Tag Archives: natural

It isn’t natural!

“It isn’t natural to put a cat on a lead,” she said. “That’s not a dog you have there.”

The statement amused me, because there’s nothing natural about dogs being on leads, it’s just something we’re used to seeing and consider normal. Leads have to be made, dogs do not grow them.

The question of how human activity relates to what is natural, is always going to be an interesting one. Condemning as ‘unnatural’ pretty much anything that isn’t liked, is one of those things people seem to like doing to other people. There’s a case for saying that the majority of things we do as late stage capitalist humans destroying the planet is unnatural. It goes against nature. There’s also a case for saying that viewing ourselves as separate from nature is part of what causes this problem in the first place.

All too often, we mistake what we consider to be normal, for something being natural. As with the dogs on leads. No animal originally evolved to be put on a lead by humans. However, there are many creatures that we’ve had relationships with /exploited for tens of thousands of years, no doubt influencing them as well as us. Dogs and humans have been collaborating for a very long time, arguably this is natural. Pug dogs on the other hand, can barely breathe through their own noses and have been shaped by human intent in a way that seems as unnatural as it is cruel. But then, cruelty appears to be very much a part of human nature. 

We confuse the familiar with the natural. We confuse normality with inevitability. We confuse averageness with desirability. We treat being normal and familiar like this is reliably a good thing, something to aim for, to trust and to measure with. It is our business as usual, our regular every day how we do things that is destroying us, and destroying life. It would be helpful to stop assuming that just because it’s what we’re used to, that it is somehow good and desirable.

Seeking wildness

When we talk about wildness, in the natural world and in the human psyche, we tend to mean something uncontrolled. So a storm is wild, but a gentle spring day isn’t. Rampant lust, extravagant actions, and unguarded behaviour may be labelled wild, or feral in humans. We don’t talk about sleeping as wild, even though it’s one of those basic, mammalian activities. We’re much more alert to the wildness of large predators than we are to small birds living wild in our gardens.

Often, this means that ‘wild’ is a criticism, and the opposite of civilized. It’s a way of thinking that does not help us preserve wildness. It reserves everything tame for the human sphere, so it also undermines our sense of how much we are part of nature.

Wildness isn’t just exoticism, danger, excess and intensity. Wildness exists in the flowers growing at the margins. It’s there in a cool summer morning, and in the slushy greys of a winter day. There is wildness in our parks and gardens. It doesn’t have to be all about drama.

In ourselves, we are wild when we are sleepy and want to curl up in a sunny spot for a while. We’re wild when we’re picking blackberries, when we sweat and when we move around. We might only notice our wildness when it manifests as drama, but really it’s there any time we put our feet on the ground or expose our heads to the sky. It’s there when there’s rain on your face, and when the wind ruffles your hair. It’s there when you seek comfort from the fur or skin of another living being.

You don’t have to be running mad in a forest to be wild. You don’t have to be out of control to be wild – most wild things are not out of control. You don’t have to be extreme or unreasonable – most mammals live in cooperative groups. If we can reclaim the gentler forms wildness takes, we can stop setting up civilization as the opposite of wildness and better see how the two can inter-relate.

Natural Magic

I turn my head without knowing why, and in the seconds when this happens, I see a deer moving through the undergrowth. Or a mouse running across the path. Or a buzzard swooping low through the trees, visible for a few seconds only to vanish from sight again. It happens a lot. After years of walking together, is also happens a lot for my son and husband. We’re alert to each other when walking so often when one person spots something, we all get to see it.

Some of this is about being present, paying attention and knowing where to look. There’s a knack to letting your eyes wander over your surroundings, not being too focused on anything, but being attentive enough to pick up movement and signs of life. There’s a knack to having your ears on alert for rustlings and other sounds, even when you are chatting. These are skills that anyone who has those senses available to them can develop with practice.

Some of it can be attributed to the way we are also sensitive to being watched. It’s not unusual to find the deer I notice were already watching me. But sometimes it isn’t that. A few nights ago I crept up on an owl from behind – it was some time before it became aware of my presence. Said owl was perched on a fencepost in low light conditions and I only saw them because I was checking the lane for hedgehogs.

But, there’s also the magic thing. Turning your head before there was anything to see in your peripheral vision. Stopping at just the right moment. Being in the right place at the right time. Some creatures have timetables they follow and some don’t, so being on the path at the moment when a deer takes her fawn across it is unlikely, but that sort of thing happens to me quite a lot.

