Category Archives: Nature

Slugs, Snails and Druids

Slugs and snails are not the kind of glamorous creatures people like to identify with as animal guides. But, if we want to deal with nature as it really is, not fantasy-nature that serves our egos, then everything is worthy of attention.

Slugs and snails are without a doubt a problem for anyone growing their own veg. I had a garden once that didn’t grow anything well, except slugs; anything I put in the ground was rapidly eaten. I moved over to taller fruit bearing plants, and all was fine. That garden was also really popular with hedgehogs, and this is not a coincidence.

We’re often too quick to assess nature in terms of what it does for us. Slugs and snails do nothing for us that we recognise and value, and so we see them as pests to get rid of. They are food for many other creatures though – again, creatures who do not provide us with utility. Snails are especially important food for thrushes, who are also in decline. Smaller slugs are eaten by all sorts of birds.

Snails, taken as individuals, are rather charming. They have the capacity to hide away for long periods during dry spells, appearing in the damp apparently from nowhere. Little underworld creatures who are summoned out by the darkness and the rain. Carrying their homes with them, but still desperately fragile and all too easily killed, they have a lot of potential as symbols for anyone who wants to dig in with that. Their shells are pretty, and piles of their shells tell you that a hedgehog, or a thrush is around.

My grandmother had a garden bench, and her resident hedgehog always used to go under this to eat snails in the night. As a child I was fascinated by the piles of whitening shells.

Slugs are one of my least favourite things to touch and I have a lifelong repulsion over the feeling of them on my skin. However, they are incredible scavengers, and when it comes to tidying up, slugs are amazingly good at it. Their admittedly gross (from our perspective) eating habits are a major contributor to the ground around us not being covered in a thick layer of horrible things. I’ve seen them eating shit. They get in for dead things that nothing else will touch – plant and creature alike. When one of them has been trodden on, another will come along and tidy it away. They are masters of decay and deconstruction.

Slugs and snails, like so many other creatures, invite us to examine our priorities. They aren’t here for us. They don’t serve us. It’s not all about us. We destroy ecosystems because we only see the world in terms of how it serves us directly, and this is something we need to get over, if we are going to continue as a species. We need to see the good in things without them having to be specifically good for us.


Seeking wildness

When we talk about wildness, in the natural world and in the human psyche, we tend to mean something uncontrolled. So a storm is wild, but a gentle spring day isn’t. Rampant lust, extravagant actions, and unguarded behaviour may be labelled wild, or feral in humans. We don’t talk about sleeping as wild, even though it’s one of those basic, mammalian activities. We’re much more alert to the wildness of large predators than we are to small birds living wild in our gardens.

Often, this means that ‘wild’ is a criticism, and the opposite of civilized. It’s a way of thinking that does not help us preserve wildness. It reserves everything tame for the human sphere, so it also undermines our sense of how much we are part of nature.

Wildness isn’t just exoticism, danger, excess and intensity. Wildness exists in the flowers growing at the margins. It’s there in a cool summer morning, and in the slushy greys of a winter day. There is wildness in our parks and gardens. It doesn’t have to be all about drama.

In ourselves, we are wild when we are sleepy and want to curl up in a sunny spot for a while. We’re wild when we’re picking blackberries, when we sweat and when we move around. We might only notice our wildness when it manifests as drama, but really it’s there any time we put our feet on the ground or expose our heads to the sky. It’s there when there’s rain on your face, and when the wind ruffles your hair. It’s there when you seek comfort from the fur or skin of another living being.

You don’t have to be running mad in a forest to be wild. You don’t have to be out of control to be wild – most wild things are not out of control. You don’t have to be extreme or unreasonable – most mammals live in cooperative groups. If we can reclaim the gentler forms wildness takes, we can stop setting up civilization as the opposite of wildness and better see how the two can inter-relate.


Resources for connecting with nature

Over the last few days I’ve started to properly notice a change in the length of the day. The evenings are opening up a bit. I’m still getting up in the dark, but I know that won’t go on for much longer.

I struggle with the short days of winter. When it starts to get dark, I get sleepy. It’s difficult to find the energy for anything much in the evenings. I am clearly the sort of creature that is supposed to hibernate. Much as I value the darkness, I definitely enjoy it more when there’s less of it!

