Maybe it is because I was born on midsummer’s eve, at the zenith of the year, at the time of the greatest light, that I can now write of what it means to take the irrevocable step, the 52 steps along the downward path that lead us back toward the ancestral land, back down toward the sea. Maybe because the golden English oak stands so firmly behind me that I can embrace the dark holm, his brother, and let everything fall, as I step through the solstice door, as the mood of the great year shifts, as the key slips irrevocably from major to minor, from sweetness into bitterness, from pleasure into duty (Wormwood, 52 Flowers)
This week a book with a dark blue cover emerges into the light, officially published at last! It is, dear Reader, my own book, written during the course of 17 years travelling and exploring the world of medicine plants – the green beings that have shaped our destiny since we first emerged onto the planet.
It also appears, by happenstance, at the time of year the book ends – the beginning of August, the day some call Lughnasa, when people traditionally gathered together and celebrated the harvest. This past two weeks as the sun has finally shone I have taken to going down to the shoreline where the book ends. We have taken a thermos and a rug and gone swimming early in the morning in the calm sparkling sea. And though the sea is beautiful and the sound of it sighing against the shore, and it is lovely to feel all that expanse of sky and summertime, the taste in my mouth is of the bitter plant that now flowers at the sea’s edge, wormwood. The plant that heralds the end of a certain world.
Another favourite shoreline plant, the sea holly, is bereft of its usual visitors: the small copper and the small blue. In the garden the huge buddleia now in full flower has yet to see a single painted lady or peacock or tortoiseshell. The apple and greengage trees in the orchard are without fruit. Down the lane I have seen no sloes either, or damsons. It’s been a tough and topsy-turvy year for growers – battling with drought, heavy rain, cold, too few pollinators, and way way too many slugs. Abroad a rainless and unprecedented heat, from the grainbelt of America to the ricefields of India, is challenging crops everywhere.
The plants and pollinating insects we depend on for our lives are reflecting back the planetary crisis we now recognise as climate change. 52 Flowers That Shook My World – A Radical Return to Earth, was written before I had heard about climate change or peak oil. And yet at its core is the key directive of Transition – downshift, relocalise and connect with the living systems. It follows the years as I leave the city and travel abroad with Mark, as I encounter a different way of being on the planet, as we begin what we call the Plant Practice in Oxford, as we work with medicine people in the desert of Arizona, as we return home to a different England.
Another thing history does not tell us: you do not return when you expect to, in the spring with the hawthorn flowers, or at midsummer, with the rose, but when the barley is being cut, the time of the fall, in the heat of the dog days, as the broad haze of sun burnishes the land. You arrive at the seashore, with wild carrot and valerian, when the harebell and the rowan berries shine in the heathlands.
When I went down to the shore to greet the sunrise that August day, the day of the losing throw, I repeated to myself a phrase that struck me as I had awoken at dawn:
“This time it will not be me that loses.” (Sea Kale, 52 Flowers)
The book is centered around 52 Flowers, each with their own narrative and their own medicine. Each show how physically, energetically, imaginatively, we can break out of a thousand years of conditioning by our “Empire” civilisation. The book is set in the mood of the dog days, as we realise we are no longer a people in the time of ascent, but of a descent that is unwritten and unknown. Descent is hard for our all-conquering, illusion-loving culture. We are still acting as though we still have the world to achieve and a planet to exploit, but the times are not telling us this. The droughts and the butterflies are not telling us this. Techno-fixes and building empires in space are not where we are going. Reconnecting with the planet and coming home to ourselves is where we are. Reality is where we are. There is an ordeal ahead, as Charles Eisenstein has gently pointed out, and a lot of loving to do.
Descent begins at Lughnasa with the harvest. Descent begins when we wake up to the times we are in and don’t look for someone to blame. What are the narratives of descent? What knowledge have we gleaned in all these years? What do we hold dear at the end of the day?
There is an elegiac beauty in loss (or what we imagine is loss), to coming home, to realising your limits, to deepening your experience, to loving the neighbourhood, the people in the room, a humble dish of new potatoes, the small strip of seashore I go to each day, where once I could roam the world like Alexander. In fact when you look back and see the track you have made, the dance you have made with your fellows, that’s when you understand everything, the beauty of it all – even the hard times. We’re trying as a people to get back on track against all odds. We’re not doing it because the government is telling us to, or any religion, or ideology, we’re doing it because our hearts are telling us to, of our own free will. That’s why these times taste bitter: bitterness is a quality of all heart medicine. We learn though experience and in this the earth, not our education system, is our great teacher. All her plants are books of knowledge, if we can learn to read them.
When I was young I ran away to Italy to try and write a novel. I read Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen, and I could never understand how someone who had loved Africa so much could bear to go back to the dark and cold of Scandinavia. Now I do. It’s going back and treasuring what you have experienced that really matters. That’s what writers do and inspire everyone else to. You treasure everything in your store cupboard. It’s a certain stage, a time of making sense, a time of giving back. That’s what writing my own book of return did later in my life, when I had given up ambition and success. It made sense of my own downshift and the collective downshift that Transition prepares us for, as small groups, in communities and towns everywhere.
I could never write that romantic novel in the beautiful Riviera garden. It wasn’t the book I had to write. Many of us are not configured to be romantic heroines, conquerors and achievers, we’re here to do another job entirely. It has a different narrative, one that is only just beginning. One we are creating together. I don’t know the ending, none of us do. One thing I do know: love always turns the ship around. If you can still love the world, in spite of everything. The people, the places and the plants.
There will be a Plants for Life talk and reading from 52 Flowers That Shook My World – A Radical Return to Earth (Two Ravens Press) this Sunday, 5 August at Bungay Library, 3pm. All welcome. Further details here. If you would like to buy copy of 52 Flowers (£10) do get in touch with me at th[email protected] co.uk, or you can order directly from Two Ravens website.
Poster for Plants for Life; buddleia in the garden; sunflower from 52 Flowers That Shook My World; scythng workshop at Uncivilisation Festival; beside the sea holly, 2011; Lughnasa sunrise, 2011