Category Archives: Nature

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.


Searching for owls

Being elusive night creatures, owls are not the easiest beings to see in the wild. However, May through to mid-June is the best time in the year to see them. Here’s how to do it.

Owls are nesting at the moment, which means they’re based in one location. I have no idea how owl territories work, but the rest of the time they clearly move about. We get them in a nearby tree intermittently, and unpredictably. Through the rest of the year I will hear tawny, barn and little owls at night – and they won’t be calling from reliable locations. If I see one it will be pure luck. But while they’re nesting, they keep showing up in the same place. If you can hear them, it is well worth keeping going back to that spot to try and see them.

Owls emerge around sunset, often at that point where the light is, for a few minutes, strange and magical. I gather from Elen Sentier that this is called owl light. This is the best time to see them. On emerging for the night, an owl will often call a few times, pairs may do a call and return process.

Tawny owlets emerge from the nest before they can fly. I suspect other owls do too, or will emerge long before they can hunt for themselves. The owlet will hop about between branches, testing wings, learning to glide, to flap… they are ungainly and this makes them easier to spot. They alert their parents to their presence by continually calling, which again makes them easier to find. As they rotate their heads and call in multiple directions, be aware that sound coming from just the one place won’t always sound like that from the ground.

With a growing owlet to feed, owl parents emerge earlier in the evening, because they need more time to hunt, so later in May and early in June the hunting time extends, and the odds of seeing an owl increases.

If you don’t hear owls, the best places to look have trees in, but also good rodent hunting nearby. My two best owl-spotting locations have been the canal, and a cycle path. In both cases there was a slim band of trees, or the odd tree at points on the canal, and then plenty of hedgerow and grass for hunting in. Barn owls do indeed tend to nest in buildings, so old buildings in rural locations are worth keeping an eye on.

Owls aren’t readily disturbed by humans – especially if you’re on a footpath, but don’t get closer to them. My experience last year was that both parents and chick were untroubled by an audience, indeed the young owl was as curious about us as we were about owls. With us on the path and the owls in the trees it was possible to be quite close without bothering them at all. If there’s a footpath, stay quietly on it, because footpaths definitely help wildlife feel more easy about human presences. It’s when we’re unpredictable that they are likely to panic.

If you’ve no owl experience, it may take a while to build enough knowledge that you can see them. However, if you listen for owls through the year, if you can get out in the dark at all, you may find you have owls in area, and then you can build on that to increase your chances of seeing them. You don’t need wilderness, you just need trees and places that mice can live. City parks, edges of towns, canals, cycle paths and other such green corridors can and do support owls. Even the grassy side of a road may be a hunting ground.


The power of street trees

Nothing humanises a human space like a tree. There’s an irony! When we make spaces that have nothing green in them, all we can make is cold, barren, and inhuman. We aren’t meant to live in pristine spaces devoid of other life. One of the best ways to bring life and colour to human landscapes, is by adding plants, because the plants allow so many other life forms to move in too. Being a big vertical space, trees are especially good at this.

Many years ago, visiting a friend I noticed that they were living in a place with almost no birds. It felt like a cold, drab place to me as a consequence. The reason there were no birds was obvious – small gardens boundaried by fences and not a tree in sight. The birds had nowhere to be, nowhere to feed, or shelter. I recall in contrast an otherwise rather empty public space, where there was a tree, and at night that tree filled with sparrows, and the space filled with the chattering songs of sparrows.

There is plenty of evidence out there that green spaces help with mental health. We know tree time is good for us. We know trees can help cut down noise pollution and that trees are good for air quality. We know that trees add beauty. Why isn’t every urban space planned so that it includes trees? It should be a no-brainer.

There’s a Woodland Trust Campaign to protect street trees – which are too often undervalued and as we’ve seen in Sheffield, can be cut down for really questionable reasons as things stand. http://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/blogs/woodland-trust/2017/04/street-trees/


Tree insights

If you’re a Druid studying the ogham, but you don’t live alongside all of the trees, it’s difficult making a connection with them. In theory, the solution is to swap in a tree local to you that has the same qualities – but without knowing the original tree, this is not an easy call to make.

The Woodland Trust, a UK charity, have done a thing I think Druids are going to find useful and inspiring. They’ve made a collection of small videos each capturing a year in the life of a tree. These are beautiful pieces, well worth watching for their innate loveliness. They also give a real sense of a tree in a landscape and its life through the seasons.

Here’s my absolute favourite, the beech,

And if you go to the The Woodland Trust channel on youtube, you can work your way through many others. Here are the ogham trees available in the set: Birch, Rowan, AlderAsh, Hawthorn, OakHazel, Crab AppleBlackthorn, Elder. There are other tree videos available aside from these, so do have a dig about!


