Category Archives: Nature

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.

 

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What bears do in the woods

Yesterday I watched brown bears hanging out in an English wood, doing the sorts of things bears like to do. One was using a tree trunk as a pillow. Another got in a large pond and messed about for some time. There was tree climbing, leaf eating, and sauntering about. At times, they were a matter of yards from me.

We haven’t had wild bears in the UK for more than a thousand years, and when people talk about re-wilding, they don’t tend to mention bears. We know bears in the Americas do all kinds of exciting things for trees –particularly because they feed salmon remains to them. We don’t know what UK bears did for trees and what we are missing, but maybe this project will help us find out.

The project in question is Bear Wood at The Wild Place near Bristol. The website – https://www.wildplace.org.uk/ much like the place itself is set up as a family attraction and there’s not much information I could easily find about what’s going on beneath the surface. I gleaned some details from boards at the site.

I have very mixed feelings about all this. For me, encountering bears in this way, was a powerful and moving experience. For some of the other people there, it was clearly the same, and the excitement of spotting creatures – bears, wolverine, lynx and wolves – in a woodland environment clearly had a high impact on some of the visitors. Seeing wolves appear and disappear amongst the undergrowth is a wonderful thing. As a setup, these larger spaces with humans at the margins and animals not so immediately available may help to de-comodify the creatures and return a sense of wonder to the people looking for them.

But at the same time, the play areas and activities here and at other wildlife attractions will encourage some people to see nature as toys for their amusement and creatures as amusements for their benefit. For many of the visitors, it was a place to run round and shout, with no care or respect and no parental guidance. There were plenty of parents who were noisy and who I found deeply annoying in their attitude. I go through this every time I visit the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust site in Slimbridge as well. People who have no experience of nature are unlikely to cherish it, but people whose experience is of amusement and commodity probably won’t do much cherishing either, and I don’t know how you turn careless visitors into people who are awake to the wonder of what they’re seeing.

Exposing children to ‘nature’ does not automatically make them nature lovers. Not if they see it as stuff to break and trample on, throw things at, litter, damage and exploit. Without guidance, outside is just often just one big resource to use and wild things are just toys.

I’ve come away from this with a deep longing for bears. I had no real sense, until now, of what the absence of bears in woodland really looks like. Having seen bears, I will see where the bears are not in a way that is probably going to haunt me. I’m fine with that.


Natural Magic

I turn my head without knowing why, and in the seconds when this happens, I see a deer moving through the undergrowth. Or a mouse running across the path. Or a buzzard swooping low through the trees, visible for a few seconds only to vanish from sight again. It happens a lot. After years of walking together, is also happens a lot for my son and husband. We’re alert to each other when walking so often when one person spots something, we all get to see it.

Some of this is about being present, paying attention and knowing where to look. There’s a knack to letting your eyes wander over your surroundings, not being too focused on anything, but being attentive enough to pick up movement and signs of life. There’s a knack to having your ears on alert for rustlings and other sounds, even when you are chatting. These are skills that anyone who has those senses available to them can develop with practice.

Some of it can be attributed to the way we are also sensitive to being watched. It’s not unusual to find the deer I notice were already watching me. But sometimes it isn’t that. A few nights ago I crept up on an owl from behind – it was some time before it became aware of my presence. Said owl was perched on a fencepost in low light conditions and I only saw them because I was checking the lane for hedgehogs.

But, there’s also the magic thing. Turning your head before there was anything to see in your peripheral vision. Stopping at just the right moment. Being in the right place at the right time. Some creatures have timetables they follow and some don’t, so being on the path at the moment when a deer takes her fawn across it is unlikely, but that sort of thing happens to me quite a lot.

Wild things tend to have an awareness of what’s around them that enables them to avoid human contact. I’ve watched deer watching people. Stay on the path and act oblivious and the deer could be motionless and yards away and will keep still and remain invisible. If you see the deer and watch them in turn, they become alert to you in a totally different way – often more wary, sometimes fearful, sometimes curious. There is an awareness in wild creatures about who and what is around that humans have the potential for, but mostly don’t bother with. To be outside and a little bit more like a wild thing is to be in a different and more aware kind of relationship with everyone else.

