Wednesday 24 April 2013

52 FLOWERS; Japanese Cherry

south kensington, london 02 

The cherry trees are in bloom all over Kensington. It is a London spring moment, when the city’s ornamental trees burst into flower before anywhere else: golden forsythia, waxy magnolia,  sugary pink almonds. In the parks and private gardens, the bushes and trees hold a grand ball, throwing their gorgeous colours against the white painted houses in the sharp spring air, as the lowly daffodils and narcissi dance beneath their grand Oriental display.

On one of these glorious days I go walking across the parks of London and find myself in South Kensington at a dress shop. I am standing in a changing room wearing an outfit I once beheld in a dream: an elegant jump-suit made of crinkly dark grey material. It is the kind of dress a fashionable extraterrestrial might wear, or a modern Joan of Arc. It fits like a glove. I am amazed by the coincidence. I have always wanted to wear a dress like this. But as I stare into the mirror I am shocked I cannot find myself. “I” have disappeared.  It feels as though the dress is wearing me, and not the other way round. I suddenly feel very uncomfortable.

This warrior outfit has been designed by the visionary Japanese fashion designer, Issey Miyake. Years ago I was invited by Issey Miyake to visit Japan as a honoured guest, with several other  fashion editors from around the world. We were entertained like royalty. I had never been treated so well in the whole of my life. Everything was paid for: our hotel bills, our expenses. When we walked into clothes shops we were told to help ourselves. Beautiful meals were constructed in our honour, elaborate courses based on the theme of autumn, adorned with small maple leaves and twigs. We were chauffeured everywhere, put on luxury trains that took us to all the major cities. We  slept in mountain lodges with paper windows, sat in cedarwood baths, visited red and gold temples.

Meanwhile, as the purpose of the visit, we attended the conference on the future of fashion where Miyake talked eloquently about the earth and the fabrics that demanded such a high price from the natural world - things which at that time I had never considered. The fabrics of Japan are unique, as are their designs. The Japanese attitude towards the material of life is quite different from that of Europe. It has a rigorous abstract aesthetic that Miyake felt was being undermined by the coarser narrative and glamour of the West. This aesthetic is expressed in a myriad ways - from the simplicity of their Zen gardens, to the innovative and elegant way parcels are wrapped, the reverence with which everyone sits underneath the cherry blossom at Springtime. The Japanese are also phenomenal consumers of rainforest wood. Rayon is their principle fashion fabric, so it was apposite that these things were being discussed.

One night in Kyoto we went to a traditional restaurant with various business men.  We sat on the floor and behind each of us kneeled a geisha girl in rigorous attire. Occasionally they would serve us food and pour out sake in perfect silence. Their stiff clothes and their painted faces and submissiveness made me feel quite uncomfortable. All the visitors exchanged glances at each other, not knowing quite how to respond to this part of our show. I am remembering this moment as I stand here in South Kensington in my fashion suit.

No one except a Japanese craftsmen could have created this kind of suit. It is made from the fabric that made Miyake famous in the West. Only Mario Fortuny in the 1920’s had worked with this crinklecut before. Evening dresses that could be squeezed into a small shape in your hand, that never need ironing, that always make you look like a million dollars. The material hugs the body instantly and lends your whole physical being a certain elegance and shape, making you shimmer in the metallic hues of gold, silver, copper, bronze, like a classical statue.

My dress was pewter-coloured, just like my dream. It fitted perfectly. It was not even very expensive. But as I looked at myself, I suddenly felt overcome with something I could not name. When would I wear such a garment? I thought.

It was then that I saw myself in a vision. I was paused on a stair, held in a certain moment. It was the stairway of a grand hotel, and there was a dark man on the dining floor below. There was a place set for me, and he was waiting. It was the moment when he saw me, would then rise, greet me and allow me to sit down.

But I am not that woman. I was never that woman and moreover, I had never wanted to be that woman. This dress was designed for someone who would serve a man, and whom a man would formally make a place for, as she descended the stair, shimmering in all her metallic colours, in all her jewels. There was an ancient agreement between them, except that I have never made it.

“It’s beautiful,” I said to the shop assistant. “But I am going to leave it.”
“It looked good on you,” she said simply.
“Yes,” I said, “I know. But I don’t have any occasion to wear it.”

That was the last time I considered fashion. For years I had worked in this world and known it in so many ways. And now it had suddenly lost all its meaning, all its alllure.

