Archive for the ‘Books, Poetry, Songs’ Category

How to make a Herbal Mead Elixir

This month the 8th issue of Dark Mountain (and first themed book and paperback) was published. Titled Technê, it is a wide-ranging collection of essays, reflections and maker guides on all aspects of technology and tools. At its launch at the /i’klectik/ art lab and cafe in Lambeth, I demonstrated in six intense minutes how to make a wild autumn mead, whilst Charlotte gave a slideshow of some of the artworks and photographs in this densely illustrated volume. I also joined the crew for this issue as proofreader and Charlotte co-edited the book and wrote two of its pieces. This is the first, a short practical one about making mead, which also appears on her own blog:

How to make a Herbal Mead Elixir – by Charlotte Du Cann

This is a mead made for a talk about Dark Mountain at the 2 Degrees Festival at Toynbee Studios, Whitechapel, last June. My fellow editor Steve Wheeler and I had been invited to present our talk without any technology or power, as part of a ‘de-industrialising‘ workshop called ‘Breakdown breakdown’, organised by the artist and activist Brett Bloom.

I took a jar of mead along as part of the performance.

Honey and water infused by botanicals make the simplest, most off-grid, hands-on, archaic, indigenous drink you can find anywhere. You can conjure mead elixirs from any fruit or leaves or roots, depending on your intent or sense of adventure. Fragrant elderflowers, bitter dandelion roots, birch bark, hawthorn berries; the mead circles of rural Tennessee, according to master fermenter Sandor Ellix Katz, make them with just about anything. Ours had a fruity theme: conference pear, lemon balm, apple mint, lime blossom honey. The key ingredient in mead is raw honey. The honey has to be non-pasteurised, so it contains the wild yeasts that make fermentation happen.

Midway through the presentation, just after Steve had whirled about the circle of people, reading from his Dark Mountain piece, Ragnanok, about modern warrior training in Sweden, I passed the mead around to see if anyone could guess what it was. No one did, although a girl from Finland did say it reminded her of something her people made with raisins.

‘Well, if you know your Nordic mythology,’ I said, ‘you’ll know that when Odin and his sky warriors weren’t preparing for the Last Battle, they were drinking mead!’

The first time I encountered mead, I was investigating plant medicine in Oxford. One night, I dreamed my head was covered in bees. It was intense. The second time was at an editorial meeting in London. Six of us had been running a newspaper against the odds and were closing shop after three years. We sat in a circle, feeling The End drawing nigh, when the managing editor exclaimed, ‘Let’s have some mead!’ and brandished a Kilner jar containing an elixir of rose petals, redcurrants and windfallen cherry plums. Five minutes later we were all falling about laughing. I thought I was going to burst with happiness.

‘It might be the end of the world as we know it,’ I declared to the audience. ‘but at least we can have a good time!


1 handful each of mint and
lemon balm leaves
1 ½ litres of pure spring or
tap water (boiled, then let cool)
1 pear (organic), chopped (or
any unsprayed seasonal fruit)
½ jar of raw honey (small
local producers rarely process their honey)
1 ½ litre Kilner jar

Pick a good handful of lemon balm and mint leaves from a garden or unpolluted location, and make them into a strong tea with some of the water (just off the boil). The water needs to be pure non-carbonated spring water. If you use tap water make sure it is well boiled, or left open overnight, to rid it of chlorine (although it may still contain chloramines depending where you live). Let it cool.

Dissolve the honey with some of the cooled tea in the Kilner jar, then add all the rest of the ingredients, plus several fresh lemon balm leaves and some rose petals if you have roses. Give it a good shake/stir. Important: don’t add hot water/tea to raw honey – it will destroy the vital microorganisms. The liquid should be no more than tepid!

Leave the jar somewhere warmish and visible. Every day take up a wooden spoon and swirl the mixture briskly anti-clockwise and then clockwise.

