Monday, 1 September 2014

Doing the Butterfly Shift - new edition of Transition Free Press out today!

TFP06_2014-09_CoverToday is publication day for Transition Free Press No 6, one of the big deadlines I've been working towards this summer. Now distributed to UK Transition initaitives and posted to our subscribers we've also just gone on line.

Some highlights include: Tom Crompton on intrinsic values.'s Danielle Paffard on being radicalised. Rob Hopkins on telling the story of Transition through brewing, Kate Rawles on seakayaking; plus standing alongside First Nations, foraging for scarlet mushrooms, saving seeds, fermenting rose petals, getting to the root of plant medicine, getting into maker spaces and most of all tuning into the zeitgeist which this autumn all about climate action. Here's the editoriial I wrote on behalf of the TFP collective.

This changes everything

There is a story that has sustained us through these changing times: it’s known as The Butterfly Shift and is based on the biological transformation that happens when a caterpillar turns into an imago. At first the immune system of the caterpillar defeats the ‘imaginal cells’ of the new form. Then the cells re-emerge, but this time hold fast by joining forces.

The caterpillar is the dominant narrative of Industrial Progress, chomping its way through the planet’s ecosystems, and the governments and corporations who follow the ideology of ‘free market fundamentalism’. “Our economic model is at war with life on Earth,” as Naomi Klein says in her new book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. It’s also at war with every emerging butterfly that stands in its way.

One of the inspirations for Transition Free Press was The Occupied Times and the conversations that many Transition groups were having with local Occupy camps in 2011. The media we wanted to create would cohere the ideas and actions of many different grassroots enterprises under one colourful wing.

So true to its original blueprint, our autumn edition focuses on the people and communities everywhere who are resisting the assaults of the global caterpillar and at the same time making steps to transform our culture into something completely new. Because, as Klein clearly states: “Climate change isn’t just a disaster it’s also our best chance to demand and build a better world”.

 In 2012 Occupy tents were torn down, Transition Initiatives ‘burned out’. We realised that raising awareness and planting radishes in our windowboxes was not enough. We had to start up collective projects in the real world. We had to change the story and use words as they were originally meant to be used: as a medium for connection between us; a reminder of what being human really means. That, as storytellers and change-makers, we need to keep the door open in a time of cultural lockdown.

In this sixth issue you can find our signature mix of the practical, political and the philosophical. In line with a renewed push towards climate action this autumn, we’re focusing on fossil fuel divestment and climate activism. We are also showing how the humble acts of fermenting cabbage and saving seeds are also radical acts of liberation, why in the face of increased corporate control we are out digging fields, brewing beer, helping our neighbour, telling our own story, doing art in whatever place we find ourselves:

Bv5LwwiIUAAdk4bBecause Transition is not just in what we do but how we do it. The caterpillar mindset is cold, unkind, and solitary. The future of the butterfly is warm, open, spontaneous. It works together with its fellows and is at home on the Earth. When activist Danielle Paffard describes taking part in the Viking protest at the British Museum, you can’t help noticing these ensemble acts embody a certain intrinsic spirit: they're witty and colourful and alive, and when they take place everything else feels gloomy and somehow out of date.

“One of the most amazing things was this song which everyone was invited to sing. It was a way for people to engage, but it was also really beautiful. It wasn't what people expected of a protest. That song changed the dynamic of everything.”

Because it’s not just about listening, it’s also about singing. When you do, you’ll find you are not on your own. We are all out there.

This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein (Allen Lane) will be published on 16th September; Mirko Bonne, one of the five writers on the Weatherstaions project, Free Word Centre: gathering beetroot at Leigh Court Farm, Bristol, from the documentary Voices of Transition (photo: Milpa Films)

Sunday, 17 August 2014

This summer I went swimming . . .

Dear Reader, I have not abandoned this blog! I have been inundated with editing stuff for three big deadlines this high summer: the book Playing for Time (now at the publishers), the sixth edition of Transition Free Press (going to press on Tuesday) and Dark Mountain 6 now in production.

In between I have been sneaking out to the beach to go swimming, digging the garden, and foraging for plums and cherries. And in the long warm evenings drinking a glass of one of Mark's luminous herbal refreshers.

Above is one of the radiant daybreaks of the year - Lughnasa down at Southwold. And below is me emerging from the River Waveney at our Sustainable Bungay annual picnic in the pouring rain.

"We are resilient in the face of climate change! I called out to bemused tourists in Falcon Meadow, as we tucked into our low-carbon lunch and Nick's awesomely strong parsnip wine.

Normal service will be resumed in September Have a good month everyone!

Monday, 7 July 2014

ARCHIVE: When the experiment fails

This piece was originally written for Social Reporting Project, as part of a series looking at the 74 Transition Ingredients and Tools in The Transition Companion. Looking back at six years in the movement and now editing the sixth edition of Trnsition Free Press, this still seems a key subject. We think of Transiton as a thing, a goal, a perfect state, when it is process, something you go through and experience with others:, some of it painfully, some of it joyfully, some of it yawning and wishing the meeting would come to an end. Creativity is often the only meaningful way to navigate its existential territory.

