“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.
Not everyone in the UK has equal access to wild places and green spaces. I expect this is true of other countries as well. As is usually the way of it, underprivileged people are the ones least likely to be able to access green spaces. If you live in a flat with no gardens, then having some communal green space in walking distance is important for mental and physical health alike.
If you don’t have a car, and live in an urban environment, then our national parks are pretty inaccessible. Without good public transport infrastructure, you won’t be able to access the countryside closest to you, even. Safe routes for cycling would also really help with this issue.
Where can you access green spaces as a disabled person? Where can you find the information about accessible spaces? How do you find out where it’s possible to go with a wheelchair? What about if you have limited mobility – it’s not unusual to be able to walk, but unable to get over massive stiles in fences.
Nature for everyone means not pricing people out of the opportunity to spend time outside. It means accessible green spaces in urban areas. It means proper information about access and what to expect. It also means more than a stretch of mown grass and one lonely, tired tree!
Here’s what we need from the government:
Make equal access to nature a core test of levelling up
Make it a legal requirement in levelling up legislation for developers and public bodies to provide access to nature-rich green spaces for everyone
Provide funding for locally accessible nature-rich spaces by extending the Levelling Up Fund to green infrastructure projects.
There was a fox beneath my window. It came silently in the night, and may have left long before I knew it had been there. I woke from sleep to the unmistakable, bitter musky smell of fox pee coming in through the window. It’s the second time recently that this has happened.
Behind the flat there’s an area of grass, with trees and a large stream. I’ve seen kingfishers and herons out there. I’ve heard foxes and badgers at other times. Otters pass through sometimes, although I’ve never seen one from the bedroom window. It’s busy out there after dark.
My only communication with the fox was the scent of pee. It’s not a charming smell, more the sort of thing to catch in your throat and leave a person feeling a bit queasy. But it is also the smell of fox presence, so I find it both horrible and comforting all at the same time. Twice now, I’ve lain there in the dark before the dawn, breathing in the unpleasant smell of the fox and feeling glad for the knowledge that a fox has passed beneath my window, and paused nearby for a stinky wee.
I also like that this isn’t a romantic story. It’s not an airbrushed take on nature, full of how lovely nature is. Sometimes, nature stinks, and it’s important that we engage with those aspects and don’t demand something safe and inoffensive.
I’ve had two wonderful encounters with wild things in recent days. With all due reference to my recent post about getting closer to nature, I want to be clear that both times I was somewhere it would be reasonable to expect a person to be, and I did no more than stop and look.
The first encounter was at twilight and I was on a cycle path. Various songbirds were alarm calling, so I stopped to see what had upset them. There was an owl in amongst the trees and the smaller birds were doing their best to see it off. Owls will take chicks as well as rodents. The owl called several times before heading towards the fields. We’ve had owls here all the time I’ve lived in this flat, they hunt in nearby fields and raise chicks in the trees on the edge of the cycle path.
My second encounter was in daylight. I was on a pavement, passing by some semi-wild land. I suspect some part of my brain registered that I was being watched. There was a fox cub sat at the edge of a bramble patch, catching some sun. The fox cub stayed there while I pointed it out to Tom, and then trotted back into the undergrowth. The cub watched us the whole time and seemed relaxed – we were some distance away and on the other side of a wall, which probably helped.
I didn’t get photos in either instance – both were brief encounters and unexpected, so no one had a camera out. I’m conscious with foxes that posting pictures of them in identifiable locations can bring them trouble anyway, so it may be best not to make clear public declarations about where they are.
The chances are you’ve seen art and photographs of people with wild things. You’re a Pagan, a Druid, and the idea of wild things coming to you is deeply attractive. It would affirm how attuned you are to the natural world. It would prove your Druid-ness. Maybe you could rescue something and raise it. Maybe you could tame something.
