Category Archives: Nature

Beavers and Behaviours

It’s easy to look at the behaviour of creatures and feel that this is how the world is – that they are in a fixed state, not a process. It’s easy to think the same things about ourselves. Once upon a time, beavers were mammals who got their sustenance from trees, and that was it. They gnawed on trees to eat them. At some point that changed.

I like to imagine a grumpy beaver waking up in the morning, looking at the leftovers from yesterday’s tree, having a moment and chucking it in a stream, and it all going from there. Behaviours evolve. Somehow beavers went from eating trees to building with trees, to blocking the flow of water to make ponds and building themselves homes. It was a process, full of beaver ingenuity, beavers learning from other beavers, and no doubt some percentage of happy accident.

Humans are similar. At some point in our history we had ideas about tool use. We started making shelters. We have changed in so many ways over time. It may be tempting to look at ourselves and imagine we are now the best that people could be. Of course we aren’t. It’s easy to mistake change for progress – and it isn’t necessarily so. Circumstances change, and behaviours have to adapt in line with those changes. One state of being is not necessarily intrinsically better than another, just better for the circumstances. The ‘survival of the fittest’ notion is one people often misunderstand because it’s not about being the ultimate best, it’s about being well adapted for the current situation. Highly adapted specialists can be exceedingly vulnerable if their circumstances change.

As individuals, we have the scope to change our behaviour all the time. We can innovate. We can be the beaver who wakes up one morning and thinks, hang on a minute, why don’t I chuck this log in this stream?


Identity and body chemistry

I am both fascinated by the way in which my biology functions, and cautious about what of me could or should be explained in purely chemical terms. However, my chemical identity has been a consideration for some years now. I started down the peri-menopausal track rather early – 39. I get the mood swings, and my menstrual cycle is changing.

My experience of myself, month to month is informed by the blue days before I bleed. I usually bleed for six days and two of those are usually heavy and painful. My mood shifts around ovulation. This has been part of the rhythm of myself for some time. Who will I be without that? I’ve seen some fascinating stuff from Caitlin Moran recently about what fertility hormones do to women and what happens when those go away. How much will I change? Will I wake up one morning feeling angry and finding I need to do a PhD? It happens a lot, apparently, but seems unlikely in my case.

Right now I’m dealing with a lack of adrenaline in my body. Adrenal fatigue is not widely recognised as a condition and definitely isn’t recognised in the UK. I can say from personal experience that there does come a point where a body just can’t keep doing the adrenaline, and doesn’t, and it takes a while to recover. In the meantime, experiences of fear and panic result in something like being slapped in the face with a cold fish. It is weird and disorientating, and my emotional self has changed because my body can’t support what I was feeling.

Amusingly, I’m also having trouble with endorphins. Usually this is a diet/exercise issue, and problems mean more effort is required to support the body. But, I’ve been walking, trampolining, eating plenty of fruit and veg. I don’t even know why this system has crashed. It creates an interesting opportunity to look at who and how I am when this chemical aspect of me isn’t working.

How I think about things hasn’t changed. It doesn’t seem to matter much what’s going on with me chemically, my considered philosophical positions and chosen ways of being hold up passably well. Except where those ways of being depend on being able to show up in a body and feel stuff. At the moment it’s a bit like how I imagine being a brain in a jar would feel – disconnected and a tad unreal. Being in my body is hard at the best of times, right now, it is almost impossible to show up for anything other than pain.

There is however some comfort in knowing that I’m not going to have my sense of self washed away by the hormonal shifts of the menopause. Anything I’ve come to deliberately is likely to hold up, by the looks of things.

(This blog post is not a request for advice on how to medicate any of the above, nor any other kinds of interventions I might try. That’s in hand, this is only part of a story, and it wasn’t what I wanted to talk about today so please don’t come in with that sort of stuff as I find it tiring and it isn’t going to help right now. Thank you.)


Rest and healing

We live in a sleep deprived culture, and most of us do not get enough rest. However, in terms of healing, recovery, managing problems, dealing with the impact of stress on the body and supporting mental health, sleep and rest are essential. People who are ill or in distress tend to need more time to sleep and rest.

Where this gets complicated is if you are dealing with a long term chronic condition. How much rest is a good idea if healing and recovery aren’t going to happen? How much time do you devote to this kind of self care when it’s going to be an everyday issue, and how much do you push through? If you want some kind of life, to be able to work, maintain relationships and take care of your home then you can’t rest all the time, even if your body wants to.