Later I walked home through Holland Park.  There was a peacock amongst the cherries and camellias and as I walked by, he opened his glorious tail. There is such beauty in the world! I thought and was filled with all the excitement of Spring. The cherry tree is an ecstatic tree. Like all the rose trees – apple, hawthorn, almond, plum and all the soft fruit trees - it has a profound effect on the way you feel. Its masses of pink blossom and its autumn-red leaves, give you, as you stand beneath its branches, a great soaring hope and inspiration for life. I have made a tincture of wild cherries, and found that one sip can give you this feeling as well. Its scented bark is a traditional remedy for the lungs, helping you to breathe more freely. Everything about this tree lifts you up, opens things up. When the peacock unfurls his tail of rainbow colour, the blossom of a tree appears at the end of a street, and as you put on a new dress, you feel for a moment transcended. And it is at that moment you find yourself on that imaginal stair.

There is a lot of power in that moment. It is a moment that millons of women fantasise about. That one moment of blossom, where the man is waiting, beholding you, finding you beautiful.
Millions of dresses pour out of the factories all over the East to fulfil that one moment. The geisha moment. It is repeated again and again. Never quite reached, never lived out. Then the tail descends, the bloom fades, the dress doesn’t fit, and you search for another, and then another. 

I am not going to be in that moment.

If we could be beautiful like the peacock, with simplicity. If we could unfold ourselves, each with our own natural beauty. Not just for this one Spring but always. Because our beauty in a cage is not real beauty. It is a glamour, a moment wherein we are stuck and doomed eternally to repeat; beheld by another, but possessing no qualities of our own, except that we adorn and serve some business that is not ours to question. Real beauty is something inner, something deeper, something more lasting. It is in the whole tree, its roots, its branches. And that whole tree has its own mystery. It is intact.

Somewhere miles from here there stands a wild cherry tree in a wood and the tincture I will make from its fruit one year later is delicious, rather like sloe or damson gin. Except I put no sugar in it, so it has an aftertaste of bitter almonds that all roses posses, a taste that lingers on your tongue, long after the fragrance has gone, that is not covered over with artificial sweetness. That taste is prussic acid. It is the poison of the rose.

This poison says that no matter how beautiful you are on the outside, no matter how many dresses you wear, or how many times the man does, or does not wait for you at the bottom of the stair, there is a price to pay, and some day you will have to pay it. That if you are smart you will pay this now. While you can. You will put your dress aside and think about the inside of your being, what treasures lie in your bones, what kind of wild beautiful hope you carry in your cells, what kind of rosy fire that will exalt us all - not just to illuminate a private fantasy, but for real.

from 52 Flowers That Shook My World - A Radical Return to Earth

Tuesday 23 April 2013

doing the spring shift

There it goes again. Booooooooom! 4am, April 20. Bang on time. The bittern is back in the marshes. Gotta be spring out there, right? And yes, finally it is: bursting out of its cherry-plum celandine and alexander seams. I've been tracking it since we went to the woods down at Dunwich in March. First the honeysuckle, then the foxglove, then the odd blue veronica winking along the curb. We checked out wild daffodils on the tumulus and goat willow at East Hill and they were finally in their splendour. I saw my first bumblebee and first butterfly (tortoiseshell) and sat barefoot on the doorstep, prepping veg, face in the sun.

You think it means nothing a shift of season, but after this long, dark and bitter winter Spring feels like a reprieve. We're warm for the first time in months and a feeling of lightness and happiness is flooding the house. At our first Sustainable Bungay wellbeing walk a crew of us walked around Bungay on the first really great sunny day of the year, mapping the streets and green spaces. We met at the community garden and everyone shared their favourite places, the edges of carparks and rivers, the commons, certain streets, trees and  houses.

We set off to visit the now community-owned, Falcon Meadow and  the wonky colourful Bridge Street, once the main thoroughfare and site of the Halloween pumpkin festival. We exchanged our experiences and memories, knowledge about birds, trees, history, delighted at the texture of place - brick, flint, faded wood - the river, alleyways, benches, footpaths, the pattern language of our town and finally ended up at Bungay Tea Rooms, everyone's favourite cafe, where we sat in the garden with tea and chips.

The sun shone gloriously. We felt good. Not just in ourselves, but with each other. Life was harder for all of us, but treasuring the day and this town we share made it seem all right. We mapped out the walks we are going to do this summer too, including swimming down the river Waveney and holding our annual picnic by the shore. And then Mark and I did a manita de gata (cat's paw) tidy of the community garden and delighted in all the green shoots of the herbs and plants that made it through the dark and cold.

