Category Archives: Nature

Drought, grass and diversity

We’ve had very little rain for weeks now. Places where there was just grass, and no shade, are dead-looking, dry and brown. However, a lot of plants are not dead and this reveals some interesting things. Grass that hasn’t been cut has held out for longer. Grass in any kind of shade is doing better. Grass protected by tree cover is doing best of all. Where there’s a mix of plants, those other plants are often surviving better than the grass. Grass in the company of non-grass seems to be doing better. Combinations of the above are also doing better.

Grass is pretty resilient and can make a comeback once there’s rain. In the meantime, it is easy to set on fire, and unable to support anything else much.

I honestly don’t get the British obsession with the lawn. The playing field at least has some obvious use to it. The neatly trimmed road verge where visibility is not an issue, the short grass of public spaces so rapidly worn away by passing feet… grass monocultures are in many ways useless, and yet we seem to love them. Possibly because we think short grass looks tidiest, and we love to tidy up nature. Right now, the ‘tidiest’ bits look dead and really unattractive.

Where there’s diversity on the ground, there’s a better chance of some plants being able to survive the conditions, whatever the conditions turn out to be. Plants have varying tolerances for sun and frost, drought and flood. By having a range of plants, we stand a better chance of not looking at dead ones. Plants are necessary for the existence of insects, and bees are in peril so we really need diverse planting that won’t be killed off so easily.

The moral of this summer for me, has been that in face of really challenging weather, trees are wonderful. I can sit out under trees – where the plants are still thriving. I can walk under trees, where the undergrowth is hanging on pretty well. Trees are amazing things.

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Community and woodland

A healthy community and a healthy woodland have a great deal in common. Neither does well for existing in total isolation; threads of connection with other communities or woods are really important. A good wood has some diversity in it – different kinds of trees, a variety of underwood and undergrowth. It has birds and creatures. Equally, a good human community has diversity inherent in it too, but all too often what we do is connect up with people who are much like us – same age and gender, same class and education background, same sort of earnings level. We could learn a lot from trees.

One of the problems with tree planting is that you often end up with a wood where all the trees are the same age, and will all start to die off at the same time. It is necessary to thin out planted woods and allow young trees to come up after the original planting. A wood that will endure, has young trees growing in it.

Communities are the same. From school age onwards we’re encouraged to associate with people the same age as us. It means we grow up without access to the knowledge and experience of older folk and once we get older we may have little sympathy for the struggles of younger folk. If we live in an age-segregated culture, we may even have a sense that there’s inter-generational conflict. Perhaps at the moment there is, there’s so much abuse heaped on millennials.

Age-based human communities don’t endure. The spaces I like most are all-age spaces. You can show up with a kid in a pushchair, you can show up as a teenager and young adult, you can be there when you’re middle aged, and when you’re old. I like the atmosphere of spaces that have a broad mix of people in them. It’s a significant part of the attraction of steampunk, for me.

I go to too many events where those present are retired and very middle class. Often my son is the only teenager in the room, having grown up being the only child in the room at many events. Some of it, no doubt, is about disposable income and spare time, but we should be making spaces more accessible for people who work, have children and/or have limited funds. If a space looks old and middle class, it can be immediately unattractive to people who don’t fit. It can be hard being the one visible oddity in a room.

I don’t know how trees feel about other trees. People seem to find comfort and solace by being around similar, likeminded people. As we huddle into spaces populated by people who seem a lot like us, what we fail to notice, is that a great many other people who don’t superficially match, are also a lot like us.


Re-wilding my sleep

One of the few unexpected gifts from having been so ill for so long in the spring, is that I learned how to nap. I’d work mornings, and then flop on the sofa to rest, and often, sleep would follow. I’ve not been able to nap since early childhood, such that being sent off to nap as a child was distressing and frustrating for me. For much of my life, going to sleep has been really difficult, and in the last six months, that’s changed too.

Back when I was writing Pagan Dreaming, it struck me that sleep re-wilding could be a thing. When most of us sleep, and how long we sleep is dictated not by our needs, but our responsibilities. Jobs, families, and fellow denizens of the same house, school runs, traffic, the noise around us – these things all get more say in our sleep options than we do.

