Category Archives: Nature

Green woodpeckers

This year, green woodpeckers have nested somewhere in the vicinity of my flat, and as a consequence, most days I hear their chuckling call many times over. When it first started, I wasn’t quite sure what I was hearing – although I had my suspicions! Being able to pair bird sightings with the specific call I can now recognise them with confidence, adding to the small selection of birds I know by sound.

Learning bird calls and songs is an interesting process, not least because most birds have a repertoire. They have territorial songs, and songs they use to check in with their mates or family members. They have alarm cries and some have specific noises they make when trying to drive off a perceived threat. Young birds have their own calls – especially ones who are out of the nest and not with their parents all the time. The song of ‘I’m over here and I’m hungry’ that isn’t so very different from what teenage humans do.

Getting to know a bird’s song and their various calls means that you can tell something of what’s going on with the feathery neighbours even when you can’t see them. When the leaves are on the trees, small birds are much harder to spot, so being able to tell who is around and doing what from sound alone can be a great help.

Bird song is so much more than charming background music. It is a constant stream of conversation and information, and being able to listen in to that to any degree, is magical indeed.

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Re-wilding the water

There’s been heavy rain in recent weeks and all the local streams and small rivers are swollen. They are all brown with the soil eroded by the flow of water, too. Faster moving, the water courses are no doubt more able to strip soil from their own banks right now.

Straightening water ways certainly goes back to the mediaeval period. There’s evidence of it locally on patches of land that used to be inhabited but now aren’t. Straight watercourses give fields regular shapes, and can direct the water flow towards mills, and that used to be an issue locally as well.

However, in heavy rain, straight watercourses allow water to rush through the landscape, taking soil away with it. A wild and curving stream will be much slower even when in full spate. The corners of a wild and meandering watercourse will have places silt collects – usually a river strips material off one side and drops it on the other, so overall there isn’t the same kind of loss. Where there are flood meadows, soil in the water can be laid down to provide future futility. But when all the water does is moves through, the soil goes with it and leaves.

Soil is a precious resource, and letting it wash away like this is a really bad idea.

There are reasons nature doesn’t favour straight lines. Our human obsession with them does us no good at all.


Food and identity

What we eat is part of our sense of self. For anyone who has made a significant food choice either to protect their health, for religious reasons or for environmental ones tends to feel very invested in that food identity. Food choices can play a big part in your cultural identity and may inform who you spend time with.

Food impacts on our bodies in all kinds of ways. What energy we have has a lot to do with what we eat. Our diets shape our bodies and other people’s assumptions about who we are as a consequence of our bodies. To be in poverty, malnourished and consequently overweight is an experience that will get you blamed for your size all too often. The assumption that being larger goes with being lazy can have huge impacts on a person’s life, most critically around how the medical profession responds to larger bodies.

What we put into ourselves impacts on our mood, and our perceptions. Sugar, caffeine, alcohol, processed food, raw food, empty calories, wholefoods, things that suit us and things that don’t all shape our experiences of living in a body. How that works also depends on where we are in life and what demands are being made of us.

We make our body chemistry from the food we take in. I’ve spent a lot of time over the last year or so looking at the foods that encourage progesterone and estrogen production. Information online suggests that western diets may cause or aggravate many of the menopause symptoms, so I’ve been poking around in this. I’ve radically increased my fruit intake, amongst other things. I feel better in my body in ways I had not expected.

I’ve struggled with my body ever since hitting puberty. I don’t feel properly female – the only time I did was when I was pregnant. I feel out of kilter with my body but not so out of kilter to think I’d be any better off as a chap. My flesh has never felt easy on my bones. I’ve experienced it as a disconnection and a wrongness I have inadequate language to describe. However, in the last six months or so with a diet that supports female hormone production, I’ve felt better in myself on this score.

I spent my teens through to my thirties with a diet that was either inadequate, unsuitable, or both. I knew this at the time. In recent years I’ve been able to afford to eat whatever I want to eat, and there’s been no pressure to do otherwise. The more I go after the food that works for me, the more easy I feel in my own skin. I’ve still got all my androgynous psychology, my thinking hasn’t changed at all, but my experience of my own body has shifted, may well still be shifting.

Identity can be such a changeable thing. Who I am if I eat a lot of fruit. Who I am with, or without coffee. Who I am if I’m not mostly living on cheap sources of carbohydrate. Who I am if I am allowed to choose what I put into my body. Everything about us exists in relation to what of the world we are exposed to and what options we have, and how our experiences shape us.


