Category Archives: Nature

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.


Seeking wildness

When we talk about wildness, in the natural world and in the human psyche, we tend to mean something uncontrolled. So a storm is wild, but a gentle spring day isn’t. Rampant lust, extravagant actions, and unguarded behaviour may be labelled wild, or feral in humans. We don’t talk about sleeping as wild, even though it’s one of those basic, mammalian activities. We’re much more alert to the wildness of large predators than we are to small birds living wild in our gardens.

Often, this means that ‘wild’ is a criticism, and the opposite of civilized. It’s a way of thinking that does not help us preserve wildness. It reserves everything tame for the human sphere, so it also undermines our sense of how much we are part of nature.

Wildness isn’t just exoticism, danger, excess and intensity. Wildness exists in the flowers growing at the margins. It’s there in a cool summer morning, and in the slushy greys of a winter day. There is wildness in our parks and gardens. It doesn’t have to be all about drama.

In ourselves, we are wild when we are sleepy and want to curl up in a sunny spot for a while. We’re wild when we’re picking blackberries, when we sweat and when we move around. We might only notice our wildness when it manifests as drama, but really it’s there any time we put our feet on the ground or expose our heads to the sky. It’s there when there’s rain on your face, and when the wind ruffles your hair. It’s there when you seek comfort from the fur or skin of another living being.

You don’t have to be running mad in a forest to be wild. You don’t have to be out of control to be wild – most wild things are not out of control. You don’t have to be extreme or unreasonable – most mammals live in cooperative groups. If we can reclaim the gentler forms wildness takes, we can stop setting up civilization as the opposite of wildness and better see how the two can inter-relate.


Resources for connecting with nature

Over the last few days I’ve started to properly notice a change in the length of the day. The evenings are opening up a bit. I’m still getting up in the dark, but I know that won’t go on for much longer.

I struggle with the short days of winter. When it starts to get dark, I get sleepy. It’s difficult to find the energy for anything much in the evenings. I am clearly the sort of creature that is supposed to hibernate. Much as I value the darkness, I definitely enjoy it more when there’s less of it!

For me, spring and lighter evenings mean more scope to get outside. I love twilight, but in the winter it’s too cold for me to be loitering about outside. There are no sheltered spaces I can use. I have no garden and no outside space of my own. I’ve been thinking a lot about how much my experiences would change if I had somewhere I could easily sit out for half an hour, wrapped in a blanket, cuddling a hot water bottle. How much access to nature depends on human resources, especially if you aren’t entirely hale and hearty.

Many of our homes and most of our urban spaces have not been built to keep us in relationship with nature. I crave permeable spaces, sheltered enough that I can be in them, open enough to the night and the sky that I can experience them. The easier it is to get warm and dry, the easier it is to chance getting cold or wet. I wonder what our living arrangements would look like if they were designed to facilitate our relationships with the wilder world, not simply to try and insulate us from it all.


The Emergency Tree Plan

The Emergency Tree Plan is The Woodland Trust’s plan to increase tree cover across the UK and tackle the climate and nature crises. The Committee on Climate Change states that the UK needs 1.5 million hectares of additional woodland by 2050 to help hit the net zero carbon emissions target.

Trees and woods can help to fight climate change by storing carbon, keeping it locked up for centuries. The trouble with seeing trees as a ‘magic bullet’ for climate change is of course that we could end up with something fairly sterile designed to benefit humans, but no good to wildlife, nature, ecosystems or the complex wellbeing of life itself. This plan doesn’t simply see trees as a commodity for human benefit, but is about integrating climate action with nature recovery.

Happily, the first priority expressed in this plan is to protect and expand existing woodland. Without a doubt, saving existing trees and helping woods naturally regenerate are the most useful things we can do. But, that won’t work everywhere.

I think there’s a great deal of good to be done here with urban tree planting. How many ‘parks’ are little more than big empty areas of grass? Good perhaps for the odd football game, but utterly boring and featureless the rest of the time. Not only would more trees help store carbon, but they would enrich such urban spaces with beauty and interest, and create urban habitats for wildlife.

The plan varies depending on which country you are in within the UK – here are the links.

Wales http://www.woodlandtru.st/jBtws

Northern Ireland http://www.woodlandtru.st/H2D33

England http://www.woodlandtru.st/dUfva

Scotland http://www.woodlandtru.st/qvqKE

 


Blood, hormones and identity

Up until a few years ago, I had a very regular monthly cycle. I’d get a couple of days of melancholy, six days of bleeding and acutely aware of anything that wasn’t ok in my life. Then a few days off, and the upswing into ovulation and then a quiet patch and then round again. It was part of me. What I didn’t know was how much that sense of self would change around the menopause.

So here we are, some years into cycle uncertainty and hormone tsunamis. My experience of my own body has changed dramatically. It’s a lot more unpredictable. I’ve no relationship with these hormone bursts so don’t experience them as part of my own identity. They just happen to me. While I get the experiences of bleeding, ovulating and whatnot, the unpredictable timing has changed how I feel about it. What used to feel intrinsically ‘me’ is now simply stuff that happens.

I was worried I would experience this as a loss, but that’s not happened. If anything, it’s opened up space for a more complex experience of myself and my emotions. I am interested to see who and how I am on the far side of this. I will not be less than I was, just different. I may be more ‘me,’ even.