Wednesday 14 August 2013

The Stage in the Woods

Just about to set off to Uncivilisation Festival where I'll be giving a talk and workshop called Rewilding the Self - Earth Dreaming Bank on Sunday and also co-curating the Woodland Stage (see below). Looking forward to meeting up with everyone. Hope to see you there!
This is one of the stages where it’s all happening this year at Uncivilisation. Made from cob and wood and standing in a beechwood glade, this small theatre is a perfect set and setting for performances with their feet on the earth. When this  photograph was taken it was midwinter and the Sustainability Centre was blanketed in deep snow. In spite of the weather, seven of us had crossed Britain and converged here to organise this last festival. Some of the background to the programme was discussed at the Woodland Stage as we sat around its open fire at night in the fierce cold (helped by a dram or two of island malt!)

By day this space is traditionally the literary stage at Uncivilisation and has hosted all kinds of writers and writing-forms, from poetry readings to small publishing houses (at night it transforms into a music stage). Last year I appeared on its rough boards by happy accident. A workshop was cancelled at the last minute, and I stepped in to talk about my book, 52 Flowers That Shook My World, and share some of its insights. One of these was about a concept called Land Dreaming Capacity, which is an Okanagen word for the human body. The native people of British Columbia saw human beings as the language makers of the planet. They gave the trees and the sky names and sang their praises, connecting everything that took place within the territory as the seasons turned, as generations were born and lived and died. It made sense of their being here. 

My own feeling that writers are people who haven't forgotten that capacity, that we retain a loyalty to the planet and in everything to do we keep naming the world and making our place within it coherent. So this stage in many ways reflects the writers' art of keeping those vital connections alive. In 2013 this is an urgent task. We are writing against great odds. And yet, like the nightingale in the fairy tale who sings more sweetly as he presses his heart against the thorn, that the harder the times, the more intense and beautiful and courageous can be the response: you drop what is unnecessary and get down to what really matters. 

What matters to me in a dark time are the writers who can face reality - intelligently, beautifully, generously - and make you feel that whatever you do in praise of this mysterious earth and your small life here, has meaning and value. In an industrialised world governed by denial and illusion the ability to live - creatively, expansively, wildly - is a possibility I hope this wooden stage will hold for one fleeting weekend in August.

the programme

So this year, as the curators of the Woodland Stage we (Susan Richardson and myself) wanted to showcase a breadth of writing that responded to this planetary crisis, and to show how writing is a key to weathering the storm. It's a programme that ranges from the inner relationship between words and the body (YogaWrite) to the collective drama of climate change (Beacons). We wanted to continue some of the strands that Susan and fellow Dark Mountain poet, Em Strang, developed last year, which means a vibrant mix of poetry, prose (fiction and non-fiction), performance, workshops and discussion and an invitation to the contributors of the new Dark Mountain collection to read from their work. Dark Mountain Books is going to branch out next year, so this session will be hosted by one of the DM editors, Dougald Hine, who as well as introducing the writers, will also discuss the future of the press.

One of the key themes in those collections is the shift from a human-centric world view to an earth-centric one. So another strand we wanted to include was the essential relationship between human beings and other animals. Susan is heading up that section and in Humanimal has invited the writer, Caspar Henderson to talk about and read some of his luminous text in Barely Imagined Beings, to be followed by a talk and workshop, Art in Other Skins, organised by ONCA, the innovative environmental art space in Brighton.

Another driver, discussed in the original manifesto, is the grounding of our words in time and place. In remembering 
the land and the people co-founder of Dark Mountain, Paul Kingsnorth and co-producer of The Telling, Rachel Horne, will both recount their unique ways of recording past events. The Wake is Paul's first novel, written in its own language, a post-apocalyptic story set during and after the Norman invasion of England in 1066, Rachel Horne has dramatised the aftermath of the miners’ strike of 1984, through words, poetry and song and will be sharing ideas how art and action can lead to social change.

sweeping the stage

A performance artist I once knew called Alex Hay told me that the first thing you do in a performance is sweep the stage. You prepare the space and afterwards, when everyone has gone, you sweep up and leave everything as you found it, ready for the next show. That way the space and everything that happens within it has its own hermetic strength and significance. Alex had given up a glittering career as an artist in New York to live out his life humbly in a desert town in Arizona, caretaker broom in hand. That conscious giving up of a city life, with all its dazzling allures, in order to grow down,  is one of the steps the artist and writer make in order to show the way. That strategic step is the shift of Uncivilisation.