It doesn’t matter if you keep the jar open or closed, but if you close it you need to ‘burp’ the jar every day. It will make a satisfying hiss as the CO2 escapes, and froth vigorously. Each day the mead will look different. The colour and fragrance will change. Transformation is happening!

After 10 days or so it is ready to drink – though you can bottle and keep it for years. It is particularly delicious mixed with wine, fruit cordial, apple juice and/or sparkling spring water. Keep refrigerated at this point, but don’t forget to keep burping the jar!

All the ingredients in this mead are traditional herbs for relaxing and cheering you up. Contrary to expectation, facing the end of the world as we know it can be a cheerful thing, as every attempt to deny the situation, or to keep things going against the odds, disappears. It opens up a space you didn’t think was there. Suddenly you can see what or who was around you all the time, but you were too fraught to notice. 

The alchemical mead jar at the centre of the talk was a kind of metaphor for the Dark Mountain Project. I wanted to show hown if you gather some creative uncivilised ingredients (people) together, they can made a heady, healing and joyful brew. What is happening in that Kilner jar is the magic and medicine of fermentation – communities of microorganisms working together, exchanging material, creating new forms, making life happen. All the active ingredients in honey are dormant until you mix them with water, and then everything wakes up. The yeasts that live on the surface of leaves and the skins of fruit add to the live action and flavour. The sweet nectar of flowers gathered and processed by millions of bees feeds them, and then us. Rewilding in a jar.

Sip, share and enjoy!

Images: front cover of Dark Mountain 8 designed by Andy Garside; a late summer mead with cherry plums, rowan berries and mallow (Mark Watson); Mark in action at recent Raw Food and Drink demo at Giddens & Thompon’s Bungay (photo by Josiah Meldrum)


Remembering Memorandum Nº 13,874

Quito - AndesMemorándum 13.874 is a song I first heard in 1985 as a language student in Mexico, sung with beautiful harmonies on a wonderful album called Así Como Un Gorrión (Like A Sparrow) by a little-known Argentinian duo, Nora y Delia.

I recently rediscovered the song on YouTube and found out the name of the author of the original poem (Argentinian writer and poet Humberto Costantini).

The text takes the form of a letter in which, after 20 years of continuous work in the same office, a clerk dictates to the senior administrator his 13,874th memorandum, setting out a “list of essential materials” that his boss must supply as soon as possible if the clerk is to continue with his task.

This song will speak to anyone who finds themselves inside for long periods of time under the pressure of unceasing administrative tasks.

Below are the original lyrics in Spanish followed by an English translation. Here is the link to the song on YouTube: (It begins properly at 0:18 secs)

Spanish original (adapted by Nora y Delia from the poem Memorándum Nº 13.870 by Humberto Costantini)

Sr jefe,
Me dirijo a Ud a los efectos de informarle que
habiendo cumplido ya 20 años de trabajo continuo en esta oficina
es imprescindible para proseguir en esta tarea
que me envíe a la mayor brevedad posible
la lista de materiales que detallo a continuación:

Un cielo gris
algunas nubes bajas
y una tarde de otoño, si es posible.
Además, muchos árboles viejos,
casuarinas oscuras, como el tiempo.

Sería mucho pedir también,
algunos álamos?
Humedad y una llovizna lenta
y tierra, claro está,
y el olor de la tierra
de la lluvia
y del otoño
y de los árboles también.

Podrían faltar quizás las hojas secas
pero no el corazón ardiendo
ni la sangre, trinándose de pájaros.
Ni el vértigo
ni la muchacha rubia
ni toda su ternura a mi lado
ni la sangre, llenándose de pájaros…

A rough English translation by me

Dear boss,
I’m writing to inform you that,
having now completed 20 years of continuous work in this office,
it is imperative, if I am to proceed with this task,
that you send me, at your very earliest convenience,
the items I list below:

A grey sky, some low clouds and an autumn day, if possible.
And a lot of very old trees…
casuarinas, as dark as time.

