By Helen Carmichael
Many autistic people have intense and highly-focused interests, often from a fairly young age. These can change over time or be lifelong. It can be art, music, trains, computers, car registration numbers, bus or train timetables, postcodes, table tennis…An interest in collecting is also quite common.
Autistic people often report that the pursuit of such interests is fundamental to their wellbeing and happiness.
I have a dawning realization that I can communicate with plants.
This makes me either deluded or a shaman. Or perhaps a typical human who is just remembering things, things that we all used to know.
I am walking through the meadow behind my house. I have crisscrossed these paths for years and have watched the same plants come back over several seasons, I should know them by now.
This morning I was searching for meadowsweet. I had seen the beginnings of a few fluffy lemon-coloured flowers beginning to open a day earlier. Many were still in bud. I wanted to check in on them – to tune in. The meadowsweet seemed always just out of reach, deep in a thicket of mugwort, hogweed and long grasses, or cut off from me by a ditch.
I walked on, noting the red clover at my feet. I had collected some yesterday to make a tincture. I placed the fluffy pink flower clusters in a small jar and covered them with vodka, sticking on a label with the date and phase of the moon. My herb craft instructor says this is important, as tinctures made at different moon phases may taste/act differently. We are learning how they act by testing them on ourselves, with a subjective curiosity rather than strict scientific rigor.
Having many years ago toiled in the labs to gain a chemistry degree, I remember that no matter how standardized the reagents, when it came to our individual experiments at the bench the results differed considerably. I frequently had to borrow samples or sets of figures for analysis from my bench companions because my crystals wouldn’t crystallize, my precipitate didn’t precipitate or some other intangible factor.
I was a lousy and sometimes dangerous practical chemist. But I was also curious about the village show effect: how come all the entrants are required to follow the same recipe, and yet the resulting sponge cakes or jams will vary enough to be judged?
Even standardized pharmaceutical medicines act differently depending on the individual – some very successful drugs only have the desired effect on 30 or 40 percent of those who take them. A few people will experience unacceptable side effects, while others will take a drug for years with no issues at all. And so, with the tinctures – a drop on the tongue and I close my eyes. What do I feel?
The eastern, yogic concept of chakras comes to my mind when I think of how the tinctures act on me: I feel this one in my throat; now this plant awakens my solar plexus. There are subtle mental effects, which can only be described in the terms of meditation: I feel grounded; I am rooted in the earth. I am opening, shifting. I am in an altered state of consciousness. All this from one drop; the essence of a plant captured in alcohol.
In the meadow it is a muggy, cool kind of day and the meandering river Asker winds sluggish, deeply carved and silty, graced with a pair of darting fish. I follow the meanders of a dirt path no wider than my two feet with knee-brushing plant life on either side.
I feel peaceful; the air is thick and undisturbed. I barely see the other walkers. I feel no human connection because I feel connected to the plants, to the ground, to the land. I have sought this feeling so often in my life in both country and city; to still my mind I simply walk, walk on the earth, and connect with my surroundings.
Finally, I walk under the gnarled hawthorn I know well, which guards the path with a brooding, magical energy in all seasons. I have steeped her haws in sweet brandy several times, and always stop and look up. The hawthorn gives off one of the same chemicals as a corpse, as she is pollenated by flies. The May blossom is over now and tiny green haws are beginning to appear, unripe among the fresh green leaves.
Some other hawthorns I’ve bumped into recently have given me bossy instructions, often regarding other plants. How? When I stand near one or touch it, a strong thought, picture, or even a whole story pops into my head. It is usually very clear and decisive.
As a former scientist one part of my mind wants to sweep this away as mere fancy. But the part of my brain that later went on to study sociology and the history of science is slightly warier of reductionism: the oversimplification and focus on single components working in isolation that is one of the pillars of empiricism. I do not stop at my skin, I am part of an ecosystem. I choose to be open to signals from the environment of which I am part.
In over 40 years of living, my instincts and hunches have often proved to be correct. And in any case, I was a terrible scientist. I am re-learning that I have highly tuned senses and often notice things that other people don’t (one label I carry for this is “autism”).
Finely tuned, highly strung, and often out of step with other humans – my focus, attention and imagination when it comes to my environment are actually skills. I have been fighting a strange inner battle around trying to fit in my whole life, but lately I’m letting go. I am letting the wilderness take over.
I lean in, and listen to the hawthorn.
Helen Carmichael is a video game designer. She works with her husband in their small company, Grey Alien Games, and has done a fair amount of PR dressed as a highwaywoman. Previously a science writer and editor, her writing on sensory experiences features in the autism anthology, Stim. Her interests include sustainable fashion and hedgerow herbalism.