Friday 28 February 2014

The Free Press Gang

I should have started writing this an hour ago. I awoke in time, but I was listening to the world outside as darkness shifted into light. The stars drained from the sky, a vixen yipped, an owl called among the trees. It was silent for a while. Then it happened: a small sweet sound in the moment that Latin America calls the madrugada, the time just before dawn, and I knew it had begun. And there is such a feeling inside when you hear it, one bird singing after another, all calling out: Spring is coming, Spring is coming, I am here! Are you?

I wish I could convey in my human words the sound of the robin redbreast, as he starts up the chorus, the bird that sings through the night and through winter, against all odds and heralds the day. But you know, some things you have to experience for yourself.  What I can tell you is that soon the chaffinch and the wren will join him, and in March the blackbird too.

You see you think writing is a solitary thing but it isn't. If you sing in a choir, play ball, act in an ensemble, write, as I do for a small Transition newspaper, you know that being part of the chorus is everything.

we have to talk about comms
The dawn chorus is a song that has been going on for millions of years. It begins as the sun lights up different parts of the globe and it never stops. That's something I learned from an artist called Ansuman Biswas, whose project, Far Player is part of the book I'm editing about Transitional arts practice, Playing for Time - Making Art as if the World Mattered.

Voicing who we are and where we are in time is part of being human. For thousands of years artists and communicators have sung in the day, we've sung praises and lullabies, shared stories, and learned, through the art of writing, how to convey our thoughts and feelings across the globe. But equally as people we have been silenced. Our voices have been crushed and misshapen by a succession of Empires that have attempted to control us. Now, as we struggle within the modern vice of corporate-controlled media and marketing, many of us want to explore and voice another sound, another story. One of those stories is about the Transition movement, in essence how we, as a people and as a network, respond to the triple drivers of climate change, resource depletion and economic breakdown.

For this however, we need to talk about comms (as communications are referred to in modern organisations) because although human communication is a bio-diverse, multi-levelled exchange it is frequently treated as a monocultural one-way broadcast (I am getting my message across to Them). Sometimes it is presented as a dialogue (you can give your comments on My Message, or you can tell me how I should be communicating and I will incorporate your ideas).

But the fact is none of this is really communication: it is control of information, and you can't have communication and control in the same place. Communication is a subtle thing: you can say or write beautiful and intelligent words and yet if you have no fellow feeling, no desire to make contact, to connect, they fail utterly as communication. Likewise, if the people are not open to receive what you are saying, it also fails. Sometimes the lack of connection is because none of us really care. And sometimes that lack is due to the silo conditioning that we have all been brought up in.

For a long time, let's say almost four years, I wrote hundreds of blogs about Transition. I wrote them as part of this project which I started up and edited from 2011-2012 and as part of the Transition Norwich This Low Carbon Life community blog which ran for every day for three years. I've written news bulletins and press releases, a column for the Eastern Daily Press, a quarterly newsletter for my own TI, Sustainable Bungay, magazine articles, thousands of tweets. And all of this you could say was a way of communicating Transition. But nothing has got near to the project I am now part of, editing Transition Free Press. Because this is a publication in its own right: it is not part of a corporate strategy, or a mainstream business. It is pure editorial run by seasoned Transitioners, and in a time where the media is controlled every which way by government propaganda that is an extraordinary thing.

You can write deeply and passionately, as I found out, in a blog, but they all (including this one) only go one way: down the page. And so rather than go deeply and passionately into 'comms' and how it has or has not worked for me, I want to talk briefly about why I feel the paper reaches places other comms does not, and how writing can teach us how to live in a co-operative universe. Here are four small keys:

Latitude OK so the paper goes across, rather than down, and it is all in the same place, physically, in your hands at one time. You open at the News and end at Sport, and in between you flash past every subject Transition engages in: energy, grassroots democracy, alternative currency, CSAs, community arts, wellbeing, people, projects, plants, places . . .You can in the space of a few minutes flick through 24 pages and see what Transition means as a culture, a whole new way of living on the planet. It's a multi-voiced operation. It's a We thing. During the pilot over 100 contributors wrote stories, telling us about their projects, writing them from the field, from experience. Here I am! Here we are!