I was going to write about Communicating with the Media, a nifty tool in the second section of The Transition Companion. I planned a practical exploration of the business of writing press releases and cultivating a positive relationship with local newspapers and radio. But then whilst Becoming the Media - creating the preview issue of the Transition Free Press - I stumbled upon a subject which was closer to home, nearer the bone. More urgent, I reckoned, than raising awareness of our local projects in the mainstream press.

The title of the second chapter is Deepening, and contains some of the harder aspects of Transition. The start up phase of initiatives is often exuberant and exciting. People are attracted to the buzz, full of hope and expectation. They stand up in rooms and declare what we (you) could do. Deepening is when you first hit the wall. Ideas and fancies about downshifting turn out not to be the reality of downshifting. Those big words fade in the light of day. You realise that you have to get on with the people in the room and do the work. Power struggles happen in deepening. Things don't go according to plan. People leave and let you down. You let people down. It's awkward because you don't know anyone in your fledgling initiative that well. The groups start to falter. What do you do?

Celebrating Failure is perhaps the least understood ingredient in the book. Because we live in a culture of success. No matter how we talk about losing being part of the game, it's still losing. Victors take all, stand on the podium crowned with laurels, king of the castle, biggest banker on the block. No one wants to be in the beaten team, on the bottom of the pecking order. But to be in Transition means we have to understand this win-or-lose mindset as an old order we need to transform.

Interviewing Shaun Chamberlin for the paper, he talked about the new book, The Future We Deserve, in which 100 authors write 500 words on their take of the title:
What was interesting in it was dissensus. The recognition that Nature doesn't decide by consensus on the ideal life form before it creates it. It just creates and creates and some things work and some things don’t work and I think Transition follows that “dissensus” approach - we don’t try and have a universal plan for everything. If someone wants to do something they go and do it. As Rob wrote about the punk ethic (here's three chords, now start a band): Here’s three ingredients, go and start a Transition initiative. That is that creative energy that underlies dissensus. Let some of the projects that we undertake thrive and let some of them die and don’t feel that everything we do has to succeed.
In a creative frame, you try everything. You start with the idea of communicating some key tips about the media but then a more pressing subject comes up. So you change direction. From the creative perspective everything is material. There is no loss or failure. You carve your piece out of the mud, the clay falls to the ground, you sweep it up and use it again another time. Nothing is wasted. Everything is compost and you need that compost - those past events, meetings, open spaces, clashes, those wasted leaves, those dead heads. You need that stuff to rot down in order grow nourishing and beautiful flowers for the future.

In Deepening all the expectations of how life should be come up for examination, and it is wise to know Transition is not what you think it should be at all. But of course you don't read the manual. Your ego hits the wall, you are challenged in all directions. Most people at this stage, rather than let go of their defence systems, or their lifestyle, leave and blame Transition for not living up to their shiny idea of it. That's not the failure of Transition, it's the challenge of our society. We don't live with the messy paint box of dissensus, we live in the pure and airy ideals of the mind, and the vicious battleground of the will. I do it my way. Publish that email and be damned.

If we had heart we would realise that everything we do in Transition is to create a future that is not apocalypse, and in many ways we are blind to what this might look like. We are feeling our way ahead and "failures" are merely telling us that some paths are the ones we don't need to go down. Try again. Move your attention somewhere else.

Valuing experience

OK, so this is the theory. What about the practice? In 2009 I helped organise the second Transition East gathering in Diss and before the event interviewed 29 initiatives on the phone. I collated all the information and posted it on a regional blog. I asked everyone the same questions. How were they doing, how many people were in the initiative, what kind of town, village were they in etc? Everyone cheerfully answered the questions. Do you have any difficulties? I then asked them. There would be a hesitation and then suddenly a huge outpouring would happen. Ten minutes would turn into an hour. Up until this point no one had mentioned dificulties. We weren't sure how to handle them. But the fact is the difficulties were not "wrong". They are our experience of change, how we know what to focus on, and what not.

Today many of those initiatives do not exist. The initiative I have been in (Norwich) is a shadow of its former self. The 14 groups that began so exuberantly after our Unleashing in 2008 no longer exist. The core group disappeared. The Heart and Soul group faded away. In April the monthly bulletin was not sent out, as it had been for the last three years on the first of every month. No one noticed. Or if they did, they did not say anything.

What does this tell us? Some territories are not fertile ground for Transition. Something holds groups together and if it's missing the group will disband. At some point you realise that you need to put your time and energy into projects that feed back, and not just because you can do them or that you are expected to. You need to go with the spirit of the times, be amongst people who understand that the project matters. That communication matters. That Transition is not a hobby, a once-a-month feel good community thing, it's for real.