Shouting walls and yelling trees

One of the particular pleasures for me at this time of year, is finding bird nests. Many birds are secretive about their nesting – because it keeps them safe – so spotting them is a bit of a thrill. Some birds aren’t subtle – heron nests in trees, rookeries, the nests swans build alongside patches of water – these are easy to see. But many are not.

My recent wanderings brought me in to contact with several shouting walls. Gaps in Cotswold dry stone walls offer safe spaces for small birds. I didn’t see the parents, but given both the size of the available spaces, and the proximity of nests, my guess is sparrows. They like to nest close to each other.

I was blessed with a sighting of two parent nuthatches visiting a hole in a tree, and also a parent woodpecker coming in to a tree hole.  I’ve seen a jackdaw with a nest under the roof tiles of an old house. When the parent bird turns up with food, the nestlings go berserk and for a while it’s all rather loud. This is something I will never get tired of.

A bird with a beak full of food is a pretty good indicator of a nest. However, it is important not to upset the parents or the young. Watch from a distance. If the parent isn’t going to the nest, move along. Let them get on with feeding their young. Don’t approach nests if you think you’ve identified them – watch and listen from a distance that doesn’t trouble the birds. They are exciting and wonderful and a bit magical, and their comfort and wellbeing must always come ahead of our curiosity and enthusiasm.


Family Afternoon Out – a poem

This poem is based on observation of many different people over some years. This is what tends to happen within a few hundred yards of the car-park.

 

Family Afternoon Out

 

They emerge from the four by four

In country wear jackets and boots

With matching children and dog.

Stand at the viewing point, and point

Like models in a clothes catalogue.

Little Jemima shouts repeatedly

About who once sat on which rock

Like she owns the place.

Eyes down, they head off

Talking about Priscilla in human resources

And what Gareth said about Antigua

And Little Christopher is bored

And swipes undergrowth with a stick.

Aren’t children so natural, in nature

In their desperately expensive jackets

Just like mummy and daddy wear.

Meanwhile Hugo the hound runs wild

Sniffs everything, and they’ve already passed

Seventeen brightly coloured notices about

Keeping dogs on leads but Hugo is not a dog.

He’s family, and it is different for him.

Because he’s wearing a jacket, too.

And nice, middle class dogs never worry sheep.

Now back to Priscilla, in human resources

The one with the bad botox experience.

This story is so good it requires enough decibels

For every other walker to hear the gruesome details.

Generations of squirrels now know what

Priscilla did about the stains.

Little Jemima is picking orchids, isn’t that pretty?

Never mind if she’s breaking the law, she’s only a child

Enjoying the flowers and her parents don’t know

What these flowers are called or that you aren’t

Supposed to pick them.

Little Christopher throws stones at everything, but

Back to what Gareth said about Cypress,

And Sudan, and you really must try ice skating in Ethiopia.

Hugo flushes out a bird that no one sees

Too busy with Priscilla and Gareth to look or hear

And does the front bedroom need decorating this year?

Little Jemima throws her phone in a pond when no one is looking.

Darling Christopher stamps on beetles. Were they endangered?

Too late now.

And Gareth said New Zealand is a must at this time of year

And how on Earth is anyone supposed to manage

Mud in these boots. You could wreck them, and the cost

Of replacing them and the dirt in the car

And Little Christopher is banging his head against a tree

Because he’d rather die than walk any further and

Jemima is eating leaves and berries but nature is good for us

So it’s probably fine. And Hugo has done a vast

Steaming turd in the middle of the path

So let’s put it in a plastic bag

And hang it from a tree.

Because we love nature.

Nature is lovely.

And we’ve had such a wonderful walk.

 


Softening the gaze

“Soften your gaze,” is something my Tai Chi teacher says most lessons. It took me a few weeks to work out that this is something I do in other contexts, and to realise why it is so important.

When I see other people out and about, they’re usually looking at something. It might be the phone in their hands, or the path in front of them, or the people they walk with. Our default is to look with intent and look at what we expect to see. There’s a great deal you don’t see when you have this kind of focus.

The soft gaze is part of how I walk. Unless I’m dealing with a section of challenging footing, I look around. It’s worth mentioning that most places round here, most of the time, are not hazardous underfoot. I don’t look for anything in particular which means my peripheral vision is operating. I see a lot of wildlife as I walk, and that softer gaze is a large part of why I’m able to do that. I know from walking with other people that I often see things they don’t because I’m not looking in the same way.

