Thursday 11 December 2014

The Gift of the Heart

Last week I received an email from Andrea Hejlskov, a Danish writer who lives in the wild woods in Värmland, Sweden. She had read my last post and wanted to ask about the shifts I discussed. Would I contribute to a a series she was running this month about gifts on her own blog? Here is the result of our conversation. Normally acting as the Interviewer, it's a rare and wonderful thing to be asked questions, to be able to reappraise where you stand in the river of your own life. I first came across Andrea's work through a great post she wrote for Dark Mountain about living offgrid. Her book about her experiences will be published by Two Ravens Press next year.

What happened to you? Who are you now in relation to who you were when you first became an activist? Is that deep urge gone?

When I first joined the Transition movement I took part in the Transition 2.0 initiative in Norwich, where small intentional community and neighbourhood groups decided to cut their individual annual carbon emissions to four tonnes (the UK average is 9 tonnes). We measured and shared our home energy, transport and food consumption and held deep discussions about personal carbon reduction around each others’ kitchen tables.

I changed almost everything I did on a household level that year (2009/10), including switching off the central heating, sharing a car and only wearing second-hand clothes. I took part in reskilling sessions, building a community garden and helped set up ‘Give and Take Days’ where everyone could exchange goods for free and tons of rubbish could be diverted from landfill.

These are things everyone can do – but it’s far far easier to act if you are in a group and your actions are framed within an intelligent appraisal of planetary drivers such as climate change and resource depletion. For many of us Transition supplied that initial frame and network. However once you have acted on the information, you find you also need to act very differently in your ‘real’ life. In short your work and all your relationships need to embed those changes.

My trade is in communications, so I put my experiences with my fellow Transitioners into print and pictures. The Norwich ‘Circles’ provided the material for a community blog (This Low Carbon Life) in which our stories could be shared and stored. Subsequently these became a national blog (The Social Reporting Project) and then the newspaper, Transition Free Press.

The urge to change and transform is very strong in me. I stand by the changes I made in those Transition years and the social frame in which they happened. However the cliché “you can’t change the world with the same mindset that created it” means that just altering your behaviours and engaging in your local community is not enough. Transition and other progressive movements work principally on an extrinsic mind/body axis, from what some people call a ‘left hemisphere’ perspective. For real change to happen we also need to include the feeling/spirit axis and shift our values intrinsically. We need to allow the right hemisphere to influence our walk through the world. The heart is the only part of us that can hold and cohere these different aspects of ourselves.

So in answer to your question: I guess my deep urge now lies within exploring and documenting this shift of axis. It requires a different language and a different way of interacting with people. In my own life this has meant moving my focus from Transition towards the work Dark Mountain do. Essentially away from the pragmatic towards the creative.

What are you feelings about change now?

I feel our human blueprint is to undergo change through time. We are natural transformers in the same way mushrooms or bacteria activate and change other substances by their presence. All archaic and indigenous cultures celebrate these processes through their art and song and spiritual practice. We live however in a civilisation that prevents these kind of change from happening. People in industrialised culture are trained to be workers and consumers and act according to ‘fairytales’ told them by their education and media. We have become functions in an artificial system, not natural symbionts with the Earth.

So change always upsets the ‘stability’ of this known world. It exposes the reality underneath the dysfunctional narratives of our civilisation. Most people don’t want to look at the full implications of what they do every day without thinking. Not because they are mean, but because they instinctively fear the consequences. When you let go of that unnatural cramped position you have been holding for years, there is a lot of pain and anger and bewilderment to deal with and very little to guide you. Changing your shopping habits is the least of it.

Radical change is far more demanding than either modern spirituality or community activism make space for, partly because there are feedback loops to cope with. There is no way to jump this suffering but there are a lot of ways of making it easier to bear. Sharing them with fellow Transitioners is one way. Turning them into creative material is another. However we have to weather this process because we need to become a different people, people who can live in synch with the Earth and each other. That’s an outer and an inner thing. It’s personal and it’s planetary. And it is also political.

One of the reasons Naomi Klein in This Changes Everything says institutions deny climate change is because they know that you can’t act on climate without radically altering the whole system, without acting on capitalism, without bringing in social and environmental justice.

That’s the same for individuals. When you change one thing, you end up changing everything. The systems are interlocked.

How do you celebrate Christmas? What does this season mean to you? What happens to you around Christmas? What do you wish for it to be? Do you have New Year's resolutions?

I don’t think I’ve ever made a resolution! I gave up Christmas in my 20s (way too much family arguing!) and went travelling with my friends instead. I never looked back. However I do celebrate the winter solstice. In the Celtic tradition there was a time either side of the solstice called the Halcyon Days, after the mythic kingfisher who builds her nest at this time. And so I keep those 14 days as free as possible and tune into the world outside my door: the weather and light, the frost and trees, to keep an ear out for the moment the birds start to sing again. I usually do most of the pruning of the apple trees and hedges at this time (by hand!) and so am outside in all weathers. I love the winter twilight, chopping the firewood, watching the stars come out. It’s easy to forget those things when you are indoors or working.

We (that’s with my partner and colleague Mark Watson) mark all the eight stations of the year, the solstices and equinoxes and feast days. We light a new fire at night and watch the sun rise the next morning from under the neighbourhood oak. or by the sea. Usually I go for a long walk through the land, or visit our local tumuli. It’s about paying a certain attention at these times. They are all doors that usher in another season and make sense of the relationship between the sun and the Earth that plays out in the growing year and in the larger cycles of life. They help keep us on track and rooted in time and place.
I know you lost heart as an activist. Is your heart back? What makes your heart pound now?

My heart is no longer the way it once was when I was fully immersed in a creative project or at the start of my involvement with the Transition movement, which is to say full of excitement and enthusiasm. But the heart needs to undergo radical change too. It needs to become the central governing intelligence of our lives and not be limited to the things we normally associate with it, such as passion or romantic love or inspiration.

My practice as a community activist in the last 6 years has been a social practice. This opens you in ways that you do not expect. You can’t really live a conveniently personal life once you have accessed your community self, because you are not separate from the people you live among. Here in England there is a lot of hardship and inequality and a desire to escape. Like everywhere else the land is being badly treated and we are the inheritors of a bloody history. We bear the scars of these things, and only a big medicine will turn that around.

So I find I can still celebrate the small joys of life – the light on the sea, the taste of food, daily interchanges with people and creatures – but looking at the state of the planet with true eyes needs our very adult attention. I don’t think we know what that really means yet. When I look around me I see a lot of childish and adolescent behaviour, but not much depth and integrity or fairness. So that’s what I am trying to bring into everything I do. The heart desires equality of exchange. It is exacting in these matters. You need to get back as much as you give. Making those demands for yourself, for the people, for the land, requires you to be a tough negotiator in a hostile culture that is used to giving nothing in return.

I think the heart changes its function as you get older (I am 58). So it doesn’t pound in the way you felt it pound when you loved the boy in the next room, or the words you once wrote for a glossy magazine. One day you wake up and realise that not only can you not go to nightclubs any more, you can’t keep flying to other countries either, or eating fish, or thinking you are special, and that’s a sobering thing.

Our civilised lives are off kilter and we are not at home or in time. The sober heart straightens this out from the inside and changes the way you walk through the world. It teaches you to make yourself at home and how to live in time. So perhaps it would be fair to say a pounding heart, an excited, upbeat heart, the kinds of feeling and kinship I originally felt when I joined my Transition initiatives, do not create the best state with which to face the future. You have to meet it on its own terms. And that’s not been done before by a post-industrialised people.

For me the people who know how to live with that kind of challenge, with uncertainty, who can provide beauty and depth and meaning, who can regenerate and remember the world, are my fellow artists and writers.

Creativity is the best gift we can give – and the best any of us can receive”.


Images: illustration from Andrea Hejlskov’s book Og Den Store Flugt by Danish artist Signe Kjær; Sustainable Bungay Give and Take Day crew, 2010; holding russet apple grafts for community orchard from This Low Carbon Life; Waylands Smithy, Oxfordshire; reading Dark Mountain 4; Winter solstice sun, Suffolk (all photographs by Mark Watson)

Friday 14 November 2014

where do we go from here?

"I am taking off my red coat. In its pockets are seeds, rosehips, bus tickets, notes from meetings. The coat has mud on its woollen sleeves where I have dug festival ditches and community gardens, stains where I have poured tea in church halls and slept in protest tents, where I have chopped wood in my garden, a badge on each lapel that says ‘we are the 99%’ and another that declares freedom for Palestine. We can turn the ship around, I have been writing these last six years, we can do it ourselves. We can repair, resolve, remember, restore, re-imagine the world we see before us falling apart.
(The Seven Coats, Dark Mountain: Issue 6)
For some time now I've been wondering where to go. Where do my words belong, in which direction do my feet need to walk? It seems like a long time, but maybe it isn't. Maybe it's the absence of something crucial that has made it feel so long. If writing can be defined as the excitement of stringing sentences together and putting them down on a page, then I could describe this state as 'writer's block'. The sentences did come sometimes, but they soon fizzled out and could not cohere beyond a paragraph. I would feel deflated, and no longer connected to what the words were saying. It felt as if my material had run out.