If you rest all the time, you lose muscle tone. Your body becomes weaker and your stamina deteriorates. Most chronic conditions will wear you out and exhaust you, but if you don’t put up a fight to maintain what body strength and stamina you can, you have less to start with each day. People who are largely well will tell you not to exercise when already in pain, but if you are always in pain and it doesn’t go away, when do you exercise? How do you maintain heart health? How much do you push and when do you rest?

There are probably  no experts to consult. It’s possible they exist, but they need to be experts in both your specific condition, and in fitness and wellbeing. Most people working professionally in health and wellness are likely to know less than you do about what might work for your body. They may also think they know more than you do. I have, for example, had to explain to several yoga teachers why yoga is a very bad idea for hypermobile people.  My Tai Chi teacher had not knowingly taught a hypermobile person before and while he was brilliant and supportive, it was a process figuring out what to do with me, and he was not initially able to advise me. Equally, I’ve had health professionals tell me to get more exercise for my mental health with no scope for even having a conversation about how to handle body pain around that.

There are no easy answers here. I’ve written this not to offer answers, but to flag up the shape of the issues. For the person struggling with their body and often surrounded by contradictory and unhelpful advice it can be difficult to trust that you may be the most capable expert where your body is concerned. It may also be an awful discovery, but the odds are there is no one better informed about your body and energy levels and how to manage it than you are. Any advice you get may be valuable, but needs understanding on those terms.

For people who do not live with ongoing pain and fatigue, the issue is of recognising what you might not know. People who are largely well don’t always respond well to invisible illness in others. What you think a person can do and what they can do are not the same things. What a person could do one day isn’t a reliable measure of what they can always do. It takes time and patience to truly support someone with ongoing pain and fatigue issues. Don’t be the person who makes that stuff harder by insisting that you know better, when you might not.

Also don’t be the person who tells someone they must rest and heal and cannot do the things until they are properly well. Some of us will never be properly well, and the decision as to what it is worth hurting for, should be a personal one, and not for anyone else to dictate.


The Cow Chorus

There are a number of fields not far from my home that have cows in for all, or part of the year. It’s not unusual to hear the cows of an evening. However, lockdown and reduced traffic noise have cast this in a rather different light for me.

It’s become obvious, walking in the evenings, that the cows are calling to each other. With far less traffic noise, it has become obvious that the evening cow calls are conversational. You can hear cows from one herd call and then a response from somewhere else – perhaps miles away. The sounds cows make turn out to travel well over distances when they don’t have much to compete with.

I suppose it’s possible that the different herds have been able to hear each other all along, but I suspect not. I have no idea what the hearing capacity of a cow is, but the relentless traffic noise drowns out so much that I can’t think they could hear each other over it either.

If that’s so, then the calling at evening is a pathos laden thing. That cows who may never, or seldom have got response from another herd, call out at the end of the day on the off-chance other cows are out there somewhere. I wonder what it’s been like for them finally hearing a response.

When people talk about animals, it’s common to ascribe behaviour to instinct. There’s no thought or feeling in it, just instinctive animal responses to life. ‘Instinct’ is a pretty meaningless word when you poke it. it’s a refusal to look for the mechanics – be those genetic, learned, or otherwise.  How ancient is the urge to call out to other herds? What keeps that kind of behaviour going when no response is ever experienced? What else has been lost because we make so much noise we drown it out?


Changing how I sleep

Back when I wrote Pagan Dreaming, I speculated how interesting it would be if we could all just sleep when we feel like it. Sleep is one of those basic, essential human activities, but most of us are sleep deprived.  Capitalist industrial clock time makes a lot of demands on what we get to do when. At the time of writing about sleep, I had a child in school and was tied to clock time.

Here I am in lockdown, with a teenage son who can take responsibility for himself. Like a lot of people, the distress caused by the virus pushed me straight into insomnia early on. Rather than fight what this did to my sleep patterns, I went with it. I’ve been getting up when unable to sleep, and sleeping when I can and the result is a glorious hot mess in which I no longer have any kind of discernible pattern.

I am never going back!

I’ve never much liked routine anyway, so the less predictable sleep pattern is giving me a different shape to each day as I encounter it, and I’m enjoying that. Sometimes I have to make an effort to stay awake for things I’ve agreed to, but there aren’t many of them and I’m getting the hang of fitting the naps in. I go walking in the night, I see the dawn up, I get my much needed outside time when there are no people in it. This has done wonders for my wellbeing.

