Tag Archives: mammal

Nature pushes through

The natural world offers us many examples of incredible action against the odds. From the tiniest plants breaking their way through pavements, to the epic challenges of migration, to life clinging on at the edges in the least likely places. Nature pushes through. It is tenacious, it does not give up, it takes on the most outrageous challenges.

If we read the book of nature as our guiding text, there are lots of examples of how struggling to overcome is part of the natural order. We can also see lots of examples of effort; the busy bees, the diligent ants and so forth. None of these things are properly models for us.

When we turn to nature for guidance and inspiration, it is important to remember that everything we see has evolved to do what it does. It’s evolved over a very long time to have the kind of existence and form that allows it to do what it does. The trek of the penguins inland in the Antarctic is a peculiarly penguin activity. Mammals who migrate do so to survive. Most mammals have not evolved to live in a state of perpetual crisis where having to make colossal efforts to survive is an everyday thing.

We are not tiny seedlings pushing the tarmac open. We are not grazing herds obliged to cross crocodile infested rivers to find food. We are not salmon swimming upstream to find the place we were spawned. We might take ideas and inspiration from anything of this nature, but it is really important to remember that we are not part of these stories. We can do amazing things in the short term, we adapt and survive startlingly well with these soft bodies of ours. Even if you profoundly identify with another living being though, your body is still your body and has not evolved to do the things that creature does – or the semblance of it.

When we look to nature, it is vital to remember that nature also exists in us. We have evolved to be what we are and to deal with certain kinds of challenges. Most of those challenges are not the ones we meet in modern life. We’re supposed to be running away from predators, not stressing ourselves sick while sitting at desks. Looking to nature will not teach us how to deal with the unnatural environments we insist on creating for ourselves.

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.

A soft animal body

“You only have to let the soft animal of your body

Love what it loves.”

A favourite quote, taken from Mary Oliver’s poem Wild Geese. I like the acceptance, and the allowance in the idea of ‘the soft animal of your body’. I like the permission to love, and the sense that this, and only this, is truly important.

I love this quote because it challenges me, because it is at odds with everything I am, everything I do, because I can see the beauty in it, but I’m a long way from living there.

What would it mean to accept my body as a soft animal? I’m kinder to soft animals than I am to myself. I’m not tolerant of my own bodily softness, seeing is as excess, as inherently unacceptable. The softness that is innately female I have a very complex relationship with, to say the least. To see the honest animal of myself, to see the mammal – accepting that mammals are furry, and they wrinkle over time, they hurt, and break and bleed if you aren’t careful with them. To see that mammal and honour it, would be a thing. As someone who honours nature, I’m pretty useless at doing that insofar as nature manifests in my own skin.

Love what it loves. Of course I love, and I’ve never tried to stop myself doing that, but I hide it. I try not to bother anyone with it, because I expect it to be an affront, something unwelcome. Rounds of seeing the disappointment in the faces of people when I’ve said ‘I love you’. Dealing with rejections from people who wanted me for sex but did not want anything of my heart, and felt pressured by the giving of it. Unreasonable, excessive, too much. I haven’t learned not to say it, but I’ve learned to be afraid of saying it.

The soft animal of my body, if it were some other animal body would turn up warm and friendly, to curl around legs, snuggle upon laps, offering warmth and its soft furry presence to comfort and soothe. I would be a cat, to purr soft affirmations into the bodies of others. This body doesn’t really lend itself to doing that.

I wonder what it would feel like to consider myself acceptable as a soft animal that loves what it loves.

Humans are not reliably kind to soft animal bodies – human or otherwise. Not to our own, not to each other’s not to the other soft animals we share this world with. How often do we treat things as though we expect them to be stone, and then claim to be surprised when they bleed and cry?

Mammal shaming

It often seems to me that human acceptability has everything to do with the hiding and restraining of the mammal part of the self. I find this doubly true for women, where body hair is not acceptable, body fat must be removed, faces must be painted in order to pass muster and until very recently, grey hairs must be dyed a more acceptable colour. All the various liquids that the female body produces must be hidden or lied about, and in adverts some will be replaced with inoffensive blue fluid.

If there was a time when I wasn’t ashamed of my body, I do not remember it. Being teased about my appearance is one of my early memories. Being clumsy, awkward, not fast enough or co-ordinated enough dominated my early school days. When I was about ten, some of my peers took me aside and said they’d seen a thing in a soap opera where a plain-Jane character was transformed by a perm and some makeup, so there was hope for me after all.

At least in matters of appearance, I have limited control. Too tall, too broad, too solidly built, too prone to laying down fat, and certainly too furry – all I can do is mitigate. I could never have been a beautiful, willowy elf maiden, starting with these proportions and this face. As a child I fantasised about having plastic surgery to fix all the many things that were wrong with me, but a steel allergy makes that unthinkable.

The trickier bits are the things an animal body does and wants. It gets hungry, but I learned early that to express hunger is not ladylike. It doesn’t want to sit down quietly for hours when it’s told to, does not want to push past exhaustion to keep working, again, and it revolts against things that frighten it. Walking on ice, learning to cycle and to swim were hard battles in my childhood, not least because I was so mistrustful of my unreliable body. It doesn’t handle heat and cold well, it wants to be warm, to be comfortable, to rest for longer, not to have to get up and push this morning, to sit in the sun for a bit. It has appetites that are best not spoken of, because that would be vulgar. This body fears and craves affection in about equal measure.

It is possible, I suppose, that other people feel similar things under their better constructed veneers of civilization. The vast majority of people I encounter seem to dress and act the part far better than I do. I am an awkward, hairy mammal, as unlikely and comedic as a chimp in a dress. I walk through the world feeling like a Stone-age visitor, not able to keep up with everything a modern human is supposed to do and be. All too often this leaves me hating the skin I wear, this awkward lump of a self that I shuffle, shamefaced through my days with.

It is also possible, that if I ever felt safe in just honouring that mammal self and taking care of what it wants and needs, that I might not be so mired in despair so often. Exhaustion breaks me regularly, because I ignore the need to stop. Other needs, and wants that manifest in my body are so uncomfortable to me that I find it hard to think about them, much less say, or act on it. Faced with high heels, lipsticks, diets, hair removal and all the other norms and expectations, I feel lost, frightened, wanting to crawl back into my cave and be some other sort of animal.