Right now in the garden under the budding greengage tree, the coldwater champion of England and fearless Transitioner, Lucy Neal, has established her caravan. We have begun work on the book, Playing for Time and each week over the summer she is coming to stay for three days and we are hammering out the Work in the tiny crucible. Here I am sorting out the hexagonal sections that make up the centre of the book: contributions from the artists, writers and practitioners who gathered at Lumb Bank. Lucy recently wrote about our experiences on the Arts Council blog here: 

This week we are looking at each of those sections, starting with one that matters more than anything . .

Images: honeysuckle and foxglove in Dunwich Wood, March; arts, culture and wellbeing walk en route to Falcon Meadow, April; in Lucy's caravan; message to Mark at the wild daffodil tumulus!

Wednesday 17 April 2013

From the Mourning of the World to Happy Mondays

This year I'm co-curating one of the stages at the Uncivilisation Festival. All manner of poetry, prose and performance will take place on the Woodland Stage, as well as workshops in the woods (programme to appear soon!) When night falls and the fires are lit, the musicians will take over. Amongst them will be singer Marmaduke Dando, who this year has compiled an album of some of wild and uncivilised music associated with the Dark Mountain Project.

From the Mourning of the World features an alternate version of Caesar, recorded specially for the album by Chris Wood, as well as celebrated artists such as Jon Boden, Chris T-T and Bethia Beadman (whose track is a duet with REM’s Mike Mills). 

Like many creative grassroot projects, Dark Mountain funds its annual anthology by crowdsourcing - a kind of community-supported publishing. You order a book (or in this case an LP) by pre-ording a copy, and this in turn pays for the production. Following the trend and in the spirit of celebrating the beautiful and the physicial, From the Mourning of the World will be a 12” double-gatefold vinyl album, with a cover by the wonderful Rima Staines. Check out the crowdfunding page here:

I'm planning to give a workshop on Earth Dreaming at Unciv this year, and there will be more about this and other creative Transition projects during 2013, from Playing for Time to the new Arts, Culture and Wellbeing group. But right now I've got to proof the upcoming second issue of Transition Free Press and go make nettle pesto and beetroot risotto for our April Happy Mondays at the Community Kitchen. Stay tuned!

Thursday 11 April 2013

Considering Transition community events as cultural and creative acts

Last month as part of the Playing for Time project, a convergence of artists, theatre makers, writers and tutors met at Lumb Bank, the Arvon Foundation's centre in South Yorkshire. We were collecting material that will form the core of the book - the practices and projects of community-led creative action. To help shape the week and to introduce Transition, I mapped out the following events in the light of the work.

The invitation

Dear contributors to Playing for Time,

I am writing a few notes on three Transition events, so you might consider your own projects and practices in the light of one very ordinary Transition initiative.

If you don’t know much about the Transition movement, this is one way of looking at it in action. Every initiative differs according to its town or bio-region, but all of us work from the same premise: to help create resilient communities that can adapt to the shocks of climate change, peak oil and economic downturn. In many ways we are working in preparation for hard times ahead - creating a low-energy future that people might want to live in, rather than fear. And one, for sure, where none of us feels on our own.

I have included links to blog posts about these three events if you would like to check them out later (no pressure!)

Looking forward to working with you all this week.

Best wishes,


Who we are

Sustainable Bungay is based in a small market town in Suffolk, in the Waveney Valley. We are unfunded and without any formal links to any organisation, or public arts body. None of the people taking part in this initiative would consider themselves artists, or these events we put on as art forms; yet thinking about creative collaboration within the context of Playing for Time, everything we do has strong creative base. We are deliberately forging a new culture for a new time, a culture not made up of operas or fine wine or complex poetry.

Our work comes from necessity, rather than theory: it’s grassroots, vernacular, based on gatherings, rooted in time and place. It doesn’t have a hero writer or diva centre stage, with an audience gazing passively upward, but takes place in a room full of participants, with an organising, often invisible, core. Everyone belongs in this space and time. Everyone has a voice.

In Bungay we all bring something to share and we all take turns. Our events are organised by one to five people and everything else self-organises. We don’t do visionings or have strategies. Most of us learn on the job. None of us are rich or influential. 

