Tag Archives: culture

Trees and cultural heritage

Trees and woodlands are important in their own right, and important as habitats for other beings. They are also part of our cultural heritage in the UK. When it comes to cultural heritage protection, we seem to be better at protecting things humans have made, than the context in which history has happened. I could get into a long diversion here about what kind of human cultural heritage we protect and what we don’t, but today is all about the trees.

Trees and woods have a huge place in our history and culture. What is Robin Hood without Sherwood forest, or Macbeth without Birnam wood? Consider our green men and jack in the greens. The role of the greenwood, merry or otherwise in our folklore is massive. Our forests are the places we dream of when urban life is too much for us – whether that’s Shakespeare’s As you Like it in the forest of Arden (now gone) or Tolkien’s Mirkwood (aka the forest of Arden) our dreams and stories are full of trees.

The forestry history that produced wood for ships and made our navy possible is worth a thought. I’m no fan of warfare, but there’s no denying the role of wooden ships in our naval history. Look at any historic house, and you’ll be looking in part at wood from historic forests. The house has the better chance of being protected as heritage.

Every wood has its stories.

For more information on tree heritage, visit The Woodland Trust https://treecharter.uk/principles-protection.html

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Changing the words

There’s a relationship between how we think and the words we use, and it’s circular in nature. However, when your culture has habits of language that encourage certain ideas, it can be worth stopping to look at those. When I was a young person, it was totally reasonable to write books in which the assumed reader was male. That puts over a message that women don’t really count.

When we take nature words out of children’s dictionaries to replace them with the language of the internet, that’s both a reflection of what’s going on, and a furthering of it. When we don’t have words to talk about things, those things are harder to share and explain. The words we have and the words we use, matter. They shape our thinking and our interactions, they are the basis of our culture.

I was interested to see PETA challenging some of the animal abuse norms in language recently. I’ve dropped ‘killing two birds with one stone’ from my own way of talking because it’s not what I want to say. They advocated against describing test subjects as guinea pigs, but I’m inclined to go the other way. Let’s be lab rats and test beagles when we are subject to experiments ourselves. It’s a good way of reminding each other that this stuff happens.

Sadly, the PETA alternative phrases were awful and sounded forced and silly. You don’t get meaningful language shifts by dictating in this way. It’s better to open it up and invite people to reconsider and then see what happens. Where the power lies is in looking at habits of speech and what they suggest, and being willing to rethink them. Why do we use animal names as insults? (bitch, catty, cow, mare, bullshit, etc) Why do we call especially nasty humans animals? The idea that animals are inferior to humans is woven through our speech. It’s worth thinking about and watching for.


Druidry with a body

In theory, if I honour nature then I should honour nature as it manifests in my own body. In practice, I’ve spent much of my life being unable to do this. I grew up affected by all kinds of social pressures to see my body as something I had to control, punish, discipline and feel ashamed of. Much of this revolved around the pressure to be thinner. Dieting and exercise were forms of self-punishment. Mostly what I was punishing myself for was having a body in the first place, taking up space and carbon, and not being good enough.

It’s taken me a long time to learn to have a kinder relationship with my own body. What I’ve learned through the Druidry has certainly helped me do this. The more I think about mammals and trees, landscapes and the elements, the harder it is for me to ignore the double standard around human bodies. Seals are allowed to have blubber, trees are allowed to be twisty, landscapes are allowed not to be smooth… and as I’ve learned to see myself in relation to the rest of the world, I’ve learned not to hate my body for being a body, and not to punish it for existing. So what if I’m not as thin, smooth, delicate or pretty as other people have wanted me to be? So what if I don’t want to dress or move in overtly sexualised ways? My body, my choice.

A few years ago I put down the notion of dieting. I eat what I want. I eat with the intention of keeping my body healthy and making sure I have the energy to do all the things I want to do. If I’m feeling fragile, I eat more carbs, because protecting my mental health is important. I’ve lived this way for a few years and I have not piled on the pounds – rather the opposite. I think it’s because I’m making sure I have the energy to do stuff. Starving myself has, in the past, left me with no energy to be active, and one way or another, this just encourages my body to store fat.

