Category Archives: Nature

Nature pushes through

The natural world offers us many examples of incredible action against the odds. From the tiniest plants breaking their way through pavements, to the epic challenges of migration, to life clinging on at the edges in the least likely places. Nature pushes through. It is tenacious, it does not give up, it takes on the most outrageous challenges.

If we read the book of nature as our guiding text, there are lots of examples of how struggling to overcome is part of the natural order. We can also see lots of examples of effort; the busy bees, the diligent ants and so forth. None of these things are properly models for us.

When we turn to nature for guidance and inspiration, it is important to remember that everything we see has evolved to do what it does. It’s evolved over a very long time to have the kind of existence and form that allows it to do what it does. The trek of the penguins inland in the Antarctic is a peculiarly penguin activity. Mammals who migrate do so to survive. Most mammals have not evolved to live in a state of perpetual crisis where having to make colossal efforts to survive is an everyday thing.

We are not tiny seedlings pushing the tarmac open. We are not grazing herds obliged to cross crocodile infested rivers to find food. We are not salmon swimming upstream to find the place we were spawned. We might take ideas and inspiration from anything of this nature, but it is really important to remember that we are not part of these stories. We can do amazing things in the short term, we adapt and survive startlingly well with these soft bodies of ours. Even if you profoundly identify with another living being though, your body is still your body and has not evolved to do the things that creature does – or the semblance of it.

When we look to nature, it is vital to remember that nature also exists in us. We have evolved to be what we are and to deal with certain kinds of challenges. Most of those challenges are not the ones we meet in modern life. We’re supposed to be running away from predators, not stressing ourselves sick while sitting at desks. Looking to nature will not teach us how to deal with the unnatural environments we insist on creating for ourselves.

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Druidry with a body

In theory, if I honour nature then I should honour nature as it manifests in my own body. In practice, I’ve spent much of my life being unable to do this. I grew up affected by all kinds of social pressures to see my body as something I had to control, punish, discipline and feel ashamed of. Much of this revolved around the pressure to be thinner. Dieting and exercise were forms of self-punishment. Mostly what I was punishing myself for was having a body in the first place, taking up space and carbon, and not being good enough.

It’s taken me a long time to learn to have a kinder relationship with my own body. What I’ve learned through the Druidry has certainly helped me do this. The more I think about mammals and trees, landscapes and the elements, the harder it is for me to ignore the double standard around human bodies. Seals are allowed to have blubber, trees are allowed to be twisty, landscapes are allowed not to be smooth… and as I’ve learned to see myself in relation to the rest of the world, I’ve learned not to hate my body for being a body, and not to punish it for existing. So what if I’m not as thin, smooth, delicate or pretty as other people have wanted me to be? So what if I don’t want to dress or move in overtly sexualised ways? My body, my choice.

A few years ago I put down the notion of dieting. I eat what I want. I eat with the intention of keeping my body healthy and making sure I have the energy to do all the things I want to do. If I’m feeling fragile, I eat more carbs, because protecting my mental health is important. I’ve lived this way for a few years and I have not piled on the pounds – rather the opposite. I think it’s because I’m making sure I have the energy to do stuff. Starving myself has, in the past, left me with no energy to be active, and one way or another, this just encourages my body to store fat.

When it comes to exercise, I have in recent years also put down the notion of exercise as self punishment. I only do what I enjoy. I do the things that promote good mental health – walking, swimming and dancing are all good for my head. I’m still using the trampoline regularly as that also helps with my cranky lymphs. I do other things when I feel like it, and not as a form of flagellation. It’s worth noting that as I’m not trying hard to be fit or thin, just happy, I am actually a lot fitter than I used to be.

I rest more. I rest when I need to. I sleep more. I don’t push, I don’t tough it out, I don’t keep going. I stop at need. It is definitely better this way.

I live in my body and with my body. In recent years I’ve tended not to think of it as something separate from ‘me’. It is not something I have to control and punish. I realise how much of the controlling urge comes from a culture that sees animal as lesser than human, and anything animal manifesting in the human as shameful. My wanderings in druidry have taught me to question this, to celebrate the mammal nature of my body, and to be a good deal more comfortable in my own skin.


Seasonal tree sniffing

One of the great joys of autumn for me, is smelling the trees. After the hot summer, it does feel a bit like autumn is coming early, and it definitely smells like it, with wild fruit ripening sooner, and all that follows from there.

Falling leaves and leaves that start to decay produce some wonderful, earthy smells. There are dry, crisp leaf smells, too. This is best experienced where you have a lot of leaves and not too many invasive smells from other sources – in built up areas, we can lose the tree smells all too easily. For autumnal tree sniffing, you really do need to be in a wood, for best effect, and as far from traffic as you can manage.

