port Meadow. But she wasn’t sure how to proceed with the spleen dinner and the season for it, harvest or Indian summer, was drawing to a close.

“Oh!” I said, “What a lovely idea! Let’s do them together.” 

So we did.

They were called the Organ Dinners. Miche brought her kitchen ritual, we brought the plants. She brought her artist’s flair, we brought our spiritual perspective. We were a good team. We  invited people we knew in Oxford. There were usually about seven of us and everyone would bring food based on the season and the flavour associated with the organ. Sweet, sour, bitter, pungent. We dressed in the colours of the elements and took turns to host the events as the year turned. I brought Eliot Cowan’s book, Plant Spirit Medicine, based on his Five Element acupuncture practice. After the dinner we would sit in a circle and ask the questions about the element that ended each chapter. Earth, water, metal. In this way we put our attention on the organs as seats of consciousness and connected with the energies of the season. After each event Miche, Mark and I would look at everything that had taken place with our artist and medicine eyes and cohere our findings. Like everything else we embarked on in these years, all these meetings were an experiment. We did not know where they would take us.

The organ dinners took place in Miche’s studio flat with its African-style ancestral fire. The meals were always high-spirited, noisy, full of colour, zest and energy; the food was delicious, as most people we knew at that time were cooks. 

The speaking circles were more difficult. I knew from experience that you can’t do earth medicine shows without finding a devil or two hiding in the cooking pot. Each dinner was challenging in its own way, and brought up the emotions held by each organ: sadness, grief, fear. The spleen dinner brought up mother issues, the lung dinner father issues, the kidney dinner childishness, sex and an underlying primordial turbulence. But we weathered these storms in the name of art and communication. Until it was my turn to host the dinner for The Liver. Liver is governed by the element of wood, the element for Spring. It is the organ of the warrior.

I sent out the invitations on green cards and suggested everyone brought a twig from a tree and be prepared to talk about it as part of the evening. It was to be held the day after the Spring Equinox, after Miche arrived back from Africa and we returned from Wales.


At Isis Lock there stand some fine alder trees.This is the year we have begun working with the Celtic tree alphabet and late March is the time of fearn, the alder. A letter known as “tear of the sun” in reference to its position within the equinox, the time when the year shifts out of the watery depths of winter, and into the light realms of spring. It is also the tree of Bran, and that afternoon I went to these alders to remind myself of his warrior-seer communications, when I came to sit by these trees at the lock where the canal meets a tributary of the Thames. I used to like sitting there at dusk watching everyone walking home along the towpath, the swans and ducks gliding by. Sometimes there would be a tramp sleeping under the bridge. But we did not mind each other’s company.

Alders grow by the bridges, guardians of all the water places. They stand tall, with their straight up trunks. Although they seem dark their bare branches have a fine purplish sheen, and if you look closely at their catkins which follow the willows’ in February or March, you will find they are all the colours of the rainbow. This is a tree famous for its dyes (red from its bark, green from its flowers, brown from its twigs) and if you cut the tree, it bleeds red like a man’s blood. Once highly sought after for its long endurance under water, to construct harbours and bridges and underwater support for the sea-cities like Venice, its wood still has many domestic uses: turned into clogs, chairs, spinning wheels and cigar boxes, charcoal, fishing nets and brooms. It’s an exciting tree. But you would have to have an interest really in alders to appreciate their useful beauty.  And perhaps, like me, you would have to have some affinity with the sombre, a familiarity with the dark descent, the deeper places, with time and structure, with the ancestral realms of Bran where he waits, like the ferryman, in between the living and the dead, between the dark and the light part of the year, holding the doorway of the equinox open.

I stood by the bridge under the tasselled dark tree, at the final lock before the Oxford terminal and the Thames, and looked into the water. A rat was floating belly up. For some reason I thought of Eliot’s poem The Waste Land, of the fisher king fishing in a dead canal, of lands that should have been set in order, of a culture that is fragmented, not connected, dying.

Then there was a great silence inside myself and outside myself. I looked along the canal, at the mud that was thick and churned on the towpath, at the woodsmoke that curled up from the narrow boats moored alongside it. A robin sang amongst the bare trees and then there was silence again. I waited in the frigid, almost-spring air and suddenly I heard the words:

It’s over.

I jumped in shock, my mind racing to ask: what is over? Who says it’s over? But somewhere inside I knew already. So I didn’t ask. I ran my hands softly down the tree’s straight trunk and carefully cut a sprig of alder to take back for the table - a sprig that held last year’s cones and this year's coloured catkins and emerging shoots of green.


In the Chinese Five Element system each organ is related to one of the five senses. The liver is allied with the eyes. So the figure that embodies the essence of wood is not just a warrior, he is also a seer. The visionary who sees into the future. You have to have the warrior on board, the part of you that knows about clean cuts, breaks, being clear, for the solar path. If you lack courage or discrimination, you cannot see the way ahead.

The fourth organ dinner is as usual exuberant. There are noisy cheerful greetings at the door, and great relish as we share our spring-based dishes: shoots and leaves, sharp and sour tastes, steamed beets, olives, live yoghurt, cleansing, vigorous fuel for the liver and blood. Everything is green and lively, Will’s extraordinary nettle soup, Mark’s fragrant sauce made from Mexican tomatillos. We exchange news and then, impatient for business, I suggest we talk about our trees.

At first everything flows: Will talks enthusiastically about the ash, Mark soberly about the silver birch, Miche lightly about the flowering quince. But then I take up the alder sprig and start to talk in a big sombre voice. As I begin talking I notice that no one is really interested in what I am saying, but somehow this is not making any difference to my flow of words. I continue with an alarming amount of energy. I just can’t stop speaking about this tree, about descent and ascent, about water, about bridges, the equinox, warriors. Everyone starts shuffling in their seats and yawning.  I am way too intense. I am remorseless. What has got into me?

