Reading nature

The idea of reading nature for signs is problematic in many ways. It can be a way of adding to the sense of separation of us, from nature, where nature is seen as one homogenous thing. ‘Nature’ as a word is a shorthand for many complex existences and interactions and we should be wary of reducing it to symbols and then reading it for insight into our personal lives. It’s not all about us.

However, there are ways in which we can meaningfully read the world around us. This takes a lot more work over the long term and is not as human-centric.

We can read the health of a place. Top level predators are a good indicator of the overall health of a system. Diversity is a good indicator as well. If a place lacks for diversity and there are no predators, help is required. We can also read the health of a place in terms of litter and obvious human damage. Again this should be read as a call for help.

We can read the seasons. There are natural shifts in how the seasons manifest from year to year, so just keeping up with that is an act of engagement. With climate change impacting on everything, it is a good idea to read those shifts for information about what’s working and what isn’t.

You can read for your own impact. Are there insects in your garden? If you don’t have a garden, what can you do to support insect populations? I managed to establish a pot garden, and it attracts and feeds bees, so I can watch it for a while and read it in this way, and think about how to develop it. You can read the birds who come to your garden for what they tell you about the wildlife you are supporting. If you have regular insect eaters, you are doing well for insects.

There are times when an understanding of wild things will mean you can read what’s coming. The way creatures get off a beach when there’s a tsunami on the way is a good case in point. Understanding how the living things around you respond to stuff you can’t detect can be a lifesaver in some contexts.

It is better to read nature for the things nature might be able to tell us about its many selves, than to read the wild world for what it can tell us about our own immediate concerns. And if you’re looking for contact with the numinous, for spiritual guidance, and for guides this is still the better place to start. The knowledge you build by reading this way will make you better able to see something out of the ordinary that may be more to do with spirit and less other living things getting on with their lives. Learning to read what’s around you for its own sake is a gesture of respect, which is a good opening move in a spiritual endeavour.

If there is one message that humans need to hear from nature right now, it is that we are not the only things that matter, it is not all about us, and we have to stop acting like it is.

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Softening the gaze

“Soften your gaze,” is something my Tai Chi teacher says most lessons. It took me a few weeks to work out that this is something I do in other contexts, and to realise why it is so important.

When I see other people out and about, they’re usually looking at something. It might be the phone in their hands, or the path in front of them, or the people they walk with. Our default is to look with intent and look at what we expect to see. There’s a great deal you don’t see when you have this kind of focus.

The soft gaze is part of how I walk. Unless I’m dealing with a section of challenging footing, I look around. It’s worth mentioning that most places round here, most of the time, are not hazardous underfoot. I don’t look for anything in particular which means my peripheral vision is operating. I see a lot of wildlife as I walk, and that softer gaze is a large part of why I’m able to do that. I know from walking with other people that I often see things they don’t because I’m not looking in the same way.

There are more layers to this, though. Softening your gaze means softening your attention. It means not being focused on something, and thus not being especially goal orientated. If you’re trying to achieve something, you focus on it. The soft gaze goes with reduced interest in achievement, and in a spiritual context that tends to be a better idea. Inspiration, a sense of the numinous and other spiritual experiences don’t come because we strain for them. Instead, they call for a gentle openness to possibility, and making room. The soft gaze is one way of making that space, hence the relevance for Tai Chi.

There’s a relaxed quality to not being too focused on anything. There’s no great push or drive going on. This alone can take us out of everyday mode and into other ways of thinking. Not having our eyes focused in the same way can open our minds up to less driven thinking. The mind wanders with the gaze, open to possibilities, and ready to stop and pay more attention if something invites that. Focus comes in when called for – to watch the deer or the butterflies, to appreciate a plant or the way light catches a leaf, or to stop for a view. It means being open to experiencing things I had not specifically expected. And then, letting go again and moving on.

If you have any visual capacity, how you undertake to look at things will inform what you feel about them. The soft gaze is kind and not especially judgemental. How you look also informs what you see. When we’re focused on specific things, we don’t see what we weren’t looking for – there’s some fantastic science out there about this. We tune out what we think is irrelevant information. The soft gaze has no assumption about relevance, and thus it opens up our perceptions and lets us experience what’s right there – the everyday beauty and magic that otherwise we may not notice.


Living without a fridge

I’ve mentioned many times that I live without a fridge or freezer. It’s not something everyone can do, but I thought it might be helpful to give a sense of the things that make this feasible. If you need a fridge to keep medicine, clearly this isn’t for you.

