Category Archives: Nature

Nature, culture and healing

What makes you feel like yourself? What do you do that gives you a sense of being fully present, alive and acting from a place of authenticity? Conversely, how much time do you spend in spaces where you have to pretend to be other than you are? What do you do that robs you of identity and leaves you numb, disengaged and dysfunctional?

One of the truly great things about being outside and alone is that you don’t have to perform. The elements do not require you to be other than you are. If your sense of self has been crushed by pressures and expectations, this time alone might be your best hope of healing and finding yourself. We don’t lose ourselves anything like as much as we have our identities taken from us.

We can end up feeling that we are the roles we are obliged to perform. If our work, our usefulness, our family identity is the only thing anyone else sees and interacts with, the result can be lonely and demoralising. We all need the room to be more than the utility we provide to others.

Running off into the wilderness can be a tempting antidote to this. But, humans put a lot of pressure on what wild nature remains. It might be more productive to stop looking to nature to heal us and start looking to human culture not to ravage us in the first place. A better work-life balance would do a lot to restore many people to themselves. A kinder, more inclusive, supportive and spacious society would really help too.


Cats and cars

Poking about on the internet, it looks like on the average day in the UK, 630 cats are hit by cars. As far as I know, cars are the major killers of cats in the UK. For the cat who goes out unsupervised, there’s also the risk of getting injured in fights with other cats, catching diseases from them, getting lost, getting stolen, getting mistreated by humans… a cat out alone is facing a number of risks.

Cats aren’t great for the local wildlife, killing birds, small mammals, amphibians, slow worms… I’ve lived with cats who hunted, and the amount of wildlife a young cat can get through, is troubling. Keeping cats inside at night really helps with this and means you will never face surprise entrails first thing in the morning.

The cat who goes out on a lead, with a person, is a lot safer than the cat who goes out alone. The cat on a lead also has very little scope for killing wildlife. It’s also a lot of fun, and gives you meaningful time with your cat. I don’t know why people assume cats want to be independent – in my experience, cats love attention and often like doing things with their people. If they aren’t bored, they aren’t so motivated to hunt or get in fights.

I routinely encounter people who tell me either their cat would never put up with a lead, or that they tried it once and it didn’t work. Cats are complicated creatures, but mostly it comes down to which one of you is most determined. Cats can be trained, because they can be persuaded that something is in their interests. Given how dangerous cars are for cats, I’m surprised there aren’t more people exploring leads for cats.

Cats of course are only a percentage of the number of creatures killed on roads every day. Cars take a terrible toll on wildlife and domestic creatures alike. The RSPB reckon cats kill 27 million birds a year in the UK, which is appalling, but they also say that there’s no real evidence these deaths contribute to bird population declines.  More over here if you want to dig in – https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/advice/gardening-for-wildlife/animal-deterrents/cats-and-garden-birds/are-cats-causing-bird-declines/

Cars also kill about 30 million birds a year, but these are likely to be healthy, active birds while there’s reason to think cats tend to take birds who weren’t so viable anyway. 

In both cases, these are causes of death that have everything to do with human choices and human behaviour. We could do a lot to reduce cats killing wildlife, and cars killing wildlife.

Speed is a major factor here. It always is when it comes to road accidents. At a slower speed, you stop in a shorter distance. You’ve got more time to notice and avoid hitting someone. At a lower speed you do less damage and the impact is more survivable. Cars kill and injure a lot of humans, too. 

So many drivers routinely treat getting there a bit sooner as more important than the risk of death or injury to themselves or others. I see it a lot as a pedestrian. No doubt sometimes this is because of the pressure people are under, and the dire implications of not being on time – lost jobs, benefit sanctions etc. But none of this is really necessary. So many road deaths and road injuries should be avoidable, if only we had a culture that put care first.


Teaching Cats

In the last six months or so I’ve seen a lot of people talking about the impossibility of teaching or training cats. You certainly can’t train a cat the way you would a dog. However, cats learn all the time, and there’s a lot to be learned from that process.

We often underestimate the impact of our own expectations. If we think a cat can’t learn we won’t try and engage with them in that way. It’s worth watching out for the limitations you may unconsciously impose on cats, yourself and other humans.