When it comes to exercise, I have in recent years also put down the notion of exercise as self punishment. I only do what I enjoy. I do the things that promote good mental health – walking, swimming and dancing are all good for my head. I’m still using the trampoline regularly as that also helps with my cranky lymphs. I do other things when I feel like it, and not as a form of flagellation. It’s worth noting that as I’m not trying hard to be fit or thin, just happy, I am actually a lot fitter than I used to be.

I rest more. I rest when I need to. I sleep more. I don’t push, I don’t tough it out, I don’t keep going. I stop at need. It is definitely better this way.

I live in my body and with my body. In recent years I’ve tended not to think of it as something separate from ‘me’. It is not something I have to control and punish. I realise how much of the controlling urge comes from a culture that sees animal as lesser than human, and anything animal manifesting in the human as shameful. My wanderings in druidry have taught me to question this, to celebrate the mammal nature of my body, and to be a good deal more comfortable in my own skin.


Breaking your social contract

Following on from yesterday’s blog about social contracts, but not requiring you to have read it…

Civilization is, in practice, underpinned by co-operation. There will always be those who try to compete and exploit, and to a degree, that can be coped with. A grouping of people that goes too far into power hunger or exploitation is likely to experience conflict. The laws held by countries, and the rules held by groups of people exist to try and keep everyone co-operative enough for things to work.  Crimes are things that have the capacity to undermine your culture.

Any culture, community or civilization has the right to resist behaviours that will undermine its viability. This is not at all the same as having the right to make laws and rules that destroy the freedom of others. There’s only so much rigid control you can inflict on a group before it will shatter under the pressure of that.  Those who wish to restrict reasonable freedoms will often justify what they do as being a way of upholding and protecting culture, but that doesn’t make it so. Those who do not want their ‘freedom’ to break social contracts restricted, will call any effort to protect the basis of society an encroachment on their rights.

I think these are the things we need to bear in mind when talking about the right to free speech and the limits of tolerance. If we allow the kind of speech that undermines social bonds we move towards a more oppressive arrangement and if we keep moving that way, we get massive social unrest and violence. If we tolerate people who want to make society intolerable for some, then we’re moving our group towards a state of unviability.

We can afford to accommodate any amount of difference if that difference doesn’t prevent anyone else from quietly getting on with their own lives. Women wearing headscarves are not stopping anyone getting on with their own lives. Women forced to wear headscarves are being prevented from getting on with their own lives. Being LGBT doesn’t stop anyone else from quietly getting on with their own life. If being LGBT is illegal, or encounters violence, then people aren’t being allowed to quietly get on with their own lives.

Tolerance must be limited by whether being tolerant will undermine the feasibility of your people. Tolerance that allows people the maximum freedom it can to live in their own ways, is a good thing. Tolerance that allows people to restrict the freedoms of others is problematic and sows the seeds of its own destruction. The only freedoms we should not allow each other are the freedoms to harm each other. As the intention of hate speech is to bring harmful practices into a culture, hate speech should not be tolerated.

Intolerant societies have violence hardwired into them, and/or break down into violence. Peaceful societies are inclusive, and only restrict freedoms in so far as that’s necessary to prevent harm.


Stealing the surfaces

Back when I was at school, a girl in my class returned to the sixth form with a new wardrobe of alternative, goth and hippy clothing. She’d decided to reinvent herself over the summer and had the money to spend on getting the look. As far as I could make out, she didn’t have an alternative bone in her body. She just thought it would be cool to look that way. I have no idea if she got what she wanted from the experience.

They turn up everywhere. Witchcraft is especially prone to people who want the look and not much else. All forms of creativity attract people who want to be seen as arty but turn out not to be willing to put in the time and effort it actually takes to make stuff. I don’t know if this is because the people doing it never realise there’s more involved than the surface appearance. It’s probably about a desire for attention and wanting to be more interesting than they consider themselves to truly be.