For me, spring and lighter evenings mean more scope to get outside. I love twilight, but in the winter it’s too cold for me to be loitering about outside. There are no sheltered spaces I can use. I have no garden and no outside space of my own. I’ve been thinking a lot about how much my experiences would change if I had somewhere I could easily sit out for half an hour, wrapped in a blanket, cuddling a hot water bottle. How much access to nature depends on human resources, especially if you aren’t entirely hale and hearty.

Many of our homes and most of our urban spaces have not been built to keep us in relationship with nature. I crave permeable spaces, sheltered enough that I can be in them, open enough to the night and the sky that I can experience them. The easier it is to get warm and dry, the easier it is to chance getting cold or wet. I wonder what our living arrangements would look like if they were designed to facilitate our relationships with the wilder world, not simply to try and insulate us from it all.


The Emergency Tree Plan

The Emergency Tree Plan is The Woodland Trust’s plan to increase tree cover across the UK and tackle the climate and nature crises. The Committee on Climate Change states that the UK needs 1.5 million hectares of additional woodland by 2050 to help hit the net zero carbon emissions target.

Trees and woods can help to fight climate change by storing carbon, keeping it locked up for centuries. The trouble with seeing trees as a ‘magic bullet’ for climate change is of course that we could end up with something fairly sterile designed to benefit humans, but no good to wildlife, nature, ecosystems or the complex wellbeing of life itself. This plan doesn’t simply see trees as a commodity for human benefit, but is about integrating climate action with nature recovery.

Happily, the first priority expressed in this plan is to protect and expand existing woodland. Without a doubt, saving existing trees and helping woods naturally regenerate are the most useful things we can do. But, that won’t work everywhere.

I think there’s a great deal of good to be done here with urban tree planting. How many ‘parks’ are little more than big empty areas of grass? Good perhaps for the odd football game, but utterly boring and featureless the rest of the time. Not only would more trees help store carbon, but they would enrich such urban spaces with beauty and interest, and create urban habitats for wildlife.

The plan varies depending on which country you are in within the UK – here are the links.

Wales http://www.woodlandtru.st/jBtws

Northern Ireland http://www.woodlandtru.st/H2D33

England http://www.woodlandtru.st/dUfva

Scotland http://www.woodlandtru.st/qvqKE

 


Blood, hormones and identity

Up until a few years ago, I had a very regular monthly cycle. I’d get a couple of days of melancholy, six days of bleeding and acutely aware of anything that wasn’t ok in my life. Then a few days off, and the upswing into ovulation and then a quiet patch and then round again. It was part of me. What I didn’t know was how much that sense of self would change around the menopause.

So here we are, some years into cycle uncertainty and hormone tsunamis. My experience of my own body has changed dramatically. It’s a lot more unpredictable. I’ve no relationship with these hormone bursts so don’t experience them as part of my own identity. They just happen to me. While I get the experiences of bleeding, ovulating and whatnot, the unpredictable timing has changed how I feel about it. What used to feel intrinsically ‘me’ is now simply stuff that happens.

I was worried I would experience this as a loss, but that’s not happened. If anything, it’s opened up space for a more complex experience of myself and my emotions. I am interested to see who and how I am on the far side of this. I will not be less than I was, just different. I may be more ‘me,’ even.


Spirituality and Selfishness

The general wisdom is that selfishness is the enemy of spirituality. This goes very effectively with transcendent spirituality that aims to overcome this life. However, if you are doing embodied spirituality, you aren’t mortifying your flesh. A little selfish thinking in the form of self care becomes a very different proposition.

There are many different forms selfishness can take, and much of it is good. We should be able to devote time, care and resources to dealing with our needs. It should be perfectly ok to want things, to act on personal desire and to pursue your own goals. Without a degree of selfishness, how are you to follow your calling, or your awen?

I’d go further and say there should be times when we get to put ourselves first. I think this is especially important for anyone who was raised female in a context that reinforced gender stereotypes. Girls are often taught to put other people first. What is read as go-getting, ambitious and desirable in a boy, or for that matter a man, is often treated as mean, selfish and unreasonable when girls and women do it.

