How I became involved with people and plants.

Trees, and in particular the ancient woodland that surrounded the tiny cottage in Sussex that I grew up in, have had a profound influence on my life.

In 1970, when I was 15, the beautiful ancient wood that had seemed a part of me, that had helped shape my sense of who I am, that I loved like a parent - as deeply as it was possible to love anything - was cut down. The owner - in an act of bewildering environmental vandalism - began, one March day, when the sap was rising and the birds were in that keen phase prior to nesting, to clear fell over100 acres of deep, dark, ancient wood.

Having already done the same to various other areas of woodland that once formed an almost continuous belt between our cottage and the village of Balcombe, to the north east, the owner (ironically named Greenwood) was taking advantage of the government subsidies available at that time to grow conifers. I wish it had been a bad dream. Some 20 years later, when I moved back to the cottage after my parents' death, many of the conifers - in their ghastly, un-loved rows - were pathetic specimens, still struggling to come to terms with the Sussex clay that they should never have been planted in. The deciduous woodland that had nourished and nurtured so many species of plants and animals and insects - and me - whose presence has left an imprint in my soul, had had its heart ripped out.

At the age of 15, as a consequence, I felt bereft, bereaved, undermined, angry, lost, let down. I had been reading at that time, about the destruction of the Amazon and the report by the journalist Norman Lewis of the genocide that had been taking place there. Over the next two years, during the VI Form at school, I read more. It filled me with outrage and fury.

Knowing the anguish caused by the destruction of a wood which I felt part of but which I didn't actually need to survive, I could barely imagine the torment for so many of Amazonia's people, whose ancestral lands were being colonized, logged, burnt, mined, or turned into cattle pasture by waves of colonists, timber merchants, miners and ranchers in the wake of missionaries, oil prospectors and road-building crews.

I wanted to do something about it - try and do something to help the Indians' cause. I didn’t know how to help support and empower indigenous organizations directly or tackle the pervasive and institutionalized causes of their demise so I became a supporter of Survival International, which works to ensure the recognition of basic rights and in particular land rights which are absolutely fundamental to the self-determination that most Indians are still denied. But I was young and impatient and wanted to see things for myself. Since it seemed so difficult for the invasive outside world to respect the rights of Amerindians as people, like you or me, I thought that if I could only help demonstrate the complexity and sophistication of Amerindian knowledge, by explaining the relationship of a particular tribe with their rainforest environment, an environment whose very complexity and diversity had been shaped by them over millennia, it might help gain Amerindians enough respect to be left alone.

After some deliberation I decided to study Spanish and English at Birmingham University. This would enable me to do two things: firstly, live in Peru for a year, studying Quechua (the ancient Inca language) and visit the Peruvian Amazon, and secondly, formalize a love of literature, that would also I hoped, help qualify me to write.

At Birmingham I had the good fortune to be introduced to Professor Jack Hawkes, a biologist and pre-eminent expert on the potatoes of the Andes. Through him, it was arranged that I live in Cusco (for my year abroad of language study) with the family of his colleague, Peru's distinguished potato specialist Dr Cesar Vargas, and subsequently with the family of another botanist Dr Efrain Carillo.

Having saved enough money for the trip by working as a waitress in London, I flew to Georgetown in Guyana and then began an unforgettable journey overland to Peru, hitching lifts on boats and lorries down through the Amazon to Manaus, then, via Colombia, into Peru via Iquitos and eventually over the Andes in the back of a timber lorry to Lima, and finally on to Cusco.

My time in Cusco, between the summers of 1977 and 1978, enabled me to begin learning Quechua and to immerse myself in the world of Amerindian culture, especially the importance of the natural world and plants in particular, to indigenous peoples. Attendance at Cusco University was challenging - the teachers were almost constantly on strike - but I read a great deal (especially the work of Jose Maria Arguedas), travelled as much as I could, mostly by local bus or collectivo and made memorable trips to the rainforested fringes of the Lower Urubamba. The fantastic majesty of the landscapes, the kindness and sincerity of the people, the music and ritual, the legacy of pre-columbian knowledge and culture which lives on, made a profound impression on me.

After coming home to England and finishing my degree, I wanted to learn more. I applied to the Department for Latin American Linguistic Studies at St Andrews University to study indigenous South American languages and culture and began what was initially offered as a one year course, in 1979.

I came across old historical accounts of the Matsigenka - a tribe that I knew lived in the south-eastern Peruvian Amazon - and the importance of one particular plant to them: manioc, also known as cassava (or in Spanish yuca). Manioc, a starchy tuber, is the traditional staple food throughout Amazonia, but for the Matsigenka I read, it was 'sacred', revered above other plants, conferring a special status on those who ate it.

