Category Archives: Nature

Pussy Willow

It’s pussy willow season – I know because the willows near my home have started to open their cute, fuzzy catkins. As a child I was deeply attracted to these, they invite fingers and are decidedly tactile to stroke, hence the name. Although saying that, similar willows are known as goat willow, and while I like goats, they don’t inspire fondling in the same way!

There are lots of kinds of willow out there, and to make matters more complicated, willows like to hybridize.

Properly, the pussy willow is the grey willow, and the image (borrowed from The Woodland Trust) shows it moving from the fluffy grey stage to the yellow flower stage.

I have on occasion – when people have been cutting willow and it would otherwise just die – brought pussy willow stems home and stuck them in glasses as cheerful spring decorations. They are charming to look at, but as the yellow flowers open, the willow sprinkles pollen… lots of pollen… everywhere. On the whole, better leave them where they were!

More on the Woodland Trust Page –

Consenting Creatures

Last year I read a book called Becoming Nature and reviewed it for Spiral Nature (you can read the proper review here Part of the reason I was interested was that it suggested a person could get to the point of being able to touch a wild animal. I’ve handled mice and birds when rescuing them, and hedgehogs for that matter, but I imagined being able to reach out a hand to a deer, and knowing how to do that seemed really appealing.

The author’s method turned out to be all about creeping up an animal, predator-style, and making contact before they know you are there. At this point I realised that I don’t want to sneak up and touch a creature. If I’m going to touch a wild thing outside of a rescue context, I want the wild thing to have consented.

Most usually what I end up touching – or being touched by – is insects. For them, I’m just terrain, and they land on me, or walk onto my hand if I need to move them. I’ve got some very friendly robins around the flat.  I’ve managed to get within a few feet of them on several occasions. I suspect if I had mealworms, they would come to me. I’ve been within feet of wild deer on a few occasions as well, with their full knowledge.

The idea in Becoming Nature is to be a predator, and to avoid being noticed by your prey. In that system you have to avoid paying too much attention, because the creatures will feel you looking at them and move away. I’m not a predator. So in some ways I’m moving through the landscape more like a herbivore, and I’m paying attention. Frequently, what alerts me to the presence of a deer is the feeling of being watched, and it will turn out that one has been eyeing me up. I often find that regardless of who spotted who first, we can hold that mutual interest for some time as long as I don’t make any threatening moves. I suspect that the deer round here see me often enough to be somewhat used to me anyway.

I would love to touch a wild deer. That’s only going to happen if for some reason, the deer approaches me. I don’t want to steal contact as an ego trip. I have nothing to prove. The odds are it’s never going to happen, and I’m fine with that. I am not entitled to touch anything I want to touch, and for me, consent is an important consideration with any sentient being I engage with in any context.

Stories about fat

Trigger warnings: weight, diet, body shape. And I’m starting with a trigger warning because this is a subject that puts some people in a very bad place indeed. Like most people my age, I grew up ‘understanding’ that being fat was the simple consequence of eating too much fat. That’s not how it works, and while more information is out there all the time, it doesn’t always filter through. The default is to blame and shame fat, still, which is bloody unhelpful.

It looks increasingly like sugar and refined carbohydrate are a far bigger issue than fat in the diet, and that the sugar industry has led the demonising of fat.

Sleep deprivation encourages us to retain fat. We live in a sleep deprived culture. I don’t know whether it’s because lack of sleep denies us processes that would have helped, or because lack of sleep is a crisis, and in a crisis, some of us store fat. Which leads me to stress – which tells our bodies there’s an emergency going on. For some of us, routinely trying to starve yourself thin can create and emergency that the body responds to by frantically storing everything it can. This was me in my teens, often only eating one meal a day, retaining weight, malnourished and miserable. Stress, and most especially work induced stress, and poverty induced stress are recognised things, but under-explored. There is also a known correlation between poverty and obesity, but no public debate about whether the stress of poverty, contributes alongside poor nutrition, to weight gain. If there were, we’d have to look differently at workplace responsibilities and government policies.

Thyroid function, and water retention and probably a whole heap of other medical conditions I’m not up to speed on can go unnoticed if we obsess over fat in relation to diet. If ‘get more exercise and lose weight’ is the only diagnosis available for the more padded person, other medical conditions – conditions that might well be causing or adding to weight gain – go unnoticed and unchecked. It happens.

Yo-yo dieting is a thing, and a lot of people get trapped in it. Brief attempts at wonder diets that cause weight loss in the shorter term, and then don’t work. This is in part because diets don’t deal with lifestyle as a whole. Wonder diets are often faddy, under-researched and won’t work for everyone, our bodies are different. It’s not just about how we eat, but about what we do with our bodies, how much we move, sleep, rest, and stress is all part of the mix. A happier life may make weight loss very easy, dieting misery can move us towards weight gain. Unhappiness leads to comfort eating, it can make us less active, and adds stresses to life that can help convince our bodies there’s a crisis we need to stock up calories to get through.

