Category Archives: Nature

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.


How we understand nature

Nature is incredibly diverse, and it is worth paying attention to the kinds of stories we tell about it. This week I saw a group of Druids (all male, which may not be a coincidence) talking about how brutal nature is – the wolf tears the cute bunny apart. It was part of a conversation about how we have to square up to harsh realities and not wander about whimpering over our wounds.

Of course I know that wolves eat bunnies. But what I also see is the cooperation of the wolf pack. I see the rabbit warren. I see the wider ecosystem that supports them all. I see the way trees share resources through their roots and how they depend on fungi in the soil. I see the many ways that cooperation is built into nature.

I’ve also seen a seagull take a coot chick from in front of its parents. I’ve watched birds of prey hunt, many times. I’ve watched a buzzard take a rabbit. I’ve watched herons and kingfishers hunt fish. I’ve heard rabbits dying, screaming at the attacks of stoats or weasels, most likely. There’s nothing fluffy or uninformed about my perception of nature.

But even so, mostly what I see is the cooperation. The ways creatures look after each other. The way birds of many species cooperate to draw attention to common threats. I see how flocks work together to try and bewilder and overwhelm sparrowhawks.

The perception of ‘nature red in tooth and claw’ is a choice. It’s not the only available story. It is a choice of story that validates not helping the weaker ones. It’s a narrative that appeals to people who are safe and comfortable and who do not want to feel any obligation to anyone else. It’s a way of further putting down anyone who seems fragile. Survival of the fittest narratives can leave people feeling like it’s ok to abandon anyone who doesn’t meet their standards. It’s not a huge step from there to more fascist thinking, to embracing eugenics.

Some creatures do extraordinary things for each other – I saw a story the other day about a crow with a broken beak whose mate fed and supported her for many years.  Wild things don’t just leave the vulnerable ones to die. Not always. It’s a choice. It may be a choice that depends on available resources, sometimes.

I choose to see the cooperation inherent in the natural world. I choose to see connection and interdependence.  I choose to see how the wolf eating the deer benefits the wildflowers.  There are lots of stories to choose from. Nature is not averse to kindness. It’s not at odds with collaboration. Being nature-orientated does not mean having to accept and work with brutality. It’s just that people who favour brutality won’t find it hard to see stories that support their own world view.


Cats and Comfort

Cats have always been a tremendous source of comfort to me. My experience of cats flags up many of the things I find problematic in my dealings with people.

Most cats are really uncomplicated. If you treat them with care and affection, they will reward you with care and affection. And sometimes leave mice in your shoes. Cats have never been bothered about my face, or my body shape, or how I dress. They just want to snuggle, or play, or eat my toast. When I have been sad, the cats in my life have generally been inclined to comfort me. They bring their warmth and their purrs. When I have been ill, they have sat with me. When I’ve been unable to sleep, they have kept me company.

Cats just respond one body to another, one living being to another. There’s a beautiful simplicity to it. In that gentle acceptance, I find peace, and I get to feel a bit better about myself. Cats generally find me ok. They find me adequate and tolerable and reasonable. I know many people have similar experiences with dogs, and horses and other creatures.

I wish humans were better at being creatures together. I wish we were more straightforward about needs, and the need for comfort. I wish we cared less about appearance and more about closeness and what we can share. You won’t impress a cat with a fast car – rather the opposite. So long as there is food and shelter, a cat really doesn’t care about your bank balance. It is not that difficult to be a good enough person for a cat to like, or love.

Animals generally aren’t interested in the kind of posturing humans go in for to try and impress other humans. They’re much more accepting of our diversity than we are. They are entirely willing to find us good enough, regardless of age or wrinkles, or how well we conform to human notions of beauty. They aren’t afraid to be excited when they are pleased to see us. They ask for food, and walks and affection and so forth with the confidence of beings who know these are needs that should be met and that asking is fine. And we don’t mind them asking, where we might feel put-upon or otherwise uncomfortable if a person asked us so bluntly for things they needed.

Creatures we live with are quick to forgive us our shortcomings and mistakes. They don’t bear grudges very often. They don’t save up grievances to air at some future date. What they want from us is simple, and they express it as clearly as they can. There’s so much they generously do not care about that we take such issue over when dealing with other humans.

If I was a cat, I would not need to ask for your attention or affection. I could just climb into your lap, and the odds are you would be pleased, in a really uncomplicated way. You would feel warmed and affirmed by my presence, not uneasy, compromised or threatened.  I wouldn’t seem difficult, even if I wanted a lot of affection and attention.  We don’t second guess cats. We don’t worry about their motives, or what they might expect from us.

If only we better knew how to be creatures for each other, how to accept each other and take joy in those small interactions.


Writing about nature

When I first initiated as a bard, I pledged to use my creativity for the good of the land and for the good of my tribe. (Use of the word ‘tribe’ by white western Pagans is problematic to say the least, but that was the pledge nearly 20 years ago). The principle of making your art as an act of service is a good one, but how does that translate into action?

Writing about nature can be a way of engaging people with the natural world and inspiring them to notice it more and care about it more. If you’ve grown up urban, and never been taught the names of trees or butterflies or wild plants, then it can all be a bit of a mystery, and not in a good way. There’s quite a journey from seeing trees to seeing specific, individual trees with unique characteristics. Equally, it’s quite a journey from seeing some birds, to knowing a bit about those birds and how they live.

One of the things I try to do with poetry is to talk about nature specifically. Bandying the word ‘nature’ about doesn’t get much done – as this blog post already illustrates. It’s not a word that creates engagement. What seems to work best, is precision. A specific tree, an actual encounter, something personal, something experienced.

It can be tempting to make nature into a metaphor for personal experience, but that doesn’t do much to help the land. It fuels the idea of nature as a resource for humans to use if we deploy it in poetry as a way of talking about ourselves all the time. Equally, if the landscape is just a background framing human actors, it is still mostly scenery and mostly something we consume.

If you’d like any of my poetry, there are pdfs (pay what you like) on my ko-fi store – https://ko-fi.com/O4O3AI4T/shop

I was also a finalist in a recent competition to write poetry about urban trees – you can read that here – https://www.treesforcities.org/stories/our-poetree-winners