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.
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:
52 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 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.
Wild 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)