Some of this stuff is bitter stuff to swallow. And we don't like bitter, we like the sweet and sugary things in life, the triumphs and the happy moment. But bitter, as all medicine people will tell you, is the taste of the heart. It's what tells you what is good and not good for the system, how you grow up and take responsibility for your actions. How experience teaches us to shift out of being the haughty me-against-Them people who want to rule the universe and become fellows with all beings on the planet.

The loss of these groups told us that power struggles are not for the future, nor is old-fashioned spirituality, hierarchy of any kind, hostility or control. It taught us that you can't really co-opt the future. It doesn't belong to big business or to the institution, and it will slip out of the Empire's clutches at every turn. In Norwich we learned that our Transition Circles brought a key aspect into the fabric of Transition - personal carbon reduction. We have one circle left still meeting, but the legacy of all that great experiment lives on. It's in the comments pages of the Transiition Free Press, it's in the interview with Shaun Chamberlin. It's just taking another form, working with a new mix of people. No blame. No loss. No failure. Just celebration.

P.S. There is only one real tip I would add to the media tool in the book and it's this: journalists are people and finding the story is what we really care about.

Photos: Untitled piece by Maria Elvorith for the cover of The Future We Deserve; Banner for February edition of Transition Norwich news bulletin; Transition East Gathering 2009 at Diss; with Alexis Rowell, News Editor of Transition Free Press (photo: Sarah Nicholl)

Saturday, 21 June 2014

EARTHLINES: Halcyon Days

Happy Summer Solstice everyone! My copy of EarthLines magazine arrived today, so I am publishing the column I wrote for the previous Spring issue - an upside down post, as it was written at the turn of the year. Today it is a beautiful midsummer day and we got up at dawn to see the sun rise over the sea. Outside the barley fields are stippled with poppies, the larks are singing, grass snakes basking on the compost, the garden filled with peas and beans and clover, roses and long grasses. Later we will have a picnic in the dunes and go for a swim. It's been a hard time in a fallow year, but today is a day of light and air, a blue day, and I am walking out . . .

Today is a halcyon day, one of the fourteen that fall each side of the winter solstice. Years ago it was believed that on such days, the mythic Alcyone, transformed into a kingfisher, could nest by the shore in peace because the god of the winds her father had calmed the waves.

I am taking an unusual break in a stormy time. Outside the rivers are retracting from the flooded meadows, and the sun is low and radiant in the sky; its tawny light suffuses everything. I am attempting to tame the huge hedges that surround the garden with a pair of shears: hawthorn, elm, oak, cypress, ivy. Pausing for breath something comes to me I do not expect. The fragrance of violets, and the sound of a blackbird singing quietly to himself in the rockrose. Spring embedded in winter.

Sometimes we need a lucky break, a halcyon day when we can rethink things and notice what is under our feet, or lies embedded deep inside ourselves. Sometimes this comes in the form of a stranger, reminding you of something you had forgotten, and sometime a handful of midwinter days you wrest for yourself, so you can practice your song for another year.

An alchemical conversation
I’m talking with Chris Thornton from South Australia. He has driven from his native Midlands to hold a conversation about Transition and communications which is the subject of his PhD. He is researching how Transition can make a space, to reconfigure our sense of self, as creatures that live in the wider social and biological sphere. How communications can shape a new kind of personal narrative, that includes human and non-human others.

How do we do that in a culture that is focussed entirely on individualism and perceives the world – including the wild world – as objects under our control?

How do you start to fulfil your objectives? he asks me. I laugh and say it doesn’t really work like that, with agendas and remits, from theory. Look, I say and point to the box that sits on a table between us. It’s filled with differed coloured apples evenly spaced from one another and lined with the summer edition of the newspaper I have been working on all year.

Here are the apples we picked in the orchards of the Emmaus community in Ditchingham on a sunny day last week. You can read everything into that box. You can read relocalisation and climate change and the economic downturn; the fact I am storing apples to last all winter in my larder. And if you look at the page, it’s an interview with Anne-Marie Culhane about the Abundance project.

That’s where, like many people, I first came across the idea of redistributing fruit in the community and started to write about it. It’s the basis of all the grassroots media I have been involved in. Now think about an 24/7 apple bought in a supermarket, flown in from Chile or somewhere you have never been. That apple doesn’t say anything. It is just an object that you eat every day, as a global consumer. These apples however say everything about us as activists, our reconnection with neighbourhood, winter, the earth. They are all about relationship. Key to taking us back into that relationship is the artist.

Gary Snyder once said that artists act like mycorrhizal fungi, transforming old dead thoughts and liberating energy from the forest floor. They are integral to the vitality and meaning of the community in which they live. That’s why, for me, any kind of redemptive cultural shift has to have creativity at its heart.
Sometimes you wait a long, long time for someone to ask you for the knowledge you have been holding in your heart, it seems for an aeon.

Outside, after the conversation, nothing has changed. It’s the same world. My inbox is still flooded with requests to save the tiger, the rainforest, the NHS, how we can halt another fossil fuel frenzy from destroying another pristine place on earth. But something inside has changed. A knot has untied. I realise I'm not waiting anymore.