We have a core group of 15-20 people with several sub-groups, who have been working together for five years, producing a regular monthly programme of talks, walks, workshops, film showings etc. that are open to all the community to attend. These include a twice-yearly Give and Take Day, monthly Green Drinks, and seasonal celebrations, such as summer picnics and seed, plant and produce swaps. Our activities are based around the local library where we built and maintain a community permaculture garden, and hold many of our meetings.

All these events were photographed and written up afterwards in a series of blogposts. Keeping a record is part of our communications work.

The events

Monthly meal for 50 people, cooked from scratch using local, seasonal and mostly organic produce. £5

Crew: 16 (5 cooks, 2 front of house, 3 servers, 3 set-up/flowers, 3 washers up)

Venue: local community centre

All of our meals have a theme and sometimes this is a country. Last September I directed a meal, based on Mexico (where I once lived) that took place just after Mexican Independence Day. Most of the food was locally sourced, including several kinds of chilli. Our maize, onions and runner beans were from a  local allotment, blackberries from the common, Mexican sunflowers and cosmos from local gardens. 

Our Abundance table was truly abundant, filled with Indian summer sweet corn and chilli plants, tomatoes, peppers, raspberries, apples, garlic etc. Mexico is a great place for convivial gatherings, and this was the theme of my short talk between courses, as well as Beans and their place in a low-carbon diet. We also had a Spanish-singing Transition a capella crew, singing the mariachi standard, Cielito Lindo.

All simple stuff. Yet it’s this attention to detail and celebration of ordinary and beautiful things at your feet and working alongside your fellows that makes such events joyful and satisfying in a way a Hollywood movie never can be.

A daylong “celebration of the honeybee and the flowers they love”, as part of the town’s annual festival, held at Castle Meadow (one of the town commons). Free.

Crew: 16  (one event manager, one stalls manager, 3 cafe organisers, 10 set up and breakdown/stall keepers, one grower of bee-friendly plants)

Activities: stalls, workshops, plant walk, film, talks, cafe, children’s corner

Venue: festival marquee, under the trees and around town

The Bungay Beehive Day is organised by members of Bungay Community Bees - the first community-supported apiculture in the UK. The group keep community hives in different gardens and orchards around the town, teach children about bees, give talks about pollinators to local groups, work with a local nursery to promote bee-friendly plants, build their own top-bar hives, train beekeepers and have bee-related events.

Beehive Day invites several speakers, ranging from the professional (Heidi from the Natural Beekeeping Trust) and amateur (Philip, ex-surgeon and local bumblebee “expert”) to local beekeeping groups and the day includes discussions, a film and readings. The stalls sell honey and organic plants, have demonstration hives, info about pesticides etc. and there is a honey cake competition and a bee-flower walk around the town.

Beehive Day is visited by between 600-800 people, and like other SB events, is self-funded.

BCB also grow their own stock of bee-loving plants and have planted a wild flower meadow, with a local landowner, as part of a “River of Flowers” project around the town.

A series of knowledge. skill-share and reconnection with nature events, based around a Herbs for Resilience plant medicine bed at the local library. Donations.

Crew: 2 (organiser and event manager)

Venue: community library and courtyard garden

Each year the Library community garden central bed has a different theme and is curated by a different member of the group. In 2010 this was Plants for Bees and Butterflies, this year The Edible Garden. In 2012 the bed was abundant with wild and garden medicine plants, from a huge burdock to stands of tiny thyme flowers.

Each month between eight and forty people came for a talk, walk or workshop on the theme of plants as medicine. Each Plants for Life session featured a guest ‘plant person’ speaker and included medical and lay herbalists, authors, organic and biodynamic growers, and home winemakers.

“We looked at the medicine under the ground as we connected with our roots in January, learned growing tips in February, adopted a herb to focus on for the year in March, walked with weeds in April, heard about hedgerow medicine in May, made midsummer wildflower oils in June, went on a bee and flower walk in July, had our world shaken by 52 flowers in August, made autumn tonic tinctures in September, medicinal wines in October and French tisanes in November.” (Mark Watson)

We tasted, talked, foraged, shared tips and teas and exchanged seeds. Transition medicine is as much about plant knowledge and maintaining well-being, as it is about getting in synch with the living systems - not as a solitary practice but as a communal one.  

Images: creatures made from clay behind our backs - workshop led by Julia Roundtree (Clayground) at Lumb Bank ; Sustainable Bungay crew with van, Give and Take Day, 2012;  Abundance table at Mexican Fiesta, Happy Mondays, Sept 2012; bees in one of Bungay Community Bees top bar hives; poster for Plants for Life, Oct 2012