Tag Archives: diversity

Drought, grass and diversity

We’ve had very little rain for weeks now. Places where there was just grass, and no shade, are dead-looking, dry and brown. However, a lot of plants are not dead and this reveals some interesting things. Grass that hasn’t been cut has held out for longer. Grass in any kind of shade is doing better. Grass protected by tree cover is doing best of all. Where there’s a mix of plants, those other plants are often surviving better than the grass. Grass in the company of non-grass seems to be doing better. Combinations of the above are also doing better.

Grass is pretty resilient and can make a comeback once there’s rain. In the meantime, it is easy to set on fire, and unable to support anything else much.

I honestly don’t get the British obsession with the lawn. The playing field at least has some obvious use to it. The neatly trimmed road verge where visibility is not an issue, the short grass of public spaces so rapidly worn away by passing feet… grass monocultures are in many ways useless, and yet we seem to love them. Possibly because we think short grass looks tidiest, and we love to tidy up nature. Right now, the ‘tidiest’ bits look dead and really unattractive.

Where there’s diversity on the ground, there’s a better chance of some plants being able to survive the conditions, whatever the conditions turn out to be. Plants have varying tolerances for sun and frost, drought and flood. By having a range of plants, we stand a better chance of not looking at dead ones. Plants are necessary for the existence of insects, and bees are in peril so we really need diverse planting that won’t be killed off so easily.

The moral of this summer for me, has been that in face of really challenging weather, trees are wonderful. I can sit out under trees – where the plants are still thriving. I can walk under trees, where the undergrowth is hanging on pretty well. Trees are amazing things.


Including the awkward hands

I’ve never been able to hold a pen properly. Pretty much all of my joints bend the wrong way under pressure, and it’s only been in the last few years that I’ve known there was a word for this – hypermobility – and that it is something to guard against. Bending a joint the wrong way hurts it and does it no good at all, but I’ve spent much of my life encouraged to think of body pain as something I shouldn’t make a fuss about.

Going through school, my handwriting was always an issue and there were repeated rounds to correct my pen hold – the pen hold that makes it possible and not too uncomfortable to hold a pen. The backward bending fingers were strangely invisible to the people who wanted to correct me. I had problems with music as well – I could never hold my hands in the correct way for piano playing, could not hold a violin or a violin bow in the approved way either. I expect I lost marks for that on every exam I took.

Our lives are full of assumptions about what is normal, what everyone should be able to do, and what is proper. The right ways to hold knives and folks and teacups. The right kinds of things to do with your body in a gym. For much of my childhood, I had no idea that what happens with my joints isn’t normal, and that the discomfort, through to pain I experienced was a real issue. I was just expected to act like everyone else. Hold the violin properly. I’ve always been clumsy and I only recently found out that goes with the hypermobility and is not some kind of personal failing.

I write this not as an exercise in self pity, but as a small example of how miserable it is when people fail to recognise and accommodate difference. All too often, we ask people to bend themselves into the normal shape, not how we can adapt what’s going on to allow them to participate on their own terms.

There is so much diversity in how people experience the world. How we think and feel, how we move and what we can do with our bodies. The ‘normal’ person probably doesn’t even exist. The degree to which we can pass ourselves off as being the normal person, does.

I don’t know if music exams have changed in the last twenty years – they might have done. Perhaps they are more accepting of innate differences in bodies and students who cannot play while making the standard shapes with their bodies. I was never a great musician, but I was ok. Music was, and remains, important to me. A person who wants to play shouldn’t, surely, be put off and marked down for having a body that does not allow them to hold an instrument in the classically acceptable way.

Folk music of course doesn’t have formal holds, or exams, and it does not reject any needs (or for that matter eccentricities) that a person brings to their playing. It is possible to have good quality music that includes. It is possible to have good quality anything that includes, if there is a will to accommodate rather than asking people to conform to sometimes impossible standards.

Everyone is lovely

For a long time I’ve struggled with the idea that I ought to be able to feel that everyone is lovely, as good as they can be right now, doing the best they can and worthy of respect. I want to believe it, but people have this unfortunate habit of making that really difficult for me. I’ve started to realise there is a curious and uncomfortable political dimension to all of this, which I’m still grappling with, but want to offer up in the tentative form I’ve got.

Everyone is lovely. Actually this seems to be a very partial sort of statement and people who apply it have often drawn a circle around ‘the people’ that does not include everyone. The Working Classes, the Christians, the Pagans, the Welsh… it doesn’t really matter where you draw the circle, but it matters a lot that you draw it. You believe in the people inside the circle, in their innate worth and beauty, in their future. You support their rights. History is full of stories of this shape.

