52 Flowers That Shook My World. Most of the power plants in this chapter I worked with during my travelling years in Mexico and South America, but this one took me by surprise on a July evening in Norfolk. This was 2007, a year before the finanical crash and before I knew anything about Transition or Dark Mountain or any of the future-looking networks I would later become involved with. I write this because sometimes plants come like a herald in your life; and in your core intelligence, that part of you that recognises destiny in a small moment, you know that something else is at hand . . .
I looked around the garden as twilight came. Small knots of people were still gathered on the lawn. A white-clothed table gleamed beneath the cherry-plum tree. A peacock sat on the high wall, surveying the scene. By a hornbeam hedge, a figure was bending down, showing a group of children how to fill paper bags with sand and small candles. Other small shapes were making a path of flickering lights that wound through the copse of oak and yew. I went and stood at this path of lights by the hedge: they wavered in the half-light and led towards the moat.
I knew no one in this garden, at this party, but in another way I knew them all. Most of the guests were creative people - actors, directors, writers, singers, designers - and they had come from Notting Hill. They had taken magic mushrooms and travelled though America. I wandered from group to group on the lawn. An Oriental girl with waist-long hair in a Sixties dress, mixed me a delicious cocktail. A old Zen Buddhist told me about the days he did zazen in a Japanese monestary and bought a Kachina carving from a Hopi elder. When Mark appeared, we smoked tobacco together and danced, the three of us, to the sound of some very strange music in the house.
Inside the kitchen, around the table, I find myself talking about plants with a man who had just arrived from London. He is a serious voyager into the hallucinogenic realms and an expert on Chinese medicine. He is telling me about his experiences with ayahuasca. I am telling him about a desert bush called red root and how it works with the spleen. We have all kinds of plants in common and places, and yet it feels difficult to find a common ground.
“Would you like to try some pollen from the Himalyas?” he asks and holds up a pipe.
Intrigued I take the small carved pipe into my hands.
“Let me introduce you to the Deva of Cannabis”, he says and lights the bowl. And though mortally resistant to marijuana and even more to devas, I close my eyes, draw a deep breath and inhale the smoke of the burning flowers.
It was as if, in that precise moment, a force came out of the shadows and pushed us irrevocably apart.Without saying a word, we stood up and moved away from one another.
The next thing I knew I was in the garden walking across the lawn. Everything in the shrubbery was shifting all around me, I could feel all the plants and trees breathing, moving closer, as if investigating my presence. I laughed and lost my balance. Behind me in a square of light there was a figure moving around to the “music” - words intoned by presidents and politicians, declaring the end of the planet with a forboding tone, like the drone of large aeroplanes in the background. The sound boomed out into the dark garden.
Before me I could hear the sparks of a fire crackling and the murmerings of invisible guests. It was during that time as I moved – it seemed to take an aeon - away from the house, toward the fire, that I remembered a young Indian drummer I once knew who had organised a music festival called the Ras Lila. The ras lila is a game organised by the gods for their amusement. Nothing matters in the ras lila, because everything goes round and round and nothing ever changes. It is the game that devas play with humans.
At the fire, a young man with a dark face came and talked to me for one hour. He had not come from Notting Hill. He had appeared as if from nowhere and crouched in the darkness, wielding small joints of marujuana in his practical, intelligent hands.
In the darkness, he talked about the festival at Glastonbury where he had worked for several years. He had an acute intelligence and described in detail the workings of its system, all its fascinating ins and outs. How if you came without a ticket and were endlessly patient, endlessly polite, the gatekeepers would eventually let you through. How thousands of new tents were abandoned at the end of the festival because people were too exhausted to pack them up.
He was equally acute about the monetary systems of the constructed world. How money dictated our every move and kept people in an artificial state of panic and despair, as the financial controls artificially engineered each nation’s rise and fall. Whatever the state of the country, he said, the banks, and the Bank of England most of all, would always benefit.