Imagine what would happen if we just slept when we needed to? Imagine how different life would be if the wellbeing sleep brings could take priority, not the back seat?

For some months now, I’ve been sleeping at need. I sleep in the afternoons. At the moment, I also have an option on sleeping in the morning. My dreaming has changed, becoming richer and more complicated. My thinking, now that I’m not ill, is sharper. At time of writing, I’m sleeping a lot more because there are distressing things I need to process and I do better at that when I can do it unconsciously.

Resting when you need to rest is a truly powerful form of self care. It boosts self esteem too. The person who is obliged to push on through exhaustion is being treated, or treating themselves as less important than the things they are keeping going for. It’s dehumanising after a while. The need for rest and sleep are fundamental needs, and often not taken seriously.

Resting and sleeping are normal mammal behaviour. Even mammals who have to chew a lot of grass to get their daily food rest more than humans do. We’ve made laziness a sin and industriousness a virtue. Laziness is natural, happy and rewarding. Industriousness is destroying the planet and taking all the joy out of life. The more able I become to sleep when I need to, the more I want this for everyone else. Why are we killing ourselves to go a bit faster or make someone else a bit richer? This is madness, and it is the cause of madness. Being sleep deprived will always leave you feeling inadequate and needy. Sleeping is the only answer to this, not the consumables we’re encouraged to use as a substitute.


Mammal communications

On Sunday, a heavy horse pressed his nose against the palm of my hand, and snuffled a bit. It was a moment that I found both affecting and affirming. Mammals do a lot of communicating through touch, and use touch as a part of social bonding. Most mammals are willing to touch and be touched as part of encountering and interacting with each other. Non-human mammals cheerfully extend this courtesy to humans, but we often aren’t very good at it. As mammals who have decided that we are separate from the animals, we don’t really do much touching in the normal scheme of things. Not by other mammal standards.

When it comes to humans, the question of who is allowed to touch who, and when, is complicated, rule-laden and tends us towards non-contact. Unlike other mammals we don’t touch to communicate with each other, most of the time. And yet, there’s a great deal of information to be gleaned from whether, or how a person touches you. Touch can express kindness and affection. It can also be an expression of control, or power over. It can be withheld as a form of punishment, or as an expression of unacceptability.

Professional humans who work with animals use touch to soothe and reassure. Professional humans who work with humans do not use touch beyond what the role demands and we are collectively pretty clear that on the whole, touching in a professional context is inappropriate. Even if the other person is crying and obviously in great distress.

Most mammals seem able to embody what they’re feeling and act upon it. I have an animal body, but I have no real idea how to embody anything. I can use words, which create a distance between what I feel and whoever I might be offering it to. I can and will talk calmly about how I feel, but I find it unspeakably difficult to rock up as a mammal and let my body speak for me. I am always surprised when anyone, any other living mammal, chooses to touch me. Be that a horse, or a person. I find it easier to know what to do with the creatures, because I don’t think they judge me on the same terms. So long as I am not afraid of them and move gently, they are likely to accept me. I’ve never really worked out what the rules are for people.

Maybe it is simply that, as I am more inherently afraid of humans than most other creatures that the mammal response to fearfulness plays out just the same as it would with a dog or cat. Is it my own fear that causes other people’s hackles to rise sometimes?

I’ve been round this line of thought before, always coming back to Mary Oliver’s lines about letting the soft animal of your body love what it loves, and wondering how that could be so simple and so painfully difficult all at the same time.


Crow Neighbours

Back in the spring, we saw the crows nest-building in trees nearby. Once the leaves came out, the nest itself became invisible. However, the adult crows were still around, and so we kept waiting and watching. Fortunately, Tom and I were in the right place on the day the two crow fledglings left the nest. We didn’t see them fly though. As far as I can tell, they jumped out and went pretty much straight down and we showed up slightly after this. One wandered about, clearly getting the hang of being a crow. The other was huddled against a wall and appeared to be in trouble.

We checked up on the stationary crow-baby to see if it was hurt. Tom got in fairly close, as by this time the parents and other fledgling had vanished. We thought perhaps this one had been abandoned. Tom took it some food, and when he checked up on it later, it had gone.

