Category Archives: Nature

How we understand nature

Nature is incredibly diverse, and it is worth paying attention to the kinds of stories we tell about it. This week I saw a group of Druids (all male, which may not be a coincidence) talking about how brutal nature is – the wolf tears the cute bunny apart. It was part of a conversation about how we have to square up to harsh realities and not wander about whimpering over our wounds.

Of course I know that wolves eat bunnies. But what I also see is the cooperation of the wolf pack. I see the rabbit warren. I see the wider ecosystem that supports them all. I see the way trees share resources through their roots and how they depend on fungi in the soil. I see the many ways that cooperation is built into nature.

I’ve also seen a seagull take a coot chick from in front of its parents. I’ve watched birds of prey hunt, many times. I’ve watched a buzzard take a rabbit. I’ve watched herons and kingfishers hunt fish. I’ve heard rabbits dying, screaming at the attacks of stoats or weasels, most likely. There’s nothing fluffy or uninformed about my perception of nature.

But even so, mostly what I see is the cooperation. The ways creatures look after each other. The way birds of many species cooperate to draw attention to common threats. I see how flocks work together to try and bewilder and overwhelm sparrowhawks.

The perception of ‘nature red in tooth and claw’ is a choice. It’s not the only available story. It is a choice of story that validates not helping the weaker ones. It’s a narrative that appeals to people who are safe and comfortable and who do not want to feel any obligation to anyone else. It’s a way of further putting down anyone who seems fragile. Survival of the fittest narratives can leave people feeling like it’s ok to abandon anyone who doesn’t meet their standards. It’s not a huge step from there to more fascist thinking, to embracing eugenics.

Some creatures do extraordinary things for each other – I saw a story the other day about a crow with a broken beak whose mate fed and supported her for many years.  Wild things don’t just leave the vulnerable ones to die. Not always. It’s a choice. It may be a choice that depends on available resources, sometimes.

I choose to see the cooperation inherent in the natural world. I choose to see connection and interdependence.  I choose to see how the wolf eating the deer benefits the wildflowers.  There are lots of stories to choose from. Nature is not averse to kindness. It’s not at odds with collaboration. Being nature-orientated does not mean having to accept and work with brutality. It’s just that people who favour brutality won’t find it hard to see stories that support their own world view.


Cats and Comfort

Cats have always been a tremendous source of comfort to me. My experience of cats flags up many of the things I find problematic in my dealings with people.

Most cats are really uncomplicated. If you treat them with care and affection, they will reward you with care and affection. And sometimes leave mice in your shoes. Cats have never been bothered about my face, or my body shape, or how I dress. They just want to snuggle, or play, or eat my toast. When I have been sad, the cats in my life have generally been inclined to comfort me. They bring their warmth and their purrs. When I have been ill, they have sat with me. When I’ve been unable to sleep, they have kept me company.

Cats just respond one body to another, one living being to another. There’s a beautiful simplicity to it. In that gentle acceptance, I find peace, and I get to feel a bit better about myself. Cats generally find me ok. They find me adequate and tolerable and reasonable. I know many people have similar experiences with dogs, and horses and other creatures.

I wish humans were better at being creatures together. I wish we were more straightforward about needs, and the need for comfort. I wish we cared less about appearance and more about closeness and what we can share. You won’t impress a cat with a fast car – rather the opposite. So long as there is food and shelter, a cat really doesn’t care about your bank balance. It is not that difficult to be a good enough person for a cat to like, or love.

Animals generally aren’t interested in the kind of posturing humans go in for to try and impress other humans. They’re much more accepting of our diversity than we are. They are entirely willing to find us good enough, regardless of age or wrinkles, or how well we conform to human notions of beauty. They aren’t afraid to be excited when they are pleased to see us. They ask for food, and walks and affection and so forth with the confidence of beings who know these are needs that should be met and that asking is fine. And we don’t mind them asking, where we might feel put-upon or otherwise uncomfortable if a person asked us so bluntly for things they needed.