So Latitude means that in Transition you need to have all these subjects at your fingertips from the big picture to the small detail: you have to know about fracking and you have to know how to split logs. You're smart, practical, love the earth, work with your fellows, and most of all you love to listen and give value to other people's stories, as well as speak about your own. You might not know how to run an alternative currency in your own neighbourhood, but you know the people that do, you know how it works. You know that it matters.

Attitude You have to know the reader is not the enemy. The reader is someone you don't necessarily know, that you are happy to sit alongside with. You don't want to download your sorrows. If you are making a point, you learn to take it out. A lot of Transition comms can be quite evangelical, and as result non inclusive. My ecstactic moment of conversion. We are not preachers. We are writers and communicators. Writers know that the moment of inspiration lasts about one second. What matters is that you get up every morning and sing your song. You're part of that dawn chorus. I am always writing the same poem, as the poet Pablo Neruda once said, as he wrote in his house by the sea, in hiding on the run, as thousands of people stood in the stadium listening to him.

If you have got through the main struggles of Transition and are watching how the world is going you know we don't have time to carry on about our small grievances. What this person said or didn't say to us. We are writing in the face of vast opposition: a mega propaganda machine, and people - including our fellow Transitioners - who are trained to criticise every move we make toward creating a liberated and connected world. Neruda was facing the shock doctrine of Chile. The thrush, now singing outside, is facing the suburbanisation and industrialisation of the countryside. Six years on we're still singing. We're not going to stop. I'm always writing the same blog, the same editorial.

Spring is coming.

Rigour The word count on the paper is strict. On-line you can go on forever, but on TFP you stop at 500. It is also objective, particularly in the news section, so this is not your opinion about something (unless you are writing for our Talkback pages) this IS the something. Facts needs checking, quotes need finding, pictures need to be 300dpi and work as images. It needs to convey in that short space what you are talking about so that person you have been sitting next to can say to their neighbour or Transition group: hey have you heard about community hopgrowing, we could do that! and then 50 people start growing vines in their gardens and allotments (this is true by the way Farnham Hoppers grew out of a TFP story about a London hop project).

It's not time to be indulgent. It's time to listen to who else is singing in the neighbourhood.

Skillshare/Knowledge Share A big part of the paper is about sharing skills. If you want to break out of silo mentality, join in with your fellows and make yourself and your community/network resilient, you need to have a communicator on board. That means in yourself and also in your initiative. For me one of the best - and also most challenging parts - of TFP is reworking the copy with the contributors. Writing is a skill. You sometimes have a gift or a knack for it, and sometimes you have to learn it. Editing is the skill to shape and hone copy so that it works as an engaging piece of journalism, but also holds the essence of the culture we are conveying in every page: the art and beauty and intelligence of downshift.

I could carry on writing, because you know the material is abundant. There are so many stories to tell, so many projects that show what bright thing can come out of darkness and a hard winter. I want to tell you about all the great people who are in this comms network: our distributors around the UK, our contributors around the world.
And I wanted to introduce you to all our new editors: Amy Hall (News Ed), Gareth Simkins (Energy), Michaela Woollatt (Assistant Features/Education), Tess Riley and Eva Schonveld (Food and Drink). But you know I can see the deadline coming. You only get a small margin to sing your song, and you can't be late. Others are waiting for their turn. You have to be on time, the earth has to keep spinning, we have to find our note. Spring has to come.

If you want to see how I feel comms best works in Transiton: have a look at our small resilient grassroots paper. Even better if you are a Transition initiative or social enterprise, a small business or low-carbon group, do become one of our distributors and sign up for bundle. Or, if you are not connected to an initiative, do become a subscriber. Because we can't do communications without each other, dear reader. And if you have a story, do get in touch. Whatever you do don't stop singing. Because, whatever it sounds like or feels like in the hour before dawn, we are listening. We are here.

