This blog is a slightly updated version of a speech I gave to the REBUS club in Havelock north just a couple of months after my father died in 2019. The REBUS group is for retired professionals.
Do you have those moments when you wish you had someone totally discreet and non-judgmental to talk too? Someone to help you feel strong? Have you had moments when peace of mind comes to you, not through the words of another person, but by spending time in your garden, going for a walk, talking to your dog? Sometimes something from nature comes along with a message or a sign for you! And eureka! It helps you see things more clearly.
We all know those feelings, right?
When I was seven and my family was still living in England, a terrible thing happened to me, I won’t burden you with the details. On that day, after that event I had to cycle a few miles home down a gorgeous Cotswold lane. I remember it so clearly. The sound of the bicycle tyres on the road and I felt as if the plants in the hedgerow were saying “it’s OK. We’re here for you. We’ll help you.” I remember thinking “blimey even the plants are talking now… this day is getting stranger by the minute.”.
I’m an only child and I was unable to speak about what had happened and so I kept disappearing off into nature and eventually I started to talk back to the plants. With time I started to be able to see the energy that moves through all things, I found a sense of connection and I drew great comfort and strength from that. It was like quantum physics came to life for me.
Albert Einstein, creator of the Theory of Relativity and one of my heroes, said once, “look deep into nature and you will understand everything better”, and I did exactly that.
I became fascinated with the ways in which man has worked with nature for health and wellbeing throughout time. And via a long, circuitous and intensely lived journey, this looking deeper and deeper into how we connect with nature to help us through the tough stuff has become my life’s work.
Back in 2001 I was running a cultural communications agency in London and I’d been appointed to do a massive project with the government of Japan, bringing Japanese culture to the UK. In the reception room at the Japanese Embassy on Piccadilly, the Crown Prince of Japan gave me an award for services to Japanese culture and presented me with a silver sake glass with a gold royal emblem on it. I still have it and it makes a great egg cup! I think he gave me that award because I helped make the unfamiliar – in this case the cultural riches of Japan, familiar to a British audience in galleries and on the high street.
I loved that privilege of being able to work with artists of so many different artforms and so many different cultures and act as a conduit in order to pass their stories on to the media and so on to new audiences. I think my job title should not have been, director, but rather it should have been simply, ‘storyteller’. After some years though, I felt that I needed to do more to help give nature a voice, to be a storyteller on its behalf. To help make the unfamiliar, familiar.
All the while, I had been studying and studying – all private passions toiled into nights and weekends. I studied herbal medicine across different cultures, the history of medicine, renaissance philosophy, alchemy, the way monks and nuns created medicines, I studied environmental science, I found teachers who would help me develop my ability to feel and work with energy…. And during the daylight hours I went to work in grown up jobs – at least the ones that are acceptable to your parents!
My grown up jobs led me to work for the Royal Botanic Gardens of Kew. Who here has been to visit Kew? Amazing place isn’t!? Kew is a botanic powerhouse. Not only does it have the largest collection of living plant species on earth, it has the biggest collection of mycorrhizae – that’s fungus to you and me, an amazing library, a state of the art research facility, the millennium seed bank, and the herbarium which contains millions of dried plant specimens, Each collector, signed, located. Darwin, Banks, Livingstone. Such history.
Here’s a non-botanic trivia fact: Did you know that the temperate house is used as an official navigation tool for pilots coming into Heathrow? Because of the way the glass reflects regardless of weather.
I used to love seeing the young kids coming to the gardens with family or school groups. They were having so much fun.
In the span of the last decade, the number of studies indicating that time spent in natural surroundings can improve people's well-being has increased dramatically. It doesn’t matter whether those places are groomed urban parks like Kew or unruly wilderness landscapes. Research shows that exposure to nature can reduce children's symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and help prevent or reduce obesity, myopia, and vitamin D deficiency. And research also suggests that time spent in nature, for all ages, may improve social bonding and reduce violence, stimulate learning and creativity, and serve as a buffer to toxic stress, depression, and anxiety.
I was definitely onto something when I was seven!
How many of you have grandchildren? Or children in your life that mean something to you? When you were a child did you know what a bumblebee was? Yes, of course. Well, some research done in Europe recently revealed that over 80% of the kids that took part in it, were unable to identify a bumblebee. That’s shocking!
In recent years the Oxford Junior Dictionary has deleted a number of words relating to nature claiming they were no longer felt to be relevant to a modern-day childhood. The deletions included acorn, buttercup, dandelion, fern, kingfisher, pasture and willow. Nature deleted to make way for things like this: attachment, blog, broadband and celebrity.
My work with Kew, led me to working for the United Nations as global communications manager a.k.a. storyteller, for a major study that set out to make an economic case for the conservation of nature. It is very sobering when you are in a room with a Nobel laureate economist (Elina Ostrom) who is saying to you and the other 10 people present – our economic system is broken. We have not included, or considered the value (not just in monetary terms) of the thing we all depend upon, which is nature – the environment, ecosystems, biodiversity, Gaia – it’s all invisible and our impacts on this web of interconnected life is invisible, and we need to fix this fast. Ethics lay at the heart of our work and we frequently discussed the idea of stewardship and how we hoped the work we were doing would contribute towards handing a better world on to the next generation. To do this would require new ways of working with old ideas and new ways of thinking.
Einstein, in his wisdom said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” – I love that man!
So, what is the world you are handing on to your grandchildren? What can you do to help connect them to the thing they need most, to describe it and to heal it.? Can you help make words that describe nature relevant again – after all how can those children so dear to you fight to save something if they don’t even know what to call it? What are the stories you can tell on a walk in the garden, up in the reserve, at the beach, by the bedside?
