Category Archives: Nature

Poverty and Nature

Recently, a survey carried out by a washing powder company suggested that some 60% of parents don’t want their children playing outside because they don’t want them getting dirty. Clearly, given the outfit paying for the data, there’s scope for bias here. However, it got me thinking. The knee jerk reaction is to see misplaced parental prioritise, or laziness, but there could be another explanation, and that explanation is poverty.

Washing and drying clothes costs money – electricity, cleaning products, water, some means to dry. You’ve got to have enough clothes for the child that they can change while you deal with suddenly dirty clothes. You’ve got to buy that clothing, or source it from hand-me-downs. Further, there’s nothing like being out in nature to risk tearing and damaging your clothes, which is a problem if you can’t afford to replace them. And if that wasn’t enough, being outside for much of the year in the UK requires extra kit – waterproofs, wellies, extra warm things, more socks… if you have no money to spare, these are pressures you can’t necessarily manage.

Then there’s the question of accessing nature. The poorer you are, the less likely you are to live somewhere green. Big tower blocks with areas of grass around them do not nature playgrounds make. So you have to travel someone and to do that, you need to know where to go and to be able to afford to get there. Again, these may be luxuries that just aren’t available. Children in poverty are known to have less access to outdoor recreation, and are less likely to have bikes and other outside gear.

Back when we lived on the boat, my son went to a running club after school. They ran in all weathers, but he didn’t. It’s fine to come off a field filthy and soaking wet to be bundled into a car and back to a hot shower, a tumble drier, a massive supply of towels. It’s quite another thing to be filthy and soaked with a mile to cycle home, and nowhere really to dry anything when you get there. I expect the woman running it thought I was being a wimp, making a fuss. She pointed out to me that running is an all weather sport, and I didn’t feel equal to explaining to her the practical implications of living on a very small boat.

I recall a parallel story about urban archaeology exploring the contemporary archaeology of homeless life in Bristol. Homeless people came to watch and share information, but would not dig because they had little scope to change or clean their clothes and could not afford to be wet or filthy. It’s a similar issue. It is easy, safe and comfortable to get cold, wet and dirty when it’s quick and uncomplicated to sort that out afterwards. Not everyone has this option.

There is a known correlation between parenthood and poverty. There are increasing numbers of children in poverty in the UK. If we’re worried about children accessing nature (and we should be!)then simply blaming parents isn’t the answer. The problem of getting dirty may not be about middle class fussiness at all. I suspect it’s something else entirely.

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Staring at birds

One of the things I like about art, is how it makes you look at things. This is why my other half – artist Tom Brown – runs art sessions in a meditative context sometimes. Most of the time our looking can be fairly superficial, with much of what’s around us reduced to little more than backdrop and scenery. It’s god to change that.

Taking up colouring in the last year, I’ve had to pay much more attention to what things look like. How colour, and light and shape interact. What things look like, and what I can do with a pencil that might represent and suggest what things look like.

As I mentioned last weekend, I’m having a go at Inktober over on twitter. Every day I stick up an ink drawing. I’ve chosen birds as my theme. It’s already being a serious learning experience.

I sit down with a nature book, a pencil and a pad and I try to draw a bird from its photo. Something specific, and something striking enough to be recognisable – heron, avocet, kingfisher, curlew was where I started. They have shapes and colours that help them stand out from other birds. Of course every type of bird is unique, and there will be things that make it especially itself, but some of those are easier to represent than others. Some birds – like the kingfisher – can be expressed by their colours.

However, I’ve been pushing into the ink work more, and all my ink is black. Could I make a Canada goose look like itself without putting some brown pencil in the mix? Maybe.

Fractions of a millimetre in the length or curve of a line can turn one bird into another. I found it recently where working on a bear image that the differences between bear, dog and badger weren’t that big. A slight mistake on the face and the wrong animal would look back at me. And yet, we can look at these images and say dog, badger, bear where only a tiny fraction of difference exists.

For me it raises all kinds of questions about how we perceive and remember, how we sort shapes and use abstracts. How many lines do I need on the page to clarify which one is a duck, and which one a crane? Not many.