Cats learn from their environments. They learn how things work, they pick up a fair few human words. Cats are interested in their own comfort, amusement and wellbeing, and will tend to do the things that please them. They respond to discipline with resentment, a perverse desire to do more of the thing they aren’t supposed to do, or if they get sufficiently unhappy, they leave. Attention can be a reward, and we forget that a lot, in our own interactions and around how we raise children. Attention can reinforce behaviour we don’t want if we’re dealing with a being who is hungry for attention. Those of us with abuse backgrounds can have really problematic relationships with attention, too.

Cats are most likely to learn what you want them to learn if they are happy, and have a vested interest. Mr Anderson has learned to walk on a lead because he likes going out and having adventures, and going out is conditional to being on a lead. Once out, it is in his interests to be cooperative because he has a nicer time if we’re all pottering around together. Cats respond well to positive feedback, verbal praise, affection, treats and so forth. Reinforce the behaviour you want to see by giving the cat more of what they want, and the cat will learn how to milk that for all it’s worth. Everyone wins.

It is easier to coax a cat round to a different behaviour with lures and treats than it is to get them to stop doing something they thought was interesting. This tends to be true for people as well.

Cats are never going to do your bidding. They can however learn to be cooperative members of your household. I think there’s a lot of similarity between raising kittens and children. Yes, you can focus on obedience. Yes, you can frighten them into doing and not doing things. No, they will not be happy, and they will get out and stay away as soon as they can. When teaching is about living cooperatively, cats can and will learn. When what we mean to teach is that we have all the power over them, most creatures won’t find us tolerable.

Teaching is not about making someone do stuff. Put that idea down, and all manner of things become possible.


Fungi and Community

I recently watched this charming documentary, and can recommend doing so if you get a chance.

Fungi are wonderful and for anyone interested in the natural world. The way in which they interact with other forms of life will be resonant for Druids. We have been talking for decades about the web of life and the interconnectedness of all things. We’ve talked about it as a magical concept. Fungi are the physical embodiment of this idea, they are the network connecting life.

One of the concepts from this film is that cooperation is basically how reality works. The script includes observations about the importance of community, and identifies community as an inter-species thing. It offers us more than human co-operation. There were words about the generosity of nature, and about living beings working together cooperatively for mutual benefit.

It comforts me to think that cooperation isn’t just intrinsic to human success, but also is fundamental to how life exists. It means that the people pushing the other way, towards competition and cruelty, are simply wrong. Reality won’t change to let them have it their own way. Collaboration shapes life, and people can either engage with that to their benefit, or not. We won’t be able to make selfishness into the driving force of existence.


Riding the thermals

It’s buzzard weather out there. The intense summer heat brings up thermal currents as the hot air rises. Buzzards are especially good at riding these, and seem to spend much of the time during warmer weather just floating in the air, barely moving to stay aloft.

Often, the buzzards circle up to such heights that there’s no hunting application to it. Sometimes they hang out on the thermals in groups. It’s not purposeful activity. I have no idea whether it takes more effort than sitting in a tree. 

We tell each other far too many stories about busy bees and hard working ants and nature red in tooth and claw. Nature programs can make wildlife seem really busy and active. This creates a frame for human activity and for believing that it is good, virtuous and natural to be busy.

Wild things do what they have to, and then they chill. In this hot weather, most mammals are flopped out in whatever shade they can find. Nothing out there is busy for the sake of it. Not even the ants. Creatures do what they have to do, and no more. 

It’s also worth noting that even in insect colonies where there are workers and queens, what’s actually going on is different beings carrying out different roles for the good of the community. There’s a lot of difference between specialised functions within a colony, and having an exploited worker class that does all the grafting to enable a leisured class to does little that is of any value to those workers.


Dealing with pain

Over the years I’ve seen a great deal of advice to the effect that the best way to deal with pain is to show up for it. Be embodied, practice mindfulness. The idea that pain comes from not paying enough attention and that self care starts with showing up can sound persuasive. Except that, like a lot of people who deal with pain, I find it doesn’t work for me.