Wild things tend to have an awareness of what’s around them that enables them to avoid human contact. I’ve watched deer watching people. Stay on the path and act oblivious and the deer could be motionless and yards away and will keep still and remain invisible. If you see the deer and watch them in turn, they become alert to you in a totally different way – often more wary, sometimes fearful, sometimes curious. There is an awareness in wild creatures about who and what is around that humans have the potential for, but mostly don’t bother with. To be outside and a little bit more like a wild thing is to be in a different and more aware kind of relationship with everyone else.


Naturally collaborative

We tend to talk about nature in terms of competition and predation. The idea of ‘survival of the fittest’ can make life seem like a fight to get the best stuff. However, not only is collaboration between members of the same species normal, there’s also a lot of cooperation between species as well.

A pack cooperates for hunting and to raise young. A herd cooperates to raise young as well, and to reduce the threat of predators. Flocks of birds work together to improve their safety. So do shoals of fish. Humans have a long history of working with each other, and also of collaborating with other creatures.

Herding isn’t unnatural, or necessarily something humans have imposed on livestock. The same patters happen with fish, where predatory fish will herd the fish they eat – giving protection from all other threats in exchange for easy meals. Farming isn’t unnatural – ants cultivate fungus. They also herd aphids.

Wolves and corvids often work together. Crows and ravens will alert wolves to dead or dying animals. The wolves get in and tear up the carcass, making it easier for their helpers to get a meal.

One of my favourite relationships is that between tree roots and mycorrhizal fungi. This is intrinsic to woodland, and essential to many plants. There are relationships going on in the soil that we barely understand, and that are key to the very existence of plant life.

As humans we depend on our relationship with the friendly microorganisms living in our bodies. We carry as many, if not more bacterial cells than we have cells of our own. We’re a super-organism, rather than being discreet biological units. The life that lives within us helps with our immune systems and digestion. Our health depends on these microorganisms. Every single living human being is engaged in a complex set of mutually beneficial collaborations with numerous microorganisms. We are all collaborative creatures, whether we know it or not.

You wouldn’t get far without the tiny things that live in your digestive system. It’s a good thought to hold in face of rampant individualism and stories of conquest and power. As humans, our lives depend on the co-operation of tiny beings. That’s a thought to both awe and humble a person, and I think as a culture we could do with more awe, and more humbleness.

Druidry and detox

I’m fascinated by the way detox has become an activity that you set apart time for, buy things for, and ‘do’ if you’re fanatical about health and/or beauty. In reality all of our bodies are engaged in detox activities on a daily basis. I’m no kind of expert in matters of human biology, but I think the way we consider these processes, and the industry around them, stands some thought.

Things come into the body in our food and drink that we don’t want or need and do us no good if they stay around. Our bodies generate waste products that we need to get rid of. We have to get the Co2 out of our lungs. We breathe out. We shit, and piss, and sweat and by these means we remove the things that we need to be shot of. Every day.

For me, the Druidry in this is about recognising that getting the crap out (in all senses) is part of nature as it manifests in the body. We are meant to piss, shit and sweat, and we need ways of living that let us get on with this. Social pressures not to go for a much needed wee, workplaces that restrict comfort breaks – these things impact on us. Sweating is something we’re encouraged not to do. Smearing chemicals onto our skin to close our pores and keep the toxins locked in… it can’t be good for us. Nature is here and in my body, and it doesn’t always smell of roses.

Druidry, for me, is also about challenging mainstream capitalist assumptions. We value things when they are for sale (detox programs) we devalue them when they just happen (sweating). Of the two, sweating is probably doing you more good, but people only make a profit out of your sweat when they can persuade you to inhibit it.

The body things that cause most shame tend to relate to the revealing of our animal selves. If we can embrace our animal selves, we can challenge the body shame. Bringing Druidry into the bathroom works for me at many levels. What happens when we honour, or even celebrate our natural processes?

To support a healthy body, there’s not much point investing in ‘detox’ a few times a year. It’s much better to be supporting the process every day. Having enough water going in to flush everything out is important. Eating enough roughage to carry the toxins through the gut at a decent pace so that it can leave. Making spaces where we are allowed to sweat regularly. It’s also worth trying to avoid putting too much rubbish in to begin with, but costs and the farming industry don’t collaborate to make that easy.