Talking about Nature

Earlier this year I ran into an free online course being run by the University of Gloucestershire, teaching ecolinguistics. It’s called The Stories We Live By. http://storiesweliveby.org.uk/  I’ve not completed it yet because I decided to read Arron Stibbe’s book Ecolinguistics. Each section of the course has notes from this book, so I figured it would be as well to read the whole thing.

Back when I did this sort of thing more (a degree course many moons ago) I always read whole books rather than the bits tutors waved at us because I wanted a broader and deeper understanding of things. I am out of practice with reading academic books, and it is slow going as I adapt to the language and concepts. Also, reading to study is no longer my primary concern, I just don’t have as much time to devote to this as I did when a student.

So, why ecolinguistics? This is about studying the kind of language people use to talk about the natural world, and how that language shades our stories and thus informs our choices. I feel that by studying this I will be better able to challenge other people’s ideas and dismantle them where I need to. As someone dedicated to the bardic path, the way stories work is an issue that matters greatly to me.

Mostly though, ecolinguistics is, for me, about my fiction work. I realised this year that I do not want to write books that could easily be classed as utopian or dystopian. I want to write books that imagine a better sort of future and how we get there, but I don’t believe in utopias, or find them plausible. I’m taken with Kevan Manwaring’s concept of Golden Dark, but I’m not sure I want to pin myself entirely to the dark side of the equation.  I also don’t have a clear enough sense of what, in terms of the details of how we live, needs to change. So I’m doing this course in search of inspiration.

One of the things the ecolinguistics course has made clear is that cultures are built out of shared stories. Those stories not only reflect where we are, but steer us in certain directions. They affirm some values and undermine others. While we tell each other stories about profit and power, conflict, consumption and GDP, we tie ourselves to planet destroying trajectories. We need stories about kindness, co-operation, hope, health and wellbeing and being part of the web of life. That all sounds profoundly Druidic to me! We need to change the stories we share, and look hard at the stories (often manifesting in adverts) that are telling us to trash everything for short term ‘profit’.


Urban bird watching

I gather that urban bird watching is becoming a thing, which is excellent news on many fronts. Bird watching is a lovely, de-stressing sort of activity, good for calming people. Awareness of wildlife tends to mean we take better care of it, and urban birds require urban trees. People bird watching are going to be people who support green spaces in urban environments.

If you have a garden, then adapting the garden to suit birds is the easiest way to see them. A bird feeder, a bird bath, a shrub or two to provide some shelter and they could come to you. However, in areas where gardens are tiny and sterile, birds are rarer. It may require working with your neighbours, or looking further from home.

Parks are an obvious place to seek birds, but big expanses of cut grass are not much of a habitat for anything. You’ll find birds where there are trees and hedges – often that means the edges of parks. It can also mean the edges of roads. Canals tend to be good. Derelict sites with plant matter on them can be much better places for wildlife than parks. Urban trees are always worth keeping an eye on.

In an urban environment, bird watching is a much more visual activity. When I’m watching in semi-urban and rural spaces I’ll often find birds by hearing them first, but in city spaces there’s usually too much background noise. While pigeons turn up at ground level, most urban birds will be higher than your line of sight, which means changing how you move through urban spaces.

Of course to be a bird watcher, you have to not be tuning out your environment and not mostly staring at your phone. You have to be present and paying attention. Not paying attention is, for many people, the key to making town and city life bearable. However, it’s when we start paying attention to the environments that we create that we might start doing something about them. Perhaps the new movement of urban bird watching is the first step towards changing cities.


My inner child’s stripy friends

There’s nothing like a caterpillar to bring out my inner child. Perhaps it is because they go into the world so undefended, munching their way through everything. I was always hungry as a child, and having watched my son being perpetually on a quest for food, I think there might be reasons for children to identify with caterpillars.

At the moment, the stripy caterpillars are eating their way through the ragwort on the towpath. Black and yellow, they arrive tiny from their eggs and simply get on with eating and growing until they become quite large stripy caterpillars. Later, they will be cinnabar moths. What happens in between is both exciting and unsettling.

When a caterpillar pupates, the dormant butterfly or moth cells eat the caterpillar cells.