There are more layers to this, though. Softening your gaze means softening your attention. It means not being focused on something, and thus not being especially goal orientated. If you’re trying to achieve something, you focus on it. The soft gaze goes with reduced interest in achievement, and in a spiritual context that tends to be a better idea. Inspiration, a sense of the numinous and other spiritual experiences don’t come because we strain for them. Instead, they call for a gentle openness to possibility, and making room. The soft gaze is one way of making that space, hence the relevance for Tai Chi.

There’s a relaxed quality to not being too focused on anything. There’s no great push or drive going on. This alone can take us out of everyday mode and into other ways of thinking. Not having our eyes focused in the same way can open our minds up to less driven thinking. The mind wanders with the gaze, open to possibilities, and ready to stop and pay more attention if something invites that. Focus comes in when called for – to watch the deer or the butterflies, to appreciate a plant or the way light catches a leaf, or to stop for a view. It means being open to experiencing things I had not specifically expected. And then, letting go again and moving on.

If you have any visual capacity, how you undertake to look at things will inform what you feel about them. The soft gaze is kind and not especially judgemental. How you look also informs what you see. When we’re focused on specific things, we don’t see what we weren’t looking for – there’s some fantastic science out there about this. We tune out what we think is irrelevant information. The soft gaze has no assumption about relevance, and thus it opens up our perceptions and lets us experience what’s right there – the everyday beauty and magic that otherwise we may not notice.


Paganism and Self Care

There are a number of things about Pagan paths that can help us with self care and living in gentler, more viable ways.

Firstly, this is not a life-transcending path. We aren’t punishing our bodies for spiritual advancement. We don’t have traditions of self-harm as spiritual tools. If you look at the lives of our European Pagan ancestors you can see easily that the majority were after rich, joyful, rewarding, happy lives, with enough mead and merrymaking and art, and food and fun. To live as a Pagan is to live fully, while embracing what this life has to offer.

Secondly, this is not a martyrdom tradition. We do have our stories about dying heroically but there’s no sense that sacrificing yourself in some pointless way has any spiritual value in it.

Thirdly, our bodies are part of nature, and as followers of nature based religions, this is a good place to focus for matters of self care. If you aren’t caring for nature as it manifests in your own body, you’re missing a thing. Self care brings us to all the most fundamental things of our living bodies – sleep, food, water, rest, exercise, what kinds of physical contact we need, fresh air, tree time…

To care for your body, and to take care of nature as it manifests in your body, it is necessary to push back against pressure to work more, longer and harder. Earning more and consuming more won’t lead you towards self care. A quieter, simpler, more peaceful life where you can take care of your simplest needs is key. Slowing down, resting more, having more time for yourself is essential. If you are experiencing in-work poverty this can be a hard cycle to break, but if you can meet your basic needs plus some, it’s worth looking at whether the extra costs you more than it gives you.

There’s a beautiful circular-ness to all this. If we slow down to take better care of ourselves, we consume less. A gentler life is almost guaranteed to be a life of lower carbon consumption. When we take care of nature within ourselves we are likely to change our lives in ways that take care of nature outside of ourselves. Every time you walk instead of driving, you benefit your body and the natural world. Every time you eat raw plant matter, or drink water rather than fizzy pop from a bottle, or sleep rather than staying up late staring at screens, all of nature is served by this.

When you shift your life so that you honour nature in yourself, and thus take better care of nature around you, it moves you a lot closer to living as a full time Pagan.


Managed Woodland

When we think about ‘nature’ it is so often with the idea that ‘nature’ means not touched by humans. If you want nature, you leave things alone to take their natural course. In the case of a wood, leaving it alone often means you get a lot of brambles and if you don’t know what a wood can do, that might look persuasively natural.

Here in the UK, we’re missing our large wild mammals and have been for some time. Our woods have evolved with humans as the large wild mammals in chief. A managed wood will often have far more biodiversity than a wood that has been left to its own devices. Particularly if there’s a history of human involvement. If you look at the history of most woods in the UK, you’ll find human involvement over the last few thousand years.

There is a Woodland Trust wood not far from where I live, and I’ve walked through it a couple of times a year for some years. When I was first walking here, work was being done to clear areas, coppicing trees and building up dead hedges of the cut material. A dead hedge of twigs provides homes for insects, and for pretty much anything else that lives in a wood. Over the last few years, I’ve been able to watch how the coppiced areas have developed. It is noticeable this year that this is where the most woodland spring flowers are growing. Beautiful carpets of wood anemones in particular. I also noticed an intensity of bird song around the coppiced patches, and vibrant new growth on the trees coming up into the space.