An alchemical meeting
I am in Bethnal Green with fourteen contributors to the book, Playing for Time. We are exploring a section of the book about transitional arts practice, how it can be defined through the diverse practices of the people in this room. On the floor is a map of the book with its many sections laid out in bold aboriginal colours: land, water, rites of passage, food growing, activism, ancestors, reclamation . . .

Is this a key tenet of a collaborative practice? we ask each other in pairs, as we test nineteen of them out. I have a small clipboard with Change written on it, Anne-Marie has one with Thinking in Systems. We are engaging in a dialogue, how allowing change keeps a door open for other things to come in and how the artist has to hold that possibility no matter how hard the wind is blowing to shut everything down in the room.
When you think within the ecological systems of the earth, you are not stuck in the tramlines of argument, I say suddenly, you are not stuck in an old story. Maybe it’s not even about a narrative with a linear sequence, but takes another shape entirely.

Anne-Marie laughs. Outside the leaves of the cherry trees have turned amber and gold and float past the elegant 18th century windows. Sometimes you don’t know what you know until someone asks you the question and then waits for the answer.

We learn to wait because we don’t know the answer yet. It is not where you think it is. Some of it is embedded in the apples in the room, and some in the spark that reignites the relationships we once had by virtue of being human on this planet. One thing I know: it’s the artist who hosts the space in which that reconnection happens.

An alchemical space

Next year I am curating a garden. It’s a small garden in a small town, created four years ago by my local Transition initiative, Sustainable Bungay. It sits in the courtyard of the local Library, and this winter I am designing a programme of events and workshops around the plants in its central bed: woad, indigo, dyer’s greenweed, yarrow, St John’s wort. Each plant in the Dye Garden is a portal through which to look at our key relationships with plants: the fashion industry (cotton), the use of colour (madder), the rural world (hemp). We are surrounded by textiles and yet we never consider them. What would the world look like if we did?

One tenet I learned from paying attention to dreams: if you stop and pay attention to small things great riches will be revealed. The humble leaves of woad become a doorway into the fabric of the world. The plant takes you back in time, to the archaic and medieval worlds, it puts colour and yarn and imagination and belonging back into your hands. Takes you into blue.

The technological world goes so fast and furiously that we never get to look deeply and truly at the wonder of ordinary things. We never really know what we know. So though we imagine we can only properly experience the world by visiting every desert, hill and city, we only ever know it superficially as consumers. You can’t possess the earth, you can only behold its beauty and complexity when you become part of its vast and interlocking systems. You might catch it just for a moment, but that moment brings everything your heart desires into play. You just have to make the time and the space.

EarthLines is a magazine dedicated to nature, and today I wish I could write more about the natural world, which is the deep love of my life. I wish I could tell you I have spent this year up the wild mountains of Britain, or followed a Blue Ridge creek in the course of a year, or followed the footsteps of Patrick Leigh Fermor across Europe, and then written of all my adventures. I wish I could share the insights I once had under a madrone tree, or the medicinal properties of wild indigo.

But the truth of the matter is I have spent this year working with people, in small spaces, editing pages of a book and a newspaper, and all my encounters with the wild world have been ones that have caught me unawares. A summer dawn among the dunes, a sea holly bush covered in blue and tortoishell butterflies, swimming down the Waveney alongside rainbow-finned fish. A deer in the headlamps as we travelled home down the back lanes. The bright new moon and Venus just before the storm surge. The big places, deserts and the hills of other geographies, now lie deep inside in my memory: Mexico, Arizona, Chile, Greece. They frame every small action in my home country. Sometimes the scent of violets brings them back. A kingfisher spring in sere winter.

Why do I not strike out more into the wind-rippling marshes, march along the Eastern seaboard, catalogue the mushrooms as I once did in my local wood? Some part of me knows that unless we can join forces as a band or network we will lose hold of the places and creatures we love, that to connect in the spirit of regeneration we need conversations and gatherings, an alchemical space where things can turn around and we can forge another identity for ourselves as a people. Where we can let go of the arguments that divide us and divest ourselves of an old and unkind story.

What breaks up the false dominion of monoculture is the presence of diversity and kinship, the sound of many different voices in unity. The meadow, Darwin once observed, is resilient because of the beneficial connections between each plant, insect and organism that flourishes there. To thrive in a hard time we need to know ourselves as that chalk land meadow; we need to be that coral reef, we need to be that primary forest and the mycorrhizal fungi on the leafy floor. We enter the system by paying close attention to our home country, to the small places, at the edges of things, in the spaces where there are no agendas, in the question and the pause, your laugh out of the blue on a halcyon day.


Images: summer solstice sun, Southwold beach 2012 (Mark Watson); gathering fruit for Abundance project, Grow Sheffield; The Dye Garden, Bungay Community Library; cover of EarthLines 9

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Walking the Flower Path: Bluebell of Scotland

Last month I went up to a Dark Mountain gathering called Carrying the Fire in Scotland. As well as giving its director, my friend Dougie Strang a hand and taking part in the launch of Dark Mountain 5, I was giving a talk called Walking the Flower Path, which - according to the programme - would recount some ways of encountering plants and creating a shared narrative.