You need a cool box or other cool storage space – older houses sometimes have these. If you put frozen things in cool boxes, they can stay cool for some time (depending on outside temperatures and what else you have in the box).

I’m in the UK, which is cold or mild for most of the year. I manage in hot summers, but it can be a challenge. If you live somewhere really hot, this may be too difficult. However, it’s worth seeing what traditional solutions are/were for your part of the world.

I don’t think you can do this and store raw meat. If you are an omnivore and want to do without a fridge, you’d have to buy meat and cook it pretty much straight away. This is possible, but you’d have to be organised.

You can’t do big weekly shops in the way people do when they’re able to load up fridges and freezers. You have to buy less and more often and stay alert to what you have and how long it will keep. If you can’t do this without a lot of extra car use, it may not be a sensible trade-off.

This may seem counter-intuitive, but I hardly ever have food go off – I don’t buy things that won’t keep unless I’m intending to use them straight away.

Many things don’t need a fridge. You only need to refrigerate plant matter if it’s been cut already. Fruit and veg keep well. Dried goods – pasta, rice, oats, flour, beans and fruit etc do not need a fridge. Things in tins and jars do not need a fridge. Bread is perfectly happy in a cool box. Margarine, I have learned by experimentation, keeps a disturbingly long time. Mammal milk can be kept overnight if it’s not too hot. Plant milks will keep indefinitely when they haven’t been opened, and last a couple of days when open. Cheese bought in modest amounts will keep for a couple of days.

You can’t do a vast amount of storing leftovers for later use. If you need to prepare food in batches and store it, you can’t do it this way. If you live somewhere that makes bulk shopping/delivery a practical necessity, fridgelessness won’t work. If you are able to produce and store food you may find it makes more sense to have a freezer.

As with most questions of greener living, the answers are complicated and depend on other factors in your life. However, if you’re a vegetarian or vegan, or occasional meat eater, if you are urban living with easy access to food, and you can sort out your food on a day by day basis, you might not need a fridge. Doing without one can save space – a significant issue for those of us living in small spaces. It will save you money both on the fridge and the electricity it uses. Your reduced energy use, reduced materials use and reduced use of environmentally harming chemicals is all better for the environment. It’s not for everyone, but it might be for you!


Paganism and Self Care

There are a number of things about Pagan paths that can help us with self care and living in gentler, more viable ways.

Firstly, this is not a life-transcending path. We aren’t punishing our bodies for spiritual advancement. We don’t have traditions of self-harm as spiritual tools. If you look at the lives of our European Pagan ancestors you can see easily that the majority were after rich, joyful, rewarding, happy lives, with enough mead and merrymaking and art, and food and fun. To live as a Pagan is to live fully, while embracing what this life has to offer.

Secondly, this is not a martyrdom tradition. We do have our stories about dying heroically but there’s no sense that sacrificing yourself in some pointless way has any spiritual value in it.

Thirdly, our bodies are part of nature, and as followers of nature based religions, this is a good place to focus for matters of self care. If you aren’t caring for nature as it manifests in your own body, you’re missing a thing. Self care brings us to all the most fundamental things of our living bodies – sleep, food, water, rest, exercise, what kinds of physical contact we need, fresh air, tree time…

To care for your body, and to take care of nature as it manifests in your body, it is necessary to push back against pressure to work more, longer and harder. Earning more and consuming more won’t lead you towards self care. A quieter, simpler, more peaceful life where you can take care of your simplest needs is key. Slowing down, resting more, having more time for yourself is essential. If you are experiencing in-work poverty this can be a hard cycle to break, but if you can meet your basic needs plus some, it’s worth looking at whether the extra costs you more than it gives you.

There’s a beautiful circular-ness to all this. If we slow down to take better care of ourselves, we consume less. A gentler life is almost guaranteed to be a life of lower carbon consumption. When we take care of nature within ourselves we are likely to change our lives in ways that take care of nature outside of ourselves. Every time you walk instead of driving, you benefit your body and the natural world. Every time you eat raw plant matter, or drink water rather than fizzy pop from a bottle, or sleep rather than staying up late staring at screens, all of nature is served by this.

When you shift your life so that you honour nature in yourself, and thus take better care of nature around you, it moves you a lot closer to living as a full time Pagan.


How community sustains us

I was in Wakefield over the weekend for a Pagan Federation conference. It turned out to be – as these things so often are – a significant learning opportunity for me. I had a number of conversations about how we square up to climate crisis, how we cope and keep going and avoid being overwhelmed by panic and despair.

