Category Archives: Nature

The spiral nature of humans

We tend to think of cause and effect as linear. A thing happens (or fails to happen) and this has consequences, which in turn can create other consequences. Unfortunately, this kind of thinking doesn’t help much when it comes to human minds and bodies.

A lot of what goes on with us has a spiral quality to it. Many of our body systems – perhaps all of them, I’m no expert – involve feedback loops. The more I read about hormones and body chemistry, the more I appreciate not only that those loops exist, but that we don’t really know enough about them. Have a look at serotonin in the body if you want to poke about in a good example of this.

It means that looking for a root cause doesn’t always make sense. We ask what causes mental health problems, or diabetes, or obesity, as though we could deal with the cause and that would sort things out. Bodies get into habits – we have habitual pathways in our brain, and habitual responses to stimuli. Hypervigilance is what happens when your body is in the habit of being afraid all the time. It may have been caused by a specific experience, but you can’t uncause it in a simple way. Being stressed because of hyper-vigilance will keep you locked into the stress that is fueling the hyper-vigilance.

When things are cyclical, that can mean that changing any point in the cycle will change the cycle as a whole. So sometimes it’s not about finding the root cause, but finding the point in the process that you can do something about. This in turn means getting to know the system, the cycle, the feedback loops because if you don’t know what’s going on, you won’t find a place you can change things.

I’m tired all the time, my body is sore and stiff. If all I do is rest – which is all I want to do, I lose further muscle strength and stamina. If I move too much I will become even more exhausted, sore and stiff which maintains the problems, not solving them. To change things I have to spot the points where I can take small actions that won’t simply create bigger problems. I’ve found that tackling problems in my thinking, trying to change my emotional landscape, and dealing with other health issues all works in roughly the same way. There aren’t any simple answers that break the cycles without potentially causing other problems. It’s a delicate process, but sometimes there are options. Those options aren’t always obvious, and are less so if you’re taking a linear cause and effect approach to looking for them.


Winter Fungi

I am usually most alert to fungi in the autumn, but they appear all year round and this winter has brought me some gorgeous tree fungi.

These are wonderfully velvety. I also love the brightness of the moss. Apparently having a lot of things growing on trees is a sign of rainforest, and you can get cold, deciduous rainforest in the UK.

Light passing through the body of a fungi

Growing in the crook of a tree! Again I loved how these were catching the light, and the contrast with the bark and ivy.


Winter birds

One of the true joys of winter for me, is looking out for birds who are winter migrants. Who is where at this time of year depends a lot on where you live. Helpfully, there’s lots of information online, and a mixture of looking up information and wandering round peering at feathery visitors can be highly productive.

The most dramatic visitors round here are the swans who have come down from the arctic circle. We also get a lot of migrating ducks, who are charming if less dramatic. My other seasonal favourite is the fieldfare, and I always keep an eye out for them. I have some good memories of large fieldfare flocks feeding on fallen, ice softened apples one winter. They’re a subtle bird, not unlike a thrush to look at, and easily missed if you aren’t paying attention. I spotted a flock outside my local co-op recently.

Winter brings its own conditions for birdwatching. In the bare branches of deciduous trees, birds can be a lot more visible at this time of year. However, winter light can really leech the colour out of everything, which can mean relying on silhouettes and bird calls to establish who you’re seeing. I’m a mediocre sort of birdwatcher, so sometimes all I can do is guess a family – a flock of probably finches or possibly tits… could be sparrows… There’s always more to learn, and time spent trying to figure out who I’m seeing slowly builds my knowledge base.


Nature, culture and healing

What makes you feel like yourself? What do you do that gives you a sense of being fully present, alive and acting from a place of authenticity? Conversely, how much time do you spend in spaces where you have to pretend to be other than you are? What do you do that robs you of identity and leaves you numb, disengaged and dysfunctional?

One of the truly great things about being outside and alone is that you don’t have to perform. The elements do not require you to be other than you are. If your sense of self has been crushed by pressures and expectations, this time alone might be your best hope of healing and finding yourself. We don’t lose ourselves anything like as much as we have our identities taken from us.

We can end up feeling that we are the roles we are obliged to perform. If our work, our usefulness, our family identity is the only thing anyone else sees and interacts with, the result can be lonely and demoralising. We all need the room to be more than the utility we provide to others.

Running off into the wilderness can be a tempting antidote to this. But, humans put a lot of pressure on what wild nature remains. It might be more productive to stop looking to nature to heal us and start looking to human culture not to ravage us in the first place. A better work-life balance would do a lot to restore many people to themselves. A kinder, more inclusive, supportive and spacious society would really help too.


