Category Archives: Nature

Soothed by wild things

When things are difficult, getting outside can be soothing and healing. Trees are good for us. So are open skies, bodies of water, and the company of other mammals. However, those of us with smaller problems that are easily fixed are often keen to say ‘turn to nature’ without understanding the limits of that.

To get outside in a way that will help you, you need the time to do that. Not as a one-off, but regularly. If your mental health is falling apart, a single intervention isn’t going to save you. Can you get outside for as many hours as you need every day for the foreseeable future? Probably not, because the things that have ground you down will take up too much of your time.

If you don’t feel safe when you’re outside, then the help of wild things is limited.

If you are bodily limited and/or in pain, then it doesn’t matter where you go, that goes with you. Time with trees may lift your heart a bit, but it cannot cure a suffering body.

Part of what makes getting outside powerful is the increased peace it can bring. How much peace you need is also a factor. If you are living in a situation that is destroying you, half an hour outside may be respite, but it won’t fix things.

If you can change things so that you are able to have the time you need under the sky and amongst trees so that you can feel better, part of what heals you isn’t the space. Part of what heals you is having got away from the things that were causing the damage. If focusing on getting out to spend time with the wild things helps you with getting out, and with putting harmful experiences into perspective, that can help you make or maintain changes. Again, what does the key healing here is the stepping out of what is harmful. If you can do that, it really helps, and if you can’t, tree time alone is unlikely to save you.

When the damage is superficial and easily fixed, we can be persuaded that we are healing because we’ve made really good choices about how to heal. We may fail to recognise that the damage, stress or trauma someone else is dealing with is deeper and more complex. It’s a small step from there to attributing blame and deciding people aren’t healing because they didn’t try hard enough. For the person who has never been deeply wounded, it is hard, perhaps impossible to imagine what deep wounding feels like and what that does in the long term. It is better to assume, if you heal quickly and easily, it is not because your healing system is the best, but because you just weren’t that badly damaged to begin with. If ten minutes with a tree fixes everything, there just wasn’t that much to fix in the first place.

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Naturally collaborative

We tend to talk about nature in terms of competition and predation. The idea of ‘survival of the fittest’ can make life seem like a fight to get the best stuff. However, not only is collaboration between members of the same species normal, there’s also a lot of cooperation between species as well.

A pack cooperates for hunting and to raise young. A herd cooperates to raise young as well, and to reduce the threat of predators. Flocks of birds work together to improve their safety. So do shoals of fish. Humans have a long history of working with each other, and also of collaborating with other creatures.

Herding isn’t unnatural, or necessarily something humans have imposed on livestock. The same patters happen with fish, where predatory fish will herd the fish they eat – giving protection from all other threats in exchange for easy meals. Farming isn’t unnatural – ants cultivate fungus. They also herd aphids.

Wolves and corvids often work together. Crows and ravens will alert wolves to dead or dying animals. The wolves get in and tear up the carcass, making it easier for their helpers to get a meal.

One of my favourite relationships is that between tree roots and mycorrhizal fungi. This is intrinsic to woodland, and essential to many plants. There are relationships going on in the soil that we barely understand, and that are key to the very existence of plant life.

As humans we depend on our relationship with the friendly microorganisms living in our bodies. We carry as many, if not more bacterial cells than we have cells of our own. We’re a super-organism, rather than being discreet biological units. The life that lives within us helps with our immune systems and digestion. Our health depends on these microorganisms. Every single living human being is engaged in a complex set of mutually beneficial collaborations with numerous microorganisms. We are all collaborative creatures, whether we know it or not.

You wouldn’t get far without the tiny things that live in your digestive system. It’s a good thought to hold in face of rampant individualism and stories of conquest and power. As humans, our lives depend on the co-operation of tiny beings. That’s a thought to both awe and humble a person, and I think as a culture we could do with more awe, and more humbleness.


Early Spring

This is a small film I made a few week ago – the season has moved on so this is out of date, but I’m sharing it anyway!

 

I made this film for my Patreon channel – they got it the week it was filmed. I’m interested in what I can do combining basic camera footage, words, natural soundscapes… the physical relationship between my body and the technology and the differences between how the technology experiences my moving through a space, and how I do.


