Seasonal wandering and snowdrops

This is a difficult time of year for walking. Footpaths through fields and woods are muddy, which can make them slippery and treacherous. For anyone less than perfectly confident on their feet, this kind of walking condition can be really off-putting. Add to that the unpredictable weather conditions, the cold, the potential for ice, or for rain turning into ice as it hits the ground, and it really isn’t walking season. Shorter days in terms of light also make longer walks less feasible.

However, walking is what I do to commune with nature, it is a big part of my spiritual life, so even in January when it’s cold I need to get out. I’m lucky in that there’s a lot of canal towpath in Stroud, and a good length of cycle path – both of which are reasonably passable in all weathers. There’s also a fair amount of lanes in villages around the town, so winter road walking is an option.

Lane walking is a bit of a mixed bag. On the whole lanes are good because they take you through the countryside without requiring you to tackle a mudslick at any point. Predictable footing is worth a lot. Mostly lanes are quiet, and you can hear vehicles coming. However, close encounters with passing tractors can be unnerving, and all it takes is one idiot racing round the bends at high speed to make it a dangerous place to be. Having done years of walking and cycling in country lanes, I remain unscathed, but I’ve been worried a few times.

The margins of lanes tend to be good places for wildflowers throughout the year. That starts now, with snowdrops putting up leaves and already flowering along the lane margins.

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What makes me female?

To the best of my knowledge, I have been identified as female from the moment of my birth. At that point, it was the absence of a penis and balls that defined my gender. What is it that makes me a woman? It’s a question I’ve been asking a lot. I have a body that looks female, (I have breasts, hips and so forth) I have given birth to a child, I have lactated. But the inside of my head has a lot of difficulty with a female gender identity, and certainly doesn’t want a male gender identity either.

Do my breasts make me female? Obviously not, because women can have mastectomies and still be female.

Does my womb make me female? Again, a hysterectomy does not cause a woman to stop being a woman, so clearly that isn’t it.

Does my capacity to have babies make me female? No, because not all women are able to carry a child to term, or even to conceive. The possibility of reproduction cannot therefore be the defining quality.

Does my genitalia make me female? I think not, because many gender-ambiguous babies have been mutilated to give them the appearance of femininity even when the internal body parts don’t support that appearance at all. Genitals cannot therefore be the defining thing either.

It can’t be my chromosomes, because XXY is also a thing. A person may appear XX but also have a Y in there.

It definitely can’t be my brain structure because the inside of my head is undoubtedly the least gender-conforming bit of me.

Equally, a man who loses his penis or balls to accident or illness is still a man. A man who carries enough fat on his body to have something resembling breasts, is still a man.

How do we know? How much of gender is what we agree to present to the world and how we agree to read those presentations? If you give children the same sorts of haircuts and put them in gender-neutral clothes, it can be very hard to identify their genders just by looking at them. As adults, some of us remain able to pass ourselves off as the gender we don’t normally present as, or to confuse anyone looking at us.

Historically, gender has been very much tied up with power and with who can do what. However, if you have equality, do you need easy visual guides to gender? Do you need gender identity? I’m increasingly inclined to think that the answer is no. Which would leave us representing ourselves visually as the kind of people we our – practical, sensual, sporty, outdoorsy, arty, delicate, powerful… whatever you want to be, with no assumption of any ‘natural’ relationship between how you look and what you’ve got in your pants.


Minimising with Liam Neeson

Trigger warnings – sexual assault.

Minimising is a tactic used by abusers, and apologists for abusers to facilitate abuse. It’s a simple method, and involves downplaying what’s going on. You’re making a fuss. It was just a little push. Recently, actor Liam Neeson has put himself forward to minimise the accusations of sexual abuse in the film industry. He’s quoted as saying “there’s some people, famous people, being suddenly accused of touching some girl’s knee, or something, and suddenly they’re being dropped from their program, or something.” He also called unwanted breast touching “childhood stuff”.