 


Relating to the rain

How we relate to the rain tells us a lot about our relationships with the natural world. For the person to whom rain is simply an inconvenience, or a blight on those ‘nice summer days’ there’s a disconnection with the rest of life. Rain is essential for plants and for all wild creatures. What we too often call a nice summer is often in practice, a drought.

Rain can be a massive inconvenience if, like most of our ancestors, you dry your laundry outside. Long wet patches can cause all kinds of difficulties. However, air drying the laundry saves energy and means you don’t have to own as many white goods. So even as you’re feeling challenged by the rain, you have a relationship with it that is more involved.

Rain can be a real inconvenience if you walk or cycle for transport. Getting wet and cold isn’t always a good option. In summer, the rain can prove refreshing and pleasant and be nicer than walking on a hot, dry day.

Of course heavy rain isn’t usually a blessing. It washes away soil, batters plants and makes life difficult for many creatures. Many insects struggle with very wet conditions, owls can’t hunt so readily, everything gets soaked and younger and more delicate creatures won’t necessarily survive a prolonged period of downpour. The more damaged a landscape is, the more vulnerable it is to heavy rain causing massive problems.

If you have a more involved relationship with the natural world, you’ll notice when the rain is needed, and when there’s been too much for the life around you. You’ll notice different kinds of rain – from the soft showers that soak easily into the soil to the dramatic downpours that have destructive power. You’ll know whether rain comes as a relief or a threat.

The desire to control, or avoid weather is part of how we’ve got into this mess. We’ll have worse weather to deal with as a consequence of climate change. We can choose to push back harder – driving more, building more, trying to control the water even as it becomes more uncontrollable. Or we can learn to live with it, respect it, and act in ways that reduce our impact. The harder we try to control the presence of water in our lives, the less control we are likely to have over it.


Green woodpeckers

This year, green woodpeckers have nested somewhere in the vicinity of my flat, and as a consequence, most days I hear their chuckling call many times over. When it first started, I wasn’t quite sure what I was hearing – although I had my suspicions! Being able to pair bird sightings with the specific call I can now recognise them with confidence, adding to the small selection of birds I know by sound.

Learning bird calls and songs is an interesting process, not least because most birds have a repertoire. They have territorial songs, and songs they use to check in with their mates or family members. They have alarm cries and some have specific noises they make when trying to drive off a perceived threat. Young birds have their own calls – especially ones who are out of the nest and not with their parents all the time. The song of ‘I’m over here and I’m hungry’ that isn’t so very different from what teenage humans do.

Getting to know a bird’s song and their various calls means that you can tell something of what’s going on with the feathery neighbours even when you can’t see them. When the leaves are on the trees, small birds are much harder to spot, so being able to tell who is around and doing what from sound alone can be a great help.

Bird song is so much more than charming background music. It is a constant stream of conversation and information, and being able to listen in to that to any degree, is magical indeed.


Re-wilding the water

There’s been heavy rain in recent weeks and all the local streams and small rivers are swollen. They are all brown with the soil eroded by the flow of water, too. Faster moving, the water courses are no doubt more able to strip soil from their own banks right now.

Straightening water ways certainly goes back to the mediaeval period. There’s evidence of it locally on patches of land that used to be inhabited but now aren’t. Straight watercourses give fields regular shapes, and can direct the water flow towards mills, and that used to be an issue locally as well.

However, in heavy rain, straight watercourses allow water to rush through the landscape, taking soil away with it. A wild and curving stream will be much slower even when in full spate. The corners of a wild and meandering watercourse will have places silt collects – usually a river strips material off one side and drops it on the other, so overall there isn’t the same kind of loss. Where there are flood meadows, soil in the water can be laid down to provide future futility. But when all the water does is moves through, the soil goes with it and leaves.

Soil is a precious resource, and letting it wash away like this is a really bad idea.

There are reasons nature doesn’t favour straight lines. Our human obsession with them does us no good at all.


