When you consider how other mammals behave, it’s obvious that everyone else does what they have to, and no more. There isn’t another mammal species out there doing more than it needs to. Even in mammal communities where hierarchies occur, the lower ranking members tend to have a much easier time of it than humans do.
We have a story that work is a virtue. Work is particularly a virtue for poor people who would otherwise do terrible, sinful things if they weren’t kept busy. This creates a convenient cover for the way in which affluent people living a leisured life exploit the work of those who get to enjoy very little.
It’s very easy to accuse a person of laziness and very hard to prove that you aren’t being lazy. The accusation tends to be aimed at people who are vulnerable – those who are living in poverty, who are ill, disabled, living on the streets, addicted. Laziness puts the blame for this onto the shoulders of the people who are struggling. Meanwhile the story continues that if we just gave people stuff so they weren’t suffering all the time, they’d just sponge off those who have more, because laziness is their defining quality.
There’s no evidence to support this story. Give people the resources they need to contribute to their communities, and most people will act on that. The right wing idea of multigenerational households where no one works turned out not to be real, when it was finally investigated. Meanwhile at the other end of the economic spectrum, if you can sponge off the government in the form of massive contracts, or off workers in the form of massive shareholder revenues, that’s apparently not laziness or getting a handout. We need to rethink this.
It’s not a natural thing to work far harder than you need to so that someone else can make a profit out of you. Our bodies did not evolve for that. We’re all supposed to have time to rest, socialise, groom ourselves, lounge about in the sun, play, chew the cud. This is life, as mammals live it. We did not evolve to work relentlessly, and this is why our bodies and minds suffer when we try to do that. Capitalism is neither natural nor inevitable and there is nothing lazy about craving a gentler life at a more natural pace.
Druidry and the Darkness is a book I wrote over a period of more than a year, enabled by my Patreon supporters. Thanks to that support, I’m in a position where I can simply give away copies of the ebook. If you’re in need of some reading material and can’t afford to buy books at the moment, please take a copy and have a look at the other free reads in my store. https://ko-fi.com/s/9c84aba733
Happily, quite a few people picking up the book have dropped a few pounds in the hat for it, which works well for me. If a few people are able to support me either with Ko-fi donations or via Patreon, then I can afford the time to keep going with the authoring. This is not an industry that pays most of its creators enough to live on, so finding work-arounds is important.
Druidry and the Darkness is an exploration of how humans interact with the darkness, and with nature as it manifests in the darkness. I look at different flavours of darkness, seasonal darkness, the language we use to talk about darkness, and many different ways of exploring and encountering the dark. I’m especially interested in the idea of darkness as a form of wildness, and how we can bring more mystery into our lives by seeking the wild darkness.
Just to give fair warning, my first review for this book described it as ‘very yawn’. They were disappointed that it wasn’t an edgy, exciting book about ‘dark’ psychology. A major point of writing this, from my perspective, is to try and take apart some of the things we humans project onto the darkness and to look at the harm that causes. As a consequence, what I’ve written is a contemplative sort of book that is primarily about interacting with specific aspects of the natural world.
I’ve seen plenty of Pagan and Druid writing that celebrates nature in really straightforward ways. Nature, we tell each other, is beautiful and lovely and inspiring. Go out into nature, it will lift your spirits.
Sometimes nature is harsh. Sometimes nature looks a lot like a baby bird fallen from the nest and dead on the ground. Sometimes it’s the rainstorm that tears the flowers apart, or the remains of a fox cub on the side of the path. It’s watching a gull take a babe coot, or a buzzard take a rabbit. It’s the desperate, dying shriek of the mammal who has been found by the stoat.
While I don’t like the way nature documentaries often focus excessively on violence, sometimes nature is violent. Sometimes it is arbitrary, cruel and makes no sense. The rising tide takes the nest of things too young and small to escape from it. The naturally occurring forest fire slaughters those who cannot flee fast enough.
Nature is the basis of all things, it is part of us and we are part of it. Life continues, often at the expense of other lives. Forces move through the world with no care for the lives they impact on. I think it’s important in nature based spirituality to acknowledge that nature itself is not moral. It’s not lovely, or benevolent, it simply exists. The universe can indeed be bountiful, but bounty for the fox is not benevolence to the rabbit. What creates bounty for humans at the moment is wiping out the majority of other creatures. When we see the bounty and not the cost, we don’t see nature as a whole.
Druidry cannot ignore the parts of nature that are neither pretty nor comforting. We need to square up to those as well. We don’t have to like all of what’s out there, but we do have to respect it. We don’t have to be happy in face of the harsher parts – it is important to have room in ourselves for the feelings that aren’t lovely. Sometimes you need to cry over the dead baby bird. Authenticity is bigger and messier than the idea that nature is lovely.
I have gazed into wild eyes, made unexpected bonds with owls and foxes at twilight.
