Here’s a scene: I’m sitting at a window ledge entwined in the arms of a boy called Carl. Behind us a party is in full swing and the neighbourhood is pulsating, loud with music. The streets of Babylon are rocking. It’s the Notting Hill carnival 1989, Summer of Love. There’s a mounted police charge down the street and we’re whooping and laughing, merged with all that sound and movement, our bodies flooded with seratonin. Happeeeeeee……? You bet! I don’t know it yet but this is the last party I will give in my flat above the off-licence on the corner of Westbourne Park Road.
When I first joined Transition we all experienced moments like this, a reckless kind of happiness, an inner drive that sometimes felt out of control and not quite real. We met in Heart and Soul circles, at regional gatherings, and expressed our feelings of excitement - in discovering each other, at this chance to begin again, to share stuff we had never said out loud. Possibilities and visions propelled us to meet up and speak together. But this collective moment was short. It raged like a bushfire, like a love affair, and then died out. Convention and control broke up those good moods and fragile alliances. The gap between the global situation we perceived in our minds and the local territory at our feet seemed vast and unbridgeable. Ideas did not make it into physical reality. People found themselves quarrelling without knowing why. There was a lot of talk about community, but little fellow feeling.
To keep feeling-good meant that someone else in the room had to carry the difficulties that had come to light and feel bad. Chinese medicine practitioners might have recognised this as a symptom of over-enthusiasm of the heart. If we had been smart we would have looked at the history of new movements and recognised ourselves in the ecstasy of Ranters and Cathars. It was not our fault we skimmed over problems and shut down: we were all raised within the individualistic mindset of Empire and the sudden awakening of our hearts brought all our resistances to empathy into play. Maybe if we had been smart fewer people would have walked at this crucial shift where the fun stops and the work begins. What made some of us undergo that period of unrest and conflict was not happiness, but something more like hozho. A determination to weather the storm in order to secure "real-world harmony and balance".
That's when I realised that Transition was more like alchemy than the behavioural change psychologists and social scientists were talking about. And that the first step of alchemy is not enlightenment, but the forcing out of the materia, the dark stuff you have to transform.
Here’s a scene: I’m sitting at a window in a straw bale house in Arizona at a writing desk with a cat called Small Being. It’s September 2001, a hot afternoon 110 degrees Fahrenheit. There’s a storm coming, and we’re watching it, the cat and I, as it advances across the desert floor towards us, a thick curtain of rain. Lightning is crackling in the sky islands all around us, huge forks of pink and green and yellow. I don’t know it yet but America is about to change its mood irrevocably. This will be the last time I will walk out and smell the world fragrant with creosote after the rain and feel completely at one with the earth. A condition of complete simplicity/Costing not less than everything.
I have a sanguine nature. Small things bring me great joy: rain and cats, heat on my body, the sound of thunder, the taste of river water, the way the sun shines through the seed pods of the creosote bush and fill it with light. I love writing, the way it taps you straight into the fabric of life and you can become conscious of everything around you in time and space, find value and meaning in every encounter. That scene is so strong in my memory I just have to close my eyes and I am there. The reason it’s strong I would not call happiness. Because, though the afternoon is beautiful, I am living in a geography of heartbreak, where the exile of Apache warriors, striking miners, illegal migrants from Mexico and El Salvador is written on every red rock. My own too when I am forced to leave. It's not about Me and My Personal Happiness anymore. It’s a destiny moment at a window, that connects with that first one a decade earlier. The beginning of the free travelling years and its bitter end.
This is how I prepared for Transition. My heart is stored with memories: moments of being immersed in the wild places, in the beauty, colour, form, harmony of the earth. And sometimes when I ask myself why I still go to Transition meetings, confront the realities of peak everything every day, why I struggle against the odds for no reward, I draw strength from those physical memories. What am I doing this for? And I can remember . . .
I do it for all the places I went in those years: for Australia, for South America, for Turtle Island, for the First Nations, for the coyotes that howled outside my door, for the eagles and owls, for all the old activists who lived out in the desert in Arizona, who kept singing and gathering medicine plants, for all the young activists I worked with in Oxford who fought for the trees of Newbury, who burrowed under roads and kept dancing and laughing. For those who did not make it out of the city: the beautiful men who forgot how to dance, the smart women who forgot how to laugh, for everyone that got institutionalised, caught up on the wheel.
Here’s a scene: I’m standing outside the RBS building at the corner of what used to be Spitalfields Market. Tuesday, April 26, and I don’t recognise these slick, corporate streets where I used to visit friends or hear them play music in half-derelict churches and houses. Old London, deep time London. But I recognise these revolving glass doors. I’ve just seen them in the documentary Just Do It, where Climate Camp activists blocked them for a day to protest against the bank’s funding of tar sands mining in Alberta. Miles from here the bluebell woods are all on fire and the hawthorn is blossoming white in the hedgerows. The nightingale is singing in the darkness. It’s almost May Day and the earth is undergoing her radical Spring make-over.
Who is telling us that being happy is more important than money? High priests and millionaire politicians. Well-being is the order of the day. We will close your libraries, destroy your health service, cut down your forests, sell off your waterways, take away your job, your house, your pension, education, crush your liberties, close your mouths . . . . but hey, don’t worry, be happy!
Institutionalised happiness, spin-doctor feel-good, is not joy, or love or merriment, anymore than lifestyle is life, or glamour is beauty. It’s a superficial panacea, a coping mechanism, so we don’t access and demand our rights for real joy and equity on the planet. So we don’t ask ourselves deep questions about why so many of us are poor and unhappy and why people everywhere are taking to the streets. Real joy kickstarts the kind of alchemy that shifts the base mindset of the world into the high frequency of the heart. This alchemy starts by pressuring the lowest elements down into their base material, forcing the beast out of the matter. Once out of its hiding place, transformation can begin.
All empires are threatened by real joy. The empire does not want to change, it wants to hold on to its power, its monolithic marketplaces. It is terrified to experience its own ugliness and lack of heart, its human vulnerability. It blocks the alchemy of the heart by mutating the natural forms of earth, bringing them under the control and ownership of its corporations and then attracting the people’s attention to the tamed and hybridised. It does this by making the mind and emotional body dependent on end-of-the world dramas, by entertaining us with circuses and freakshows, by fostering envy and possessiveness. Meanwhile it does everything in its power to destroy the real thing: everything in nature, everyone who celebrates the earth. This is why the corporate world appears ever more ugly and flaunts its power in ever increasing images of artifice. It is working hard to kill every shred of joy and beauty from appearing. But it can’t succeed. Because the flowers are coming up wherever you look.
Why do we dance with the colours of the rainbow on May Day? Why do we keep singing and dancing? Why do we laugh? Why do we go to the woods, watch the sun come up, love plants and bees? Why do we keep going in Transition even though it’s hard? We’re activists for the fair, for the wild, for the free, for the harmony that is at the core of all living beings, activists for happiness . . . just not the kind the government has in mind.
Police raid at Grow Heathrow glasshouse, Transition Heathrow, April 27; ocotillo in the High Desert; up a hazel tree in the bluebell woods.