Talking to the wild things

Here’s a typical scenario. We are walking, and there are deer in a nearby field. We stop to look at them and the deer become aware of the scrutiny and look round. The deer see us. If there’s something about our location or direction that bothers them, they may just leave, but often they don’t. Often they give it a little while and check us out. At this point one of us will normally speak to them, saying in a calm and clear voice that we mean them no harm, and we aren’t coming into their field. Usually at this point, the deer go back to whatever they were doing.

A squirrel who has stopped beyond arm’s reach doesn’t always run away when spoken to. The same with foxes. Sometimes also small birds. Without a doubt, some of it is about not making sudden and dramatic moves, and not doing anything else that suggests being a predator. However, I’ve talked to wild things many, many times and it is so often at the point after I’ve spoken that they go back to what they were doing, that I don’t think this is a coincidence.

The conventional wisdom (at least here in the UK where there are no bears!) is to be quiet to avoid startling wild creatures. When dealing with urban and semi-urban wildlife, it’s clear they are all well used to our noise. As long as we are engaged in human stuff and not heading their way, creatures are unfussed by us. I have noticed when walking that many people show no signs of seeing the wildlife around them, and that the wild things seem aware that they are effectively invisible. It’s when you notice them that they become alert and cautious.

I don’t imagine that the words matter, but the tone and intention does. Recognition that everyone has seen everyone else and that no one is trying to hide is probably part of this. Based on how they respond, I think the deer are a bit surprised by people who can see them. I think also over time they come to recognise us, and become less bothered by us seeing them.

When we ‘watch nature’ by being silent and observing, we’re casting ourselves as outsiders. When we talk to the wild things, we cast ourselves as part of their world, too. We stop imagining that we are different from them, and I think that’s better for everyone.


Metaphors for non-humans

Some observations on how we talk about the non-human. I confess to having watched a number of National Geographic videos on youtube recently, and while I enjoy the visuals, the narration has been less appealing. One of the things I noticed repeatedly was an urge in the script writer(s) to apply human metaphors to pretty much everything. The stand out awful one was describing a flying fox as being like Dracula leaving his lair.

Dracula of course is powered by imagery drawn from the natural world and from the (bizarre to me) idea that bats are somehow creepy and sinister. The bats are not like Dracula. Dracula is like the bats. However, when we turn ideas on their heads like this, there are some uneasy consequences.

If you have to recast the non-human world in terms of human metaphors to present it, you are sending people a message that they are separate from what they are seeing. Other living beings can only be understood on human terms. They are like commuters. They are like ballet dancers, leaping gracefully from rock to rock. They are like gymnasts. As if we can only understand other beings by saying how they are similar to us. As though the behaviour of other beings cannot be described purely on its own terms. We can’t look at goat-like creatures jumping about on rocks and say that they are agile. How are we supposed to empathise with an agile mammal on a rock? Most of us know little or nothing about ballet, yet the idea of unfamiliar mammals as ballet dancers clearly worked for someone.

When we do this, we normalise human activity and make the activity of other beings seem other. If it is only by reference to human culture that we can hope to understand them, we make human culture the key point of reference. Most of the examples I’ve described – and I don’t think this is a coincidence – are about forms of entertainment, too. We are encouraged to look at autonomous living beings as human entertainers. We are to see their utility, their benefit to us and not their individual experience of their own lives.

Metaphors and similes are a great way of creating feelings of connection. Used well, they can increase empathy and understanding. Used badly, they assert human dominance and superiority. If we see the world in terms of being like us, we reduce it.


Bird song and signs of spring

Over the last few weeks (pausing for snow) there’s been a notable increase in bird song. This is because birds are establishing and asserting territories and looking for mates, or pair bonding in established relationships. Any time I’ve been outside in the daylight, the increased sun has been apparent. It’s a reminder that, while it is still cold out there, the wheel of the year turns towards spring.

Much of winter is not spent sleeping and waiting. What the birds are doing now is part of the preparation for the nesting to come. Spring does not happen magically out of nowhere.

One of the surprise consequences of being alert to bird song, was stepping outside a few days ago and hearing a call I was pretty sure I’d never heard before. The light conditions were poor, and although I could see the three birds making the sounds, I could pick out no identifying features. Tom went online and described what we’d head ‘as if angry insects were making a dial tone’.