There are many accusations out there of serious sexual misconduct. So, by reducing it to ‘touching some girl’s knee’ Neeson dismisses the nastier stuff without even mentioning them. That doesn’t exist in his world. We are also to note that the victim is ‘some girl’ while ‘famous people’ are important men. People are men. Women are non-people in this quote. The victim is of no consequence, the perpetrator matters. That a ‘person’ is dropped from their program is presented to us as more important than that the non-person, the woman, has been assaulted.

The idea that unwanted touching of knees or breasts is no big deal also acts to minimise. As though the female body is something that doesn’t merit protection from minor infringements. It was just a knee, just a breast. Nothing that mattered. Once you’ve made most of a person’s body irrelevant, it gets a lot easier to say ‘it was just your ass, what’s the big deal?’ It was only a quick hand up her skirt. It was only, it was just. She’s only an irrelevant girl after all.

There’s a gaslighting aspect to all this. If you assault someone and then tell them, and everyone else that it definitely wasn’t an assault, it was a small, insignificant thing, that’s really disorientating. If you tell your victim that they’re being silly, over reacting, making a fuss, blowing it out of all proportion, it makes it harder for them to protest. If you have the power to get the message to victims and potential victims that touching a girl or woman without consent is no big deal, you make it harder for them to speak up in the first place. You make them feel crazy and to blame if they take issue with what’s being done to their bodies.

People who touch without consent, and keep doing it, are invasive and disturbing. It is an act of power over someone to be able to force contact onto them that they do not want. Even ‘little’ acts of knee touching fall into this category. If you are not allowed to say no, if you are not allowed to decide who can touch you and who can’t, then you don’t own your body. The person touching it owns it. That’s an awful, awful place to be.

Watch out for how people use ‘just’ and ‘only’ to try and underplay what’s going on. Watch for the flow of power in a situation. And watch out for the people – usually men – who do this kind of shit, and who defend it, because they are not good people. People who minimise abuse are defending abusers and facilitating abuse, and you certainly can’t trust them to respect anyone else’s body, either.


Building a better world – art and activism

Last week someone responded to my blog about what’s happening in modern Druidry by saying that we don’t need more books, we need more activism. My knee jerk reaction (as someone who writes books and gets involved with activism) is that of course we need both.

I’ve seen comments from people who are far more involved with activism than I will ever be, saying how much they appreciate good books to escape into, and other nourishing forms of art. I’ve done enough campaigning to know that it is gruelling, it wears you down emotionally, you get exhausted. If all you do is fight, you can lose track of the good things that you were fighting for, becoming totally focused on what you’re fighting against. That makes it really hard to stay motivated and keep going. Sometimes it means becoming the thing you were trying to replace.

One of the big questions when dealing with any cause, is how to get more people involved. How do you make them care enough to take action? How do you get them to change day to day life choices if you are an environmental campaigner? How do you persuade them that your cause is the one they should give their money to? Hard hitting, emotionally affecting campaigns can have the effect of shutting people down and driving them away. Who can face looking at another lost and starving child, another brutalised animal, another grim and traumatic outcome of human behaviour? How many of those can you bear to see before you start tuning out?

To make change, you have to believe that change is possible. You need hope, optimism and a sense of the possible good outcomes that can be achieved through your actions. It is better to inspire and uplift people into action than to frighten or depress them. People who believe in their own power can and will act. People who feel powerless in the face of all that is wrong, give up. Stories, songs, art – expressions of hope and possibility – help people to change things.

We need stories. We need stories about things that worked out ok, or better. We need stories about how much better things could be. We need things that feed our souls so that we are fighting for something, not merely grinding ourselves down against the vastness of all that is wrong. For some people, the comfort of a spiritual book is a real boon in this context as well. Guidance on how to uphold the spiritual side of your life, and the inspiration to do so, can be a real blessing. Something to hang on to when the world is breaking your heart, something to bring your grief to, and somewhere to seek sustenance.

For some people, spiritual practice is what makes it all bearable and possible. For some people, it’s escapist fantasy fiction. For some of us, it’s music, dancing, or walking, or bird watching or any number of other things. It is important to stay human, and to do the things that fill us with joy and hope.

If you want to do your art and activism at the same time, watch out for Share the Love in February – raising awareness of climate change.