Creatures we live with are quick to forgive us our shortcomings and mistakes. They don’t bear grudges very often. They don’t save up grievances to air at some future date. What they want from us is simple, and they express it as clearly as they can. There’s so much they generously do not care about that we take such issue over when dealing with other humans.

If I was a cat, I would not need to ask for your attention or affection. I could just climb into your lap, and the odds are you would be pleased, in a really uncomplicated way. You would feel warmed and affirmed by my presence, not uneasy, compromised or threatened.  I wouldn’t seem difficult, even if I wanted a lot of affection and attention.  We don’t second guess cats. We don’t worry about their motives, or what they might expect from us.

If only we better knew how to be creatures for each other, how to accept each other and take joy in those small interactions.


Writing about nature

When I first initiated as a bard, I pledged to use my creativity for the good of the land and for the good of my tribe. (Use of the word ‘tribe’ by white western Pagans is problematic to say the least, but that was the pledge nearly 20 years ago). The principle of making your art as an act of service is a good one, but how does that translate into action?

Writing about nature can be a way of engaging people with the natural world and inspiring them to notice it more and care about it more. If you’ve grown up urban, and never been taught the names of trees or butterflies or wild plants, then it can all be a bit of a mystery, and not in a good way. There’s quite a journey from seeing trees to seeing specific, individual trees with unique characteristics. Equally, it’s quite a journey from seeing some birds, to knowing a bit about those birds and how they live.

One of the things I try to do with poetry is to talk about nature specifically. Bandying the word ‘nature’ about doesn’t get much done – as this blog post already illustrates. It’s not a word that creates engagement. What seems to work best, is precision. A specific tree, an actual encounter, something personal, something experienced.

It can be tempting to make nature into a metaphor for personal experience, but that doesn’t do much to help the land. It fuels the idea of nature as a resource for humans to use if we deploy it in poetry as a way of talking about ourselves all the time. Equally, if the landscape is just a background framing human actors, it is still mostly scenery and mostly something we consume.

If you’d like any of my poetry, there are pdfs (pay what you like) on my ko-fi store – https://ko-fi.com/O4O3AI4T/shop

I was also a finalist in a recent competition to write poetry about urban trees – you can read that here – https://www.treesforcities.org/stories/our-poetree-winners


Food, nature and time

It isn’t especially natural to eat three meals a day. If it was, then trying to get children to eat at the ‘right’ time and not eat at other times would not be an ongoing struggle for parents. In the usual scheme of things, we don’t get to eat when we feel hungry, we get to eat when our work patterns, and the school patterns that reflect work patterns let us.

How well your opportunities to eat suit your bodily needs may be just sheer luck. Part time work and shift work can be timed such that it really doesn’t suit your body. If you work in catering, you’re going to be working when most people are eating. Our mealtimes are decided primarily by the convenience for our employers, not for our health or wellbeing. That’s a rather large thing for many people to have no control over.

Eating when you’re not hungry because this is the time allowed to you for eating clearly isn’t going to do anyone any good. Equally not being able to eat when you are hungry isn’t helpful. We are to suppress nature as it manifests in our bodies, and most of us have grown up with that being totally normal and expected. You eat when someone else says you can eat. Your first meal of the day has to happen – if it happens at all – before your presence is required somewhere. Your last meal of the day happens after work time, plus commuting and food prep time. Even when you aren’t at work, the odds are work or school is determining when you eat.

Since my son left secondary school and I stopped the office job I had for a little while, when I eat is purely a negotiation with my household. I note that if I don’t have to go out, I often don’t want breakfast first thing. I may need an hour or two awake before I feel like eating anything. I’m finding increasingly that I don’t do so well with one big meal and that I’m better off doing smaller meals and snacking. How and when I want to eat is likely to change in warmer weather because I don’t like eating when it’s hot and would prefer to shift mealtimes to allow for that.

These are not things conventional work permits. However, covid changes mean a lot more of us are doing differently with food.

