Pussy Willow

It’s pussy willow season – I know because the willows near my home have started to open their cute, fuzzy catkins. As a child I was deeply attracted to these, they invite fingers and are decidedly tactile to stroke, hence the name. Although saying that, similar willows are known as goat willow, and while I like goats, they don’t inspire fondling in the same way!

There are lots of kinds of willow out there, and to make matters more complicated, willows like to hybridize.

Properly, the pussy willow is the grey willow, and the image (borrowed from The Woodland Trust) shows it moving from the fluffy grey stage to the yellow flower stage.

I have on occasion – when people have been cutting willow and it would otherwise just die – brought pussy willow stems home and stuck them in glasses as cheerful spring decorations. They are charming to look at, but as the yellow flowers open, the willow sprinkles pollen… lots of pollen… everywhere. On the whole, better leave them where they were!

More on the Woodland Trust Page – http://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/visiting-woods/trees-woods-and-wildlife/british-trees/native-trees/grey-willow/


Consenting Creatures

Last year I read a book called Becoming Nature and reviewed it for Spiral Nature (you can read the proper review here spiralnature.com/reviews/becoming-nature-tamarack-song/). Part of the reason I was interested was that it suggested a person could get to the point of being able to touch a wild animal. I’ve handled mice and birds when rescuing them, and hedgehogs for that matter, but I imagined being able to reach out a hand to a deer, and knowing how to do that seemed really appealing.

The author’s method turned out to be all about creeping up an animal, predator-style, and making contact before they know you are there. At this point I realised that I don’t want to sneak up and touch a creature. If I’m going to touch a wild thing outside of a rescue context, I want the wild thing to have consented.

Most usually what I end up touching – or being touched by – is insects. For them, I’m just terrain, and they land on me, or walk onto my hand if I need to move them. I’ve got some very friendly robins around the flat.  I’ve managed to get within a few feet of them on several occasions. I suspect if I had mealworms, they would come to me. I’ve been within feet of wild deer on a few occasions as well, with their full knowledge.

The idea in Becoming Nature is to be a predator, and to avoid being noticed by your prey. In that system you have to avoid paying too much attention, because the creatures will feel you looking at them and move away. I’m not a predator. So in some ways I’m moving through the landscape more like a herbivore, and I’m paying attention. Frequently, what alerts me to the presence of a deer is the feeling of being watched, and it will turn out that one has been eyeing me up. I often find that regardless of who spotted who first, we can hold that mutual interest for some time as long as I don’t make any threatening moves. I suspect that the deer round here see me often enough to be somewhat used to me anyway.

I would love to touch a wild deer. That’s only going to happen if for some reason, the deer approaches me. I don’t want to steal contact as an ego trip. I have nothing to prove. The odds are it’s never going to happen, and I’m fine with that. I am not entitled to touch anything I want to touch, and for me, consent is an important consideration with any sentient being I engage with in any context.


The Lost Library

Many years ago, before Hopeless Maine launched as a webcomic, we had a paper for the imaginary island – The Hopeless Vendetta, run as a wordpress blog. We were surprised by how interactive it became. Then things got busy, and we let it slide. This year, The Vendetta has been reborn as a community project and we’ve had contributions and collaborations every week for a while now.

This week, an unusually large and dangerous looking fish has beached (briefly) on the coast. Mark Lawrence is the kind of author you can easily find on the shelves of bookstores. We first met him before Prince of Thorns came out (I get book hipster points for that), we love his Broken Empire series. He’s always been very supportive of Hopeless, and for this week’s Vendetta, he adds to the life, or perhaps death of the island with this small tale…

The Hopeless Vendetta

By Mark Lawrence

book-ghosts

Four walls, black with the memory of the fire that took the roof. Cold now. Even the stink of char is gone, rain-washed into the gutter. The building is haunted, naturally, how could it not be? What ruin that watches the world from dark windows is free of spirits? But the ghosts here are those of books. The phantoms of hundreds. Untold worlds and lives, riveted to ten thousand pages, each letter a black nail pinning to the page mysteries and marvels, all ready to unfurl in an open mind. They died with a crackle and a sigh and their ashes spiralled glowing into the dark skies of an all Hallows eve. Frogmire Morton built this place and filled it with row upon row of leather-clad tomes, wisdom rubbing worn covers with whimsy. Where they came from, and who wrote them, is perhaps as big a mystery…

