Medicine stories, liberation and shifting allegiance – A conversation with Charlotte Du Cann

I first met Charlotte Du Cann at a Transition meeting in Norwich years before I bumped into her again at the Uncivilisation festival in 2011. And living in the same end of the country we have been meeting with the Dark Mountain group in Norwich since then. Charlotte is a writer and activist who besides writing books is editor and contributor to a range of blogs and magazines including This Low Carbon Life, the One World Column, the Transition Free Press, the Social Reporting Project and EarthLines. When I started reading her most recent book 52 Flowers That Shook My World it was like another dimension in our relation came alive – you know like when you meet a good friend’s parents and suddenly understand something about him which you hadn’t got the hang of before. It’s a beautiful book which I can’t recommend enough. She lives in Suffolk with her partner Mark and in the tail end of winter we went for a visit. I had a chat with her about her life, stories and being free. What follows is a light edit of the transcript from our conversation. Thanks to Charlotte for sharing it, for warmth and hospitality.


JDG: I thought maybe a place to start was with something which you say in the beginning of your book 52 Flowers That Shook My World. Early on in the book you talk about ‘shifting allegiance’ away from civilisation towards the planet and this is something that has stuck with me. You say it happens on two levels: one is in the imagination, that’s the first step, and then it happens in the physical world when you start rearranging yourself in a way that can express that shift of allegiance. I thought maybe we could start with this, how that has turned out for you, going from living in London and being a fashion editor a long time ago to being here now. And I know that’s a very long journey and a big jump but maybe you can lay out what you think has been most important or what has been some of the most valuable stuff you learned from that process?

CDC: Yes. I am not a very linear person and I live in a very linear culture of the beginning-middle-and-end kind of stories that one is brought up with. But the stories that would grab me when I was young were the fairytales and the myths. I learnt myths very early on, the classical myths and Greek-Roman myths, which are the ones I know the best. Right from the age of seven or eight those were the things that really profoundly affected my imagination. And they don’t operate in beginning-middle-and-end. Although in some ways they use that sequence that’s not the world they operate in. They operate in this mythic, archaic dreamtime imagination, which is where I feel very much at home and which is the guiding principle of everything I write.

The values within it are always about some kind of transformation. It’s understood that human beings need to transform and change, and go through a process of giving to the spirit and giving to the planet. Or giving to the Earth, however that is expressed in a mythic way. We are a particular kind of being, an alchemical type of being, and that kind of being needs to alchemise in order to be human. It is a function of human beings to alchemise. And I think that is why older cultures always had some kind of initiation process that adolescents went through. It was just understood that that’s part of being human. And of course as soon as civilisations come along all that comes to an end. You are not inducted into the planet or into the ancestor way or whatever your culture prepared you for. You are inducted into civilisation which is a completely different ballgame.

One part of me kind of understands that – like a lot of people. We understand it because it is part of our make up and yet we are denied it. And if you’re a writer or if you are interested in mythology, you’ll keep a little part of yourself, that little door, open to the part that still speaks to the archaic, transformative human being. And then you play along with the other things that civilisation gives you because civilisation also provides an interesting way of being on the planet, although it is completely destructive and extremely shallow and doesn’t say human beings need to transform at all. Quite the opposite. It accentuates adolescent cravings and desires, in terms of sex, in terms of materialism, in terms of ego and aggression. All these things are encouraged right until you are dead, basically. So there is no real transformation. Certainly no giving back.

So I had my first bump in my twenties when I was living a regular city life. I was twenty-nine and I went “hang on, there’s supposed to be something else going on”. I just found myself getting extremely depressed, like a lot of people do, because I was living a city life totally without any contact with nature, and nature’s a very big part of my make up. So I went off to live in Italy to try and write a novel. That didn’t work! I came back. Became even more city-like and was very successful. And then when I met Mark we went to Mexico. I was getting to my mid-thirties and that mythic, transformative time to give back to life was getting very strong. As I think it does at the age of thirty-five – when you know traditionally you’ve aspired to the top of the mountain and you start going down the mountain. Not many people live along lines like that but that’s how it is.