Superficial lifestylers can be deeply annoying when you’re trying to really invest in something. People who can swing in and buy the appearance of your culture without really caring what that culture is. But at the same time, for most of us – if we are white, western, and not being oppressed in some way – we can afford to shrug and ignore it. Next year, these folk will re-invent themselves and become someone else’s problem. If your Pagan path is about getting online and trying to put straight the Pagans who aren’t Pagan enough or otherwise aren’t doing it right – well, that can become another superficial exercise in wanting attention and trying to look the part.

Wanting attention is very normal, very human. From our earliest school days we learn about cool kids and outsiders. We learn about group membership, and the importance of looking the part. We’ve got a celebrity culture based entirely on appearances and many of us grow up with little reason to think that depth of care and involvement are even a thing. Sometimes, when we do want to be taken seriously, we try too hard to look the part and to seem more than we are. The desire to be taken seriously by people who are doing it for real can prompt some daft behaviour. But again, our wider western culture doesn’t encourage us to rock up humble, admitting what we don’t know and showing respect to those who have done it for longer and gone to greater lengths.

For most humans, attention functions as a reward. What kind of attention it is can be less of an issue. So if you see someone buying their way in, being superficial, focusing on the bling and not the study and so forth, the best thing to do is make little comment or fuss about it. If they are someone who yearns for more than this, eventually they will figure out how to ask for guidance, or they’ll get moving on their own. If they aren’t serious, they will drift away. It’s when we pour energy into it and make drama around it that we reinforce being superficial. We’re rewarding it with attention and energy. Quiet disinterest can be a good way of guarding your own resources, and a simple, quiet way of teaching people to up their game.


The treacherous desire for simple answers

There’s something alluring and comforting in a simple answer. Especially when that answer says there’s no problem, or blames someone else. It is true of course that sometimes the simplest answer is the best one. The Gordian knot solutions sometimes make sense. However, many problems are complex and multi-faceted in their nature, they exist for multiple reasons and can’t be tidied up by building a wall, rejecting a minority, or blaming the victim.

Why do we favour simple answers even when they are manifestly inadequate? Why do we accept simple blame narratives? For example the right blames the poor for being lazy and thus causing economic woes, the left blames the rich for taking more than their fair share. Very few people seem willing to talk about fundamental issues with capitalism and markets, because those are really difficult and will make your brain hurt, and aren’t easily solved. The desire for the easy solution may make us accept the offer of it even though it can’t always deliver.

Some of it is no doubt cultural – if mostly what you hear is people telling you there are simple answers to complex problems, you may just absorb that. You may feel they are better qualified to know, or believe that they can use their simple answers to solve things for you. You may be happier with an answer that makes immediate sense to you rather than one full of jargon ad details that are largely alien.

There may be an aspect of how we teach young people. If you grow up learning that there are right answers for exams, and every subject is reduced in this way, then as an adult you may expect binary yes/no answers to life’s questions. If we don’t teach complexity, nuance, multiplicity, then it isn’t reasonable to expect everyone will get there by themselves.

Some of this may come from popular culture, where we expect to know who the good guys and the badies are in a film. Films often offer us the simple solutions of destruction and death to otherwise complicated problems. Heroes win. Villains die. We know who is who. We don’t tell each other stories about the complexity of human nature, how most people have an array of qualities some better than others, how asshats turn up everywhere. We put Nazis in uniforms and make the serial killers and rapists into freaks, so we all think we’d recognise them if they moved in next door. We don’t talk about the ordinariness of human horror, and how hard to recognise it is from the outside.

Simple answers often lay the blame elsewhere, so often what they give us is the reassurance that we personally need not change. It’s not our buying choices, our lifestyles, our desires that need working on. Someone else has to sort it out. Change is generally threatening, most people aren’t keen on it, so the reassurance that you won’t have to do differently may be really appealing.

We need to tell each other more complex stories, and become open to more complicated answers. Humans aren’t tidy creatures. We may like simple answers, but seldom respond well to our own implementing of them.