Would it be too much to ask for some poplars as well?
And dampness,
a slow drizzle – and earth,
definitely earth,
and the smell of earth and autumn and trees.

You could perhaps omit dry leaves,
but not the heart on fire,
nor the blood full of birdsong;
and don’t leave out vertigo either
or the blond girl at my side with all her tenderness,
or the blood filling with birds…


Images: Quito Under Cloud 1992 by Mark Watson; Casuarina* by Atamari (from Wikipedia) under CC BY-SA 3.0 license
*Casuarinas are large shrubs and trees native to the Southern Hemisphere (though introduced to Argentina).

St Johns Wort at Lowestoft Station Summer 2010 (poem)

St Johns Wort at Lowestoft Station, Summer 2010

You were gold against the old concrete of the old platform
You stood up and out against the grey
Against emptiness
Against nothingness
Against nothing

You were there and it was good.
You sprang up and out from where no one walked
From where no one had walked in a long time

Walking amongst you then
Your thousand lights
Your thousand suns

It was as if you had been there forever
Would be there forever

As you stretched out into the advancing afternoon…

IMG_2029 640x480

Poem and Photo By Mark Watson. All Rights Reserved.

One Plant Person’s Duty and Three Essential Books for all Plant People

Southern Arizona 2001
AZSunflowers & Ruin“I’m with two plant people from Britain and we’d love to come take a look at the plants growing round your place in the mountains.”

When I heard my herbalist friend Mimi Kamp arrange this meeting on the phone with another plant colleague I’d wanted to meet for ages, I felt like I’d arrived. Mimi had spent thirty years working with the desert plants of Arizona and knew the territory like the lines on her hand. And she just called me a plant person!

The desert reveals its medicine and secrets in a spiky and often difficult way. It makes you wait. There are thorns and thunderstorms and border patrol and testy inhabitants, not all of them human. I’d been visiting that high desert for seven years before that phone call was made. Several of those years were spent getting to know the terrain with its extraordinary plant life, from agave and ocotillo to amaranth and graythorn. It was an amazing period.

Suffolk 2013
Arizona seems a long time ago now. I returned to England and settled in Suffolk. I continued my practice of getting to know the plants growing in the area, native, wild and even cultivated. I even got used to thinking of myself as a plant person.

In recent years, against a planetary (and sometimes personal!) background of multiple ecological, environmental, energy and financial crises and constraints, I’ve felt it almost a duty to inspire people to reconnect with the earth’s living systems by paying attention to the plants growing around them: through everything from well-being and medicine walks to herbal tea demonstrations to raising awareness of the relationship between plants and bees.

The fact is anyone can connect with plants. We’ve been co-existing with them for ever on the planet. It’s a question of paying attention. Of making an effort. The lives and deaths of plants are so inextricably bound with our own that this reconnection is one of the most beneficial activities we can engage in now as the planet struggles ecologically and (most) humans socially, environmentally and financially. It makes us more earth-friendly and less desirous of resource-intensive activities; it encourages community by bringing seemingly disparate people together over a common theme; it requires little carbon use and it’s cheap! You can start right where you live.

Those Three Books
Whenever I do a talk, walk or workshop on plants, I always mention the three books I refer to over and over in my own practice of paying attention to the living plant world. The word ‘indispensable’ is one I use rarely. But I do use it for these three books. Here’s why and here they are:

52Flowers52 Flowers That Shook My World – A Radical Return to Earth by Charlotte Du Cann
Based on a practice lasting over a decade, the author engages with the world of plants and our relationship to them on every level: individual and socio-historical, medicinal and mythological. Could a modern citydweller “recover their aboriginal ability to communicate with the earth [and] write of the mysteries of nature intelligently, pragmatically..?” This book both inspires connection with the living world and shows us ways to do it ourselves.

