Category Archives: Nature

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.

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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.


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.


Otter encounter

Last night, walking home late after a Show of Hands gig (they were great) I saw an otter from the towpath. At first I caught a glimpse of movement out of the corner of my eye, and thought I was seeing a cat. I had a few seconds of a dark shape with an arched back over fully stretched legs. This is a pose I’ve never seen an otter in – and I’ve watched a lot of otter videos, and read otter books. The characteristic otter is fluid and close to the ground. This one was moving like a cat. Then it dropped into a more standard otter shape, and I realised what I was seeing.

I alerted Tom, and shortly after also alerted the chap who came down the towpath after us. We all stopped and looked. From a matter of yards away, the otter stopped and looked back at us. I’ve written before about how powerful I find this when encountering deer and foxes. I’ve never had a wild otter look at me before. He looked long and hard – from the size of him (huge, easily four feet from nose to tail tip) he must have been a dog otter. He looked at us like he was sizing us up and making choices. Then he carried on the way he had been going, down the lane parallel to the towpath.

We all stayed still, hoping for a second sighting. Not many yards away from us, the otter came up over an earth bank – fluid darkness moving like something in water, or something that is water. He crossed the towpath in front of us, flowed into the canal and swam off at an impressive pace, leaving the trademark trail of bubbles in his wake.

Given that otters have big territories, this is very likely the same massive dog otter we saw at the bus stop locally about eighteen months ago. My guess is that he was changing waterways – as there’s a small river on the other side of the road he was on, and otters have been seen and even filmed only a little way further up that river. The canal is teeming with fish, I see a lot of them every time I’m wandering along it. Last night it was also teeming with insect activity on the surface. The fish eat the insects, and the otter eats the fish. Given how itchy I am today, I think some of the insects had a good go at eating me, as well. It is curious to think that in a roundabout way, I may become otter food.


Leaves and sky

One of the things to love about this time of year is the beauty of bright new leaves framed by bright blue skies. While the leaves have been unfurling in my locality for weeks, we’ve now got to the point where most trees have at least something going on. More importantly for me, the beech leaves are out.

I live in an area dominated by beeches – the hanging beech woods of the Cotswolds helped shape my childhood. I feel less homesick when I’m away in places that also have beeches. Around beech trees, I feel more rooted and connected. When beech trees first open their leaves, they are an incredible, radiant green. This will slowly darken over the summer, but right now, it’s wild and vibrant. Look up at a beech tree with its stunning new leaves glowing against the backdrop of a bright blue sky, and for me, that’s pure magic. It fills me with feelings of wonder and delight.

Copper beeches are also a thing. Usually, chlorophyll is green, but it can also be red, and it’s the red chlorophyll that gives us the copper beeches. As their leaves first open, they look like they’re on fire. I’m blessed with two copper beeches close to home.

Experiences of wonder and beauty are as much about how we look at the world as what’s around us. Every day has scope for beauty in it if you’re willing to take a little time and look.


Return of the green

Greenness has been returning to my local landscape for weeks now. The slow unfurling of buds, the return of undergrowth, the shift in colour. The re-greening of spring is a long process, not an event. As I get outside every day in the normal scheme of things, I engage with this aspect of spring on a daily basis. I can heartily recommend it.

There have been years when I’ve failed to engage with the spring – mental health issues have been a big part of that. Experiencing it not as a daily development but as a dramatic moment is easier when you aren’t properly paying attention. That in turn is disorientating and has, in some years, left me with a profound sense of dislocation from the season.

‘Out into nature’ doesn’t have to be a big or difficult project. If there is anything non-human living where you do, then there’s scope to engage. Grass changes colour with the spring, becoming much more lush as it starts growing again. Flowers and small plants, even saplings will grow in the least promising of places. Any neglected ‘wasteland’ is soon reclaimed. Nature is not away, somewhere pristine and free from human meddling. Nature is with us all the time. Street trees do not consider themselves inferior to forest growth. The sparrows roosting in the street trees do not consider the trees to be anything other than their proper home.

When I was out yesterday, it felt like the greenery had reached a critical point. It no longer felt like it was getting started, and now feels like it is all under way out there. The green has returned. Small, opening leaves are everywhere. From a distance, the trees can look pretty bare, but up close, the unfurling is obvious. It’s also the smaller trees that leaf first – taking advantage of the light before taller trees get going – so to see what’s going on, you can’t view the wood as a whole thing from a distance.

For me, connecting with the plants is one of the easiest ways to connect with spring energy. Even if I’m not feeling so lively myself, I can delight in watching everything grow.


Too much information

Put me in a wood, a field or similar, and I’m a happy creature able to spot other happy creatures. Put me in a modestly busy human environment and I still function. However, in a busy human space, I can get really stressed and panicked. It’s a simple case of too much information. I can’t tune out the visual information or sound information coming to me. When there are hundreds of people talking and moving, I can’t concentrate on anything.