Images: above reading the paper in front of the Sailor's Reading Rooms for TFP4; winter edition front page; Assistant Features Ed Michaela Woollatt (Transition Nayland) in the field, News Ed, Amy Hall (Brighton) on the move

This post was originally published on the Transition Network

Sunday 16 February 2014

EARTHLINES Life in Transition - The Gathering Time

The new spring issue of EarthLines is published this month and now mailing to all corners of the wild-loving globe. The magazine is published three times a year and my column, Life in Transition follows the shape of the seasons. This current issue's is called Halycon Days and is about the role of the artist and finding an alchemical space at midwinter. 

This piece which came out in autumn charts the treasures of the summer gatherings of 2013 . . . slightly out of synch as we look forward to Spring and I can hear the thrush singing in the garden! However its main theme is perennial: holding the centre, working with frequency, dreaming with dolphins, the medicine of roses and the memory of the heart. 
The year is tipping. Already the geese are flying overhead, coming in from the North, and the owls calling out to each other from the oak trees. A shift is about to take place that will take us from the gatherings of the summer towards the introspection of winter. I’m looking back at the sunlit months of swimming in the sea, among the long reeds and rainbow-finned fish of the River Waveney. Outside sunflowers are falling over in the garden, spider webs hang from the fennel stalks. Along the marshland the sea asters are blooming and my pockets fill with their sharp-tasting leaves, with samphire, blackberries, hazelnuts, wild cherries.

It’s a gathering time, and not just of hedgerow fruit I will store in my larder for the frosty months ahead, but some other sweetness I found this summer, unexpectedly, as I walked out the door one midsummer morning. 

Daybreak, Mendip Hills. It’s raining softly and I am standing on an old fort under an ash tree. The fort is surrounded by long grass and vanilla-scented orchids and you can see right across the soft undulating contours of Somerset from here. It would be easy to feel you were in a paradise on this quiet morning. However you know that underground there is another story going on. For this is the summer where fracking and badger culling will soon bring official savagery to pockets of the English countryside. For the six activists who have organised the gathering in the field below the hill, this weekend is a kind of reprieve.
I’m at the Radical Herbalism Gathering where I have been invited to gave a talk called Plant Communications. In a stripey big top with straw bales as seats, 75 people have cheered and clapped as I read about walking out into the neighbourhood in Oxford to connect with plants. That's an extraordinary feeling when you are a writer and live most of your life in silence. To experience that words about flowers can make people roar. 

In this gathering we’re discussing community health, plant knowledge, foraging, indigenous medicine, land rights. I am having a conversation with an Italian anthropologist working with an African tribe in Kenya. Their forest has been grabbed and enclosed as a carbon sink, so Western consumers can keep flying and off-setting their conscience. The women are beaten and raped when they are caught holding ceremonies under the baobabs that have been their ancestral trees for thousands of years. They are deprived of their plant medicine and have no money for Western pharmaceuticals either when they get sick. It is hard to know how to proceed from this point. How do you live in a dominant culture that has no fellow feeling for creatures, for the preciousness of spring water, for the freedom to roam in a forest? How do you not despair, or tear yourself apart?

Afterwards I go to a bell tent that is filled with the scent of roses. A circle of people sit and drink cups of flower tea, as the herbalist asks us: what does this flower feel like? If the flower were a being what kind of being would that be, what would it feel like to spend the weekend in their company? We laugh, and all know we do not want to be anywhere else.

Everyone begins their inquiry on the outside of a plant, with information, he tells us. The nearer in your imagination you go towards a relationship with the flower, the more you get to that feeling you have now with this rose.

Sometimes I feel as if I live in a nation at war with its own homeland, an alien culture desperate to destroy the body of its host. In the camp that feeling at the centre of flowers is bringing a hundred activists and plant people together in the heart of midsummer, in a land brambled with wild English roses. That’s a kind of medicine you don’t find on prescription. 

Midday, Cornbury Park, Oxfordshire A young man is singing an old folk song about a noble murdering his brother with toxic nightshade berries. We are sitting beside an ornamental lake in the company of one the most poisonous plants in Britain, deadly nightshade, otherwise known as belladonna. I have just finished a talk called The Plant Lexicon and I’m leading some of the audience around the Wilderness festival in search of wild things.