Listening to the Undergrowth

Where there is undergrowth, there is life. It may not always reveal itself to the eye, but it will be available to the ears if a person is quiet. This isn’t just about beautiful remote places, but about the undergrowth on the edges of urban spaces, lanes, roadsides, the hedges on fields that are otherwise lifeless monocultures…

We humans have the bad habit of taking our noise with us – be that in earphones, over-involved conversations, or the noise that goes on in our heads. A person doesn’t have to move in careful silence to hear what’s around them – in fact conversation is still possible. What’s needed is more presence. If we fold into the little world of the verbal exchange we’re having, everything around us can go unheeded. If we’re first and foremost present in the landscape, and the conversation is secondary, then the landscape opens to us in new ways. Obviously if you can’t hear at all, this line of thought will be useless to you, but any sound sensitivity can made use of.

People who walk with me have to adapt to this! I will interrupt absolutely anything to point out wildlife, because the wildlife won’t wait for polite opportunities. I’ll break conversation threads for clouds and buzzards, plants and effects of the light. I delight in walking with people who do the same and will leap out of a conversation to alert me to a plant or some other point of interest. (Nods to Robin, if he’s reading this.)

The loudest sound in the British undergrowth is often the blackbird, foraging amongst the leaves. Attention to the sound will lead you to the bird, who is likely close by. Other ground foragers – thrushes, robins, wrens, can also become visible by this means. It is possible to see small rodents if you track them by sound. They tend to be quieter than birds, and sometimes all you can do is track the disturbance of the undergrowth where the rodent passes through.

Mammals tend to know we are around and will often move away from noisy humans before we get any chance to see them. However, if you can move through a space without disturbing it, you may get audio cues about mammal activity. It’s not as easy to see wild mammals as you might assume, but sometimes the sound will give them away. Many deal with humans by being still – in their silence and immobility, we don’t register them, often. But, a moving animal makes sound, and you can hear the movement over the terrain in that sound sometimes, and it is well worth paying attention to.

Of course listening also opens up a world of bird song, wind sound, sometimes water sound and animal cries, but that’s another story.


Protecting ancient trees

Right now in the UK, the government is considering a change to the law that would see ancient woodland and aged and veteran trees added to the list of the nation’s assets that should be explicitly protected from development. You’d be forgiven for thinking that these unique and precious woodlands would already be protected, but they aren’t, and there’s been a dramatic increase in threatened loss of ancient woodland from development in recent years. Four hundred woods in England are under threat as I write this, which is a devastating number.

 Any loss of ancient woodland or aged and veteran trees should be viewed as unacceptable, to my mind. This is not an infinite resource and we simply can’t replace it or offset the loss. Planting some new trees some other place does not offset what’s destroyed when we sacrifice ancient woodland in the name of profit. The subtle interplay of landscape and trees, plants and soil, and all the other inhabitants of ancient woodland can’t be magically re-created. We need to recognise the cultural and historical value of ancient woodlands as ‘heritage assets’.  I’d go further and say that we need to stop assuming that every other living thing on this planet is fair game for death and exploitation if someone can make a fast buck out of it.

If you find this blog post before the 2nd May 2017, you can participate in the consultation

https://campaigns.woodlandtrust.org.uk/ea-action/action?ea.client.id=1743&ea.campaign.id=64023

Or email your MP.

 We need a culture shift, internationally. We need to stop seeing everything in terms of human profit and human loss – where loss and profit are purely economic words. If we could see loss of habitat and loss of beauty as just as important, even, I dare to venture more important than loss of money, we’d be better citizens of the world. If we could collectively see the gains to be had by protecting biodiversity, that would be good. We need to wake up to the fact that the human-made built environment is not our natural habitat and makes us ill. We need trees, and trees urgently need us to realise this.


Penance and the disembodied

There are a number of concepts that I picked up early in life that make it hard to be embodied. As they were part of the environment of my youth, I expect it wasn’t just me.

Rather than thinking of food as being necessary fuel for the body, or a means to health and vitality, or a pleasure, eating seemed like a bad thing. Hunger – a perfectly natural bodily process – was something to rise above. Food should be eaten slowly, with care and tidiness, not gobbled up with enthusiasm. Second helpings should not be sought. Physical exercise was a penance you could do for having eaten food.

The notion that a person could enjoy their body, their food, their physical activity came to me rather later in life than was ideal. For too long, it seemed like the life of the mind, and perhaps the spirit were the only things worth worrying about and that all bodily things were there to be ignored, transcended or beaten into submission. A desire to be disembodied, not present.

It’s difficult to get into any kind of physical activity when you see it as punishment. You do it to atone for transgression, but not with joy, or for its own sake. If food is a vice, and burning off the calories is a necessary toll to pay, there’s no life of the body in this.

Over the last year or so, I’ve been working on thinking differently – learning to see food as necessary fuel. As a consequence, my fat and protein consumption have gone up. Increasing the oil in my diet has been hard, going against everything I’ve been taught, but ironically it seems to help with the weight loss. I’ve started using physical activity rather than sugar to keep my brain working through the day. My sugar craving has reduced dramatically, my focus has increased dramatically. By paying attention to my body and working with it, I’ve changed.

The key thing in all of this has been starting to treat my body, with its various feelings, cravings, urges and needs, as fundamentally acceptable. Not as something bad that needs controlling and punishing. Not as something that must do penance for feeling good. Meeting my body on its own terms and finding what it can do, and what helps it, rather than the simple obsession with being thin at any cost. Thin at any cost is something that will disembody you, although many of us have metabolisms that decline to be thin even under considerable pressure.