The answer for me is community. Those conversations made me realise just how blessed I am in where I live and who I work with. Stroud’s District Council has not only declared that there is a climate emergency, but it is also working to make the whole district carbon neutral by 2030. That’s a massive and ambitious plan, and exactly what’s needed right now. It’s easier to feel hopeful when you can see people with the power to make larger scale changes getting involved.

I also have Transition Stroud – which involves hundreds of local people working for sustainability. It’s a hands-on community that pushes for grass roots change. It is hard slogging away at personal change when you feel like no one else cares and your change makes so little difference. When you have a community working towards sustainability, you can start to see how those individual changes stack up into bigger changes. There’s scope to inspire more people and draw them in.

On top of this, I’m a long standing supporter of The Woodland Trust and I also do some volunteering for them. Trees can do so much to help us deal with climate crisis. They lock up carbon, they can reduce flooding if planted in the right places, they’re good for human mental health and they support biodiversity and help protect the soil. Supporting The Woodland Trust means I’m contributing on a national scale as well. There are many charities and organisations working for the good of the land and for wildlife – supporting any of them will give you similar experiences.

When we are connected with other, Likeminded people, we have the power to do more. We can inspire and uplift each other, hold each other accountable and keep each other going. Look around and see what already exists in your area – better to join something heading the right way than start from scratch. If there is truly nothing, then it may fall to you to start the process – but you will not be the only one. People who want radical change are everywhere, often trying to figure out what to do and where to start if nothing is yet moving.


Dreaming your full time Pagan Life

What we do is informed by what we dream. That’s true of our daydreaming, and or our less intentioned night dreaming. What we absorb resurfaces in our desires to shape our intentions and our actions. Magic is all about will, but will is informed by many things we might not be aware of. Take a step back from your intent to check where it comes from and what’s feeding it.

Make time to dream your Pagan life. This is especially important if you can’t meditate or don’t have time for a daily Pagan practice. Make time – whatever time you can – to just sit down and daydream. I recommend a plant or a good window view or a nice outdoors setting for company if you can. Failing that, some Pagan art, your oracle cards, a crystal – anything that gives you a bit of Pagan-flavoured headspace. Imagine what it would be like to live a totally Pagan life.

What would you eat? What would you wear? What would your sleeping arrangements be like? What would your job be? How would you pay your bills? How would you get around? What would your family life be like? What would you do in your time off? And how would your spiritual practice fit in to all of this?

If you work with guides, gods or any other spiritual forces, you can invite them in on this process. Ask for guidance. Ask for inspiration. Keep doing it in whatever moments you can find and see what emerges. Find out what you really want from a full time Pagan life. Explore it imaginatively. Play with ideas – your first impulse is not necessarily your best one, you may need to dig in a bit.

Now, here’s the fun bit. There’s no direct action stage here. Just keep dreaming. Except that all our ideas are born of dreams and imaginings, and that what we invest energy in shapes us. You may feel moved to run out and make radical changes – feel free, it’s your life. You may not feel able to, you may not be able to see how to get to your dreams from where you are now. But, as you go along, your dream infused life will change, because you will make small, every day choices based on those dreams. The odds are it won’t be the dramatic shifts that really count in the long run – it will be the small, every day things that change everything. It usually is.

Dream who you want to be. Dream the life you want. Dream how best to manifest your Paganism in your life. I don’t particularly believe that like attracts like, or that what we focus on, we get. But I do know that what we think about colours every experience. How we think shapes our perceptions. What we focus on, we invest in. So often, things we are not conscious of get the steering wheel in our minds and lives – it’s the expectation of this that underpins every single advert you encounter. Take back your dreaming. Change everything.


The Pragmatic Animist

I’m not much of an evangelist, but today I would like to persuade you to take an animist approach to life. Not necessarily to believe in animism, but to make the pragmatic decision to act as though you do.

Western humans have become far too prone to treating the world like a bunch of objects that exist for our convenience. We collectively treat the rest of life as resources to exploit. We don’t respect life, and we do not consider that other living things have any right to autonomy, or any feelings about their lives that might matter. The factory farmed animal in a tiny pen, turned into a food producing machine for humans, is a case in point.

Our human-centric view of the world is destroying the world we live in. To survive and thrive, we need to adopt more sustainable perspectives. This is where I think the case for pragmatic animism comes in. If you assume that everything around you could have ideas, intentions, preferences, feelings and so forth, it’s a lot harder to treat these individuals as objects and resources.

