|High Desert, Arizona on the border with Mexico, one of the book's main territories
Twenty years ago I had a dream that changed the course of my life utterly. It was about a weed that grows along the waysides in Mexico, a plant I had never met. Ten years later I wrote a book called 52 Flowers That Shook My World where it heralds the encounters and medicine stories behind a radical departure from everything I had once known. Today, in celebration of the the book becoming available in PDF format, here is its first flower.
Notting Hill, London 1990
That night I had a dream. I was walking through a green land and an Indian woman came up to me and put some herbs in my hand. I have been having dreams about plants since I returned from Mexico. Men and women are appearing silently from nowhere and giving me sage tea to drink, or instructing me to plant bulbs, or I find myself walking through fields of wheat and maize and seeing how their growing patterns have been disturbed. This dream was unusual, however, in that this native woman spoke the names out loud: one was liquorice root and the other had a name I did not recognise, epazote.
In the dreams I know about the cornfields but I do not know about the herbs. I particularly do not know about this herb called epazote. That night I got up and sat at my writing table and looked at my hands. I have the familiar corn in my right, but in my left, I hold a plant I do not know. It is a stranger.
I am in my flat alone in the middle of the night, holding this strange herb from a dream. I am surrounded by everything I know: shelves of books, thousands of them, line the walls of this kitchen study. In the adjacent living room the treasures of a thirty-something life sit in the darkness: pottery bowls from markets, pearwood chairs from auctions, a long handcrafted table where people meet, an Indian mattress where people sometimes sleep. I could pick up every object in this room and tell you its story: who was there when I found it, what it means, how it defines me; how this jacket came from Paris, the paella pan from Madrid, the blue meshed larder from Athens, this stone from a certain beach in Wales, these cow bones from the New Mexican desert. I could tell you all the recipes that I cook in these earthenware dishes, with my junkstore utensils that lie in a drawer, in my alchemical workplace of words and cooking pots, my rooms with a certain atmosphere many people love to come to, even more than being with me. Charlotte’s for supper, with its table and familiar objects, with its rough panelling, its windows without curtains, where you can hear the occasional sound of a bus passing, or a drunk reeling down the road. With its inspirational physical style.
In this moment I feel all the attention that I and others have placed on these objects dwelling in these rooms. I feel the way I move about them, write about them, handle them is becoming more important than my own living being, and something in me shudders.
I realise that my being is about something else that is not dependent on these objects. Life is not about things that others or I can handle. These objects are a replacement for a relationship with life. But nothing replaces that relationship, not really. It is a comfort, as a child is comforted in the night by a toy. But it is not the real thing. This plant I do not know yet is telling me this. It is having a certain effect as I sit and contemplate it. Everything I am surrounded by has become imbued with a different feeling, has become less secure in this moment. It as if these objects no longer have anything to do with me. They are losing their hold, unhooking themselves, as I hold this strange herb in my left hand.
The entrance of the stranger on the solar path is the pivotal point, the point when it begins. The stranger is something about which you know nothing, that you allow into your life. Sometimes this is a person and sometimes a new idea. But whatever form the stranger takes, it comes like a strange attractor and breaks the limit cycle of our lives, like a philosopher’s stone that begins the strange alchemy of our souls. Our worlds are normally so circumscribed that we automatically do everything to keep this stranger out. We are programmed to defend ourselves, like genetically modified plants, to deport any visiting outsider as an undesirable alien, in order that we continue to conduct our affairs in the same small way, without questioning their validity.
But sometimes we let the stranger in anyway. Sometimes by accident, and sometimes fired up by an ancient curiosity, our native love of secrets and mysteries, our desire for keys and clues and signs. Our souls lie in wait for such a moment, the moment when our consciousness starts to ask questions and rouses us out of bed to look at our hands.
What has awoken me this night from my sleep is the memory of Mexico. This first germinating seed is a wild plant known as Mexican wormseed. Epazote is not a grand plant; in fact it is a common weed that flourishes by any highway, ditch or vacant lot from Sonora to Chiapas. Its name derives from the Nahuatl word for skunk, due to its unmistakable pungent aroma. It is a member of the goosefoot family, a whole tribe of flourishing weeds like tumbleweed and fat hen, all with small flowers and nourishing rich green leaves (beetroot, good king henry, spinach are all goosefoots). However, epazote’s power lies not in its leaves but in its rank and bitter seeds, which are a formidable anti-parasitic and vermifuge. It was once cultivated throughout the world as a cure against the ravages of hookworm. It has been used for centuries in Mexican cooking to flavour and act as a digestive aid in beans. In fact, once you have tasted its strange and musty scent, you can’t cook beans without it.