Food and identity

What we eat is part of our sense of self. For anyone who has made a significant food choice either to protect their health, for religious reasons or for environmental ones tends to feel very invested in that food identity. Food choices can play a big part in your cultural identity and may inform who you spend time with.

Food impacts on our bodies in all kinds of ways. What energy we have has a lot to do with what we eat. Our diets shape our bodies and other people’s assumptions about who we are as a consequence of our bodies. To be in poverty, malnourished and consequently overweight is an experience that will get you blamed for your size all too often. The assumption that being larger goes with being lazy can have huge impacts on a person’s life, most critically around how the medical profession responds to larger bodies.

What we put into ourselves impacts on our mood, and our perceptions. Sugar, caffeine, alcohol, processed food, raw food, empty calories, wholefoods, things that suit us and things that don’t all shape our experiences of living in a body. How that works also depends on where we are in life and what demands are being made of us.

We make our body chemistry from the food we take in. I’ve spent a lot of time over the last year or so looking at the foods that encourage progesterone and estrogen production. Information online suggests that western diets may cause or aggravate many of the menopause symptoms, so I’ve been poking around in this. I’ve radically increased my fruit intake, amongst other things. I feel better in my body in ways I had not expected.

I’ve struggled with my body ever since hitting puberty. I don’t feel properly female – the only time I did was when I was pregnant. I feel out of kilter with my body but not so out of kilter to think I’d be any better off as a chap. My flesh has never felt easy on my bones. I’ve experienced it as a disconnection and a wrongness I have inadequate language to describe. However, in the last six months or so with a diet that supports female hormone production, I’ve felt better in myself on this score.

I spent my teens through to my thirties with a diet that was either inadequate, unsuitable, or both. I knew this at the time. In recent years I’ve been able to afford to eat whatever I want to eat, and there’s been no pressure to do otherwise. The more I go after the food that works for me, the more easy I feel in my own skin. I’ve still got all my androgynous psychology, my thinking hasn’t changed at all, but my experience of my own body has shifted, may well still be shifting.

Identity can be such a changeable thing. Who I am if I eat a lot of fruit. Who I am with, or without coffee. Who I am if I’m not mostly living on cheap sources of carbohydrate. Who I am if I am allowed to choose what I put into my body. Everything about us exists in relation to what of the world we are exposed to and what options we have, and how our experiences shape us.


Shouting walls and yelling trees

One of the particular pleasures for me at this time of year, is finding bird nests. Many birds are secretive about their nesting – because it keeps them safe – so spotting them is a bit of a thrill. Some birds aren’t subtle – heron nests in trees, rookeries, the nests swans build alongside patches of water – these are easy to see. But many are not.

My recent wanderings brought me in to contact with several shouting walls. Gaps in Cotswold dry stone walls offer safe spaces for small birds. I didn’t see the parents, but given both the size of the available spaces, and the proximity of nests, my guess is sparrows. They like to nest close to each other.

I was blessed with a sighting of two parent nuthatches visiting a hole in a tree, and also a parent woodpecker coming in to a tree hole.  I’ve seen a jackdaw with a nest under the roof tiles of an old house. When the parent bird turns up with food, the nestlings go berserk and for a while it’s all rather loud. This is something I will never get tired of.

A bird with a beak full of food is a pretty good indicator of a nest. However, it is important not to upset the parents or the young. Watch from a distance. If the parent isn’t going to the nest, move along. Let them get on with feeding their young. Don’t approach nests if you think you’ve identified them – watch and listen from a distance that doesn’t trouble the birds. They are exciting and wonderful and a bit magical, and their comfort and wellbeing must always come ahead of our curiosity and enthusiasm.


Family Afternoon Out – a poem

This poem is based on observation of many different people over some years. This is what tends to happen within a few hundred yards of the car-park.

 

Family Afternoon Out

 

They emerge from the four by four

In country wear jackets and boots

With matching children and dog.

Stand at the viewing point, and point

Like models in a clothes catalogue.

Little Jemima shouts repeatedly

About who once sat on which rock

Like she owns the place.