I don't usually prepare for workshops, as their shape and intent depend on who comes, what the place is like and, most of all, what plants are present. Sometime I wait for a dream to appear to direct the show, sometimes I am inspired by the journey, or the people I meet around the fire, or across a table.

This time nothing happened. On the train I sat in front of an empty notebook. The mountains amazed me after so many years in the flatlands. Morecombe Bay took my breath away. I saw a short-eared owl on a bridge and hundreds of tadpoles in a lake. I helped hang bunting from the rafters of the performance space and pitched my tent under the hill. I sat with Jack in a coffee shop in Moffat, and listened to everyone speaking differently. It was the first place I had been to in decades, where I could imagine living outside East Anglia.

But the plants were not speaking to me. On Sunday just as the last revellers and singers and storytellers were creeping into their beds at daybreak, I got up and walked around the garden of the Lodge, originally built for grand hunting parties: dark pines and redwoods soared above lawns scattered with daisies and sorrel and lady's mantle. I collected bugles and wood stitchwort from under the mossy ash trees. It was raining quietly, though the birds were singing like thunder. 

I made some coffee and sat in the empty dining room, watched a woodpecker searching for ants among the grass outside the tall windows. Peck, peck, flick, flick. I was on at nine o'clock and still had to prep the stage after last night's music. I sifted through my worn copy of 52 Flowers, with pieces of paper marking passages that were good for reading out loud. They stuck out of the pages like rabbit ears. I should have been terrified, but I wasn't, and then in that slow, sure Spring morning, a flower flashed blue out of the corner of my eye, and the memory came of a dreaming I had had once about Scotland. It had formed part of the introduction to a workbook that Mark and I were writing in 2006 called Speaking with the Heart, based on several of our practices. That's it I said. I will talk about the Six Doors that can open you up to the plant world: Botany, Territory, Medicine, Dreaming, Foraging, Ancestors. 

I don't know at this point, but Alastair McIntosh, who is giving a Sermon about the silvery path of the Sith at 11, will call me up on stage to retell this dream. Sometimes you have to speak a dream outloud to a room full of people because it is the right time and place. Alastair will talk about how you need one foot in the logos and one in the mythos to walk true on this Earth and his words will thrill me in a way I have not been thrilled in a long long time. It made me rethink that workbook and the direction of my life. Here is the original passage and the dream (that is in fact two dreams):

The harebell is a very small blue flower shaped like a fine bell. You could miss it. It grows in the wild dry heathy places in late summer, often in the shade of gorse, and most plentifully in the north where it is known as the bluebell of Scotland. At the time of our visit, I had just had a dream about the neighbourhood Big House where the 'owners' had had to get all their furniture out of the main room lickety-spit because the real owner, a small woman from Scotland, was returning. The front room was off-limits, but they had broken the rules.

The harebells we went to visit live down the lane where they grow in a small group under an old oak tree. The road was full of acorns and the autumn sun was in our faces as we sat on the bank by the small flowers.

"Are these the leaves?” asks Mark. 
“Yes, “ I say, touching the spindly foliage. “They look so fragile and yet they are as tough as old boots.” 
“What have they done to the land?” he says suddenly extremely gruffly, staring over the bare farmland. I put an acorn pipe in my mouth and grin at him. 
“Whose land?” I laugh and do a little jig amongst the acorns. The plant has made me suddenly feel very light and carefree. 

That night I have the following dream:

I am remembering a dance I once knew from a Scottish dancing class, called the Strathspey, with my primary school headmistress and her daughter. I am aware the headmistress is actually not “above” me in any way but is just there helping me remember the steps. There are also other people in the 'set' with whom I am going to do a figure of 8 once I have mastered the first part of the dance. I look down at my feet and they are wearing my big Indian brown boots and I can hardly believe these are my dancing shoes. But they are. 

The Strathspey is the measure of a Scottish country dance that goes at half the speed of a normal Scottish reel or jig. Its slow measure gives a certain elegance and deliberation to whatever shape the dance takes and belongs uniquely to that land. In the dream I am remembering this measure I once danced with both these people. The headmistress was my dancing teacher 'in reality' as her daughter was my dancing partner when we were about nine or ten.

The shoes are 'Indian' because I bought them in a street bazaar in Delhi. When we are looking at this dream in the practice and considering these small details, each of them assumes a life of their own. The shoes, ordinary brown shoes, take on a significance beyond their normal situation by the garden door. I am looking at them and remembering what I said about the harebell being as tough as old boots and the shoe seller in Delhi who smiling asked if I would not rather have a dainty pair of ladies dancing slippers. “No,” I said “I want a pair of shoes to walk the land in”. They are ordinary but they have also become extraordinary, like a pair of shoes you would find in a folk tale.