For a few days, there were no signs of the crow family at all. Then we started seeing them in the trees and on the roofs of nearby buildings. Both fledglings were fine. The young crows are rather self announcing in their demands for food. The family seems to be doing well.

As I write this, one has just soared from the roof of my building to the building opposite. I’ve not seen crows breed round here before, so it’s an exciting development.


Tidiness, nature, and civilization

The human urge to tidy things up has us cutting hedges into smooth edges, trimming verges so as to take out all the wildflowers and generally destroying habitats. What is this urge to be tidy and how do we get rid of it so that we stop needlessly killing wildlife?

Neatness, order, straight lines, square corners – these are not things we generally find in nature but that humans create and impose. You will likely decide at a glance whether a place is natural or human-made, and the straight lines, tidy edges and whether there are obviously dead things will inform that decision. We like to tidy away the dead things, even trees when they fall down in woods. A dead tree is an amazing source of life and habitat for many other species. We do massive damage when we remove them. But, decay, and death are considered unsightly, so aren’t civilized or tidy.

When we force a straight line, or cut back a verge, we’re asserting a human presence into the landscape. Bringing order to the chaos of nature is a project that goes with owning the land, controlling what’s around us and valuing some things more than others. We use ‘straight’ as a word both to indicate honesty, and heterosexuality and I don’t think this is a coincidence. We call things wild in a human context often to judge them. Tidiness is something we treat as a virtue and seek to install in our children.

We’ve had hundreds of years, if not longer, of telling ourselves that being tidy is an expression of being civilized. The uncut lawn doesn’t say ‘home for insects’ to us. It says ‘lazy and uncivilised and a mess’. And so we cut things back that aren’t causing us any real problems. We strim and trim, and take away the dead heads.

Unfortunately, as human influence dominates and wildness becomes ever more threatened, our urge to tidy is simply an urge to destroy. It’s not the tiny, puny humans versus the wilderness any more. We tame and train our landscapes and in the process, we kill so much that should be in them. What we make when we do this is often ugly, sterile and joyless. The cityscapes that we make as ultimate expressions of tidy civilization lack soul, and are not good habitats for humans. We need softness too. We need living green growth, and at least some element of unpredictability.

We need to stop complaining about things that look untidy, and start celebrating the beauty of nature. Nature isn’t tidy. But when you think about the mathematical elegance of the Fibonacci sequence, it’s also clear that nature has a good deal more to offer than the banality of our straight lines and tightly clipped lawns.


Naming Nature

Naming the world around us can have some very unhelpful effects on humans. It can reinforce a feeling that we’re superior and in control and that nature is something we own. It can be a manifestation of power-over, and affirms the idea that we know what’s going on and what everything is and does. In practice, much of nature remains a mystery to us, and while we can subjugate and destroy great swathes of it, this is a form of power that can only destroy us as well in time.

The other side of this is that we don’t tend to pay as much attention to things we can’t name. There’s a lot of experiential difference between seeing trees, and seeing individual trees of named species. When we use names as a way of sorting and storing information, it can be the basis of forming a more complex relationship with the world around us.

It can be easy to lose sight of the way that human naming systems are just that, and not some kind of ultimate truth. Even when we decide to give creatures complex Latin names that claim to say something about the family tree of their species, we can be very wrong. Nature does not exist to be put in tidy categories by humans, and over time we’ve become more aware that superficial similarities don’t always mean things are closely related. Having divided the world into plant and animal kingdoms (now, there’s a word whose implications stand considering!) we’re still at a bit of a loss to know what to make of fungi.

The names we give things are not a truth in their own right, they’re just part of a story we’re trying to tell ourselves in order to make sense of what we encounter.


Wildflower wealth

The horse chestnuts have been extraordinary this year. Every tree I’ve seen in walking distance of my home has had an incredible array of flower candles on it. Big flowers at that, in totally outrageous profusion. The hawthorn is the same. Intensities of flower that I cannot recall ever having seen before. It’s not just one tree, it’s been every tree of this type that I’ve encountered for miles around.

On the path margins, the plants are growing with startling enthusiasm. There’s a density of lush green growth out there. The grass on the commons is thick, and tall. Everywhere I look, I see explosions of rioting plant life.