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Step into Faerie

This is a very fine book that I want to get onto people’s radar. I’m in the process of reading it for the second time at the moment, and it’s going to be available for review soon, and for general reading this spring. It’s full of folk and faerie, landscape, magic, human cock-up, uncanny things, courage, challenge, love, friendship, questing… so, please saunter across and read the blog, and if you poke about in the blog site, there are more goodies to find, including an excerpt.

The Bardic Academic

A Contemporary Fantasy based upon PhD research into Fairy Traditions and Folklore of the Scottish Borders  – coming soon…

New Version Knowing cover large.jpg Cover by Tom Brown, photography by James Barke 2017

Janey McEttrick is a Scottish-American folksinger descended from a long line of female singers. She lives in Asheville, North Carolina, where she plays in a jobbing rock band, The Jackalopes, and works part-time at a vintage record store. Thirty-something and spinning wheels, she seems doomed to smoke and drink herself into an early grave (since losing her daughter she’s been drowning her sorrows and more besides) until one day she receives a mysterious journal – apparently from a long-lost Scottish ancestor, the Reverend Robert Kirk, a 17th Century Presbyterian minister obsessed with fairy lore. Uncanny things start to happen… She and her loved ones are assailed by supernatural forces, until she is forced to act – to journey to Scotland to lie…

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Pot-lickers of the world, unite!

Like most people (I suspect) I was brought up knowing that there were rules about eating food. One of the rules was not to run your finger round the plate afterwards. Nor should a person sneak out to the kitchen and carefully run their fingers around bowls, saucepans etc.

I grant you that it doesn’t look charming, and ups the risk of getting food on clothes. But at the same time, it’s a manners system that tells us it is preferable to waste food by washing it down the sink, rather than run a finger round the pot and eat what’s there.

Every morsel of food out there exists as a direct consequence of the death of a living being, except perhaps for milk and eggs, where the death of living beings is indirect, but still part of the equation. Anything that had seeds in tends to be the death of future plant life before it’s had chance to get started. For me, this makes it difficult to cheerfully wash that life away. If life is sacred, then surely, the careful running of a finger over a plate to make sure none of that life is thrown away disrespectfully, is a sacred act?

Anything we wash away has to later be cleaned out of the water. Down the sink is not ‘away’ really, it’s just a problem for someone else to deal with.

My guess is that the underlying reason for the manners of not licking the pot, is not wanting to seem that desperate. Getting every last scrap off the plate might look like poverty and desperation, and humans will go to remarkable lengths to convince themselves, and each other, that they aren’t that desperate, even when they are. However, there are many ways of achieving a feeling of abundance, it’s not like food residue is our only option.

So, I am putting my hand up to say that nothing goes into the washing up with edible food on it when I’m around. I don’t care what it looks like and I don’t care if anyone feels moved to judge me. I feel very strongly that we need to change our collective attitude to food waste – because what we collectively throw out is obscene and we’re killing a lot of things just to chuck them in a bin or wash them away. We need to show our food more respect.


A sudden spring

Last Friday when we walked through the wood it was all much as it had been through the winter. There were buds fattening, but that was all. We walked through the same wood two days later, and everything had changed. The brown of dead leaves covering the ground had been replaced by green as the wild garlic had come through. Elder leaves were unfurling in earnest – they always are early in that spot. The wild plum had produced its first flowers.

This is a route I usually walk several times over a week, so I know its habits well and watch it for seasonal changes. Going from brown to green so quickly startled me. But then, the Friday had been warm enough to be without a coat and this had clearly affected the soil.

I read once that as trees feel the approach of spring and gear up, they put out heat – not a vast amount, but enough to give any plants at their base a head start, too.

Last week I blogged about spring walking, and the uncertainties of planning long wanders early in the season. I worried about the cold. What happened instead was that I was stripped down to bare arms at one point in the walk, with too much sun an unexpected issue. I’m not sure if it’s sun stroke or heat stroke that gets me, but I’ve never had to think about either in February before. March yes, but not February.

