The Age of Flowers

Last year, our man in flowers, Mark Watson, introduced a series on plants and regenerating the wasteland, alongside fellow radical botanical Joseph Gaglione. Today we begin a second series that explores our essential and imaginative relationships with plants, as habitats everywhere lie under siege. On this summer solstice, the zenith of the flowering year, we are republishing Mark's piece about how to maintain a plant practice written for Dark Mountain: Issue 24 – Eight Fires.
Mark Watson (1962–2024), was at the heart of the Dark Mountain Project for 12 years. Mark was our subscriptions and distribution manager, the main proofreader for our books, and an inspiring teacher. He showed others how to connect with the dreaming of plants through embodied practice, communication and developing mutual relationships, via walks, talks, plant teas and fritters.

How To Hang Out with Plants – An Introduction

It is late May. I am lying down beside a large seakale (Crambe maritima) blooming on a shingle beach on the east coast of England near where I live. When I first met this sturdy wild ancestor of the modern cabbage, with its glaucous leaves and dome of fragrant white flowers, I found myself lying down, as I am now, slowly settling into a state of deep relaxation, opening out and tuning into the shore, the sea, and the time of year. That’s the position I have taken with it ever since. Curiously, the people I have taken to visit seakale for the first time all do the same. The plant possesses deep roots which anchor it in the territory, and yet it is able to shift with the shingle during the rough tides of the winter months. This ability to hold fast, be flexible and ‘stay with the trouble’ make it an extraordinary companion for the unsettled times we’re in.

Anyone can connect with plants, so interwoven are they in our lives. Ever since humans first appeared on Earth, we have been inextricably connected with and dependent on plants – for everything from food, drink and medicine to textiles and building materials. They provide inspiration for art, act as forces in myths and fairytales, and inform our sense of aesthetics. They perfume our lives. And they are beings who also exist in their own right and in relationship with the non-human world.

So what might a plant practice look like and what do plants have to say to us? It starts with a decision to make time and space to go out and sit with them and pay attention; to open up, listen at depth, and engage in a two-way dialogue. I see this as a kind of responsibility, an obligation even, given the times of ecological unravelling we live in. It’s a way of giving back to the living world we are part of, a way of being in communication and relationship with, not in control of our other-than-human kin. And it keys us into the fabric of the world, providing a bridge beyond utility and commerce into the realms of reciprocity and relationship with the green living beings we depend on for our existence. We thicken the web of correspondences between the human and the plant worlds with this kind of attention.

It’s also a dynamic way to engage in imagination and ‘dreaming’, qualities of the heart and of the so-called ‘right hemisphere’ of the brain. I was in my 30s when I first began to ‘tune in’ and ‘hang out’ with (mostly wild and feral) plants in the late 1990s. This became an intense practice of being in relationship with plants and trees wherever I found myself and is still an intrinsic part of my life today.

On one of those early days, I made a connection with a single white foxglove which had seeded itself and was in flower outside our kitchen back door in Oxford. Three of us had met up to spend some time with this plant, and after we’d sat with it for a while we went in the house to lie down quietly and take notice of any impressions, feelings, physical sensations or ‘information’ that arose. When it came to speaking about our experiences out loud with each other, my two friends’ readouts were fascinating and many-levelled, almost epic. I felt disappointed and almost embarrassed when it came to my turn to speak. I had just one word from the foxglove to share: belonging. That was it.

Mark among the foxgloves, Minsmere Woods, May 2022. Still from ‘The Plant Dialogues’, a sequence of short films about the plant practice by Simon Maggs

But in the months and years to come, learning to belong turned into an ongoing and demanding practice. Belonging to the Earth, belonging to life, became key in a time of mass alienation from and destruction of the living world. Foxglove provides the heart-regulating drug digitalis (non-replicable in a laboratory), and if I was to belong, the heart was where I needed continually to return to.