I am pushing for something. What am I pushing for? Something deeper, more transformative, more real than this evening’s meal, this artistic happening, but my companions do not want to go that way. Everyone has arrived late and has some other party to go to. One guest even telephoned beforehand to ask me whether he should come here, or not.

“That really is not my responsibility!” I snapped.

Oh, it was very wood! Right from the beginning.

I was pushing for something and all the time knew that something was not going to happen. Pushing is the energy of the wood element - branching out, moving forward, getting out of stagnation, growing upward and out for new life. An energy that often translates as anger, the thwarted emotion of the liver. As I talked I could see the energy for these kinds of meetings was running out. Asking those five element questions felt suddenly artificial and creaky, as if we were just going through the motions. Everyone looked bored, even Miche.

How do you feel when your plans are thwarted?

How do you feel in windy weather?

How is your sense of direction?

What new ideas or concepts have you come up with?

What are your dreams in life? Your hopes for the future?

We had been able to participate in the family organs: the father lung, the mother spleen, the child kidney, but this is wood warrior was a problem. It was something nobody knew about. Something that lives outside the family house, outside the artist’s studio. The warrior in the archaic world is the activating force within the human collective. He is not a romantic knight, or a warlike barbarian, but an initiated member of the human tribe. And the liver is about his initiation.

No one signs up for initiation. It comes towards you from the outside, foisted by mystery traditions and bush schools, by witchdoctors and medicine men, the business of elders and ancestors. If you are a modern person, you sometimes fall into initiating circumstances by accident, and spend years working out the subtle ramifications of your strange experience. But whatever way it happens, your self-obsessed consciousness is violently opened up to the primal forces, the ancestral forces of the planet and you are made aware of what being human really means on the earth. You are in this process wrenched away from your home and pushed into the collective. After this process, you become adult, sober, an individual who is an intrinsic part of the group. You have duties towards life. You are not the same person you were before.

I am looking at these modern men, holding my sprig of alder. Not just these men, but at all men I have met here in Oxford, living on the alternative edge of our civilisation. As I talked I realised these men were not like the A girls. They had not participated in any of our plant or dream work. We had met in the world of action, in the kitchens where they worked, in political meetings. We had climbed trees together but we had not spoken with the trees together. Men often have a strong affinity with trees, with the wild places, but their inner lives can be more conventionally shaped, more mentally focussed, which means they are often wary of anything spiritual. Their ambition is in the constructed world, rather than in the world of relationships, or centred on their inner happiness. These men are not for the establishment, and yet somewhere they hold allegiance to the establishment, because they yearn, like all men, to succeed, to belong, and the civilised world has not been made by deep, mature, feeling, wildwood warriors. But Bran is a male underworld god and he gives no quarter to this upperworld. When he brings his sprig of alder, he brings a kind of initiation few modern men ever get to experience.

As I speak a gulf begins to widen between us. It was not there before. Initiation makes a bridge between the world of spirit and the world of matter. Unless this bridge is forged you live your life in the world of matter. No matter how intelligent, how ecological, how radical you are, your existence is governed by objects and intellectual facts. You have not the spiritual technology to cross the river. Your will, your ego, your intellect, your drive for sex and power, keeps you within the world of the senses. What does it mean to be a warrior? It means you have allegiance to the mysterious spirit of life; you wrestle with the desires of the world, take certain responsibilities on behalf of the earth. It is a mood and an attitude. Something breaks through your old world and teaches you this mood: the encounter with peyote, the entry into the hermitage, years of travel, the desert, the practices, the solar path. You learn to build a bridge across the water.

 One day you cross that bridge.

I am speaking in the alphabet of the trees and can no longer reach my companions. I am speaking at the spring equinox, and unwittingly influenced by  its requirements. In the centre of the table, amongst the dishes, is a sprig of gorse, the female vowel ohn that signifies this solar turn of the year, the moment of ascent into the light, as the autumn equinox, is the moment of descent into the dark. The gorse bursts into flame in March, its shocking gold flowers scald the eye as it sets all the wild commons and scrublands on fire. It would have been easier to have invited the A girls. They would have been teased by the men, played dumb, brought ease and fluidity into the room, taken off the edge of this sharpness. But that would be not to face this moment, governed by the gorse, prickly, bright, uncompromising. 

The young men regard me, like three fair-haired brothers of a folk-tale, ten years between them, at the gorse-covered edge of the solar path. The trouble is I like them, far better than the A girls with their princess self-obsession, and I always have. I like their intelligence, their cameraderie; the way they make me laugh. I feel a freedom roaming about the city in their company. But freedom is not what I see with the alder and the gorse held now in my sights.

The liver dinner falls under my command. As the commander you sit in an uneasy chair. In all these organ dinners, there comes a point where the exuberance wanes, and those who lead them, become still. We realise we are facing the challenge of the element in question. We are no longer at a party, we are involved with a medicine, the impersonal energies of the Chinese system. All around you you experience what needs adjusting and transforming in the social world in which you find yourself. You feel incapable of the task. Those who went before me faced this dilemma with the elements of earth, metal, water. Now it is my turn, with wood.

The warrior sees the world beyond the five senses, informed by the organ that transforms all ingested poisons, discerns what is of benefit and what is not. This room we sit in, full of warmth and light, piled high with cooking pots and books, appears like an island; outside the house the rivers of the city flow, the underworld rivers of Lethe and the Styx, the gargoyles amongst the towers gape and grin, the leaves of the tree rustle quietly at the end of Isis lock. The warrior gazes at the people before him, unbound by personality, by a common narrative; feels the darkness of the night  pressing inward. This is no longer Charles who steered us downriver towards Limehouse docks, nor Arthur leaping carefree into the lake of Cader Idris. These are not the men in whose houses I have been generously sheltered. These are men with the ghosts of the machine world all about them, pressured by the academic institutions of the world, men indentured to the wheel.