Eyes down, they head off

Talking about Priscilla in human resources

And what Gareth said about Antigua

And Little Christopher is bored

And swipes undergrowth with a stick.

Aren’t children so natural, in nature

In their desperately expensive jackets

Just like mummy and daddy wear.

Meanwhile Hugo the hound runs wild

Sniffs everything, and they’ve already passed

Seventeen brightly coloured notices about

Keeping dogs on leads but Hugo is not a dog.

He’s family, and it is different for him.

Because he’s wearing a jacket, too.

And nice, middle class dogs never worry sheep.

Now back to Priscilla, in human resources

The one with the bad botox experience.

This story is so good it requires enough decibels

For every other walker to hear the gruesome details.

Generations of squirrels now know what

Priscilla did about the stains.

Little Jemima is picking orchids, isn’t that pretty?

Never mind if she’s breaking the law, she’s only a child

Enjoying the flowers and her parents don’t know

What these flowers are called or that you aren’t

Supposed to pick them.

Little Christopher throws stones at everything, but

Back to what Gareth said about Cypress,

And Sudan, and you really must try ice skating in Ethiopia.

Hugo flushes out a bird that no one sees

Too busy with Priscilla and Gareth to look or hear

And does the front bedroom need decorating this year?

Little Jemima throws her phone in a pond when no one is looking.

Darling Christopher stamps on beetles. Were they endangered?

Too late now.

And Gareth said New Zealand is a must at this time of year

And how on Earth is anyone supposed to manage

Mud in these boots. You could wreck them, and the cost

Of replacing them and the dirt in the car

And Little Christopher is banging his head against a tree

Because he’d rather die than walk any further and

Jemima is eating leaves and berries but nature is good for us

So it’s probably fine. And Hugo has done a vast

Steaming turd in the middle of the path

So let’s put it in a plastic bag

And hang it from a tree.

Because we love nature.

Nature is lovely.

And we’ve had such a wonderful walk.

 


Softening the gaze

“Soften your gaze,” is something my Tai Chi teacher says most lessons. It took me a few weeks to work out that this is something I do in other contexts, and to realise why it is so important.

When I see other people out and about, they’re usually looking at something. It might be the phone in their hands, or the path in front of them, or the people they walk with. Our default is to look with intent and look at what we expect to see. There’s a great deal you don’t see when you have this kind of focus.

The soft gaze is part of how I walk. Unless I’m dealing with a section of challenging footing, I look around. It’s worth mentioning that most places round here, most of the time, are not hazardous underfoot. I don’t look for anything in particular which means my peripheral vision is operating. I see a lot of wildlife as I walk, and that softer gaze is a large part of why I’m able to do that. I know from walking with other people that I often see things they don’t because I’m not looking in the same way.

There are more layers to this, though. Softening your gaze means softening your attention. It means not being focused on something, and thus not being especially goal orientated. If you’re trying to achieve something, you focus on it. The soft gaze goes with reduced interest in achievement, and in a spiritual context that tends to be a better idea. Inspiration, a sense of the numinous and other spiritual experiences don’t come because we strain for them. Instead, they call for a gentle openness to possibility, and making room. The soft gaze is one way of making that space, hence the relevance for Tai Chi.

There’s a relaxed quality to not being too focused on anything. There’s no great push or drive going on. This alone can take us out of everyday mode and into other ways of thinking. Not having our eyes focused in the same way can open our minds up to less driven thinking. The mind wanders with the gaze, open to possibilities, and ready to stop and pay more attention if something invites that. Focus comes in when called for – to watch the deer or the butterflies, to appreciate a plant or the way light catches a leaf, or to stop for a view. It means being open to experiencing things I had not specifically expected. And then, letting go again and moving on.

If you have any visual capacity, how you undertake to look at things will inform what you feel about them. The soft gaze is kind and not especially judgemental. How you look also informs what you see. When we’re focused on specific things, we don’t see what we weren’t looking for – there’s some fantastic science out there about this. We tune out what we think is irrelevant information. The soft gaze has no assumption about relevance, and thus it opens up our perceptions and lets us experience what’s right there – the everyday beauty and magic that otherwise we may not notice.