Some nights I sleep in two hour bursts, getting up each time to stretch and do whatever makes sense. It’s fine. Some night I sleep straight out for seven or eight hours. Sometimes it’s only four or five and I make the rest up in naps. On the whole I get a better quality of sleep for doing this. I spend more time in dream sleep – naps are often full of dreams. I feel better. I no longer suffer from insomnia, I just have times when I am awake and times when I am asleep. Insomnia is really only a problem if you can’t get on with being awake when you’re awake, and can’t sleep when you’re able to.

It all feels a bit wild and revolutionary. It definitely feels like stepping out of capitalist models of living and being. It feels free, and natural. I just go with what my body wants and lo and behold, that works.


Druidry and Blackbirds

Of course blackbirds are in the animal oracle and do come up in myths, so they weren’t on my list of creatures to consider from a Druid perspective. But, none of that content here, this post is all about personal experience.

For some years now, we’ve put bird seed on the living room windowsill and had visitations from blue tits and great tits. This year, we’ve got a couple of blackbirds. This has turned out to be much more exciting because they don’t just grab food and fly, they hang around.

Tom and I sit at the window to work, so we’re very close to where the birds might come in. The blackbirds land on the window sill – there’s a male and a female visiting, they show up one at a time. Initially they were nervous about us and if we moved or made any noise they would flee at once.

Now they’re curious, and they pause to watch us, and when we say hello, they do not fly away. I’ve had some extended periods of eye contact, watching the blackbird as it watches me in turn.

It is always powerful when a wild thing looks back at you. To feel accepted by a bird, to be found interesting and not threatening, is also powerful. I listen for the sound of their beating wings, for the scrabble of beaks gathering seed. They’ve become part of my day and I am so glad to see them.

I’m not experiencing any messages here, or any sense of the supernatural. It is however the simplest kind of magic – the kind that comes from making a connection and being affected by that. A gentle, heart opening magic.

What is curious is that the blackbirds have also tried the windows on the other side of the flat, where my son has also put out food. It’s a big enough block of flats, and you’d think ideas about human living arrangements might be a bit complicated and alien for birds, but there they are, showing up at our other windows.


Druids and Worms

Worms should be one of the beings we hold most sacred. They are essential to the life of the soil, and human life depends so much on that vitality. Worms pull plant matter down into the existing soil, and eat it, breaking it down and releasing the nutrients back into the earth. The way in which they move through the soil aerates the ground, and is part of how the structure of the soil is created.

Worms are one of the key the means by which death is turned back into life. They are engineers of this most essential process. Pagans honour the cycles of life and death so we should hold in the highest possible esteem the beings who drive that cycle. And yet, I’ve never encountered anyone celebrating worms in this way.

Worms are suffering as a consequence of human pollution. They are the creators of life, and any threat to them is a threat to us all. We need to protect them in any way we can.

An individual worm isn’t a dramatic entity. They are small, quiet, easily overlooked and living underground, are mostly invisible to us. They do not demand our attention. We don’t have famous worm Gods at whose shrines people might make offerings. We overlook their power and their magic at our peril.

The best shrine you can make to the worms, is a compost heap. Feed them, engage with them, make a home for them that you are fully conscious of. Bring them offerings every day of the food you did not want, the peels and skins and inedible bits. Offer up your rubbish to them, in recognition that they will turn that rubbish into rich food for the soil. You give them the most worthless things you have, and in return, they give you life. It is a relationship that should make anyone feel humble, and that reminds us that power is not always self announcing.


Eels for Druids

I have no idea why eels don’t come up a lot more as powerful magical beings in modern Pagan traditions. They aren’t as common as they used to be, but we cope with the mammals on those terms. The UK Druid scene is abundant with the idea of wolves, but not eels.

Eels are beings of mystery. We still don’t properly understand them. They go away to breed, their tiny elvers swim back to us. The bounty of elvers in the rivers must have been a really important food source for many of our ancestors. I have wondered about the mysteriously absent and returning Mabon at Gloucester, on The Severn in terms of elvers.

Eels can live in the sea and in fresh water and can get out of the water to move about on land at night and in damp conditions. They are creatures of many worlds. They are creatures of the margins, of ditches and damp places, hidden waterways and secret paths through the landscape and the night. I have been enchanted by them for a long time.

Eels are really important food for otters. Eels have a lot of oil in them, and our ancestors ate them as well. They are richness embodied. They don’t exist to be eaten – no creature does – but humans and other creatures experience eels as incredible bounty. When elvers come up the rivers they used to do so in great numbers, again, embodying bounty from a human perspective.