Hedgerow Medicine bookHedgerow Medicine by Julie Bruton-Seal and Matthew Seal
This is the book I wish I’d had to hand when I started paying attention to British wild and native plants and their medicine in the nineties. Immediate, accessible and filled with clearly written recipes for making everything from tinctures, herbal wines and fruit leathers, to ointments and oymels, Hedgerow Medicine is for herbal experts and novices alike.

P7195897 - 2Wild Flowers of Britain and Northern Europe by Richard Fitter, Alastair Fitter and Marjorie Blamey
My 1996 copy of this plant identification book is now very well worn. And I still take it out with me on all of my plant walks. A good compact size with clear illustrations and descriptions and the plants ordered by family, Wild Flowers will end up accompanying you on many outings to field, forest and wasteground.

For details on purchasing these books click on the image links.

Images: Including Sunflowers, Fennels, Agaves and ruins, Southern Arizona, Summer 2001; 3 books (all by Mark Watson except image of 52 Flowers That Shook My World)

Admin’s Fine But Don’t Miss the Morning Glories!

I’ve been doing the distribution invoices for the next issue of the quarterly Transition Free Press over the last few weeks and giving a hand with the mailout for Dark Mountain Book 4. So I’ve been seeing a lot of addresses!

Both these publications are well worth signing up for. You can order bundles of Transition Free Press or become an individual subscriber. And you can order copies of any or all of the Dark Mountain books, or become a subscriber.

So, returning to the flowers. I’d been so caught up with all the admin, I almost missed these two beauties this morning:

Morning Glories Grandpa Otts

All text and images by Mark Watson under Creative Commons with Attribution Non Commercial No Derivatives

still dumb as stones about whole universes inside

I wrote this post for the Transition Social Reporting project’s book review week on the 12th July 2012. You can see the original here.

I don’t do holidays or holiday reading, although I might feel the need to this year, as our living room is gradually turning into a book and media distribution centre.

dark_mountain_cover_image-22-634x1024_illustration-124x200Over the next month or so all three Dark Mountain Project books (numbering over a thousand) will be delivered here where they will sit (be stacked) in boxes alongside Charlotte’s recently published 52 Flowers That Shook My World (Two Ravens Press, official launch date 1st August) and the Transition Free Press preview edition. Hopefully all these publications will enjoy a happy, but temporary, stay here. Not just because I’m fond of our minimal living room, but I’d like to see them all distributed to more permanent homes and know that they are all being read for the great books they are. Meanwhile I’m happy for them to act as makeshift insulation in our low (and sometimes no)-heating house, even though for that they might have been more effective in the winter.

So for this summer’s transition reading I’m recommending two books and a poem. And I’d like to start with the poem. First a little context:

I’m sitting on a cushion on the ground in the Old City Park of Bisbee, Arizona. The year is either 2000 or 2001, I don’t remember exactly which but early in the millennium. It’s a hot desert evening in early summer and I’m here for a poetry reading. Bisbee was known for its poetry festivals during the 1980s and many writers and artists still lived in and visited this old mining town near the Mexican border. Tonight’s event was a mix of local and visiting poets and a large crowd of fellow cushion-sitters, turning the bare park with its concrete floor and stage into a resonant, magical place.

IMG_4208-200x150At the time I don’t think I appreciated just how invaluable such public spaces are. It’s the past few years in Transition with all our community centre cafes and Give and Take Days, playing field picnics, and library meetings and events which has brought it home to me. Especially at a time when many of these spaces are under threat of closure or privatisation. Sustainable Bungay was key last year in helping to raise awareness and keep the library going until at least 2013 and we helped host a World Book Night with local poets, singers and authors.

What I remember of that evening in Bisbee is Betsy Breault’s poem about time as a female being, and how this being experienced, waited, dressed and even farted! I remember how Betsy intoned ‘Ohhh, Ladyeee Ti-iime at the beginning of each verse, drawing you in to another fascinating aspect of her world. I remember a woman from San Francisco reading a poem about turning her innate laziness into an act of civil disobedience.