For some reason sitting beside this plant is the only place where I find myself at peace. All around us there is a sybaritic stream of entertainments that seems never to stop: cricket matches, reconstructed battles, acrobats swinging from the high wire, grand dinners in marquees, people in headdresses and masks and costumes, all talking loudly. 

When I stood up in the tent where the Dark Mountain Project is hosting a day of music, words and improvisation, I was not sure how to begin. So I told everyone the dream that began our inquiry to find the hidden lexicon of plants and trees. It took place not for from here in a wood outside Oxford.

I dreamed I went up to Shotover Hill at night, I told them, and went inside a massive oak tree. There were tunnels that led into the deep earth and, as I entered one, I became aware that most of what was happening in Britain was happening underground in the dark. At the roots of the tree there were several men who stood before me, with wooden masks on their faces made of oak leaves. Can you see us? they asked me several times. “Yes,” I said. “I can see you.” And then the men began to climb out of the roots of the tree and walk out of the wood.  

Dreams are mysterious things. Underground things. Sometimes it takes a long, long time for them to reveal their meaning. All round this park, the great oak trees seem to burst through the parade that is whirling around their roots. They are the only things that seem real.
Late morning, Hampshire downs. I am giving a talk called Rewilding the Self – The Earth Dreaming Bank and like all talks I’ve given this summer most of it is improvised. I’ll start at the beginning, I said as I stood on the Woodland Stage at the last Uncivilisation Festival.  

So I told the story about how the dreaming practice began, in Santa Barbara, California, where one day cycling along the boulevard I saw everyone on the beach running toward the sea. Without thinking, I left my bike and followed them. The ocean was full of leaping dolphins and we were swimming out to meet them. No one said a word. We just jumped into the sea together: a pod of humans swimming towards a pod of dolphins. We were laughing and shouting with excitement, as we swam way beyond the beach. And then suddenly we stopped as we encountered the presence of dolphins - fierce, wild, free, hunting in sychronicity together. “They are talking!” shouted one boy next to me, “Put your head under the water!” 

Click click click. Underwater you could hear the sounds of a joyous language shared between the sea creatures, an intelligence that was beyond our grasp. A code we could not use to communicate with them or with ourselves. Quietly and separately we returned to the shore. On my way back to the motel, I noticed a poster: it was for a lecture called The Aboriginal Dreamtime. 

That lecture gave us a structure so we could explore and map the territory of dreams, I told the audience. But it was the desire to speak with wild dolphins that came first.
working with the fabric 

For a long while in the Transition movement we held conversations that were urgent and burned us like fire. We spoke of peak oil and climate change and awareness raising and working in groups. Then the conversation shifted. It became about doing stuff in community, about social enterprise. It spoke of inner work and visioning but mostly this was of a domestic future people wished for, rather than a dream that came unexpectedly one Spring night about oak trees. I realised I needed something else to make sense of my life with people, all those encounters with dreams and flowers. 

For a long while in the Dark Mountain Project the conversation was about collapse. Then the focus shifted towards creative imagination. I was intrigued when I first went to the Uncivilisation Festival, by its intellectual debate, by its radical edges, by the challenge of finding a new narrative. And then I found what I was looking for amongst the people who were singing and storytelling around the fire. It was a conversation in a language I recognised. Click click click. 

Our rational mind will bring us interesting data about the edges of the world: information about resources and management and Latin words, and often, against our wishes, it will bring war into the room. But it will not bring us back to earth. It will not restore us. If we wish for a future aligned with the earth we need to speak a language that’s made of colours, shapes, sounds, light. And, most of all, of frequency.  

The frequency you feel in the company of the rose, or the dolphin, with your fellows who love the earth the way you do, is light and free from restraint. When, through practice, you disentangle yourself from the Empire’s nets and amusement parks, you experience this frequency as an immense blue space all around you, a sense of lightness and ease and connection. 