The Soil Never Sleeps – a review

This is a poetry collection like nothing I have ever read before, and I’ve read a fair amount of poetry over the years. Poet Adam Horovitz visited pasture farms through the seasons. There were four farms in different parts of the UK, and the visits were in spring, autumn, winter and then summer, which is reflected in the structure of the book. This is poetry that goes far beyond the usual picturesque treatments of landscape. This is nature writing that goes far beyond what nature writing normally does. Intense, personal, specific and powerful, this is a truly remarkable book and one of those rare texts I think everyone should read.

The pasture farms in question all seek to work in harmony with the land, the soil, the grass, and as a consequence these are landscapes full of wildlife as well as the sheep and cows the farms focus on. It’s a demonstration of what small scale, responsible animal rearing means. This was entirely beyond my experience, and I learned a lot in practical terms. We don’t have a pristine landscape untouched by humans here in the UK, we have a landscape informed by thousands of years of human activity – including grazing herds. It’s something that can be done well, and there are many species that have evolved to exist in our meadows and pastures, if we don’t force them out.

There’s nothing preachy about these poems. Adam tells stories of life on the land, creatures encountered, experiences in landscapes, stories of soil and grass and bramble. Those stories invite us to see the pasture in an entirely new way, and that’s really exciting. It’s an eye opener.

Adam is certainly one of my favourite poets. His work is lyrical, emotionally affecting (but never heavy handed) reflective, and engaging. He’s always accessible. You don’t need to have read anything else, or studied anything. I’ve been in the fortunate position of hearing some of these poems read out loud, and they can be absorbed in a single hearing. You don’t have to sweat over the page to make sense of them. At the same time, the poems reward repeat encounters, opening up to you as you revisit them, as a friend might. It’s beautiful work.

I really appreciated the way in which these poems are so absolutely specific to time and place, to people and to creatures who emerge from the text as distinct individuals. This isn’t nature as backdrop. Nor is it nature or landscape as some kind of metaphor for inner human experiences. These are songs of soil and sheep, of cows and seasons, and as they unfold, they teach you why it is not enough to see landscape as backdrop and wildlife as metaphor. It’s a powerful, magical act of re-enchantment and of re-engagement with the world.

Adam has a rare knack for taking the language of the every day and making it sing, putting depth and meaning into words we may have become complacent about. Showing us how our own, every day language might be imbued with grace and substance.

The final section of the poems is the most overtly political, reflecting on the poet’s experience of land and farming, and the wider world. I think that’s vital at the moment. We can’t separate the personal from the political, or the land from the lawmakers intent on ravaging is as a resource. It is so easy to get demoralised about these thing, but Adam chooses to uplift and inspire, and we need more of this.

Listen to a poem here – https://soundcloud.com/resoundradio2017/adam-horovitz-the-soil-never-sleeps 

Buy the book here (and other places!) https://www.amazon.co.uk/Soil-Never-Sleeps-Poems-Horovitz/dp/1911587056


Toxic female – asking for it

I’m exploring the things that women do to other women that hold us all back and keep us down. Today I want to talk about body shaming, slut shaming and how we give each other toxic ideas about consent.

Women can be very quick to blame other women for sexual abuse and harassment. Choices of clothes, makeup, shoes and how a woman presents are long standing targets. There’s a long history on calling a women ‘no better than she should be’ – being a roundabout way to slut shame another woman. It has been women, historically, who have particularly alienated from their social circles the ‘fallen’ women, where men with mistresses and illegitimate children never faced the same consequences.

Clothing, hair, shoes and makeup are never a person’s consent. No one gives sexual consent to a total stranger or a passing acquaintance, or even a friend or a boyfriend by wearing clothes. Or not wearing clothes. No one is asking for it. And yet, I saw only last week a whole bunch of women on facebook agreeing that a topless woman was just asking to be groped by a stranger and that it was her fault for not covering up.

