Category Archives: Nature

Reflections on snow

This is the first winter when I’ve been able to enjoy snow. In the past, fear of falling has been a real problem – I fall easily at the best of times. Not having the right gear, and not having a warm home to come back to with places to dry wet things have also been issues – in various combinations at different times in my past. Being able to enjoy the snow is a privilege I’ve not had before, and I’ve felt it keenly.

Kit is essential. Sturdy, waterproof boots coupled with fell runner’s crampons keep me on my feet, and I’ve finally started to trust them. It takes a while to overcome fear. Thermal socks, waterproof trousers, a good, warm and waterproof coat. Thick gloves, warm hats, scarves and plenty of good layers for underneath. Now that we have a dehumidifier, coming in wet isn’t a problem and I can count on outer clothes drying overnight. These things make worlds of difference.

So, properly kitted up, I was out during the snow and able to engage more with the experience rather than just being assailed by anxiety and misery and risk.

Snow creates fantastic opportunities for tracking. We saw where the foxes had been. A heron had climbed out of the river, under the footbridge and onto the side of the canal. A cat had wandered down the side of the flat, thought better of it and turned back. Swans had walked down the canal, and we saw where one of the pair had broken through the ice and started opening a channel while the other had walked alongside it on the thicker ice. I’m no expert on tracking, but knowing what’s around normally makes it easier to figure out whose feet are whose.

We were out in the snow at night, with slush on the roads freezing into ice, and more snow falling. There were young humans out in the streets, playing and laughing, under-dressed and apparently unfussed. There were almost no cars – I was seeing them in motion at a rate of about six per hour, at times and places when normally the flow would be constant. The quiet was beautiful. Most people were tucked up inside, no doubt with televisions on and may have missed the eerie beauty of roads innocent of cars. We walked down the middles, danced about on a normally busy junction, because nothing was moving quickly and we could hear it coming from a considerable distance.

As the snow melted, the areas of compression stayed frozen for that bit longer. I was briefly treated to a map of animal paths along the banks beside the cycle path.

I find falling snow hypnotic, and the blanket whiteness hard on my eyes. There is something magical and uncanny about expanses of untouched snow, especially when it lies thick enough to change familiar contours into smoother, unfamiliar shapes. For a brief time, we inhabit other countries, where the colours, shapes and textures are not the same as where we came from. Snowflakes swirling under a street light like tiny fish in an ocean. Journeys written into the land in ways we normally can’t see. The familiar made treacherous and unpredictable.

Finally, for me, that familiar feeling from childhood of rejoicing as the colour comes back in. The great relief of green. The snow may be less of a problem for me, but I am still glad when it goes.


The flight of birds

Ancient Druids could read the future from the flight of birds. For the modern Druid, I think there’s a lot to be said for learning how to recognise the flight of birds. It is possible to identify a great many birds by seeing them in flight, even if they are just silhouettes. How a bird flies is a combination of its body shape, what kind of bird it is, how it relates to other birds and what’s going on in its environment.

Water birds for example tend to carry more fat to keep warm. They are heavier, more awkward in the air. Birds that fly longer distances fly higher than those who are foraging. Journeying birds form V shaped flight groups for efficiency, while foraging birds have rounder flock shapes and aren’t obviously organised. Large groups of birds fearing predation will rise up in deliberately confusing swirls in order to try and put sparrowhawks off. The black and white wings of lapwings seem to sparkle in the air and you can tell them as a flock from a great distance because of this.

Courting birds can have very different ways of flying from birds involved in other activities. Crows and ravens fly in pairs and sometimes roll, and sometimes roll so that one bird is flying upside down under the other bird. Knowing this kind of thing can stop a person from inferring strange omens when in fact what’s happening is normal courtship.

Birds who feed on insects in the air fly in curves and swoops – swifts, swallows, and housemartins particularly. Ground feeding birds like blackbirds and pheasants are more likely to explode out of the bushes in front of you. Buzzards are masters of the wind – if you can see a tiny speck circling so far above you that you can barely make out the bird shape, that’s likely a buzzard.

Some birds gather together as they come in to roost for the evening, and may set out together at first light. Big flocks can form around roosting, with large numbers of birds rising up and resettling repeatedly. Twilight behaviour is not always the same as what happens in the rest of the day. Flocks of pigeons in woods look and act differently from urban pigeons because they are affected by the context.