Utopian Dreaming

I don’t believe in the idea of a single coherent utopian solution. This is in no small part because I do believe in plurality and diversity, and feel that ‘one true way’ generally leads to oppressive and tyrannical thinking. Often the problem with utopian ideas is that they are too narrow. Systems that require everyone to be good and kind unravel when one greedy manipulator gets in there to take over and you end up with pigs who are more equal than other pigs…

So for me, the key move towards a more utopian way of being isn’t a structural shift of some sort, but a change in thinking. If we all found holding power over others distasteful and considered excessive owning, hoarding and consuming to be rather vulgar and unattractive, those behaviours would dwindle away. If the best sign of wealth was ostentatious generosity, if it was more appealing to flaunt your fabulously sustainable lifestyle than your possessions, all manner of things would change.

I think it’s important to pause now and then and ask what an ideal world would look like. If you could live in exactly the way that would best please you, what would you be doing? For me, it’s a line of thought that suggests better work/life balances. Thinking this way has caused me to invest more care in my physical health and fitness, and pour more time into my social life. Utopian dreaming is all well and good, but it should direct us towards changes we can make, or its just so much cloud castle construction.

It is easy to build the most enormous and intricate cloud castles by imagining what someone else – governments, corporations and other bastions of power – should do to sort things out. Unless you’re prepared to follow through by joining a party and pushing that vision forward, such castles are just brain toys. Putting the world to rights in your head can give a feeling of power and cleverness, but it doesn’t change much otherwise. Better to focus on what can be changed.

Cultures are no more than the sum of people in them. If enough people all start moving in roughly the same direction, there is a culture shift. If people with shared intentions reach out to each other, bigger changes can be made.

What if we lived in cultures where health care, education, decent housing, sufficient food and enough money to live on were a given? We have the resources to achieve this, what we currently lack is the political will. Imagine living in a culture that put happiness and sustainability for all ahead of profit for the few. It is possible, and achievable. And I know, because I’ve run into them, that there are always shrill voices who will shriek that this isn’t how the real world works. But it could be. Once upon a time, feudalism was how ‘the real world’ worked. Anything can change if there’s enough will to change it.

Get dreaming. Look around to see who else shares those dreams. Look for the small, viable things that can be done to move you more towards the life you want. Talk about it. Make it real.


Evolving traditions

If something is traditional, that shouldn’t mean it’s above questioning, even if you are someone who is passionate about upholding the traditions of your culture and protecting other people’s rights to their traditions.

Many cultures have a tradition of genital mutilation. Traditions of cruel punishments, unreasonable intolerance and sick leisure activities have existed all over the world through history. As someone with a deep attachment to British traditions, I am not obliged to take onboard the whole lot of them. For me, any ‘tradition’ that involves cruelty needs ditching. Baiting animals, cock fighting, bear dancing and fox hunting are all things that have been considered great traditions in this country. To try and hide that cruelty behind the excuse of tradition is intolerable to me.

Traditions can and do change. Mumming used to be more about collecting money for those in poverty during the winter – many customs have an aspect of ritualised begging to them – wasailing, pace egging, guy making to name but a few. Our trajectory away from abject poverty has reduced the impetus to go out undertaking these forms of ritualised begging. Instead, people now do them for fun. The traditions have changed.

The most ardent traditionalists from all cultures pick which traditions to ignore and which to uphold. Most usually people ignore the traditions they find inconvenient and uphold the ones they enjoy. Take for example the way in which the Christian far right in America is keen to uphold anything negative the Bible might suggest about LGBT people, but seems to have entirely failed to notice how opposed Christian traditions are to divorce and adultery.

The idea that ‘this is my culture and you have no right to tell me I can’t do my traditional but horrible thing’ has hard wired into it a complete disregard for how traditions actually work. Traditions change. They evolve to meet other changes in circumstances. If the wider culture changes, it is reasonable to assume the tradition will evolve to keep up. Cock fighting is no longer a sport. It’s been widely speculated that the great tradition of cheese rolling has its roots in some ancient practice involving burning wheels and human sacrifices. I have no idea if it did, but the principle that you can go from chasing a burning wheel with a human sacrifice in it down a steep slope, to chasing a cheese, is a good one. Willing victims offer sacrifices of broken bones.

