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.

www,earthlines.org.uk

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):

HAREBELL: DOORWAY INTO THE REAL WORLD
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:

THE STRATHSPEY
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 welldoing.org. 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 thomaskeyes.co.uk 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 charlotte@dark-mountain.net. 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

Sunday, 13 April 2014

ARCHIVE: Being Here

A piece about writers and belonging originally written during a week on Place Making and Neighbourhood for the Social Reporting Project, May Day 2012 (a bit early I know but in 2014 the bluebells - and cherries - are already out . . .) 

Right now at Geldeston Locks Rita is sitting down with the crew to eat breakfast after a hard hour’s dancing in the rain and wind. We’ve just come in soaked from walking across the barley fields, waiting under the oak and hawthorn for the sun to rise (invisibly). Outside the birds are singing (wildly). The black poplar leaves are unfurling (like tongues of fire). The heavenly scent of alexander flowers and bluebells is in the air. We’re all still up at daybreak, in spite of everything, still here.

Most people are asleep in their houses. Maybe they don’t remember it’s May Day, or know why children on the greens of England are dancing round a birch tree. Still the Spring pushes the leaves out of dry wood, pours forth her beauty in the woods and hedgerows, out there, down the lane, in the neighbourhood. And true to this moment, to the revolutionary nature of the day, I’m breaking form. We are commanded, as social reporters, to be writing about our local initiatives, but I feel something collective has not yet been explored in Transition. It feels urgent, planetary, larger than all our projects and yet underpins them all. Bear with me.
The myth of community
It was Susie Hargus who first mentioned it. We were driving down the freeway in St. Paul Minnesota and she said: This road really split the community. And I looked at her, nonplussed. She was an artist and a dreamer and the crowd of unknown people who lived in her district hadn’t, up to that point, figured in anywhere in our conversations.

After that I kept hearing the word. In Bisbee, Arizona, in Oxford, England and then everywhere I went in Transition. People with a dreamy look in their eye, uttering the special mantra that transcended everything. Community! Pretty soon I worked it out. “Community” didn’t mean people in the district, it meant a group of people like yourself, who loved you for who you were, who made you feel good. Imaginary friends and neighbours, ideal playmates in a rocky time.
Maybe this is why the word Community alienated me. How can you be part of someone’s else’s idea? Or maybe it was because I had spent my bohemian youth with a band of fellow journalists, connected to a whole city (London), that I never yearned to belong to a set of people. It wasn’t until I returned to England after travelling that the word started to mean anything, as I found myself isolated from the human inhabitants in the lane where I now lived. An incomer, a renter and of no significance to the local rural, suburban and strangely, feudal society.

Writers, by their nature, are wary of traditional community, the status quo who judge and condemn any one who thinks out of the box, who pushes, like the Spring, for new life and liberty. What we love is neighbourhood and the pattern language of place. We love street trees and corner shops, we love the sun reflecting gold on the windows of the towerblock, the scent of rain on pavements, the local restaurant with its chairs outside, our conversations with market stall holders, the numbers of buses. This C2 bus I am catching now with Sarah Nicholl, that runs from Victoria Station to Parliament Hill Fields.

We love those names of places, our memories of journeys and meetings. Our bodies remember their curves and gradients, as we cycle towards the library, the office, the theatre, our feet remember street corners, canal paths, parks and bridges. My feet remember the way from Oxford Circus to Lexington Street, even though I haven’t walked through these back alleys for twenty years. I don’t have that network of media friends in London anymore, but I do have Transition. It’s a network too, of course, just one that is working for a different world. We’re on our way, Sarah and I, on this Spring night walking to Mildred’s to meet some of our Transition companions on the eve of a Peak Money conversation.

I haven’t been in Soho in a long long time, but in spite of all the changes I have gone though in that time, the changes the world has gone through, I look around the room and see it’s the same. These buildings have been here for centuries, hosting loud and boisterous conversations between people, the small rooms are rocking with words and laughter, the clattering of plates and chinking of glasses. It’s London. Fast, furious, communicating like mad with itself. I don’t live here anymore, and yet here I am. In my element. Home.
Making Myself (Our Self) at Home
What has this to do with Transition? Belonging is the core of everything. We have to be home first before we go anywhere near the future. Otherwise we will always be operating from the past as "non-belongers" -working from outside in, when we need to be working from inside out.