Making waste removal taboo has everything to do with wanting to deny our animal state. It comes from a mindset that wants to set us ‘above’ nature and thus needs to hide and deny that we sweat and piss as well. Let’s pause to remember the chap who exploded because he would not fart at the dinner table, and did not feel able to leave it.

The Sweaty Druid

Getting away from the influence of ‘nature’ has tended to be what human civilization is all about. Following Druidry, identifying as having a nature-based spirituality, I am inclined to question every incidence of human ‘culture’ rejecting ‘nature’. Sometimes there are good reasons – most natural things seek warmth and shelter, for example. Making a home is perfectly natural. But what about sweat? We do it, but adverts teach us that to be in any way moist is a social failure. We must be dry and smell of chemicals to pass muster in our personal and professional lives.

Of course this sells a lot of deodorant and probably makes the London Underground more bearable, but is that enough to make it a truly good idea?

Sweat serves a number of functions. It helps us to cool down, and it gets toxins out of our bodies. We may also sweat nervously when under pressure, which can reveal our discomfort. So there’s perhaps a fear of looking uncomfortable and therefore less professionally cool and on top of things, to associate with sweat.

As a species, we’ve been wearing clothes for a long time. The basic idea of clothing is warmth, dryness and comfort, but being civilised, we’ve turned clothes into markers of affiliation, social status, profession and whatnot. Thus on a hot day, there are people stepping into tiny metal boxes wearing shirts, ties and jackets. Because that’s civilised. We’re supposed to sweat to keep cool, but we can’t be seen to do that in our suits, and so we suppress the natural reaction. It’s worth noting that skin which is allowed access to the air, able to breathe, cool down, dry off and generally get a breeze round it, does not stink especially. It’s when we use clothing to lock our smells against our skins that we really get the problem.

Sweating goes with activity. The person who sweats regularly doesn’t have a big backlog of toxins in their skin, and so the sweat is more of the fresh, healthy animal variety. It’s worth noting that sweaty animals tend not to smell anything like as gross as sweaty humans even though they tend to shower less and seldom use deodorant. Doing it regularly, plus not wearing a suit probably helps. Being well hydrated so that you can easily wash it all through, also helps. The person who sweats rarely and does so under stress, isn’t going to smell too good. Lots of ick to come out of the skin, and nowhere for it to go.

Any chemical applied to the body for the purposes of stopping sweat, is basically helping you store up your toxins. When eventually you do sweat, it will all smell that bit worse as a consequence, and in the meantime you get to carry about all the toxins your body would otherwise have preferred to dump. This does not strike me as being a perfect solution.

Alongside all the crap we put out, sweat also contains smells related to our hormones. We send smell messages to each other – or we would if we didn’t mostly smell of sprays. Those messages tell us things at a less than fully conscious level about how sexually compatible we are with each other, how well the people around us are and so forth. The unmasked body odour has a lot to say about a person. If we don’t smell so good, the temptation is to hide that under an artificial smell, fooling ourselves and everyone else around us. Socially speaking there’s a fair amount to commend this. In other ways though, it may be costing us. I find myself wondering if the stinky tendencies of teenagers may be a neat evolutionary device to stop them breeding too soon. Taking away their deodorant may be the most effective form of contraception available!

Language and landscape

I’ve recently read Jonathan Bate’s The Song of the Earth – it’s a book of literary criticism looking at landscape writing from a more ecological perspective, and it’s decidedly interesting stuff. In places I found it a bit more technical and academic than I could manage, but there were long, more accessible passages that more than made up for this.

One of the key theories underpinning the whole text, is that language is an act of separation from nature. Language is one of the things that makes humans, not natural, and so to speak of nature in language is to heighten separation. Further, that language is not experience, not the real thing, only ever a way of expressing something else. It makes an interesting juxtapose with Robert McFarlane’s ‘Landmarks’ where the message is that specific language helps us recognise and connect, and brings us into better relationship with the natural world, and that human communities living closer to nature have more words for what they encounter. On the whole I am more aligned to Robert McFarlane’s perspective.

I do not see language as unnatural. Nature communicates, with fellow members of its species and with other species when needs be. It does it with sound and movement, smell, chemical emission. If you know a dog you can tell the difference between its wanting to play bark, and its alarm and posturing  bark, while full on aggression sounds different again. A blackbird’s warning call is not the same as its sundown song. We can make sense of the bee’s waggle dance, although they don’t do them for us. Tress give off signals to attract the allies they need if they’re hit by a plague of insects, and on it goes. Communication is intrinsic to life, not some weird human addition. It may be arrogance to assume that other species have fewer ‘words’ as well.