When I stumbled upon the Transition movement six years ago I found I had a vast treasure store of words at my fingertips, and I spent 2008-13 sharing them in over 400 posts and newspaper and magazine columns. There seemed no end of things to say to about powerdown: about giving up central heating and radicalising my store cupboard. About working in groups and searching for a new narrative. But after a while the collaborative writing projects I created began to run aground, and I found myself losing heart. As we used to say, the EROEI just didn't stack up anymore.

I thought at the beginning I was in Tranisition for the long haul. I thought it would shape my life and that I would make a livelihood from it and forge some deep and lasting connections with fellow activists. Then I realised my engagement was a transition in itself. It was a territory that needed to be encountered and navigated, like an ocean voyage, and my outpourings and photographs were its captain's log. Once I had understood the need to frame what I saw within the planetary ecological and economic drivers, from a social perspective (no longer stuck in a little individualist cocoon), I could move on.

I had a lot to be grateful for: immersing myself in community activism broke my own disenfranchisement, it broke my silence, it gave me a rough education and skills in areas I knew nothing about, from global finance to splitting my own firewood. But by 2013 I was coming up against certain limits. Some of these limits were in my fellow Transitioners, unwilling to forgo their conventionality, or face collective demons - which made working in groups very difficult. Some were to do with the governance of Transition itself, of having an organising network where all the funding and authorial voice is concentrated in one small place.

The main limit however was to do with writing, my trade. In 2012 at the national Transition Network Conference there was a moment when I realised my love affair with the movement was coming to an end: I was standing with my fellow 'social reporter' Teen (also an ex-journalist) in an imaginary High Street of the Future. Everyone in the Battersea Arts Centre was busy building shops and enterprises out of cardboard boxes along its chalk-etched pavements. Our printing house was the first to finish and we needed to find some custom. So I went to the Job Centre.

We only have people with skills here, I was told tartly, you need to go to the Bank. Teen went outside to  have a cigarette. I went into the lobby to email some recipes for a community meal I was organising. I left a preview copy of a new newspaper in our cardboard office.

That wasn't make believe.

the sentences

I write spurred by an urgency all writers feel: to voice the collective messages you wrest from your individual experience of the world. That urgency comes when you wake up at dawn with sentences spinning like fireworks in the dark, desiring you to put them into a meaningful order. You can't keep those kinds of sentences to yourself. You have to get them down, and then you have to get them into the fabric of the world somehow.

In the era of the Internet writers no longer have to wait for publishers and agents to sign them up. You no longer have to wait for a bored editorial assistant to reply to your 1000th email, telephone call, or book treatment. You can just go and ahead publish your work yourself. By 2009 I had become, like everyone else, a blogger. I was busy creating several Transition-based collaborative blogs to record our low carbon lives in a time of social change. After 14 unpublished years, it was a heady liberation.

But writing on line has a downside. Free words are not the same as words that are printed, paid for and given proper attention by an editor and reading public. Something about the transaction is not right. After three years on a continuous deadline I realised, though I didn't like to admit it, that the messages embedded in the stories were being ignored. They were at best a moment of "beautiful writing" that flitted across the screen and then disappeared.

I realised that no matter how many pieces I wrote, or projects I  co-ordinated, editorial skills were not considered important in this grassroots territory. Everyone can write blogs, so what is the big deal? 'Comms' in a corporate-shaped world is not true editorial, but a hybrid creature lurking somewhere between marketing and HR (and occasionally filed under 'well-being'). When I stood by editorial in these Transition transactions  I started to feel that invisible crushing force normally experienced in real High Street Job Centres or the bowels of US immigration:

You should do writing as a hobby/as a volunteer/in your spare time and get a real job.

"Why should you be paid for something you enjoy?" asked my (retired) neighbour at the community meal last month, as he argued against the Arts Council funding artists and their work.

Something in me rebelled that night. I have been editing a book about artists funded by the Arts Council for the last two years, so have some insight into how most artists earn their money and what they do to secure it. I saw the writing 'limbo' I had been in all these months was in fact some kind of strike. No matter how many stories I had up my sleeve, no matter how many great connections I had made, I couldn't keeping writing about a movement where people didn't care if their media makers earned less than £2 a hour, or where funders were happy to pay 'official' Transition staff decent salaries, but their cultural freelance activists, little or nothing.

After six years I realised my work as a 'citizen editor' was leading nowhere. The sentences no longer came to me at dawn. I hadn't used the camera for over a year. That's when I realised that the bitterness I sometimes expressed was not a sign of failure, or defeat, or envy for the better fortune of others. Like all bitter things it came from a place that was demanding my attention: it came from the heart.

the empty quarter

In the latest Dark Mountain journal I've written a story called The Seven Coats, based on the Sumerian myth of Innana. Unlike the 400 blogs I had written so blithely at dawn this one took weeks to finish. It is, in some ways, about the block.

In the story I stand in front of "the six coats upon their pegs, lined up like so many books on a library shelf: my life laid out in sequence" and consider what it means to let go of all the forms of writing I have known up to then. The seventh scarlet coat is the one that has kept me bright as I documented the bumpy terrain of Transition.

Even though I have been writing since the age of 14 and worked as a journalist in my 20s and 30s, I did once stop writing books and articles for six years and only keep notebooks. I was in those years charting a territory of dreams and plants and found I could no longer write as I had in my working and travelling years. Those sentences just wouldn't form. Every time I wrote I or We I shuddered from the sound of my own authorial voice.

Sometimes it's not a lack of material that stops you writing: but a call to change your position and see another world.

Dark Mountain is a singular territory: it does not argue for sustainability, or feel we can turn the ship around if we change our shopping or voting habits. It doesn't say business can go on as usual either, or insist that all life is brutish and without meaning, or that we cannot as a modern deracinated people find our place on Earth. Even though the writing and art Dark Mountain curates look unswervingly at the collapse of ecological systems, the works themselves cohere. The people who converge around this Project hold together at the edge of a space that has no words. In a harsh and fragmenting civilisation it allows, through its creative prism, a deeper intelligence and connection between us to shine through.

The Seven Coats is about going through the seven doors of the Underworld, to discover this space of upper light and air. At each door Innana is subject to humiliation and told to remove her clothes that represent her wordly powers. A professional ability to write and edit and bring a team of people together, was perhaps the last of my old world capacities I had to forgo. It was a hard and Hadean struggle. "Your self-esteem is tied up with this blog," railed one of my fellow Transitioners, as he tried to oust me from editing the project I had created. "You are a bad writer/ a communist/I don't want to hear you talk about money again!" yelled other comrades-in-arms.

Bitterness is taboo in this world. In the same way the ruling caste will accuse the disenfranchised of envy, without considering their own privilege, writers are often accused of self-pity or ego if they complain about the poor hand they have been dealt. Shame is heaped upon you if you dare to ask for payment for your work. You are supposed to do this for free!

However bitterness is a quality of the shadow heart. The heart demands we make a good deal. It is the superlative judge in all things that matter. The Earth is a complex matrix of exchange, and if our exchanges are not fair, then something is amiss. If you are bitter it is because your heart is telling you have been been tricked in some way.

The deal is not straight for writers or artists in this culture: the culture depends on our ability to see, feed back, transform, delight, inform, question, honour, celebrate and berate the world that is all around us, to transmit a hundred messages that arise from the deep void as colourful sentences at dawn. It depends on our feeling the urgency to create. If we can't tell the real stories of our lives, it means there is no story. And a culture without a story is on its way out.

When I arrived at the Uncivilisation Festival in 2011, I realised there were people who knew the value of words and who knew the story we need to be telling has yet to be written. It was in many ways like coming into harbour after a bad storm. What attracted me was not the "doom-mongering" that the conventional media accuses Dark Mountain of, but the creative project that deliberately holds a certain kind of space. Before a story can come together, space needs to be made to allow its structure and meaning to cohere. There needs to be what the great plant metaphysician, Dale Pendell, calls a Ground State Calibration.

When you hit dry land after a long voyage you need to recalibrate - to find the existential basis for all your following actions that lie deep inside your being. You have to locate the star by which you will navigate the next journey.  If we are really co-creating the future, as Transition and other optimistic narratives assert, I don't want that future world  - by which I mean human society or what we know as civilisation - to be the same one I have been painstakingly critiquing for 40 years only with a different vocabulary, with other More Important people in charge. To be worth working for it has to have certain basic conditions: it has to have real kinship with the Earth and it has to heed the creators who are in the room, each with their names and singular virtues. It has to value the bright words we forge in the darkness of ourselves. No less, no more. Otherwise there is no deal. The story won't get written.