I followed everything he said during this hour with an intense concentration, following him through the muddy paths of the great music festival, through the global corridors of power. But at one point his account of the corporations and governments of the world endlessly driving the earth and everyone on it into the ground suddenly became meaningless. I lost track of what he was saying.
I let out a breath. He stopped talking.There was a long silence between us. The people carried on sitting quietly around the fire, wrapped up in their own invisible worlds. The night wind blew through the trees.
“Well, that’s enough of conspiracy theory!” he said and laughed.
“Where is it all going?” I asked him.
“The end!” he announced with a sudden surge of power that faded as soon as it was said, leaving a cold abandoned feeling in the conversation.
“Oh!” I laughed, as it seemed quite obvious that neither of us wanted an apocalypse. “What can we do about it?”
“Empathy,” he said. “The system works by keeping us separated.”
The word empathy hovered in the night air, like a translucent moth, over the huge stockpile of nuclear charged missiles bent on the destruction of all life-forms, for no reason it seemed, except perversity.
And then, without saying a word, we both stood up and went our separate ways.
It was the best party I had been to in years. There were all manner of surprises: fireworks and birthday cakes, speeches and poems and a film that celebrated our hostess’s 50 years that flickered against the faded wall of the Elizabethan house. It had been orchestrated by the owner of the house, who had spent a lifetime conjuring photographs, fairs and travelling circuses. Even when it came to the end, it wasn’t really the end, as there was to be a lunch the next day. People who had travelled all over the country to come here were camping under the trees in the garden beyond the fire.
As everything drew to a close I stood in the French windows and breathed in the night air, my bare feet feeling the cold stone of the floor. The sounds of farewell were echoing in the drive. Then I put down my empty glass on the table and left the house, moving through the dark garden towards the car where Mark and I were sleeping under the cherry trees. One by one the little tents in the orchard extinguished their lights, the voices in the house faded away, and there was just the starlight left, as I shifted my position on the car seat, under our coats, under the cherry trees, and heard the cry of peacocks in the dark.
It was around the time of the party that I first noticed the hemp plant growing under the apple tree outside my window. I had found plants growing there before in late summer, as the seeds I put in the tree for the birds found their way into the damp soil and shot up unexpected sunflowers and safflowers, fragile blue flax and a ragged composite flower, known as ambrosia, which I recognised as a medicine plant from the desert. The hemp plant grew fast and huge and burst its way through the gnarly boughs of the tree.
I stood at my window and watched its progress day by day. The room faces three directions: the south window looks towards a field of barley known as Hare Field and the tower of the flinty church, the east toward the blond marshland and a shining strip of the North sea, the north toward a grass meadow and an ancient oak wood. The hemp and the apple tree grew in the north, the direction all the medicine wheels tell us is where the ancestors dwell.
The hemp plant grew taller and bolder each day. My excitement mounted with it. What is it about the tall plants that is so exciting – the foxgloves, great mulleins, the waving silvery mugworts with their blood-red stems? Is it because we can stand next to them and feel a kinship in our proportions? Or is it that they can meet us sternly eye to eye, or in the case of hemp, tower over us, like exacting teachers, so we might learn a thing or two in their presence? Hemp is an intoxicating plant to behold. Everything about it is beautiful- its sturdy ridged stem, its rich-green hand-shaped leaves, its sudden and exhuberant growth, the shape it carves in space. One day as it almost reached the sill of my window my eye was caught by the centre of its leaves.
Light was pouring out of them.
“Oh, they are about to flower,” I said out loud to myself. I had never seen a hemp plant flower in my life, but some part of me knew: that part that faces North, the ancestor part. The ancestor who knows what we need and what we don’t, that money doesn’t buy love and that the ras lila some day will have to come to an end.
“We will have to grow down,” Mark said. There were four us on the mountain, gazing towards the sparkling blue bay of Santa Barbara, at the resort shimmering before us.The glamorous town and the sail boats grabbed all our attention. But the still presence of the ancestral mountain behind us was stronger. It held us in its stern embrace and finally we looked away. On the mountain, it would be easy to grow down, amongst the sage bushes and the hummingbirds. But could we do this when we awoke instead in beautiful Santa Barbara, when we awoke with the sound of peacocks under cherry trees and felt the tug of the ras lila in our veins – oh, the show, the music, the laughter! We talked about that party for days. It hung about us and lingered, like a tune, a fragrance, an ache you cannot bear because it is gone, so you replay it endlessly in your mind.