Doin Dirt Time is a performance piece about that very move. Based on an interview by Suzi Gablik in her book Conversations Before The End of Time, Rachel Dutton and Rob Olds are about to give away their artworks and possessions and to disappear into the American wilderness. Fern Smith, one of the founders of Volcano Theatre and Emergence, and writers, Phlip Ralph and Sarah Woods will reenact this famous encounter that questions both the role of the artist in society, and what it means to leave that society behind.

Meanwhile I'll be sharing the practices that revolutionised my own life and writing career in Rewilding the Self. In order to write about that shift you have, as I found out, to become a different kind of person and this session will look at how as creative people we can reshape the way we communicate with the planet and its inhabitants. The Earth Dreaming Bank was originally inspired by a talk given by a psychologist called Stephen Eisenstat, based on a meeting with an aboriginal elder in Northern Australia. Once you have a dream, he said, you have to share it. You have to speak it out loud.

Wruters are not silent, strange creatures who live in a small room, tapping away at a machine (though there is quite a lot of that!) The writer is the one who can boldly stand up and speak out, so that the world can hear another language being spoken, far kinder and wilder than the dominant broadcast of Empire, Uncivilisation is a chance to hear those voices that are often drowned out - the voices of the creatures and the trees, the wind and the sea, ourselves - and forge those imaginative connections that make sense of all places, all times, on this earth. Even the hard ones.

Looking forward to meeting you there (I'll be the one with the broom!)

Saturday's Woodland programme
Sunday's Woodland programme.

(First posted on

Steve (Rewilding Academy sweeping the stage, January 2013; Dark Mountain 4 cover by Kit Boyd; illustrated of leather-backed turtle from Barely Imagined Beings by Caspar Henderson; Green Man from Norwich Cathedral; Sea Kale Project notebook.

Friday 2 August 2013


Happy Lughnasa everyone! I am reposting a blog I wrote last year, just as my book, 52 Flowers That Shook My World was published. What strikes me is how this year (2013) has such a different mood to it. We are enjoying a heatwave (and lots of storms) and in contrast to 2012, growers are enjoying a pretty good harvest. Our lane and garden trees are bursting with fruit (just come back from a major cherry forage). In the next field the peacock butterflies have just arrived and are feasting on the ragwort. So, dear reader, there are reasons to be cheerful. Sometimes life does get better . . .

 Maybe it is because I was born on midsummer’s eve, at the zenith of the year, at the time of the greatest light, that I can now write of what it means to take the irrevocable step, the 52 steps along the downward path that lead us back toward the ancestral land, back down toward the sea. Maybe because the golden English oak stands so firmly behind me that I can embrace the dark holm, his brother, and let everything fall, as I step through the solstice door, as the mood of the great year shifts, as the key slips irrevocably from major to minor, from sweetness into bitterness, from pleasure into duty (Wormwood, 52 Flowers)

This week a book with a dark blue cover emerges into the light, officially published at last! It is, dear Reader, my own book, written during the course of 17 years travelling and exploring the world of medicine plants - the green beings that have shaped our destiny since we first emerged onto the planet.

It also appears, by happenstance, at the time of year the book ends - the beginning of August, the day some call Lughnasa, when people traditionally gathered together and celebrated the harvest. This past two weeks as the sun has finally shone I have taken to going down to the shoreline where the book ends. We have taken a thermos and a rug and gone swimming early in the morning in the calm sparkling sea. And though the sea is beautiful and the sound of it sighing against the shore, and it is lovely to feel all that expanse of sky and summertime, the taste in my mouth is of the bitter plant that now flowers at the sea's edge, wormwood. The plant that heralds the end of a certain world.

Another favourite shoreline plant, the sea holly, is bereft of its usual visitors: the small copper and the small blue. In the garden the huge buddleia now in full flower has yet to see a single painted lady or peacock or tortoiseshell. The apple and greengage trees in the orchard are without fruit. Down the lane I have seen no sloes either, or damsons. It's been a tough and topsy-turvy year for growers - battling with drought, heavy rain, cold, too few pollinators, and way way too many slugs. Abroad a rainless and unprecedented heat, from the grainbelt of America to the ricefields of India, is challenging crops everywhere.