It is important to me to explore the dying away and decay inherent in nature as well as the growth and new life aspects of cycles. There is beauty in decay, as autumn leaves reliably illustrate. There is a magic in returning to the soil, and regeneration.

The smell that I most delight in, is the smell of rotting and fermenting fruit. In a domestic context, fruit rotting or accidentally fermenting is generally bad news, so it’s not a smell everyone will automatically find attractive. Out in the wild, that process is just part of what happens. It also softens fallen fruit in a way that makes it easier for some other things to eat. So does frost. If fallen fruit is allowed to just lie there, it will feed birds through the winter. I’ve seen massive flocks of fieldfares come to apple trees for the fruit left on the ground. Not tidying these things up brings enormous benefits.

Sometimes, the smell of fallen fruit in autumn is the only clue you get to the presence of an otherwise hidden wild fruit tree. If you like to forage, it can be a good indicator that will lead you to a fruit tree. Smells can travel, and if you can follow your nose, you will know where the fruit is for next year.

For me, fallen fruit smells heady and a bit intoxicating. It is an intense smell, not always an uncomplicated joy to inhale, but very real and immediate and natural, and I enjoy it in much the same way that I enjoy the heady excess of an over-ripe blackberry. Too-much is something nature does, sometimes; it isn’t all moderation and balance. Sometimes the apparent balance of nature is created by different kinds of excess. This is something I look for and actively appreciate.

For woodland foraging advice in the UK, go here – https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/visiting-woods/things-to-do/foraging/


Chasing shooting stars

Last night my household went forth at midnight in search of meteors. The internet had assured us that it would be a good night to see them. The internet had also given us a weather warning for thunderstorms, so we knew it might not work. What we got was somewhere short of storms, and largely devoid of stars, shooting or otherwise.

I remember a party at this time of year, back in my teens, when I and many of my friends lay out on the host’s drive to watch the shooting stars. There were a lot of them and it was really beautiful. This is debris from a passing comet, but for me, knowing the details of what’s going on in no way disenchants the experience. Space debris burning up as it enters our atmosphere is remarkable stuff, and a reminder that we really are open to things from other parts of the universe.

I wanted to see the meteor shower, of course. It’s easy to make something like that central to an experience, and to be sad, angry or frustrated when conditions aren’t suitable and you don’t get the thing you wanted. It was a cool, damp night and the cloud formations out over the Severn were dramatic and beautiful. We could hear owls out in the fields. There were crickets in the hedges. It felt glorious and ridiculous in equal measure to be getting up at midnight and going for a walk.

Life is so often like this. It’s easy to get focused on the apparently big, dramatic and important things and miss out on what’s actually there as the drama is failing to deliver.


The magic of sound

My guess is that the soundscapes we inhabit influence our thoughts and emotions all the time. Sound is vibration, and vibration happening to the body must have some kind of effect. The purring of a cat has an effect on me even when the cat is not in direct contact. Louder and more invasive sounds are more apparent in their effects, but the regular, less noticeable sounds of our daily lives must impact on us too.

I notice how much calmer I feel when there isn’t any traffic noise. It’s rare to find places and times without it – I live in a small town. There are quiet lanes where the traffic noise doesn’t reach, and times of day when there’s little of it. I relax into the quiet and relish being able to hear more of those little sounds around me.

I’m lucky in that my spaces for living and working are quiet. I live with people who don’t need a lot of noise. The window is open, I can hear bird song, but I’m also aware of the hum of the computer.

I notice sound a lot when I’m travelling, be that in a car or by train. A journey is a relentless encounter with the noise of machinery in motion. This I find exhausting. It’s difficult to tell what is the effect of vibration and what of it belongs to the sound of vibration, but I notice the relief when the noise stops. I wonder what it does to a person doing long journeys regularly, with all that noise and buzzing.

Last night I lay under the trees where the jackdaws roost and listened as they came in and settled. This is a big roost, and the sound of them is magnificent, and loud enough that I feel it as well as hear it. I’ve been out for the jackdaws in this way before, and I notice the joy it brings up in me, the way the sound washes over me and through me and something inside me responds to it. The sounds of geese have a similar effect. I remember the feeling of hearing cranes out by the Severn.

I can’t tell what’s my emotional response and what is physically experienced. Bodies are all chemical interactions and electrical impulses and I’m not sure it really matters what starts where. What I am certain about is that I feel better in myself when I’m exposed to the right sounds. Like most people, I respond well to sounds of water, but I am also deeply affected by bird calls, by the wind in leaves and by having enough quiet to be able to experience the small sounds around me.