In the cities of the world, I have already borne witness to the brightness of men broken upon the wheel, already been shown the fate of spirits trapped in their constructions. What business do I then have lingering in this kitchen, wishing for a good time?  I have seen men, passionate in their defence of the earth, with their fiery spirits thwarted, wasting their life-force in antagonism, battling against the system, burned-out and suffering, eating ashes. I have lived in the world that praises only the hard and the heartless, mother’s boys, good pupils, company men, that calls this anger and frustration a  psychological problem. But it is not: it is the energy of wood. The energy pushing for initiation and spiritual growth. What movement then is required by me?

The tree extends into space, wild and free, unconstricted by the architecture of this world, bursts through its mental abstraction, its economic systems, its chimerical illusions, its roots reaching deep into earth and water. Holding the alder sprig, your feet moored like roots into this physical earth, you become connected with or to the ancestral earth and its implacable laws; your warrior eyes open and see, not just in linear time, but in original time, all-at-once time. You see in the room the world of the city, as it floats above the earth, sucking its energy for its own designs. You are watching an ancient machinery in action, as it freezes the living beings before you, holds their hearts in its heraldic grasp. It is a sobering moment. Before everyone has been chattering and laughing, now there is silence and a cold and stiff feeling in the room; people are restless, wanting to go to parties, to have a drink; you are not chattering, you are speaking from the depth of your ancestral being. The solar year is turning. It is an exact moment. Precise, clear, severe.

Either side of me sit Miche and Mark. They hold a certain commitment, as creators and directors of these dinners.We observe everything that happens around us. It is all of our difficulty at this point. It would have been good if we could have met, all six of us, in the same spirit of enterprise but the fact of the matter is we have not. The manufactured world requires everyone to talk above themselves, as if death does not exist, as if the solar year does not exist, as if this organ dinner has no medicine, the spiny bush with its shiny flowers has no meaning. But when you hold the alder, you speak its wild language and you are responsible for what you see and your allegiances. The action that you take at this moment has consequence. Nothing can alter what you see.

So I fall silent at the head of the table. A river runs through the room and we stand on either bank. The bush and the tree divide us. Robert Bly’s book about male initiation, based on the archaic folk-tale, Iron John, speaks about the wild man who takes young men away from the family compound and brings them into the male mysteries. Boys needs older men to push them down into the darkness of the  kiva, out into the wilderness into their vision quest, he says.  Except of course, in modern life, there is no kiva or wilderness or wild man; we do not live in tribes that consider the sacredness of the sun or earthly life. None of us chose to wield the circumcision knife. We live in times of transition: so we have to initiate ourselves, become our own ancestors, our own elders, make our own way. The poet imagines that fathers are capable of instigating this alchemical work, so their young men can grow like trees, become guardians of this earth, rather than spending their life-force constructing and consolidating power. But the patriarchs and mentors of the civilised world are not the wild men of the woods or warriors. My companions before me already carry the karmic sins and ambitions of such men upon their shoulders. Already they are sold downriver.

How should we then proceed? When I can cross into their world, but they cannot enter mine? To be initiated demands the loss of innocence. It demands the adolescent who runs away, runs rampage, runs eternally back to the compound, to the playground, to his student life, is no longer given any quarter, any place in ourselves. In short it demands that all of us grow up.

Because the alder sprig changes everything. Something that is not human, not domestic, not educated comes into an established world and shakes it. Something that smacked of the hairy one, the one who lives under the water, the wild wood, the other, was entering our lives at that moment demanding all our adolescent friendships came to an end. You want these men to follow your lead, but they are not with you. They will never be with you. The fact is the solar path is not about others. It’s what you have to do that matters. And I had to break away. It was the movement of the warrior.  I had to cross the equinox bridge.

You are alone, the alder was saying to me, down by canal. It’s over. If you want to restore this wasteland, you have to restore yourself first. This work of restoration is a self-only task.

The alder, the letter fearn, marks a bridge in time in the cycle of the year. A pivotal moment, when you leave the nourishing dark, the months of incubation, of dreams, of building a foundation, and push upwards into the light. In the heavenly map this is the moment you cross over from the watery world of the cosmic fish in which you are connected to everyone and enter the ram’s territory of fire, the singular warrior’s field of Aries. When you leave the karma of a cycle of time behind and push forward into what you do not yet know. Tonight, as I let fall the alder twig, I know it is the end of the line. I have no choice but to go through the lock, to leave the city canal behind me.

After tonight there will be no more companions. We have been working with people in this informal exploratory way for ten years and now we will go alone into new waters. We will not meet for the final heart dinner. I had seen that our meetings were no longer correct. Real work is for the initiated. Our plant communications, begun here in Oxford three years previously, were about to undergo a change of directon. The young men, yawning, were leaving for their parties. Tomorrow, Miche will, carry on her kitchen ritual, and we will return to Wales and the plant work we will later call the flowermind. 

The alder is called tear of the sun because to live in the sun’s radiance means you depart the dark waterlands which have been your home for so long. You shed a tear because you loved your companions of those experimental underworld years, and you are a social creature. You loved the ease of communication; you loved these exuberant dinners. The feeling of being together in a band, of sharing the same house, of going up mountains together, cooking together, laughing together. And you loved yourself amongst them, in all that gaiety and conversation. 

But you love the earth better. And it is because your allegiance is to the earth that you go forwards, push out into the river, into the future, alone. 