We go to parties because we love parties, but if parties are the only thing what then, when we are left abandoned in the cold, outside the theatre, in the streets at night? Do we then fasten our coats and hurry home, carrying the intoxication of parties and theatres in our minds, wishing secretly for the next time and the next? Or do we in that moment hold the moth in our hands, turn to face the one we have come with and say: that was good amusement, was it not? Now shall we continue down the mountain path?
We do not like to grow down for that is to forget the games of the gods, to leave the theatres and our sailing boats behind. It is to eat humble pie. It is to wear hempen cloth rather than the silken garb of peacocks, it is to eat the seeds of the plant, rather than smoke its flowers and follow the path of fairy lights through the wood.
I love the hemp plant, but of cannabis I am wary. In the kitchen its smoke was fragrant and sweet on my tongue, but afterwards I found I could not speak. “That’s the whole point,” the man with the pipe told me.”That’s what I like about it. I don’t care about anything anymore!”
But I do not like my silence. I have listened to too many people at parties talking about conspiracy theories, with paintings undone, books unwritten, dreams unrealised, talking as if they are radical and free, as if this power plant is taking us somewhere. While we whirl in an endless churn of time, amongst the ashes of the god’s cremation ground, while a moth hovers in the dark, above our heads, waiting.
The plant outside the window is male. To be narcotic the plant needs to be female, for only the resinous female flowers provide the smoke that pushes you into a state of intoxication. In the head shops of Norwich I have seen photographs of these female marijuana buds that look like the wrathful deities of the Himalayas. Something makes me shudder when I look at them, so contorted and misshapen are their cultivated forms. The male flowers of this bird-sown plant are quite different: small and sober tassels of creamy white.
Some evenings I make a green tea with these flowers with peppermint, lemon verbena and vervain that grow in the pots around the garden. But mostly I like to see the plant outside the North window, between the boughs of the apple tree. Sometimes I wake in these light warm mornings and feel its presence moving the co-ordinates within my being. It is the presence of the plant that I love. The way it has appeared this summer, out of nowhere.
The way it told me that it was the party to end all parties.
The problem you encounter lies in the plant itself: for hemp is a construction plant and its seeds lie amongst the ruins of civilisation. Its body provides one of the most versitile natural materials in the world and has been cultivated by human beings for 6000 years. In England, before enclosure, there were communal hemp fields all over Suffolk and Norfolk. Hemp provided the essentials of life: clothes, string, rope, canvas, sacking, the nets that caught the shoals of herring off the East Anglian coast. In the modern world its uses are even more manifold: its leaves and stems can form bio-degradable plastic, build houses and automobiles, its oil maintain the cellular structure of our bodies.
Above all it makes good paper – the tough, thin pages of bibles are famously made of hemp. It was made an illegal crop in America not because there was a danger of drug use (the so-called industrial hemp, cannabis sativa, does not in fact contain the narcotic properties of the less robust, cannibis indica) but to enable landowners to make money out of timber. Unlike forests, the plant grows astoundingly quickly in many different terrains, it feeds the soil and needs no artificial fertilisers or pesticides. It is a plant for a solar-based future.
But how can we find this future whilst we are using the plant to wall ourselves in, to construct barricades between ourselves?
We have to face the ancestor. We have to speak with the plant and find a way to proceed. In India hemp belongs to the king of the devas, Shiva, god of destruction. In Japan it is considered a sacred plant of solar forces. When you turn to face the North you realise the talking to yourself has to stop: it’s time to grow down.