Talking is not the experience itself. Writing and reading are very human activities, but they engage our mammal emotions and our minds. What we learn from any form of exchange goes with us, back out into the world, to help us notice. It is easier to discuss something you have words for, and to extend knowledge by means other than direct interaction.

Verbal communication has been given primacy in human interactions, but we do still use body language if we deal with each other in the same space. We are affected by how other humans smell – not just the binary of gross/acceptable, but subtle messages that come in through the nose. Tone of voice affects us. There’s also the exchanges that happen heartbeat to heartbeat, skin to skin, when we are close enough to be communicating in largely physical ways. The dialogues of holding and being held.  You can tell someone a great deal simply by how you touch them.

Language itself allows us to hold and explore ideas that it would be hard to imagine without the words to frame them. Truth, belief, the difference between experience and the expression of experience… but these are issues for another day.

Feelings for nature

“That we have feelings (sentiments) about nature demonstrates that we are separated from it (her?).” Jonathan Bate, The Song of the Earth.

I haven’t read the entire book yet, but this statement leapt out at me and I wanted to take it out of context and poke it a bit. Largely I agree with it, as it stands, with some caveats. As soon as we define ‘nature’ as being a thing, that is not us, all we can do is believe we  stand on the outside and either ignore it, or have feelings about it. If nature is other, we cannot see ourselves as participants.

A lot of the language around nature is incredibly binary. Culture and the intellect are set up in opposition to what is allowed to be ‘natural’. As soon as dirty human hands have violated the pristine, virgin landscape (and I use those words very deliberately) then it isn’t pure nature anymore and further despoiling is fine. Progress is at odds with nature. Technology is at odds with nature. Humanity is at odds with nature. Art is at odds with nature because art is artifice and nature is real. The only state we allow ourselves to imagine as natural, is naked, devoid of language and eating berries.

With ‘nature’ set up this way, how can any modern human consider what is natural to be available to them? Nature is all the things you have to get away from in order to make life bearable. This causes us all manner of problems.

Ants farm fungi, build huge nests and modify their environments. Bees and wasps undertake amazing construction work. Birds make nests, some of them incredibly ornate. There are many animals who craft homes and shelters underground. Hermit crabs use empty shells, octopi make portable houses out of coconut shells. Trees emit chemicals into the air and soil to help modify their surroundings to their advantage. From the tiniest organisms to the largest, life does what it can to manage its immediate environment for its own benefit. Nature innovates, and anything that can do better than silent berry eating, does better. We aren’t the only communicative species.

Half of the problem with talking about ‘nature’ is that to discuss all of existence as though its just one thing is incredibly reductive. What troubles me about Mr Bate’s statement is the idea that as soon as you have a feeling relationship, you are on the outside, and I think that’s wrong. When you can only have feelings about nature as an abstract idea, you are on the outside. When you care about this hill, that tree, these flowers, the birds in this valley, this stream, it’s an entirely different process. If you are depending on something, for food, or shelter, of course you care about its existence. Perhaps not in a conscious or benevolent way, but it’s still a form of care. To assume that we alone are capable of caring about nature and this only because we are outside of it, is a lot of assuming as an opening gambit.

If you’ve ever watched a cat rolling in the sun, or a horse rolling in the grass, or a dog frisking about in water, or a crow riding the wind, or a buzzard on the thermals, it is difficult to hold onto the idea that the rest of nature is all about the mechanics of survival. Watch any creature long enough and you’ll see it doing things just because it can, because it enjoys doing it, not because it serves some evolutionary function. Watch a cow come out onto grass for the first time in the spring, and you’ll be hard put to suggest that cows don’t care about grass, or have any feelings.

To hold feelings about any other living thing is not an act of separation, or proof of not being natural. Probably the only truly unnatural thing we do as humans is to imagine, foolishly and arrogantly, that we are somehow on the outside in anything other than our own imaginations.

Bare breasts, bare feet

As those of you who have been with me for a while will know, I have an exploration underway into having unfettered breasts. I’m ample enough up top to have spent the last twenty years strapped up, so building up the capability to go unstrapped is taking time.