What I learned travelling is that belonging doesn’t depend on those alliances with friends or colleagues you once knew (or perhaps still know). It doesn’t depend on having a community you can call your own, or being tapped into the conventional circles made by institutions, by church, school, or family. Belonging is belonging to humanity, to the earth, knowing that how you act and move and give every day matters.

Belonging is loving the world wherever you are. It’s loving the city neighbourhood, it’s loving this country lane. It’s loving the plane trees of Hoxton Square, the damson trees in Philip and Irene’s garden, the rain as it slides down the window. It’s knowing that being in a place doesn’t depend on the people who live in the district, or what they think of you or you them. Belonging is something impersonal, and because it’s impersonal it’s more intimate, more generous than any idea of community. It’s feeling at home on a corner in Mexico City where I sit drinking my morning coffee, to the long road across America, edged with sunflowers, it’s belonging to the mountains and the desert, to the Thames, to the Ganges, to the California coastline, to this grey North Sea, with all its watery territories, all the tracks we make, the people and the animals and the birds, the indigenous blueprint of places, the vernacular of everywhere.
Breaking out
We can talk carbon emissions and climate change, we can talk community and Transition, we can think in numbers and statistics, tell our horror stories and hopeful visions, but nothing will change outwardly, the way we all wish it would (which is to say for real), unless we come from this kind of affection for the places we live in. Unless we break out of our “left brain” understanding of geography, class and history and start tapping into our “right hemisphere” collective lineage, connect with the people who have been speaking, singing, creating this pattern language for millennia. Everyone who keeps this sense of rootedness and fluidity alive in us all. Until we start belonging to the trees and the wind and feel our feet on the ground, at home with perfect strangers in all places, we are going nowhere. All our conversations – peak oil, peak money, peak everything – will be stuck within an old paradigm. Stuck in me and my idea of the world, separate from you.

We have to know the physical world as our home territory, we have to see each other as we really are: native, indigenous to this earth. We have to know we are the bio-diversity we talk about. We are the heritage seeds of the future. That each of us holds a planetary form, shaped like the sun we cannot always see. A true form that is also a colour, a sound, a frequency we sense when we feel light, relaxed, in synch with everything and everyone in the neighbourhood. When we do Transition from that place, it’s happening. It’s happening in London, in East Anglia, in Pittsburgh, in Japan, wherever we are. That’s the moment when we know what we are doing on the planet, in each other’s company, when we wake up. The reason we keep dancing in the rain.

Merry May morning everyone!

Images: Sustainable Bungay Spring Tonic wellbeing walk, 2014: Mark leading a Plants for Life session, Walking with Weeds, Bungay; Green Lane, Suffolk; Sustainable Bungay Give and Take crew, 2012; Children dancing at Geldeston Locks, May 2011


Sunday, 30 March 2014

52 FLOWERS 43 lilies

As Spring advances through the woods, here is an unpublished piece about lilies from the Radical Flowers chapter in 52 Flowers That Shook My World.

Halesworth, Suffolk 2005 I am standing in the darkened theatre. It is five o’clock and I am alone. Outside the wind is howling and it is freezing cold. Snow has been falling all day and we had thought of cancelling the performance - but in the end we didn't.

I have been working for this theatre all winter. Bracing all kinds of cold weather to keep it open - the frigidity of neighbours, the chilliness of the local council - and now it looks as though things are turning around, that spring might be coming after all. I go to the lighting desk and switch on one of the spotlights and then stand in its beam on the stage. 

It is a warehouse theatre with rough brick walls and seats for 200 people. As I face the shadowy rows, my voice booms out loud, breaking the silence: When the Blue Hare Jumps! And I smile when I hear my own voice. I haven’t done any performance for years and it feels like the moment when you first enter the sea or put your feet on the ground on a warm day. You know it so well, you have been doing this for an aeon, and yet it feels like the first time. I read through some marked passages and then I put the books down on the piano, and sit looking at the tiers of empty seats.