Hemp is a power plant, but unlike most other power plants, it is a narcotic, a downer. Narcotics differ from hallucinogenics in that they are not transformers but painkillers. Cannabis is one of the world’s most potent natural sedatives. It also one of its most popular recreational drugs, providing a relief from the harshness of modern industrial life. It does this, in the way of all plant painkillers (though less dramatically than heroin of opium poppies or cocaine of coca leaves) by numbing the emotional body and allowing you to retreat into yourself.
Some people disappear into their own worlds when they smoke cannabis, others start taking over the world and talking like politicians. However you respond, something in you no longer cares about your present circumstances. You are chilled and cool and have no feeling.This lack of emotional depth and warmth means it is impossible to have empathy. We are swirling in strange music, the plants are shifting about us, we feel we are in the thick of the party. But the truth of the matter is we have been pushed far apart from one other. The sound of our stoned voices drone on like aeroplanes.
To get to the future we need to find our common ground and communicate, but this cannot happen with the hemp flowers in our hands. The deva of cannabis waves her wand and provides an escape from the pain of life lived in the system. But she does not get us out of the system. She might give us the power of knowing all systems, so we are cleverer than presidents but she cannot gives us the wit and the will to act on what we know. Like all will o’the wisps, all fairy creatures, she is making promises and luring us unwittingly towards The End.
Why did we not see it so clearly? That the path of lights led to a ha-ha, the butt of the devas’ joke on humans? Because there was suffering in our lives and the marijuana was hiding it up. We could have voiced this suffering, but we wanted, like everyone else, to rise above it. That summer, when the party sailed into the view, like a liner with strings of coloured lights and a band playing, we were facing a complete financial crisis. “Tonight,” I said to Mark, “We will forget everything and just enjoy ourselves.” Miraculously, I had found some money in a coat pocket for the journey. So we put on our best frocks and shirts and jumped into our scarlet car and set off.
At the hardest time she came, the Deva of Cannabis, like a fairy godmother and blunted the pain of that moment. Because we could, for a while, just be as magnificent and as beautiful and successful as everyone else at the party.
The truth of the matter, however, is that our lives under these systems are too hard and make too many demands on our humanity. This is not the toughness of the earthly life, the heat, the cold, the business of being born and growing and dying, not the tilling of soil or mending our coats, the struggle of creators. But the hardness of artificially-constructed lives, of upholding a heartless world in which money is the only object.
Not wanting to see us suffer, the godmother comes with her sparkling favours, her ballgowns, her charming princes, her golden slippers. But she cannot help us, for she cannot help herself, deva such as she is. At the age of 22, the editor of Vogue instructed me to always consider the sufferings of Our Reader - in one hand, a hoover and the other, a gin bottle.
"Tell them there is more to life than that,” she said.
So I did. I told them where they could go, what they could wear, how they might remain forever young, forever beautiful. They might be prisoner of their circumstance, but in their dreams they could travel around the world, own paintings and elegant furniture, eat caviar. Life is just like a party! I said.
One night, aged 33, I held a dinner in Notting Hill and we smoked hemp flowers that had been sent from Canada.Ten of us sat around the table in the falling darkness and became completely silent. A neighbour arrived at midnight and left almost as swiftly she had come.“The lights were on but there was no one at home” she told me. And for the first time in my life, I felt ashamed.
To find your way out of the system, out of the amusement arcade, you do not consult the ones who run the show, you speak with those who are no longer distracted by its fascinating lures. Not because they are pure and innocent but because they know every trick of the trade and will not swerve in their task.
I do not know everything there is to know. But I do know one thing: the devas are not the ancestors.
Perhaps that is why I loved the hemp plant so, as it flourished beneath my window, far into September. How could I hold anything against it? It would be like holding something against myself, who had lived in Nothing Hill, given parties, manufactured illusions, been part of the great ras lila. We were made of the same stuff: in our natures we were practical beings, ones who liked to provide with our physical presence; we held a good medicine in our female flowers.
We had however been foolish: unknown to us these flowers, separated from the whole of us, highly cultivated, had furnished distorted and imaginary worlds in which time went round and round instead of forwards and had so ruined the lifeforms of this earth. It was time to return to the ancestor, to go back, to grow down. It was time to regain the leaf, the stalk, the male counterpart of ourselves. It was time to return to the mountain.