It’s a temptation I entirely understand. Wild things are deeply emotionally affecting. There are few experiences more powerful and affirming than having a wild being look back at you and not just run away. These are usually experiences I have at a distance. I don’t try to handle wild things unless they genuinely need my help – getting hedgehogs out of roads being the thing I’ve done most of. I won’t rescue wildlife from other wildlife because everyone has to eat. I will move creatures who are at risk of being harmed by humans.
Without knowledge, skills and the right resources, bringing a rescued creature home is really risky for them. It’s better to get them to a professional, or an established rescue centre if they really need help. It’s always worth considering leaving them to let nature take its course – thus providing someone else with a meal. Decisions about who to help and who to leave hungry should not be based on cuteness. For me, whether the species itself is endangered is going to be my biggest consideration.
If wild things get used to humans, this can make them vulnerable. We can put them in danger if they start thinking humans are safe to approach, or a good food source. We can frighten them, disrupt their lives and cause them harm by trying to get close to them. Often the kindest and most respectful thing to do is to stand still and let the wild thing do as it will if that doesn’t put you at risk either. Enjoy the moment. Wild creatures who seek food from humans can end up being killed for being aggressive and invasive.
The situation is different with semi-wild things – feeding the ducks on the pond in the park is not really going to impact harmfully on them. Birds in your town centre are not going to be compromised, probably. It’s worth noting that seagulls in particular can become aggressive in their dealings with people if they think they can get food. It is important to know what you’re doing, and to know what is safe and appropriate food for any semi-wild things that move towards you. Don’t give dairy to birds. Don’t pollute the water by throwing in loads of bread that just sinks to the bottom.
If we genuinely care about nature and about wild things, one of the best things we can do is not impose. Humans put a lot of pressure on nature as it is, without Pagans trying to live out fantasies in invasive ways. Stay on the path. Don’t interfere with wild lives. Don’t try to feed them your lunch. Don’t steal their babies – leaving young unattended is normal. Don’t deliberately get close to their homes, nests, or dens. Watch them from a distance that keeps them safe.
I’ve always been interested in the idea of honouring nature as it manifests in my own body. I’m also not very good at it, because my body is a bit of a mess. Doing things that focus on being embodied, or conscious of my body isn’t a great deal of fun when I’m in a lot of pain. Getting out there and putting my body in nature is also problematic when it’s cold, or I’m already sore.
Once upon a time there was a person who was ostensibly all about embodied spirituality and felt that the reason I (and no doubt other people) were hurting was that we weren’t embodied enough. If only we’d spend more time being embodied, the pain would naturally reduce! This of course is bullshit, but there’s a lot of it out there and it needs talking about.
If you have the kind of pain that is caused by stress, tension and failure to look after yourself, then paying more attention to your body will probably help fix a lot of those things. These are not the reasons I’m in pain. I’m hypermobile, it’s a tissue issue, it’s about fundamental structural things in my body. Paying attention to it just makes me more aware of it, which improves nothing. Organising my body to minimise damage and pain is not something I have to do consciously most of the time.
This kind of minimising is one of the more common forms of ableism to show up in allegedly spiritual spaces. It depends on the idea that you would be well if you tried a bit harder, and that’s simply not true for everyone. If you can cure your ills with a bit of mindfulness and paying more attention to your breathing, then you simply weren’t that ill to begin with and it is not a fair measure of what anyone else might be up against.
Not being cured by doing the spiritual things does not make you a failure as a spiritual person. You might find things to help you manage what’s going on – and you might not – but either way there should be no shame in it.
I’d like to be more embodied, but I can’t do that when my body is difficult to inhabit. These are good times to explore the practices that take me away from myself. There’s nothing unnatural about seeking respite from pain – it’s one of the things sleep is for.
I found the mermaid’s purse in the photo, washed up on the beach at Aberystwyth. It was firm and shiny and it felt alive – this is a case for a growing embryo, either a shark or a skate. I think this one was a shark. I wasn’t going to let this baby thing dry out and die on the sand. As I had my frog wellies on, I took the case back to the retreating tide in the hopes that it would be carried away.