I’ve spent much of my life hating and resenting my body shape. I’ve starved myself as a form of punishment for being so disgusting – this is how I’ve felt about myself. Followed by the inevitable binges and the self-loathing those create, leading to a cycle of misery and excess weight. It’s really tough to break out of that self-perpetuating loop. I’ve done so by keeping the focus on doing things that make me happy. I’ve paid attention to how my body responds to foods, and altered my eating to do what feels good. I eat with a view to powering my body for whatever activities I have in mind, not with reference to my stomach size. I feel better about myself. I’ve got out of the punishment cycles and into a process that is about wellbeing and feeling good, and that has made a lot of odds.


Complexity, spirituality and Paganism

The world religions which have a monastic element tend to emphasise simplicity. However, these are often also religions where there’s an aspect of rejecting or overcoming this material world in favour of spirit. One of the things I’ve always liked about Paganism is the soulful embracing of the physical that goes with nature based religion. Questions of simplicity and complexity do not look the same from a Pagan perspective.

Nature is complex and often gloriously inefficient – evolution wanders forward, and while the longstanding form of the shark may seem graceful and enduring, if they stop swimming about, they drown. Pandas. Everything about pandas demonstrates how evolution can and will take bizarre and complicated routes. Then there’s the issues of food chains and eco systems – subtle and complex webs of interdependence. Where there is life, there’s complexity.

We humans have an observable appetite for it. Our urges to create, to play, to invent and imagine demonstrate that simplicity doesn’t come naturally to us. It has to be imagined, taught, created through discipline and given value. I think many ills can be traced back to this – people forced to live narrow, boring, predictable, grinding lives tend to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol just to give existence some breadth and depth.

Many years ago, I minored in psychology, and became aware of the relationship between complexity and child development. Children need environments that stimulate their senses, but don’t overload them. Sound, touch, smell, sight – whatever is available to you needs something to chew on in early childhood to develop as a human. The same is also true of baby rats, and no doubt all other mammals too. We are not designed for bland or sterile environments but for spaces vibrant with life, possibility, danger and wonder.

As Pagans we know that if you spend time in nature, there’s a lot going on in terms of movement, sound and colour in most parts of the world. A still, silent environment is dead, and probably human. And at the other extreme, the maddeningly over-stimulating environment is also human, because we don’t know when to stop. Rush hour traffic, multi-screen leisure time, noise and light pollution – we’ve become rather adept at creating forms of complexity that make us sick.

We need complexity and stimulation, we suffer when faced with either too little, or too much. The question, as always, is one of balance. We need the kind of complex things to think about and interact with that uplift us – be that the glorious chaos of wild places, a chess game or an opera. Complexity is life, and life is complex. Given any chance to question what we’re doing and I think most of us know what’s too much. We develop skills to tune out, to not see or hear so as to avoid information overloads. The answer is not to keep doing that, but to do something better where we can.

Catkins: One of January’s true joys

The Pagan myth that nature is all asleep and quiet now and everything kicks off at Imbolc, is rather brought into question by the beautiful January phenomena that is the catkin. Catkins are the reproductive parts of some trees, they form in late autumn, and flower from January onwards. Thus far this year I have seen open catkins on hazels and alder, while the pussywillow is just starting to open.

Hazel catkins

Hazel catkins

Catkins are small and subtle, you won’t see them unless you get fairly close to the tree and look. But if you do, there they are! They tend to be male and female, and wind pollinated. Male hazel catkins are quite colourful, pussywillow invites stroking (hence the name) and they add a bit of cheer. They are also the promise of life to come, of hazel nuts, new trees, and everything else getting going as we move towards spring.

alder catkins

alder catkins

Nature never really sleeps, something is always happening. The trick is to get past our simplistic notions about what ‘nature’ is doing at any point in the year, and see what’s actually going on around us.

Pussywillow aka grey willow, although goat willow can also be called pussywillow and willows like to hybridize...

Pussywillow aka grey willow, although goat willow can also be called pussywillow and willows like to hybridize…

I have an alternative wheel of the year column over at Sage Woman blogs, so if you’d like a monthly prompt for things to celebrate that aren’t a tidy match for the regular wheel of the year narrative, do wander over –

Images in this blog post come from the Woodland Trust website, find out more about trees and tree protection here –

Looking for kingfishers

This post will primarily be useful for people who live in regions inhabited by kingfishers. Wikipedia suggests that’s likely to be lots of you ( ).  However, there are wider issues here about seeing what’s actually there, and finding wildlife by getting to know what it does, so there should be some wider relevance.