This is the moment when your focus shifts everything you see: because you are not seeing just with your everyday eyes but into another dimension entirely. You might hold an ordinary empty cup in your hand and know you need water from the nearby spring, and suddenly the cup, the water and the spring become The Cup, The Water and The Spring and your replenishing this vessel the very quest of your whole life. This kind of seeing has a very powerful effect on the way you experience the world because ordinary objects and events become imbued with an ancestral resonance and spiritual meaning.

The mind, seeking information and entertainment, skims over the surface of physical life. Restless, unsatisfied, it picks things up, names them, categorises them, prices them and then drops them and on to the next, valuing nothing in its pathway. The heart, however, sees into the fabric of things and their intrinsic relationship with the dance of life and you. You value things that come across your path or catch your eye. These doorways are like small keyholes: the iridescent flash of a kingfisher wing that reveals the riverbank, a peacock butterfly that heralds the Spring, the tiny dream detail, the small flower at your feet, that leads you into another earth which until that moment you had not seen. 

You see your brown earth walking shoes, you see the connections your feet make in these shoes, the way your feet dance the elegant dance of the Strathspey, how they are remembering the figure of 8 in this country dance from Scotland you learnt many years ago, how the small woman from Scotland is really the owner of the house and is coming back. It’s her house, her land. She is small but she is tough as old boots. Like you. 

You are seeing this because, like the dance, your perception is going at half the speed. A completely different tempo than ordinary time, a tempo in which all connections are made. You see, in the fast jig of ordinary time Mark and I are sitting by some small insignificant blue flowers on a C road in Suffolk, and yet in another time, once upon a time, strathspey time, we are keyed into the extraordinary fabric of the earth, the lives of plants and of ourselves. The small blue flower is remembering this dance in us, and leads us at the head of the set - fleet as a hare, blue as moonlight, ringing its tiny bells.  

52 Flowers That Shook My World - A Radical Return to Earth is published by Two Ravens Press.
Images: walking up the hill 1 to create a Life Cairn for Lost Species with Andreas Kornevall;  wood stitchworts; ash trunk; walking up the hill 2. All photos with kind permission by Bridget McKenzie.

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

It's all in the bag

This Spring my friend and fellow journalist, Louise Chunn, got in touch and asked me to write a piece about the shift I had made from fashion ed to community activist for her website We had worked on ELLE magazine together in London in the late 80s. This is an uncut version of the story published under the original title, Why I left My Enchanted Cage.

OK, so I am standing on a bench in the Green Dragon and waving a black handbag. You have to guess what three designer items I am wearing, I say. Everyone laughs as they look at my wintry gear: yak jumper, cashmere jumper, alpaca coat, zigzaggy pony skin belt.

We’re at a Green Drinks night in a free house in a small market town called Bungay in Suffolk. It’s a monthly event in which my local Transition Initiative, Sustainable Bungay, discusses environmental issues within a frame of social change. Tonight I’m the ‘expert conversationalist’ and the topic is Give and Take Fashion. Each spring the group hosts a Give and Take Day where the community bring stuff they don’t need and take home something they do, without any money changing hands. In this run-up discussion I’m telling everyone the story of how I once used to be a fashion editor and now just wear give-and-take second hand clothes.

You might wonder why this is a pub quiz. But when you look at the world’s second most polluting industry (after oil and gas) you have to find a way into people’s hearts and imaginations. Being light-hearted and imaginative in the face of tough global realities, I’ve discovered, is a surefire way to break through the illusion that everything is OK, in a time when patently it is not.

“Everything we are wearing is artificial,” I say to the table. ”We keep these materials, these colours close to our bodies, but we don’t know where they came from, who made them, who grew the plants, what lands we grabbed, what rivers we polluted, what farmer died by his own hand because he could no longer grow them. How many pesticides does cotton use?”

How did I get here, a million miles away from where I was born? I guess we have to talk about that black handbag. It was designed by Issey Miyake, and in 1990 I was invited by the Japanese master craftsman to attend a conference on fashion and the environment. I had by that time been documenting high-end consumerism in my native London for 12 years and though I was witty and smart and successful,  I had never considered the impact of the textile industry on the earth’s ecosystems or people’s lives. I didn’t even know rayon was made from rainforest wood. The encounter shook me among several that year.
In 1990 I owned a flat in Notting Hill and 2000 books. I went to the Greek islands in the summer and Manhattan in the winter, and ate fish and meat in swanky restaurants without a qualm.

In 2014 I live in a rented cottage in East Anglia and my coat (by Scott Crolla) has definitely seen better days. I split my own wood, make my own medicine, I don’t fly or go to supermarkets. I still write, though not for glossy magazines on the latest pasta shape or trench coat. I edit a small grassroots newspaper and in 2012 published a book about how I changed tracks and how the unique properties of wild plants can help you get back down to Earth.