How much scope you have to be selfish will also likely depend on your race and class, how much money you have, how much power. Who gets to put their own needs first and who is expected to serve others first is a question we should ask routinely. It’s all too easy for the person who has a lot of scope to be selfish to ignore what that costs everyone around them.

As is so often the way of it, selfishness is a question of balance and fairness. It’s not an easy thing to explore, either. For people who feel obliged to martyr themselves, looking at alternatives can be scary. For people who have never questioned their own entitled attitudes, this can be uncomfortable territory. However, if you’re serious about a spiritual path, then challenging yourself is going to be part of that.

Most mammals manage to live more selfish lives than we do without bringing each other down. Most mammals do what they have to, and then sleep, play, sunbathe, and socialise. It’s more sustainable to be selfish when you don’t need a lot of resources to do that, and often the most satisfying things we can do to answer our own needs don’t call for a lot of resources anyway.

In seeking simple bodily comfort, we work with nature as it manifests within us. Enjoying this as selfishness can help us resist the things we are sold as ‘luxuries’ to compensate for the simple animal needs we aren’t meeting. Slowing down is selfish – you aren’t powering the economy. Working less, owning less, buying less – these things often make life easier, and take us away from consumerism.


Tree Love

I took a tree theme for this year’s inktober, although I didn’t manage an ink drawing every day. For the first time, I did the ink drawings without sketching in pencil first.

 

If you’d like to join me in supporting The Woodland Trust, visit https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/ 


Taking my body outside

Taking a Tai Chi class this year has changed how I think about my body, how I move, and how I interact with my environment. It’s made me aware of how my presence in my own body informs my relationship with what’s around my body – most especially, the ground.

One of the things the Tai Chi calls for is a deliberate process of moving weight between feet. Walking at the weekend I realised this had become part of how I think about moving. I noticed it when dealing with serious mud, and with muddy steps of awkward height. I’ve never been confident on slippery surfaces, and my depth perception isn’t great so judging an uneven surface is hard work.

Move the foot empty, is the constant refrain in my head. I know how to centre my weight over the other foot, how to use my knees so that the step out is balanced and I’m not committed. Then, moving the weight across while the feet are still. It creates far less scope for sliding, over-extending or falling. I discovered a body-confidence I’ve never had before.

When paths are really muddy, in the past I’ve had to slow down to deal with them. It’s been exciting not having to do that so much. My scope to enjoy the conditions and what’s around me has shifted as a consequence.

There are so many things we treat as though they should be innate, natural and not needing study. How to move the body is one of those – we learn to walk when too young to remember it, and most of us never think about that again. And yet, there are so many ways to move and manage a body. So many different things a body might do well, or badly, or not at all. So much good that can flow from being able to explore all of this.

So much of what we talk about in Druidry is spiritual and/or intellectual. It’s easy to forget that we encounter the rest of the world through our bodies, and that our embodied experiences are intrinsic to this spiritual path. What your body can or cannot do is going to impact on your Druidry. The simple process of learning how to shift my weight and how to think differently about my feet has entirely changed how I experience the world when it is damp and slippery underfoot.


Questions of aging

Western culture frames aging as a bad thing, and one that we must tackle through the purchase and use of products. Buying stuff to look younger means using material we wouldn’t have needed if we’d been ok about aging in the first place. Make-up, hair dye, skin products, botox and I have no idea what else – but it all clearly has a carbon footprint, creates waste materials and reduces our confidence in ourselves.

It would be better for the planet if we could just get on with getting older and not feel like we have to disguise that totally natural process. If we respected age, then signs of aging would be no issue at all.

One of the issues here is that aging can reflect all sorts of things about our lives and personalities. How your skin ages will be different if you’ve spent a lot of time in the sun, or haven’t. Smoking affects how we age, so does diet. How much fat you carry affects how lines show in your face. Habitual expressions settle into our skin.

It would be better, I think, if we were all less worried about the fact that we age, and more concerned about how we age. The face of a person who has lived well, and richly, and who looks like their body has been lived in, should be something to enjoy and celebrate. The way our lives mark us should be something to take pride in, not feel reduced by. It’s good to have character and be distinctive, and there is far less to be said in favour of looking like a Ken or Barbie doll. We need to give ourselves permission to be real mammals, not plastic toys.