My animal self is not something I need to control or transcend. The life of my mind does not require it – in fact I think better when I treat my body with greater kindness. My spiritual life does not require me to transcend my body, either. I can have a spiritual life in which it’s ok to show up, skin, hunger and all.


Dog Wisdom

Walking regularly for both leisure and transport, I see a lot of other people who are walking dogs. The mood of the people often appears to be defined by the weather and temperature. In the rain and cold, people hunch their way dutifully through the dog walking.

With the dogs themselves, it’s invariably a different story. Rain or shine, hot or cold, dogs go out into the world in a state of excitement and enthusiasm. They’re poised to be delighted, curious, playful and happy. They are easy to please – a smell, a stick, a squirrel – you can watch them engage with the world and find things to enjoy at every turn.

Dogs are far better than people when it comes to being happy. They forgive quickly, too, and forget, and move on. A dog has to endure considerable mistreatment before it becomes wary, anxious and unhappy. I run into those dogs, too. They’re a lot more like most people, keeping a safe distance, watching for signs of threat, trying to second guess gestures, tones of voice, actions. It makes me wonder about people.

Children are more like dogs, more willing to bounce out into the world each morning to embrace the day and delight in whatever it gives them. If we don’t lose that as we grow up, we’re encouraged to voluntarily give it up. Too much enthusiasm, I have been told, suggests emotional immaturity. It troubles me that jaded cynicism, dispassion, disinterest, are considered good adult states of being, and playful delight is treated as a bit suspect.

I’ve been watching dogs for some time now, trying to learn from them. I often find when I’m out and about that dogs want to interact with me, far more than ever their humans do. I find solace and comfort in a sniffing nose and wagging tail. Tactile comfort too, with those who rock up demanding ears be scratched behind. Dogs are more sociable than people, not least because they’re so willing to enjoy being sociable, to enjoy other dogs, other people and anything else that comes along.

On the whole, I wish I could be more like a dog. Unfortunately, I don’t have the grace of a dog – the grace of feeling entitled to follow your own nose and acceptable and just being able to rock up, tail wagging, to do your thing. I can quietly practice the delight, but the more tactile forms of engagement remain beyond me.


Pussy Willow

It’s pussy willow season – I know because the willows near my home have started to open their cute, fuzzy catkins. As a child I was deeply attracted to these, they invite fingers and are decidedly tactile to stroke, hence the name. Although saying that, similar willows are known as goat willow, and while I like goats, they don’t inspire fondling in the same way!

There are lots of kinds of willow out there, and to make matters more complicated, willows like to hybridize.

Properly, the pussy willow is the grey willow, and the image (borrowed from The Woodland Trust) shows it moving from the fluffy grey stage to the yellow flower stage.

I have on occasion – when people have been cutting willow and it would otherwise just die – brought pussy willow stems home and stuck them in glasses as cheerful spring decorations. They are charming to look at, but as the yellow flowers open, the willow sprinkles pollen… lots of pollen… everywhere. On the whole, better leave them where they were!

More on the Woodland Trust Page – http://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/visiting-woods/trees-woods-and-wildlife/british-trees/native-trees/grey-willow/


Consenting Creatures

Last year I read a book called Becoming Nature and reviewed it for Spiral Nature (you can read the proper review here spiralnature.com/reviews/becoming-nature-tamarack-song/). Part of the reason I was interested was that it suggested a person could get to the point of being able to touch a wild animal. I’ve handled mice and birds when rescuing them, and hedgehogs for that matter, but I imagined being able to reach out a hand to a deer, and knowing how to do that seemed really appealing.

The author’s method turned out to be all about creeping up an animal, predator-style, and making contact before they know you are there. At this point I realised that I don’t want to sneak up and touch a creature. If I’m going to touch a wild thing outside of a rescue context, I want the wild thing to have consented.

Most usually what I end up touching – or being touched by – is insects. For them, I’m just terrain, and they land on me, or walk onto my hand if I need to move them. I’ve got some very friendly robins around the flat.  I’ve managed to get within a few feet of them on several occasions. I suspect if I had mealworms, they would come to me. I’ve been within feet of wild deer on a few occasions as well, with their full knowledge.

The idea in Becoming Nature is to be a predator, and to avoid being noticed by your prey. In that system you have to avoid paying too much attention, because the creatures will feel you looking at them and move away. I’m not a predator. So in some ways I’m moving through the landscape more like a herbivore, and I’m paying attention. Frequently, what alerts me to the presence of a deer is the feeling of being watched, and it will turn out that one has been eyeing me up. I often find that regardless of who spotted who first, we can hold that mutual interest for some time as long as I don’t make any threatening moves. I suspect that the deer round here see me often enough to be somewhat used to me anyway.

I would love to touch a wild deer. That’s only going to happen if for some reason, the deer approaches me. I don’t want to steal contact as an ego trip. I have nothing to prove. The odds are it’s never going to happen, and I’m fine with that. I am not entitled to touch anything I want to touch, and for me, consent is an important consideration with any sentient being I engage with in any context.