The kingfisher, as the image demonstrates, is a brightly coloured bird that eats small freshwater fish. It seems reasonable to expect that it would therefore be easy to spot, and this (I think) is why many people don’t actually see them. Photos of kingfishers are misleading, as they most usually show the bird with the light catching it to really show off the iridescent colours of the plumage. Without the right lighting, the kingfisher is much more nondescript to look at. When motionless amongst plant life, the colour distribution breaks up the bird shape, and makes them surprisingly hard to spot. I’ve found it’s often the case that things that look colourful when presented in a book often blend in far more effectively than anticipated.

Kingfisher by Joefrei looking bright blue, in a way you will seldom see in  real life.

Kingfisher by Joefrei looking bright blue, in a way you will seldom see in real life.

The best place to look for kingfishers is at the margins of water. They can hunt from a few feet above the surface if there’s plants or a bank to sit on. When looking for fish they are fairly still, only the speculative tilting of the head will give them away, and that’s a pretty subtle movement. When they move, they move fast – a sudden plunge into the water and a rapid shift – often to a new perch. If you see the flash of flight and a streak of blue, you’ve probably got one. The trick is to keep looking at this point because the odds are the kingfisher hasn’t gone far and you can get a better look at it.

I have on numerous occasions now seen kingfishers in flight about a foot from the bank, low above the water. It’s a very rapid flight, and this often gives them away without a glimpse of colour. Spotting where they land and moving in for a closer look often delivers rewards. I’ve been able to get close to them repeatedly without bothering them – if they are somewhere people frequent, they can be very relaxed.

On occasion, kingfishers will hunt from higher perches – telephone wires across canals for example. Here it is the sudden, high speed dive that gives them away. I’ve also seen them in flight much higher and away from water – moving between bodies of water – here it’s the overall bird and beak shape that is most readily identified. They’re about the size of a blackbird, but have a longer beak by far.

Kingfishers are something a person is unlikely to see unless specifically looking for them. The speed of movement and the tendency to stay close to the bank and plant matter makes them hard to spot. If you are looking, and they are about, you will see them. They work quite large territories, so you won’t necessarily see them all the time, or on the first few tries. The kingfisher itself hunts with what looks to me like a combination of patience and curiosity. Its sits still, watching the water, waiting, paying attention. It strikes when ready, sometimes it gets a fish, sometimes not. Either way, it waits and tries again. A similar approach to looking for them has served me very well.


Evergreens in winter

This time of year is the best for spotting evergreen trees in predominantly deciduous landscapes. With the majority of trees losing their leaves, the vibrant colours of holly and ivy really shine through in a woodland. Ivy can dominate a tree such that it looks like it has its own leaves – in extreme cases, mistletoe can do the same, so it’s always worth getting in for a closer look if you can.

There are also evergreen oaks – the holm oak (see above), which in the greener part of the year you won’t see unless you’re really looking for them. In winter they really stand out.

holm oak leave.

holm oak leave.

More holm oak information here –

Images in this blog borrowed from the Woodland Trust website.

Grooming the human mammal

Mammals groom. As I type this, I’m sat next to a cat who is busily washing herself, with her tongue. For most mammals, washing means licking. For any non-solitary creature, grooming is also a collective activity with a community bonding aspect to it. I wonder when it was that humans stopped licking themselves, and each other. Clothes clearly have an influence. To lick a fellow human these days could only be understood as a sexual act, and certainly none of us would be likely to think of it as hygiene.

The grooming of fellow humans is also something we no longer do as a natural part of daily life. Parent humans apply water, cleaning products and brushes to offspring, until said offspring can do it for themselves. Those who cannot clean themselves are groomed by others, but this is often the kind of work we pay people to do in the context of care homes. We don’t mind paying for grooming, for haircuts and washes, for the treatments of beauty parlour and spa – if we can afford it, that is.

It’s interesting to speculate what human relationships would be like if we routinely groomed each other, with no sexual connotation, and no financial aspect. We know from other mammals, that connections are reinforced by this. I’m prepared to bet, based on how modern humans respond to hairdressers and spa days, that there are some considerable feel good factors attached to being groomed. In monkeys, grooming can also be part of the expression and reinforcement of social hierarchy, which is complicated for a creature like me, but I think it’s likely a better way of handling it than many of the alternatives. It certainly users fewer resources.

I think this is all part and parcel of the way we’ve tended to sexualise all forms of contact. We tend to see touch as sexual, and thus only accept it in the context of certain kinds of relationship – sexual, familial or paid for. The word ‘grooming’ is increasingly used to suggest preparing someone for inappropriate sexual contact. There are comforts we aren’t allowed to provide for each other, but are fine if you stump up the cash. Other ways of being are clearly possible.