And then all that part of my life just opened up. And that’s when I went traveling. To find the right territory. Not because I wanted to get rid of my culture, but because I wanted to expand out of a very narrow city-based way of living. And, you know, I had the means to do it because I could sell everything. I was extremely lucky in that. But I was also very determined. Most people would have put the money into getting a house – I sold my house. I sold everything. I deliberately went, like the salmon, against the flow and I’ve been going deliberately against the flow since I was thirty-five. So that’s twenty years of struggling upstream. But to me that was a call and I’ve just followed it.

My life since then fall into two decades. One is a decade of traveling. Sometimes I’d stop like somewhere like Mexico. The two big places in my imagination are Mexico and Arizona. The desert. Those are two territories which were very strong, particularly Arizona. The first part of that traveling was really accessing a very different mythic realm. I was getting in contact with a lot of indigenous cultures, singing songs, writing poetry and stuff like that. In Latin America these come from a very different poetic base. The Earth is the wellspring of everything in a lot of Latin American and South American culture. So that’s very, very different from us in Europe. Radically different, it is not based on civilisation.

And then there was this other part which was really contact with the dreaming. With this Earth dreaming practice which I began in Australia. And the plant practice which I began in Oxford. Those were ways of really connecting with the planet in a new way. I mean, you could say it’s an old way but for me it was a path I made myself so it was not going through other people’s cultures. This is going directly to work with the mythic fabric, the imagined fabric of the Earth. Foremost investigating dreams and also investigating plants.

So that was that decade. And this decade has been all about making myself at home in my own native land, which is a big practice and really hard! Much harder than the first decade. Much harder. It’s very hard to do in England. And part of that has been joining Transition where I’ve had to learn how to work with people and as a group in a different way. Talking about things we have been talking about today [in Sustainable Bungay] about the gift economy, about learning how to share, about learning how to give up individualism, which is a process in itself. Because even though you go travelling, you’re not necessarily working in a group. It’s still all about you. It could be about you and the great humanity or you and the great universe, you and the great planet, but it is not you and a bunch of people. Knowing the land as a people. That’s very different. That’s how we used to be.

For example, in Mexico when the Huichols walk to the mountain, they walk with the people. They are not walking as little, individual people trying to get their moment of enlightenment before they go back to the city. It’s a totally different thing: they are walking as a people. And most tribal and archaic people do this as a people, they don’t do it as individuals. You know, you might go and have your vision quest to find your name but you are coming back to the tribe, you are coming back to be one of the people, to be an integral part of it. So we’ve lost that. We’re trying to relearn it, I think. It’s on quite a humble level. Like doing things like ‘give and take’ today, community meals for fifty, it’s trying to get back to understanding what that’s like. That’s a much harder practice, I think. And also, I am older. You know, I’m fifty-six now. This is a time when most people are settling down to enjoy the fruits of their labours but for me it gets tougher and tougher every year.

So, you know, Dark Mountain is brilliant because it just understands the struggle. It’s not for easy, consumer, commercial solutions to life, for gold-plated pensions. That’s not what Dark Mountain is about, it’s really not. So it’s amazing to encounter a group of people who understand that.

JDG: Yeah. Maybe I’ll come back to part of what you just said but where we’ve just landed now I want to ask what you – because in that last decade of making yourself at home you’ve been part of Transition and also of Dark Mountain for a long time – how does Transition and Dark Mountain relate? They are two entities which are driving in a similar direction but they are dealing with different things. So I wonder how you see that, how is Dark Mountain different in helping you in your quest for making a home, for example?

CDC: They are very different. Yeah, they are different beasts. I don’t know, beasts is not the right word but… For me Transition is about, I think I described it in a blog I wrote once, it’s the village. It’s ordinary life, it’s your ordinary dealings with people. Whereas Dark Mountain is very much the artist. It could be the artist in the community but it is not the same as being in the community. I think we need both. I think if you are just the artist you’re on the outside all the time. And if you are just in the community you are dealing with things on a very humdrum level. Which, as a writer, doesn’t satisfy me completely. For me. to be whole, or to answer the whole story, both need to be there.

