Tag Archives: decay

The afterlife of trees

Humans have a strange obsession with tidying up fallen trees. Fair enough if you need to move them off a footpath or out of a road, but a fallen tree is a gift that keeps on giving. Taking fallen wood for fuel or make something can also make sense, but taking it away because it’s deemed untidy is ridiculous.

First up there’s the should-be-obvious point that if you leave a tree to rot down it will slowly return nutrients to the soil, feeding everything else.

A fallen tree provides a home for fungi – sometimes many different kinds. It also provides homes for insects, and as the holes in it get bigger it may provide a refuge for small creatures as well. The insects homed in a dead tree in turn provide a food supply for birds and the aforementioned small creatures, who in turn provide food for predators. Things eating each other is the basis of how the natural world gets things done.

In parks, gardens and managed woodlands, I think the problem is that humans try to impose weird beauty standards on nature. Decay is part of nature. The urge to impose human values is a very human problem. Nature tends not to grow monocultures in straight lines. We train ourselves to tidy up all signs of death and decay and it is an unhealthy and destructive urge. Dead seed heads feed small birds through the winter months. Long, straggly grass provides insects with homes. Dead trees have an amazing afterlife that, even as decay is underway, is full of new life.

Out there in the real world, decay and growth go hand in hand. One thing dies and another thing rises. Beautiful fungi forms emerge from the rotting wood. Dead trees are a key part of the life of the forest. Humans too often treat decay as something to fight and try to control. It offends us. It reminds us that our faces won’t stay smooth and unblemished. It reminds us that we are mortal. We don’t like being reminded that we are mortal, and so we go to great lengths to hide mortality from ourselves. We worry about afterlives we can only imagine, while failing to recognise the beauty and power of the physical afterlife that turns our remains into something new.

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Progress and Decay, Ravens and Druids

The Throng, by Tom Brown, for The Raven’s Child.

We tell all kinds of stories about the shape of human history, but without a doubt its the progress and decay narratives that dominate. Back when I was working on Druidry and the Ancestors, I included a chapter about these kinds of stories, but at that point I was still seeing the progress and decay narratives as two distinct things. (The chapter still stands, this is a development, not a rethink)

My current working theory is that they are inter-related; aspects of the same underlying experiences. The more complex our civilization (progress) the more remote we feel from nature (decay) the more liberal we are (progress) the more decadent we are (decay) etc. Which story you see depends entirely on whether you see things as getting better or worse as a consequence. For many, technology is all about progress, for others, it’s the decay of the environment.

It’s an incredibly binary way of thinking, that doesn’t reveal itself as such if you’ve signed up for one side or the other.

Tom Sneignoski’s story of The Raven’s Child is an interesting depiction of the decay/progress dynamic. The monstrous Throng are a culture of great power, able to conquer new worlds and dazzle victims with biological and technological advances. Even within that culture there are voices of resentment, who see The Throng as having fallen into decadence and lost their direction. Those who believe in the decay narrative will work from within to change or even destroy what they have a problem with. Sometimes that can be right – I think it is around the Green movement. Sometimes it has you beheading academics who know that your God wasn’t the first one on the scene.

The Raven’s Child isn’t just about monstery progress and decay issues. The humans in the story are living in the ruins of their former civilization. They are degraded. They are what we fear happens when we fall from grace, fall from progress. To overcome their situation, they need a new kind of progress, on new terms. Because we see both sides of the progress and decay narrative in this story, we also get to see its limitations, and its binary nature. Both are going on at once, in a vast web of things that improve and things that get worse, with what goes where depending on how you view it.

When we obsess about making things better, we can start to get ideas that some things are expendable in the name of progress. Some lives, some landscapes, some species can be sacrificed for the great push forward, and this willingness to pay unreasonable prices for the idea of progress is, I think, what creates the decay scenarios as a side effect. It’s not progress that’s the problem, it’s progress at any cost. It’s progress that pays no heed to who it crushes or what it destroys. This set up in turn creates the impression that only the brutal destruction of the progress-civilization (as with the humans in Raven’s Child) can set things right again. Of course it doesn’t, it just kickstarts new cycles.

Better considerations of the real costs of our often imaginary progress, might be the better outcome.


Druidry and destruction

One of nature’s lessons is that new life depends upon the collapse, death and decay of the old. Destruction and creation go hand in hand and are mutually dependent. Nothing grows forever unchecked – even the cancer will have to cease expanding when the host dies.

We tend to celebrate the growth and the up swings. Partly because they make us happy, but I suspect they also make us happy because they are socially reinforced. To be in a decay stage, falling apart, diminishing, withdrawing, and the such is associated with failure. Our stories link progress with growth, expansion, accumulation and increase. Therefore if we’re going the other way, there’s something wrong with us and we should hide it and feel shame.

I’ve spent my adult life with phases of burnout, meltdown and full-on collapse. I’ve spent a lot of time hiding them, and I’ve spent time dealing with how uncomfortable some people are if I even admit I have problems. Gods help you if you want to work with the falling away, because then you’re self indulgent, wallowing in it, feeling sorry for yourself. When did we mostly agree that being relentlessly cheerful and progress-orientated was the way to go and that anything else is suspect?

Breaking down is part of the process of being alive, and it is utterly necessary. You have to break open a seed before it can shoot. You have to break down the old leaves to make new soil. Changing our minds, feelings, world view is a big process and you can’t do that without dismantling the self. These are the autumn and winter parts of the soul’s cycle. Our Wheel of the Year stories do not tell us to howl, go mad and burn our house down. They tell us to rest, to be still and quiet through the gentle darkness, not screaming and rending.

There is a needful place for the tearing and yelling, for the breaking of things, of self and mind. Those lovely fluffy chicks of spring do not get to hatch unless they can savage the egg they are in. Consider what that might be like, when you’ve lived inside an egg your whole life and now you have to destroy the egg, or die.