Today I looked at the sea: it was big and rough and the light bounced all over it. It was alive. I was alive. It was a good feeling to be standing there on the edge of England, in November. This is a good place to begin, I thought, as out of nowhere a sentence began to take shape....

Images: cover of Dark Mountain 6 by Eunah Cho; Transition Town Totnes badge (Emilio Mula) from Transtion Free Press preview issue 2012; connecting the words at the Transition Network Conference 2012 (Laura Whitehead); butterfly shaped strange attractors in phase space; covering an Occupy Norwich assembly (Mark Watson); Feeding the Fiire from Below by Kate Walters (from Dark Mountain 6) light on the sea at Southwold (MW)

Friday 31 October 2014

ARCHIVE: On an ordinary summer's evening in an ordinary town

This week one of my fellow activists from Sustainable Bungay Nick Watts, left the flatlands of Suffolk for the mountains of Wales. In celebration I helped produce a 'souvenir' issue of our regular newsletter for his farewell party, and it was only when we sat down to chart everything he had done during the last six years that we realised how intrinsic some people are within a Transition Initiative. Here is a blog from our heydays in 2011 that starts and ends with Nick - about downshifting, being ordinary, and the dynamics of working in a group:

"It’s definitely the stick," said Mark as he stood with a piece of wood in his hands. It had been inadvertently donated at Sustainable Bungay's Give and Take Day and suddenly reappeared in our hallway. From the outside it looked like a shiny broom handle but it wasn't: it was a fighting stick belonging to a young man mortified by its disappearance. 

But I guess you’d have to be a warrior to know that.

It’s an ordinary summer's evening in a Transition town. We’re on our way to our monthly core group meeting. First we have to drop off the stick at Kate’s and have some supper with Nick.

“You share your lives in the blogosphere and I’d like to share some of what I do," Nick said as he began to fill a box full of July veg - onions and garlic, fennel, beetroot, fresh eggs and blackcurrant jam. We sat down at the kitchen table and drank some squash wine, ate a delicious bean salad and talked about the financial crisis.

You have to be in Transition to truly appreciate Nick's house – kale and courgettes in the front garden, sorrel around the door, a garage with dried herbs hanging from the ceiling and shelves full of preserves, giant tanks of rainwater, chickens, cupboards and windowsills with kegs of homemade wine, a stack of books on economics. It’s not what it looks like, but what is behind everything you see. What it took to get there. The bare aesthetic of downshift.

Years ago I interviewed a man called Tommy Roberts. I was working for a glossy magazine at the time and the subject of the article was Taste, that indefinable quality that distinguished one person or house from the next.What is Taste? I asked various arbiters of style, fashion designers and editors, owners of grand and important properties. Tommy was once a designer of natty suits in the 60’s when he was known as Mr Freedom but at that time had a shop under Centrepoint full of zany, brightly coloured modern furniture: Taste is the Japanese room with one beautiful vase in the corner, he told me. A lifetime of taking away makes that room. It’s what you don’t have that defines taste.

We live in a have and have-not culture and our value systems are entirely based around possessions. Not just the things those designers were talking about back in the 1980s when materialism and property began its great boom – wallpaper and watches and John Fowler’s "pleasing decay" - but a personal warehouse of business connections, children, communities, garden flowers, Hollywood stars, holiday countries. My special world.

"Well, you’re rich in other ways," said the man at the Financial Instability workshop at the Transition Conference after I had detailed my downshift from The World of Interiors to Sustainable Bungay.
"I really am not rich", I replied.
"You are rich in social relationships", he insisted, frustrated with my density. "In quality time. You are abundant in other ways."
"I have very little", I replied. (which is not strictly true because like most people in this country I have chairs and tables, pots and pans and all manner of basic essentials). 
"What is wrong with nothing? Why do we have to be wealthy at all?"

What I wanted to say was I had spent a lot of time clearing out that room. And I didn’t replace the things I used to own with different things - with people or experiences, or a low-carbon lifestyle - but had learned to love space and time and the freedom that lack of ownership brought.

In downshift less is not more in the way we once understood Japanese style. Less means you take everything you don’t need away, so that what really matters is left. It means you don’t have because having is no longer important. What becomes important is that freedom of movement and living a deliberate life.

It’s an ordinary evening in a Transition town and we’re on our way to our meeting at the Library. But first we have to meet at the pub with the Community Bee Group to celebrate the success of our Beehive Day, and then unload Eloise’s van full of information boards and select some just-picked fruit from the back of Cathy’s car. Cathy runs the Abundance project and swapping our produce and plants - at our meetings, in the Library community garden- has become a way of life. So here we are in the car park with a stack of boards and punnets of cherry-plums and blackberries meeting in a damp summer in a difficult time, swifts whizzing round the roofs, echinacea flowers full of bees.

At the 2011 Transition Network Conference we took part an exercise. We had to imagine a group we longed to be with in the future. I am no good at visioning and all I could think about was the fact I would be 65 in ten years time and how weird that was. And then I realised I don’t long for a group of people because I am already with those people and I had met them three years ago in the theatre down the street from here. And what was difficult to feedback to my fellow Transitioners in the canteen in Liverpool was the fact that it wasn’t the individuals in the initiative that made us matter to one another, the way we are used to people mattering in our lives, as special friends, or heroes, support systems, as possessions and dependencies. My important relationships.

It was the fact that when we met up as a group in these public spaces something happened between us. Something we held in common. We understood implicitly what we were doing and why – sharing stuff, organising events, going through the agenda. When I looked at this working-together in the visioning it looked like an energy field, the kind of energy field you sense when you stand by a hive humming with bees. A hum of warmth and intelligence that allows people to naturally collaborate and make that low-energy downshift happen. When that’s going on you don’t need possessions to compensate for your isolation, to anchor your introverted fantasy world. You don’t need data or climate science to persuade your tricky mind. You just need to tune in and act.

If you passed by Bungay Library tonight you’d notice the lights were on and if you peered in you might see a group of people around a table, eating plums and laughing, one person intently writing notes, one speaking, another occasionally calling order and everyone else paying attention. None of us look as if we are arbiters of taste, or abundant, or full of well-being or anything else the modern world puts a price on or gives value to. We’re obviously not important members of the community with homes-to-die-for, or great jobs or cars. We appear utterly ordinary and so we are. Ordinary people doing an extraordinary thing.

You can’t see the field from the outside, you have to feel it from the inside. You recognise it when you are in it because you are doing it along with everyone else. In fact you can’t be in it unless you are doing it.

That’s the real shift. The move from individualism to group collaboration for the good of the whole is primarily a personal shift, away from ownership and control, into a field of exchange and communication and reciprocity, into give and take. And that’s a whole new lexicon of being. It’s not a replacement of things, it’s a move. A let go and a join in.

Because Transition is not a noun, it’s a verb.

Photos: Sustainable Nick - souvenir issue; with squash wine in Nick's kitchen; rainwater storage; Cathy's Abundance fruit; Nick with harvested herbs.

Sunday 19 October 2014

Holding the world beloved in our hands

My column from the summer edition of EarthLines on the destiny of animals and ourselves 

She is heavy, much heavier than I thought, and stinking. Still I carry her down the road and over the gate to the marsh where she was going. It’s a short way, although it seems to take an age to get there, and all the time Otter images are flashing in my mind: Tarka the Otter, The Ring of Bright Water, animal medicine cards where Otter stands for female energy and playfulness.

But mostly I’m remembering Dougie Strang's installation, Charnel House for Roadkill, where the bones of wild creatures are laid in scarlet-lined caskets. How he found a dead badger on the road one night and drove home with the windows of the car open.

I have only encountered an otter in my imagination before and the reality of its presence is unnerving, forcing me to look, feel and smell the creaturehood in my hands as the cars roar past Hen Reed Beds. The blood and guts, bone and fur. The stench that is partly her own powerful scent and partly the smell of decay. I lay the form gently on the side of the dyke and am shocked by a feeling of cold fury that runs through my hands.

The scent of dead otter stays in my nostrils for days.

mountain lion

Roadkill encounters feature strongly in the Dark Mountain canon, partly because they directly challenge our human-centric view of the earth. There are two stories in the new Spring journal and one of the paintings is made from the hide of a roadkilled roe deer and the smoke of fallen birch trees. “To create an image of themselves in life” as the artist, Thomas Keyes explains.

You feel it is some kind of test. You want to drive past on those empty country roads, but sometimes you have to stop, feel the smoothness of snakes and the prickliness of hedgehogs, notice the unbearable beauty of bird feathers. Hold a dying rabbit against your heart.

Gary Snyder once said that the collective karma in respect to our treatment of animals was massive burden we had to contend with: and if you look at the number of campaigns that call for a halt to hunting, zoos, SeaWorlds, deforestation, mega-farms, abattoirs, fur factories, badger and bear culls, you will see why. We are hell-bent on pushing the animal kingdom out of our dominion – without realising we push out our own humanity at the same time.