Having our meals regulated by work-time and clock time means we can’t respond to seasonal shifts, to our circadian rhythms, or our own specific needs. In order to function we have to ignore messages from our bodies about hunger or food disinterest. I’ve never seen any studies into what happens when we eat when we feel like it and how that compares to eating when we’re ‘supposed’ to but I do know that three meals a day doesn’t suit small children, and that small children are some indicators of what people are like when their bodies and minds haven’t been socialised into assuming anything is normal.


Doing Nothing

I’m not naturally good at doing nothing. I am happiest when my hands are busy, or I’m using my brain, or both. However, it is possible for me to achieve a level of exhaustion where I can’t do very much at all. Sitting on the sofa either gazing out of the window, or with my eyes shut, has become a regular feature of my life.

It is restorative. There are degrees of being wiped out where it’s the only feasible answer. I’m used to being able to push through pain and weariness so it is still very alien to me to find I can’t – that I am also out of the resources that allow me to push when my energy is depleted.

Compared to many people with energy problems, I’m in pretty good shape. I can count on getting a few good hours most days. Compared with how I used to be, it’s pretty grim. I don’t know if I can slow or counter this decline. It isn’t hard to imagine that in a few years, if I keep deteriorating at this rate, I won’t be able to do much at all. I’m trying not to let that happen, and the best tool I have is to do nothing.

Sometimes that feels counterintuitive. We live in a culture where ‘doing’ is usually the proffered answer. Do more, try harder, try new things, take things, do yoga… except that doesn’t help. Doing less, and doing nothing does help. Not letting my unwellness be a commercial problem to solve by buying something, definitely helps. Resting rather than striving reduces the panic that having no energy causes, and panicking while having no spare energy is a really ugly combination.

Most mammals rest. Your average mediaeval peasant had more time off than your average modern person does. We are not designed to run and run forever, and trying to do that has consequences, even for people who were well to start with.


Raising the puppy-kitten

Most creatures, humans included are more influenced by environment than by genetics when it comes to behaviour. I have a kitten, and he’s got me wondering about how we raise kittens compared to how we raise puppies, and how much of this is about human assumptions. There are going to be no ‘natural’ ways for a kitten to exist as part of a human household.

When I was a child, my grandmother had a rabbit who thought he was much the same as the household cats – he used the catflaps, flopped out in front of the fire and sat on people’s laps because that was clearly what you did. He seemed happy with this and I suspect it was a lot more fun than mostly living in a hutch.

Mr Anderson (the kitten) does not know that he is a kitten. He has no idea about the things people assume are true of kittens. He’s making this up as he goes along, and responding to his environment. About the only thing that seems to be hard wired cat behaviour, is the pouncing. He is perfectly happy to go outside on a lead. No one has told him that being free range is for cats and that supervised walks are for dogs. As a cat on a lead he is less of a danger to the wildlife and in less danger from cars.

Why is it that we recognise the threats dogs might pose to other beings, and the danger they are in from cars and thus do not let them out to play unsupervised in the road? Why do we take such different approaches to these two domestic animals that we as humans keep for our own amusement?

Mr Anderson plays fetch – throw a toy for him and he will often opt to bring it back so that it can be thrown again. He has no idea this is what people do with dogs, usually, not kittens.

As with the puppy-kitten issues, we raise human children based on certain assumptions. It’s normal to raise girls and boys in different ways – so normal that it may not even be a conscious decision. Simply choosing to put a girl in a dress or skirt that limits mobility while letting boys wear trousers has a huge impact on what a child gets to do. Consider the toys we give them, and our expectations. We tend to be more tolerant of aggression in boys, more accepting of tears from girls. Children aren’t so very different from puppy-kittens, and who we tell them they are has a lot of influence.

Mr Anderson gets excited when the lead comes out and someone says ‘walkies!’


Cat Parent

The last three cats I took in were seniors who needed re-homing. Back in the summer, the third of these wonderful cats died at the mighty age of 19. We decided as a household that we would get a kitten. It felt like a rather indulgent thing to do, rather than finding another older cat in need of rescue. He arrived in early November.