At Druid Camp this year I had chance to play with a few possibilities in a safe space. I spent the week mostly barefoot, sometimes with a bra, sometimes with a bikini top that offered far less support, sometimes loose under whatever top I had on. As I had suspisioned, being bare foot on grass makes a lot of odds. Most of us walk differently with no shoes on, tending to drop pace and place bare feet more gently. This reduces impact and means there is less swing generated further up.

Soft earth and grass doesn’t impact as much when you walk on it – I’ve done plenty of barefoot walking on tarmac and the difference is huge. The jarring impact of putting feet onto a hard surface jolts the free-range breast about rather a lot, making walking uncomfortable. It’s also hard on your feet. Softer surfaces make bare foot walking more viable, and reduce impact on the breasts. I find I can jog short distances barefoot on grass with little or no breast support. Neither feet nor chest could bear that on a hard, urban surface.

The moral of the research at this stage seem to be, if you want to be in a natural state, you need to be in a natural state. The more artificial your habitat is, the more you will suffer if you don’t protect breasts and feet from the consequences.

If you’re wondering about all the sticks and stones inherent in natural places… if you are barefoot you learn to pick your way carefully, and you don’t end up with the same rhythms. On rough terrain, you walk differently. With tarmac and concrete we can march vigorously over many miles, battering that tempo into our bodies. It’s worth remembering that the Roman roads were built precisely so they could march armies about quickly. Roads, tarmac and cement come from our desire to be places faster than our bodies are designed for. Modify your habitat and you have to modify your body to cope, hence shoes become more important, and you can’t run without a bra once you have shoes and a hard surface.

I’ve gone over to softer bras with no metal underwiring, and to floating about unfettered where I can. But, depending on my feet for transport, and having no choice about the surfaces which get me where I need to go, I’ve got to have boots to deal with the impact of the surface, and I’ve got to have chest support to deal with the impact of the boots on that surface. The more you can match your shoes to the needs of your breasts, the better this is going to work, though.

Managing nature

Should we attempt to ‘manage’ nature or is it best to let the natural world take care of itself, and to avoid human intervention as far as possible? It’s an interesting question, and one I think it is worth poking around in a bit.

Firstly, for this to make sense, we have to assume that nature is separate from humanity and that anything humans do must be at odds with nature, rather than part of it. Moorland and meadows in the UK exist as a consequence of humans farming animals over thousands of years. We’ve been doing this long enough that many landscapes in Europe are shaped by our presence, and many species have evolved a little bit to utilise what we do. There are woodland flowers that just never grow if no one coppices the woods to let in the light.

Secondly, nature is slow to adapt, and very happy to adapt by letting things die out. We have unbalanced many natural systems, often by taking out top level predators. I recall a tale of a place that, on returning its wolves found the mountainsides became glorious with flowers because they were no longer being cropped. Often we don’t know the knock on effects of our unbalancing are, and in re-balancing, we learn valuable lessons.

Thirdly, in leaving nature to sort itself out, we may let ourselves off the hook. It is worth remembering that the desire to manage otter populations (born of a desire to hunt them) alerted us to the dire state of our water systems and the need for a human clean-up program. When we’re trying to manage nature, we are, I suggest, more likely to be aware of and taking responsibility for our own impact.

Fourthly, managing nature often means trying to change spaces – sometimes that means attempting to undo what humans have done to them, sometimes it means creating habitat from scratch to serve a need. Planting trees, clearing silted ponds, re-establishing wetland, removing invasive species like rhododendron and Japanese knotweed, putting up nesting boxes, creating otter holts – these are all attempts at managing nature. They replace habitat we have destroyed, and they give vulnerable species a fighting chance.

Humans interact with the rest of the world in all things. Mostly we are careless about the needs of other life forms, and we cause widespread habitat destruction and loss of species. In many places, we have been a presence for so long that we are part of the landscape and there is not letting it revert to some imagined ‘natural’ state without losing diversity that way. A stand of trees may look natural, but if what you had before was a grassland maintained by grazing, and full of rare orchids, then the ‘natural’ reverting to a stand of trees means losing the orchids, and the insects who lived in the grass.

We have created a relationship with the rest of nature. If we view ourselves as custodians, duty bound to take care of the land, I think we’ll do a better job of not being destructive. The risk in imagining nature will take care of itself if we leave it alone, is that we fail to recognise the scale on which we are not leaving it alone in the first place. There are fairly pristine landscapes out there, it would be fantastic if we could leave them alone, but our pollution gets everywhere, so not interfering even in places we never see is going to require some effort.