They were corncrakes. We’ve since listened to recordings online, and confirmed it. They aren’t supposed to be here this early in the year, but the friend who identified them has had multiple encounters with what are likely the same birds, just a few miles further away.

My first thought is that climate change is shifting patterns of weather and behaviour. A few years ago I had a very clear sighting of a flock of waxwings, only to be told on Twitter that it was far too late in the year and I couldn’t possibly have seen them… My second thought is that I doubt the research into the precise habits of birds is as detailed as it could be. Any pattern of behaviour will produce a set of averages, but how much we know about the less-average behaviour, I’m not sure.

There are also biases in how we collect data. For example, most of the material I’ve read on otters describes a large territory and a roaming pattern of feeding within it. This is actually the pattern for dog otters and it turns out we don’t know so much about what females, and females with cubs actually do.

This is one of the reasons it is so important to engage personally and directly with what’s around you. The notions about what a species does are general, not specific, and what happens where you live may buck the trend.

More about corncrakes – including a video of the insect telephone noise here – https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/wildlife-guides/bird-a-z/corncrake/


The joy of dead trees

One of the problems with humans is that we like to ‘manage’ trees, parks and woodland by taking the dead trees out. This is fair enough if they’re dead, upright and at risk of falling onto a path at no notice. Otherwise, it makes very little sense. Wherever possible we should leave dead trees where they are.

A dead tree is an amazing habitat. All kinds of insets will make homes beneath the bark. Birds will feed on those insects, and also use holes in the tree for nest sites. Small mammals, bats, slow worms and lizards can also find homes amidst the decaying wood. Mosses, fungus and lichens can all make their homes here, too.

It is all too easy to see death as untidy, or unpleasant. However, a dead tree remains a great source of beauty as it goes through the decay process. Out of its death, comes life.

In pine woods, it is usually the dead trees that let the light in. You may have miles of dense trees (usually a plantation) with nothing but old needles underneath, and then come to a place where there is light, intense green plant life, ferns, mosses, saplings – invariably because a tree has died here and let in a possibility.

The death of a tree is very much part of the life cycle of a tree. It is a good thing to witness. It gives us stories about longevity and life after death that are a lot more sustainable.

 

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Find out more about ancient woodland here – http://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/about-us/ancient-woodland-restoration/ancient-woodland/what-is-ancient-woodland/


Connecting with nature

Pagans talk a great deal about ‘connecting with nature’ and I think it’s something we could afford to consider. Granted, it can be very useful shorthand, but it can also be a way of making what you do superficial. When we treat nature as generic rather than looking at it in specific ways, what we’re most likely to connect with are our own pre-existing ideas about nature. To make real connections, we need more precision.

It’s important to remember that nature is not one single, homogenous thing all moving in the same direction at the same time. Pagans tell a very simple wheel of the year narrative, but many living things don’t go along tidily with it – I’ve been blogging about alternative wheel of the year stories over at Sage Woman blogs for some time now, I think this is important work. If we want real connection, we have to start by not imposing our stories on what we see.

There is a world of practical difference between what you do to connect with a tree, and what you do to connect with a bird, or a fox, or an insect or a hill. The less experienced you are, the more sense it makes to focus on smaller things – it is easier to try and connect with wood when you have first invested time connecting with specific trees and landscape features within it.

Real connection takes time – you can’t go out for half an hour to connect with a wood you’ve never visited before and expect to have a deeply meaningful experience. There’s a lot you need to learn, first. If, as a newbie Pagan you do that and something, or multiple things have clear and powerful messages for you, there’s a very good chance that you are just hearing the voices of your own ego and imagination. Most wild things are not sat round waiting for a human they can tell all the important stuff to. Most landscapes are fairly indifferent to us and building relationship takes time. You need to turn up frequently, at different times of day, in different seasons, and weathers, and pay attention and be open. If after some weeks or months of this you start to get some feelings about a place, you’re probably onto something real.

If you’re getting messages that cast you in an important role, be suspicious. Interrogate yourself and check your own motives. If you get messages that ask you to do things you wanted to do anyway, it may well not be coming from outside of you.