In a map showing the weight of animals on the planet, human beings take up a large section, exceeded only by the cattle they raise, and in smaller proportion, pigs, sheep and goats. Elephants occupy a small corner, and tiny dots represent the rest of the wild animal kingdom. The otters weigh less than a feather.

Somehow we can’t look this reckoning in the face. We know this is way out of kilter, but we do not know how to right the balance. Or maybe buried beneath our rational minds, deep in our own creaturehood, our blood and guts and bone, we do but are unwilling to step into the territory.

My friend Cyril once found the skin of a mountain lion in a flea market in Nice. So he bought it and went up into the mountains, and lit a fire for the animal’s spirit. He had prayed and buried the skin under the trees. And we were quiet when we heard his story. Because we had all once lived in places where the wild cats had roamed and heard them roar in the canyons. And deep down inside us we knew that to live where wild things have their place is to live in right relation with the planet.

And it is a hard, hard thing to look at the psychotic and cruel things human beings do to their fellow creatures – and have always done – without turning away and wanting to play with totem animals in our minds, or watch them in nature programmes. Or simply to blank the fact out.

barn owl

I live in agricultural country, big arable fields skirted by reed beds, where most wild animals are considered vermin. Fox, rabbit and deer are all shot at night from military-type vehicles. The suburbanisation of our lane over the last decade has caused a once lively population of hares to disappear from view.

This year the barn owls also vanished. 2013 was a catastrophic year for the owl, even in their stronghold of Suffolk. The harsh weather conditions and increased use of rat poison has reduced their numbers to a mere four thousand pairs.

I had gone to the Big House to have a drink together with our neighbours. The six of us had all converged years ago in defence of this lane against a development, and, although we live in different social spheres there is still a kinship between us. I asked about the owls who had once nested in the oaktree in the drive. Had anyone seen them? No one had. Rat poison is badly affecting their numbers, I said.

“We use rat poison,” admitted the lady of the house. And there was an awkward moment then as everyone - bird lovers all - sipped their small glasses of prosecco. I wanted to be polite, but couldn't. “91 per cent of barn owls are found contaminated with it,” I repeated.

Some days I stand at the window at dusk and look over the pastures to where the owl used to fly, a ghostly presence flitting past in search of voles, mice and young rats, and feel his absence keenly.

I wouldn’t say it was grief, more what the Apache call a 'pain in the heart'. You have to let the ache be because to escape from the feeling would be to join the cognitive dissonance that afflicts the rest of the neighbourhood. You don’t want to rage (though so many times I have) because that blame and hatred fuels the unconscious even more. You need to act, if you can, support the people who fight for owls and foxes and hares. Then you have to remember how it was when they flew over.

One day when the conditions are right, you say, you will come back. As the tawnies call to each other in the oak trees. We are still here, are you, are you?

goat willow

Around the equinox I went to visit the goat willow that grows on East Hill, a small mound overlooking the wide sweep of reed beds outside Walberswick. It is huge tree, perhaps the largest I have ever seen, and we come here each Spring as part of the year’s flower pilgrimages: snowdrop, daffodil, lily-of-the-valley, seakale, sea lavender. I love to lie down beneath its golden branches and listen to the bees gathering pollen. It has a mighty effect on your sense of wellbeing.

This year the tree’s crown had been smashed by the big winter storms and many of its top branches were broken. And yet in spite of the damage, it emanated the same feeling of exuberance and calm. Its spirit was intact.

And I remembered then the goat willow I had sat down beside and wept the year cows and sheep were being slaughtered in their millions across the land. Its trunk had been partially burned by vandals, but still there were catkins about to burst out and buds of intense green. I had gone to the wasteland by Port Meadow to connect with the animals’ spirits and apologise, which was the only thing I felt I could do.

And though my heart was sore, something in the tree’s resilient presence would not let me become overwhelmed. You have to grow your roots, even when your branches are cut. Life does come back, I knew that then. But I also knew we had to not let the destruction continue. And how could we do that as a people in an institutionally heartless world?

In March as part of the No Glory campaign, a speaker from Norwich Stop the War Coalition came to our local library in Bungay and talked about the millions of young men who died in the trenches of France and Flanders during the First World War. It had been organised by a member of our local Transition group. This was not a wellbeing walk, a Give and Take Day, or any of our usual events, nor is the Transition movement political. And yet we gathered in a space so that a history that still caused a collective grief 100 years later could somehow be addressed.

Quietly and slowly several people told of their grandfathers and great-grandfathers who had survived the war and yet never spoke of it. Some finally spoke – or sang – as they lay dying, remembering their comrades on those muddy fields. The Great War is a trauma that runs very deep in the English psyche and the loss of whole bands of men from the surrounding villages can still be felt.

I realised then that no matter how many seed swaps we organise, or plant monographs I write, if these things are not done in another spirit, in kindness and with full awareness, they will affect nothing. To restore the wasteland demands more from us than event managing or clever words. It requires the kind of spirit medicine you feel from the goat willow, when you bury an animal with honour. For regeneration the conditions have to be right.

The superficiality of our minds and our unfeeling wills trample easily over the statistics of men and beasts killed in the name of Empire. Our hearts know differently but keep silent, because we have been bullied for aeons not to utter a word. Soldiers famously lost their ability to speak in the face of the horror at Ypres and Passchendale. And still now It is hard to speak out loud about war or factory farming or deforestation, even among our fellows. It is hard to mention rat poison to the people in the Big House. We don't want to look at the industrialisation of the planet, and our implicit agreement in the slaughter. We want to be polite and well-thought of, and for nature to be our solace, our plaything, our quiet Eden.

But to right the balance we have to pick up the otter when we find her on the road and acknowledge that this lithe, female, watery being, whom we have loved in our imaginations all these years, might not love us back in reality.

And we might have to work very very hard to get that relationship back. And we have to do this work because without the otter, badger and lion, without the spirit of the willow trees, without the hearts of young men, we are going nowhere.

Images: Deer bones from Charnel House by Dougie Strang; Following the Roe to Bennachie (birch smoke on deer vellum) by Thomas Keyes. New issue of EarthLines (Autumn/Winter issue) is now on sale.

Sunday 12 October 2014

DANIELLE PAFFARD: on radicalistion, austerity and making fossil fuel industries feel out of date

In a month of climate actions and demonstrations from the global People's Climate Marches to No to TTIP and Global Frackdown here is the autumn Transition Free Press profile of activist Danielle Paffard. Each issue I interview people who are key to an understanding of and manifesting 'Transition' culture. In past editions these have ranged from Mark Boyle on the philosophy behind gift economy to George Monbiot on rewilding our neighbourhoods and imaginations. The interviews are often long and intense, though the space in the paper only allows for core extracts from our conversations. I begin with a few key questions and let the story unfold...

What makes an activist? And what effect do actions take in shaping our cultural narrative?

Danielle Paffard helped start up the highly influential campaigns UK Uncut, Move Your Money and No Dash for Gas. How did she get from being ‘relatively unpolitical’ to becoming the new UK divestment co-ordinator for 

“I studied the environment at university and came out feeling there was a huge problem, but also feeling totally useless and unable to contribute. 

“I came across Climate Camp and went from being quite anti direct action to meeting these amazing activists. Two months later I was locked to a coal-fired power station, shutting it down from the inside. That was a really transformatory experience and formed the founding principle for most of the activism I’ve done since: you find a group of people you can work with and who inspire each other. 

“Then in 2010 there was a change of government. When the Spending Review made it clear just exactly what this new government was about another radicalisation moment happened to me. 

“One of my friends said: if we just keep on marching from A to B listening to Tony Benn speak, we’re going to lose. We need something that’s more feisty. 

“The next day he found a small piece in Private Eye about how Vodafone had avoided £6 billion worth of tax and he made the link: ‘Look, if we’re losing £6 billion from one company that could cover almost the entire issue of the cuts, how are the government getting away with this austerity narrative?’ 

“UK Uncut started at Vodafone’s flagship store in Oxford Street, using the direct action skills we’d learnt through the climate movement to highlight the falsehoods behind austerity. 70 people shut down the shop. By that weekend there were 30 more actions around the country. 

“This was when Occupy was starting up and there was a huge anger with the banks and the bailouts. But, though with UK Uncut we targeted high street banks with our actions, it was hard to break through into the more systemic problems around banking.

“It was unexpected and exciting and had a key role in changing the awareness of tax justice in the UK. 

“At that point I banked with HSBC, who fund the world’s biggest coal mines. It had been on my to-do list to change, but it wasn’t in my diary. So we came up with actions to motivate people to close their accounts.” 

“And so with another group of friends we set up the Move Your Money campaign, which was about very publicly moving your money away from the big four banks into more socially responsible alternatives. 

The blockades to a just transition are due to the political power of the fossil fuel industry” 

Danielle’s next move however was far away from any high street: with 16 others she scaled a 300 foot chimney to protest about the building of new gas-fired power stations in the UK. 