Birds have their own patterns for hunting and foraging. A grebe may work in one direction along a stretch of canal, a kingfisher will do the same on a body of water, or may take several dives from a preferred spot. Water birds may be affected by tides, going out to the mud flats when the tide is out and returning inland at high tide.

You may not be able to identify a bird by its flight, but you can tell a lot about what it’s doing. Is it going somewhere? Is it a high flier on a long journey or just off to the next tree, or making a short mid-height journey to the next pond? Is it hovering or circling to hunt for something on the ground or is it flitting to hunt in the air? Is it acting defensively as part of a flock, or is it the predator the flock fears? Is it showing off to a mate or hanging out with friends?

Winds aren’t the same at all heights. Sometimes, you can only see there’s a faster wind further up because there are a bunch of lunatic seagulls playing in the gusts.

If you want to work magically with the flight of birds, it helps to get to know what they normally do, first.

Urban trees for magical transformation

Like many Pagans, I do not in fact live in the wilderness. Most of us are urban, which makes the idea of nature as something away from humans rather awkward. How can you celebrate nature, commune with it and base your spirituality around it if nature is somewhere else? There can be a temptation to work with ideas about nature rather than direct experience. For me, one of the things that makes Paganism so good is that we don’t have to rely on what we can imagine, but can instead have that direct, first hand experience of the living world.

Urban trees can be a great way of experiencing non-human entities on a daily basis. It helps that they tend to stay put so can be visited reliably. Trees are good for people in all kinds of ways. I’ve just been sent some really interesting stuff from The Woodland Trust about how urban trees impact on us, so I thought I’d share some of that. I think there’s a lot to take on here about what it means to be in contact with trees, even in apparently unpromising environments.

I think it’s widely known that trees reduce air and noise pollution, and that a single mature tree can release enough oxygen back into the atmosphere to support two people. Access to any kind of green space encourages good mental health and physical activity. Urban trees help slow rainfall, and also reduce temperatures in hot weather – overheating can be a killer. Some of the impacts The Woodland Trust are reporting were more surprising, though.

Public housing residents with nearby trees and natural landscapes reported 25% fewer acts of domestic aggression and violence. I think this is a staggering figure. Humans without trees are not as functional. Further, children exposed to nature score higher on concentration and self-discipline; improving their awareness, reasoning and observational skills, doing better in reading, writing, maths, science and social studies, are better at working in teams, and show improved behaviour overall. We are better people when we have trees.

One piece of tree data I found surprising is that street trees may improve driving safety. One study found a 46% decrease in crash rates across urban arterial and highway sites after landscape improvements were made and street trees were planted. Clearly, trees do not improve visibility for drivers, but they do break up the monotony, perhaps encouraging drivers to be more aware of what’s changing around them. Perhaps trees alongside roads are just calming in the way trees are other places.

I started supporting The Woodland Trust years ago because it seemed like a good expression of being a Druid, and a good way to contribute to the wellbeing of landscape and that which dwells in it. The challenges facing humans are so vast right now, so overwhelming that it can feel impossible to know where to start responding. It can feel like one person’s small difference is hardly worth making, and that can render us powerless.

We are better and healthier people when we have trees. We are less likely to kill each other. If children have better reasoning and observational skills when exposed to nature, it seems reasonable to assume that adults will too. Which means that if we want to change the people around us, helping them to be kinder, more reflective and able to make better choices, one of the ways we can do that is with tree planting. It’s a lot less emotionally exhausting than trying to reason with the unreasonable as well. Working to develop urban green spaces might move us towards answers to far more complicated problems. Trees have a magic of their own, and when people experience trees, they can change simply because of that.

Some sources –

Kuo, F.E., and W.C. Sullivan. 2001. Aggression and Violence in the Inner City: Effects of Environment Via Mental Fatigue. Environment and Behavior 33, 4:543-571. Facts reported by the University of Washington

Sigman, A. (2007) Agricultural Literacy: Giving concrete children food for thought

Donovan et al, 2013, The Relationship Between Trees and Human Health: Evidence from the Spread of the Emerald Ash Borer

3 Naderi, J.R. 2003. Landscape Design in the Clear Zone: Effect of Landscape Variables on Pedestrian Health and Driver Safety. Transportation Research Record 1851:119-130.


