Church of Birds – a review

Church of Birds by Ben H Gagnon is a remarkable book, and if you are into prehistory at all, I heartily recommend it.

I’m an enthusiastic reader of non-fiction books about prehistory. I’m also a sporadic, disorganised reader and no sort of expert. However, I know enough to say that this is an interesting and plausible set of ideas about prehistory, presented well. 

Church of Birds examines the role of birds in folklore, ancient sources and imagery around the world. There are a lot of recurring themes. The author speculates that much of this can be explained by the impact on humans of bird migrations. It’s a fascinating idea, and one I found really engaging. There’s a lot of speculation, but the author is clear about his sources, what he can evidence and what is just an interesting idea. 

Along the way, the book goes off at a number of tangents, including considering the relationship between humans and the landscape. There’s a substantial look at world trees from around the world – which I found fascinating as it went beyond the Euro-centric content I’m used to seeing. 

In places the writing is very dense with information, but on the whole the book is very readable. I found it intriguing. If you have the sort of brain that can absorb a lot of facts when those come in very quick succession, then the sheer quantity of information won’t overwhelm you. Or, like me, you have to read it accepting that a lot of it is unlikely to stick in your head.

I think the ways in which we speculate about prehistory are really important. When we see the past primarily as nasty, opportunistic and violent, that influences where we are in the present. Ben Gagnon’s view of prehistory has a magical quality to it rooted in realism and in recognising that ancient humans were not somehow separate from the landscape or from non-human beings. I found his speculations convincing, but the value of them goes far beyond whether they are ‘correct’ or not. In taking us down lines of thought that are about human responses to the rest of the world, and placing humans firmly in ecosystems, he’s done something really powerful. We need to reimagine our place in the world, and this kind of writing will help us do that. 

There’s also huge value in being able to re-imagine the past so as to have the resources to imagine the future differently. Speculation about prehistory that does not primarily reinforce the trajectory we’re on at the moment helps us remember that what’s going on wasn’t inevitable and can be changed. 

More on the publishers website, including purchasing options –

The essential nature of dreams

As a young human, I dreamed vividly, and much of my waking life was threaded through with daydreaming. I think that’s an important part of that stage of life. Having the time to wonder and imagine, while trying to figure out who you are and where you are going is really important. We know creative play is a vital  part of child development and I think it’s still very necessary as people try to figure themselves out in their teens. I’m not convinced there’s any point in a human life when dreaming of what might be isn’t relevant.

The younger you are, the easier it is to imagine possibilities. The more privilege you have, the more scope there is for change, adventure and novelty. If we don’t have hope, it’s really difficult to dare to want things, or to imagine things being different. Without being able to do that, we won’t have the means to change things. Humans tend to need to imagine things before we try and enact them. Crush the imaginative capacity out of us and it is more likely we will stay as we are and go along with whatever is done to us.

I don’t dream much when I’m depressed. I go into a sort of survival mode where I can only bear to think about escape. Rather than playing with ideas of what could be, sometimes I want to hide in safe places that never were and never will be. There is comfort in this, but it doesn’t usually allow me to sort anything out. When I’m depressed I most need to be able to imagine what could change to help me, and I’m least able to do it at that point. I suspect this is fairly normal. 

There’s a lot wrong in the world right now, and dreams are such wispy, ephemeral things. It may seem like madness to invest in dreaming as the climate collapses and societies are pushed to the brink. Even so, I think it may be our best hope. If we can dream of something better, we stand some chance of creating it.

Recognising complex triggering

Content warning for the kinds of things that create triggers in the first place. Nothing in great detail.

The kind of triggering that is best known is where something occurring in the present connects with a past trauma in the mind of a person and throws them into flashbacks. The classic example is of a loud noise – like a firework – throwing someone back into the traumatic experience of being in a war zone.

Complex triggering is by its very nature, far more complicated. It’s also a lot harder to spot. People suffering more straightforward triggering can often identify their triggers and know what they struggle with. Obvious examples would be scenes of rape, violence or torture in films. When the triggers and traumas are less about specific events and more about life experiences over longer periods of time, both the process of being triggered and the consequences are really different.

I had some of the simpler forms of PTSD in relation to some very specific events. At this point I’ve managed to get in control of them, and I don’t have that kind of flashback any more. It takes work, but it is entirely possible to get on top of things.