Here we simply sidestep the question of which living things have which kinds of thoughts, feelings and experiences. (I think this is the clever bit.) Reject that whole line of questioning. It is enough to consider that anything else you are dealing with could be aware and purposeful. Currently we are most willing to give care and rights to things we see as most like us – although not reliably then. We prioritise thinking and feeling in other beings even though we have little scope to measure or understand it.

Whether we can prove that something non-human thinks and feels is less important than how we behave if we adopt the idea that thinking and feeling are options. If you treat everything as though it exists in its own right and does not exist purely to answer some need of yours, you treat everything with greater respect. The pragmatic animist has reasons to seek co-operative solutions that serve life, not merely human life. It creates a context for not putting human wants centre stage all the time.

It’s a curious irony that our survival as a species won’t depend – as we’ve long imagined – on our out-competing everything else, but on our ability to support and nurture life. Survival of the fittest, going forwards, will not be about the human conquest of the natural world, but our ability to learn to live in balance, harmony and peacefully, with more care and respect.


Druidry, language, the good and the bad

How we label things has a great deal of power. What do we name as desirable, attractive, appealing? What do we tell ourselves is rubbish, useless, second rate? That winter holiday in the sun is generally framed as ‘good’ along with long dry spells in summer. What would happen if we stopped calling long sunny spells ‘beautiful’ and started calling them ‘droughts’?

In the context of climate change, how we talk about the weather is ever more important. Firstly because we are causing weather extremes, and secondly because how we respond to those, can add to the problem. Jetting off in search of winter sun is a case in point here. I grant you, it’s no fun being cold, but if you can afford to fly, you can probably afford fluffy socks and sufficient heating.

Air conditioning with its hydrofluorocarbons and electricity use is a response to hot weather that adds to the climate change fuelling the hot weather. No one enjoys being hot but the question of when to start using energy to cool down, and how much energy to use is an important one.

Extreme heat and cold both kill people, and other living beings too. If we’re increasing the problem when we try to improve our own comfort, we really aren’t winning here.

To be a Druid means, in part to be in service to the land and the wild world. How exactly you phrase that and express it will vary, but this is nature based religion and we have a duty of care to the natural world. It’s also at this point a matter of enlightened self interest – if it was your personal home that could easily end up either on fire, or frozen, you would act to avoid that.

One of the ways in which Druidry, and Paganism as a whole is well placed to help people rethink climate change responses, is through the language of cycles. Accepting the wheel of the year, the seasons and the natural changes in weather makes us better able to live with them. If you are honouring the seasons, it gives you a better basis for working with how things are. Rather than seeing good and bad weather, we can just see weather and look for appropriate responses. We can reframe good weather as weather we can live with, and bad weather as extreme weather that can kill us. If we talk about the dramatic weather climate change is causing, that alone helps. So many people are still in denial about both our role in this and our power to change it.

It’s worth exploring how you talk about climate, and where you describe things as good or bad, problematic or desirable. It’s well worth looking at how our feelings about the weather then translate into our choices about technology we use, and carbon we release into the atmosphere.


Gender education

We’ve had issues in the UK for some time now about parents wanting their kids not to be exposed to LGBTQ information at school. Some teachers appear not to be keen either. Today I want to talk about what happens when we let kids grow up thinking that straight if the normal default.

I assume there are a subset of people who believe if you tell your kid that gay is a thing, it will turn them gay. If they don’t know, they’ll be straight. This is a perspective that assumes gay is a deviance that a person chooses, and can choose not to be. There are of course people who can choose – we’re called bisexuals, and we are often made invisible, even to ourselves.

A young person who does not know LGBTQ people exist may go through childhood aware they are out of kilter with people around them. They have no words for this. They will feel isolated, lonely, lost and all kinds of other distress. Eventually they will figure out who they are. Rather than growing up feeling secure and validated, they grow up without that. That’s a cruel thing to do to a child. Our sexual identities start to show up pre-puberty. No one should be frightened by the nature of their childhood crushes.

If queer is so abnormal you can’t talk about it, the suspicion of queerness becomes grounds for bullying.

If you grow up straight, with straight being treated like the only option, you’ll likely give little thought to your orientation. Straight kids don’t have to come out to their parents as straight. Now, if we bring kids up aware of diversity, they may all have to look at themselves along the way and figure out who they are. No one is default normal any more, and no one is the weird outsider, and everyone has to give it some thought – that’s a much more level playing field.

