Author Archives: Nimue Brown

About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, wife to the most amazing artist -Tom Brown. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things.

Stories we should stop telling

This is by no means an exhaustive list. It’s a selection of tale-types I am personally sick of. Do pile in and suggest others. I think we should stop telling these stories in fiction, and stop celebrating them in real life as well.

A problem is solved by killing a person, probably with guns.

A man is a total asshat, but he’s also a ‘genius’ so we should treat him like a hero and overlook his shit.

A white person turns out to be the chosen one of a non-white community. He (it is usually a he) goes on to be better at the thing important in this community than anyone raised there. He needs little or no time or training to achieve this because he’s naturally gifted.

A woman falls in love with a guy who has treated her appallingly. I might accept this as a dark and psychological piece, but please stop telling me this is romance.

A person (usually a woman or a more effeminate man) is too beautiful and good for this world, so they die pointlessly and everyone who failed them has feels.

A story in which a person is in love with two other people and is obliged to choose between them.

A white person travels to an ‘exotic’ place and discovers or does something important with little or no reference to the indigenous people. Lose extra points if the indigenous people are portrayed in a patronising way, with no reference to the culture that exists in the actual setting, or they are all played by middle aged white men.

Stories about how a woman has to change to make her attractive to a man.

Any story that hinges on one person failing to tell another person(s) something hugely important that they knew all along.

Stories in which women change their loyalty and betray their people because a male character they’ve just met is sexy.

 

What kinds of stories would you get rid of if you could?

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Wildflower wealth

The horse chestnuts have been extraordinary this year. Every tree I’ve seen in walking distance of my home has had an incredible array of flower candles on it. Big flowers at that, in totally outrageous profusion. The hawthorn is the same. Intensities of flower that I cannot recall ever having seen before. It’s not just one tree, it’s been every tree of this type that I’ve encountered for miles around.

On the path margins, the plants are growing with startling enthusiasm. There’s a density of lush green growth out there. The grass on the commons is thick, and tall. Everywhere I look, I see explosions of rioting plant life.

Perhaps this in some way because of the late and cold spring. Perhaps the abundance is because snow on the ground soaks in more effectively. Perhaps we have just the right pattern of sun and rain to promote growth. I don’t know.

What I do know is how it impacts on me. What a sense of richness and blessedness I have every time I step outside and see a wildly bedecked hawthorn, or the density of wildflowers on the verges. I experience this as personal abundance, personal wealth. It’s an intense, bodily reaction to the world around me.

Wealth in money is such a cold, abstract feeling. Numbers on a screen. Largely meaningless. Wealth as an experience of nature is immediate and so very real. I might own numbers of a screen, I do not own flowers in a wood, but the latter enriches me far more than the former can.

It is so normal to see people describe the world of numbers in bank accounts as the real world. A bank balance does not feed you. No matter how much money we have, we all depend fundamentally on the bounty of the land. The real world has soil in it.


Druid listening to bats

I’m learning a lot as I get out there to try and survey bats. I’ve had no formal training. I’ve got a bat detector, and a sheet of notes about how different bats sound. It talks about wet slaps, metallic clicks, castanets and whether the bat was arrhythmic.

It’s a curious business, translating a stranger’s words into an understanding of a sound. We spent quite a lot of time huddled round the notes, reading them by torchlight, discussing what we’d heard.

A bat can be somewhat identified by the frequency at which it makes sound. However, many share ranges of frequency, so to tell them apart, you need to consider the kinds of sounds they make. That sound changes if they are flying at you, right over you, or flying away. Some bats can only be picked up if your detector is facing the right way in relation to them. Sometimes the detectors pick up just a few sounds – a more distant bat going the wrong way for you, perhaps. Tantalising possibilities that defy translation.

It was really exciting making sense of how sounds change as the bats move so I can hear when they are flying towards me. Sometimes that means seeing them as they fly over, sometimes it means scanning about, mystified as to where the bat I can hear actually is. Once it’s darker, it means knowing the bat is close even though I have no scope for seeing it. Sometimes they get really close. One of the ones I didn’t see apparently went right under my chin!

The most exciting moment of the latest batting night came when we picked up something at 110 kHz. Only one native British bat makes sound at that frequency. It was a distinctive sound, too, totally unlike anything else we’d picked up. A lesser horseshoe – generally a rare bat. There are known horseshoe bat roosts locally (maybe more, but definitely two) so it wasn’t entirely surprising to find one, but still, really exciting.