“The platforms at West Burton were about five metres from the top. Once we got on there we blockaded the access points and dropped a hanging tent down into the chimney. So they had to turn the power off. And people took it in turns to sit in that tent. It was November and really cold. 

“We delayed work for a week and stopped 20,000 tonnes of C02 from being released. EDF tried to sue us for £5 million. The public reaction was extraordinary. 65,000 people emailed EDF to drop the charge.” 

As a result many climate activists were reinvigorated and the Reclaim the Power event was launched at the Balcombe anti-fracking camp in 2013. Paffard is now to be found behind the scenes as divestment co-ordinator for the climate action organisation, 

“We’re working on ways to stigmatise the fossil fuel industry sufficiently to unblock the political process. It is so weighed down by the fossil fuel lobby we are struggling to get the meaningful decisions we need to do something right on climate.
“My role is to work with the existing campaigns – the university campaigns organised by People & Planet, Operation Noah who work with faith groups and the fossil free health campaign, started by Medact, who have just got the BMA to divest. I am also helping to encourage small independent local groups to get active in their communities, on their own councils, and get them to debate publicly whether public money should be going into fossil fuels. 

“If councils don’t have investments in fossil fuels then they’ll be very quick to tell you. And they will do, because everybody does. We’re working on tools to make it easier for campaigners to find that information out, looking at pension funds because that’s where a lot of the investment money is.”

Do people say to you: It’s all very well to divest, but what’s the point if we’re still using oil, coal and gas?

“We are very focused on divestment, rather than personal consumption. It’s very hard to make change until the political power of the fossil fuel industry has been significantly dented. Incentivising clean technologies and getting the investment we need to really transform our entire economy, are blocked by these incredibly powerful industries. And while individual action is important it isn’t going to take down the fossil fuel industry as quickly as it needs to be.

“Until we get massive investment in public transport or incentives for renewable energy, it’s going to be difficult for people to make meaningful enough consumption decisions to change the economy.

“Much of the discussion is now about the social value of investments. The recent Law Commission’s review questioned whether it is right that ‘fiduciary duty’ should just mean short term profit for shareholders. Should it include long term stewardship of both your money and the planet? The fact these questions are being discussed is a really important part of the narrative.

Do you see a relationship between Transition and the divestment movements?

“If you don’t have a Yes, then it’s much harder to push the No. If we’re going to deal with the climate crisis we need to shine a light on all the community projects that are working, so they can be rapidly replicated and supported to make change happen.

“Divestment could be a really interesting project for a local group – because it is about democracy and local participation in decision-making about where public money should be invested. Using the divestment campaign to build a community to do more of the Yes work on a bigger scale.”

Activism typically deals with heavy-duty issues. How do you keep going without being burned out, or oppressed?

“I go running!“ she laughs. “I think it’s about having a good group around you, who can talk and offer support. Also one of the reasons UK Uncut was so successful was because it challenged these big problems and organisations in a fun way.

“So whether you are talking about Sure Start centre closures, by setting up a crèche in an HSBC bank, or running sports days in Top Shop, activists know it’s important to make sure that activism is fun and engaging, because in the end if it’s not, we can’t keep on doing it.” 

Taking part in an Art Not Oil action at The British Museum, 2010; Danielle Paffard; UKUncut Top Shop protest in Brighton;'s carbon bubble for global People's Climate March, 2014

Tuesday 23 September 2014

52 FLOWERS: 49 Vervain

Vervain Close-upVervain is from the last section of 52 Flowers That Shook My World, Flower- mind. It is one of the unpublished pieces that focus on the invisible, solar aspect of the plant world - some of the flowers and trees that have been connected with the 'spirituality' of different cultures and its bonds through time. 

A small flower with a long history for Autumn equinox 2015. 

brightwell-cum-sotwell, oxfordshire 02

It’s a beautiful little house. You want to walk up the path and sit there in the garden amongst the flowers. The people who open the door are friendly and will let you wander about the garden, sit in the wooden armchairs the former owner of the house once made with his own hands, rest by the shady pool where the flowers surround you in all their colours in the brilliant July heat.

Mount Vernon is the house where the 'inventor' of flower essences, Dr Bach, lived for the last years of his hard-working life. By the time he arrived in the small Oxfordshire village he had already formulated the first 12 healers of his 38 flower cannon and the second 7 helpers in the English and Welsh countryside. In the nearby lanes he found the last 19 and finalised a formula, known as Rescue Remedy, his famous and well-loved mixture of star of Bethlehem, clematis, rock rose, impatiens and cherry plum.

The year was 1934, a hard time in history but a great unleashing of modern expression and ancient wisdoms that brought many original thinkers and seers to the fore. There was a longing for a new world and there were radical moves away from conventional thinking towards a deeper consciousness. One was made by a young Welsh bacteriologist, who influenced by these spiritual explorations, left a conventional Harley Street practice, and began to work on a set of seven homeopathic remedies for chronic conditions of the bowel.

As he sat beside his patients in the Homeopathic Hospital in London, he found that it was not the physical disease but the mind-set and emotional state of the people that determined their treatment. The same temperaments needed the same remedy irrespective of the disease. He began to treat these bacterial diseases with great success (the seven Bach nosodes are still in use today) but disliking the impure nature of homeopathic essences, he started to work with wild flowers. The first plant he worked with was a monkeyflower by a stream in Wales. It was his first remedy: for Fear of Known Things.

For the rest of his life, the doctor worked with flowers. He walked the length and breadth of Southern Britain, from Wales to Norfolk investigating the effects of flowers on human physiognomy and eventually gave up his medical practice entirely.  From homeopathy he took the method of succussion to extract the invisible workings of the plant material and form the basis of the mother essence. And he also took the practices of proving and profiling.  

Proving entails working with the quality of a given substance or plant, testing it on yourself, noting its particular effects (most medicine plants or substance contain both cause and cure, so that if you deliberately take a treatment when you are well, it will bring on the symptoms that plant or substance will treat). Bach reversed this process: when he found himself suffering from various emotional and mental states he would walk into the countryside and find the flowers that could release him from his torments.  

Profiling is the matching of a type of personality to the corresponding energetic structure of a plant or substance (e.g. a belladonna type, an arsenic type). Along the homeopathic principle of like cures like, the remedy stimulates conditions within your being that releases constricting patterns. As Bach experienced his own states of bitterness, loneliness, anxiety and so on, he built up a canon of “types” that corresponded to the character of the plants.

The first flowers and trees he worked with he called the Twelve Healers. The number was no accident. Deeply esoteric, a Mason, with a keen interest in astrology, the Healers corresponded to the twelve zodiacal signs, Each plant represented not a personality but a soul-type. In the esoteric tradition, each person is present on earth to undergo one of the twelve lessons of the soul, based on the ancient principle of reincarnation. The flower essences helped to remind you of your particular soul-lesson, your challenges, your strengths and weaknesses. Illnesses occurred due to a clash or separation between your ego and your soul, and in these cases the Healers could act as a bridge.

Dr Bach played down the astrological correspondences of his work, preferring to promote a simple system of remedies. The second nineteen of his canon addressed the seven categories of emotional and mental state and make no reference to the soul.  His followers in turn, and indeed most modern practitioners, downplayed the spiritual aspects of his work. Fifty years later it is hard if you go up to the door of Mount Vernon to see these underlying influences in the normal-looking brick cottage, amongst the familiar labelled bottles on the shelves. And yet they are there.

I had not taken any of the remedies when I sat in the garden. But I knew most of the plants and had explored some of their correspondences with Bach’s system.  I had stood under the shivering leaves of an aspen and shaken with unknown fears, dreamed of a honeysuckle that pulled me adroitly back from the past, felt the cleansing energy of crab apple blossom in a Welsh hedgerow. But some of the flowers did not correspond as neatly as the remedies suggested.. Some of them in fact struggled within the fixed and narrow band the flower essences had placed them.  One of them appeared to have no time for it at all.


As I walked through the gate at Mount Vernon my eyes lit up: a giant turquoise dragonfly, an aesthena, was resting on a dead rose, and beneath them there was a vervain plant in full flower. Before my mind had even time to name it, my face had broken into one of those deep broad smiles that come when you have wanted to see a plant for a long time and one day chance upon it. For years I had read about these 'inconspicuous' wayside plants with their mighty reputations. And here suddenly it was. Vervain has been called the king of the herbs but you wouldn’t realise why at first glance. Nor it is easy to come across in the wild.

Once you find it, however, you know it forever. It has a dry bushy form with typical wavy verbena leaves, but it is the flowers that immediately arrest your attention – hundreds of tiny mauve and white flower that shine at the end of a myriad stiff stems. When you take a second look you see a complex head with a hundred eyes on stalks, looking at you like an ancient mythical creature, and you cannot but help stare back, your own eyes whizzing about, delighted, not knowing on which petalled point to rest your gaze. Oh, a seer plant! I thought, as I stood transfixed by its luminescence, as you might be caught spellbound by the sudden sight of stars in the nightsky.