The complex triggers don’t take me back to specific events, more into emotional states that bring in, as invasive thoughts, anything that chimes with how I’m feeling. To a certain degree this is normal – our memories naturally bring up past events that connect with however we’re feeling. When you are sad, you are probably going to remember other times when you were sad. However, if what’s in your history is abandonment, years of being humiliated, physical violence, relentless experiences that crushed your confidence and took away your self esteem, and the like, then triggering opens you to a flood of that.

It can feel like drowning. An overwhelming torrent of awful feeling and memory, all turning up once in a vivid and present way, much like the other sort of flashback. Layer upon layer of it, bringing panic and despair in its wake. This may well have the effect of making whatever triggered you seem far, far worse than it is, or leaving you unable to think about whether this current round is as bad – which of course it could be. For people living in traumatic circumstances, the weight of triggering while you’re also dealing with something traumatic in the present is also an issue.

Normally when people talk about triggering, the assumption is that the current event is really not that big a deal and is only an issue because of the past event. If someone is screaming abuse at you, and that’s triggering flashbacks of all the other times you’ve been terrified and humiliated, there’s nothing you can do in the present to make that situation ok. The effect is to make it harder to deal with current trauma, harder to get out or to recognise that it isn’t your fault. Many domestic abuse victims have a hard time figuring out how to leave and I suspect this is a significant contributing factor.

As yet I haven’t run into any substantial information about how to handle more complex triggering. It seems to be an area of mental health that’s only just starting to be recognised and given proper attention. All I know for certain at this point is that if you aren’t currently in a dangerous situation and you can spot what’s happening, it gets easier to handle. It’s still desperately hard though.

(I’m ok today, before anyone worries. I wrote this post on a day when I was experiencing these things, but I’m not there right now.)

Honour and dishonesty

Being honest is really important to me as a matter of honour. However, it’s not always possible, and in this post I want to flag up some of the situations in which people who want to be truthful have to be dishonest, and how we might think about that collectively.

There are many people who lie by omission because it isn’t safe for them to speak truthfully about who they are. Too many LGBTQA folk have to hide for their own safety. Anyone whose sex life and sexual identity sets them apart can feel obliged to hide parts of who they are. In some countries it isn’t safe to be honest, you can end up in prison. Society can judge harshly people who are plural and/or promiscuous. Speaking up to support people is important. Whatever consenting adults get up to should be fine. We should think carefully about the aspects of other people we demand to have hidden from us and what that might do to people obliged to lie by omission about who they are.

Disability and long term illness can lead to a lot of lying by omission. The main one is saying ‘I’m ok’ when really you aren’t, because you can’t face the hassles, positivity talks, and other expensive, useless things that follow if you admit to not being ok. Ill people do a lot of faking wellness. Depressed and anxious people do a lot of pretending, out of necessity and to avoid what happens when you are misunderstood or treated unkindly if you admit how things really are. We need to think about how our responses can add pressure in the lives of people who are already suffering. Reacting as though that suffering is laziness, lack of willingness to try, poor attitude or some other failure, adds layers of shame to already unhappy lives. We could stop doing that.

There are all kinds of things people are routinely mocked and punished for. That includes making mistakes, not knowing things, being anxious, how we look, how we dress, our body shapes, how we smile, even. It can be relentless. The experience of being knocked down, silenced, disrespected and disregarded has a lot of people hiding parts of themselves. How many people out there are afraid to show up as themselves for fear of how some other human is going to knock them down for it? How many people knock others down even as they dread being treated that way themselves?

Honesty is really hard when you’re in situations where you can’t count on basic decency from other people, much less compassion. There’s nothing especially honourable about being honest in situations where that might invite more harm than you can bear. If we want to move honourably through the world, then making sure other people can be honest, authentic and truthful needs to be part of that.

Taking care of your muse

For some people, a muse is a more abstract thing. It’s a way of naming the whatever-it-is that brings you inspiration. Druids often use ‘awen’ as a term, expressing the idea of a sacred flow of inspiration. People can be inspired by pretty much anything, but there are implications when the source of the inspiration is another person, or people.

Not everyone wants to be a muse. It’s a big word, and it can feel like weight, or pressure or responsibility. Getting excited about someone and writing them a poem doesn’t always play out smoothly. It can make slightly more sense in a romantic context, but even there, it can make people really uneasy. 

