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Getting Connected!

In the beginning

People often say things like 'We've lost our connection with nature' but the conversation doesn't go much deeper. It's the kind of thing we can just say to each other without really thinking about what it means.

In the past I've tended to nod politely and think to myself 'well, I have a connection with nature, though I might not put it like that, in fact even talking about it seems a bit, well, unnatural...' Until I got involved in Transition it was an intense but rather private affair, a practice of keeping in touch with the plants, trees, seasons and territories wherever I lived or visited, getting to know them on their own terms, keeping connected.

It had little to do with other people.

Then in April 2009 I took a group of people from Sustainable Bungay and Transition Norwich on a 'Spring Tonic Walk', introducing everyone to the plants and trees growing in the local area, starting right outside the front door.

The idea came out of our involvement in the Heart and Soul, Arts, Culture and Well-Being group in Transition Norwich, and conversations we were having about our relationships with the natural world.

It being a Spring Tonic walk, that day we focussed on three plants in particular: Nettle, Dandelion and Cleavers and made a feisty, energising Nettle Soup along with various wild salads as part of the shared lunch.

What surprised and delighted me was that so many people actually did make a connection they had not felt or been aware of before. The discovery of Cleavers (a relative of coffee) so energised one fellow transitioner that she hardly slept that weekend and saw the plant everywhere she went. She made potfuls of cleavers tea, foraged dandelion salads and began organising the distribution of some of her allotment nettles to friends so they could get connected too!

Suddenly my personal relationship with the natural world was looking rather limited. Transition was obviously not going to be a private affair.

In the meantime

Nature is big and encompasses so many things. Forest, ocean, whale, field, meadow, sky, bird, flower, cow, river, mountain, sun, tree. Human too, though we often don't think of ourselves as part of the natural world. That's a big part of the problem. It means we don't truly see that the havoc we wreak on the living systems of the planet, on all our fellow creatures and plants, we wreak on ourselves, connected as we are in the web of life.

Today there is much talk of our deracination from nature, compounded by ongoing planetary degradation: tar sands removal, gas fracking and rainforest destruction, all carried out to keep the global industrial economy and way of life going at all costs. This way of being some label 'just human nature', greedy and rapacious by design and natural selection, munching our way through the planet's 'resources'.

Transition is a chance to respond in the face of these threats wherever we find ourselves, whoever we find ourselves with, by making life and planet-affirming moves together, from the creation of community food growing projects to Reconomy to communications networks. To open up the possibility of something else to happen other than business-as-usual.

Last year, as part of the team on the Norwich transitioners' blog, This Low Carbon Life, I led a week on Deep Nature. I recommend all the pieces on that week for their diversity and quality and as an expression of how each of us, when we give ourselves the time and space, is a hair's breadth away from making that connection.

If I look at Sustainable Bungay, where I'm most focussed, I see that the Connection with Living Systems is intrinsic and implicit to everything we're about, from the permaculture inspired Library Community garden, to the Give and Grow plant swap days, to Sewing Sundays and Happy Mondays and the emergence of Bungay Community Bees' in response to the global pollinator crisis. Even behind the Give and Take days with their ethos of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Refashion, Re-just-about-everything, there is the sense that the planet needs a major break from all the stuff the industrial system keeps pumping out.

And what would we do without plants? We couldn't even breathe. There would be no air, no food to eat, no paper to write on, no beauty, no medicines, no bees, no moisture. Plants synthesise so much of life as we know it. No plants, no life.

It's three years since that Spring Tonic walk. In the meantime I've been on hand to assist with many of those Sustainable Bungay events in true Transition get-together-and-just-do-it style.

Last year I took an active part in Bungay Community Bees, helping to raise awareness of the value of wildflowers for bees and other insect pollinators. In the community garden at the library we planted the central bed with bee-friendly flowers and enjoyed the summer buzz. This year, at Nick Watts' suggestion, I decided to lead a project myself.

At present

What should we call it? Medicinal plants at the library? No, I prefer Medicine Plant bed, it's more focussed. Or better still Plant Medicine Bed. Yes, we'll be very permaculture about it and 'see what's there' (great for me, 'weeding' is one of my least favourite activities!). And in fact there are a lot of plant medicines there already (January 2012): Vervain, Plantain, Feverfew, Burdock, Herb Robert, Foxglove, Greater Celandine, Nettle... We can put in some Echinacea, St. John's Wort, Valerian and Richard, who tends the garden, says Opium Poppies will have reseeded themselves from last year.

Oh and why don't I organise a monthly plant medicine talk, walk or workshop? I'll get in contact with the people I know who work with plants and see if they'd like to come along and share some of what they know with us. We'll do it seasonally and use the library and garden as the base and go from there.

The Plants for Life events have really taken off. We began by Connecting with Our Roots in January and learned about Growing Organic and Biodynamic Herbs in February. And yesterday, local medical herbalist and transitioner Dan Wheals, showed us how to Adopt a Herb.

We each chose one particular plant to pay attention to, the one we were most drawn to, then everyone made a drawing of the plant and we took it in turns to speak our impressions of it out loud. It was magic. And totally absorbing.

Dan guided the whole process so gently I only realised when I'd got home just how much went on in those few hours. I had no idea Lesley or Richard could draw like that, or that Charlotte, who I've been living (and working with plants) with for years, knew that about parsley! Jeannie's enthusiasm on discovering herb Robert was completely infectious and reminded me of finding it for the first time myself all those years ago...

So what about me and my personal relationship with plants? Well, it's there, but I'm much more happy to bring, share and swap and join in with other people these transition days.