The fairy wife

There are folk tales about fairy wives, who come on strange conditions and say they will leave if those conditions aren’t met. And of course the husband forgets, and does the thing he must not do – usually three times – and the fairy wife leaves and never comes back. I think there are ways in which these work as teaching tales – not about getting involved with otherworldly women, but about dealing with day to day life.

Our lives may be full of small blessings that we never really think about. We take them for granted, and we may take the people involved (where there are people) for granted too. Just because the conditions aren’t made explicit, doesn’t mean they don’t exist. If we do not show care and respect to what we’re involved with, it may be damaged beyond repair. It may desert us. It may no longer be able to work for us. Valuable things ruined because we didn’t pay proper attention to them are not unlike fairy wives.

There’s nothing wrong with conditions. Often they aren’t as arbitrary as the fairy wife stories. Usually, the conditions we have to meet are essential to making things work. If you do not take care of your tools, they will rust, get damaged, get lost – it is not their conscious decision to respond to you in this way, it is the inevitable consequences of your behaviour. People are much the same, and can themselves be damaged through poor treatment. The fairy tale of the goose who lays the golden eggs works along these lines, too. The person who lays golden eggs in your life is not to be taken for granted, either. If a person keeps laying golden eggs for you, there’s probably a reason – it may be love, or a sense of duty, or a desire to see you survive and thrive. Undermine that reason in some way and there will be no more eggs.

When something is reliable and substantial, it can be easy to take it for granted. A parent’s love. A friend’s support. A nice home. A beautiful landscape. Breathable air. A healthy ecosystem that supports your life. Clean water. We can pollute any of these things when we treat them thoughtlessly, disrespectfully. If we damage what was freely given, then like the fairy wife, it may leave us forever and never look back.


Drought, grass and diversity

We’ve had very little rain for weeks now. Places where there was just grass, and no shade, are dead-looking, dry and brown. However, a lot of plants are not dead and this reveals some interesting things. Grass that hasn’t been cut has held out for longer. Grass in any kind of shade is doing better. Grass protected by tree cover is doing best of all. Where there’s a mix of plants, those other plants are often surviving better than the grass. Grass in the company of non-grass seems to be doing better. Combinations of the above are also doing better.

Grass is pretty resilient and can make a comeback once there’s rain. In the meantime, it is easy to set on fire, and unable to support anything else much.

I honestly don’t get the British obsession with the lawn. The playing field at least has some obvious use to it. The neatly trimmed road verge where visibility is not an issue, the short grass of public spaces so rapidly worn away by passing feet… grass monocultures are in many ways useless, and yet we seem to love them. Possibly because we think short grass looks tidiest, and we love to tidy up nature. Right now, the ‘tidiest’ bits look dead and really unattractive.

Where there’s diversity on the ground, there’s a better chance of some plants being able to survive the conditions, whatever the conditions turn out to be. Plants have varying tolerances for sun and frost, drought and flood. By having a range of plants, we stand a better chance of not looking at dead ones. Plants are necessary for the existence of insects, and bees are in peril so we really need diverse planting that won’t be killed off so easily.

The moral of this summer for me, has been that in face of really challenging weather, trees are wonderful. I can sit out under trees – where the plants are still thriving. I can walk under trees, where the undergrowth is hanging on pretty well. Trees are amazing things.


Community and woodland

A healthy community and a healthy woodland have a great deal in common. Neither does well for existing in total isolation; threads of connection with other communities or woods are really important. A good wood has some diversity in it – different kinds of trees, a variety of underwood and undergrowth. It has birds and creatures. Equally, a good human community has diversity inherent in it too, but all too often what we do is connect up with people who are much like us – same age and gender, same class and education background, same sort of earnings level. We could learn a lot from trees.

One of the problems with tree planting is that you often end up with a wood where all the trees are the same age, and will all start to die off at the same time. It is necessary to thin out planted woods and allow young trees to come up after the original planting. A wood that will endure, has young trees growing in it.

Communities are the same. From school age onwards we’re encouraged to associate with people the same age as us. It means we grow up without access to the knowledge and experience of older folk and once we get older we may have little sympathy for the struggles of younger folk. If we live in an age-segregated culture, we may even have a sense that there’s inter-generational conflict. Perhaps at the moment there is, there’s so much abuse heaped on millennials.

Age-based human communities don’t endure. The spaces I like most are all-age spaces. You can show up with a kid in a pushchair, you can show up as a teenager and young adult, you can be there when you’re middle aged, and when you’re old. I like the atmosphere of spaces that have a broad mix of people in them. It’s a significant part of the attraction of steampunk, for me.