How many strange performances have I watched from the back of this theatre? Tibetan monks blowing giant horns, arch-druids playing fairy harps, virgin choirs singing about loving Jesus, preachers playing cinema organs, Christians emasculating the words of Dario Fo, the immaculate words of Dylan Thomas twisted in the mouths of fools. A failed magician struggling through his last trick, children maniacally toe-tapping as their dancing teacher shouts: You can be special! you can be a star! Hundreds of nameless people filing in and out, watching these bizarre acts, sometimes a full house on a music night but mostly a handful of souls in anoraks, watching a smaller amount of people, doing their special thing, having their moment of stardom.

All these months I have been standing by the doors, turning the house lights on and off, watching in the aisles, turning the heaters on in the dressing rooms, pulling and pushing monitors, screens, wires, and now for one night, it’s going to be the other way round.

“Where do you want the mikes?” asks Trevor the lighting technician, as he bursts through the stage doors in a whirl of snowflakes. "Just here where I am standing," I say. And go downstairs to change into a red dress.

ii
Everyone loved the show. It was an open mic evening. I hosted, Mark was the compere. The woman who worked in the café turned into a singer who sang about a drowned fisherman, the administrators of the poetry festival became poets who spoke about love, the man at the box office sang a Venezuelan song about the star Venus, the usher who was also an antique seller recited a classical poem about Eurydyce. For one evening we were all so much more than we were in the day in our shops and offices. And there was a feeling, perhaps because it was such a cold evening and everyone had made this special effort to come out, perhaps because we were all together in this business of going to and fro from the stage, one minute audience, the next a performer, that something was happening. There was excited talk in the interval about doing more evenings. As I thanked everyone for coming at the end of the show a huge bunch of lilies was thrust into my hands. Thank you, I said and bowed.

“Everyone liked the singing, Charlie,” said Mark as we waved goodbye and started to lock up the building. ”Yes,” I agreed. But no one had mentioned my poems. Those poems the theatre manager had read about silence and the desert, the kind of silence when you can hear the stars, the leap of the salmon, the wind in the apple tree, about the time when the ancestors of the snow-bound north wait for a cat to arrive and tell them who they really are.

 I put the lilies in a vase and left them in the office. And then I turned out the lights.

iii

Stargazer lilies are the kind of flower you get as a performer.  Waxy blooms with pollen-covered stamens that command the stage like opera stars with giant candy-striped throats. They sit on pianos, in hotel lobbies, in funeral parlours, perfectly shaped for weeks on end, permeating these public arenas where sentimentality and artifice are at their height, with their strong and urgent perfume. These lilies arrive in great container lorries from the glasshouses of Holland each week, one of those cosseted hothouse flowers that poison and suck dry the watertables of Colombia and Africa, and enslave thousands of people everywhere. And all because we can’t quite look each other in the eye, at a time when we should be looking each other in the eye: the mother we wish to butter up; the lover who we want to get into bed; the friend we want to keep for our own reasons. The women we pretend we adore. The flowers that are a substitute for the feeling of the heart, that say Sorry and I love you and Goodbye and all the things we can’t say, because we don’t really mean them.

The reality is these lilies are expensive, where you are cheap. 

iv

Flowering plants are divided into two principle categories by taxonomy, the monocotyledons and the dicotyledons. The vast majority are the dicotyledons. The monocotyledons are a small and distinctive group. They are not just different botanically, that is in their structure, they differ in their mood and vibration. This is because they are governed by the reflective nature of the moon, rather than the sun. You can sense this in the way they appear in the darkness of a wood and possess a liquid nature that feels mysterious and indefinable. Hidden. Still. Many store their energy in reserves underground, in corms and bulbs and rhizomes. Lilies are monocotyledons, as are orchids and irises, gladioli and saffron. All flowers that are all highly sought after, prized, collected, presented. Special plants that need special attention. Flowers for special occasions, for special people.

