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

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