Once I had tasted Mexico, I could not do without Mexico either. Its strange and bitter flavours. When I had travelled there with Mark that spring I had gone without any references. It was unexpected, something I had not calculated for. ‘No one I knew knew Mexico,’ as I would write later in a book about this journey. Mexico did not exist in my library or my internal world, so its presence could act on my being absolutely. And absolutely it did. This did not just mean the unusual physical senses of the place: the scent of tuberose, the colours of the painted walls, the long bus rides through valleys of glow-worms, a hot turquoise sea – but also things of a deeper, more cosmic level. It meant taking hallucinogenic mushrooms that tore my consciousness open in the Mayan rainforest, and now, as I am looking at my hands, it means Carlos Castaneda and the warrior’s path, a path of heart that goes through the desert. A certain desert of thorns and cactus.
When you start the solar journey, you hunt for ways to begin. If you are a writer, you start with books, and of all the many books I was reading at this time, it was Castaneda’s account of his apprenticeship with the Yacqui seer don Juan in Mexico that spoke most urgently to me. While others I knew were fascinated by the book’s description of power and the control of dreams, I was absorbed by its meticulous description of the energetic acts of the warrior, those strategic steps of the will that enabled one to live with fluidity in the world: the assuming of responsibility, the letting go of self-pity and self-importance, encountering the mysterious presence of twilight and the concept of impeccability.
The other ‘new-age’ works I looked at during this time had very little to do with impeccability. They concerned themselves with important gods and goddesses, family psychology and wounded healers, archetypes and temples. They belonged to the bourgeois city parlours I recognised from my novel-reading days. But Castaneda’s books were talking about something that did not originate in the city. The writer-anthropologist had left the city of Los Angeles in the early sixties in search of a plant called peyote that grew out in the desert chaparral that lay between Arizona and Mexico. There was something clear and autonomous and mysterious in his quest that resonated with my own being. His journey reminded me of the deliberate life I had come across in the works of Sartre when I was young. Don Juan’s teachings spoke of a rigorous and affectionate relationship between man and earth that was both sparing and tender, that lived quite beyond this indulgent, acquisitive, objectifying world I lived and worked in. Because everything he spoke of worked within the framework of death.
Most of all Mexico meant death. Death is your advisor, don Juan advises Carlos Castaneda. We are all beings who are going to die. Every act you make as a warrior is your last act on earth, so you don’t have time for petty moods or failures. You don’t waste your time.
I had not considered death before, my death. Death is something you don’t think about in the eternal shopping world of London or Los Angeles, but in Mexico death looks at you directly in the eye, rattling its smiling skeleton in the face of your artificial parasitic life, whose currency is inflated ten times its actual value. At a certain point, if you care about life, you turn to face death. You let go of the world you have been involved in constructing and start to work for the spirit of things. You realise you are not going to be on this earth forever and certain strategic moves need to be made if you want to experience this mysterious place while you are here.
In Palenque that spring I had realised my life in the world meant nothing. It wasn’t worth a handful of beans. In the annihilating force of the mushrooms, I could hold on to nothing of this existence, not even my name. So I let them go. And what was left in its place was a relationship to life that now demanded my full attention, linked both with my own heart and with the mysterious man whose destiny now appeared inextricably bound up with my own. Mark.
One day shortly after this epazote dream, I picked up the telephone. ‘Mark, Let’s go to Mexico for six months,’ I said. ‘We can write a book together.’
‘Oh, yes!’ he said. ‘But what about your flat?’
There was a pause.
‘I’m going to sell it,’ I said. ‘I’m going to sell everything I own.’
When I left London I was thirty-five. The age when you let go of the corn you have been sowing in your right hand, and take up what destiny has given you in your left. When Death appears at your door, when the mysterious woman with her wand of wormseed comes to you and suggests you face another direction entirely. When you let go of everything you know and walk toward the sun, towards an unknown horizon.