If a tradition is no longer suitable, it can be changed, without destroying the culture it came from. I suggest that hanging onto an otherwise dead and unsuitable tradition, for the sake of tradition, is a sure fire way of actually killing tradition within your culture, what isn’t allowed to evolve, will die.


Novel society

It may seem odd to claim that the way we tell stories shapes our culture, but I am absolutely convinced it does.

A novel, as we generally understand it, is fundamentally about conflict resolution. That probably sounds like a good thing, but I think it isn’t. A novel sets up a situation a tension, or difficulty, a problem to solve, a challenge to overcome. Then the characters deal with it, and if the book is tragic, they may fail, or die succeeding. The default story is that the problem is solved.

What was confusing, is caused to make sense. What was inexplicable, is explained. What was obscure, becomes clear. What was wrong, is set right. Mysteries are solved. Crimes are thwarted, or punished. The tension of attraction resolves into the familiarity of a relationship.

A book, we are taught at school, has a beginning, a middle and an end. The ending has to round things up. At the end of a book, the world of the book is a clearer, simpler place. Of course there are exceptions.

Real life is not like books in that many things are never resolved or tidied up in this way. All too often, the consequence of the tidy plot ending is the loss of mystery, possibility and wonder. I have a problem with this.

As a writer of stories, I’ve explored a bit what happens when a novel opens up more possibilities than it shuts down. I tend to tell small coherent tales against a backdrop of expanding chaos. I’m somewhat influenced by Philip K Dick in this regard. It does not make for an easy sell, but it makes me happy. As a reader I prefer the worlds that aren’t tidied up – Mythago Wood, Earthsea, Winchette Dale – those places that leave me with far more questions than answers.

What does the story shape do to us? How much is our wider culture shaped by the idea of the tidy ending, and that all mysteries can and should be explained? What would happen to us if we told stories that expanded possibility rather than contracting it?


How to destroy a culture

History offers us many terrible examples of attempts to destroy cultures through violence and oppression. What it also demonstrates is that, so long as there is someone left alive who cares, and either has access to memory or other sources, something of the culture will survive. People will go to remarkable lengths to protect the things they are passionate about.

As a consequence, I am endlessly confused by the people who think that immigration, and Europe, can somehow damage British culture. I find it doubly odd when you factor in that our radio stations are not carrying anything like as much European pop music as they do American songs. Our cinemas are not awash with arty continental films, but with Hollywood films. Our televisions are not broadcasting French sitcoms and Italian dramas to a great degree (I gather there was a Scandinavian  woman with a jumper, but it’s hardly a cultural takeover).

I have a suspicion that many of these fanatical defenders of ‘British culture’ would struggle to identify anything iconically British. Chicken tikka masala, perhaps.  Football, which clearly no one else in Europe plays. Saturday night drunkenness, which literally no other country on the planet goes in for. King Arthur (and many of his stories actually come to us from the French, but who’s counting?) Defenders of ‘British Culture’ also don’t seem to know that since the last ice age, all we’ve had is immigration. Our language is a composite of the languages of settlers, and invaders. Our traditions and history are deeply intertwined with the histories and traditions of people across that tiny strip of water. Really, it’s not a lot of water, people have been back and forth across it in boats for thousands of years.

A culture dies when no one cares about it. How many people who claim to be pro-British culture have any involvement with, or interest in any British traditions? I suspect most of them don’t. I note that every single folk person I know has made no suggestion that we need to protect our traditions from other people. Why would we? Other people’s traditions are not a threat. Cultures die when people stop caring about them.

The threat to Britishness does not come from outside. The threat to Britishness, and I do think there is one, comes from the apathy of the British. If we don’t care about our history, heritage, landscape, unique natural phenomena, folklore, and traditions, that’s our fault. No good blaming people from other cultures. It’s not like anyone is closing our libraries and museums, selling off our most environmentally important landscapes for development, fracking our land, destroying our archaeology in the name of progress, taking away funding from indigenous language projects, or creating a culture of forced work mobility to undermine communities… Oh, that would be our government, wouldn’t it?