Apple trees and mistletoe

According to the Romans, nothing got the ancient Druids more excited than an opportunity to cut mistletoe out of an oak. On the whole, mistletoe does not grow on oak. I may have seen some once in about twenty years of keeping an eye out for it, and I didn’t have a camera, and it was winter so there were no leaves on the tree and I couldn’t get close enough to the tree to be entirely certain. In some ways that feels like a very workable metaphor for any kind of spiritual experience!

Mistletoe grows on all sorts of trees. In the area I live in, I’ve seen it on willows, and other trees, but the absolute favourite seems to be the apple. In the fat floodplain of the Severn, there are a lot of surviving old orchards, and a lot of non-fruit trees absolutely smothered in mistletoe at this time of year. Old apple trees have a bumpy bark, which of course gives the seed somewhere to lodge. Apple trees are attractive to birds, and birds are how mistletoe seeds generally find their way into tree bark, as birds clean their beaks. So it all makes plenty of sense.

One of the surprising mistletoe things I’ve recently learned is that, for reasons best known to itself, mistletoe does not like pear trees. I was in an old Severn-side orchard recently where all of the apple trees were covered in ‘the golden bough’ (which is of course green and alive, not golden and dead at the moment). There was one pear tree, and the pear tree had no mistletoe. The landowner was able to confirm that this is a thing.

Too much mistletoe does a tree no good at all, so taking from a well covered tree is in many ways a good thing. The mistletoe itself does not benefit from killing its host. If there isn’t a lot of mistletoe, make sure you leave plenty behind, or you’ll kill it. Resist the temptation to cut off a whole ball, unless there are a lot of other balls on the tree – generally taking no more than a third of anything is a good idea, and less if something is generally scarce.

Mistletoe Image taken from the Woodland trust website, which has an excellent page with lots of mistletoe information and more photos on it  –

Pathologising the female

As far as I can make out, the default body for medicine, is male. I’ve never seen a model of the human internal organs and digestive system that included a womb. Womb diagrams are separate. I have no idea how my body differs from the obviously male default. But that’s not the whole of it. Things that the female body does, in its natural, normal working form, are treated as problems to be solved. Symptoms that must be treated to get our aberrant bodies back in line with the normal (male) body.

Menstruation, pregnancy, and menopause, and everything that happens around them, are talked about in terms of symptoms, and symptom control. Morning sickness and the desire to control it, led us to drugs that damaged babies not so very far back in human history. I found my queasiness really helpful, I must note. I followed and trusted my nose, ate nothing that my face reacted badly to, and never threw up until just before I went into labour. Not a bad track record!

Of course this is related to the way in which women as contributors are traditionally judged on male terms. To get into education, workplaces, equal rights, we’ve largely had to agree to fit in with male standards. Those ‘male standards’ are all about being able to work all day, without distractions of body, children, emotion, or other commitments. There’s a lot of men this won’t suit either – anyone physically or cognitively different from the narrow bandwidth of acceptability. It boils down to being good little cogs in the machine, working to make money for others.

I can’t speak to the male experience, but I know with certainty that a biologically female body is not designed to be a good little cog in the machine. Every month I go through a period of radical bullshit intolerance (aka pmt). When I bleed, anything that isn’t right becomes obvious. My willingness to tolerate stupid, pointless, tedious things, unreasonable people and unfair conditions goes straight out the window. It’s a monthly reality check that I have come to value and take seriously.

Alongside this, there are plenty of stats out there to show that when the inherently aberrant female body rocks up with a problem, it’s less likely to be taken seriously. Women reporting abdominal pain aren’t treated the same way as men (I don’t have the stats to hand, but they’re out there, the internet is your friend). The female heart attack does not involve exactly the same symptom set as the male heart attack. One is widely known, the other is not. The standard perception of autism spectrum, behaviours is the male experience. Female autistic experience is different and again not widely known. Over and over again, the female experience of things is largely ignored while the male experience becomes the pattern for what’s normal, and when you are sick and no one takes your symptoms seriously, that’s a very, very serious problem.

Psychologically, we pathologies the female (I did this one at uni, again, the information is out there and I don’t have details to hand).  Get people to list male and female traits in columns. Then get them to list healthy and unhealthy adult traits in columns. The correlation of male/strong/resilient/logical/rational/healthy and female/neurotic/weak/irrational/unhealthy will emerge. Not because it’s true, but because it’s what we believe.

Measuring female bodies by male standards can only ever make female bodies look like deviations from the norm. This needs to change.

More heart attack info here –