In terms of the future, Transition is traditionally, I don’t know if that is the right word, is traditionally optimistic. It believes in optimism as a force, it believes that you can do something and that’s something you need to engage in, action. So that’s where it is linked to activism which is what I like as well – that you’re actually engaging something practical and useful. Rather than sitting around feeling despair, or grief or whatever. But I think where it falls down is that it tends not to look at collapse, it tends not to look at the darker side of things. It’s not particularly political and it can be a bit evangelical. It’s reformist, which I’m not. I’m not a reformer by any stretch of the imagination. I’m far more radical.

On the human level what I’m interested in is liberty. If you ask me “so what’s it all about?” I’d say: “getting free”. And I don’t mean letting everybody out of prison, it is not that kind of freedom. We’re all in prison in some kind of way. We don’t live as free human beings on the planet, we just don’t. We are highly controlled. We are highly curtailed in invisible ways that we don’t even know about half of the time. By our upbringings, by our education, by our culture, by our media, they all keep us in this tiny, tiny space. And for me, when I broke out of my old life, my old city life, I had no idea of the access that was available. Just by traveling, just by talking to different people, just by being out of my city. That was one thing. But then, you know, also by working with plants and the hallucinogenics, you realise that there are huge dimensions that you are not even told about when you are young.

For archaic people these were available. They weren’t even just available, they were supposed to happen, you were supposed to see that the Earth is as beautiful and incredible place as it is. And we’re not. We’re given a few TV programmes about big cats in Africa and told that that’s the planet. And meanwhile: back to the supermarket! This is not the planet, the planet is not just that. That is civilisation, that is city. In a native American tradition they call it ‘city-mind’. You know, it’s the mind that can only see in terms of blocks of streets. And it is always enclosing. And for me, Dark Mountain is the opposite of this.

Transition goes: “ok, the streets are enclosed, let’s make the streets nicer, let’s engage in the streets and talk to the neighbours on the street”. Dark Mountain goes: “hang on, there’s a road off this street and we are not necessarily supposed to be on this street, let’s go up the hill. Let’s go outside the city, let’s see what’s going on out there! Let’s see if there are some Barbarians left that we can speak with!” You know! Who might be telling these other stories from the mountain? Let’s get out of the city because when we get out of the city then things are in proportion. If you only see in terms of the city that’s when the mind encloses, and it gets to a very dark place.

JDG: Dark Mountain talks about that breaking free in terms of transforming worldviews, in terms of the transformative power of stories. As a writer and someone who’s immersed yourself in myth and that deeper realm, how do you see that call for different kinds of stories, uncivilised stories, stories that break with the linear mould and with the dividing mentality that puts everything in boxes and organises them everywhere? How do we bring that in, where do we find those stories? Can they even be made or told, or do they have their own life? You know, you hear storytellers who say that they would never dare to try and make up a story because stories have their own life.

CDC: Yeah, they do, that’s right. I don’t know, Jeppe. I’m not really a storyteller, that’s the thing. I like the idea of searching for a new narrative and I like the idea of searching for new stories and that makes a lot of sense. I work with Dark Mountain and that’s almost like a strapline for Dark Mountain. I’m totally with it. However, I’m much more interested in medicine. So for me a story has got to have a medicine in it. And for me the story has usually got to be real, something has actually happened to somebody.

Somebody once told me a story. This is the kind of story that I like.

I’m working on a book at the moment called ‘Playing for Time‘. I’m not the author, I’m the editor. The book is about transitional arts practices. One of the conversations I have with the author – because a lot of it is about the conversation that we are having at the moment, to track and map the book as an entity, if you like – is about how artists by their perseverance and their imagination can break strangleholds, even political strangleholds, in a way that no one else can. Just one artist, you don’t need millions necessarily, you don’t need a whole company of artists. Sometimes one person can do that. And one of the stories that’s going to be in the book is about a book called ‘Swimming to Antarctica’.

So this is an English person who has spent eleven years talking to the Russian navy and the US navy because they wanted to swim across the Bering Strait from America to Russia. She is a cold water swimmer, right? And she spent eleven years, spent all this time negotiating, because this is during the cold war, so it was really, really, really difficult. Anyway, she finally managed to get permission. And this is what she did: she swam a mile across the Bering Strait! And that is fucking cold water! This is ice-floe time. She set off from Alaska and as she went across all the Inuit got in their kayaks and started to follow her. So they are going across and then at one point she hears a roar from the other shore.