Some of this is hyper-vigilance issues, which in turn are a consequence of anxiety. Some of it is that I’ve always been good in woodland and able to spot small birds and rodents as well as larger presences. What’s good in a wood isn’t good in a heaving conference centre.

I made a bonnet for a recent steampunk event. Bonnets are Victorian gear, so, I knew it would fit in ok. They also radically cut down on peripheral vision. I reckon what I made cuts down my field of vision by about a half. Most especially it stops me seeing people who are almost behind me and enables me to focus on people who are in front of me. I was unsure whether this would reduce or increase stress. I think it depends on whether information overload or hyper-vigilance is your primary issue.

If your body is hyper vigilant, then things like having your back to a wall and being able to see all entrances and exits is more likely to reduce stress than simply reducing the information. Being caught unawares, or being harmed by what you can’t see coming is what your body is afraid of. The degree to which hyper-vigilance is an issue may also vary depending on how threatening you find the location. If you’re willing to experiment on yourself, cutting down on visual input may help you tell what’s going on with you, but the experimenting could cause discomfort. Also, we all react differently to different things, so if you do decide to explore this, bear in mind that you could have very different things happen.

Wearing the bonnet and cutting down how much I could see made me less stressed. I also had the opportunity to wear a large, woollen octopus on my head. The tentacles of the octopus also reduced my peripheral vision. I came through several large, very busy train stations while wearing the octopus, and that also reduced stress.

This leaves me pondering designs for blinkers – like the sort horses often wear to avoid being panicked. My suspicion is that blinkers could look kinky, so they may not be suitable for all circumstances. I’m also going to explore some hat modifications, because ear flaps might get me the same effect while helping keep my ears warm, and might not draw as much attention. Sometimes it’s good to be in a public space with a knitted octopus on your head, but sometimes it’s preferable to draw a bit less attention.


Urban Nature

I spent last weekend in the vicinity of Trafford Park – a massive shopping centre on the edge of Manchester. I was there with my husband and son for a steampunk event, held on an industrial estate, and staying in a Travelodge. At first look, this seemed like an intensely human-made environment. Signs for how many thousands of car parking spaces were available left me feeling a bit queasy. The traffic noise was relentless. It did not seem like a place in which a person could find much nature at all.

We walked between locations. As soon as we got moving, there were various small birds evident in the scraggly undergrowth. We had a close encounter with a wren, and my son identified goldfinches. There were rabbits grazing behind a massive fence. On the way back that evening, we saw three buzzards spiralling together over the monstrous shopping centre. All the low to the ground and close clipped shrubbery will provide a happy home for rats (Tom saw one), and rats provide food for buzzards, and likely foxes, too (although I saw no sign on them).

Walking from the Travelodge to the train station, we saw a heron, and Canada geese. Hawthorn trees were putting out first leaves.

Several times over the weekend we had lifts around the area from various people. From inside cars, we saw nothing of the wildlife.

If wild things can live in what looks like urban wasteland, then I think it’s safe to say that wildlife is most places. The smallest patch of grass, a single tree, are indicators that there will be other kinds of life, too. My sense of place changed dramatically when I realised I wasn’t in a terrible desert, that even with the soulless human constructions around us, life continued. Such spaces remain appalling habitats for humans and every other living thing, and we need to create much kinder spaces for ourselves.


Seeing the trees as well as the wood

There’s good news and frustrating news on the tree protection front as I write this. After years of pressure and campaigning, the government is finally, finally (we hope) going to improve protection for ancient woodland in the National Planning Policy Framework. This will take out the loopholes that were allowing developers to destroy ancient woodland.

The bad news is that at the moment, the document isn’t recognising ancient trees and veteran trees, and this needs fixing. Ancient trees appearing as single features in our landscapes have massive environmental and heritage value. And also, they are ancient trees, and writing this blog primarily to Pagans, I don’t think I need to make any kind of heritage case to you for ancient trees.

Trees are amazing habitats themselves, and many insects can be quite tree-specific in their preferences. I’ve been on night-time moth hunts run by local environmentalists, where I saw firsthand how the presence of an unusual tree means the presence of unusual moths. I’ve also been into young woodlands that have been allowed to grow up, or been planted around existing ancient trees. I know where there are ancient trees standing in hedgerows, and alone in fields, and they can be found in urban environments, too. Ancient trees exist outside of ancient woodlands, and they need protecting too.

At this stage, it’s really important to have public support for the changes. You can bet that developers will be lobbying until the very end, trying to make it easier to cut down anything that gets in their way. So, if you’re in the UK, do please take a moment and comment, and encourage the government not only to stick to what they’ve said over protecting ancient woodland, but also to get protection in place for standalone ancient and veteran trees. Go here to have your say – http://bit.ly/ProtectAncients