The afterlife of trees

Humans have a strange obsession with tidying up fallen trees. Fair enough if you need to move them off a footpath or out of a road, but a fallen tree is a gift that keeps on giving. Taking fallen wood for fuel or make something can also make sense, but taking it away because it’s deemed untidy is ridiculous.

First up there’s the should-be-obvious point that if you leave a tree to rot down it will slowly return nutrients to the soil, feeding everything else.

A fallen tree provides a home for fungi – sometimes many different kinds. It also provides homes for insects, and as the holes in it get bigger it may provide a refuge for small creatures as well. The insects homed in a dead tree in turn provide a food supply for birds and the aforementioned small creatures, who in turn provide food for predators. Things eating each other is the basis of how the natural world gets things done.

In parks, gardens and managed woodlands, I think the problem is that humans try to impose weird beauty standards on nature. Decay is part of nature. The urge to impose human values is a very human problem. Nature tends not to grow monocultures in straight lines. We train ourselves to tidy up all signs of death and decay and it is an unhealthy and destructive urge. Dead seed heads feed small birds through the winter months. Long, straggly grass provides insects with homes. Dead trees have an amazing afterlife that, even as decay is underway, is full of new life.

Out there in the real world, decay and growth go hand in hand. One thing dies and another thing rises. Beautiful fungi forms emerge from the rotting wood. Dead trees are a key part of the life of the forest. Humans too often treat decay as something to fight and try to control. It offends us. It reminds us that our faces won’t stay smooth and unblemished. It reminds us that we are mortal. We don’t like being reminded that we are mortal, and so we go to great lengths to hide mortality from ourselves. We worry about afterlives we can only imagine, while failing to recognise the beauty and power of the physical afterlife that turns our remains into something new.

Connecting up trees

One of the most important things we can do for landscapes and wildlife in the UK is to connect up trees. The other, I think is to reinstate wetland. When trees are in small, isolated groups, they’re much more vulnerable to natural setbacks and damage from humans. Everything living in the trees may be cut off in tiny islands, with unviable populations. The more scope there is for tree-dwellers to get around between trees, the better their prospects.

Children’s literature may have misled us a bit – Watership Down and The Animals of Farthing Wood show creatures making long journeys to new homes when their old homes are threatened by human ‘development’. For many, there is no moving on. Dormice don’t like putting their little feet on the ground, for reasons best known to themselves. When the trees run out, a dormouse has nowhere to go. Bats are the same – I was involved in hedge replanting some years ago and part of the aim was to give bats a wider range and thus better prospects. Where the hedge stops, the bat stops.

Recently I wrote about plans to develop a Northern Forest, and I was sceptical about government involvement – because I always am. Politicians are prone to greenwash, and most seem to have no grasp of what a wood is or how it works. However, as The Woodland Trust are heavily involved in this project, there are things I feel confident will happen, because there are things The Woodland Trust normally does. I’ve been a supporter for more than a decade.

One of the surprising things I’ve learned from following the work of The Woodland Trust is how long you get to restore ancient woodlands. If land can be re-treed within fifty years, there’s enough surviving material in the soil for ancient woodland to re-establish itself. That makes a world of difference. No doubt sites where this could happen will be a real consideration for the Northern Forest.

Woods are pretty good at extending themselves if they are allowed to get on with it. One of the things The Woodland Trust normally does is to buy land next to ancient woodlands and just allows the wood to come back in. Given half a chance, nature reasserts itself, often what we need is to just stop messing with a landscape and let it return to how it should be.

Connecting up small patches of woodland creates more scope for resident populations to spread out. Again, it’s often just a case of getting things started and letting wild things sort themselves out. Tree planting can be a great way to jump-start this, and trees planted to connect existing, established woods won’t take long to develop the true diversity of woodland.

Over on The Woodland Trust website there’s an article that it makes it clear the forest will develop with this kind of thinking in mind.


What makes me female?