People don’t always recognise themselves in the things created because of them. That can be really unsettling for them. If you find you’ve done this it is really important to put in the time and make sure the other person feels comfortable. For the person with low confidence, there can be a sense of unworthiness, or that the person who is inspired doesn’t really understand how they are. Be gentle with your human muse, and don’t put them on a pedestal in a way that feels precarious to them.

If you’re making something because of a person, it is as well to also make it for them. If you can offer the fruits of your inspiration back in a way that makes your muse happy, you get something more sustainable. Casting someone in the muse role tends to work better when they can feed back and be more of an active participant in the process. If your muse has to stand there being passive while you do things, that can be really uncomfortable for them, through to full on objectifying. The traditional idea of the muse as a beautiful woman who does nothing in her own right, but inspires a man to create is really awful on this score and we all need to move away from it as an approach.

However you handle your relationship(s) with your muse(s) it’s really important that they do not feel used or exposed by what you do. How that works is going to be really individual, but if people feel disrespected or taken advantage of, they won’t stick around to inspire you. 

I’ve been around this from both sides. It is weird and unsettling to be told you are inspiring someone when you can’t see how that even worked. It’s uncomfortable if you are told you’ve inspired something and you don’t even like it, worse yet if what you’ve inspired is something you’ve told the creator you really don’t like. At the same time, when people have made things because of me in ways I can relate to, that’s been incredibly happy-making for me. 

There are a small group of people who are always on my mind when I’m writing, and I think they know what. Having the focus of writing for specific people really helps me, and I try to pick people who are comfortable in that role and who enjoy interacting with me on those terms. This is also a big part of why I like co-creating with people. When I’m working with someone, and we inspire each other and can both be energised by that, while being equally creative and equally invested, that works very well. It takes away all risk of there being the active creator who holds the power in a situation while the passive muse has to accept whatever happens.

Publishing and the environment

Publishing isn’t a terribly eco-friendly industry. Trees are felled for making paper, inks are full of damaging toxins. Big houses doing enormous print runs can end up pulping books they don’t sell, which is incredibly wasteful. Like anything else, printed material can end up in landfill. Just because it can be recycled doesn’t mean it will be.

I’m also a big fan of books, and this is the industry I work in so obviously I have mixed feelings. I think books are a valuable part of our culture and they can and should be dealt with in more environmentally friendly ways.

If you know you’re only likely to read something once, get it as an ebook. If you also buy a dedicated e-reader, you only need to read about a dozen books on it for it to have a lower environmental impact than buying those as physical books. It’s not just the book production, it’s also the impact of shipping them around and dealing with them once they are read. 

If the author is dead, buy their book second hand – they don’t need your money. If the author is so deceased as to be out of copyright the odds are good you can find their work online and read it for free, and entirely legally, as an ebook. 

If you buy a physical copy of a book, keep it in use. If you don’t want it, passing it to a friend is a good choice – authors actually benefit from this more often than not as it’s an effective, word of mouth way of gaining new fans. People passing physical books around like this doesn’t really hurt authors, not in the way that pirating books and giving them away online does.

The second hand book market – especially as it exists around charity shops – is known to have undermined the sales of new books. This has not gone well for authors. However, there’s still a lot to be said for keeping books out of landfill and supporting charities by buying from them. Not everyone can afford new books, which is also a consideration. There are no clear cut answers on this one, navigate as you see fit.

Libraries are a good choice in terms of getting free reading material while not disadvantaging authors. In the UK, authors can get small payouts for library loans, and borrowing from the library encourages libraries to buy that author’s books, so that can be a good thing.

While there are a lot of things wrong with Amazon, one thing it offers is print on demand publishing. That means books are only printed when someone wants one. Many self published authors and small publishing houses use this resource. It radically reduces waste and means books aren’t taking up space in warehouses, which occupy a lot of land. I wish the whole industry would switch over to print on demand, it would save so much waste and the energy of long distance transportation. We could eliminate warehousing for book storage – which isn’t a good use of land. There would be no excess books getting pulped.

Author incomes are dropping at all levels of the industry. Increasingly it’s the case that to write, you need an independent income source, the willingness and energy to work a second job alongside writing, or support from someone else. If writing isn’t going to be just a nice hobby for the affluent, then supporting authors matters. I really don’t want to live in a world where only the comfortably well off and able bodied can tell stories, I think we’d be culturally impoverished if that happened.