Unpublished flower from Plant Communications chapters in the original version of 52 Flowers That Shook My World - A Radical Return to Earth

Paintings: Alder/Bridge/flight by Lucy Voelker (by kind permission of the artist)

Thursday 28 March 2013

We Can Work It Out

people baking at sunrise“So, do you teach people to cook?” asked the journalist from Delicious magazine.

“Not exactly." I said. “It’s more of an absorption thing, working as a crew and learning on the job.” She had come to interview Sustainable Bungay about Happy Mondays and the Community Kitchen for an article about community food projects alongside the Dunbar Bakery and Norwich FarmShare.

So I tried to explain how it is in Transition that a lot of the learning and teaching we do is not that formal. As we sat by Nick’s fire with tea and hot cross buns, we talked about skill-share and seed-swaps, plant walks and bee talks, Trade Schools and Green Drinks, it struck me that there was a time when I didn’t know about any of this knowledge-sharing, workshop-giving world either. I didn’t know what a facilitator was, or a go-round, or people who said it is not in my remit, or wave their hands in the air and bring lunch to share. There was a time when checking in had to do with the hotel, rather than a circle of strangers in some dusty church hall.

It struck me too that there were two types of class in Transition. One that took the shape of courses and trainings, where you paid money to sit in a room and an expert led you through your paces, often with power point presentations and organised exercises done in small groups. These structured professional events often had organisations behind them and came with workbooks and DVDs attached. The others were more amateur pop-up and hands-on affairs, which could happen anywhere, down at the local library, or at a Tent University in the middle of a city. Usually set up by individuals who were passionate about their subject, quirky, rough in style, but with some very useful hints and insights, that sometimes led to animated conversations afterwards.

The Workshop as method exists in both these configurations, and it is the subject of this week on the Social Reporting Project. We’ll be looking at how effective these sessions can be, how they are a core part of Transition culture and what kind of form they take in different initiatives. This is mine.

tin village workshop
At Tin Village everyone gives workshops.These are short slots, maybe an hour long. Sometimes they are talk-based head and heart sessions (on politics or ecological campaigning); sometimes skills-based hands sessions (on massage or straw bale building). You talk about your subject and you do some exercises. No one books, no one pays. Your participants move in an out at will. The band is playing outside and there is always somewhere else to go. Holding people’s attention is, as you find out, a key skill you have to learn fast.

When we were setting up the Social Reporting Project in 2011, Ed Mitchell and I gave some workshops on community blogging and reportage: one at the Sunrise Festival and another at the Transition Conference in Liverpool. Even though ostensibly you go to workshops to learn something, mostly you go to mix with other people, to experience a different social set-up, to hear a new narrative, to confirm your reality, and above all to enjoy yourself quasi-seriously.

We’re social and inquisitive creatures, so we like hanging out with people without being interrogated in a cocktail party, let’s-put-you-in-a-pigeon-hole way: where do you come from, what do you do, where do you live etc. We like doing stuff together: digging gardens, bottling jam, walking around woods, dancing together, without feeling entangled in other people’s fields, or obliged. We like that pop-up, play-at-stuff community networky thing. Now you see me, now you don’t.

However a lack of proper engagement can have its drawbacks when you are trying to share real and valuable skills: we are used to behaving like consumers and being entertained. You can't escape that fact at a festival where everyone has come for a good time. We’d hoped to inspire everyone at our Grassroots Media workshop to report on the events there and then. However I learned quickly that no-one wants to work at a festival and that the permaculture garden tours, pizza making and natural housekeeping products tend to do a brisker trade. So the following year in 2012 I wised up. I found that people like a bit of an entertaining talk and one or two practical exercises they can take away, or think about later. So in the spirt of skill share, here they are:

workshop picture

FIVE MINUTE INTERVIEW (Social Reporting workshop, Sunrise Festival/Liverpool conference 2011) Interviewing people forms the backbone of great journalism. This is a very useful speaking exercise because it allows you to voice out loud and treasure an enterprise you care about and also make it clear for others to grasp (essential reporting/teaching technique). You are being paid full attention to by the interviewer, which is a rare commodity in this world. The interviewer at the same time, has to listen and be interested in what you are saying. Also a rare commodity. Both these acts ground the enterprise in the collective memory of place and time.

Method: Everyone turns to the person next to them in the circle, so the group is in pairs. You take turns in the role of the interviewer and the interviewee. The interviewer asks the question: can you tell me about your most successful project? The interviewer asks further questions if necessary, but most of all listens and pays full attention to what is being said. When the time is up (five minutes), you swap places. Finally you go round the circle and everyone feeds back what they have heard about their partner’s project. At Liverpool we extended this exercise to on-the-spot video interviews, which formed part of the media hub reporting.

transition camp banner

SPEED PAPER (Grassroots Media/Transition Free Press workshop, Sunrise Festival 2012) This was a workshop I gave with Venus, activist and poet from Occupy London, about citizen journalism and reporting from direct experience. People who come to comms workshops are often already involved in writing or campaigning in some way, so tend to be articulate about their skills. What we don’t always know is how to pool resources and work co-operatively together to produce something that is exciting and coherent. Speed paper is working quickly with a group to establish key areas of experience, knowledge or passion. And then practicing how to pull stories together and think like an editor. As this is a creative exercise, it has a lot of chaotic elements in it. That’s part of the fun.

Method: go round the circle and ask: if you were on a newspaper what kind of editor or reporter would you be and what key story do you feel should go in our next edition? Give everyone three or four minutes to talk about this. On a large sheet of paper draw out a rough flat plan (squares that signify the pages of a paper) for as many pages as there are subjects. Get everyone to decide which category they are in: news, opinions or features and group together. If people choose the same subject, they can work on the same story, or choose different ones. Start mapping the paper and deciding what stories go where. Open this out as far as you feel there is time and energy, encouraging discussion about stories, ethics, commissioning other people, ideas for photographs etc.