Cats and cars

Poking about on the internet, it looks like on the average day in the UK, 630 cats are hit by cars. As far as I know, cars are the major killers of cats in the UK. For the cat who goes out unsupervised, there’s also the risk of getting injured in fights with other cats, catching diseases from them, getting lost, getting stolen, getting mistreated by humans… a cat out alone is facing a number of risks.

Cats aren’t great for the local wildlife, killing birds, small mammals, amphibians, slow worms… I’ve lived with cats who hunted, and the amount of wildlife a young cat can get through, is troubling. Keeping cats inside at night really helps with this and means you will never face surprise entrails first thing in the morning.

The cat who goes out on a lead, with a person, is a lot safer than the cat who goes out alone. The cat on a lead also has very little scope for killing wildlife. It’s also a lot of fun, and gives you meaningful time with your cat. I don’t know why people assume cats want to be independent – in my experience, cats love attention and often like doing things with their people. If they aren’t bored, they aren’t so motivated to hunt or get in fights.

I routinely encounter people who tell me either their cat would never put up with a lead, or that they tried it once and it didn’t work. Cats are complicated creatures, but mostly it comes down to which one of you is most determined. Cats can be trained, because they can be persuaded that something is in their interests. Given how dangerous cars are for cats, I’m surprised there aren’t more people exploring leads for cats.

Cats of course are only a percentage of the number of creatures killed on roads every day. Cars take a terrible toll on wildlife and domestic creatures alike. The RSPB reckon cats kill 27 million birds a year in the UK, which is appalling, but they also say that there’s no real evidence these deaths contribute to bird population declines.  More over here if you want to dig in – https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/advice/gardening-for-wildlife/animal-deterrents/cats-and-garden-birds/are-cats-causing-bird-declines/

Cars also kill about 30 million birds a year, but these are likely to be healthy, active birds while there’s reason to think cats tend to take birds who weren’t so viable anyway. 

In both cases, these are causes of death that have everything to do with human choices and human behaviour. We could do a lot to reduce cats killing wildlife, and cars killing wildlife.

Speed is a major factor here. It always is when it comes to road accidents. At a slower speed, you stop in a shorter distance. You’ve got more time to notice and avoid hitting someone. At a lower speed you do less damage and the impact is more survivable. Cars kill and injure a lot of humans, too. 

So many drivers routinely treat getting there a bit sooner as more important than the risk of death or injury to themselves or others. I see it a lot as a pedestrian. No doubt sometimes this is because of the pressure people are under, and the dire implications of not being on time – lost jobs, benefit sanctions etc. But none of this is really necessary. So many road deaths and road injuries should be avoidable, if only we had a culture that put care first.


Teaching Cats

In the last six months or so I’ve seen a lot of people talking about the impossibility of teaching or training cats. You certainly can’t train a cat the way you would a dog. However, cats learn all the time, and there’s a lot to be learned from that process.

We often underestimate the impact of our own expectations. If we think a cat can’t learn we won’t try and engage with them in that way. It’s worth watching out for the limitations you may unconsciously impose on cats, yourself and other humans.

Cats learn from their environments. They learn how things work, they pick up a fair few human words. Cats are interested in their own comfort, amusement and wellbeing, and will tend to do the things that please them. They respond to discipline with resentment, a perverse desire to do more of the thing they aren’t supposed to do, or if they get sufficiently unhappy, they leave. Attention can be a reward, and we forget that a lot, in our own interactions and around how we raise children. Attention can reinforce behaviour we don’t want if we’re dealing with a being who is hungry for attention. Those of us with abuse backgrounds can have really problematic relationships with attention, too.

Cats are most likely to learn what you want them to learn if they are happy, and have a vested interest. Mr Anderson has learned to walk on a lead because he likes going out and having adventures, and going out is conditional to being on a lead. Once out, it is in his interests to be cooperative because he has a nicer time if we’re all pottering around together. Cats respond well to positive feedback, verbal praise, affection, treats and so forth. Reinforce the behaviour you want to see by giving the cat more of what they want, and the cat will learn how to milk that for all it’s worth. Everyone wins.

It is easier to coax a cat round to a different behaviour with lures and treats than it is to get them to stop doing something they thought was interesting. This tends to be true for people as well.

Cats are never going to do your bidding. They can however learn to be cooperative members of your household. I think there’s a lot of similarity between raising kittens and children. Yes, you can focus on obedience. Yes, you can frighten them into doing and not doing things. No, they will not be happy, and they will get out and stay away as soon as they can. When teaching is about living cooperatively, cats can and will learn. When what we mean to teach is that we have all the power over them, most creatures won’t find us tolerable.

Teaching is not about making someone do stuff. Put that idea down, and all manner of things become possible.


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.