When we make male behaviour about female clothes choices, what we tell each other is that men can’t control themselves. It’s a pretty shitty attitude to men. We teach our daughters to cover up, look demure and not act sexy so as to avoid rape and other assaults, when we do not tell our sons not to assault women. If a woman is sexy, we blame her for any negative consequences that can be associated with that. I think this is because there can be a tendency to give jealousy a lot of room in these situations. So often it seems to be women who do not suit the conventional male gaze shaming and blaming women who do. But that keeps it all about the male gaze, and doesn’t get us talking about healthier and broader takes on beauty and not making invisible women who are not young and curvy.

We tell stories about women who we think have slept their way to career advances. We haven’t told stories about male abuses of power, but about women using their sexuality to get results. Those stories need to change, and I think they are changing.

We tell stories that suggest we don’t have the right to own our own bodies.

The thing about covering up is, remember what happened with the Victorians. Swathe a woman in fabric, and suddenly a flash of ankle becomes the erotic focus of the male gaze, and the woman who shows too much ankle is just asking for it and is no better than she should be. The problem is not what we wear – no matter what we wear. The problem is that the female body is sexualised, and treated as an object. So long as we keep telling each other that women who get attacked were asking for it, we let this sort of thing continue unchallenged.


A Steampunk Manifesto

Something cheering today, I thought! I first heard this piece in Lincoln last summer, and it was a wild blast of a performance full of mirth and enthusiasm. What’s below is A steampunk manifesto, not a definitive work. It’s more of an invitation, I feel, for people to go away and think about what their own steampunk manifesto would look like. Or their Pagan manifesto, or anything else they wanted to write an impassioned declaration about.

 

 

You can find Kevan Manwaring over here – https://thebardicacademic.wordpress.com

And you can find the manifesto on Tom’s Etsy page, along with other originals and posters that we will send to you in exchange for money.  https://www.etsy.com/uk/listing/583729847/steampunk-manifesto?ref=shop_home_active_2

(We will later exchange said money for foodstuffs, art supplies, coffee and a steady supply of presentable trousers).


Rest, action and illness

When ‘normal’ people are ill or tired, they rest. What do you do if ill and/or exhausted are your normal condition? I go round this one a lot, and while I’m not able to offer definitive answers, I think there’s mileage to be had in framing the questions and possible answers.

Rest helps us recover faster from illness. Not resting when ill not only slows recovery, but also undermines mental health.

However, being physically active helps move the blood and lymph fluids about, which can also help. Too much inaction leaves us with weakened muscles, reduced stamina, less healthy hearts. Not moving much can also make mental health issues worse. Physical activity is encouraged as an answer to depression and anxiety. Being as fit as you can be helps you stay resilient.

Except if you always hurt and you never have much energy, being active is hard. It isn’t easy to tell if a sudden loss of energy is because you have energy issues, or because you are coming down with some simple ailment like the flu. If you are used to pushing to get things done it can be hard to work out when not pushing is the better answer.

Depression causes loss of energy. Depression is a common consequence of living with long term pain and illness. It isn’t easy to separate the heavy lethargy of depression from the physical experiences you may be having.

It is easy to get into unhelpful cycles. If you push all the time to keep going, you learn to ignore what your body tells you. You become alienated from your body and fight against it continually. You don’t notice when things go wrong that need some response other than pushing harder. This puts you at risk. Perhaps in the end you run out of the will to keep pushing yourself onwards all the time. That can be very hard to recover from.

If you rest too much, you lose, or do not develop physical strength, stamina and co-ordination. Depression may increase. Increasing your feelings of lethargy. You feel powerless, you may feel increasingly intimidated by the idea of trying to do anything. You may just keep spiralling down in this way until you aren’t really living your life at all.

There’s no simple solution to this that I can see. Listening to your body is good and so is trusting your body, but depression and exhaustion don’t make you into a good listener. Often the opposite. Other people will have advice for you, maybe some of them will think they know what you need better than you know. Sometimes they may be right, but not always. Other people will have magic cures and absolute certainties for things that will change everything – but your body is unique and what worked for one person is not guaranteed to work for you.

There are no simple answers. Keep questioning. Keep trying things. Don’t give up on yourself. You may never be able to get so that your body works in the way a normal body is assumed to work, but that’s not the only good outcome available. You can find combinations that serve you best, and that improve your quality of life and you can do it on your own terms.