I didn‘t plan to come back to England, but destiny forced my hand. In a time of unravelling, you have to make yourself at home. You have to give back. I didn’t want to become part of a commmunity action group, or feel what it was like to stand in other people’s badly heeled shoes, but destiny took me there. I’m a journalist, that’s what I do. I record what I see and ask awkward questions. Years ago I learned the best stories comes from direct experience. The only way is through the bramble bush.

When I was young I used to get depressed and longed to escape to the country. When I left the city, I travelled on the inside of my self, as much as I did across continents. A door opened I did not even know was there. Misery I realised comes from living in a silo world, where you have no real connection to the Earth or your fellows or your own true nature. To break out you have to undergo difficulties, but you bear those challenges because you glimpse the freedom of blue sky that your enchanted cage will never give you. That’s when you discover life is not a me thing, it’s a we thing. We are taught we should be in control, when in fact we should be in communication.

When I went travelling in 1991 I sold everything I had (well maybe not the Rifat Ozbek belt). I didn’t set out to downshift: it just happened that way. On the road you can’t hold on to your city lifestyle. It doesn’t work on Mexican buses, or living in the desert in Arizona. Not unless you have a heap of money to cocoon yourself in. Besides, when you are travelling other riches come your way that you care about more. The encounter with the planet, the world of dreams and plants, your fellow artists and seekers on the path. You realise that your self-pity and guilt and unease have vanished along with those securities. Because letting go is also letting in.

I set out on that path because London could not give me the deep and meaningful life I desired. But it was the times too. We live in a time of consequences for our fossil-fuelled civilisation, and in 1991 I felt those consequences already gnawing at my heart. When you get smart about the planet you realise that everything you once wrote about the pleasuredome rested on exploitation – of people, plants and places. Some part of me did not want to play that role any more. 

Last week I went back to the place that gave me my first job in journalism: Vogue House. I stood in the Conde Nast board room with a glass of wine, surrounded by the women and men I had shared typewriters, taxis and parties with thirty years ago. Most had not left this elegant, glittering world. We were celebrating the memory of our former editor, Beatrix Miller. I learned the tricks of my trade here one day when I was given the task of writing captions for the main fashion story. ‘Miss Miller’ sent me back to my desk, hour after painstaking hour, until I got them right. She was old-school and a perfectionist when it came to editorial details. “You have to imagine the reader standing there with the gin bottle and Hoover,” she told me, “you have a duty to tell her there is more to life than that.”

It’s true, there is more to life than that. Just as there is also more to life than vintage champagne and houses where maids do the hoovering for you. More than Mozart and Jerusalem sung in your memory at St George’s Hanover Square; more than rooms of damask sofas and silk dresses I once praised in cleverly-stitched copy. These are lovely things, but they all come at a price, as every fairy story will tell you. And it’s a price you have to pay one day (or your descendants will)  – with your body, with your mind, in the part that was once called the soul. 

Every descent myth tells us that to become a real people, we have to relinquish the self-obsessed material life we cling to and radically change our ways. Somewhere we know this in our bones. Somewhere I knew this when I was writing those captions. But to deconstruct a story you have to know first how it was conjured. 

No one born into  privilege goes down in this world, the Times columnist David Aaronovitch once asserted, except perhaps writers. We’re the ones who remember the way out, not because we are in any way enlightened but because we’re more interested in the story than our own comfort. 

After the memorial drinks party, I went into Oxford Street and was immersed in a sea of ordinary people. It was a big relief. Nothing in me wanted to go back through those glass doors.

That’s part of the duty. You tell it how it is.

Images: on the beach with seakales, Sizewell, 2014; in my Notting Hill flat, 1991; book cover pic from 52 Flowers That Shook My World, tumulus and wild daffodil, 20010.

Saturday, 3 May 2014

The Fabric of This World

In celebration of the new Dark Mountain anthology, here is a quick peek into the artwork pages (16 in all) that intersect the texts. As well as a photographic record of the four Uncivilisation Festivals, there are two sections of work in various media, from gum arabic to found materials, digital montage to cyanotype.

Dark Mountain art is hard to qualify or put into a box, but what has shaped and defines this selection is the intense focus and relationship each artist has with the matter in hand — stuff that most of us in a 24/7 whirl of activity do not have eyes or time to notice.

Why do we need art? Because only when we pay this kind of attention can we see close up the extraordinary nature of earthly alchemy, or the movement of the heavens above us. That what science drily calls ‘eco-systems’ are in fact beautiful and meaningful patterns that intersect with our own intelligence and planetary presence in a way words cannot easily describe.

Like the Earth, these images are the work of collaborations, of projects — the results of waiting and watching and movements over time. Way marks and tracks, blueprints and shifts: a map of mountains soaked by the rain, the blue zigzags of a Patagonia glacier.

Each one tells a story caught in a glimpse: the story of a pilgrimage through Walthamstow, the story about a collection of plants made from abandoned technology, the story of the sun’s yearly trek across the sky in a grandmother’s house in the far north. The fabric of this world.

Here is one behind the book’s centrefold picture: the story of the man who follows the deer.