The writing of chants

I’ve been writing chants for a while now, with varying degrees of success. I started because the chants I was encountering didn’t do what I wanted them to do. I wanted seasonally specific material that connects directly to my landscape. I find chants difficult to write because my inclinations are to use more words than anyone else can easily pick up, and to write tunes that aren’t easy to sing when you’ve never heard them before, so I’ve had to push back against that.

For chants to be available to people who haven’t had weeks to learn them, they need to be simple. Not too many words and plenty of repetition. Tunes need to be simple enough that less confident singers won’t be put off by them. However, chants that are dull don’t inspire people, so there’s a balance to find here.

For ‘Turn with the year’ I used the repetition of the word ‘turn’ to give something easy to latch onto. There are some significant intervals between notes here, but I think they’re the kinds of gaps that make immediate sense to the ears of western, northern hemisphere folk. It’s also a tune that’s very forgiving of people singing something else alongside it – which is often where harmony lines come from.

For my recent Beltane chant, I relied on echoing a song I think a lot of Pagans will know from The Wicker Man – Summer is acomming in. So I think it feels familiar, and apart from one line, the tune is really simple. When I tested this one on friends, they picked it up in a couple of goes.

The folk tradition has a broad and deep history of songs designed for people to pick up quickly and join in on. These are often more complicated than the Pagan chant. They depend on one person knowing the words, and an obvious pattern – there might only be one or two new lines in any given verse. I was thinking about shanties when I wrote Three Drops. The line ‘Fire in my head’ repeats three times in every verse and every verse ends with ‘three drops of inspiration’. There’s one new line at the start of every verse – three drops, into the forest, salmon in the well and drink from the cauldron – people get the ‘fire in my head’ sometimes even in the first verse on first hearing.

So, the questions to ask when writing a chant are, I think – what do you need to say? How can you say it in the fewest possible words? How can you make it easy to pick up? How singable is it? How interesting is it? Will people enjoy joining in with it?

I don’t think the point of a chant should be to send people into a trance born of boredom and monotony. Chants should be about the power of raising our voices together, the feeling of involvement and togetherness this brings. A good chant uplifts and inspires people. If you can hum a tune and string a sentence together, you have the key skills to try writing your own.


Collective Dreaming

We live in an individualistic culture that tends to understand dreams and ambitions as solitary. We tell stories about the triumph of the individual genius, and when we fail, we tend to feel that we have failed alone.

Collective dreaming has a lot more power to get things done. When there are more of us, sharing the same goals, figuring out the same trajectories, there’s more scope for success. More minds on the case. More hands to the plough. More resources and potential. Whether we’re talking about community projects, social movements, or small collaborations, we can get more done when we dream together.

Of course collective dreaming comes at a price. You have to be willing to give up the allure of personal, standout success. If you win as a team, you may not be personally famous. A little realism about the odds of being personally famous by working alone can help a lot here. Collective dreaming means being willing to compromise a bit on your vision. Even if you’re working with people who are very much aligned to your view, they won’t always be perfectly in synch with you with all things. Patience and flexibility are essential. Sometimes it means letting go of a large part of your vision so as to make a small piece of it actually happen. We live in a culture that encourages us to nurture our private dreams and not sacrifice parts of them for a common aim. Even when that means the dream goes nowhere. We can see hanging on to the exact dream as heroic, even when it gets nothing done.

Working together doesn’t automatically make something a force for good. That our dreams are shared does not necessarily make them wise, feasible, or virtuous. We can amplify each other’s worst ideas when we work together. We can build bubbles of unreality, believing ourselves to be better, more important, more influential than we really are. We can enable each other in doing horrible things. Our shared dreams may be other people’s shared nightmares. The validation of being part of something can give us the confidence to be despicable. When enough people sign up to such projects, they can become cultural norms. Nazi groups also share dreams.

The only way to measure our collective dreaming is by giving it a lot of thought. Watching for the risk that we’re talking each other into unrealistic expectations or belief. Watching for what we validate in each other, for whether we seek power over each other, and how we envisage people who are outside our little collective. Those intent on justifying atrocious behaviour are generally good at finding ways to do that, and we need to watch for them in our collectives. Getting involved with a collective dream doesn’t have to mean continuing to think it’s a good idea or dedicating to seeing it through. Like the notion of the heroic lone genius, the notion of group loyalty to the bitter end can prove to be deeply unhelpful in practice.


A Stranger Dream – review

I don’t dabble that much in colouring books, in part because I frequently end up colouring for work purposes. However, I was asked if I’d review this, and I said yes, for the simple reason that creator Sarah Snell-Pym is a very lovely person. She’s also got what I can only describe as a unique mind, and as a consequence what she’s made is a truly unusual colouring book.