They have a curious reputation for ugliness and creepiness. I don’t really get how this works, but there we go. Human aren’t good at night dwelling liminal creatures. We aren’t good at things that aren’t mammals and we are troubled by slimy bodies.

I have seen wild eels on a few occasions. Distressingly for me, my first wild eel was dangling from a fisherman’s hook alongside the canal. I have seen small ones swimming in the water. They make me intensely happy and I watch for them wherever there is water.

 


Druidry and Curlews

World Curlew Day happened recently, and I had the honour of being involved with some curlew awareness raising organised by Gordon MacLellan – there’s a curlew poem of mine over here – https://www.celebrationearth.org/post/world-curlew-day

Curlews are liminal birds – they have amazing long, curved beaks for feeding in the mud which means you tend to find them in tidal areas.  I’ve seen them at the coast, and around The River Severn. When the tide goes out, the curlews feed. So they have a powerful relationship with tides. You find them inland when the tide comes in. I’ve seen flocks of over a hundred birds in fields in the winter. They spend time on the land, in the air, in the water and in the mud, which has implications if you want to think about them symbolically or as potential guides.

There are curlews all over the world – more information here http://www.curlewmedia.com/about-wcd

Their presence, or absence tells us a lot. We’ve lost most of our wetland in the UK, and so there are a lot of places where you probably won’t see a curlew, because there is no habitat for them. They stand as a symbol for lost wetland. Humans are not traditionally good at seeing marshy, shifting landscapes as good things. We drain those places and turn them into fields for our benefit. When you see a landscape as wasteland, as worthless and useless because it isn’t turning a profit for humans, you miss what the landscape is in its own right.

Curlews have the power to speak to us from the margins, and to embody the wetlands in a way we may be better able to appreciate. They have a lot to teach us about not being so human-centric. I think it’s really important to meet them on these terms rather than look at what they might do for us on our spiritual journey. For Druid purposes, we should be wary about reducing living beings down to symbols we can use for our own benefit. They exist for their own sake, and this is the most important lesson any wild being can teach us. We need to try and see the world from their perspective, not make them into something that serves us in some way.

They belong to landscapes that have no place for us – to the shifting mud at the tideline, to the places that are neither fully land nor exclusively water. They belong to places where we do not belong. We can admire them from afar, and respect them, and respect their habitats and learn to value things that are not about us.


Druidry and the dormouse

I’ve never seen a dormouse in the wild – but that’s not unusual. They are shy creatures and they have an aversion to putting their feet on the ground. It means they are particularly affected by the presence or absence of green corridors connecting areas of woodland. Their cute, sleeping forms are, as a consequence, a popular image for the Woodland Trust and for other organisations trying to reconnect the fragments of our remaining wild places.

They have a great deal of power as an icon for vanishing wildlife, and as this is the way I have most experience of them, it’s the one I’m going to focus on. Activism on behalf of the natural world is something many Druids do. As individuals we may be enthused about all kinds of aspects of nature. However, most people are moved by cute things they can readily identify with.

The sleeping dormouse is adorable. Small, soft, furry, harmless, vulnerable – it pushes all the right buttons to get people caring about woods and trees. It can be difficult to get people to care, there are so many pressures to do that, and emotive content tends to have an impact. I don’t like approaches that over-play on your emotions because I think they just add to the problem. But, cute dormouse is cute and engages people without hurting them.

Dormice hibernate and my understanding is that their name comes from the Latin and that the Romans liked to eat them. However, our sense of them as sleepy creatures owes largely to Alice in Wonderland’s sleepy dormouse, and to mostly only seeing pictures of dormice having a kip. When they aren’t hibernating, they’re busily doing the things mice do, only inside hedges at night, so you won’t see them being active. The story about the dormouse is far more prominent than the reality of the creature itself.

Dormice are not available to most of us. To encounter them you’d likely need some training and the opportunity to participate in dormouse-specific projects. But, dormice are not commodities. They don’t exist to teach us, or for that matter to charm us. They may be good fluffy posterboys and girls for raising environmental awareness, but they do not exist for us. As most of us cannot engage with them directly they raise questions about the service we might unconsciously expect from nature, and our feelings of entitlement to have access to everything. Dormice owe us nothing, and perhaps the best way to honour them (aside from protecting their habitats) is actually to leave them in peace.