I go to too many events where those present are retired and very middle class. Often my son is the only teenager in the room, having grown up being the only child in the room at many events. Some of it, no doubt, is about disposable income and spare time, but we should be making spaces more accessible for people who work, have children and/or have limited funds. If a space looks old and middle class, it can be immediately unattractive to people who don’t fit. It can be hard being the one visible oddity in a room.

I don’t know how trees feel about other trees. People seem to find comfort and solace by being around similar, likeminded people. As we huddle into spaces populated by people who seem a lot like us, what we fail to notice, is that a great many other people who don’t superficially match, are also a lot like us.


Re-wilding my sleep

One of the few unexpected gifts from having been so ill for so long in the spring, is that I learned how to nap. I’d work mornings, and then flop on the sofa to rest, and often, sleep would follow. I’ve not been able to nap since early childhood, such that being sent off to nap as a child was distressing and frustrating for me. For much of my life, going to sleep has been really difficult, and in the last six months, that’s changed too.

Back when I was writing Pagan Dreaming, it struck me that sleep re-wilding could be a thing. When most of us sleep, and how long we sleep is dictated not by our needs, but our responsibilities. Jobs, families, and fellow denizens of the same house, school runs, traffic, the noise around us – these things all get more say in our sleep options than we do.

Imagine what would happen if we just slept when we needed to? Imagine how different life would be if the wellbeing sleep brings could take priority, not the back seat?

For some months now, I’ve been sleeping at need. I sleep in the afternoons. At the moment, I also have an option on sleeping in the morning. My dreaming has changed, becoming richer and more complicated. My thinking, now that I’m not ill, is sharper. At time of writing, I’m sleeping a lot more because there are distressing things I need to process and I do better at that when I can do it unconsciously.

Resting when you need to rest is a truly powerful form of self care. It boosts self esteem too. The person who is obliged to push on through exhaustion is being treated, or treating themselves as less important than the things they are keeping going for. It’s dehumanising after a while. The need for rest and sleep are fundamental needs, and often not taken seriously.

Resting and sleeping are normal mammal behaviour. Even mammals who have to chew a lot of grass to get their daily food rest more than humans do. We’ve made laziness a sin and industriousness a virtue. Laziness is natural, happy and rewarding. Industriousness is destroying the planet and taking all the joy out of life. The more able I become to sleep when I need to, the more I want this for everyone else. Why are we killing ourselves to go a bit faster or make someone else a bit richer? This is madness, and it is the cause of madness. Being sleep deprived will always leave you feeling inadequate and needy. Sleeping is the only answer to this, not the consumables we’re encouraged to use as a substitute.


Mammal communications

On Sunday, a heavy horse pressed his nose against the palm of my hand, and snuffled a bit. It was a moment that I found both affecting and affirming. Mammals do a lot of communicating through touch, and use touch as a part of social bonding. Most mammals are willing to touch and be touched as part of encountering and interacting with each other. Non-human mammals cheerfully extend this courtesy to humans, but we often aren’t very good at it. As mammals who have decided that we are separate from the animals, we don’t really do much touching in the normal scheme of things. Not by other mammal standards.

When it comes to humans, the question of who is allowed to touch who, and when, is complicated, rule-laden and tends us towards non-contact. Unlike other mammals we don’t touch to communicate with each other, most of the time. And yet, there’s a great deal of information to be gleaned from whether, or how a person touches you. Touch can express kindness and affection. It can also be an expression of control, or power over. It can be withheld as a form of punishment, or as an expression of unacceptability.

Professional humans who work with animals use touch to soothe and reassure. Professional humans who work with humans do not use touch beyond what the role demands and we are collectively pretty clear that on the whole, touching in a professional context is inappropriate. Even if the other person is crying and obviously in great distress.

Most mammals seem able to embody what they’re feeling and act upon it. I have an animal body, but I have no real idea how to embody anything. I can use words, which create a distance between what I feel and whoever I might be offering it to. I can and will talk calmly about how I feel, but I find it unspeakably difficult to rock up as a mammal and let my body speak for me. I am always surprised when anyone, any other living mammal, chooses to touch me. Be that a horse, or a person. I find it easier to know what to do with the creatures, because I don’t think they judge me on the same terms. So long as I am not afraid of them and move gently, they are likely to accept me. I’ve never really worked out what the rules are for people.

Maybe it is simply that, as I am more inherently afraid of humans than most other creatures that the mammal response to fearfulness plays out just the same as it would with a dog or cat. Is it my own fear that causes other people’s hackles to rise sometimes?

I’ve been round this line of thought before, always coming back to Mary Oliver’s lines about letting the soft animal of your body love what it loves, and wondering how that could be so simple and so painfully difficult all at the same time.