Recently I ran into this article about pain which has raised some interesting issues for me – https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2021/jun/28/sufferers-of-chronic-pain-have-long-been-told-its-all-in-their-head-we-now-know-thats-wrong

We know that brains form pathways and that the things we do and think habitually give us the easiest pathways for our thoughts to run down. Habits are powerful things, and habitual thought can trap us in really unhelpful relationships with the world.

Pain is no different from anything else we deal with, once its in the central nervous system, it’s all messages and pathways. It makes sense that pain would build habitual pathways in exactly the same ways that anxious thinking can. That in turn would mean that a person who has experienced a lot of pain would be more likely to process a physical experience as painful. Or more painful.

Emotional pain doesn’t exist in some separate system from all of this. Trauma happens inside our bodies. Whatever happens to us, it happens to us as whole systems. Healing from anxiety can depend on not engaging too much with the anxious thoughts and feelings when they arise. What if, sometimes, pain works in much the same way? What if the body can learn pain responses? What if pain is dialed up by long or repeating experiences of pain because we carve it out as a pathway in our brains?

It would mean that for some of us, the best thing to do with pain is to pay it as little attention as possible. It would mean not being mindful, not being too embodied, but keeping all of that out of our thoughts in order not to reinforce the pain pathways.

Pain isn’t one thing that works the same way for all of us. The solutions to it are going to be equally diverse and complicated. I’m so relieved that we’re starting to see research that takes a broader approach to pain and that doesn’t assume that those of us reporting a lot of it are just making a fuss.

If pain is rewiring your body, and changing how you experience pain, then perhaps the best bet is to try not to show up for that.


Communion and Consumption

We’re Pagan. We want to commune with nature. We want to be out there in the wilds, off the beaten track… Us and everyone else. The pandemic has led a lot more people outside. More people are having vacations closer to home this year, and this is putting far more pressure on the land.

It’s not just the people who rock up to litter beaches and poo in the Glastonbury fields while wild camping. It’s the increased traffic around beauty spots, and the damage done to landscapes just by too many people going through them. It’s people taking from spaces, and mistreating what’s there. Pagans can be just as guilty of this as anyone else. Our tea lights, inappropriate offerings and rubbish tied to trees are just as problematic as anyone else’s mess.

If you truly want to commune with the land rather than consuming and damaging, here are some suggestions.

Stay as close to home as you can. Explore the green spaces nearest to you and minimise driving. There are a lot of green spaces in urban environments and it’s great to explore those. Footpaths, cycle paths and tow paths are good. Lanes can be well worth exploring but you are at more risk from irresponsible drivers so be careful. If there’s an artificial surface, you aren’t going to cause erosion.

Stay on the footpath. If you go off the path you will damage plants and habitats. You may feel more magical and special, but the birds, insects and creatures you disturb won’t thank you for it. 

Take nothing, leave nothing. Try to make sure you don’t need to shit in the bushes. Don’t leave shitty offerings that may harm the wildlife. Don’t light fires. Don’t burn anything, not incense, not candles, not anything. Don’t pour alcohol on the ground, it’s not good for the wildlife either. Don’t pick anything, don’t dig anything up. Windfalls are probably ok, but give serious thought to anything you think it would be ok to take home.

Don’t take your mountain bike offroad. Footpaths take a lot of damage from bikes, and in sensitive environments they can be really damaging. Don’t cycle over ancient monuments. I hope this is something no Pagan would ever consider doing, but I see so much of it happening that I have to mention it.

If we’re heading out into ‘nature’ because we want to be nourished and spiritually supported, we need to be alert to what it costs. The wild world is under immense pressure from humans and there’s nothing spiritual about adding to that. Any feelings of being special, exempt, entitled or important that justify why we should put pressure on wild things need serious scrutiny. There is a real and important issue around the impact of green spaces on mental health, but we can seek the green without harming the wildest places. 

Alongside this, we need to push for more green urban spaces, more urban trees, and more safe places to walk. Imagine what a difference it would make if just a small percentage of urban parking spaces were given over to plants instead.


Fox cubs

It’s a good time of year for seeing fox cubs. They’re large enough now to be out of the den, and large enough to be easier to spot. I’ve had a couple of recent encounters with a fox family, and they’ve been delightful.

Young creatures learn by messing about and experimenting. Watching them, what they do can seem incredibly joyful and playful, and I think perhaps it is. This same curiosity, joy and experimentation will kill many of them before their first year of life is through. Mortality rates are always high for young creatures.