There were kingcups in flower, the celandines are out and I found some amazing snowdrop patches. I didn’t have a camera, but I plan to change that. I don’t want to spend my time looking at the world through one, but I would like to collect more images of plants through the seasons. More of that as it happens.


Habits of the anxious mind

We all see reality through the filters of our beliefs. We interpret experience in-line with what we already believe, we pay attention to things that fit with what we already think, and ignore or explain whatever doesn’t fit. This is often necessary because there’s too much information coming into our little minds, and this helps us deal with it. Obviously there are downsides.

A mind suffering with anxiety filters all experience through the assumption that things are dangerous. It will see threats where other minds would not. It hears criticism and setback, hazard and risk. This is often because the anxious mind has previously been overloaded with stress and/or trauma and is acting in a perfectly reasonable way to try and protect itself. It cannot see the world as anything other than hostile.

Anxiety may well have shattered a person’s ability to believe in themselves and have confidence in their skills and abilities. This means that the slightest setback or criticism can look like disaster to an anxious mind. It’s also why a response that tells off the anxious mind for overthinking and panicking actually makes things worse. It can simply confirm to the anxious person that they are stupid, over-reacting, useless. The anxious mind can latch onto that criticism instead and see themselves as a failure.

It is not easy for an anxious mind to consider the evidence in a non-anxious way. However, stopping and having a good look at a situation – however scary that seems – does help. Affirm to yourself that you are not irrational – there are perfectly good reasons why you feel as you do. From there, it’s that bit easier to just consider whether your perfectly good reasons are totally applicable in this situation. A tiny margin of uncertainty can make a lot of odds, and thus can allow a bit of reconsideration. Was it meant that way? Is it definitely doomed? Well, maybe not, and the uncertainty allows a tiny step down from the panic.

When any single way of relating to the world becomes normal, it’s really hard to challenge and change it. Be that fear, or depression, entitlement, arrogance, or a belief that your positive thinking will make everything magically come out for the best. It is not an easy thing to notice the mechanics of your own thinking, much less to change them, but it is possible. If you can’t make reasonable predictions about what’s happening around you, the odds are you have a dysfunctional filter of some sort. The emotions you most often feel will indicate what sort of filter you have running.


Reclaiming my intuition

The trouble with intuition, is that some people will use it to replace evidence in a way that cannot be argued with. The experience of people magically ‘knowing’ things that from where I was standing, looked like utter bullshit, left me reluctant to use my own for many years. I’m equally troubled by the way we use confirmation on social media ‘I have a bad feeling about today, does anyone else?’ Of course someone else does – the internet has a lot of people on it. I’m wary of how we can all use ‘intuition’ to tell us the things we want to hear, to affirm our biases, prejudices, personal insanity…

But life without intuition is thinner, paler and missing a lot of tricks. We absorb far more information than we can consciously process, and what emerges as a ‘gut feeling’ may not be ‘magic’ but instead the result of unconscious processing. If I let myself, then some of my best thinking happens this way.

How do you tell if what you’ve got is intuition, self indulgence, or madness? This is a question I’ve been asking myself for years. It’s especially loaded for me, because depression and anxiety create feelings of doom and misery, and I can persuade myself that I must be psychically knowing that something dreadful is going to happen, and spiral down into it, and make it a self-fulfilling prophecy. Or I can attribute it to dodgy brain chemistry and let it go… How do I tell which is which?

The only thing I’ve got as a method of testing, is whether I can use it to make fair models of what will happen. If my gut feel about a person, or a situation, fits in fairly well with what happens, then regardless of whether that’s psychic-ness or unconscious processing, I’ve got something I can use. If my impressions don’t relate to reality, then something less helpful is going on. It requires an uneasy amount of self-honesty. Who doesn’t want to be magical, intuitive and special? It’s hard to look at a gut feeling and say ‘you aren’t real, my brain chemistry is playing up’ but sometimes that’s the path to sanity.