I wanted to see if this was still the case, to find out how these beliefs manifested themselves, to show how important one particular plant could be with regard to the identity of an indigenous people.

I had continued to read and hear of the endless incursions into indigenous territories by colonists of one sort or another and of the appalling proselytizing of mostly North American protestant missionaries. They were engaged in an ethnocidal policy of undermining and removing indigenous knowledge and culture by 'settling' Matsigenka around mission posts and 'interning' many of their children in mission schools at various locations along the Urubamba river. I wondered what had happened to their beliefs about manioc.

And so it was that I returned to Peru in the Autumn of 1981, and with help and advice from anthropologists working in the region, and CAAP, the Peruvian anthropological research organization, flew over the Andes to Satipo and from there in a tiny single-engined Cessna to Sepahua. I travelled up the Urubamba river for nearly a month by peke-peke (motorized dug-out canoe) visiting 9 Matsigenka communities, learning with their kind and patient help, as much as I could about the cultivation of manioc, the different varieties grown and the myth of its origin.

This journey was intended to be only a preliminary visit, enabling me to find a community to which I could return, with their permission, the following year, to carry out an in-depth study, but it was, by now, the beginning of rainy season - I had not realized how complicated it would prove to be to return to any of the communities I had just visited whilst the rains continued - a situation which could continue for two or three more months. After deliberation in Lima, I decided that the best plan would be to come back to England, and assess what I had done.

Once in the UK however, it became clear that it would be difficult to finance another trip out to Peru in the short term.

My supervisor at St. Andrews, the extraordinary and inspirational Professor Douglas Gifford, advised that I should write up my research, as it was, as an M.Phil. I took some time over this: a key part of my thesis involved the transcription and analysis of the myth - which recounts the origin of manioc - that I had recorded in both Spanish and Matsigenka, and with my limited knowledge of Matsigenka language, the work was complex.

'The Implications of manioc cultivation in the culture and mythology of the Machiguenga Indians of South Eastern Peru', was at last complete however, and I received my M.Phil in 1985.

The thesis had been for me, a major piece of work. I wanted to continue my involvement with indigenous rights and culture but needed a job. I had hoped to work for Survival International, but there was no money to pay extra staff at the time.

I worked for a while at the Hispanic & Luso Brazilian Council in London as Education Assistant. It was here that I learned that an Administrator was needed for the Cusichaca Project, an Anglo-Peruvian archaeological excavation near Machu Picchu in the Peruvian Andes. Keen to take any opportunity to return to Peru I applied for and got the job, and subsequently spent an extraordinary three months, living in an old army tent helping organize the logistics for the 50 or so volunteers working on the excavation of the site and the reconstruction of an ancient Inca irrigation canal.

Following this, back in England in 1986, I worked briefly in London as a translator, and for the Embassy of Ecuador and then for ‘Earthlife’ – a pioneering environmental organization, set up by Nigel Tuersley in 1980 - on its ‘Rainforest’ schools’ pack.

Later that year I and took part in an expedition to the Rio Mazan montane rainforest reserve in the Andes of southern Ecuador to conduct an ethnobotanical survey of the medicinal plants of the area and the beliefs local people held about them. The Rio Mazan project involved some 30 scientists in six months of ecological survey work, investigating and describing the forest’s main habitats and forest types, its flowering plants and ferns, and its animal life - bats, birds, freshwater and terrestrial invertebrates, mammals, reptiles and amphibians. My ethnobotanical study was part of a broader investigation into human interaction with the forest, which also included an environmental impact assessment and work on environmental education.

I made a collection of medicinal plants and artifacts associated with traditional healing (‘curanderismo’), for the Horniman Museum in south London and also donated a small number of botanical specimens to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

This was the beginning of my involvement with Kew – an involvement, I am happy to say, that has continued on and off, until the present day.

The following year, in 1987, I began to write articles about plants and people, for various publications, including BBC Wildlife Magazine, World Magazine, WWF News and the Italian magazine Scienza e Vita. But I needed more work and later that year began a brief but fascinating job as a botanical illustrator, working in the Herbarium at Kew for Dr Phillip Cribb on the orchids of Borneo.

It was at about this time that I met personnel from the Information & Exhibitions Division at Kew and was invited by its Head, Dr Brinsley Burbidge, to write 'Plants For People', a book which aims to show the general public just how much we all depend upon products from plants in our daily lives. With the generous help of the Kew staff I carried out the research from an office made available at Cambridge Cottage, within the Gardens. Together the research and writing took about two years and the book was published in 1990.

This is a long explanation of how, and why, I began researching and writing about the importance of plants to people – a subject that I’m still driven and inspired by everyday.