Vervain is a traditional herbal medicine for the eyes, as well as a peerless nerve tonic, working on the human nervous system as an anti-depressant, relaxant, sedative and anti-spasmodic for tense and jittery stomachs. Its bitter-tasting leaves restore the body after illness, allay fevers and anxiety, migraine and virus colds. But it is more famous as a plant of the spiritual realms, as a talisman flower, a fortune-teller’s plant, a protector and luck-bringer that throughout history has been sought to ward off plague, avert evil, bad spells, calamity and in more modern usage, to heal holes in the aura. It was once an altar plant (its Latin name verbena means altar) claimed by both Druid and Roman priests and is the chief of the nine sacred Anglo-Saxon herbs. In some Celtic lands it was known simply as “the herb” and so highly regarded that you had to wait for one to be bestowed upon your garden.

In Dr Bach’s system. these high leadership qualities in the homeopathic system of “like cures like” becomes a remedy for righteousness, unrealistic idealism, over-enthusiasm (especially in regard to ambitions for humanity) and burn-out.
“Vervain is for those with fixed principles and ideas, which they are confident are right, and which they very rarely change, they have a great wish to convert all round them to their own views of life. They are strong of will and have much courage when they are convinced of those things that they wish to teach. In illness they struggle on long after many have given up their duties”.
Vervain was one of Bach’s core remedies, one of the original twelve. In his system of astrological correspondence in which the placement of the moon is an indication of soul-type, Vervain corresponds with those born with the moon in the fiery fixed sign of Leo. Which made the doctor of flowers  a 'Vervain'.


Nothing happened in the garden. We sat in the doctor’s chairs. We sat in on the garden bench, and it felt comely and sound in the way you sometimes feel in Wales with the wild and mythic just out of reach beyond the tidy stone walls. The flowers were at their height and grew in profusion: monkeyflowers edged the pond, great stands of blue chicory and St johns wort surrounded the bench, roses tumbled over the doors. It was beautiful and yet something troubled me: what was it?

I found I could not speak about my experience. Afterwards I realised I had felt walled in  and unable to think for myself, trapped in the garden of a dead man. And then I had felt the flowers, all 38 of them trapped, like thousands of minute geniis in a bottle, waiting to serve sick and neurotic human beings who never would meet them, never talk with them or know their beauty and intelligence,, and I shuddered. After this day, I would not make a flower essence again.
Mount Vernon had been bequeathed to Bach’s devoted assistants and now has become a monument to the man and his work, as well as a training centre. Like many of the original spiritual thinkers and mystics of this time, Bach depended on his followers to transmit his discoveries. And, like other great men who depart and put their systems in the hands of followers, difficulties often ensue in the houses they leave behind. No one is ever the match of the original. There is a struggle to emulate the man who now takes on a holy hue: more Krishnamurti than thou, more Gurdgieffian than thou. Confined in the centres preserved by the faithful, it is hard to encounter the original energy of their creators. It is difficult to trace the doctor of flowers, to discover what led him to those conclusions about vervain. You are faced with a system that is fixed and perfected.: 38 formulas, 12 healers, 7 Helpers. You sit in the garden of Mount Vernon, and feel repressed by the quiet-voiced, white-coated people in the house.

You don’t want to and yet you cannot help feeling controlled by the business of healing, by the relegating of your soul to a type. You try and find out about the man, only to find that he has erased his own steps. His followers, adherents of the perfect system, offer few clues. You know however that the man was not perfect, he was impatient (many considered Bach an Impatiens soul-type) and that those chairs in his old consulting room were not constructed out of fancy, but from lack of funds (the doctor famously never charged for his flower treatments).

In between the glowing reports published out of Mount Vernon and in his own modest literary output you discover he died at 50 from exhaustion, weakened by a near-fatal illness suffered whilst working in a war hospital. Like many inventors and creators, Bach underwent a demanding alchemical process - the burning of dross, the darkness of melancholy, social rejection, the interior tussle with the formulation of new ideas, as he  faced the complexity of the cosmos, saw the stars of the vervain sparkle overhead. And yet of this personal struggle, there is no report.

The problem with spirituality is that it leaves out the creative, experiential process behind any original work. The creator is sacrificed for the system, his head laid upon the altar. He dismantles his own path in favour of the goal. What rules in his place are the managers of the system, the high priests of temples and pyramids, the secret masters skulking in Himalayan caves, under the Gobi desert floor.  

The doctor wishes the ideal to work, the soul-types to work, for the pure and simple flowers to be the solution for all our ills, when we are on a planet teeming with bacteria and complexity.The doctor wishes the hospitals to be clear calm places where the state of the soul is considered first before any remedy is sought, but the reality is they are filled with the maimed and the wounded from the trenches. In the ideal Bach world you move gently and quietly. You do not get impatient, get cancer, walk away from two marriages, face being struck off by the GMA and have to suffer every day.  

After an operation on his spleen in 1917, Dr Bach looked at death every day for nineteen years. But he doesn’t write  like this. He erases the underworld, the poison, the war hospitals, his own pain and poverty. He wants to get as far as possible away from those intestines and their filthy, chronic states, to render something intensely complex, pure and simple, without stain. All vice can be cured he declares, by flooding ourselves with its opposite virtue, as he sluices his ravaged body in cool water, dresses himself in white robes, sets out to make a flower essence in the purity of the early day.

Still the vervain waits in the garden, and still I feel uncomfortable with this altar plant within my sights. In his elegant, if now old-fashioned, pamphlet Bach begins his discourse with the statement that all disease has one cause, which is action against Unity and these actions are divided into types: “the real primary disease in man are defects: pride, cruelty, hate, ignorance, instability and greed. All these versions of self-love, every one can be cured by flooding it with our selfless devotion to serving humanity”. Our vice, he wrote, is our great challenge, “or there would no no need for our existence here”.

But when the people came to his surgery, sat in this room, in the depression of the Thirties, when the spectre of the Great War had ripped through every family and village in the land, did he see this too as their souls wanting a lesson?  Did he not ask himself, as they sat opposite him in those wooden chairs, that if this ancient, all-knowing system worked, that after all these aeons, we would have learned our lessons by now, and be treating each other and the planet in a more enlightened way?

And does not the plant with its myriad eyes still shine the garden by the gate and ask us to see what lies beyond the ever-whirling zodiac?


It is the in-between times in middle England, when we are returning from Wales, trying to find a home. The following day after visiting Mount Vernon, I go to Oxford, to walk the towpaths and the nearby territories of our former plant inquiry. Beneath the great lime tree thrumming with bees I collect lime flowers in a brown paper bag for tea, collect St John’s wort flowers in the resplendent wasteground for oil. It is a hot day, and the river sparkles and beckons with its rich scent of water. I sit on the bank and cool my feet in its green shallows; the river flowers - skullcap, purple loosestrife, hemp agrimony and gipsywort - shimmer all about me. A barge goes by slowly. Small boys leap off the bridge and splash into the pool by Port Meadow. The willows and black poplar leaves rustle in a small breeze.

In the garden you are in a small space, in limbo, and someone else is in control. People are looking out of windows. The plants by the river live in big time, outside history, beyond this control, out of the garden. They don’t see the walls. They don’t even see you sitting there, unless you get down to their wavelength. They are getting on with life. You with your vices, your self-love, your controlling gardening shears, what are you getting on with?

Here I am considering the 38 flowers of the Bach canon, surrounded by those outside the system, considering myself as a social description, a soul-type, a personality, a state, and find I do not fit. Outside the garden, the wild plants live in their own worlds:  the horse chestnuts fly through the sky and rain conkers on the garage roof. The aspen creaks in the salt wild, the crab apple holds you in her embrace on a summer’s day. I have come to earth, like everyone else, to serve experience: to sit by the one who is dying, to suffer my own failure, to lose the sight of the land I have loved and my companions. To find a new home in a dark time. I have learned to forge meaning from all these experiences. Meaning can be found, I have realised, in the most difficult of circumstances, even in prison and war, as poets and seers frequently have told us. But this is not to excuse the prison, the empire or the wheel.

At some point you have to question the altar on which you lay your head.


Bach’s estotericism, his love for his brother masons with whom he kept close contact, even in his most isolated years at Mount Vernon, had bound him to a ancient wheel. His soul-types belong to a belief system that says all souls have to undergo the challenges of the twelve constellations. It is a rigid system that insists that earth is a kind of school of hard knocks for human beings, so that we can be made perfect, like diminutive well-behaved gods.

The problem with esotericism is that it is esoteric, that is hidden. Decrees about your destiny have made by special and high-ranking entities behind closed doors, and yours is not to question them. When you consider your soul’s challenge, you do not consider the parlous condition of the civilisation you find yourself in. Least of all do you look at the brotherhoods of man, secret societies, priesthood’s that are central to all of them.