Perhaps this in some way because of the late and cold spring. Perhaps the abundance is because snow on the ground soaks in more effectively. Perhaps we have just the right pattern of sun and rain to promote growth. I don’t know.

What I do know is how it impacts on me. What a sense of richness and blessedness I have every time I step outside and see a wildly bedecked hawthorn, or the density of wildflowers on the verges. I experience this as personal abundance, personal wealth. It’s an intense, bodily reaction to the world around me.

Wealth in money is such a cold, abstract feeling. Numbers on a screen. Largely meaningless. Wealth as an experience of nature is immediate and so very real. I might own numbers of a screen, I do not own flowers in a wood, but the latter enriches me far more than the former can.

It is so normal to see people describe the world of numbers in bank accounts as the real world. A bank balance does not feed you. No matter how much money we have, we all depend fundamentally on the bounty of the land. The real world has soil in it.


Druid listening to bats

I’m learning a lot as I get out there to try and survey bats. I’ve had no formal training. I’ve got a bat detector, and a sheet of notes about how different bats sound. It talks about wet slaps, metallic clicks, castanets and whether the bat was arrhythmic.

It’s a curious business, translating a stranger’s words into an understanding of a sound. We spent quite a lot of time huddled round the notes, reading them by torchlight, discussing what we’d heard.

A bat can be somewhat identified by the frequency at which it makes sound. However, many share ranges of frequency, so to tell them apart, you need to consider the kinds of sounds they make. That sound changes if they are flying at you, right over you, or flying away. Some bats can only be picked up if your detector is facing the right way in relation to them. Sometimes the detectors pick up just a few sounds – a more distant bat going the wrong way for you, perhaps. Tantalising possibilities that defy translation.

It was really exciting making sense of how sounds change as the bats move so I can hear when they are flying towards me. Sometimes that means seeing them as they fly over, sometimes it means scanning about, mystified as to where the bat I can hear actually is. Once it’s darker, it means knowing the bat is close even though I have no scope for seeing it. Sometimes they get really close. One of the ones I didn’t see apparently went right under my chin!

The most exciting moment of the latest batting night came when we picked up something at 110 kHz. Only one native British bat makes sound at that frequency. It was a distinctive sound, too, totally unlike anything else we’d picked up. A lesser horseshoe – generally a rare bat. There are known horseshoe bat roosts locally (maybe more, but definitely two) so it wasn’t entirely surprising to find one, but still, really exciting.


Trees for mental health

Trees in our environment improve mental health. Walking, and being amongst trees can also help with mental health. Trees are good for us. They don’t solve everything – if your brain chemistry needs changing, a tree won’t do that for you. If the rest of your environment is hostile, stressful and making you sick, then the reprieve of tree time won’t fix that. However, we do all benefit from access to trees.

Trees are good company. They don’t judge, criticise or demand. They’re usually full of birds and other wildlife. They give us soft, generous light, protected for the greater part from sunstroke, heatstroke, and sunburn. In autumn they bless us with colour. They are beautiful as they age, beautiful when diseased, when gnarly, or twisted, or stark in winter. They help us challenge our limited ideas about acceptable physical shapes.

One of the big problems with mental health care at the moment is the emphasis on individual responsibility for good mental health. Let’s look at the tree issue again. Access to trees is not purely an individual issue. If your council cuts down all your street trees, the loss is yours, but the choice wasn’t. Planning decisions that destroy green spaces are often beyond our control, however much we might protest. Industrial landscapes where there are no trees probably aren’t your choice either, but you may have to work there. Affordable public transport to access green spaces isn’t something you get much say in. Accessible treed spaces for people who are less mobile are also not individual choices.

Our mental health is profoundly affected by the physical environments we inhabit. The role of green space in alleviating stress and promoting good mental health isn’t factored in anything like enough. Being in poverty increases the chances that you’ll have trouble accessing green space because you just won’t be able to afford to get there. It’s no good telling people to walk under trees to help with their mental health if they don’t have any trees they can get to. It’s no good assuming that everyone has a car and can afford to drive it to their nearest wood.

Our systems aren’t run to maintain good mental health in the populous, and what happens around trees is an example of this. We tell people to spend time with trees, but governments don’t enable that in any way. Trees should be readily available to all people, you should not need to make an effort to seek them out.