We take kittens and puppies alike from their mothers far younger than they would leave in the wild. We do it so that they will bond with us as parent substitutes. It’s not a decision that is particularly in the interests of the creature, and I’ve been very aware of this. He has, however, not shown much sign of distress – just that first night when he didn’t know where to sleep and was clearly missing the kitten puddle he had been part of.

It’s been a long time since there was last a kitten in my life – back in my own childhood, so I’m not entirely confident about what it takes to be a good cat parent. But, I’ve tried to be a decent stand in for the kittens he would have rampaged about with, and the mother cat who might have rolled him over when he get too boisterous. I get chewed a lot, because I let him play with my hands like I’m another kitten. My legs are covered in claw marks. But when he’s not in crazy-kitten mode, he’s sweet and snugly.

I don’t want to punish him for being a kitten, and part of being a kitten is the play fighting and rampaging. I do reward him with extra fuss and attention when he does things that I like. We shall see. At the moment it looks like he’s willing to figure things out and be more co-operative – often an issue in the mornings when he wants to be where I am, which for him means on my keyboard and the diary and notes I work from. As I type this, he’s under the table, loudly killing a toilet roll. I think overall he’s more cooperative with me than he was on arrival.

At this point I have no idea if I’m being a good cat parent or not. I will find out over time, as the habits we build settle into something and I find out more about who he is. I expect kittens are a lot like people in that environment will have a big impact on development and behaviour. So, I try to make sure he is entertained and gets enough attention, and that he is happy. I’ve always thought the parenting of creatures and children alike should have more room in it for happiness than is often the case. I don’t mind if he isn’t obedient, that’s not what I seek in raising a young creature, but I do really want him to be happy.0060 (final comment there from the kitten himself as he joined in with the typing.)


Nature, silence and quiet

Silence isn’t especially natural. In most places where there is life, water or wind, there will be sound – deep caves may be silent, and there may be silence in very thick fog, but that’s about it. However, in an insulated human home, it can be truly silent. I find this disconcerting, and it is always an issue for me at the point in the year when I have to close windows at night. Sometimes I can still hear the owls, but I have to be incredibly quiet and paying attention.

Nature tends to offer us quiet and subtle soundscapes. Some things are loud and raucous – seagulls, high winds, fox songs… but many wild things are subtle and easily missed. For me, the soundscape is as much a part of the experience of being outside as the visual appearance of the landscape is. Unfortunately, a lot of people miss out on this – interested in the picturesque, but oblivious to a lot of what is around them. I say this with confidence having observed other people out walking in parks and at beauty spots.

I’m always amazed by people who go out into ‘nature’ and are then so busy with themselves that they don’t seem to see, and most assuredly cannot hear whatever is around them. People for whom landscape is aerobic exercise, parental guilt appeased, or post-lunch attempts at virtue. I see them not seeing the wild things – where I have paused for a buzzard, raven or deer and they walk on by with no sense of what’s looking at them.

When you talk loudly with other humans, the sounds of the landscape are drowned out. The subtle tinkle of a small stream. The rustle of small rodents in the undergrowth. The calls of small birds – and larger ones. Sound is often the best clue for spotting wild beings and the person intent on a good conversation won’t pick up these clues. What frustrates me is the number of people who are really loud in beautiful places, not just wiping out their own scope for hearing anything other than their own voices, but filling the landscape with their banality. Perhaps they can’t hear how quiet it is. Perhaps the quiet unsettles them, so they fill it with noise. There’s nothing quite like walking in a beautiful place and having the landscape filled with someone’s loud and wholly tedious conversation about some TV show.

At this time of year, if you are quiet, you can hear the leaves falling. You can hear them as they brush against other leaves on the way down. You can hear them as they meet the undergrowth, or land gently on the earth. It is a soft, subtle sound, and it is beautiful, and enchanting, and not available when people are talking loudly. Life is full of such opportunities for small beauty and magic, but often we’re too busy talking over it to even notice.


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.)