Gradually, through this and other experiences with plants (not all of them quite as direct as the foxglove), I came to realise that I was never actually alone in the world. Whether I was in an Oxford waste ground or the Botanical Gardens, sitting with a goat willow or becoming friends with heartsease, or in the high desert of south-east Arizona accompanied by very prickly ocotillos and rainbow cacti, these osmotic beings were the doorways into a deeper connection with the territory and the sentience of the planet.

Everyone will develop their own approach to plant-human communication with practice, but the following technique is a good place to start.

 

TUNING IN TO PLANTS and TREES

You can do this exercise alone, although I find it works better with a partner or a small group (up to four people). If you’re with others, you can work with the same plant or different ones, whichever you (or the plants) decide.

There are three parts to this technique: first you go out to visit the plant or tree in the land you are in (making sure you go beyond your garden to somewhere that is not under your aegis or control). Then you return home and revisit the event in your imagination. Thirdly you put the experience into a creative form, a piece of writing, a drawing, even a dance or song. The whole process can take several hours, so give yourself enough time with no other distractions.

The visit

In the territory you are working with, go out and find a wild plant or tree you resonate with or feel a pull towards. If you don’t know what it is, don’t worry about identifying it – some of the deepest connections with plants can happen before you know what their names are – and resist any temptation to take photographs. The initial experience should be a direct connection between you and the plant and not be mediated by tech. You can photograph and identify the plant at a later time if necessary.

A gentle word of advice here: touch the plant only if you know for certain it is not poisonous and you feel invited to do so. Treated with respect, poisonous plants can turn out to be the best of teachers and companions, but you don’t want to be handling them or putting them in your mouth!

Sit down next to the plant and greet it as a fellow inhabitant of the place. Take a few deep breaths and focus your awareness on your feet until you can feel them tingle. Then become aware of the surroundings that you and the plant/tree are within and a part of. The season, the air, any sounds. Take notice of everything that’s happening.

Get a sense of what the plant’s intelligence might be and what it might be relaying to you. Let yourself become conscious that plants are aware of you as much as you are of them. You are not alone. Let your awareness expand into the surroundings and feel how much life is around you. Notice how your body is responding. Your feelings. If your mind gets distracted with interfering thoughts or a desire to get up or escape, bring yourself back with gentle deep breaths and sit with it, including (especially!) any discomfort.

Stay for at least 25 and up to 40 minutes, then thank the plant or tree (‘Great to meet you’ works well) before you head back home.

I call this process sitting down alongside with, as it gives a sense of both you and the plant as fellow planetary beings within the territory.

 

Revisiting the plant or tree in your imagination (visioning)

Find a quiet place indoors to lie down and relax with no distractions. Close your eyes, take some deep breaths and revisit the experience with the plant in your imagination. Be open to what emerges without judging and trying to get anything right. Be aware of any messages or ‘medicine’ the plant may be relaying to you – these may come in the form of physical sensations or memories, be verbal, visual or on a feeling level. The plants can even reveal themselves as ‘human’, animal or in other forms, and they can also be very humorous. After 20 minutes or so, thank the plant and bring yourself back to the room.

After the session, take notes and/or make drawings. If you are working with others, take turns to give testimony to your experiences and listen to each other. Over the next few days, pay attention to any dreams where the plant might appear. Visit the plant again, and identify it if need be. Immerse yourself in the whole experience. Connecting with plants in this way can have an impact much beyond the actual time you spend doing the exercise.

 

This summer, a small book is being compiled about Mark’s work with plants. If you would like to contribute to its creation, all details can be found on his Tribute page here. Thank you to all those who have generously donated so far.

Mark in Flowers website: .markinflowers.wordpress.com

 

HAPPY SUMMER SOLSTICE EVERYONE!

Zenith: Summer Solstice title page by Candace Jensen (Dark Mountain: Issue 24 – Eight Fires)

 

Dark Mountain: Issue 24 – Eight Fires

Our Autumn 2023 full colour edition is an ensemble exploration of the eight ceremonial fires of the year, celebrated in practices, stories, poetry and artwork.

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