One person, preferably the facilitator, should act as ‘editor-in-chief’ here and write the stories down. They should also be in charge of The Deadline (that’s the time in which this exercise takes place). Allow 5-10 minutes at the end for people to feed back on their experiences and to ask questions.

IDEAL HOME EXHBITION (Gathering Together day, East Bergholt 2013). This was a workshop I gave as part of a day focussing on co-operative living and intentional communities in East Anglia. Essentially it was about starting up a group, and thinking about ways to establish working and collaborating together in harmony. I have shared houses and am now involved in setting up a coop with Transition Free Press, but have no formal experience in this area. However I have worked collaboratively all my life in the media and on creative projects, so I applied those principles to house-coops and they seemed to work just fine. People really got into those lists! The key thing in workshops is to grab people’s imagination and engagement. Even though you might not learn something academically, you have learned it in a hands-on, people-friendly way and that counts in ways we can’t always see. A lot of the discussion during the day was couched in airy, abstract terms – possibility, compassion, empathy etc – so the purpose behind this exercise was to ground people’s contributions and get a sense of what we held in common.

workshop picture
Method: Imagine all the people in the group are about to share a house together. Ask for four ‘editors’ in the house to head up four main categories. These of course could be fluid but the ones I chose that day were: People Skills (those we have and lack); Practical Skills (those we have and those we lack); Stuff and Resources (those we bring with us and leave behind); Dealing with Social Pressures (that work for and against co-operation).

Give the editors four sheets of large paper and a bunch of pens. Ask everyone else to visit each of their departments and help them build a list of what we have between us in the house and what we need/ need to let go of. As the facilitator go round and discuss the contents of the lists with everyone. Afterwards (about 30 minutes) ask the editors to feedback what they have on their list and share to the group.

I made up all these exercises in response to the events and places and people present, usually just as I arrived. That’s my nature. I don’t do prep. I sometimes think about a blog days before I write it and then when I put my hands on the keyboard, it’s a completely different piece than the one I imagined. Talks and workshops are like that too. I like work on my feet and have a bit of an edge to the proceedings. Creativity needs uncertainty and throwing everything into play; its best structures come out of chaos. It doesn’t do well with control. These exercises are all based on real experience because, for me, experience is the gold we share with and receive from others. I don’t want to sit round sharing feel-good feelings, or shout out words like hope and surprise into a room. I want to learn how to bottle tomatoes for real, chop wood, dig a trench, listen to a story and run a newspaper. On that Gathering together day a group of 22 people shared over 35 practical skills between them. That’s why I prefer the second workshop approach. When the storm hits, we don't want to be milling around a room and playing games. We want to be all hands on deck and to know the ropes.

At the beginning of Transition Norwich everyone wanted to give a workshop. You couldn’t go to a Heart and Soul meeting without someone announcing they had come to help us with a session (special prices for you Transitioners of course). Eco-psychology workshops, non-violent communication teach-ins, Joanna Macy sessions with wannabe shamans. To be honest it got on my nerves. Couldn’t we just get down to the business of doing Transition and finding out who we were first? We did run some sessions ourselves: on clowning, for example, and authentic movement, where the group offered their own skills and practice. These were mostly about sharing stuff with each other, and we were happy to pay small sums to cover expenses.

workshop picture
Meanwhile the grander and more expensive workshops from outside the city got whole weekends to themselves and a lot of fanfare. Dragon Dreaming! Be the Change! Roll up, roll up. What happened at these sessions? Was anyone outrageously successful? Did anyone change afterwards? None of us found out, as unlike our humbler experiments, the workshops were never reported on in our community blogs. What I did notice was the distinction held between theory and practice. Attending a Transition Training, for example, was considered more important than the experiential knowledge of an initiative. A weekend course carried more weight than two years of challenges, meetings and setting up projects. Looking back almost five years later however, you notice it’s the humbler, practical stuff that has lasted and kept the people together.

We live in a world where mental abstraction is held to be more important that what happens on the ground. But real stuff and experience is what truly matters, what we need to learn right now, and there are a host of people out there with real skills who are happy to share them. We need in Transition to invite each other in and make each other welcome, whatever our ‘mastery’ is. Comms and media workshops were never really about writing My Perfect Blog. They were about paying attention and listening, reporting what was happening in the real world, making our experience valuable and beautiiful, collaborating with each other when all the world is pulling us apart, so we no longer stay stuck in our silos and control towers, silent, tractable and afraid.

workshop picture

The grassroots media teachings were all about letting our voices be heard, so a different future could happen from the one commonly broadcast in the mainstream media. The workshops were part of the blueprint for future publications. So a bunch of people could manifest the Social Reporting Project, and Transition Free Press. Gotta manifest stuff for real on this earth, gotta get creating if you want to make a future worth living in. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

Images: Pizzamaking workshop, Sunrise Festival, 2011; no-dig garden workshop, Sunrise Festival, 2011; workshop on financial instability with Naresh Giangrande and Peter Lipman, Liverpool conference, 2011; talk about medicine plants at Transition Camp, 2011; Transition Free Press open space, Battersea conference, 2012; quick prep before a Plants for Life workshop, Bungay Library, 2012; Transition Talk Training at Colchester, 2010.

First published on the Social Reporting project 25th March 2013

Friday 22 March 2013

the darkness around us is deep

flowerI am walking towards the statue of Peter Pan. It is a cold grey winter's day in a winter that seems to go on forever. I have followed this path since I was six weeks old, when my parents brought me here to see the bronze statue of the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up, the animals playing at his feet and the waterbirds on the Serpentine.