The front cover describes it as ‘a non-linear visual poem about identity… in an adult colouring book.’ The poem is embedded in the images and you have to find the words, some of them are more obvious than other. That calls for a deep engagement with each page, and it gives a strange coherence to the book as a whole.

The art is only on one side of any given sheet of paper. This means that by colouring in one image, you don’t mess up another one – especially an issue if you want to use pens or inks.

There’s a lot of variance in terms of how much of the page you are offered for colouring. Some pages have a lot of open space, encouraging you to do your own thing. Some pages have a lot of black on them, so you don’t need to do much to get the whole image. I like this. It creates room to decide what you’re equal to.

Sarah’s art style is playful, and easy to get into. One of the things that stuck out for me is a reoccurring image of two unhappy blobby beings who merge in the middle. A personification of dysfunctional co-dependency, I thought. Two beings with no proper boundaries, or one identity being subsumed by the other. They connect with the relationship and identity angles in the poem. if you look closely, you can see them co-blobbing at the bottom of the book cover.

More about the book here – https://www.amazon.co.uk/Stranger-Dream-Love-Sarah-Snell-Pym/dp/1530078490


Depression and the loss of meaning

One of the things I find hardest about depression is the way it strips the meaning out of everything. All efforts and hopes seem futile. It’s not something I can write about when I’m in there because the feeling of pointlessness is silencing.

Loss of meaning brings a loss of direction. It takes all the energy out of anything you might have been doing. It makes it impossible to see what any action might achieve or how it could be useful. On bad days, this can mean even basic self care. Why get dressed? Why eat? Why bother? What’s the point, even?

When nothing I do seems meaningful or relevant, the world around me seems different to me, too. It’s just a cold, mechanical universe in which my actions have no consequences. All the love and light and colour are stripped out. I am at my least able to do Druidry when this happens. I cannot do relationship, or wonder, or magic, or possibility. I feel very alone, and it does not seem that there is any way out of it.

I don’t have firm beliefs about the meaning of life. I don’t have rules to go back to so that I can get through the bad days. My uncertainty is really important to me because it keeps me non-dogmatic, open minded and able to change. Uncertainty offers few comforts in times of mental anguish. When I’m at my most certain, I think that meaning is a human thing and that we make it, or don’t. On good days I find meaning simply in experiencing life, interacting, creating, doing stuff. On my good days I need very little meaning at all to keep going.

I don’t experience meaning, or the loss of it, as a solitary issue. When I have no sense of point or purpose, I depend on other people. I might not feel like doing anything for me, but I’ll get up and go through the motions for the sake of the people around me. Sometimes, not making things worse for those closest to me is all I’ve got. I keep this blog going because if there’s any chance I can say something useful, there is a point to trying. I couldn’t create that on my own. That sense of worth and possibility is held for me by everyone who leaves comments here.

When depression destroys my sense of worth, it is other people who keep me going. It is through the words and actions of others that I find reasons to try. Sometimes all it takes is not giving up, to eventually pull through to a better state of mind.

We never know really what someone else is experiencing. I do know however, that the gestures we make to each other in small, everyday ways are incredibly powerful. I don’t think personal affirmations will save anyone from mental health struggles, but other people’s affirmations can really help. You are loved. You are wanted. Your work makes a difference. Your presence is valued. We find you useful. You brighten my day. I am glad you are my friend. You’ve made a real difference to me. And so on. These are words of power and magic, that can save someone and ease their suffering.


Not keeping up appearances

One of the consequences of doing anything well, is that it tends to look effortless. If you’re doing something professionally, it is of course desirable to look as good as you can while doing it. Success is attractive. Relaxed capability is attractive. You want people looking at the elegant swan you’ve put into the world, not all the frantic paddling below the surface required to keep it there.

The problem with this – and I see it a lot – is that a significant number of people will assume it is indeed, effortless for you to do what you do. If they can’t see how much time and effort went into getting you to the point whereby it is indeed easy, they’ll use words like ‘gifted’ and ‘talented’ and maybe ‘lucky’. This can have consequences. It can leave other people assuming that they should be that good for no effort. Or they may assume that because they aren’t instantly that good, there’s no point even trying. Neither idea is useful.

The general wisdom is that to master something takes 10,000 hours of work. The effortless performance, the relaxed artistic flourish…  are possible because of the many hours of study and practice underpinning them. There’s also a lot of planning in the mix. Films have a nasty habit of showing us creators producing amazing work in a single frenzied round. Most of us don’t work that way. Paintings are planned and sketched for. Stories and pieces of music are built up in stages. And so on.