If human intervention means tidying up nature and making it into a garden or a park, then of course a wood won’t thrive. However, when people look after woods for the wellbeing of the wood, with an underlying and evidenced understanding of how that might work, the results are impressive. If we get our interventions right, then human activity can increase the health of a woodland and increase the diversity of life within it.

Human intervention need not be a bad thing. We do not have to see ourselves as a life form that can only harm the living world. We can also support the living things around us. We can nurture life, and we can act in ways that are restorative and regenerative.

 


Soothed by wild things

When things are difficult, getting outside can be soothing and healing. Trees are good for us. So are open skies, bodies of water, and the company of other mammals. However, those of us with smaller problems that are easily fixed are often keen to say ‘turn to nature’ without understanding the limits of that.

To get outside in a way that will help you, you need the time to do that. Not as a one-off, but regularly. If your mental health is falling apart, a single intervention isn’t going to save you. Can you get outside for as many hours as you need every day for the foreseeable future? Probably not, because the things that have ground you down will take up too much of your time.

If you don’t feel safe when you’re outside, then the help of wild things is limited.

If you are bodily limited and/or in pain, then it doesn’t matter where you go, that goes with you. Time with trees may lift your heart a bit, but it cannot cure a suffering body.

Part of what makes getting outside powerful is the increased peace it can bring. How much peace you need is also a factor. If you are living in a situation that is destroying you, half an hour outside may be respite, but it won’t fix things.

If you can change things so that you are able to have the time you need under the sky and amongst trees so that you can feel better, part of what heals you isn’t the space. Part of what heals you is having got away from the things that were causing the damage. If focusing on getting out to spend time with the wild things helps you with getting out, and with putting harmful experiences into perspective, that can help you make or maintain changes. Again, what does the key healing here is the stepping out of what is harmful. If you can do that, it really helps, and if you can’t, tree time alone is unlikely to save you.

When the damage is superficial and easily fixed, we can be persuaded that we are healing because we’ve made really good choices about how to heal. We may fail to recognise that the damage, stress or trauma someone else is dealing with is deeper and more complex. It’s a small step from there to attributing blame and deciding people aren’t healing because they didn’t try hard enough. For the person who has never been deeply wounded, it is hard, perhaps impossible to imagine what deep wounding feels like and what that does in the long term. It is better to assume, if you heal quickly and easily, it is not because your healing system is the best, but because you just weren’t that badly damaged to begin with. If ten minutes with a tree fixes everything, there just wasn’t that much to fix in the first place.


Naturally collaborative

We tend to talk about nature in terms of competition and predation. The idea of ‘survival of the fittest’ can make life seem like a fight to get the best stuff. However, not only is collaboration between members of the same species normal, there’s also a lot of cooperation between species as well.

A pack cooperates for hunting and to raise young. A herd cooperates to raise young as well, and to reduce the threat of predators. Flocks of birds work together to improve their safety. So do shoals of fish. Humans have a long history of working with each other, and also of collaborating with other creatures.

Herding isn’t unnatural, or necessarily something humans have imposed on livestock. The same patters happen with fish, where predatory fish will herd the fish they eat – giving protection from all other threats in exchange for easy meals. Farming isn’t unnatural – ants cultivate fungus. They also herd aphids.

Wolves and corvids often work together. Crows and ravens will alert wolves to dead or dying animals. The wolves get in and tear up the carcass, making it easier for their helpers to get a meal.

One of my favourite relationships is that between tree roots and mycorrhizal fungi. This is intrinsic to woodland, and essential to many plants. There are relationships going on in the soil that we barely understand, and that are key to the very existence of plant life.

As humans we depend on our relationship with the friendly microorganisms living in our bodies. We carry as many, if not more bacterial cells than we have cells of our own. We’re a super-organism, rather than being discreet biological units. The life that lives within us helps with our immune systems and digestion. Our health depends on these microorganisms. Every single living human being is engaged in a complex set of mutually beneficial collaborations with numerous microorganisms. We are all collaborative creatures, whether we know it or not.

You wouldn’t get far without the tiny things that live in your digestive system. It’s a good thought to hold in face of rampant individualism and stories of conquest and power. As humans, our lives depend on the co-operation of tiny beings. That’s a thought to both awe and humble a person, and I think as a culture we could do with more awe, and more humbleness.