Being Excited

One of the things I’m paying attention to in my quest for a more joyful life, is the role excitement plays. I need things to be excited about. I need to imagine things I’m going to be doing that it’s worth working towards – mixes of challenge and opportunity work well for me. I went back to playing the viola because I was excited about a possibility, and that in turn has opened up more possibilities for me.

I have a need for novelty, and I get bored easily. This was a problem in my first marriage, and something that brought me a lot of criticism. Why couldn’t I be happy with what I had? Why was I always chasing new experiences? Why couldn’t I be happy with what I’d done already and just settle down? For a long time I felt a lot of shame around that, not helped by a sense that there was perhaps something un-spiritual about these feelings.

I’ve let go of the shame on this one. I crave new experiences, and I am hungry for ideas. I get depressed when my brain doesn’t have enough to chew on. I can’t write if I don’t have a rich supply of ideas coming in. I want to encounter the world as fully as I can, to see and know, to bodily experience and be affected by lots of different things. If I don’t have that, or the prospect of it, I don’t feel excited. If I’m not excited at least some of the time, I am far more likely to slide into depression. It takes more to get me out of bed in the morning than the prospect of the same, predictable grind. I feel dull in face of dullness, and that really doesn’t work for me.

I find I rather like experiencing myself as an exciting person. That depends to a fair degree on how other people react to me and to what I’m doing. It cheers me greatly when other people find me interesting and want to engage with whatever I’m doing. I like me better when I’m the sort of person who is out there making things happen, having adventures and creating things. I’ve discovered a lot in the last six months or so about the contexts in which I like being myself, and it’s something I’m choosing to invest in. It’s increasingly obvious that when I’m enthused enough to put things out there I am most likely to be engaging and interesting for other people.

Apathy sucks the joy out of a person and makes it harder to act. Caring and investing are vital underpinnings for being able to feel excited. Some capacity for hope is also important. Sharing enthusiasm with other people is really powerful, I find. I’m more likely to be excited about what I’m doing if someone else is excited about it too. I’m deeply affected by other people’s enthusiasm and I find that good to be around. 

I know there can be issues around the idea that enthusiasm isn’t cool. We’re supposed to be calm and dispassionate and being a proper grownup seems to mean being joyless and unresponsive, especially in face of anything that hasn’t cost a lot of money. I’m a long way past caring whether anyone thinks I’m childish, or silly because a life without much enthusiasm is hard to bear. I’m happy to be a bit ridiculous, and I’m not prepared to be ashamed of this part of me.

Meditation and emotional processing

If you’re the sort of person who is willing to rethink things in response to new information, then changing your mind can be a fairly rapid process. Sometimes it’s possible to shift emotional states quickly in response to new and different input, but it isn’t so reliable. Emotions are slow, often. The bigger and more impactful something is, the more time it can take to integrate it and make peace with it.

This is just as true of happy, welcome feelings as it is of gloomier ones. A big, positive change can take a lot of getting to grips with and can also be disorientating. We can be more neglectful when it comes to happy feelings because we tend to just accept them as good without any kind of scrutiny, where pain is more likely to have us paying attention to our own inner lives. Having intense good experiences, or a lot of them can also be something that needs processing.

This is something we can approach in a meditative way, taking the time to reflect on what’s happened and exploring how we feel about it. Deliberately reflecting on experiences and feelings helps us consolidate those experiences and make sense of them. It’s also a good way of being in more control with what’s happening. If our emotional experiences are things that just happen to us, we won’t have the means to seek more of what we like, or be able to deal with what we don’t like.

For me, the idea of the life lived deliberately has become a central tenet in my understanding of what it is to be a Druid. I’m not alone in this – the practice of reflection and being deliberate is there in the OBOD course.

Meditating on your experiences can work in any way that you want it to. I’m particularly focused on needing to understand things. My brain likes to sift information for patterns. I like to reflect on what, exactly made me happy and to revisit those things in a deliberate way. Around uncomfortable experiences, I need to understand exactly what I’m uncomfortable about. Sometimes the process of examining an experience will make me realise things about how I’ve been impacted by previous experiences. Your needs may well be different.

