Category Archives: Nature

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.


Druids and butterflies

The butterfly is always a popular metaphor for any kind of transformation. That whole stodgy caterpillar to elegant fluttering beauty gives us a story about the soul that many find appealing. The butterfly has also become the story we tell each other about how tiny things can have a massive impact. The imagined butterfly flaps its wings and this sets of a chain of events leading to a massive storm far away. These are good stories, although I think they tell us far more about what we want from a story than they tell us anything about butterflies.

The thing I find most interesting about butterflies, is their gender issues. My understanding is that butterflies cannot easily gender identify other butterflies. This is why we get the lovely phenomena of butterflies dancing together in the air. Two, sometimes three of four butterflies all flying together in a small area, figuring each other out. Sometimes this causes two butterflies to go off together and make eggs. Sometimes it doesn’t. Outside of observable reproductive activity, we don’t really know what’s going on here.

I can say with confidence that there is no violent rejection between butterflies when they turn out not to suit each other. They have no problem doing this exploration in threes and fours, there is no territorialness, no chasing off of rivals. As a queer and plural sort of person, it is tempting to me to read things into the way butterflies dance together. That maybe they enjoy being three or four butterflies figuring things out. That not getting to egg making might be ok, that the dance might be a thing in its own right. I acknowledge that I am bringing my own needs and stories to the table here, but there is nothing in what butterflies do to say otherwise.

That weaving air dance of two, three or more butterflies is without a doubt, an act of beauty and gentleness. There is so much unkindness, rivalry, jealousy and possessiveness in how humans court each other, but there’s no intrinsic reason to interact that way. We could choose to be more like butterflies, dance with each other for the joy of it, be relaxed about where we don’t suit each other, and let it be what it is. For Druids interested in peace, they’re a helpful being to contemplate.


The Druid’s Hedgehog

Spiky on the outside, soft in the middle, I identify rather a lot with hedgehogs. Night wandering snufflers, eaters of whatever turns up, there’s something cheerfully pragmatic about hedgehogs. In recent years they’ve also provided us with evidence about how quickly creatures can adapt. Once, they rolled into balls to deal with threats, and died to cars. Now, they run away. They shouldn’t have to, but human spaces aren’t much good for them.

In my teens I had a number of memorable hedgehog encounters. There was a hedgehog who lived under my grandmother’s shed. There was one evening when I was sat on her doorstep because I couldn’t sleep (I lived between her house and my mother’s not really belonging anywhere). The night was quiet, but there came a sound as though an army of a hundred tiny marching feet was coming down the road. I was a little scared, but I stayed put. And down the road came a massive hedgehog, spines skittering over the bumps in the tarmac to make the sound of many feet.

That encounter got me thinking about traditions of putting bread and milk out for faeries. This is also what one traditionally puts out for a hedgehog, although it’s not good for them and cat food is far better. But, feed the hedgehog, and there will be fewer pests in your vegetable plot, and you will be blessed with more food.

I’ve rescued many a hedgehog from roads and sides of roads. I find that putting coat sleeves over the hands makes it easier to lift them – they are really spiky. I’ll take the pain of that over leaving one in danger any time, though.

Other hedgehog stories – the one I sat with on a low wall for a while on my way home from the pub. The family of baby hedgehogs who cavorted on my lawn one late summer’s afternoon. The hedgehog on the sports field, looking up at the full moon. The two hedgehogs in the same place involved in what looked like a dance routine. They are always charming.

I’ve lived with them in my garden, I’ve chatted to them late at night. Hedgehogs don’t mind people that much – not if we’re on foot and at a reasonable distance. They like us even more when we make our gardens accessible, leaving hedgehog sized gaps under fences. They like us when we leave them safe places to sleep and don’t later turn those into bonfires. They like us when we put stones in our ponds so they don’t drown in them, and when we don’t poison life in our gardens. They are a blessing to have around.

If there’s a hedgehog in your life, it is a measure that you are doing things well.


Slugs, Snails and Druids

Slugs and snails are not the kind of glamorous creatures people like to identify with as animal guides. But, if we want to deal with nature as it really is, not fantasy-nature that serves our egos, then everything is worthy of attention.

Slugs and snails are without a doubt a problem for anyone growing their own veg. I had a garden once that didn’t grow anything well, except slugs; anything I put in the ground was rapidly eaten. I moved over to taller fruit bearing plants, and all was fine. That garden was also really popular with hedgehogs, and this is not a coincidence.

We’re often too quick to assess nature in terms of what it does for us. Slugs and snails do nothing for us that we recognise and value, and so we see them as pests to get rid of. They are food for many other creatures though – again, creatures who do not provide us with utility. Snails are especially important food for thrushes, who are also in decline. Smaller slugs are eaten by all sorts of birds.

Snails, taken as individuals, are rather charming. They have the capacity to hide away for long periods during dry spells, appearing in the damp apparently from nowhere. Little underworld creatures who are summoned out by the darkness and the rain. Carrying their homes with them, but still desperately fragile and all too easily killed, they have a lot of potential as symbols for anyone who wants to dig in with that. Their shells are pretty, and piles of their shells tell you that a hedgehog, or a thrush is around.

My grandmother had a garden bench, and her resident hedgehog always used to go under this to eat snails in the night. As a child I was fascinated by the piles of whitening shells.

Slugs are one of my least favourite things to touch and I have a lifelong repulsion over the feeling of them on my skin. However, they are incredible scavengers, and when it comes to tidying up, slugs are amazingly good at it. Their admittedly gross (from our perspective) eating habits are a major contributor to the ground around us not being covered in a thick layer of horrible things. I’ve seen them eating shit. They get in for dead things that nothing else will touch – plant and creature alike. When one of them has been trodden on, another will come along and tidy it away. They are masters of decay and deconstruction.

Slugs and snails, like so many other creatures, invite us to examine our priorities. They aren’t here for us. They don’t serve us. It’s not all about us. We destroy ecosystems because we only see the world in terms of how it serves us directly, and this is something we need to get over, if we are going to continue as a species. We need to see the good in things without them having to be specifically good for us.