I find this really interesting, because the transformation into a butterfly is so often used as a metaphor for things human. Is our fear of death nothing more than the caterpillar’s silly fear of turning into a butterfly? Is the big scary thing we have to face just an opportunity to grow our wings, assume our adult form and fly free?

Knowing what happens, I can only hope my stripy friends have no idea what they’re doing. I hope they have no means of consciously experiencing the takeover of a new form. I wonder how this kind of thing ever evolved – not because I see it as a sign of ‘intelligent design’ but because I’d love to know the mechanics. You have to wonder about the kind of people who want to attribute deliberate planning of this sort of thing to their divine beings.


The validation of creatures

Often what I do when stressed or distressed is walk. The rhythm of it helps resettle my body, and the activity can help get the stress toxins out of my system. Green spaces are known to be good for mental health, and beyond that, there’s the powerful business of encountering.

I walked last night, with my husband and son, because I needed to try and clear my head and straighten my thoughts. We saw rabbits, deer, herons, a kingfisher, numerous small birds, fish, moths, bats… We got close to several of the herons, who opted to stay put and tolerate us moving through their territory. The deer watched us back. The bats flew close to our faces.

Wild things make their judgements in very different ways to humans. They judge our speed and direction, how loud or quiet we are, what kind of attention we pay to them. If they tolerate us it is because we are interesting and unthreatening. As far as I can tell, they do not care one jot about our body shapes, faces, bank balances, or social status.

To be in a space with creatures, to be in your creature body and in sympathy with wild things is a powerful kind of magic. It is one of the most affirming and healing things I know of. I have a lot of issues around how I deal with people, and whether I’m good enough. Last night reminded me that I am good enough for herons. Little grebes have no problem with me. Deer find me curious.

Domesticated creatures can be incredibly affirming too. The dog who rushes towards you, delighted by the mere fact of your presence, the cat who decides you are worth bothering with. The horse who comes over for a scratch. If a creature has the space to choose, and they choose to engage, it feels like a blessing, to me.

We humans make up a lot of stories and complications over who and what we are to each other and what it means, and what might be important. It’s exhausting, disorientating, and when you’re on the wrong end of it, painful. Sometimes it’s good to just go and hang out with a heron for a while.


Tree of the Year

At the moment, the Woodland Trust is doing a thing inviting people to name their tree of the year. More of that over here – https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/visiting-woods/tree-of-the-year/

I’ve been giving this a lot of thought. Perhaps quite naturally, people tend to pick large, ancient, dramatic trees. I do have a couple of pretty large oaks in viable walking distance, but they’re in amongst other trees so impossible to photograph. There’s another oak on the canal that I like not least because it so often has a heron stood in it. Most of my favourite trees aren’t that dramatic.

I love the wild plum on the cycle path, with its cheery flowers in early spring and tart summer fruit. There’s a copper beech I really like on one of my routes, and a number of urban trees in town whose shade I welcome on hot days and who provide homes for creatures. Around my home there are ash trees – young and pushy, and none of them standout but it’s because of them that there are so many wild birds outside my windows.

I think the short of it is that there are many trees I like and none at the moment that have become special to me in a way that makes me want to say ‘this one tree here should be tree of the year’. But it may be that you do have a particular tree in mind and can jump in and tell everyone about it.


Hypnotised by swifts

Swifts are summer visitors to the UK. Last night I was out watching them over the river and in the fields beside it. I am unsure as to how many there were, but I think there were dozens. They move so quickly that counting much beyond three proved impossible.

It struck me that there are many balances involved in what swifts do. The balance between calories in from catching bugs and the energy needed to keep hunting the bugs. The physical balances in the air as they turn, swoop and dive, making what to me seem like very fast decisions about where to be. Several flew right past my head. For birds there are always balances around having enough weight to survive and not so much weight as to get in the way of the flying.

They flew close to each other, constantly in motion, their patterns of proximity changing all the time. It was hypnotic to watch.


Flowers for the solstice

One of my ongoing issues with the Pagan concept of the wheel of the year is that it can focus a person’s sense of the seasonal down to eight key days. Outside, the cycle of the seasons is a process from day to day, and if you aren’t engaging with it day by day, you’ll miss things. That in turn can help perpetuate the simpler eight key points narrative because we don’t tend to see the things we aren’t looking for.