I don’t live in London anymore and it must have been years now since I walked past these stone fountains at Lancaster Gate. My parents' ashes are scattered among the horse chestnut trees at the water’s edge and I have come to touch base in a hard winter, when it seems my world has come to a grinding halt. Your parents can give you good reasons for being here, so long as you don’t get waylaid by happy family stories and too much psychology. My father was a lawyer but he dreamed of being a travelling writer, my mother was a secretary and a wife, but dreamed of being an artist and living in a community. I have lived out their dreams.

Charlotte in Daffodils
As a consequence I have also gone contrary to the bourgeois creed in which I was raised, betraying my Kensington Gardens upbringing, my class, education and everything about this city that was once my home. Sometimes you could think I had betrayed my parents too. But at a certain depth - the kind of depth that makes sense of everything, even a hard winter, when you lose the capacity to write and have three bouts of flu back to back - you  know that following the party line is not what you are doing on the planet at this point in time. Walking away from the party and putting down roots in the real earth is what you are doing, living like a creator, even though it condemns you to skirt like a fox on the edges of everything.

I can write this because when I walked down to the statue that day I saw a heron waiting on the dead poplar tree and I heard a mistle thrush singing in the undergrowth. The fishing bird that was my father and the singing bird that was my mother. It was one of those moments where the mystery of life touches you and shakes you to your core. And as I walked across the park I saw there were birds everywhere: parakeets in amongst the London planes, a bevy of swans down by the round pond being fed by children, a crow hopping warily at my feet. And underneath the sweet chestnut trees there were ghosts of wild flowers and long meadow grass that would never have been “allowed” when I was young. This was bird London, wild London. Something coming through the cracks you do not expect.

Afterwards I went to join Lucy at the South Bank for a meeting about the book we are working on called Playing for Time. We stood on Waterloo Bridge and Lucy told me how once she organised a huge pyrotechnic show on the river; how many officials behind those grey stern facades she had to negotiate with to allow this fiery theatre to take place. And then she took me to supper at a little Lebanese restaurant in Covent Garden before I caught my train home. Mezes and a glass of rose wine. I haven’t eaten a meal on white tablecloth for a long, long time. It was a big treat. It was a good day.
I am not sure about the word wellbeing. I know about treasuring the good days. I understand destiny, living true to your solar core, aligned with the earth that gives you life. I understand honouring your mother and father, and the hard work of creators, what it takes to bring the fire through and hold it in the dark times. I understand walking out this equinox morning to greet the sun down the frosty lane with Mark. I understand about having a warrior attitude and a medicine attention, about finding your material, undertaking the hard inner work, turning the bad karma of empire and the dross of materialism into some kind gold for the future. But wellbeing as a measure of life?

Being at leisure, feeling comfortable, feeling OK about ourselves, like those well-serviced magazine women who do yoga, eat superfoods and find solace in novels? This feels like another kind of consumerism, a convenient barricading out of the hard facts, the reality that nothing we do in this industrialised culture is kind or good. Everything we touch or put in our mouths requires some other being’s suffering: from people, from forests, mountains, animals, fish, children, birds. How can you have wellbeing at the expense of others, without going into denial?

On the beach

I have experienced a state of happiness, a lightness and ease with the world, which comes sometimes out of the blue, like a butterfly: floating like a starfish in the sea, lying under the goat willow on a spring day and hearing the return of the bees, countless mornings in the desert when I  lived there, a morning in Venezuela when we woke up and found ourselves in a tropical seatown with the whole day in front of us, a long long road in Arizona edged with sunflowers, a long long beach in California, with sealions in the surf and sanderlings running in and out.

So many mornings full of space and light and beauty when I was on the road, when I had money in my pocket and knew nothing about peak oil.

How do you have wellbeing in Transition when the moments of white tablecloths are few and the road is no longer open, and 2013 looks unaccountably harder and colder and poorer than 2012? When it has been grey for months on a damp, crowded island, and you have been in bed for weeks? How can you live well in times of unravelling, your own unravelling and the dear earth’s on which all  happiness depends?

Will you be there?
flowerHere is a moment I had in Transition: One of the most successful meetings in Transition Norwich in fact in the early days when we were setting up the Heart and Soul, Arts, Culture and Wellbeing group. It was the one and only meeting we had on wellbeing.

Among the ten people who came that evening five were working or had worked for the NHS, one was a chemist and two of us knew about medicine plants. Each of us had brought an object to introduce our medicine stories: Mark brought a horse-chestnut tincture, Richard brought a quote from The Glass Bead Game and a small volume on homoeopathy. Alex brought a daisy. He had been at a seminar in the Schumacher Institute when the deep ecologist Arne Naess, then in his eighties, had surprised everyone as he leapt through the window with a daisy in his hands. It was the medicine of vigour, Alex said.

What made this meeting vigorous and deep was the reality we brought with us. Suddenly our discussions, which had been abstract workshop encounters, full of spiritual possibility and solace, had allowed our gritty experience of the world into the room. When some of us exchanged opinions about the modern medical system, Angie, who had been a nurse on intensive care for 19 years, said quietly:

“I hope when I need to be turned some of you will be there to turn me.”