It takes a long time to “see” how this frequency is made by all creatures who dwell here: the songs of thrushes, the shapes of butterfly wings, the scent of pine trees, the taste of cherry plums and the sunlight that bounces off the sea. Hemmed in by civilisation’s noises and images, it is a challenge to hold that frequency wherever you go. The hostile forces that destroy wild creatures, chop down forests, suck water tables dry, do so to maintain civilisation’s illusory grip on the planet. They can only do this because the people are kept isolated in a low hostile frequency, and turned against each other.

You need a sharp intelligence to disengage yourself from the snares of Empire and a strong will to walk past the lures of entertainment, but when you do you find you’re not alone around that fire, underneath the trees. What breaks the nightmare are the feelings that are stored in the heart. Stored in your child memory, in your ancestor bones. 

That’s what we discovered in the dreaming practice all those years ago in Australia, in America, in England, and perhaps most extraordinarily in the bastion of the rational mind that is Oxford. The joy of the dolphin is at the centre of everything. That’s what the earth tells you in your dreams. You are my heart.

That’s what I found when I left home this summer and brought back with me - the radical medicine of the wild English rose. When you gather and hold the centre, what does not feel at home will fall away. 

Images: cover of EarthLines, Spring 2014; speaking at the Radical Herb Gathering, June 2013; the parachute stage at Uncivilisation, August 2013; roses in my garden hedge, June 2013

Monday 3 February 2014

52 FLOWERS: 6 eucalyptus

sydney, australia 1997

The first sound I heard in Australia was cool and melo- dious, like a flute. It struck a clear note in a moment of confusion as we arrived unannounced at Andy’s flat in Elizabeth Bay at the turn of the year. Other people were coming and going through its doors: family, friends, colleagues. Andy is starting  a new life here. We are just starting the dreaming practice. It’s a time of change for all of us. In ways we don’t yet know.

Today I went and searched the neighbourhood for this sound. And then I found it in a small square: a black and white bird singing invisibly amongst the blue-green leaves of a tree. That’s when I noticed the eucalypts and their waving crown heads. And now I can’t stop looking at those gum trees on street corners, with their pale peeling bark and strange spinning-top fruits, with the bold singing magpies and brightly coloured parrots that fly out of their branches. There is something in the way they shift and move in the sea breeze, the scent of their leaves. Their sharp and musky scent.

The eucalyptus, native of Australia, is one of the most famous trees on the planet. It was widely planted on every other continent during the last century, primarily in fever districts, as its deep roots could dry up any malarial marsh. The sharp-scented oil from its leaves was found to be able to combat not only malaria, but also relieve joint pains and skin ailments, fevers and dysentery. Today it is one of the most useful plants of the medicine chest, clearing colds and catarrh, acting as a topical antiseptic and disinfectant, anti-fungal and insect repellent, and is a principle ingredient in vapour rubs and cough medicines. Its young sickle-shaped leaves make a fragrant tea that can induce sweating, stimulate kidneys, kill yeasts and inhibit micro-organisms of all kinds.

The scented cool breath of the eucalyptus tree blows across the body of the whole world: relieving, releasing, shifting, clearing.

And sometimes it clears other worlds too.


Andy is standing on the balcony and I stand next to him. “Look!” he says, “I can just fish from here!” And we look into the water and laugh, as we stand in silence next to each other, by his pots of Greek kitchen herbs: thyme and oregano, mint and bay.

In this person’s presence you do not need to say anything, because it has always felt as if you share the same soul, the same body, because you can look at the same world. It feels as if you have seen this same world forever. And yet, in this moment, I find myself not gazing into the sea below but out towards the gum tree and its vast head of silvery, watery leaves, into the vast red lands of Australia that stretch out beyond the window.

Have my keys, Andy says suddenly, and then leaves us behind in the room and goes out. As he does the eucalyptus trees across the bay begin to move in the warm Southern wind, the wind of the new world.

This wind moves through the corridors of time with its clear scent, moving along forgotten shelves and rooms, disturbing the past, through white-washed cells and deserted terraces, larders with herbs, musty bookshops and theatres, whistling through the ropes of a blue boat, creaking in the night sea, that rocked us once to sleep.