To the best of my knowledge, I have been identified as female from the moment of my birth. At that point, it was the absence of a penis and balls that defined my gender. What is it that makes me a woman? It’s a question I’ve been asking a lot. I have a body that looks female, (I have breasts, hips and so forth) I have given birth to a child, I have lactated. But the inside of my head has a lot of difficulty with a female gender identity, and certainly doesn’t want a male gender identity either.

Do my breasts make me female? Obviously not, because women can have mastectomies and still be female.

Does my womb make me female? Again, a hysterectomy does not cause a woman to stop being a woman, so clearly that isn’t it.

Does my capacity to have babies make me female? No, because not all women are able to carry a child to term, or even to conceive. The possibility of reproduction cannot therefore be the defining quality.

Does my genitalia make me female? I think not, because many gender-ambiguous babies have been mutilated to give them the appearance of femininity even when the internal body parts don’t support that appearance at all. Genitals cannot therefore be the defining thing either.

It can’t be my chromosomes, because XXY is also a thing. A person may appear XX but also have a Y in there.

It definitely can’t be my brain structure because the inside of my head is undoubtedly the least gender-conforming bit of me.

Equally, a man who loses his penis or balls to accident or illness is still a man. A man who carries enough fat on his body to have something resembling breasts, is still a man.

How do we know? How much of gender is what we agree to present to the world and how we agree to read those presentations? If you give children the same sorts of haircuts and put them in gender-neutral clothes, it can be very hard to identify their genders just by looking at them. As adults, some of us remain able to pass ourselves off as the gender we don’t normally present as, or to confuse anyone looking at us.

Historically, gender has been very much tied up with power and with who can do what. However, if you have equality, do you need easy visual guides to gender? Do you need gender identity? I’m increasingly inclined to think that the answer is no. Which would leave us representing ourselves visually as the kind of people we our – practical, sensual, sporty, outdoorsy, arty, delicate, powerful… whatever you want to be, with no assumption of any ‘natural’ relationship between how you look and what you’ve got in your pants.

The Northern Forest

The Woodland Trust, alongside The Community Forest Trust are undertaking to plant 50 million trees over 25 years to create a forest in the North of England. There’s details and a map on this website –

The government are investing £5.7 million in this scheme. However, it doesn’t let them off the hook for loss of ancient forests elsewhere. It concerns me that politicians don’t seem to grasp what a wood actually is. A wood is more than just planting some trees. If you plant trees in what was previously a field, unless that field was itself ancient woodland within the last fifty years, you probably just get trees in a field. You don’t get a wood. If your field is right next to an established wood, this can also work. A woodland is also the low to the ground plants, the fungi in the soil, the birds, insects, animals. You can’t offset the cutting down of ancient woodland.

I’ve seen trees planted in fields, and they do not feel like woods. They are missing much of what makes a wood into a wood.

Given the scale of The Northern Forest it is clearly going to have sections next to existing woods, allowing the expansion of habitat for woodland plants and creatures. With the twenty five year time scale, there’s every reason to think this can be done in a way that expands existing woodland, rather than just sticking trees in fields.

I’m excited to see people in the UK talking about tree planting as a way to deal with flooding. We send experts to developing countries to tell them to grow trees on high ground to better manage rainwater, but in the UK too much of our high ground has grouse moors on it. I wonder how much land currently wasted as grouse moors will be allowed to return to a more natural condition in the areas where this is happening. The forest will surround Manchester, location of the infamous grouse moor in protest song ‘I’m a rambler’.

Articles about the project talk about improvements to air quality and to the mental health of people living in cities that the forest will embrace. This is good in many ways, but it is not the answer to either air quality or the current crisis in mental health. We need to cut pollution to improve air quality. We need to deal with causes of anxiety and stress to solve mental health problems (excellent article here – And yes, tree planting is a good answer to excess rain, but we need to do more than tree planting to deal with the climate crisis causing the excess rain in the first place.

While I am always going to be in favour of tree planting, my worry is that this will be used by politicians as a way of saying they are dealing with issues. It could be a big PR and greenwashing exercise if we aren’t careful. It does not substitute for affordable public transport, reducing air pollution, dealing with an increasingly toxic work culture or tackling the root causes of climate change. Even planting 50 million trees in the UK (which sounds like a lot, I know) does not give us the freedom to carry on exactly as we are.