All Western esoteric traditions and healing systems originate within the sanctum of Empire and everything within them, hidden or on show, is made to serve its cause: the vervain that lies on the bloody Roman altar, the laurel leaves inhaled by the priestesses of Delphi, the mushrooms taken by Aztec high priest, the flower essences that consolidate our consumer lifestyle. When healing asks us, as Bach does, to consider the soul, it puts all responsibility of the world’s difficulty on our shoulders and diverts our gaze from Empire. You did something wrong, now you need to fix-it! If you were good and clean, these diseases would not come to you! In this taking of total responsibility, in performing this perfect service expected of you, you are leaving something vital out, something that the vervain is supposedly curing: your acute sense of injustice, the fire of your indignation, your Self.
“We should strive to be so gentle, so quiet, so patiently helpful that we move among our fellow man more as a breath of air or a ray of sunshine, ever ready to help them when they ask: but never forcing them to our views.” (from Vervain – The Twelve Healers)
On the great wheel of reincarnation, you quietly accept your lot, whatever you station. Like the caste system of India, it is a matter of karma, not history that you are where you are and who you are. You do not question whether there is any real sense in the human world, or that it is fair that the man in the mansion is the man in the mansion and that you serve him. This is not because you are not capable of asking such a question, but because you cannot see the manifested world clearly, as it is; you see it divided into vice and virtue, morally shaped, idealistically-bound, by the spirituality and the gods that you admire.

July 2002 - Meadowsweet - Thames
Unbound, I sit by the shining river, feet immersed in green water, beside meadowsweet and purple-flowering mint. By 2002 I have listened to too many quiet and humble people, with their all-powerful opinions about the cosmos, with their ideas of perfection, of ultimate reality, with their squeaky-clean ideals, with their temple fantasies about Egypt and Rome, with their notions of Mother India with her masters and karmas, followers of the world’s wise healers and all their wise wounds. I have sat in the Quaker House library and come to my own conclusions about the great white brotherhood of saints and martyrs. I have argued too many nights and days with fellow travellers across blue tables, where the only reason we are at odds with another, are in a realms none of us wish to look too deeply into.

We should have looked at all the ramifications, and deconstructed the wheel. But we didn’t. We were too busily persuading each other to flood ourselves with virtues, to shakes our souls free from entangling relationships, playing doctor, medicine man, priestess and missionary. To see the wheel you need to look at everything, all at once, objectively, with your vervain eyes. And though it appears noble to alleviate suffering, to offer advice, no one in this business of helping and healing is able to look at what created that suffering in the first place, with the facts of history in front of our eyes. Without considering our own experience within that history, we are blind.

And the plant, the vervain that stands by the gate in the brilliant July sunshine, what does it have to say? The vervain flashes its lights. Switch it all on! The plant is no way the servant of any civilisation or its gods, of Jupiter or Thor, Jehovah or Ra. It is entirely a being in its own right, in whom we seek guidance on how to proceed along the way. The vervain includes everything, all stars in the sky, not just one. Spirituality works within a narrow band, a duality of right and wrong, within the simplification of an artificial linear system, rather than within the complexity of living systems. Its creed: if only you people behaved properly the world would be all right! Its spokesmen, the priests and the doctors, speak on behalf of the wheel of humanity, not for the earth or the human heart. To question its supremacy, you have to go to the river, feel its flow around your feet, revisit the garden in your mind’s eye, with the flower that stands beside you.


Originally the plant did not come alone. It came with two companions, which the flower guides will tell you are watermint, the wild mint of the English river, and meadowsweet, the rose of the wetlands. The guide books do not say why these humble plants once held special divinitory powers for the Celts, any more than they say why vervain is chieftain over the nine herbs, the Anglo-Saxon lucnunga, which include the other great roadside plants, plantain and fennel. You have to see for yourself why this is so.

I did not come across vervain during our original flower inquiry in Oxford, but I did find it in French Joe Canyon one awkward afternoon with Mimi and Francisco. There was a stand of the American blue-eyed vervain under a white oak. I sat beside the flowers among the scratchy grasses a while, and afterwards went swimming in a waterhole. I realised that this trio of ancient 'visioning' plants were about seeing in time. The meadowsweet was about seeing into the past, the watermint, the future. Vervain was about the present, about seeing in all-at-once time, many eyes in one place time. Seeing what is staring you in the face.

Born in a fallen house in a fallen time, I could never make any claim for purity, nor did I ever seek to become an immaculate abstainer, born-again, an example to all unfortunates. How could I? The solar path is an alchemical path, a medicine path, a poison path. The old habits you kick become your katchina; your once before loves, your materia. The blue pill, the tin of tobacco, the glass of vodka, the elicit affair. These substances are neither your shame nor your enemy, resisting them has given you the inner strength to walk from Empire. Like all creators, your struggle has kept the flame of spirit burning inside your heart. With this flame you can hold the poison of the rose:  spring cherry, wild plum, crab apple, meadowsweet,

The poison of the rose is particular. The source of prussic acid and cyanide, it is a taste you sometimes catch biting into the kernel of an apricot or peach. The poison’s characteristic odour of bitter almonds is most striking in meadowsweet, once highly esteemed as a strewing herb in Elizabethan parlours and dining halls. When you bring the fragrance of this rose to the doctor’s house, something unexpected happens.

In Oxford the queen of the meadow stands tall in the waterlands: fluffy-headed, scented, mysterious. The wild mint by the bank stands like young god, laughing, with horns on his head. The Thames sparkles alongside them. United with its companions, the vervain flashes its lights, no longer dusty and dry by the roadside. In the Arizona canyon I had swum alongside the little garter snake in sharp-cold rainwater and afterwards lay naked on the rocks to dry. Something troubled my heart as my companions gathered their healing plants beneath the shadow of the red rocks. Something vital between us was missing.

You enter the garden, coming from the outside, bringing your experience of those difficult moments with plants and flowers with you, bringing fluidity in your wake. The meadowsweet and the mint live beyond the garden, in the wild lands, in the watery meadows, everywhere that is moist and free-flowing. Bringing succour to the dust-headed king, chief of the nine herbs of the wayside.

Meadowsweet brings back the poison of the past. Dr Bach, scrubbed clean, white robed,  pure-minded, sees the building of god beautifully constructed. It matters not if you are born high or low, he says, everything will make sense in the end. There are challenges to face, but no shadow. Disease will one day be conquered. The hospitals will be quiet meditation places. The light around us is ever-lasting. The earth is god’s garden. All manner of thing shall be well.  As we look through his eyes, we are look towards this uplifting future, but the past is weighing hard upon us.

The meadowsweet lives outside god’s empire, tall in the damp woods, in the marshlands, carries the pain-killing properties of aspirin in her tough stems and leaves, her ability to decrystallise, to release all trapped energies in her fragrant and flowing presence. The rose enters the room, with her faint odour of cyanide. The doctor stands amongst the flowers redeemed from the margins, god’s chosen healers, without history or mythical association, without any poison in their veins: American monkeyflower, Himalayan balsam, African blue cerato, Dutch honeysuckle.

The meadowsweet brings wildness and complexity into the garden and floods the order of Empire; brings her poison to the doctor’s door, poison that would cure a broken spleen and heart.


dsc_0612 Like all seer plans, vervain is a tranquilliser. A tea from its leaves brings you into a relaxed state so you can access your heart and imagination, your own flowermind. It brings a stillness that allows you to find the inner pathway to the sun, in the darkness, in the deep night time of your soul. Sometimes what you behold are not images, but feelings. In Dr Bach’s garden, I had felt claustrophobic. This feeling of being spiritually trapped was not personal, it was alerting me to souls that were held trapped on the wheel, like so many genii in tiny brown bottles. Somehow I needed to find my way out of the garden.

The bush by the gate lights up your mind, so you see everything-at-once, in all its complexity. The flower essence guide will tell you that this remedy for 'overdoing it' can be seen in the plant’s  structure, the way it branches out rigidly in many directions. All that effort just for those small flowers! The stiffness of the plant is your stiffness. Like cures like. But this is to not acknowledge vervain as a plant of seers. Standing at a certain distance, your body experiences the plant in its entirety, as it appears like a globe. You get the vervain total effect: it electrifies your circuits, lights up mind, body and heart in a split second. That’s when you realise why it is the king of the herbs, commanded by the regal lion of the firmament.

With all your strict vervain eyes, with your switched-on heart, you are not fastidious, You look straight on, at all the ramifications. The spiritual system wants everything neat and tidy, boxed up and numbered,  a solution for every problem, with all the bad things and inconvenience out of the way,but the earth is not neat and tidy. It is vast and complex, a free-form interweaving of myriad lifeforms, in which each human strand with its many subtle hues, with its stories and experiences, runs through like a silvery thread flashing through silk. As you see a tiny corner of this fabric is revealed to you, a microscopic strand of many dimensions that reveals the giant complexity of the whole. Our unique and subtle appearance in this web cannot be relegated to a formula. If this were so, the earth would be a machine. And it not, it’s a transforming matrix of dimensions, most of which we cannot see in daily life, and some we will never see. And the very nature of this creative and transformative process means life can neither be  pure, nor simple. Anymore than bacteria, whose archaic forms constitute the very soil which feed the plants so life can happen, can be cleansed forever from our hands.