The poem that struck me most was one by a local poet and environmental toxics activist called Michael Gregory who had co-founded the original Bisbee Poetry Festival in 1979 . With a rhythm and tone with echoes perhaps of Allen Ginsberg, it was about how on earth we could even have survived up till now (now being the millennium then) with all the ravages of history, empire and

the mess and clutter of life as lived
edited only by turns of the head or shutting
of lids

The poem was long, and it really moved me but I didn’t remember its name, only that in the final verse it asked where Sylvia is and what comes next.

Through the years I would think about this poem on and off, and occasionally type in Michael Gregory and Sylvia (where was she?) and What’s Next into a search engine, but without any luck.

And then last week I found it and read it again. And again. It’s called This Far and it still resonated all these years later, if not more so, with its

Nervous as never before about the failure
of vital organs: kidneys, heart, brain…

the inner workings at ward and precinct levels…

the gales of free market democracy…

but fairly fit otherwise, considering,
though more than a little tired at this stage
of all the lines, excuses and bullshit

– tired of having the public good sold out
to private greed…

tired of consent and consensus manufactured…

[of] headlines that say the majority think
the opposite of what the majority think…

tired of being enthralled to the ruling eye…

I wrote to Michael, who gave me permission to quote freely from This Far (the title of this post is taken from the final stanza). He told me that it will be appearing this year in his collection, Mr America Drives His Car, a very apt title to include in a transition blog post, even though Mr America is not alone in driving his car! So rather than just posting a link to the Occupy Poetry site where I rediscovered Michael’s poem in its entirety, I can actually recommend it in a physical book. And here is Michael’s bio.

The books are, as you’ve probably guessed, Dark Mountain Issue 2 (Issue 3 is due out next month –now why do I know that?) and 52 Flowers That Shook My World. And in case you think by now this is only a shameless plug for works close to my heart (and home), please know that I keep both books nearby at all times and read from them often.

52Flowers-156x240In the case of 52 Flowers, after an intense few months helping to proofread and subedit the manuscript during last winter, I am now discovering the book in and of itself – an extraordinary firsthand account of a ten year exploration of the living territories of the earth and the plants, places and people connected with them.

Beginning in 1990 with a dream of an unknown Mexican plant called Epazote,52 Flowers takes us through England, Mexico and Arizona as the author moves away from a high-energy, high-octane western lifestyle towards a more earth-based life; an energy descent experienced firsthand. With all the joys and difficulties of the journey and always with the plants and trees informing, accompanying, shocking and shaking, this Radical Return to Earth is about going out, letting go, connecting with the earth, leaving one world behind and returning home to quite another.

Dark Mountain Issue 2 is a collection of essays, poetry stories and illustrations on the theme of the ‘end of the world as we know it’. But rather than being apocalyptic or scaremongering and at the same time resisting didacticism or any kind of fix-it approach, the book expresses a diverse cultural response to the multiple collapse scenarios which are currently being played out in our civilisation: environmental, economic and social. A head-on look at the cultural myths and narratives we tell ourselves.

The writers and artists contributing to this book include small farmers in the US, environmental journalists and academics in recovery, and Dartmoor painters. One of my favourite pieces is writing professor John Rember’s Consensus and Other Realities, not least because I relate to being up in the dark early hours of winter grappling with various scenarios not always pleasant.

In this post which is serious and funny at once, Rember revisits ‘dead British psychiatrist’ RD Laing, who said we create false selves ‘to satisfy the demands of family and culture’ and how these false selves alienate us not just from our real self but from nature as well. Rember then looks at the ‘false self’ of technological civilisation and the ‘false story that backs it up’ – the meta-narrative. Considering meta-narratives is a theme that runs throughout the book, whether the writers are talking about language itself or considering the true story of the ‘Luddites’.

For a book that looks at uncertainty and loss on such a large scale and so directly, Dark Mountain Issue 2 does not leave me depressed. Rather the result is liberating, as if energy that’s been bound up in maintaining illusions and pretence can be released and put to other uses.