We won’t always consciously know what’s going on. We may not always have the room – emotionally or in our lives – to deal with our feelings. Things can get backed up, previous experiences can distort how we’re seeing the present. Sometimes a recent event can unlock feelings we didn’t make space for when they happened. That can be unsettling. Emotions can just bubble up sometimes, especially unprocessed ones, and that can feel a lot like being ambushed.

Making time for it is a good choice. Holding some quiet, safe, personal space where no one will judge you or make anything of it, is a good idea. Calm and gentle reflection on life – the happy bits and the difficult bits alike – means we at least have some idea what’s going on. Without reflection, we may not understand our own responses or needs. Taking the time to contemplate how we feel about things gives us a lot of information about who we are, what we need and what’s significant. It’s good insight to have, and spending time on yourself in this way has much to recommend it.

Alan Shaw – Grave Purpose

This is the third Alan Shaw book and you do ideally need to read the other two first. I’ve already reviewed book 1 and book 2.

Grave Purpose is the third book in Craig Hallam’s steampunk trilogy. Craig has really grown as an author as the series has progressed, getting ever more thoughtful and impressive as he goes along.

The main character – Alan Shaw – started out as one of those have a go hero types, the kind of dashing, quipping, risk taking young man who dominates the action genre. From the beginning, Craig has brought other elements into his work – class especially in the first book, and colonialism in the second as he slowly unpicks the trope he’s working with.

In book three, we take a hard look at the implications of the action hero lifestyle. Alan is getting older. His various injuries have taken a toll and he isn’t magically free from the consequences of his actions. This is very much a novel about consequences and pain. If you like being hurt by authors (you know who you are) then get in there, this book is for you. I found it a very powerful read, although I did call Craig a whole selection of less than perfectly polite things while I was reading it. I know Craig well enough to be able to picture the evil smile this comment will elicit.

There’s a big issue here around disability representation. In real life, most disabled people don’t start out that way. Many people who suffer do so as a consequence of accidents or illnesses. It’s not something we see anything like enough of in stories. Mostly what we get in the action genre are impossible people doing outrageous things with no real consequences. Or we get unrealistic fantasies about recovery. I really appreciated getting to see the consequences. As a person who lives with pain, it was meaningful to me to see a fictional character living with pain. I felt Craig handled this aspect of the book superbly, and I think this is a depiction people who struggle will find resonant. 

The story itself is full of action, mysteries to solve and consequences. I did mention the consequences?

You can find out more and buy the book from the publisher’s website, and all the other places that sell books.

A cold spring

Back during my boat dwelling period, there was an April with heavy snow. I can’t remember exactly when the last wintery-spring happened in Stroud, but there was one not so long back. Cold springs are hard, and this one comes on the back of a bitterly cold winter in the UK coupled with hiked energy prices. The direct human suffering this causes is huge, and it’s also impacting on our polytunnel farming and thus on our supplies of fresh food.

Early spring has always been hard and unpredictable. It’s no accident that Lent falls at this time of year. In the past, people would be facing the end of their winter stores while fresh crops had yet to appear. Depending on how good the previous harvest was, and how long the winter turned out to be, this could be a very hungry time of year. There’s something to be said for making a religious virtue out of the problem of being obliged to fast.

However, this is not about needing faith in a world of uncertainty. These are problems of our making. Humans have caused a climate crisis that greatly increases this kind of unpredictable weather. Greed is why we have an energy crisis in the UK, it’s all about deliberate choices, not inexplicable acts of God. We should be able to keep people warm and fed, and yet we can’t – and at the moment that’s mostly something that we, as a country have done to ourselves. Splitting from the EU was a serious mistake and has enabled politicians who don’t seem to understand how anything works.

We aren’t set up to live like our ancestors. We don’t grow our own food, or have the means to store it. Like many people, I don’t have a garden or a cellar. Most of us rely now on complicated systems of distribution for our food. We rely on companies for our heat and light – which should be cleaner and more sustainable than burning things at home, but that’s only true if the energy companies play fair. Being in a flat, I can’t have my own wind turbine or solar panels. 

I’m very much a fan of shared solutions to problems. However, that only really works when there’s kindness and benevolence in the mix. When the food growers can’t afford to heat their polytunnels, and when we’ve broken the system that brought us supplies of food from other countries, what do we do? 

This spring is cold in the UK, and unkind, and we were not ready for it.