You don’t just leave people sometimes, you leave whole continents. Andy is the last person I know from my old world. And when we leave each other standing here, I will not go there again, or if I do it will not be that place with him in it, the world where he led us through crowded streets to the city market, or down to the rocks to bathe, down to the inky-blue Aegean sea, in all that incandescent light.

Once there was a young man, sleek-headed, holding a trident and a belt full of fish, climbing out of the sea; there was a girl with dark hair, walking down the hill, carrying marguerites. Once there was a eucalyptus in a Greek square. I remember the scent of the leaves, as I walked over them, their sickle shapes under my feet. On the island where the sea was dark, the wine was rough, the sky was blue. Or was it the other way round?

The summer of youth lasts forever in those moments. But when you are older, you can’t hold each other captive there. In our youth we have all the light of the Aegean in us. Love comes quickly. But as we grow older, our light and love become dim, unless we seek them in the vaster, deeper places of ourselves. We can hold on to the memory of ourselves and those who remember us, but this is to live our lives held in a certain pattern. In this none of us are free to move or change. We keep each other’s innocence, but for this we pay a high price, and so does the planet.

I have to leave the sea-encircled country of our youth behind, and enter a new continent, the land of the ancestral tree. The birds that sing amongst its silvery head of leaves are calling me, away from the room where the people come and go, and into the dreamtime interior of this red land. Where the people sit, where the emu waits, under its scented and stippled shade.


The eucalyptus is a fire tree. It flourishes within the heat of the desert sun, in the forest fire, its roots plunged deep into the soil. The fiery oil held in its leaves drives out the cold in the human body, dries up the marshy land of colder continents. When it is scorched by fire, the tree grows new skin, the shoots jump out of the land. It stands in all shapes, all colours, surviving the drought of centuries and millennia of aboriginal hunters with firesticks driving out the game from its shade and underbrush, making space and light for food plants to spring up. The fertile ash feeds the soil. Everything starts again.

The modern world sits like a mirage over the fiery desert lands of Australia. The aboriginal way of life, symbiotic, slow, all connected, its dream lines woven across the planet for forty thousand years, lies underneath and waits. It has a feeling for time that these sea-cities with all their restlessness and competition do not know. The fire comes and scorches the trees but afterwards it begins to grow again from the inside. Their roots are sunk deep, indestructible. The seeds rain down on the desert floor, crack and burst open their pods. Regeneration starts.

When you begin to dream a fire comes and scorches your old life away. A new one begins. It is not the same story you were told. Or rather if you looked at the story you were told, you might find the bones of this life, waiting there among the ghost gums, in the bones of yourself, in your dreams, for regeneration to begin.

iv glenelg, south australia

In many ways this unknown land is familiar. It is covered with olive trees and vineyards and gentle grassy slopes. On the beaches there are small shacks where you can eat fish, as if you were in Greece. The sand is filled with tiny coloured shells and fossils, the sea in the bay is dark blue and warm. But I am not looking for another Greece.  I am reading Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines.

I am sitting in a cabin, holding a dialogue with Mark about a dream. It lasts seven hours.

In the future, when I say I work with dreams, people will ask me if I have read Bruce Chatwin’s Songlines. When I say I have, they will stare into space and the conversation will end. I will come to realise that mentioning The Songlines means the people know about dreams and the dreamtime. It means that looking at their own dreams, following their own ancestral tracks, has already been done for them. So the subject is now closed.

In centre of The Songlines, Bruce Chatwin sits in a caravan on the edge of the Western desert, surrounded by small notebooks, fragments and inscriptions from his life on the road. The Songlines is a famous account of aboriginal dreamtime, but this forms only part of its text. The central story is of a man, a writer, coming to the end of the road. In the caravan, he shifts through the scenes of his travelling life: his memories of migrating people, strange hotels, nomad Africans and Arabs, monarch butterflies in New York, quotations from Rimbaud, biblical musings, tatters of blue rag blown in the wind, the dazzling eternal smile of a hundred year old woman, the scorched remains of a prehistoric fire. He is searching for an answer: Why is man restless? Why is he aggressive? 

