Category Archives: Nature

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.

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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.


Early Spring

This is a small film I made a few week ago – the season has moved on so this is out of date, but I’m sharing it anyway!

 

I made this film for my Patreon channel – they got it the week it was filmed. I’m interested in what I can do combining basic camera footage, words, natural soundscapes… the physical relationship between my body and the technology and the differences between how the technology experiences my moving through a space, and how I do.


Talking to the wild things

Here’s a typical scenario. We are walking, and there are deer in a nearby field. We stop to look at them and the deer become aware of the scrutiny and look round. The deer see us. If there’s something about our location or direction that bothers them, they may just leave, but often they don’t. Often they give it a little while and check us out. At this point one of us will normally speak to them, saying in a calm and clear voice that we mean them no harm, and we aren’t coming into their field. Usually at this point, the deer go back to whatever they were doing.

A squirrel who has stopped beyond arm’s reach doesn’t always run away when spoken to. The same with foxes. Sometimes also small birds. Without a doubt, some of it is about not making sudden and dramatic moves, and not doing anything else that suggests being a predator. However, I’ve talked to wild things many, many times and it is so often at the point after I’ve spoken that they go back to what they were doing, that I don’t think this is a coincidence.

The conventional wisdom (at least here in the UK where there are no bears!) is to be quiet to avoid startling wild creatures. When dealing with urban and semi-urban wildlife, it’s clear they are all well used to our noise. As long as we are engaged in human stuff and not heading their way, creatures are unfussed by us. I have noticed when walking that many people show no signs of seeing the wildlife around them, and that the wild things seem aware that they are effectively invisible. It’s when you notice them that they become alert and cautious.

I don’t imagine that the words matter, but the tone and intention does. Recognition that everyone has seen everyone else and that no one is trying to hide is probably part of this. Based on how they respond, I think the deer are a bit surprised by people who can see them. I think also over time they come to recognise us, and become less bothered by us seeing them.

When we ‘watch nature’ by being silent and observing, we’re casting ourselves as outsiders. When we talk to the wild things, we cast ourselves as part of their world, too. We stop imagining that we are different from them, and I think that’s better for everyone.


Metaphors for non-humans

Some observations on how we talk about the non-human. I confess to having watched a number of National Geographic videos on youtube recently, and while I enjoy the visuals, the narration has been less appealing. One of the things I noticed repeatedly was an urge in the script writer(s) to apply human metaphors to pretty much everything. The stand out awful one was describing a flying fox as being like Dracula leaving his lair.

Dracula of course is powered by imagery drawn from the natural world and from the (bizarre to me) idea that bats are somehow creepy and sinister. The bats are not like Dracula. Dracula is like the bats. However, when we turn ideas on their heads like this, there are some uneasy consequences.

If you have to recast the non-human world in terms of human metaphors to present it, you are sending people a message that they are separate from what they are seeing. Other living beings can only be understood on human terms. They are like commuters. They are like ballet dancers, leaping gracefully from rock to rock. They are like gymnasts. As if we can only understand other beings by saying how they are similar to us. As though the behaviour of other beings cannot be described purely on its own terms. We can’t look at goat-like creatures jumping about on rocks and say that they are agile. How are we supposed to empathise with an agile mammal on a rock? Most of us know little or nothing about ballet, yet the idea of unfamiliar mammals as ballet dancers clearly worked for someone.

When we do this, we normalise human activity and make the activity of other beings seem other. If it is only by reference to human culture that we can hope to understand them, we make human culture the key point of reference. Most of the examples I’ve described – and I don’t think this is a coincidence – are about forms of entertainment, too. We are encouraged to look at autonomous living beings as human entertainers. We are to see their utility, their benefit to us and not their individual experience of their own lives.

Metaphors and similes are a great way of creating feelings of connection. Used well, they can increase empathy and understanding. Used badly, they assert human dominance and superiority. If we see the world in terms of being like us, we reduce it.


Bird song and signs of spring

Over the last few weeks (pausing for snow) there’s been a notable increase in bird song. This is because birds are establishing and asserting territories and looking for mates, or pair bonding in established relationships. Any time I’ve been outside in the daylight, the increased sun has been apparent. It’s a reminder that, while it is still cold out there, the wheel of the year turns towards spring.

Much of winter is not spent sleeping and waiting. What the birds are doing now is part of the preparation for the nesting to come. Spring does not happen magically out of nowhere.

One of the surprise consequences of being alert to bird song, was stepping outside a few days ago and hearing a call I was pretty sure I’d never heard before. The light conditions were poor, and although I could see the three birds making the sounds, I could pick out no identifying features. Tom went online and described what we’d head ‘as if angry insects were making a dial tone’.

They were corncrakes. We’ve since listened to recordings online, and confirmed it. They aren’t supposed to be here this early in the year, but the friend who identified them has had multiple encounters with what are likely the same birds, just a few miles further away.

My first thought is that climate change is shifting patterns of weather and behaviour. A few years ago I had a very clear sighting of a flock of waxwings, only to be told on Twitter that it was far too late in the year and I couldn’t possibly have seen them… My second thought is that I doubt the research into the precise habits of birds is as detailed as it could be. Any pattern of behaviour will produce a set of averages, but how much we know about the less-average behaviour, I’m not sure.

There are also biases in how we collect data. For example, most of the material I’ve read on otters describes a large territory and a roaming pattern of feeding within it. This is actually the pattern for dog otters and it turns out we don’t know so much about what females, and females with cubs actually do.

This is one of the reasons it is so important to engage personally and directly with what’s around you. The notions about what a species does are general, not specific, and what happens where you live may buck the trend.

More about corncrakes – including a video of the insect telephone noise here – https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/wildlife-guides/bird-a-z/corncrake/


The joy of dead trees

One of the problems with humans is that we like to ‘manage’ trees, parks and woodland by taking the dead trees out. This is fair enough if they’re dead, upright and at risk of falling onto a path at no notice. Otherwise, it makes very little sense. Wherever possible we should leave dead trees where they are.

A dead tree is an amazing habitat. All kinds of insets will make homes beneath the bark. Birds will feed on those insects, and also use holes in the tree for nest sites. Small mammals, bats, slow worms and lizards can also find homes amidst the decaying wood. Mosses, fungus and lichens can all make their homes here, too.

It is all too easy to see death as untidy, or unpleasant. However, a dead tree remains a great source of beauty as it goes through the decay process. Out of its death, comes life.

In pine woods, it is usually the dead trees that let the light in. You may have miles of dense trees (usually a plantation) with nothing but old needles underneath, and then come to a place where there is light, intense green plant life, ferns, mosses, saplings – invariably because a tree has died here and let in a possibility.

The death of a tree is very much part of the life cycle of a tree. It is a good thing to witness. It gives us stories about longevity and life after death that are a lot more sustainable.

 

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Find out more about ancient woodland here – http://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/about-us/ancient-woodland-restoration/ancient-woodland/what-is-ancient-woodland/