There seems to be an unspoken assumption that straight kids who get to grow up feeling normal and never having to come out to anyone are advantaged – and indeed in some ways they are. But it also has a price tag, and that price tag is never having to think about who you are. I think there are a lot of benefits in asking questions. I also think there are bisexuals who are pushed into straight identities because they have no idea who they are. And if straight is normal and queer is deviant and you can pass as normal if you hide part of yourself – this is not a good way to live.

Kids are not led astray by knowing more about the breadth of human possibility. You don’t turn people gay by telling them that gay exists. What you do is save them from having to live either as outsiders, or trying to fake being something they are not. Anyone who thinks heterosexuality is so fragile that it can only be maintained by never letting children know about the other stuff, doesn’t really believe that being straight is as natural and normal as they make out. I wonder, with great discomfort, how many of the most vocal people protesting that kids who know about LGBTQ will be corrupted by it, are in fact bisexual people who have been cultured to hate part of themselves. As a bisexual person, this makes me uncomfortable, but we are the people who can choose whether to get into a queer relationship. It’s not a choice for other people. Just us.

If you are a straight person who has chosen to be straight, because you could have gone the other way, you aren’t straight. You’re bisexual and you’ve made choices.


Avoiding an echo chamber

We seem to be increasingly polarised these days. One of the ways in which the more antisocial and unpleasant factions get themselves into the debate is by telling the rest of us that if we don’t listen to them, we aren’t tolerant, and we’re just in an echo chamber. It’s a set of arguments that open hearted, well meaning people can find it hard to resist. I’ve talked about tolerance before – here’s one of those https://druidlife.wordpress.com/2016/12/03/abusing-your-tolerance/ An it harm none, do what you will – no tolerance required. If you cause harm, I’m not going to tolerate you.

As for the echo chamber, I think it needs poking. When we engage in discussion or conversation with others, we legitimise them. Now, I will cheerfully talk to people of other religious backgrounds, different cultures, different ages – there’s all kinds of ways of being open to different perspectives. If your perspective is well meant but different to mine I will listen to you and try to learn from you. If what you do is destructive, harmful, or intending to harm others or the planet, I really don’t care what you think. I don’t want to engage climate change deniers in debate because that’s acting like I take them seriously. I feel the same way about fascists. I simply want to thwart this where I can.

It’s usually (in my experience) folk on the far right who use the echo-chamber argument to try and get themselves a place at the table. As though there’s them, and the rest of us, two groups only, two perspectives and that to ignore them is to only listen to people you agree with. The world is bigger than this, it is more diverse and more complex. I can explore a great deal of diversity without having to engage with people whose notions I consider totally unacceptable.

Let’s take hunting as a case in point. I’m not personally in to hunting – I’m a vegetarian. I know many people who hunt for the pot, which I take no issue with. I know people who fly birds of prey – again this doesn’t bother me. I’ve had all kinds of interesting conversations with people who hunt in these ways. I would not accept as a friend someone who hunted foxes from horseback because it is a cruel and appalling business and I have no interest in the justifications. I equally have no interest in the opinions of people who burn moorlands to raise grouse, and who raise obscene numbers of pheasants in order to kill them for amusement and leave their bodies to rot. These behaviours are reprehensible, and I have zero interest in why people might defend these actions. I do not think I owe it to them to hear them out.

Cars are another case in point. I’m anti- cars, as regular readers will know. But at the same time, many people are trapped in car use and would like to burn less fuel and use fewer resources but the whole way their lives are set up and the physical structures of the places they live and work make it nigh on impossible. These are conversations we can have – I want to hear about those obstacles, and I want to offer what solutions I can, and I think we’re all better off for talking to each other.

I’m a finite person with limited time. I want to have the conversations that are of most use. I can’t afford the time or energy getting bogged down in the opinions of people whose behaviour I find unacceptable. I don’t need to know what the justifications of white terrorists are. I don’t need that in my head and knowing it won’t enable me to do anything better, and it certainly won’t help me change their minds. We’re all finite. It’s essential to experience different perspectives but I think it’s also good and necessary to protect ourselves from perspectives that can only make us miserable and to step back from conversations that are clearly pointless. Trust that if you mean well, you’ll do a decent job, and that you do not owe it to every single person who wants your time to give that to them unconditionally. You do not owe it to anyone to hear their view. It is a gift you can choose to give. Do not be persuaded through the idea of the echo chamber that you have to take on things you cannot bear or that will harm you.