Dark Mountain is different from Transition in many ways, but there’s one effect on me that both movements have in common: I don’t feel on my own in facing up to systemic collapse.

For me what unites these three works is precisely this ability to look square-on at what we’re up against. And that’s what keeps me fired up to continue my activities in Transition.

Images: Dark Mountain Issue 2, cover by Rima Staines; Bungay Library read-in February 2011; 52 Flowers That Shook My World cover

Hedgerow Medicine in Bungay with Julie Bruton-Seal and Matthew Seal

The upper room at Bungay Library was packed with almost 40 people last Sunday for this month’s Plants for Life talk on Hedgerow Medicine with Julie Bruton-Seal and Matthew Seal.  Julie is a practising medical herbalist and Matthew an editor and writer and their book, Hedgerow Medicine, is a treasure store of herbal remedies and recipes you can make at home from wild plants you gather yourself.

The talk took the form of a demonstration and discussion of the different ways of preparing wild plants for medicines, including syrups, ointments, teas, tinctures and floral waters. The first plant was Forget-Me-Not and we looked at the freshly-picked flowers under magnifying glasses so we could see closer to the beauty of these cheerful blue plants. I’d been wondering about forget-me-not’s medicinal qualities (it is not in common use nowadays), because of the profusion of them in the plant medicine bed in the library garden this year. And now here they were introducing the session. The forget-me-not syrup Julie and Matthew passed around to taste was specifically for dry coughs.

They moved gently and unhurriedly through a range of hedgerow herbs, talking about the styptic qualities of yarrow (some of the men present decided we would try it on shaving cuts), the historical uses of St. John’s Wort as a protective plant and  how ribwort plantain can assist with certain allergies.

We also learnt how dandelion can nourish the liver, help with old coughs and even cheer you up. And you can make tasty fritters from the flower heads. We got to taste a ten year old dandelion syrup, which was absolutely delicious. Vintage! And I learned a new word: amphoteric. Applied to herbs such as dandelion, this means that in the body it normalises the function of a system or an organ.

Julie and Matthew work with simples primarily, making tinctures and syrups and teas from one particular plant. For tea this afternoon, they had brought along some ground ivy or alehoof. This clears the sinuses as once it clarified beer. Charlotte found a pot to make the tea – which was astonishingly green.

After tea we looked at some live plants and were invited to guess what they were. One had leaves that recalled spinach, but not quite, and no one guessed it was mandrake, that oldest of medicine plants, steeped in folklore, and related to deadly nightshade and tomatoes. In the old days the story went that if you pulled it up by its roots (which resemble the human body), it screamed and someone would die. So when people wanted it for medicine they would tie their dog to it and the poor dog would have to bear the consequences.

The other plant was Epimedium, a member of the berberis family, also called Horny Goat Weed and used as an aphrodisiac. I thought that was great as long as it didn’t actually turn you into a goat!

Out of all that herbal wealth and floral richness the piece de resistance must have been the elderflower water. I can’t begin to find an adequate description for the amazing scent of this home-distilled floral water. If anyone else can and they were there please write it in the comments. ‘Wow!’ will have to do for now.

The talk was so relaxed and absorbing it didn’t feel as if a lot was happening, or as if two hours had suddenly gone by. It was only when I was jotting down notes at home later that I realised just how much ground Julie and Matthew had covered in the afternoon and how much knowledge they had shared.

Afterwards I showed Julie and Matthew the library garden and the plant medicine bed and they loved it. It made me feel very proud of Sustainable Bungay and what we’ve brought into being here.

So warm thanks once again to Julie and Matthew for such an engaging Plants for Life session and for answering everyone’s questions.

To order Hedgerow Medicine or other books by Julie-Bruton Seal and Matthew Seal, or to find out more about Julie’s practice as a medical herbalist, visit their website HERE. They also run practical herbal classes and are based in Norfolk, about a 40 minute drive from Bungay.