And there was a silence in the small room. As we realised what it would mean for us to take our own health, our lives, into our own hands.
Equinox SunWe don’t live in Never-Never land. We live in a place where we are all going to die. And because all living things die on Earth, change is possible. We have physical limits and the reality of time, and against those limits and time, all our greatness and nobility is tested. As modern people we are no longer initiated into the mysteries of life, where this kind of limit has meaning, and so to get to a realisation of our true path, we need to tap into those moments that come out of nowhere. I understand this as making space to honour the ancestors – the ones who went before – our lineage and making time to greet the sun on an equinox day, to light a fire around which we can gather and listen to each other’s stories. The work of the artist and the writer is to remind the people of those moments, so we do not follow the wrong god home and miss our star. So we set our sails in the right direction. The measure we have is not our personal wellbeing, it is an alignment we hold inside us that can help put a crooked thing straight.

We are the ones who carry the fire, even when it looks as if it has gone out. We know how to bury the dead, we know where the medicine plants grow, we know the meaning of dreams, we know how to speak to the officials, so a fiery show can happen on the River Thames, we recognise the bird when it sings, the warrior when he stands by the land. We honour the people who suffer themselves to undergo change, who give their gifts and do not give up. We are in all places, in all rooms. We are in Transition. We live in the towns and cities and down the lane. We are here. We are not going anywhere. Because there is nowhere else to go. This is what we remember. This the moment that matters. Right now, right here.

(Originally written for a week looking at wellbeing on the Transition Network)

Photos: the memory of sweet violets; on the tumulus with daffodils; with Beth on the beach; guerilla garden hellebore; equinox sun.(CDC/Mark Watson)

Tuesday 12 March 2013

ARCHIVE: All Hail Great Spring!

I wrote this post two years ago at Spring Equinox at our local hotel (we were off-line in those days). Spring was late that year and may well be in 2013. However when Mark and I made our annual pilgrimage to Dunwich Woods the snowdrops and the lilies were as lovely and vibrant as ever. Even though the day was cold and grey, as it had been all February, the new season was still round the corner. Woodpeckers drumming out the trees, jackdaws eyeing up chimneys, Whatever the weather, the wild flowers are still emerging in their glory. 

Gotta remind ourselves of why we are here I said . . . .

It seemed like it would never come. For months the land was hard and sere and all my attention seemed to be focussed on getting from place to place, from day to day. Even Malcolm shook his head about the lateness of it, when we went to collect our vegetables. "There’s just no sun," he said. "Nothing is growing." Then today we got up at sunrise and walked down the lane and realised winter had released us. Spring was finally here. The air was soft and vibrant. The earth felt near, as if every branch had come alive, buds ready to burst. We sat beneath an oak and breathed in the morning – blackbird singing high in the boughs, hazels dripping with golden catkins. Tapping of woodpeckers, mew of a buzzard above our heads.

After five months of watching the temperature gauge hover around freezing, it had suddenly risen six degrees. Six degrees makes a difference when you are living without central heating. Nine degrees means your bones stop aching, you no longer are terminally attached to your hot bottle, living in a cocoon of cardigans, kindling, soup and hot tea. You are no longer focussed inward, you are looking out towards the horizon, the room is full of unexpected light and air. Coming back from Norwich last week after a hard day’s work the sun burst through the clouds that had enclosed us in a grey helmet it seemed for weeks. The alders shone purple along the riverbanks and in the centre of each ploughed field there crouched a familiar form:

"I wonder why are there so many hares", I said to Mark.
"It’s March", he replied sanguinely.

Late Spring, cold spring. Is this climate change or just English weather?

One thing I know, we normally greet the snowdrops in Dunwich Wood at the beginning of February and this year it was the middle of March. We sat as we always do on a fallen trunk and listened to the soft inrolling sea against the cliffs and the birdsong amongst the yew trees, immersed in the quietude of white flowers.

It’s one of those moments you take in with your whole body – eyes, hands, feet, ears. The scent of rain and salt and sweet nectar, the hairiness of bark, the stillness and high vibration of the flowers. Spokesman for the wild places, Edward Abbey once wrote to all the environmentalists who had been inspired by his radical texts (Desert Solitaire, The Monkey Wrench Gang) to take action on behalf of the earth. Take time, he said, to go up in to the mountains and remind yourself why you are putting yourself on the line.

It’s good advice because with all the talking about feeding the world and energy reduction, about social change and behaviour change, all those hundreds of emails and newspaper headlines taking up your attention, you can forget why you are in Transition in the first place and what it means to be alive on the earth. In winter, summer or spring.

Sometimes I dream of a world where we can walk nobly, without shame, on this planet. It’s a future I hold in my heart, ready, like a leaf, to unfurl:

Happily with abundant plants may I walk.
Happily on a road of pollen may I walk
Being as it used to be long ago may I walk.

May it be beautiful before me.
May it be beautiful behind me,
May it be beautiful below me.
May it be beauitful above me.
May it be beautiful all around me.
In beauty is it finished.
In beauty it is finished.

Words from a traditional Dine (Navajo) Chant; Snowdrops and Mark in Dunwich Wood, purple crocus outside my door

Sunday 3 March 2013

52 FLOWERS: moschatel

When we came to Suffolk ten years ago the first thing we did was to walk the territory. We stepped out of the door to find what plants grew in the fields and marshes, shingle banks and heaths, when they flowered in their wayside and secluded places. And in the years that followed, we would make small pilgrimages to sit amongst them, tune into the season, to the turning of the year. Under the goat willow, beside the angelica, alongside the seakale. 

We still do.

Today we went to witness the first emergence of the year, a band of snowdrops in a small clifftop wood of yews and sycamore. They mark the beginning of the flower year after a winter of semi-hibernation. The following piece was originally written for the Plant Communications section of 52 Flowers That Shook My World, and is about a moment when these visits first began. It may appear a short and seemingly insignificant entry in this decade-long log, but, like the snowdrop, it describes the power of small things at a time of shift . . . 

marsh lane, suffolk
Before we came we imagined this house where we now live. We wrote down what we wished to find waiting for us down a Suffolk lane, the shape of the cottage walls, the colour of the gate, its glasshouse with geraniums and washing line open to the seawind. And then we discovered it amongst apples trees and blackcurrant bushes, jackdaws on the roof, sea in the distance, space all around, a ragged hedge of hawthorn and elm, a wood and marsh beyond, a barn owl flying past at twilight, and paths that lead in all directions. 