Humans don’t help with that. Our cars especially, are killers, and the opportunities to learn from experience and not die, are few. The rest of nature kills and eats, dies by accident and scavenges, and that which doesn’t make it becomes food for something else. We’ve set ourselves up to be outside of that, and what we do takes a massive toll on the rest of the living world, which cannot adapt fast enough to reliably cope with us.

Meantime, the fox cubs are cheerfully oblivious to all of this. They are too busy being alive, and curious and excited. They live with every fibre of their beings. If they are afraid of what they must deal with, then they show no obvious signs of it. From where I stand, it seems like a kind of innocence, and perhaps it is. I could wish for that brightness and enthusiasm, for the innate joy that pounces on life with all of its paws, and either doesn’t know that it may not live long, or does not much care.


Nature, pain and the body

Nature, as it manifests in my body, is painful. Compared to many people I get off lightly, because it’s bearable and most of the time doesn’t stop me from doing things. However, I’m massively hyper-mobile, which causes pain, and there are some other things (maybe related, maybe not) that also hurt. If I pay attention to my body, then my primary experience is one of hurting.

This is an issue for me around any meditation that involves my body. Relaxing into my body is something I try every now and then, but cannot get to work. I like meditations that distract my brain and those can lead to some degree of relaxation, whereas engaging directly with my body increases my pain awareness and that can make me more tense and uncomfortable.

Ignoring pain doesn’t entirely work. It means I don’t know what’s going on with my body, and I can end up adding to things, or not doing things that would help. I need to make the time to check in with my body and to try and make sense of what’s going on in here. Do I need more rest, or more movement? Do I need to massage painful areas? Or warm them? Or am I too warm?

One of the tricky things for me is that some of what goes wrong really requires rest, and other things that go wrong are best dealt with through movement, and that can all be happening at the same time. There are parts of me that aren’t handling temperature well and that I need to be careful about keeping warm. But I am also doing the menopausal things, and hot flushes don’t go well with that. I can end up both uncomfortably hot and functionally chilled, which is bonkers.

For anyone with multiple conditions, this is a potential problem. Especially around questions of rest and movement. Trying to balance the two is hard. Sometimes there is no right answer, and you simply have to decide what to trade off against what, and which price to pay. It doesn’t matter how good you are at listening to your body, if it has these kinds of internal conflicts, there’s no solution to find.

Some years ago I had a New Agey type try to tell me that my pain was a consequence of not listening to my body, and not being embodied. Having explored down this path, I am confident that it isn’t so. There’s only so much being embodied that I can take, most days. There’s only so much I can fix by paying attention. In order to work, to live and function, I frequently have to do things that hurt, or do them while hurting, and it is better emotionally and psychologically to tune out as much pain as possible at those times. If I let pain awareness take control, then doing the things that keep me moving and vaguely fit gets really hard. If I get weaker, some of the things that are wrong with me will get worse, and my overall heath will be undermined.

Listening to your body is good, but when there are conflicts about what would help, your body may well not know what to do either. For some people, showing up may well be enough to reduce pain. This won’t be true for everyone. We’re back to that old chestnut that if you can heal by making a few minor lifestyle adjustments, you weren’t in that much trouble to begin with, and your experiences aren’t a fair guide for what everyone else can expect.


Enchanted beech leaves

They unfurl as delicate, pale greens. There is something about the way light passes through a beech leaf in May. Something otherworldly, and unlike what happens with any other tree. Beech leaf filtered sunlight seems to come from somewhere else, from a different time, a better place. The light that falls through them is softer, and full of possibility, and the leaves themselves glow with it.

A beech wood in spring is a magical place. If you were going to see a unicorn anywhere, it would be here, amongst the bluebells, in the beech leaf light. If you were going to step into a fairy tale, these springtime paths would be the ones to carry you off.

As the year turns, the beech leaves darken and no longer let the light through. The beech wood will become, for a while, rather like any other wood – wonderful in its own ways, dappled and inviting, but not as suggestive of magic.

In the autumn, it will become a place of extraordinary colour again, as the beech leaves yellow, and then turn towards remarkable copper hues, and blaze for a while.