The plants and pollinating insects we depend on for our lives are reflecting back the planetary crisis we now recognise as climate change. 52 Flowers That Shook My World - A Radical Return to Earth, was written before I had heard about climate change or peak oil. And yet at its core is the key directive of Transition - downshift, relocalise and connect with the living systems. It follows the years as I leave the city and travel abroad with Mark, as I encounter a different way of being on the planet, as we begin what we call the Plant Practice in Oxford, as we work with medicine people in the desert of Arizona, as we return home to a different England.
Another thing history does not tell us: you do not return when you expect to, in the spring with the hawthorn flowers, or at midsummer, with the rose, but when the barley is being cut, the time of the fall, in the heat of the dog days, as the broad haze of sun burnishes the land. You arrive at the seashore, with wild carrot and valerian, when the harebell and the rowan berries shine in the heathlands. When I went down to the shore to greet the sunrise that August day, the day of the losing throw, I repeated to myself a phrase that struck me as I had awoken at dawn: This time it will not be me that loses."
The book is centered around 52 Flowers, each with their own narrative and their own medicine. Each show how physically, energetically, imaginatively, we can break out of a thousand years of conditioning by our "Empire" civilisation. It set in the mood of the dog days, as we realise we are no longer a people in the time of ascent, but of a descent that is unwritten and unknown. 

Descent is hard for our all-conquering, illusion-loving culture. We are still acting as though we still have the world to achieve and a planet to exploit, but the times are not telling us this. The droughts and the butterflies are not telling us this. Techno-fixes and building empires in space are not where we are going. Reconnecting with the planet and coming home to ourselves is where we are. Reality is where we are. There is an ordeal ahead, as Charles Eisenstein has gently pointed out, and a lot of loving to do. 

Descent begins at Lughnasa with the harvest. Descent begins when we wake up to the times we are in and don't look for someone to blame. What are the narratives of descent? What knowledge have we gleaned in all these years? What do we hold dear at the end of the day? 

There is an elegiac beauty in loss (or what we imagine is loss), to coming home, to realising your limits, to deepening your experience, to loving the neighbourhood, the people in the room, a humble dish of new potatoes, the small strip of seashore I go to each day, where once I could roam the world like Alexander. In fact when you look back and see the track you have made, the dance you have made with your fellows, that's when you understand everything, the beauty of it all - even the hard times. We're trying as a people to get back on track against all odds. We're not doing it because the government is telling us to, or any religion, or ideology, we're doing it because our hearts are telling us to, of our own free will. That's why these times taste bitter: bitterness is a quality of all heart medicine. We learn though experience and in this the earth, not our education system, is our great teacher. All her plants are books of knowledge, if we can learn to read them. 

When I was young I ran away to Italy to try and write a novel. I read Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen, and I could never understand how someone who had loved Africa so much could bear to go back to the dark and cold of Scandinavia. Now I do. It's going back and treasuring what you have experienced that really matters. That's what writers do and inspire everyone else to. You treasure everything in your store cupboard. It's a certain stage, a time of making sense, a time of giving back. That's what writing my own book of return did later in my life, when I had given up ambition and success. It made sense of my own downshift and the collective downshift that Transition prepares us for, as small groups, in communities and towns everywhere.

I could never write that romantic novel in the beautiful Riviera garden. It wasn't the book I had to write. Many of us are not configured to be romantic heroines, conquerors and achievers, we're here to do another job entirely. It has a different narrative, one that is only just beginning. One we are creating together. I don't know the ending, none of us do. One thing I do know: love always turns the ship around. If you can still love the world, in spite of everything. The people, the places and the plants. 

I am giving two talk and workshops this August: one called The Plant Lexicon at the Wilderness Festival as part of the Dark Mountain event on Sunday August 9 and the other Rewilding the Self: Earth Dreaming Bank at Uncivilisation on Sunday 18 August. Maybe see you there!

If you would like to buy copy of 52 Flowers That Shook My World - A Radical Return to Earth do get in touch  theseakaleproject@hotmail., or you can order directly from Two Ravens website.
Poster for Plants for Life; buddleia in the garden; sunflower from 52 Flowers That Shook My World; scythng workshop at Uncivilisation Festival; beside the sea holly, 2011; Lughnasa sunrise, 2011