A few months ago I had a meeting, it was very interesting. As is my way I arrived with a rucksack of bottles and various twigs, leaves, resins and petals. I always find meetings go well when I surround myself with the tools of my trade, they somehow offer an explanation of what I do far better than a document or even a verbal description. I lay them out on the table and as I start to talk, picking each up in turn, I feel the connection, as if I am a bridge between the client and the landscape. Without them, I feel hopelessly lost.
Slowly, we sniff, taste, crush and rub the plants, each offering an insight into possibility. We talk about their terroir, seasonality, which parts to use and when. And as we talk and turn each plant over in our hands, their properties become clear. We sip droplets from each pipette in every amber glass bottle and talk of scent, flavor, extraction and emotion. As the meetings progress I see the client slowly begin to understand – to see the world a little as I do – not as dry formulations borrowed from a book, or extracts mixed under laboratory conditions but rather as the endless possibilities that real-whole-plants offer.
Their offerings are legion. I am inspired every time. And every time it sets me thinking in a slightly different way. The beauty of working with plants is that there is never an end, never a moment when you know enough, never an opportunity to rest back on your laurels. It is truly lifelong learning.
After this particular meeting in London, I sat on some steps nearby and mused for some time absently watching the frenetic pace of life speed past. I allowed the initial ideas to settle and then I set off for home.
The process of taking a brief and developing a product is complex. It may take months for the right combination of plants to be available. Essences and extracts are available all year round, whole plants have their moment in the year and one must wait patiently and then grasp it with both hands. It is one of the things that I love – the lack of immediacy.
In a world where everything seems available all the time, (if you don’t mind where on earth it comes from and how many air miles are consumed in getting your hands on it,) there is a wonderful pleasure in waiting. Recently I needed Meadowsweet so every day I walked past where they grew in clumps, I watched the leaves and stems appear, over a couple of weeks I saw the flower heads form and then another 10 days later the lower flowers burst open. A week later the top flowers revealed their fluffy heads and we were ready to harvest. Matt and I headed out with picking bags and joyful hearts on a sunny day and gathered armfuls, leaving plentiful amounts for the bees and butterflies. From plant to pot in a couple of hours.
This way of working restricts how much you can make but it offers a sustainable model for production. We need to think about sustainability in all areas of our lives from skincare and beauty through to drinks. That something can be made in vast amounts, doesn’t mean that it should. Smaller more sustainable runs may be the way forward. Year on year growth may mean financial profit but at the cost of environmental degradation. It’s a fine line.
So back to the brief – musing is an essential part of developing anything for me. I have to let my mind settle, let all the millions of ideas work themselves out. It can take weeks. I have to imagine the scents and flavours in my head, sifting through all the combinations and then as the plants become available I can start the physical work of mixing and tasting. For this particular product I was stuck on one element, it was swirling around my mind but I couldn’t pin it down. So I went to the farm in late July and sat amongst the roses, all in full flower, and surrounded by that magical scent, the final piece of the puzzle revealed itself.
The result is lovely and all will be revealed in time.
We shouldn’t underestimate the power of plants. Whether worried or struggling to develop something, go to the plants. Go to the woods for a walk, sit in your garden, work in your allotment, do a little gardening whether window box or bed, visit a municipal garden, go to the National Trust, whatever route you choose, just find a way of connecting with the plants, it will calm your mind and ease your spirit. It will quite literally ground you and from there, you’ll find that anything is possible.