What’s new in Druidry?

The developments in witchcraft at the moment seem really exciting to me, looking at them from the outside. Kitchen witchcraft. Fairy Witchcraft. Urban witchcraft. Traditional Witchcraft. I see people drawing on folklore, literature and tradition, and I see people innovating, experimenting and exploring their own ideas, and I see that being brought together to create something vibrant and very alive.

I was excited about Emma Restall Orr’s work some ten years ago and more, breaking away from male stereotypes in Druidry to find something wilder and more feminine. I was very excited about the Contemplative Druidry movement. I am excited about what Julie Brett has done exploring Australian Druidry. I hope we’ll see more Druids around the world finding ways to do Druidry that are about their immediate experience of landscape. But beyond that, things seem quiet to me at the moment. People whose ideas I was really interested in seem to be moving away from Druidry as an identity. I’m short of new Druid books that I’m keen to get my hands on.

It may be that I’m just not looking in the right places. So, if you’re doing something, or know about something interesting happening in contemporary Druidry, do please leave a comment. If you’ve got a blog or a book about modern Druidry, please give yourself a plug!

Traditions have to be living traditions. We breathe life into them with action and innovation. Ten years ago or so it felt like Druidry as a concept could fly apart because so many people were trying to do it in so many different ways and no one knew what was right. There seemed to be more heresy than orthodoxy, and that was fun. It doesn’t feel like we’ve settled down into something calmer and more clearly defined. It feels like we’ve lost something. Perhaps it’s just me.


The Northern Forest

The Woodland Trust, alongside The Community Forest Trust are undertaking to plant 50 million trees over 25 years to create a forest in the North of England. There’s details and a map on this website – https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/blog/2018/01/new-northern-forest/

The government are investing £5.7 million in this scheme. However, it doesn’t let them off the hook for loss of ancient forests elsewhere. It concerns me that politicians don’t seem to grasp what a wood actually is. A wood is more than just planting some trees. If you plant trees in what was previously a field, unless that field was itself ancient woodland within the last fifty years, you probably just get trees in a field. You don’t get a wood. If your field is right next to an established wood, this can also work. A woodland is also the low to the ground plants, the fungi in the soil, the birds, insects, animals. You can’t offset the cutting down of ancient woodland.

I’ve seen trees planted in fields, and they do not feel like woods. They are missing much of what makes a wood into a wood.

Given the scale of The Northern Forest it is clearly going to have sections next to existing woods, allowing the expansion of habitat for woodland plants and creatures. With the twenty five year time scale, there’s every reason to think this can be done in a way that expands existing woodland, rather than just sticking trees in fields.

I’m excited to see people in the UK talking about tree planting as a way to deal with flooding. We send experts to developing countries to tell them to grow trees on high ground to better manage rainwater, but in the UK too much of our high ground has grouse moors on it. I wonder how much land currently wasted as grouse moors will be allowed to return to a more natural condition in the areas where this is happening. The forest will surround Manchester, location of the infamous grouse moor in protest song ‘I’m a rambler’.

Articles about the project talk about improvements to air quality and to the mental health of people living in cities that the forest will embrace. This is good in many ways, but it is not the answer to either air quality or the current crisis in mental health. We need to cut pollution to improve air quality. We need to deal with causes of anxiety and stress to solve mental health problems (excellent article here – https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/jan/07/is-everything-you-think-you-know-about-depression-wrong-johann-hari-lost-connections) And yes, tree planting is a good answer to excess rain, but we need to do more than tree planting to deal with the climate crisis causing the excess rain in the first place.

While I am always going to be in favour of tree planting, my worry is that this will be used by politicians as a way of saying they are dealing with issues. It could be a big PR and greenwashing exercise if we aren’t careful. It does not substitute for affordable public transport, reducing air pollution, dealing with an increasingly toxic work culture or tackling the root causes of climate change. Even planting 50 million trees in the UK (which sounds like a lot, I know) does not give us the freedom to carry on exactly as we are.