The trouble, as I have said with people, is this nasty habit of not living up to expectation. No body of people is universally and dependably anything much. Humans are frail, fallible, not always alert to their best interests and not reliably onboard with ‘visionary’ ideas about what they should be wanting. Most of the time, this is not much of a problem, and those few zealots for their chosen people just sit around wondering why no one wants to put them in charge.

The problems start when you do get the would-be glorious leaders in charge. The working class still isn’t radical enough. The Christians still aren’t fundamentalist enough. The Welsh just aren’t aggressively Welsh enough… most people are not in fact hungry for Cultural Revolution. They just want a quiet life. The next apparently logical step is that you have to make them do it. For their own good. Because it’s best for them. You have to make them only speak the pure language, and only learn the right history. You have to make them march, and fight and abandon their children for the good of the cause. You have to frighten them into betraying their neighbours as not being proper fanatics, and on it goes, and the bodies start mounting up.

Some of the world’s worst atrocities have been born out of Utopian thinking. The leaders who have created Hell on Earth have, without exception, been promising Paradise. An imaginary paradise for the chosen few in which all wrongs will be driven off by getting rid of those who are not chosen, and making the chosen manifest their destiny. The destiny a small minority have seen fit to envisage. There’s a destructive anger that comes from the massive difference between the fantasy of ‘the chosen people’ (whoever they are this time) and the reality of a bunch of actual people who are no better or worse than anyone else.

Trying to believe that everyone is lovely, actually seems like a first step in a very wrong direction, to me. All people should be entitled to the same basic human rights, but that’s the extent of the commonality. Some people are cruel, and some do not care. Some revel in their wilful ignorance and some are smug in their superiority. People can be really quite shitty. I do not love everyone. I am not going to try and love everyone because I would be unavoidable partial if I did try. When we start making assessments of collective qualities and worth, we are on a very slippery slope. Better, I think, to be able to recognise the difference and diversity. ‘The People’ do not exist, no matter how you try to draw a circle around a few of them/us. We are all individuals and the more able we are to carry on quietly being individuals, the less likely I think we are to end up killing each other.

End of an era

Today is the last day of primary school. It doesn’t seem so long ago that I was buying his first uniform items and sewing in the name tags. Now he’s a remarkably grown up young fellow, poised to turn into a teenager sometime soon. I remember my own reluctance to give up childhood, soon replaced by a desperate desire to be properly grown up.

The boy has had an unusual sort of childhood, not least thanks to having spent 2 years living on a narrowboat. He’s experienced challenge and betrayal, and learned to negotiate some complex relationships with adults. There were times spent in places where he was an unhappy misfit, unwilling to compromise himself to fit in. And then, the joy of being in a place where his difference is embraced and nurtured. A school where teachers take pride in him, rather than wanting him to change. Accepted and supported he’s become more confident and relaxed, still very much the boy he always was, but now fearless about sharing it. Those deep, philosophical thoughts that he used only to share with me, he can now offer to his peers when the opportunity arises in class. He trusts them not to mock him, he trusts the adults around him to respect him, and to honour his choices and preferences. It’s made a world of difference, resulting in a far happier and far less anxious sort of boy.

I hope, when he’s older, that the last few years will colour his memories of childhood. He’s forgotten much of his early life, which may be as well. I hope he remembers sunny days on the towpath, with his cat. Garden rampages with local friends. Bowling and castles, epic train journeys, piloting the narrowboat and feeding the ducklings. The Wild Fowl and Wetland Trust has given him a glorious range of experiences and opportunities, and a very keen sense of what he wants to be as an adult. He’s handled salamanders, dismantled owl pellets, seen rare wild birds, and learned to tell one kind of duck from another.

In the last few years, the boy has become very tolerant of difference and diversity, conscious that he never knows what other people might have to deal with, or what secrets they might carry. He’s intolerant of bullying and cruelty, a firm believer in equality, and someone who wants fairness but also has a sense of how sadly short of it we are. He’s learned to be a fighter, a crusader, brave, bold and willing to take a stance for justice, be that around badger culls, the Canal & River Trust, or the environmental impact of cars. He stops to get caterpillars, and beetles out of the road, when it’s safe to do so.

And so we come to the end of primary school. The amazing year group he’s been part of will go to four different schools, inevitably losing touch to a degree. They are wild, courageous and extraordinary kids, and it has been a joy to get to know them a bit, and share in their triumphs. They give me hope. We’ve made a lot of friends here, some of whom we should be able to keep. And of course we will be back in the winter, to see the swans.