Then there’s the question of how we use intuitive insights in social situations. Some people are assholes. If that’s where you’re coming from, then aggressively asserting intuition as a means to power, to subdue or impress others, is just asshattery. It’s not good to go deliberately trying to poke around in other people’s heads and lives, either. It’s an invasion of privacy. If insight just turns up, then there’s a responsibility to use that kindly, and not as some kind of power trip.

I’ve spent some years now trying to be more open to my unconscious mind, to insight and intuition and at the same time to not let my depressive and anxious tendencies latch onto it. I’ve got a way to go, and I’m a long way from entirely trusting myself, but overall I like the trajectory.


Wandering in early spring

January and early February are quiet months in the seasonal walking calendar. I don’t plan big walks at this time of year, because the weather is too unpredictable and I don’t like slippery surfaces much. Plus, tramping about in mud can do a lot of damage to land and plants alike, so I tend to limit walks to lanes and solid footpaths.

My seasonal plants of preference – snowdrops and catkins – are available right outside my front door, so seasonal plant-orientated pilgrimage does not have to involve much effort!

However, we’ve reached that point in the year when there are odd warm days, its drier underfoot and it can be good walking weather. It’s tempting to get out, but still risky. How risky walking at this time of year will be of course depends firstly on where you live. Are sudden blizzards a risk? Could sudden loss of visibility put you in danger? What’s the footing like and can it change quickly if the weather changes?

I live in a fairly mild part of the world, and I don’t walk in the mountains. My risks for this time of year are about getting cold. With crappy circulation, I suffer a lot if I can’t stay warm and while walking is good for circulation, if the ground is cold enough, or the wind chill fierce enough, it can get challenging.

I know for a lot of people the great challenge of pitting self against nature is an exciting prospect. I don’t have a body or a mind for conquering anything, so I have to work cooperatively with the natural world. I have to walk when it’s passably sensible and stay in if it isn’t. I have to consider how cold I can afford to get when thinking about distance. There’s no one right way of doing this stuff, but I assert that it’s absolutely ok to be not in the least bit macho about it.


Anything can be a teacher

Anything can be a teacher. Sometimes the lessons are all about moving away and holding boundaries, and those lessons can be urgent and unsettling. At the time of experiencing them, there’s not a lot of motivation for gratitude – which I think is reasonable and healthy. There’s a time and place for gratitude, and it isn’t during the period of being kicked in the shins!

Last year brought lessons. At the time, those lessons hurt, but I’ve noticed this year that I have, to a significant degree, made peace with it all. I’ve had self esteem issues all my life, I’m motivated to please others (unrepentantly so) and thin skinned. It means if someone decides to pick on me, I can get hurt. In my past there are people who knocked me down repeatedly and I struggled to get up, and it took a lot of time to recover from each round…

Last summer I faced character assassination, and attacks on self and life that could have broken me. I have no doubt that the intention was to do me as much damage as possible. But, the process was so full-on that I didn’t go along with it. Unusually for me, something kicked off inside me, refusing to accept the assessments of who I am, refusing to accept that it was ok for the people involved to be doing and saying what they did. Rather than internalise it as my failing, I took a long hard look at a whole bunch of people and decided that the problems were theirs and not mine, that I didn’t need them in my life, and that I didn’t have to be broken by them.

In the months since then, I’ve not regretted anything that I’ve done, and I’ve not regretted the loss of people who clearly considered me a nasty misuse of space. I feel lighter, freer, and happier. I’ve learned to hold my edges when attacked. I’ve come to feel a certain amount of gratitude for the experience that pushed me into being more willing to stick up for myself and no longer willing to internalise other people’s shit. It’s been a good learning experience, for me.

I know if I’d tried to respond with gratitude for the lessons at the time, it could easily have locked me into a place of hurt and reinforced the wrong things. Gratitude has its time and place, and sometimes distance is important. I can look back and see how far I’ve come, and while I don’t forgive the attempt to clip my wings, I am glad that I saw it fast enough to fly from the would-be clippers and not go back. With the right timing, gratitude can be a helpful part of letting go and moving on, leaving a person feeling empowered and enabled by the experience. Even if the experience itself was entirely shit.