The same is often true of other things. Cooking. Gardening. Self employment. The effortless coasting towards success is often just a superficial appearance. People who get results usually have to work for them. If they can do it easily now, it’s because they already put in the work. Right now, Tom and I are starting to enjoy the benefits of the Hopeless Maine project – in terms of money, recognition, opportunities and whatnot. We’ve worked together on this for about a decade, Tom’s been on it longer. As one if my publishers used to say ‘it takes years of work to become an overnight success.’

We like the stories of people who come out of nowhere to achieve wild, unexpected success. We don’t tell stories about years of quietly chipping away at it, slowly building a following, and having modest success, but that’s often how it goes. We also don’t tell stories about people being able to invest in their own projects because their families support them and cover their bills, help them make time and give them space. It’s easier to be creative if you’ve already got money – are retired, or have a supportive spouse. This kind of information tends to vanish from the story of how the successful individual got to where they are.

It’s always tempting to create stories that make us look as good as possible. However, I think it’s ultimately harmful to create the impression of great talent welling up to achieve great things, and not mentioning the levels of work and dedication required. I also think its problematic to let people  assume you’re making it as a creator when you aren’t.

At the moment, my household is getting by on the money I make as a book publicist. We get top-ups from the creative side, which is always cheering. It looks feasible that in the next few years, the Hopeless Maine project will start laying golden eggs for us. This is because we’ve made a choice to invest time in the creative stuff rather than Tom mostly working for other people. If we make this work, it will be because of the massive amount of time he’s invested, and because I’ve been able to pay the bills. I intend to keep talking about this because there are myths I want to dispel.


Trees for mental health

Trees in our environment improve mental health. Walking, and being amongst trees can also help with mental health. Trees are good for us. They don’t solve everything – if your brain chemistry needs changing, a tree won’t do that for you. If the rest of your environment is hostile, stressful and making you sick, then the reprieve of tree time won’t fix that. However, we do all benefit from access to trees.

Trees are good company. They don’t judge, criticise or demand. They’re usually full of birds and other wildlife. They give us soft, generous light, protected for the greater part from sunstroke, heatstroke, and sunburn. In autumn they bless us with colour. They are beautiful as they age, beautiful when diseased, when gnarly, or twisted, or stark in winter. They help us challenge our limited ideas about acceptable physical shapes.

One of the big problems with mental health care at the moment is the emphasis on individual responsibility for good mental health. Let’s look at the tree issue again. Access to trees is not purely an individual issue. If your council cuts down all your street trees, the loss is yours, but the choice wasn’t. Planning decisions that destroy green spaces are often beyond our control, however much we might protest. Industrial landscapes where there are no trees probably aren’t your choice either, but you may have to work there. Affordable public transport to access green spaces isn’t something you get much say in. Accessible treed spaces for people who are less mobile are also not individual choices.

Our mental health is profoundly affected by the physical environments we inhabit. The role of green space in alleviating stress and promoting good mental health isn’t factored in anything like enough. Being in poverty increases the chances that you’ll have trouble accessing green space because you just won’t be able to afford to get there. It’s no good telling people to walk under trees to help with their mental health if they don’t have any trees they can get to. It’s no good assuming that everyone has a car and can afford to drive it to their nearest wood.

Our systems aren’t run to maintain good mental health in the populous, and what happens around trees is an example of this. We tell people to spend time with trees, but governments don’t enable that in any way. Trees should be readily available to all people, you should not need to make an effort to seek them out.


Druid seeks bat

For the coming weeks, I’m in the blessed and exciting position of doing some bat surveys at night. A charity that acts to protect wildlife in my area is surveying ahead of work on one of the local cycle paths, and my household have stepped up to do some night surveying. We’re looking for mammals, listening for owls, and we have bat detectors to take out.

This is going to be what we do on Saturday nights for some weeks now. There are two kinds of bat – pipistrelles and noctules, who appear at sunset – which at the moment is a bit before 9pm. Other bats won’t show up until it’s actually dark – after half past nine, and getting later all the time. For me, this means a relatively late night.

Our first survey was a great success – we identified lots of pipistrelles and noctules. You can identify a lot of bat species from the frequency at which they emit sound. Pipistrelles it turns out are much more variable in the sound emissions, but as we also saw them in the twilight, we can be confident about identifying them. We also saw a roe deer with a very small fawn, which was exciting.

This is very much what I want from my Druidry at the moment. Direct encounters with the wild world. Deepening my relationship with my locality. Doing something that helps protect what is wild in my locality. Sharing all of this with lovely people. Coming back from the surveying with good stories to tell.