If you want to dedicate to a place, a tree, a creature or some other aspect of the natural world, the most important offering you can make is to look after it. Wild things do not need our incense anything like as much as they need not to be choking themselves on discarded plastic. They do not need our prayers anything like as much as they need us to petition other humans to keep them physically safe.

If you want to make deep connections with ‘nature’ you can only really do this by being specific. Don’t ‘get out into nature’. Go to a particular hill, stream or tree. Watch an individual bird and listen to its song. Spend time with a specific plant. Being outside doesn’t automatically make you connected. If you walk through a landscape, oblivious to its details while telling yourself a story about what a good Pagan you are for connecting with nature, you’ll not see the woods, or the trees.


Nature: specific not generic

When we talk about ‘nature’ – as Pagans are wont to do – we run the risk of unwittingly defining nature in ways that are harmful. Covering all the life of the planet with one word reduces our sense of the diversity of what’s out there. We’re dealing with vast and complex systems of life and many different kinds of species. If we call all of that ‘nature’ and talk about ‘nature’ then we may encourage ourselves to think of nature as a single, simple thing.

If there is nature, there’s an implication that there’s also ‘not nature’. I think many of our problems currently are rooted in the idea that nature is other than us, and that we are separate from the rest of it. What happens to ‘nature’ may be sad – cue pictures of homeless orang-utans and whales full of plastic – but it isn’t happening to us. We aren’t nature. This is a dangerous way to think because we also breathe the air, drink the water, and eat what comes from the soil. The habitats we destroy are also human habitats.

The idea of pristine nature as something seperate from humans is an idea that enables us to keep damaging what’s around us. If we only care about nature as separate from human activity, we don’t protect the places where we can see human activity in the mix. When we see nature as being all around us, and present in every environment, when we see human constructs of part of a wider environment and ecosystem, we have to think differently. Whether that’s about hedgerows in farmland, urban trees, or what lives in our roof tiles, the nature around us needs our care.

It is of course a useful shorthand – hard to write a blog post like this without using it. On the whole though, I think it’s a word to watch out for. In many contexts, it is more effective and engaging to talk about something more specific. We can say ‘I go out into nature’ or ‘I go out into my local woodland’. I go out onto the hills where the larks are singing and orchids grow in amongst the long grasses. I go past the old industrial estate where a family of foxes have taken up residence.


Uneconomic Growth

We seem to have collectively bought into the idea that growth is inherently good. In nature, growth is finite and exists as part of cycles that also include dying back, and predation. In summer, bird numbers grow radically, but they don’t keep growing – the approach of winter and the activities of hunters rebalance that each year. Trees do not grow forever, they reach a natural limit, and they die. Things that grow unchecked tend to be plagues, or cancers.

There are costs we do not measure. We do not look at the cost to the environment and to our own health that human activity causes. We don’t look at extinction. We don’t look at exploitation and the destruction of human lives and minds in pursuit of profit. We don’t factor in what we might later need to pay to offset the hidden costs of what we’re doing now. Rising air pollution costs us in terms of health, life expectancy, and demands on our health service.

Of course if we did measure the cost of these things, they’d go into our GDP and we would see that we are making even more profit! It’s not much of a measure of anything.

If we are to survive as a species, and not kill off most of life on this planet, we need to tackle the issue of growth. We have to stop believing the ludicrous idea that we can have infinite ‘growth’ based on finite resources. We have to challenge the idea that constant growth is good.

As Pagans, we’re well placed to take this on. We’ve already embraced the cycle of the seasons, the tidal and changing nature of existence. The Holly King cannot keep ruling all year, building himself ever bigger forces. John Barleycorn dies each summer. In winter, the Cailleach rules and nothing grows. Persephone returns to the underworld. Demeter mourns. We watch the moon wax to absolute fullness and then shrink away again every month. A moon that never stopped growing would basically be moving towards the Earth on an impact trajectory. We have a lot of stories to work with.

If we are to survive, we need to embrace the idea of sufficiency. We need to live within our means and not compromise the future for the sake of present greed. We need to tell stories about the finite nature of healthy growth, and the needfulness of dying back and reducing. We have grown too far, and we need the winter cutback that naturally follows the excess of summer.