Chatwin sits in The Red Room of the Transvaal Museum at the end of his search, holding a hominid skull, millions of years old, in one hand.  In his other he holds the fanged skull of an ancient cat, dinofelis, whose cave man once shared in terror until he discoved fire. We are restless, he says, because it is our nature to sing our way through deserts, through thorn bushes, using our intelligence to outwit a ruthless predator.

Chatwin walked through the empty quarters of the world, tracing in his imagination the pathways that exist in space and time. He visited nomads, sleeping in their tents, travelling by foot and in open trucks. He admired their proud and fearless ways, their disregard for possessions, their ready smiles, rigour and generosity. Once walking towards the ancient city of Persepolis, he noticed his nomad guide take no notice of the grand ceremonial tents erected by the modern rulers of Iran, as they passed by. When they arrive at the ruined city, Chatwin gazes at the megalomaniac inscriptions of its former tyrant-king: I fought, I slew, I conquered.
Again I tried to get the Quashgai boy to look. Again he shrugged. Persepolis might be made of matchsticks for all he knew or cared – and so we went up into the mountains.
 Why did the young man not care about the city? Because the city was not in him. To live as a nomad, as a free man, to go home at the end of a long red road, means you live by different laws. It means you walk a track invisible to the naked eye and so you pay no heed to cities. At the end of The Songlines three old aboriginal men lie dying in the bush, at the conception site of their ancestor, the native cat. They are smiling as they lie under the ghost gums, as they become the ancestor, returning to where they belong.
They knew where they were going.
The book revolves around a collection: of nomads, travellers, calamities, curiosities, bold women in flowery dresses, young philosophical men living in the wilderness, people that come and go; the writer observes them meticulously, weaves and embellishes his text around their knowledge and their stories. But people, however interestingly or beautifully they are shaped, are not ancestors. People are not where you belong. The ancestors lie in the waterholes: when the sun appears, they arise, they dance and sing, they are the ancient creators of everything; they go on journeys, make camp, meet up, fight, love, depart, go back in. Their tracks across the land make meaning of everything. They are what make you belong. You find them in the mountains, in the clouds, in the animals, in the trees. In the dreamings of honey ants and whales. In your own dreams.

Where you do not find them is in the cities, in the service of the male conqueror: I slew! I conquered! I am the supreme lord of everything I see! The cities fall and are burned away in time. What is left when they go? There is a wind that blows across the desert, singing through the rocks and the spinifex. That sound you follow. And so we went up into the mountains.
Bruce Chatwin wrote The Songlines in the mountains of the Mani, where the Titans, those old creators, once stored their wisdom, in the golden age of nomads. Four years later his bones will lie buried there, amongst the olive trees and anemones.

In the space, in the heat of the bush, by the restless sea, in the shifting shade of the eucalyptus tree, something is taking root in my own imagination. It’s the idea of return, of going back.


The second sound I heard in Australia was the sound of a didgeridoo. I heard it in the streets of Adelaide one day, though could not find where it was coming from. The didgeridoo, the primordial, ceremonial Aboriginal instrument, is made from the trunk of a eucalyptus, hollowed out by termite ants. It is blown using a technique that allows the breath to flow ceaselessly through the old tree. It creates a sound like no instrument of civilisation; the roaring wind of the earth that runs through the interior of yourself, through your blood and sinew. It runs through your bones and shakes them to the core. When you hear it, you know what is missing in your life. What’s missing in all of our lives.

The travelling writer does not look inwards, explore the interior of himself, his blood and sinew and bone; the conquerors of cities do not look at themselves, we do not look at ourselves. We are observers, collectors, commentators, patrons, connoisseurs of the Other. Our eyes search always outside ourselves, documenting people, placing the world under our control. We amass huge amounts of data, photographs, insights. Where is it all going? Where are we going? Our possessions pile about us, our notebooks, our anecdotes. Our world shrinks. Our bodies crumble. We find ourselves talking with nobody listening. The wind in the desert calls us. The sound of the earth reverberates through the city streets. But we do not like to look within. We do not look at ourselves in the mirror. We stare into space, repeating our mantras, believing our right of passage to be guaranteed.