The end of an era also means the beginning of something new. We know the shape of it a bit, but the details remain mysterious, only to be discovered through living them. We stayed here, and lived on the boat so that the boy could stay in school. I have no doubt that was the right choice. It’s been a challenging way of life, but it has given us so much. We’ve been through some things, recovered from some things, and now it is time to gather up what we learned, and move forward. I have a few more reflective thoughts to work through over the coming days, and there is chaos to come.

Those other Druids

They’re at it again you know, those other Druids. Doing it wrong. Worshipping the wrong Gods, in the wrong ways, for the wrong reasons. Some of them aren’t even worshipping Gods at all. They aren’t wearing the right clothes, dammit, and as for the labels they’ve given themselves… pure nonsense. You know who they are. They are the Druids who are not like us and we must forever be righteously indignant about them and make snarky remarks via social media, because we are much more authentic and that’s clearly the way to go.

Most of us modern folk have grown up in a culture that is steeped in the influences of monotheism. We carry that influence with us, often unconsciously. One of the most insidious messages in monotheism is this notion of one true way. All fundamentalist activity is underpinned by a belief in having a monopoly on truth. You will hear the same kinds of assertions from science, commerce, government… the language of one true way is everywhere and we are letting it into Druidry, to our detriment.

Nature is plural. There are many ways of being alive (reptiles, mammals, fish, birds, amphibians, plants, fungi, amoebas….) There are several ways of reproducing (sexually and asexually) many models for having offspring, (from abandonment to one on one nurturing.) Diets vary, lifestyles, ways of existing. Nature is rife with diversity and difference. We Pagans keep trying to claim nature as our sacred book, and then, as people so often do with sacred books, are only quoting the bits we like and ignoring the rest. We owe ourselves more than this.

We have a binary right/wrong logic that we have inherited from our monotheisticaly underpinned culture. There is a right answer, the one true way, and everything else is wrong. Is a dolphin wrong and a shark right? How about emus and penguins, are they wrong? Nature doesn’t give us these binary answers. We get ‘right for this niche’, ‘right for this environment’ ‘right for being a dolphin’. There are many ways. The existence of sharks does not in any way invalidate the existence of dolphins or prove that dolphins are wrong.

In much the same way, the existence of those other Druids who do it some other way is not a challenge to how we are doing it. There is no reason to assume that one way is more or less right than the other. What is right for them may not work for us, because we are different people in a different place. Perhaps they are ferns and we are cacti. We would not thrive in the same environment. We have different needs.

Difference and diversity are good – nature tells us so. Diversity ensures that something will survive. Difference creates more niches in which life can exist. Homogeny leads to extinctions. The reason elms died out nearly in the UK may have had a lot to do with them being far too genetically similar to have any scope for resisting the Dutch elm beetle. It is tempting to suggest that Druids may be a lot like trees. Different soils, rainfall, environment…. Different trees thrive in different places. Alders might like getting their roots in streams and marshes, silver birches do not. What it takes to be a Druid in Australia is not going to be the same as what is involved being a Druid in the American Bible belt, or at Stonehenge, or on an oil rig…

Those other Druids are probably fine. If they are happy, they just aren’t my problem, or yours, and if they try to convert you, it is as easy to walk away from them as it is the Jehovah’s Witness on the doorstep. We’re all good. We are all proper Druids. We are all doing it right. We are better off investing time and energy in our own work than getting grumpy about what those other Druids dared to say now, or what they called us, or what they did wrong with that initiation, or whatever it is. I am a beechtree from the side of a hill. You are a rowan on a mountain top. The guy next to you is a Joshua tree. Some Druids are redwoods and some are tiny new saplings, some are deciduous and others are green all year. Some have fruits and some have seeds, some are more pretty than others. Some even have faces.

Radical inclusivity

There’s a sign up about playground rules at my son’s school. There are all the things you might expect about when to stop, and line up. It also says something to the effect of ‘include in your games any children who are on their own.’ The implications are huge.

When I went through school, the general assumption was that a loner had no one but themselves to blame. If other kids wouldn’t play with you, it was because you were weird and antisocial, and that was fine. Either you learned to fit in, or you stayed out. Children who were crippled by poor confidence, who had not been well socialised prior to school, who didn’t follow the ‘in things’ easily, became exiles. The exiled child readily becomes a scapegoat and a victim, and again when I was a child, picking on the one fat kid, the one weirdo, was considered perfectly normal and no one did anything to stop it. For the record, that would indeed have been me – vegetarian before it was trendy, living without a television, wearing second hand clothes, and with some physical problems that meant I couldn’t run and had little confidence. Oh, and I was, definitively, a weirdo.