I am walking on one of these paths today in March, exploring the first flowers of the season.

Past the reedbeds now faded gold and the silhouettes of silver birch, past a grove of large leaning ash and oak, the footpath leads between pasture and barley fields, a line trodden by cantering horses and walking people, jumping stoats and fleeing rabbits, by the slow stride of pheasants and the small scurry of field voles. There are spikes of bluebell coming up either side of the path and great stands of ground ivy and lesser celandine. As I follow the curve in this circular route, I stop suddenly in my tracks, and look down at my feet. In amongst the arrow-shaped foliage, under a stand of spindly wych elm, I can see another kind of leaf,  curvy and wavy and soft, and a tiny flower I have never seen before but immediately recognise from years of reading wild flower guides.

Adoxa moschatellina. The flower is the only one of its kind. A plant that so defied categorisation, botanists had to give it its own house. A five sided cube-shaped green flower, sometimes fragrant, depending on the time of day. Sometimes called the town clock because of its shape. It is a delicate plant and no more than six inches high. The spinney floor is strewn with these tiny green clocks, and its collective vibration is palpable, so strong it has stopped me in my tracks. The flowers are unusual in so many ways. And yet their name means “without glory”.

You are without glory, they say to me, as I stand amongst them on this path.  It is a shock this moment. I realise that no one I have ever known in this life knows I am here. I could disappear in this moment, standing by these small flowers, and no one would notice. Everything that once defined me has vanished: the people who once shared my history, the books that are no longer in print, the by-line that has gone. No longer categorised by property, job or social position, what remains now is what always remains - the mysteriousness of the earth. Myself, Mark.

I am at the beginning of 2003. We are starting again. Our plant communcations, once closely entwined with other people, with teachings and sessions, with our inquiry into medicine flowers, have come to an end. From now on the communications will be with the land, with this solitary path before me.  I am without glory, a nobody in the world, but somehow this realisation fills me with an excitement I can hardly name. I do not have to prove myself to anyone anymore. No one will tell me how I should or shouldn’t be. And in this shocking moment I feel the whole universe open up. 

I am in my own house at last!

It is the beginning of a new territory. After many years of moving, we will grow roots here and make ourselves at home. Mark will grow the collection of seeds from our travels in the glasshouse conservatory. It is a signature year and this small plant is making me aware of its resonance and meaning: how does it feel to be without glory? 

I am walking down a flower track. It is a completely other track than all those I have walked so far, along the green river paths of Oxford, the dusty red trails of the Arizona desert. On either side are the harsh realities of modern country life: gamekeepers, guns, dogs, sulphuric acid, piles of fertiliser, dead foxes, razed flowers, derelict farm buildings, dying trees, a low and hostile frequency. But on the track there is everything you could ever want to feel: lightness, possibility, joy, beauty, freedom, colour, the high and vibrant frequency of the heart.

Time to walk it.

The flower clock faces the four directions, north south east west, with a fifth that looks up at the sky. The flower path of England stretches before me: this is how you walk it. 

You walk in four directions and look all ways, and you look up into the sky. You see the weather moving in the clouds, how the light is always changing and the starry constellations always moving, the moon that waxes and wanes. As you walk you come to know time. The moving time of the earth. You know the time of the fox calling, of the song thrush singing, the time when the red butterfly feeds on the ivy and the goldfinch on the dandelion. You smell snow and mist and rain coming in on the wind, and the scent of sweet violets as the winter turns. You see the spring coming into the hedgerows as they ribbon the land; hazel, cherry plum, blackthorn, crab apple, hawthorn, dogwood, dogrose, elderflower. 

You make a pilgrimage to the tumulus at the time when the daffodils dance, when the alders are dark and tasselled, when the stags roar. You know which berry feeds which bird, and why the clover feeds the bee. You know time from the flower collective that appears and disappears, with the neighbourhood trees in their leaf and fall, seeing how everything connects in time, As you walk, this is the time you keep: with your feet, as you walk, with the rhythm of your heart, as you walk, in time with the rabbit and the stoat, the sun and the star, and the sound of the invisible wren. This is the path of the heart.

I am without glory, but I walk a glorious path. I just have to keep walking. Holding our virtue and grace and intelligence, our own heart frequency, is what the flowers feel from us. Our recognition of beauty, our knowledge of time, our memory of how everything comes and goes and then returns. The moschatel doesn’t care whether you have friends or have succeeded in business, or own a big house. None of these things concern it. The self that walks among these flowers has nothing to do with the self that jostles for fame and glory in the human world. Human glory counts for nothing on the flower path: here your unusual presence is everything, your participation is everything. Your communication is everything.

This is what adoxa is saying on this March day. You are here, you are here, walking by me on this track. It is important you walk this track. Walking it keeps it alive. I am here, I am here, sings the chaffinch.  His song is keeping the world alive. And something extraordinary grows inside your being when you feel this. You realise in this mysterious moment there is another path to walk on this earth, apart from the ones that appear on the map and atlas, and you have just stumbled upon it. A path that goes by the big trees and the golden marsh, a green track, strewn with spring flowers, with lesser celandine and ground ivy and a tiny insignificant plant with curly leaves and five faces.

Adoxa moschatel.

It’s the only path you want to walk.

52 Flowers That Shook My World - A Radcial Return to Earth is published by Two Ravens Press