I had not felt special that night. Even though I had enjoyed performing, I felt no one was listening to what I was saying. We had been able in that hothouse moment to sing our song and pretend we were other than we were. But somewhere we were fooling ourselves. And some part of me would not let that go by.

When the stargazer lilies fell into my hands,  I was very far from being a star. I  was working a 60 hour week in the basement office for £2.50 an hour, without overtime. Each night as I stood in the dark, as the people flowed in and out, as the galleries changed pictures, as the wineglasses filled and emptied at the theatre bar, I sensed these movements as if the building were part of my own body. But one thing I did not realise: this open mic evening was to be my farewell performance, my one and only appearance on this stage. I had poured all my life-force into revitalising this theatre and all that will come back from these endeavours is a powerful reek of lily flowers.

Is this all we have at the end of our time? I will wonder in a few days time, gazing at their frigid beauty, and imagine if that is how departing spirits feel as they look back at their earthly lives and see a pile of stinking glasshouse flowers perched on top of their corpses.

v

“Those flowers are just too much,” said Jo. I laughed. The office was filled with the perfume of  lilies and amidst the grinding machinery of the computers and coffee cups, the ceaselessly ringing telephone, the delivery men arriving, their grandiose forms seemed somehow ridiculous. I gave them to the volunteer in charge of the front of house flowers and she used them to brighten the underworld of the ladies toilet.

I felt ungrateful for putting them in the toilet.

“What are you looking at?” snarled the lilies. “This is where we belong. Have a good look. You are looking at yourself.”

I didn’t want to look at myself. I didn’t want to face the fact that no one gave a damn about whether I wrote interesting poems or worked all hours in this office, so long as they could get their entertainments, have their one shiny moment on stage. I didn’t want to face the fact that no one seemed to give a damn about anybody or their creativity, that there was no place for our hearts, for anything splendid that might occur in that theatre if we did. Only that the star-making machine went on and everybody played their roles and remembered their lines and made the correct curtsey and bow when they were expected.

I had stood there and felt splendid in a red dress, but no one was listening to a word I was saying. I could stand and hold everyone’s attention, but the earth of which I spoke could not enter the room. The words evaporated even as they came out of my mouth.  I could have just stood there (perhaps we all could) and made gestures. It would have been enough, sufficient.

It was a small moment in a small theatre on a cold night, and it was also all theatres, every night, as the earth turns on her axis, as these hothouses let out their sounds of lamentation into the air: fiendish fiddlers, shrieking sopranos, the moaning of choirs, the groans of orchestras, actors, dressed in outlandish costumes, repeating the same lines endlessly through the centuries, ballet-stars hiding blood-stained feet, sad-eyed comedians making us laugh, or what passes for laughter. What was I doing there, in those arenas of heartlessness? 

Sometimes we caught each others eyes as we passed by on the stair, as I handed the performers a cheque or brought them a drink on the house. We exchanged our looks of exhaustion. Some part of us was ashamed.

vi
I stood by the lilies in the toilet, by their impeccable stillness, and remembered a dance that had taken place upstairs one night last October. The building had been packed with people. You could not move on the stair. As the band struck the first chord in the theatre, pandemonium had broken out, as a hundred adolescent children released from years of good behaviours in their houses and schools, jacked up with alcohol and amphetamines, suddenly let rip. The building roared. Mark and the fathers rushed outside. "Get back in!" they yelled. But the youth of the town took no notice. They were pouring out into the streets, shrieking and laughing and vomiting and crying and dancing. The event was out of control and for a moment, as I leaned against the brickwork, I felt the foundations rock and laughed. 

It was mayhem, a consequence of repression, but at least it was alive. Soon enough they would become like the people in the audience, watching the flickering screens, listening to the singers and the piano players, the stiff, the anoraked, the dead moving through. Then I realised I was in charge of the house and they were bringing ruin down upon it. 

"What shall we do?" cried the mothers in distress, as I went upstairs. "You will have to stop the music," I said, "you will have to pull the plug," and went to talk with the neighbours who at that moment were hammering on the glass door.