Once a sparrowhawk, tree perching beside the path, stared at me with great intent and a purpose I could not fathom. Seared by scrutiny, exposed to that raptor glare and yet none the wiser for being pierced to the core.
Deer in the long meadow grass, intent and watchful, alert to threats. I have felt those stares so many times, finding them through the focus of their attention. Looking back, but not too long for fear of causing alarm. I am no predator come to harm you. Trust my gentle gaze.
I see the unknown in those other eyes. Spirit and intent, awareness beyond my understanding. Lives connecting in a brief moment, a spark shared, while the difference and distance remain unbridged.
You will always be mystery. I can only gaze with wonder.
There are all sorts of Pagan and otherwise spiritual activities that focus on being in control of something. There are strong associations in many traditions between being spiritual and being disciplined. Often what religious practices are for, is taking us away from our basic animal urges towards something more elevated.
How does this work with Paganism? Does it make any kind of sense to try and discipline ourselves away from our animal selves? We are animals, mammals – is it even possible for a human to do something that isn’t a reflection of our animal nature?
Perhaps part of this stems from the mistaken ideas we’ve had about what animals are and how they exist. We have a considerable history of reducing animals to meat machines that do everything unthinkingly, by instinct or by conditioning. This clearly isn’t true. There is so much evidence out there to demonstrate that mammals are thinking, feeling creatures and that we all have a lot in common on that score.
Most mammals spend a lot of time resting. Humans often describe that in ways that assume laziness, or sensual indulgence. What we project onto animals has so much to do with wanting to feel superior to them. What we imagine when we see them not actively doing something, is that they are doing nothing. We don’t assume that a cat gazing into space is contemplating philosophy, or deeply involved in some spiritual practice. Just because we have to write books and read books and talk to each other a lot and try very hard to develop prayer and meditation practices doesn’t make it special. Maybe we aren’t superior for having figured this out, maybe we’re inferior because cats just crack on and do it anyway without needing the paperwork.
Being in control is itself often an illusion. We only think we are in control because we don’t understand the influences affecting us. We don’t realise what we’ve unconsciously absorbed, and which stories we are playing out, all too often. We like to feel busy and as though we are being productive and making progress. The more in control we appear to be, the more progress we feel like we’ve made.
I see this come up a lot with how people approach dreaming in a spiritual context. The value placed on controlling dreams bothers me a lot. It feels to me like a process of cutting down a vibrant ecosystem and replacing it with things we’ve planted in straight lines. That’s not progress. It is control and it takes away far more than it gives.
I think of dreaming as being a wild landscape. There is more to gain from entering that wild landscape without wanting to control it, I think. There’s a lot to be said for looking at anything humans have come up with and asking whether it is designed to try and take us away from our human, animal selves. Existence is not something to overcome, it’s something to embrace.
There are (I think) three key ways of considering the relationship between nature and spirit. Which approach you favour will inform how you do your Druidry.
Option 1 – nature is everything, there is no spirit in nature other than life itself. This is atheist Paganism and it means engaging with the world in a rational way and not seeking anything magical or non-scientific. It tends to foster pragmatic relationships with the natural world but does not rule out numinous experience or a sense of wonder.
Option 2 – everything that exists in nature is possessed of spirit. The material world is alive with presence. This perspective will incline you to see every living being as precious and capable of having opinions and preferences. It opens the way to encountering other-than-human people and is consistent with an understanding of reality that has a lot of room for enchantment and wonder. Any encounter with wild things may be laden with significance, but the power lies in the encounter and you are a spirit present in the world encountering other spirits who are present in the world.
Option 3 – spirit manifests through nature. Wild things can therefore be being moved by some greater force and may have some message for you or be there to teach or guide you. I struggle with this one because I prefer to see living beings as existing in their own right and not being here to bring us messages. This approach can be problematically human-centric. It does however open the way to seeing every encounter as laden with potential for meaning and magic. It is probably the strongest option for the person seeking enchantment and wishing to re-enchant their own lives. I have no doubt it is also possible to see the physical world as spirit manifesting without having to attach personal meanings to everything and to instead see the living world as a means to commune with something greater that lies beyond it.
What does it mean to step outside and see a bird, or a cloud or a really nice rock? How does that encounter fit into your world view? How does your world view inform how you interpret your experiences? What do you want to experience and what do you want from the wild things around you?
Everything in a body is finite. This can be quite a disturbing line of thought, especially when it relates to things that are supposedly about who you are. How we feel and how we exist in the world is very much related to our body chemistry in all its complexity. For the Druid exploring nature in their own body, this impact of chemistry on who and how we are is a fascinating line of thought.
Our chemistry is informed by our experiences, environment and food. So our bodies create feedback loops. Those might turn out more like vicious circles as we spiral helplessly, feeling every more trapped by our circumstances. It’s just as possible to grow and build, although the current depth and breadth of crisis in the UK makes that harder.