It’s been amazing seeing all these young people out in the streets demanding action around climate change hasn’t it. Did you know that eco-anxiety is a major thing now for millennials? They are terrified of the state of the world they are inheriting. So, where are the voices of the elders in supporting their calls for action? Like Einstein said in his theory of relativity – everything is connected. Their voice. Your voice. My voice. They need you now. They need us now. More than ever.
Aristotle’s ethics and shamans are also connected. In shamanic thought there is the theory that every word, every action, or avoided action we make will ripple down through the next seven generations. What are the actions you could make now that would feel good knowing they are rippling through time? At the heart of this question is ethics.
Why is it that the so called ‘Age of Enlightenment’ is also the time when we started to get so disconnected from nature? And isn’t it interesting that the end of the age of enlightenment and the dawning of the industrial revolution was more or less seven generations ago – and look at how it has rippled down to us today.
Imagine for a moment if Joseph Banks, Charles Darwin and James Hooker come back today and retraced their steps over those lands in which they collected botanic specimens. It would look very different – logging, mining, factories, burning, intensive agriculture, human population, cities. I bet they would want to add their voice to those of our children.
I’ve looked at a lot at the history of medicine and in particular, at the renaissance period. Renaissance medicine used to see the health and wellbeing of a person in relationship with the world around them: nature, earth, elements, sky, planets – they saw us in and of the cosmos, which is the idea of a well-ordered and connected universe. One renaissance physician, Marsilio Ficino used to talk about the idea of the planets in the sky also being reflected in us, in our tissues, emotional states and propensity for disease or wellness and he prescribed getting out in nature as part of the cure. In fact the word Physician is from the Greek ‘physis’ which means – nature.
We have a lot of medical developments to be grateful for, but I can’t help thinking that we would benefit from also connecting back to the natural world, to seeing ourselves in right relationship with the cosmos. Maybe if we did, then we wouldn’t be so disconnected from the one thing we all rely on. Maybe if we did, there wouldn’t be so much violence, anxiety and stress in society. Maybe if we did, there wouldn’t be so much environmental devastation. Maybe if we did, we’d find that discrete and supportive friend in nature to confide in.
I had spent the ages 8-18 here in Hawke’s Bay. Some of you may have known my parents Jane and Philip. We emigrated from England in the 1970s and lived out at Raukawa.
About ten years ago I could see my parents’ health about to head on its downward trajectory and so I finished my work with the UN, returned to New Zealand and started my business Archeus. Archeus is a word created by the renaissance physician, alchemist and philosopher Paracelsus. He said that to heal one had to work with the Archeus, the vital force that connects man, nature and the universe. Paracelsus’ real name was Theophastrus Bombastius von Hohenheim. How’s that for a mouthful. He was a difficult and brilliant man. It is said he was so difficult that he is the reason for the term bombastic. But what a brilliant mind – I’m happy to give a talk on him if you like!
My business, Archeus, came into being at the same time my mother was diagnosed with cancer and told she had six months to live. She managed 18 months and during that time I found that my business changed from a simple skincare offering to something deeper, something more healing, something that responded to the needs of people going through major life transitions and drew on my own childhood experiences of the way nature helped me heal, or at least find peace.
I draw on contemporary research and ancient wisdom to create ways in which people can tap into the healing power of nature, be it in a topical product, or plant essences that work at an energetic level. I work with people of all ages – menopause is one of the transitions I work with so if you have daughters or daughter’s in law going through that at the moment, please send them my way! I have worked a lot with children, specially ones that are being picked on and bullied or have lost confidence as the result of an accident or illness.
People come to me for products, they come to workshops I run, and for consultations.
The magical thing about this work is the way it reframes the natural world. I’ve learned how seemingly insignificant ‘weeds’ like plantain or cleavers or dandelion, can be powerful healers. For example, plantain is an amazing wound healer and works particularly well on mucus membranes. Cleavers works with the lymphatic system to help rid the body of toxins and dandelion helps strengthen the liver and kidneys.
I love helping people find their plant allies. I love helping them see the natural world around in a new light, one that can give them support and strength, even when glimpsed through a hospital window. Interestingly I was teaching some nurses the other day and one said how she has noticed patients respond to treatment much better in rooms with a window.
I seem to have spent a lot of time over the past few years working with people through illness to wellness, or at the end of life. People want that nature connection. This is not just the person who is ill or dying, but their families too.
My mother died seven years ago and my father at the end of July in 2019. He had a stroke and it took three days for his body to slowly unwind. I was with him throughout that time. In a quiet and dignified way, the plant essences I used helped bring nature into the room and I think they helped make both of us a little less afraid. After he died, I washed him with lavender hydrosols and frankincense. Then I gently massaged his body with olive oil (such a timeless symbol of peace) infused with ancient herbs like myrrh, violet leaf and spikenard – they say Mary Magdalene washed Jesus’s feet in spikenard oil. The nurse cried and said it was a truly beautiful way of parting.
My parents’ deaths pushed out of my nest and into an odyssey of exploration of care of the soul. After my father’s death I developed an offering called A Flower at the Bedside – connecting to nature at the end of life which was a learning resource showing people how they can bring this idea of nature into the room, work with plant essences, oils and washes at the end of life. But time has moved on and I have immersed myself deeper and deeper into how we can for each other in life and in death, and at the beginning of 2021 I launched the Centre for Nature Connection and my new training and coaching that brings Nature, Compassion and Soul into care at the end of life.
From nature we came, and to nature we go. Paracelsus put it nicely when he said, “The art of healing comes from nature, not from the physician. Therefore, the physician must start from nature, with an open mind.”
How has nature opened your mind? How has it changed from your childhood, to your grandchildren’s childhood. What are the ways you can be those childrens’ ally? And what are the plants and places that can be yours? How can your actions and theirs connect for a better future. What is the legacy you’d like to ripple down the next seven generations?