To return means the escapes have to go. It means you love everything that made that hard moment bearable - the glasses of wine, the beautiful dresses, the old scarlet car with its fine chrome lines - and then you let it all go. You allow your suffering to speak to you. You let the lines of life reorganise within your being on a summer’s day and know you are not alone in your task.
Hemp was the last teacher in the bush school.The grandmaster of all illusion who came to say that the party was over. An ancestor of the sun who came to instruct us how to live without the taste of theatres and shows in our veins. Only when you can withstand illusion can the dialogue commence, can the real show begin. A show in which heart-speaking humans and not superior and heartless deities are in command. In this show you do not escape from anything because you are on the earth, at home, with your companion under the apple tree.
And here is the only place you want to be.
Image of hemp leaf (creative commons); industrial hemp fields from the documentary, Bringing It Home,
Friday 5 July 2013
Meanwhile I thought I'd write an update. Where have we gone? Well, Transition Norwich is now mainly focused on three areas, and most of our ex-bloggers can be found there: John Heaser and Erik in Transition Hethersett, one of TN's Transition Circles (mostly active in the west of the city), Chris and Elena busy at Norwich FarmShare, and Helen with organising the Magdalen-Augustine Celebration. Jon Curran meanwhile is writing for the Norwich Escalator programme, and Simeon, who was elected as a Green Party councillor in the recent May elections, is active in the network, Visions for Change; Mark, still tracking wild and medicinal plants, is organising the distribution for Transition Free Press during its pilot year, and putting his attention on Wellbeing (principally with TN's country cousin, Sustainable Bungay).
And me? Well I'm helping edit a book with Lucy Neal about Transition and the collaborative Arts, called Playing for Time - Making Art as if Life Matters. She has been coming down almost every week this summer and we have been working out of her caravan in the garden. Other days I have been editing Transition Free Press (now working on the third edition) and distributing books for the Dark Mountain Project.
After writing 74 blogs last year (!) I found myself stepping back from these keys as the year turned and letting myself go fallow. Recently I emerged from the clover and wrote a post on my own blog inspired by the cover for the new Dark Mountain book. It wasn't about food or community, or transition initiatives. It was about the visionary English artist, Samuel Palmer. It was about belonging.
When Transition Norwich unleashed almost five years ago, I sat down at the Arts, Culture and Wellbeing table and discussed with others how these subjects might influence the way we face a future without abundant resources and finances. It feels, after many explorations within Transition, mostly around communications and community activism, that I have come full circle. You might say I've come home. Maybe we all have.
Rob Hopkins' new book, The Power of Just Doing Stuff, focuses almost entirely on practical projects and the revival of the High Street. It gives a clear simple picture of the Transition movement, as a way for local groups to come together and start community gardens, bakeries, energy projects and local currencies. But, for me, Transition has mostly been about a process, a going through: undergoing a radical restructuring of the self, to become an active agent within the collective, in order to live effectively in the future. To feel at home on the planet amongst my fellows.
As a writer it has meant witnessing and reporting on that process, and the cultural moves we need to make to downshift in our ordinary lives. Intellectually, pragmatically, emotionally, imaginatively. It has meant making meaning and giving value to this low-carbon life, learning to open out and become articulate about subjects that are "outside my skillset" from zero waste to high finance. And most of all it has meant learning to work in a group. This Low Carbon Life began all that for me, and perhaps for all of us on this journey. Looking back, though it worked beautifully as a collaborative project and produced some great posts, I don't think it entirely broke the tyranny of the silo, that position of individual control that is the bane of all social enterprises. Me did not entirely become We, the connected Self, one amongst the Many.
Images:tree spinach in the garden; delivering copies of Transition Free Press to May Day Fair in Chapelfield Gardens; cover of new Dark Mountain collection by Kit Boyd: (you can pre-order a copy or subscribe for the year here); community garden in Transtion Portalegre, from The Power of Just Doing Stuff by Rob Hopkins (you can order a copy here)