And it is all the grandmothers in Russia calling her and calling their relatives. And this roar is getting bigger and bigger. And as they are on the shore all the grandmothers are standing there with a special tent, with a special fire, and as she comes they wrap her all in furs and they sing her. And they greet their relatives they haven’t seen for decades! She’s opened the door. And so it is a big homecoming between two sets of people that have been separated by a war that’s not even theirs, right? For decades. And one woman swims across. So they say she was embraced like a sea creature, she became like this creature at sea who had brought them all back together again.

That’s a good story! That’s the kind of story I’m interested in. And that’s physical life. Somebody with their physical life and their physical body, who’s putting themselves in a really difficult position in order to transform something, or to break it, or to open a door. To bring freedom back. That is a knockout story. And so that’s what I am listening out for. These things that go against the flow all the time. She didn’t have to do that, it wasn’t even her country! And you go “oh, it was just a swim, it was just one day, it doesn’t mean anything”. Yeah, but once you’ve done it once you’ve broken the back of it, you’ve opened the door. That’s the difficult bit, that’s what medicine can do. It can just change the dance.

And in that tiny change of dance everything happens. The Earth is not linear. The Earth is systemic, it works in systems. So if you change one little thing the famous butterfly, wherever it is, it brings a storm somewhere else. That’s what happens. And it has ramifications somewhere else that you won’t necessarily see when you do that tiny thing but the person doing it knows exactly what they are doing. She knew what she was doing. She knew it was symbolic, it was iconic. And something was going to happen just because of the system. For eleven years she went to open that door!

JDG: What’s become obvious for me is that for all of the talk about ‘socio-technical change’ and ‘transitions’ – you know, you can try and theorise that and design a process where you have systemic change – for all of the thought processes that you could put into that, positive change really comes down to whether the intention or the attitude that lies underneath springs from something we know is good in our hearts. That we know it inside ourselves and we want to do that thing for no other reason than because it is good.

And it seems like that’s where Dark Mountain opens up a space for experimenting with new approaches based on trust. You have to have trust, if you don’t have trust you can’t really do much, that’s the basis of everything. And it seems like Dark Mountain is opening up spaces where you can do that kind of experimenting. You can go and do stuff without immediately being disarmed by a million questions about “how are we going to have this transition, what is the 12-step plan?” It’s so easy to disarm people who wants to do something good with a million questions about procedural stuff. That just takes the joy out of it.

CDC: Well, this is probably coming back to the medicine part of myself. It has to be about heart. If you live a life governed by heart that is a different world to if you live a life governed by the rational mind. They are just different universes. So something that heart can feel and intuit, and intention being part of it, that has a currency and an agency that the rational doesn’t even recognise. It doesn’t know what you are talking about.

So, of course, if you sit down and do something with good intent and you know that in your heart – whether you have good intent or not – that has a power and agency that you cannot see but it will make all the difference. You can sit down with no intent and tick all the boxes and nothing will happen because you’ve got no good intent. Because it is not locked into what I would call the fabric of this world which we can’t see. The fabric of the world which we can’t see understands intention. That’s why some people do these strategic acts because they’re learning how to work with intention so it makes sense within the fabric of the world.

So when they do one thing that echoes in all places… it’s like a hologram. You know, you do one thing in one tiny place and it goes in all places. That’s what I mean by making an intentional act. That’s what the swimmer was doing. She was making an intentional act. And that means everything, but the rational mind doesn’t understand that. That’s a right [brain] hemisphere thing. We can’t even talk about it, really, but we know it. We understand it. We get a feeling for it. Transition sits down and goes “yeah, we need to workshops, we need to get stats on that”. It’s all information. But that only goes so far. I think the point we are at is that we’ve got as far as facts and information can take us. And something else has to kick in because it isn’t enough.

You can tell people “the Earth is coming to an end unless you do something”, well yeah, ok, that’s a piece of information. That’s not awareness. If you were aware of it you’d be going: “Right OK, what needs to be done?” That’s awareness. At least you are there, you’re going “OK, so now I know. So now I live in a different place”. That’s where Dark Mountain is. Which is why I like it. It doesn’t go in all guns blazing to try and sort everybody out. It sits on that very uncomfortable edge. It’s enough to be aware right now. Then we’ll see.