Winter Dawn Chorus

The dawn chorus is most often talked about as a summer thing, when it can be a dramatic to encounter. It still happens in the winter, but it’s much easier to miss. Birds tend to sing just before and as the sun is rising, and people are perhaps less likely to be outside at this time in winter hoping for bird song. I also have my windows shut, so I’ve got be really alert to hear it.

The winter dawn chorus tends to be very short. This morning there were perhaps a handful of bird voices, a brief exchange of sound and then a falling away into silence. Singing takes energy, and there’s frost on the ground, birds don’t have so much to spare for singing.

To me it sounds like a check in with other birds in area. A quick interaction to see who survived the night, and a statement of having survived. Perhaps there is joy in it, for having got through the night without freezing to death or being eaten by an owl. Coming out of the darkness of a midwinter morning, it sounds to me like defiance and hope, as well. I’m probably projecting but I firmly believe that all living things have their own forms of thoughts and feelings.

Druidry and cutting down trees

It may be as a Druid that your first instinct is to protect trees no matter what. It’s a good instinct, (I would think that, because I do feel it) but at the same time, it helps to understand the historical relationships between people, trees and the landscape.

First up, wood is an amazing material. It is sustainable to use so long as we take only what we need and plant three trees for every tree we cut down. It’s also sustainable to coppice and pollard. Wood is not actually one material, different trees have different properties – alder for example resists water. Venice was built on alder. Wood is durable, beautiful, and effective.

Secondly, if the land has a history of human wood work over thousands of years, then continuing isn’t a bad idea. There are woodland flowers that don’t show up unless patches of woodland are cleared. Small scale, rotational tree coppicing results in a wealth of other wildlife being able to return. Diversity of plants increases insect populations which in turn feed birds and bats… Letting the light in will also help slower growing trees like oaks get started.

What doesn’t work is industrial scale logging. It doesn’t work to cut everything over a large area, especially if you follow through by not even replanting. It doesn’t work to take rare hardwoods out of rainforests, or to put vast monocultures of pine into places pine doesn’t normally grow.

If we are to use wood as a sustainable resource, we have to do it while maintaining the health of the overall wood. In the UK, that can mean radical cutting to get rid of invasive non-native plants. I’ve seen what rhododendron does when left unchecked. All you get is rhododendrons and all other native flora and fauna disappears. Pine plantations tend to be nearly as sterile. A wood is not just a bunch of very tall plants, it is an entire eco system.

Small scale wood cutting undertaken by people who keep working responsibly with the same wood over many years gets beautiful results. People who know the wood, and care about it, who take no more than the wood can afford to let them have. People who go in and drag wood out, or work with ponies rather than bringing in heavy machinery. People who leave their wood healthy and full of life. It can be done. I’ve seen it done in many places and read about it in even more.

If an environment has never been messed with by humans, then we should leave it alone and not exploit it. However, if an environment has been worked with by humans for thousands of years, it may have evolved around us. That’s true for many woods, for meadows and for the kind of moorland rich in orchids and wildflowers. It isn’t true for the moorlands where the heather is burned off for grouse, it isn’t true of agri-business and giant monocultures, it isn’t true of deforestation. But, working with wood need not mean deforestation.

We can be participants in the natural world. We can work with nature without exploiting it.

Wood Wise

Learning about the natural world is an important part of the Pagan path. Otherwise we run the risks of having some very odd ideas about what nature is. We may end up thinking of nature as something exotic, away and largely unavailable to us – which isn’t true. We may end up with nature as some kind of abstract concept that we celebrate by calling to it from our living rooms, and that’s not optimal. Even if life obliges you to be a mostly indoors Pagan, learning more about nature enriches a practice.

For Pagan parents, aunt, uncles, grandparents etc, teaching children about nature can be a great way of sharing your path with your young humans. I know many Pagans are uneasy about indoctrinating children, and some paths aren’t really suitable for younger folk anyway. This is a great place to start, and a child who grows up with a deep love of and understanding of the natural world is likely to turn into an adult whose values you can respect, regardless of what they end up believing spiritually.

So, as an act of public service I want to point you at this free, high quality publication. Wood Wise comes from The Woodland Trust, you can download it here or subscribe to have it sent to your inbox –