My son is, and has always been a bit of an oddball, and has always taken pride in being different. He doesn’t want to look like everyone else, he’s televisionless and does not spend all his spare time playing computer games. Nor does he play football. With his interests in philosophy, green issues and steampunk, he’s not on the same wavelength as his peers. But he’s not any kind of social exile in the way that I was. One of the reasons for this, is that school cultures have evidently changed. There is more onus on the majority to take in and accept the minority. Teaching philosophies around self esteem talk a lot about recognising and celebrating difference. When you get down to it, every child is different. Each one has a unique set of experiences, feelings, needs and intentions.

A system where those outside the boundaries of ‘normal’ are fair targets for bullying or just exclusion, enforces conformity. Those who are ‘in’ are under a lot of pressure to stay in, to be as much like everyone else as possible. That in turn helps to reinforce the boundaries. Those rigid lines between in and out encourage fear and mistrust. Anything different from us is not ok, we should resent it, is the message this conveys. And that attitude plays itself out across the world stage in terrifying and destructive ways.

If you start children with the idea that including people is good and excluding people is not, there is a radical scope for widespread change inherent in that. If you encourage children to accept difference and diversity, you enable them to explore their own natures and not to feel threatened by anything that might make them different. It’s often said that the most aggressive gay-bashers are closet homosexuals afraid of their own natures. Where acceptance is the norm, you just aren’t going to get that kind of fear.

When I was a child, fitting in was the business of the individual, and exiling weirdos was the prerogative of the majority. If that changed, if it became the responsibility of the majority to include, to reach out, to try and understand, to respect the differences, so much would change. And perhaps all it takes to achieve that, is a message on the playground to encourage four year olds not to leave anyone out.

Conversion, paganism and other impossibilities

One of the few areas of wide agreement across pagan paths, is that we don’t proselytise and we don’t do conversions. People either choose to become pagans, or they don’t. Go back twenty years and not only wouldn’t we convert people, we’d often collectively take a lot of persuading that someone new was serious enough to be let in.

There are a number of ways of converting people to any faith. Quite often it seems to me that what the would-be-converter is interested in, is getting the convert to go through the motions. Where a religion has lots of visible manifestations – religious gatherings, personal adornments, dress styles etc, it’s very easy to look like you’re doing it without needing to understand or feel anything. There have been (and probably still are) plenty of times and places where visible participation was all that mattered. It’s very much about control and power, and has bugger all to do with religion in any kind of spiritual sense.

Then there are the converters who have seen the light, and want you to see the light too. They may bang on your door in the hopes of persuading you that they are onto something good and important. So long as they have no means to force their opinions, I don’t find this too objectionable. Quite often it is rooted in genuine belief and enthusiasm. I do consider that kind of converter fair game and I make an exception for them – I will make as much effort to try and convert them, as they expend trying to convert me.

I assume when I’m blogging that I’m mostly preaching to the converted, as t’were. If people are reading for other reasons – curiosity, academic research, or because they were looking for something about world of warcraft druids and got here by mistake, they can easily enough leave. There’s no kind of captive audience here, which is as well.
Very few pagans have grown up pagan. Most of us at some point, have made a choice. I think the majority convert themselves, but there is a process, a route from not-pagan, to pagan. Like all religions it involves a quest for meaning in life, a desire to belong somewhere, and seeing something that touches you. I have no qualms about putting things into the world that might touch people. Those things are likely to be green in essence, about how we live with each other and how we live with this plant. But a person could respond to that in all kinds of good ways that would not take them into paganism at all. There are pagan values that I am passionate about getting out there, and getting into other people’s heads, but they are not uniquely pagan: Tolerance, diversity, peace, creativity, community, inspiration, and so forth. You could be deeply honouring all of those things whilst being an active Christian, or an atheist, or probably a lot of other things too.

I do not, in my heart, believe that any person can actually convert any other person to a spiritual belief. It goes with not believing that anyone can change anything that is inside someone. We can only change ourselves. Trying to change someone means trying to take control of them, have power over them, in a way that doesn’t really work and is entirely at odds with any good spiritual tradition. What remains is inspiration. If one person inspires another, with their faith, or philosophy, that’s an entirely different process. And I think what really has the power to move other people is not what a person says about what they believe, but what they do with that belief. Regardless of what the belief is. If a person is happier, more functional, more able, more inspired as a consequence of a belief, that shows, and in sharing what a belief gives us, we do more to advocate it than ever we could by trying to tell people what they themselves ought to believe in.
In terms of making converts for specific faiths, this is not a reliable strategy, which is also a point in its favour, I think. Whatever name you give it, a spirituality that is felt and compassionate is a precious thing, and if more collective effort went into that than trying to claim who has the right names for deity and the best forms in which to worship, we might be getting somewhere.