Every day this week Transition social reporters and guests will take their own look at Connecting with the Living Systems and its relationship to Transition. Stay tuned! Stay connected!

Plants for Life poster Feb 2012 (MW); Spring Tonic Walk nettles April '09 (Helen Simpson); Spring Tonic Walk encounter with Knee Holm (Butchers Broom) 2009 (Helen Simpson); Sandwiches Against Migraines - Feverfew in the Plant Medicine Bed March 2012 (MW); Dan Wheals shows us how to connect with the plants, March 2012 (CDC); Richard's rosemary flower drawing March 2012 (MW)

Comments

Catriona Ross's picture

Relationships with plants

Your enthusiasm is infectious Mark, I loved hearing about all these inspiring events and connections people have been making and hope to hear more about the Plant Medicine Bed.  I've been connecting somewhat malevolently with the gleeful, green ground elder running riot across the rich soil of our garden, ready to smother every seedling in sight.  Got to admire its vigour but I think I'll need to discover Cleavers to have the energy to overcome it!

Mark Watson's picture

Does anyone have a tasty recipe for Ground Elder or Alexanders?

Thanks Catriona, glad you enjoyed the piece - I'll gladly write some more about the Plant Medicine Bed later in the year.

Have you tried eating ground elder? We have lots of (closely related) Alexanders (lives up to its name, too) here. They smell and taste quite similar, though the latter are quite handsome with yellow flowers that smell of honey. Apparently braising the young shoots and leaves is the thing - I've tried Alexanders several times. Have to admit I don't find it all that delicious.

If anyone has a tried, trusted and tasty recipe for ground elder or Alexanders, do let us know.

Caroline Jackson's picture

Understanding disconnection

Can I own up to an inward groan every time someone in Transition has said 'We've lost our connection with nature' over the last 2 years?  It always seemed too close to talk of nature spirits, dancing in woods and "ancient lore" - some of the stuff that makes Transitioners seem utterly wierd to the rest of the world.  But this weekend I did a litter pick in our local quarry and standing knee deep in vicious brambles pulling out bottles, paint tins, plastic bags, builders' rubbish, plastic garden gnomes, glitter pens, takeaway trays and crisp packets, I finally got it.  It's only people who are disconnected with nature who can fly tip into such a precious green oasis amongst the narrow streets.  So thanks Mark for all you do to help reconnect people with nature - all power to you.

Mark Watson's picture

Connecting with the Physical

Thanks Caroline. You really highlight the difference between abstract, 'indoor' statements vaguely spoken out loud amongst a group of people ('we've lost our connection...') and immediate experienced responses to the physical world. I know which one of the two I trust and value more.

John Mason's picture

Caroline - good to see you

Caroline - good to see you had that moment. The disconnect many people have with Nature is on such a scale that I have come to label it the "Great Disconnect". It is as though they view the environment as a place one goes to on vacation. It is one of the biggest challenges I've come across when dealing with climate change and those who swear blind that it's all a big hoax and that people who bang on about the environment are a bunch of tree-hugging hippies.

Things may be moving on that theme: see a piece I posted on Skeptical Science recently. There is open disarray amongst the opposition ranks. But the main point is a simple one: we are part of Nature and we utterly rely on it to exist. We need it far more than we need fossil fuels. Not something that we should abuse, but work with carefully instead.

Cheers - John

Adrienne Campbell's picture

only connect

thank you for the inspiring post. Great to see you connected to Dan who I met at the REconomy in Liverpool

Mike Grenville's picture

Roadsides

As I cycle through the Ashdown Forest most days on the A22, rather than look at the tarmac ahead I tend to look to the side into the forest. Sadly however my eye is continually drawn to the litter along the roadside of plastic drink bottles and food wrapping tossed from passing cars. Insulated from the countryside they pass through in their fossil fuel driven metal boxes, their disconnection is plain to see by all who travel at a slower pace.

Doly Garcia's picture

One thing that often strikes

One thing that often strikes me is that, even among Transitioners or people with a permaculture background that supposedly have this connection with nature, the connection sometimes seems strangely absent. I remember vividly that when Transition Brighton & Hove got an allotment, a big group of us went there for a day out, with the idea of having an "observing" day. I came with my book of classification of plants, with the intention on making notes of what I found and identifying any plant that was growing there that I wasn't familiar with.

What was a completely surprise to me is how weird the group dynamics turned out. The vast majority of people just sat together in a circle and chatted to each other. They almost seemed all huddled up and afraid of exploring. As I went about my business of looking around different areas with my notebook, and pointing out to other people any details that got my interest, I noticed that another member of Transition, one that was involved in a community allotment right next to ours, started to get competitive about it. It was as if he had to prove that he knew the plants of the area better than I, the stranger. Later on, he berated me because I had gone apart from the group, instead of taking part in "the community". And made clear that what he saw in me was that I was trying to prove that I was superior by knowing so much stuff. That couldn't be further from my intentions. In actual fact, it sometimes seems that I spend big chunks of my life trying not to say things that could sound too clever, because I sometimes get that sort of annoyed reactions, and I hate them.

Sometimes I get the feeling that some greenies believe they have the monopoly on "connection with nature", and feel threatened if somebody else, that they don't see as "one of us", appears to have as much or more connection with nature. I'd see that as a proof that their connection isn't as strong as they believe it is. In my experience, people that have a really deep sense of the cycles of nature don't feel threatened very easily. It's like they are so aware of their situation and their surroundings that they automatically position themselves in the best places for them, and it's difficult that something will come up that knocks them over.