I had to look at myself, in the red dress, in the ladies toilet, packed with the young and the reckless in the dark. Lilies are all fierce flowers, moon flowers, and the moon does not let you get away with anything much, especially when you stray too far from the path. Underworld stories recount how foolish starry-eyed females who fall down there by accident, find themselves on a hook and learn to get smart and get out. Lilies are the flowers given to the Madonna just before she is ravished by the angel, the flowers gathered by the daughters of earth just before they are raped by the lords of darkness. The flowers signal some kind of recompense for an action illegally taken, their scent covering up a crime no one can quite detect. Or really wants to. 

But we should find out about these things, look at ourselves in the underworld mirror and see what lies inside this bouquet a stranger has just delivered at our door. Because as we sit gazing up into the stars, into the spotlights, adoring the divas and the divas stand adoring all our special attention, a price is being demanded from all of us, and if we were wise, we would all take notice of what this price is.

And start refusing to pay it.

viii

The cherished flowers of the English spring are all wild members of the lily family. As the winter wanes they set the woods and meadows and gardens alight with their underworld lamps - narcissus, crocus, bluebell, snake’s head fritillary, Solomon’s seal – and every window in the land shines with the golden hue of daffodils. 

The weekend after I handed in my resignation Mark and I went to see some acquaintances who had come by the theatre and invited us to see their snowdrop display. They had retired to an old house in a village about 25 miles away. We had a love of flowers in common and wild birds and poetry, and so I thought, shared a kind of egalitarian outlook on life. I had once sent them some wild belladonna and tutsan seeds I had gathered for their garden.

It was a perfect house with everything in its place. Small chairs with writing desks. Renovated fireplaces. Collections of china and paintings. Larders full of home-made preserves. Glasshouses full of interesting plants. A successful stargazing house. When we arrived I talked animatedly about what had made us resign as managers of the theatre but something made me stop. I was out of place and out of order. “I thought you cared about the workers!” I joked with my host across the dark oak table. “I don’t anymore,” he said without a smile.

So the mood shifted and everyone began talking instead about so-and-so’s said review of so-and- so’s book, what was happening on television and in the cinema, what their various children were doing working for various charities in the city, and how the British empire was actually a very good thing. I grew quiet and my hands grew cold. There was a fire but it seemed very chilly. Afterwards we sat in the drawing room like characters out of a Sheridan play and drank small cups of coffee and made even smaller conversation. A former theatrical agent spoke about the humanist funeral services he conducted in which the end was really The End, none of this Christian nonsense about the afterlife. No soul. No spirit. No karma. No underworld. No scales. There was a celebration of the human biographical life, a relevant poem recited or song sung, and then, curtains! As if our human appearance were just a show and we were actors without any kind of other life.

Afterwards we went into the garden. It was the end of February and there were all kinds of green-flowered hellebores in the beds and a daphne bush with its sharp pink blossom. But most of all there were snowdrops, the first wild lilies of the year, sprinkled about the meadow, under the trees, shining in that immaculate way they do, even on a grey Sunday afternoon. There was something about their purity, the way they hung their heads quietly, gazing inwardly at themselves, perfect, self-contained, the very opposite of the actress and her gaudy artifice. And I loved them in that moment and knelt down on the wet ground to inhale their sweet fragrance.

As I did something in me rebelled. I just couldn’t say what I knew I was supposed to say. I was there to admire the garden but I couldn’t admire the garden. Never underestimate the power of the small, the snowdrops once told me. For the want of a nail, the kingdom was lost.

“Hello snowdrop,” I said as I knelt down, as my hosts stood beside me. There was an awkward silence.

I had forgotten my lines.

What happens when we forget our lines? What happens when we stop admiring the perfect house with its perfect collections of objects, when we stop worshipping the shiny divas and thrusting scented lilies in their hands, when we no longer wait to sing our one and only song in an empty theatre, with the snow whirling all about us?

Will we come out here on this winter’s day and kneel in a garden by a wild flower and remember somewhere quiet, deep inside us, about another kind of show?


Images:with snowdrops in Dunwich Wood; garden crocus; wild daffodils at the tumulus; star orchids, Mexico; with bluebells at Frostenden Woods. All photographs by Mark Watson