I think it is truly creative and I think that’s the bit that attracted me. I came across Dark Mountain by accident. I didn’t particularly go to find it. It just so happened that I was setting up the Social Reporting Project at the time for the Transition Network, which is a community blog. And I was looking for places to go and have a workshop or maybe meet people and come across what was going on. And the guy I was working with said “well this Dark Mountain thing keeps coming up”. And the idea I had was that it was very grand and intellectual, and I felt very much of a lesser being walking up to the Uncivilisation festival.

And I then realised it was not that at all. That in fact it was like coming home. I sat around the fire and you could talk to anybody. I didn’t feel ever like that in Transition. I’d been in it for three years and it had never been like that. Everyone were really friendly and open. And happy to talk about all sorts of things without having to pretend you were someone else. I can’t quite put my finger on it. It’s like you’re not buying the story, you’re not buying the civilisation story. In whatever way, for whatever reason. People come from totally different directions from me and yet none of us are buying it.

I like having those conversations, I like thinking deeply about these things because I think they matter. You don’t have the space or time to do it in normal rush-rush, get-done, earn-some-money, pay-the-rent, go-to-a-Transition-meeting type of activity. You know, we have time to tell the stories. Because otherwise they don’t get told. So for me it is about time. And I think Dark Mountain has got a very good relationship with time. A very unusual relationship with time. So I think it understands lineage, I think it understands that we come from many lineages in one, we are ourselves but we also have access to many different lineages in our imagination.

To understand what I call the fabric of the Earth or the fabric of the world, an ability to understand what I call the Big Now is pivotal about where we go at this point in time. We are making the future but at the same time we are in the past. Everything is happening now. And if we make the moves with good intent, understanding that, things can change. But if we are in flat time, it’s only just me in the present in 2000-and-whatever-it-is, 2013. That doesn’t really get us the access, you know.

What I am interested in is this pattern of being conquered. And people fighting against that conquer and saying “no, we are going to liberate ourselves”. That keeps happening. It just keeps happening with every land grab, it keeps repeating itself all over the planet. But it also happened here. And when you understand that it happened in your own country and that you’re part of that resistance against it, then something else happens, I think. So it was interesting even today [at the Sustainable Bungay give and take day] that came up again… you were saying that Jeppe, when you were talking about enclosure.

JDG: Yeah. It’s actually something I’ve only just come to understand in the last couple of years but it makes so much sense. I mean, the first places that were colonised were, you know, the home places.

CDC: Absolutely. I did a lot of politics around the 17th century and the revolution and everything else. It’s very clear what is at stake. All the Levellers and the Diggers and the Ranters and all these grassroots radicals, springing up from everywhere saying “no, the land is ours”, you know, literally. They were doing that stuff ages ago. When I read that when I was a student I was like “oh, my god! This isn’t the history I was taught! I was taught the history of the conquerer”. You go up to that castle in Norwich and you stand on that and you can really feel it. I mean, 11-whatever-it-is when it was established, this is the castle of the conquerers, and they’ve been here ever since. I was reading John Berger’s book ‘Hold Everything Dear’ and how the Israeli settlers go up and sit themselves right on the top of the mountain and say: “Right, this is ours now, this belongs to us”. It’s the same mentality. It’s the same consciousness. Different country, different people but same domination.

JDG: And that’s where the story becomes so important because if history is written by the victors then the real stories never get told, they’re at risk of disappearing. Isn’t it Jay Griffiths who says that it’s a revolutionary act to tell that story? The change you have from thinking about the future of civilisation and progress to talk about the future of collapse, if you really get that story and if you take it seriously then your whole world changes. You can’t ignore the fact that progress isn’t really working for us and if we are really facing multiple crises, which we can’t even begin to predict, then our whole world is different. That changes with the story.

CDC: Even if you look at what happened around here, this area was one of the worst areas of pauperism after the enclosures. It was just so bad, people were starving, but if you read the documents of the times, all the people living on the commons were described like lower forms of life. It was like Occupy, the way people used to write about Occupy in the Daily Telegraph or Daily Mail. It was the same, it was the same language. “They’re lowlife, they’re rubbish, they don’t deserve to have any properties themselves, they are nobodies.” They deserve to die, basically. That’s the story. Well, that’s not the people writing, that’s the conquerers writing. That’s the media of the day. And those are the stories that people believe. Against themselves!