To see  with your vervain eyes, is an art, a voyage into the unknown, a task. The work it exacts is to acknowledge with unwavering clarity what appears in front of your eyes and translate it into daily terms. It is to see what is. What is requires you look unequivocally at what lies before you, without dismissing what you are seeing, fighting, superseding it but keeping it steady within your sights. From here you ask questions and receive readouts. You question what you see. Switch it all on! Nothing hidden, no god, no ulterior purpose, no esoteric principles, no masters, skulking in caves for aeons. Only you and what you see. You hold a fixed position because, belonging to Leo, the sun is not going anywhere. You can’t leave yourself out because without you, without the sun, core of the self of all human beings, nothing is seen. You are the eyes of the cosmos, the light that switches itself on in the dark. What you see in the dark doesn’t happen without you. To see with the heart means you cannot let the mind interfere with its eternal say-so, with its great tuppence worth of opinions and criticisms, but most of all with its predilection for ideals.

Ideals blind the seer. To hold an ideal means you desire to see things as they should be, rather what than are, within the movement of transformation. With the vision of perfection before you, you start wishing that everything on earth were otherwise that it actually is. Spirituality promotes the ideal perfect state without pain, from which you have fallen because of your imperfection. Believing suffering is wrong, you start constructing realities where pain does not exist. Realms where masters walk in robes, temples where everything is pristine and orderly.

Suddenly you are not on the earth, in time. You are inhabiting a perfect, clean world in the future. You wish you were as you imagine you can be in your mind-sphere. You start erasing and excluding those things that are not perfect, with simple clear cut choices of all spirituality (good and evil, right and wrong, love and fear). The system you have invented you realise is perfect, but you are not. Pretty soon you end up not being that important. Soon you are irrelevant, squeezed out. You are a number, a soul-type who fits or does not fit the system. Spiritually, politically, it’s a dangerous road. War is the worst of its manifestations, Dr Bach’s 38 flower canon is a less dangerous system than most, still I feel squeezed in the garden, on an earth whose only raison d’etre is that fallen human beings evolve and learn their lessons.

The stems of the vervain are rigid because they hold the light, the structure of light intrinsic within all living forms. When you bring the structures that hold of the world to light, you see whether they tally with the living systems or not. This ability to look at any individual and collective action in this multi-light (of the vervain) enables you to ask the question: for what purpose this war, for what purpose this inequality? Does my action bring liberation? Does it serve life? Does it bring the light of the sun to bear within all things?

When you ask the question, you realise that all artificial systems of the world- political, religious, scientific, medical – serve only mystify and divert the human ability to see what is. None of them encourage our innate ability to directly perceive the fabric of life.  To see into the river of life, into the fluid and dynamic non-linear dimensions is a radical act, the dangerous act of creators, since the Empire is founded on rigid and linear system of duality. They require allegiance to the perfection of the artificial mind. But the hearts of seers and creators are not loyal to empire, they are true to the sun, since it is the sun that brings the light to see in the dark.

After the Great War, when new world orders were being drawn up and new world servers recruited, two of the century’s greatest seers, Rudolf Steiner and Krishnamurti walked away from the theosophical spirituality that influenced Edward Bach, and forged their own ways of seeing the hidden dimensions of the world. Both conducted their own individual investigations into the perception of reality, and spoke and wrote about their findings.  Some of their most illuminating insights come from their direct encounters with nature: Krishnamurti walking in the early morning light amongst the live oaks of California, encountering an owl under his bed in India; Steiner in Austria and England, investigating the alchemical effects of wood ants and bees, wild camomile and horsetail within the living soils of the planet.

The sprit shines like the sun, permanent, endurable, but the soul walks a different path. Like the moon, waxes and wanes, brings tears, redemption, inspiration, keeps close to us in our lives, hold our accounts, makes the changes in our spirits possible. Bach’s vervain soul has a fiery core, ruled by Leo, the lion-king. In his small book, this fire flashes when he speaks of animal vivisection, the cruel relatives who trap their children, the friends who bind you to their will.  To be free is the path of all souls he says. Krishnamurti looks at the world of matter with his eagles eyes, his rishi’s eyes. All is laid bare beneath the Brahmin’s gaze. Steiner, like some forest salamander, glowers strangely amongst the ashes of his crucible, looks deep at the workings beneath your skin. Though their work is engrossing, illuminating, somehow there is something not quite human about the way they look at you.

 Doctor Bach leans quietly forward, his round Welsh face like a full moon, as he shines a light into your heart. There is no penetrating analysis of the people who came to see him, nor in the flower’s alchemical workings. You are not shown the interiors workings of beehives, or behold the cosmos or the face of the tigers. You find his words, pious, almost frustrating. And yet, it is the inconspicuous doctor, whom you  accompany, as he walks through the gate and goes down the Oxfordshire lane, to drink a beer and to sing a song with the people of Brightwell-cum-Sotwell on a summer’s day.


PIC (4)
  Dr Bach sought out the wild flowers and in a time of crisis, which was his own  and that of history, they came to his assistance. His followers in white coats, may not follow him out into the Oxfordshire hills or along the seashore of the Norfolk coast or speak with the humble vervain of the wayside. But inspired by him, some of us go and sit in the canyons.

When we sat beside these flowers, these bushes and trees, we realised to release yourself from the wheel you have to look at consciousness itself. You need to go beyond spirituality and esotericism, and look at the role of the seer with your own heart and inner eye. You have to imagine the relationship between the sun and its technicians that forms the basis of all consciousness. And find a way out of the garden.

The Empire prowls the world seeking ancient wisdom. It seeks secret knowledge, like physical treasure, as a power, a tool of supremacy. It goes to the temples and pillages the tombs of kings and sages, scours the constellations, looking for signs and star-gates, mighty position and talisman. Where is the secret of immortality? It must be here! No one finds it. Great Thoth has hidden it somewhere, the seekers declare. The shrewd and wily philosopher, Derrida, stepping outside the pyramid, overhears a dialogue behind closed doors at the beginning of Empire.

It went like this: when the artifex of medicine, Thoth asks the king for his bless his new invention of writing, The Pharoah Sun-King shakes his head: writing is a substitute for the real thing. You say the text is a tool for remembering but because of your tool the people will lose their memory. You say it will contain wisdom, but the people themselves will not be wise. The text will become more powerful and all-knowing than themselves. The king said it was a poison, a phamakos. And from that time on all writers and inventors have suffered Thoth’s fate, the fate of the pharmakon: they invent a cure that is also a poison.

When Dr Bach invented the flower essence, he substituted the remedy for the flower. Soon enough the people thought the essence was more important that the flower. In fact they did not know the flower,, nor the territory in which it grew. While his flower essences were sold in their millions in the health boutiques of the world, his healers and helpers were vanishing from the English countryside: the water violet was quietly disappearing from the dykes, the elm trees could no longer grow tall and stately as once they had, the rock water had became poisoned and it was hard to find the small scherlanthus in any neighbourhood. Meanwhile the creator found himself in a wilderness, a holy goat loaded with the sins of the world upon his shoulders.

To redeem the pharmakon, the creator of all kill-or-cure medicine, you need to look at the doctor, at the heart of the man, who suffered like all men. To redeem the creator is to look at the flower, in all-at-once time, with the poison of the rose. It is to look at the origin of all things, at the role of the sun and its technicians within ourselves.

In the spirit of leonine generosity, Dr Bach left his methods for people to make the essences themselves with the flowers and trees of the wild places. Which all modern practitioners of flower medicine, all plant seers around the world have followed until this day. As indeed I had until I walked into his garden and found myself shudder. Soon after we left Oxfordshire, we found a house, and one month later, walking the lanes of the East Anglian countryside, found large stands of wild vervain, in full flower, along a sandy track. Oh, You are here! I exclaimed, as I stood among their great constructions of dotted light. 

There was the sound of the wild ocean behind me and a heathland before me. The land was in restoration, recovering from long agricultural use, skirted by small woods of larch and hornbeam and wild rose. I sat down by the track and felt at home. That’s when I knew why vervain is the chief. When you look for the origin of all things, you find the sun. When you sit in the wild company of the flowers and ask life’s great questions, you find the tablets of wisdom inscribed in your own heart. This is the way home, said the doctor, smiling, as the heather and the gorse glowed in front of me, as the wind soughed in the pine tree, the centaury shone along the cliff edge. Your medicine is everywhere, I said and laughed, as the vervain, shimmering, became alive with bees.

Images: vervain (flowering steams); Mount Vernon; vervain in Leonhart Fuch's De Historia Stirpium Commentaria Insignes (Basel.1542); Dr Bach; meadowsweet by the Thames; vervain (single flower); heather, Suffolk; vervain along the track (whole plant), Suffolk