The demoiselle flies (smaller than dragonflies, but different from damselflies because they have dramatic black wings) tend to show up a few days before my birthday. A week ago there was a big hatching. A couple of days ago I saw my first dragonflies of the season. Most of the garlic has died back, most fledglings are now out of the nest, but there are still clutches of new ducklings hatching. That’s true where I live, for this year, but next year may be different.

This year I have particularly noticed the arrival of cranesbill flowers and meadowsweet. As there’s a lot of foliage growing, they were able to do all their leafy growth without my spotting them, but now the flowers are out, the plants are a distinctive presence. The purples of the cranesbill flowers, the misty clouds of fragrant meadowsweet. I didn’t have them in my head as a solstice flower, I don’t remember exactly when they appeared last year. I tend to think of meadowsweet as something that blooms later on, and perhaps it is. Many of the usual rhythms are being thrown out by climate change.

You have to catch a cranesbill just right to see why it has the name – the flowers themselves are nothing like cranes. It’s the forming flower bud, which, before opening, looks just like a head and beak. There an edge plant, so look for them in hedgerows, along shaded footpaths and at woodland edges.

More about cranesbill here – https://shop.reallywildflowers.co.uk/products-page/wildflower-plug-plants/meadow-cranesbill/

And a lovely piece on meadowsweet here with herbal and mythical properties https://whisperingearth.co.uk/2012/07/06/meadowsweet-queen-of-the-meadow-queen-of-the-ditch/


Fox Tales

I’ve been seeing a lot of foxes lately. It might be tempting to read something spiritual into this, but I don’t think that’s the size of it. My energy levels have improved so I’m up later, and walking back from things later which increases the chances of an encounter. I’ve also built up, over the last few years, an awareness of where foxes tend to be, which helps.

Stroud bus station is not an overtly promising wildlife site. It’s not even a proper bus station – just some bays along the sides of a rather busy bit of road. Nonetheless, it’s a good place to see foxes, and I’ve spotted them around there repeatedly. On one occasion I called out ‘look, a fox!’ to alert the rest of my party, and the fox stopped at this and looked at us. We also had an otter encounter in the bus station on one occasion.

Recently, on one of those late night wanders home, we ran into a fox, and then realised said fox had cubs, and the cubs were trying to cross the road. There was a lot of traffic, and several heart stopping near misses. Now, when it comes to wildlife my default is to leave it to do its thing. I won’t rescue anything from anything else. However, that rule doesn’t apply to cars or any other human way of accidentally or deliberately killing creatures. We were a party of four, dressed darkly, with no kit, and we could not leave the fox cubs to play with the traffic.

It would be fair to say that foxes are not the easiest creatures to herd, because they are clever and inherently uncooperative. It would also be fair to say that a fox idea of road safety is a whole other thing. Mamma fox had picked the least visible spot on the road from which to jump out – through a fence and down a drop of several feet into the oncoming g traffic. I appreciate that the element of surprise often works for foxes, but not on this occasion. So, we put ourselves in the way, and we kept the fox family off the road until the traffic calmed down, then we left them to it. We were gifted with some close encounters, and a cranky mamma fox trying to outwit us to move her cubs.

It was in many ways a humbling experience. I have no magical fox talking gifts that allow me to explain to a wild creature why it might want to work with me for a few minutes. I had no way of telling mamma fox that I was not the threat to her cubs. I had no way of telling the curious cubs that I was not to be taken as a model for human interactions – we got close a few times as we kept them out of the traffic. I had no way of magically protecting them. It comes to something when you’re stood on the side of a road at ten o’clock at night looking a grumpy fox mother in the eye and saying ‘please, just stay there a minute, we aren’t trying to hurt you, we’re trying to keep you alive’ and then she makes a longer loop to run round you and try again. I worried about how tired she was getting. I worried we were making the wrong call, and not helping at all just playing out our arrogance. Just because you think you’re a Druid doesn’t mean you can step in and save the day.

One of our party bravely went back the next day to see if there were any corpses. I thought about it, and worried, and could not bring myself to go and look. But, there were no squashed fox cubs. As close to a validation as I will get.