Roe Deer in May Birch by Thomas Keyes

Thomas Keyes first appeared in Dark Mountain 3 with a compelling recipe for black pheasant stew. He is a forager and artist who lives in the remote Highlands, with a wood behind his house. What inspires his art are the materials he comes across when he roams the land. Although he fashions works from a wide range of natural stuff — from mushrooms to wasps’ nests to oak galls — his signature canvas is parchment made from the hides of (mostly roadkilled) roe deer; his paints the tar and smoke made from the bark of the tree he loves more than any other: the birch.

‘I like the self-referential nature of the subject of birch and deer. The birch trees are endessly fascinating and so expressive, the more I see them the more I want to paint them. People from the city might see a forest with deer as an image, a pretty picture, but for me they are an important practical part of life. Some people get the paintings and some don’t.’

Keyes is one of the artists taking part in The Foraged Book Project with Fergus Drennan (an Uncivilistation regular) and James Wood, and like many others there is no separation between the stuff he uses and the subject of the painting itself. He uses the scars in the hides to form the kinks in the trees bark for example.

‘Foraging is a way of interacting in a rural environment and of noticing patterns: you start to see exciting things everywhere and have a reason to go places, to be on high alert. I wanted to make something artistic out of the material I foraged, but it didn’t go anywhere until I came across the deer and then I felt obliged in some way.’

The materials came together by chance. The parchment he found was the best way to preserve the deer skin. He had been making the birch tar (used traditionally as a sealant) by boiling it up on an open fire as an experiment. But his intense focus on these two lifeforms is not just because of their look and proximity:

‘Basically birch trees have always been there with people in Europe, as fuel, as medicine. They are one of the constants, which like roe deer, we’ll see into the future. Both have actually increased because of us and agriculture. They are two species that it’s safe and important to form a relationship with. So much of nature is in drama and disappearance, it is good to know there are some things we can count on.

‘What’s really interesting about Dark Mountain is that when you get people together to talk about the premise of collapse suddenly you are talking about what is actually there; whereas before when I was around people who did not accept that premise they were constantly fighting their corner, or arguing the point, with stats about peak oil etc and no one was looking at what lies beyond that. Whereas when you accept the premise you can have a look at the natural world, which hasn’t gone away. There’s quite a lot of it left, bad as things are.’

DM5 cover roe deer in may birch
The paintings beckon a way back into the land most people now feel divorced from. Deracination and lack of connection with the natural world is one of the ways a dominant city-based narrative keeps a hold on our imaginations. There’s nothing out there, it’s all gone! In a time of unravelling however, belonging and being anchored in a place become increasingly vital. In a piece written for the present volume, ‘Finding Common Ground’, Keyes looks back at a land where his own connection was severed:
The parish I reside in still has barely half the population it supported up until the mid 1800s. Incomers are a necessity. As an Ulster Scot I come from long line of incomers: Ulster Scots are professionsal incomers and have played no small part in the colonisation of most former British territories. Clan Hanna were made enemies of the crown and send from Argyll to County Monaghan, beyond the frontier of the Ulster plantation in 1640. My direct, soil-based experience of that land ended formally only a few years ago, when my great aunt Edna Hanna died and the small farm I had visited as child became out of bounds. One break in the chain in 370 years, and it’s over. My children will only ever enter that land as trespasssers, with no emotional connection to it. In fact, once I am not here anymore, they probably won’t bother; their children may never even hear of it. The home those people built, the fields they worked, they churchyard they’re buried in, the relationships built over generations: all gone. I’d be no more home there now than I am back in Scotland, walking through the fading traces of other families’ tragedies.
In many ways, Keyes writes for most of us who no longer live in places where generations of our clans, families or tribes, have interacted with the land. We have now to dig deeper, beyond history, beyond our familial circumstances, to get back to an Earth where we feel at home with all our relations — rocks, plants, animals, trees. An immersion in the shapes and patterns of the natural world frees us from the grids and enclosures set up by Empire, in our physical forms as much as in our imaginations.
When you look at the painting you find yourself following the deer, down the wild track through the trees, toward the mountain — as our ancestors have always done through time. It feels like the only path you want to take.

Thomas Keyes is an artist, gardener and parchmenter based on the Black Isle. He is currently working on the Wild Project and The Foraged Book Project and updates with foraged art.

PLANBee-emergeCalling all artists! We are still open for sub- missions for original work (pain -tings, drawing, photo -graphy) for Dark Mountain 6 as well as for our next cover. Please look at the submission guidelines for details and send to Deadline is 18th May.

Dark Mountain: Issue 5 is available through our online shop for £12.99 – or subscribe now to future issues and get this one for £8.99.

Art works: Following the Roe to Bennachie and Roe Deer in May Birch by Thomas Keyes; Jess X Chen with the diptych Collapse, Emerge (created with fellow artist, Noel’le Longhaul) which formed the cover of Dark Mountain 5. Bluestocking Bookshop, New York.

Post originally published on The Dark Mountain blog