That should have been the whole story. Just a Druid on a beach having a moment with another being and then carrying on with their day. But, I did not know this beach, and it turned out to have consequences.
The beach was mostly fine gravel on a steep slope. The tide was clearly going out, but every now and then it threw up a much bigger wave than the retreating ones – this much I already knew having got my legs wet from one of them. I gave the mermaid’s purse back to the sea and turned to walk back up the beach. One of the big waves caught me from behind, fast moving, and washing over the top of my wellies. That was challenging.
The force of the wave as it headed back down the beach was even more powerful. It pulled the gravel out from under my feet and it dragged on my legs. I fell, backwards, into the water. It wasn’t deep, and it wasn’t as cold as it might have been. But, with my feet higher than my hips thanks to the slope, and the shifting gravel beneath me I could not stand up. Fortunately I wasn’t alone. Tom and James – neither of whom were wearing wellies – came straight into the water to get me on my feet and to help me up the sand. We all ended up moist, and I was soaked to the skin from the waist down – with hindsight it was obvious that we should have got in the sea deliberately. We’d have been drier.
I’ve swum in the sea many times, from many beaches on the UK coast. I’ve paddled my feet in the sea so many times. I’ve never had the sea come up at such speed before, I’ve never been grabbed by water before and I’ve never been so powerless before in face of it. It was a startling experience – no harm done, but that feeling of being bodily overpowered will stay with me. Geography and geology interacting with moon pulls and water to drop my (relatively) small mammal self on my bum.
Connecting with nature isn’t always gentle, or simple and it certainly isn’t always restorative!
It wasn’t so many years ago that I used to do long walks as part of how I connected with the seasons. For the last 18 months or so I’ve been so relentlessly ill that my walking range has dramatically reduced. On a good day now I can go about a mile before I need a serious rest. That’s a hell of a lot more than many people have, and far less than I used to have.
I used to depend on the length of time I spent outside, and on the distance travelled for my feelings of connection to the wild world. I can’t do that now. I have to focus on details and in many ways that’s been good for me. I have to pay more attention and make the most of the time I get outside.
Today I saw that the garlic leaves are emerging from the soil. There are flowers on some of the wild fruit trees. I saw dogs’ mercury, which also has flowers on it. The small birds are very active, and there were also a few crows around where I am not used to seeing crows, so that was interesting. I also saw a heron in flight.
I’m fortunate in where I live. There are trees, fields and waterways right on my doorstep. I don’t have to be able to walk far to encounter some other living being.
I have a harder time of it with depression during the winter. For a lot of people dealing with similar things, this is a sun issue first and foremost. I’ve known for a while that part of my problem is that I hurt more when it’s cold. I get stiff. This winter I’ve identified a new component, and it has everything to do with skin.
In the warmer part of the year, I will be out in the world with a fair amount of bare skin. I don’t tend to be out in the sun to an excessive degree, but at any time of day, bare skin means feeling the air on me. In winter, the only bit of me exposed to the wind is my face.
I’ve really been noticing how much it affects me to feel the wind on my skin. I am more present to myself, more comfortable in myself if I get that kind of tactile experience. In warmer weather, rain on my bare skin can also be wonderful. In the winter, dressed to keep warm, I don’t get those experiences and so I feel a lot less connected to the elements.
The only way I can see to change this would be to have a physical activity that would allow me to be warm enough outside in a t-shirt in the winter. I have a lot of problems with running. In the past, things like cutting wood and cycling for transport have given me more options, but none of that makes sense at the moment. There’s plenty of time to think about this as spring advances.
Here in the UK, snowdrops are strongly associated with Imbolc. I saw my first flowers a few days ago, where they have emerged through last year’s dead leaves. A perfect visual metaphor for the year turning.
It’s also a time of year when locally, the elf caps tend to appear, and I’ve seen a few of those in recent days.
Spring also means catkins. Some are open now, but some, like these, are not.