Perhaps we are afraid of what we might find in our reflection: our cat-like ancestor, our arch-enemy staring back at us, rich in tooth and claw. Dinofelis, the invisible Beast.


We lack the technology for this endeavour. We lack the law. We only know how to consume and possess the earth and one another. The aboriginals have all the technology, all the laws. We think if we read The Songlines we have these things down. But this is not the truth of the matter. The book is not the territory. The Dreamtime is a white-fella expression, and the way of the tjuringa has nothing to do with dreams, or dreaminess. Our night dreams are what we have left, as city people, of a once vibrant imagination, remnants of our aboriginal ability to live in the ancestral world that co-exists with the physical earth. Tracking our dreams can be a way back to the ancestors. It is a slow way, a hard way. A small tool. A humble beginning. Because we are obliged, though we do not like to do this, to face ourselves and all our conquests to clear a space for this way.

The journey through Australia changed us, slowly, irrevocably. It was partly our dialogue about dreams, the way our attention was turned towards our interior lives, to face our childhoods, relationships, houses, histories, those captivities that kept us so aggressive and so restless. But it was also the place itself, its searing light, its vast unknown nature, the bone-slow tempo at which everything happened. Time changed as we moved through the emptiness of the bush. Something opened out inside us.

I caught a glimpse of something in the parks, under the eucalypts that grew down by the sea. I saw how everyone gathered under their shimmering shade, sharing picnics, from whatever country of origin, and later in the rainforest, where we swam naked, how there was a peace and silence between us all, the men, women, children, as the hot wind shivered through the slender groups of gums. As the cities of my memory, my recollections of people, all that old nostaliga slipped away, these aboriginal-shaped gatherings appeared before me. Out of the blue. Then I realised I was looking at the future: the future of the people and the land. The bird-singing trees were freeing up my mind, so I could see it. And there was just space after that. Space and silence became part of our lives.


Under the great eucalypts of the Western karri forest, I put my bare feet on the earth. The canopy soars far above me, the karri leaves lie dry and crackling underfoot. We have been travelling for seven years. In this seventh year we have traversed the continents of America and Australia. We  have seen so many places, mountains and cities. Now we are turning inward. The fleeting outside world no longer engages us as it once did. People do not engage us as once they did. We have travelled lightly in these winter months, untrammelled by the history of nations and houses. As we moved, following these small red roads, swimming in pools in the filtered light of the gums, I felt there was something missing in our lives, something deep and urgent I could not quite put my finger on.

When Carlos Casteneda went into the desert to find out about peyote he found don Juan. He found another way of life that demanded he give up his own. He erased his personal history, his attachment to everyone he knew, so he would no longer be entangled in their lives. “Why do you follow the path of heart?” he asked the old seer. “I do it for freedom,” he replied, “And for the love of this beautiful earth.” When I came to Australia I found myself amongst the eucalyptus trees and their fire and wind medicine that clears the head of old worlds. I found myself facing the kookaburra, who talked to me from the tree.

After the fire you are free to be new. You can start again, like a green shoot, in all that space and light. Most of all, you are free to dream, to dialogue with the fabric of this world. It was the beginning of a songline, and the end of a long hard road.

From the forest floor I pick up a jewel-coloured parrot feather and a giant karri cone and go back to the little cabin by the lake.

“It’s time to go back to England, ” Mark says when I appear at the door, holding the feather and the seed in my hands. 

“Yes,” I say and smile. “It’s time to start walking.”

This 'flower' was originally written for the opening Germination chapter of 52 Flowers That Shook My World - A Radical Return to Earth  (Two Ravens Press) that covers our travelling years before the Plant Practice began. For further info contact Charlotte

Images (Creative Commons); Australian Landscape by Albert Namatjira ; eucalyptus flowers; cover of The Songlines; Mimi rock painting; karri tree by Dennis Haugen,
Dennis Haugen,

Image Citation:(?) Dennis Haugen,

Image Citation:(?) Dennis Haugen,