For some people of course, that aging process doesn’t go so well because of what appears in their faces. I know several people who I don’t much like, whose middle aged faces are starting to show those sneering, unkind expressions that are part of who they are. The reasons I don’t like them are, increasingly written all over them. There’s a certain amount of justice in this. The only way to avoid aging in this way is to not go round covered in unkind facial expressions.

Equally, people I know who tend towards kindness, laughter, compassion, and concern are clearly aging with faces that show these things. It doesn’t matter how old and wrinkly they get, their faces will be an expression of the kinds of people they are, and I will always find that lovely to look at.

For some of us, the lines in our faces will be caused by pain and grief, by loss and suffering. I suspect the face I’ll be taking into my latter years (assuming I get there) is going to look worried.

And for some of us, aging won’t be a thing. Accident, illness or violence will account for us before we have chance to get old. It’s worth remembering that getting to grow old is a blessing not everyone experiences. Most of us would prefer whatever state our faces wind up in, to no face at all. If our culture wasn’t so inclined to death-denial, we might be able to talk about this more, and view aging from a different perspective.

 


Fat Shaming

There is no evidence that making fat people feel unhappy about their weight does anything at all to bring about weight loss. However, people who fat shame others routinely hide behind the excuse that they’re doing it to help. Fat shaming people is a form of bullying, the mechanics of which need exposing.

I have some idea what shape my body is. At this point, my sense of self may be fatter than my physical presence. It may always have been – it’s hard to tell. I have never needed anyone else to tell me about this, and I am normal in this regard. Talking to people about their body shape starts from the assumption that somehow the fat person doesn’t know about their own body. At best, that’s patronising. At worst, it’s humiliating and destructive.

It’s ok to talk to fat people about their body shape if you are their doctor, their fitness coach, their physiotherapist, their counsellor, their nutritionalist or some other professional and qualified person working for them. If you aren’t qualified and you haven’t been asked then it is better to assume that your unsolicited opinion is neither helpful, nor required.

One of the great myths about fat is that it is simply a consequence of eating too much. It is because we are encouraged to see fat as a moral failing that we feel entitled to humiliate fat people in the guise of ‘helping’. There are many causes of fat, including physical illness, medication for bodily ills and mental health problems, sleep deprivation, and possibly stress. We don’t know how pollution impacts on fat storage. We do know that starving yourself increases your chances of subsequent weight gain, and we know that making people miserable and self conscious doesn’t help them change.

Poverty diets can mean you’re overweight and suffering malnutrition. Depressed people may be eating as a form of self-medication. Alcohol has a lot of calories in it. If you don’t know what’s caused a person to gain weight, you aren’t qualified to tell them how to deal with it. If you give unsolicited advice when you don’t know what’s going on, you might encourage the very behaviours that are causing the problem. Just because a person is thin does not mean they have a good understanding of how anyone else can also be thin.

If you are genuinely worried about the health of someone you care for, pointing out to them the health risks associated with their weight won’t do anything productive. Instead, why not find out what the problem is – maybe they are in too much pain to exercise and could do with some emotional support. Maybe they are in poverty and living on cheap carbs and you could help them by setting them up with a weekly veg box. Maybe they are so painfully self conscious that they can’t face exercise, and you could offer to go with them so they feel safer and more supported. Maybe their diet is being influenced by a controlling partner who wants them fat so that no one else will find them attractive – it happens.

Those moral judgements about fat mean that sometimes some of us can’t bear to see a fat person being happy. Some people act like its unacceptable for a fat person to be comfortable with themselves, and the reaction is to knock down hard with fat shaming. That’s deeply shitty. By ‘fat people’ here, in my experience we can also be talking about women who have recently given birth, and women who are anything other than bone thin. Fat shaming on social media and in the rest of life can happen to anyone female who isn’t a skeleton. Because it’s not really about the fat at that point, it’s about grinding women down.

If you care about someone, find out how to support them on their terms. Anything other than that, is about hurting, shaming and undermining a person. If you see it happening, speak up. Shaming people destroys self esteem and makes it harder to resist this kind of abuse, so it should not fall to the victim to have to deal with the perpetrator.