To me, the real nightmare is hierarchy, which Britain does so brilliantly. It’s got to be the most bloody hierarchical place I know. And it is the absolute enemy. Well, maybe India, maybe India is a bit better at it than we are, with their lovely caste system. Once you identify with your caste or class you are absolutely lost. And I have to say that my big journey, one of the most interesting journeys I’ve done, is to actually go against my class. Which very few people do. It’s so strong. And the benefits of being in the higher middle class are massive. Why would you want to give it up? There’s no reason. Except if you want to be free because it is a prison like any other.

JDG: So, how do you get people to start listening to themselves? I sometimes have this feeling that I’m following some kind of inner compass that is guiding me in some direction. It’s like going from here in some direction toward the horizon but you can never really tell where that is. There is no particular point, you just have a direction. Usually I’m moving through some kind of thick fog but occasionally I have a sense that I’m going in the right direction. There are certain points where I have to re-orient myself and make sure I feel like I’m on the right path.

And I’m just wondering how that navigation works in a way. Because what I imagine is going to happen in terms of all of the ideals that are held out for us in society which we are supposed to want to follow is that they’ll be shown to be false. If collapse is going to unfold, if we are just going to keep having more austerity and keep getting poorer and things are not going to improve, all of the promises held out to my generation, to everyone really, are going to be seen as blatant lies. We are going to have to find a way to re-orient our inner compass in a sense. And find a way to discover that first of all. You know, how do you open up for that crack in the imagination?

CDC: How I deal with it… I’m not an evangelist. So I don’t think everybody wakes up at once. That’s why I like Dark Mountain. I think it is better to gather with people that are half-awake than spend your life trying to wake up everyone who is half-asleep. Do you see what I mean? We could waste a lot of time. I think it is better to gather and to meet people who know slightly what you are talking about. And you go “hey, we’re here”. Ok, you’re there and I’ve met you, so I know you exist and I know that we’ve had this conversation. I’ve been down to Dark Mountain and I’ve met the people down at Dark Mountain. I’ve met loads of different people in Transition. I know everybody exists. That’s a different relationship. When you are sitting at home you are not really on your own.

This is about building networks. So to me that’s really, really, important. How that network then has effect is beyond what we know. But we do know that it is important to have a network. I don’t know any more than you do about what’s going to happen. I do think everyone is going to get a lot poorer. That’s also been my journey because I used to have lots of money. And I really don’t, right now I don’t have any money at all. You know, we are very much on the breadline. But we still live a decent life. We can still have a bottle of wine at the end of the day if we want for celebrations. And that’s how it is. My values are not the same. I don’t live a big, heavy duty lifestyle.

So I know it is possible for people to go down. And most people don’t want to go down. They don’t want to go down one inch. And their fear about that is massive. This is nothing to do with stories, this is to do with just basically faith in the fact that life is not going to get better. And Transition goes “well, it gets better in some ways, your relationships with people get better” and all this kind of stuff. But some of that doesn’t wash because some of the time it doesn’t get better.

And how are you going to live there? How are you going to live in a culture where it is not getting better and has no chance of getting better? You’ve got to do something else. You’ve got to know that it’s got to be about bigger things. So it’s got to be about getting back on track with the planet. That’s where having a practice to me is one of the most important things. And what the book is about, ‘Playing for Time’ is actually about how you have a practice. That’s one of its main subjects. Surprisingly, that’s not really what it set out to do but that’s what’s coming out. That if you have some kind of practice then your life gets a lot more noble and a lot more worthwhile. Because what you are doing is you are actually coming back, you’re getting back to that thing I was talking about in the beginning about being a people.

And if you look at the way indigenous people live, they are really poor. They have fire, they are rich in ceremony, they are rich in meaning, they are rich in value, they are rich in relationship, they are rich in story, they are rich in beauty, they are rich in lots of things but they are not rich in thing.

So that’s a whole different value system. We have to have allegiance to the planet. And that’s it. And not with civilisation. We cannot have allegiance to civilisation because it sells the planet at every turn.

  1. Anni Kelsey

    I love the way Charlotte turns her back on appearances and just dives into things not seen… and encourages others to follow. Thank you.

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