One of the things I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is the body chemistry of depression and anxiety. With recent news that serotonin levels aren’t the defining issue, it’s clear something else is going on. I’ve been reflecting on my own experiences around numbness and distress and I have some thoughts. I’m a case study of one, this is no kind of scientific, but I think it’s worth sharing anyway.
Most of the chemicals washing around in our bodies have multiple functions. Adrenaline does panic and anxiety, and also excitement and enthusiasm. Dopamine gives us willpower and executive function, it also gives us feelings of reward. These are finite resources. I’m not very good at feeling rewarded – I don’t get feel-good hits from computer games, or from anything else designed to push those buttons. I have spent my life with a wonky body, constantly having to push to get things done. I live on willpower most of the time. What if that simply means I don’t have the dopamine resources to experience the feel-good side of that chemistry? What if the amount of adrenaline going into panic is why I don’t have any capacity to feel excited?
I don’t get much of a vote around panic, but I do get some say in how much willpower I use. I’m undertaking to rest more and trying to make sure I’m not running purely on willpower most of the time. Unshockingly, I feel better for doing things that way, and at the same time I’ve become a little less numb and more able to feel other things and I don’t think this is a coincidence.
I also have questions about the role diet plays here, because you can’t build your body chemicals if you don’t have the right stuff going in. Poverty is exhausting and depressing and I suspect part of that is just not being able to make the right stuff in the first place.
Treating my body as a delicate system with finite resources is working a lot better than running it hard like I’m supposed to be able to function like a machine. I really shouldn’t be surprised about this. I have got to a point in my life where I have the luxury of options, but for a long time I didn’t have that, and for many people, relentless pushing is all there is.
When we moved into the flat, the horse chestnut outside the window was obviously unwell. That was about 9 years ago. Over the years, the tree became ever more unwell, dropping leaves very early in the autumn and looking unhappy.
This year there were almost no leaves. The tree was clearly dying. We took this photo on the day the tree surgeons came to take it down. When the trunk fell, it made the whole building shake.
This horse chestnut was visited by many birds. It dominated the view from where I sit to work and most days I have looked up and seen it full of activity, and flocks of feathery people. Squirrels raced about in it, a pigeon nested there and it was popular with the crows.
This tree has been a friend and a blessing, and will be greatly missed. I have one of its babies growing in one of my pots and this autumn I will quietly move it out into the space the old tree left behind.
One of the things I am incensed about is the way in which humans like to blame the rest of nature for problems that are intrinsically human. This leads to situations in which the natural world is further harmed by projects that don’t solve the problems.
As a recent hideous case in point, a walrus was killed in Norway because allegedly she posed a risk to humans. The actual problem was that humans refused to leave her alone, but rather than deal with the problematic human behaviour, the walrus was killed. This sort of thing happens a lot when inappropriate human behaviour causes problems with wild creatures. Bears suffer a lot from this sort of thing.
The main argument for filling the night with light is to improve safety and combat crime. Lighting the night has not caused night-time crime to cease. It does however put strain on insects, birds and other wild things. We barely even understand what we’re damaging when we light up the night – and we do so to tackle human behaviour, when that human behaviour is not dealt with by brighter illuminations.
I had a rant recently about how trees were being cut down in response to a local attack. Apparently some women were afraid that predatory men could hide in the bushes – knowing the area intimately I must point out that this was never going to be a serious issue and that many of the trees we lost could not possibly have hidden anyone. Trees and bushes do not cause attacks. This is a people issue, and trashing other living beings doesn’t really make anyone safer. People who might attack you don’t stand around doing self announcing things so that you can see it would be a good idea to avoid them. Equally if someone intends you harm, being able to see them slightly sooner doesn’t change much.
We park our cars under trees and then want the trees cut down because they, or the birds in them, make a mess of the car. We build on floodplains and then we want more dramatic and invasive flood management projects to deal with the water. Trees catch fire in drought conditions and we treat it like the trees are the problem, not the human-made climate change.
We cannot solve intrinsically human problems by attacking other living beings or by destroying habitats and ecosystems. The trouble is that human problems would take effort and time to deal with, while killing the walrus or cutting down all the trees is relatively quick and cheap, and then you get to say that you’ve been responsible and dealt with the problem.
I found these fungi growing on a tree stump. I’ve been keeping an eye on the stump for a while as its been dug into and I suspect there are rodents. There are very few fungi I can confidently identify but as I’m not a forager, that’s not of great consequence. I just enjoy seeing them. These were entirely white for a while, and are now breaking down and developing faces.
They remind me of the way Japanese tree spirits – kodama – are represented in Studio Ghibli films.
Fungi plays a critical role in woodland, even thought we mostly can’t see what it’s doing. for some time now I’ve thought of fungi very much as forest spirits, so I found the way this fungi that evokes tree spirit imagery resonant.