Tag Archives: nature

When nature isn’t lovely

I’ve seen plenty of Pagan and Druid writing that celebrates nature in really straightforward ways. Nature, we tell each other, is beautiful and lovely and inspiring. Go out into nature, it will lift your spirits.

Sometimes nature is harsh. Sometimes nature looks a lot like a baby bird fallen from the nest and dead on the ground. Sometimes it’s the rainstorm that tears the flowers apart, or the remains of a fox cub on the side of the path. It’s watching a gull take a babe coot, or a buzzard take a rabbit. It’s the desperate, dying shriek of the mammal who has been found by the stoat. 

While I don’t like the way nature documentaries often focus excessively on violence, sometimes nature is violent. Sometimes it is arbitrary, cruel and makes no sense. The rising tide takes the nest of things too young and small to escape from it. The naturally occurring forest fire slaughters those who cannot flee fast enough.

Nature is the basis of all things, it is part of us and we are part of it. Life continues, often at the expense of other lives. Forces move through the world with no care for the lives they impact on. I think it’s important in nature based spirituality to acknowledge that nature itself is not moral. It’s not lovely, or benevolent, it simply exists. The universe can indeed be bountiful, but bounty for the fox is not benevolence to the rabbit. What creates bounty for humans at the moment is wiping out the majority of other creatures. When we see the bounty and not the cost, we don’t see nature as a whole.

Druidry cannot ignore the parts of nature that are neither pretty nor comforting. We need to square up to those as well. We don’t have to like all of what’s out there, but we do have to respect it. We don’t have to be happy in face of the harsher parts – it is important to have room in ourselves for the feelings that aren’t lovely. Sometimes you need to cry over the dead baby bird. Authenticity is bigger and messier than the idea that nature is lovely.

Nature and spirit

There are (I think) three key ways of considering the relationship between nature and spirit. Which approach you favour will inform how you do your Druidry.

Option 1 – nature is everything, there is no spirit in nature other than life itself. This is atheist Paganism and it means engaging with the world in a rational way and not seeking anything magical or non-scientific. It tends to foster pragmatic relationships with the natural world but does not rule out numinous experience or a sense of wonder.

Option 2 – everything that exists in nature is possessed of spirit. The material world is alive with presence. This perspective will incline you to see every living being as precious and capable of having opinions and preferences. It opens the way to encountering other-than-human people and is consistent with an understanding of reality that has a lot of room for enchantment and wonder. Any encounter with wild things may be laden with significance, but the power lies in the encounter and you are a spirit present in the world encountering other spirits who are present in the world.

Option 3 – spirit manifests through nature. Wild things can therefore be being moved by some greater force and may have some message for you or be there to teach or guide you. I struggle with this one because I prefer to see living beings as existing in their own right and not being here to bring us messages. This approach can be problematically human-centric. It does however open the way to seeing every encounter as laden with potential for meaning and magic. It is probably the strongest option for the person seeking enchantment and wishing to re-enchant their own lives. I have no doubt it is also possible to see the physical world as spirit manifesting without having to attach personal meanings to everything and to instead see the living world as a means to commune with something greater that lies beyond it.

What does it mean to step outside and see a bird, or a cloud or a really nice rock? How does that encounter fit into your world view? How does your world view inform how you interpret your experiences? What do you want to experience and what do you want from the wild things around you?

Emotional chemistry

Everything in a body is finite. This can be quite a disturbing line of thought, especially when it relates to things that are supposedly about who you are. How we feel and how we exist in the world is very much related to our body chemistry in all its complexity. For the Druid exploring nature in their own body, this impact of chemistry on who and how we are is a fascinating line of thought.

Our chemistry is informed by our experiences, environment and food. So our bodies create feedback loops. Those might turn out more like vicious circles as we spiral helplessly, feeling every more trapped by our circumstances. It’s just as possible to grow and build, although the current depth and breadth of crisis in the UK makes that harder.

One of the things I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is the body chemistry of depression and anxiety. With recent news that serotonin levels aren’t the defining issue, it’s clear something else is going on. I’ve been reflecting on my own experiences around numbness and distress and I have some thoughts. I’m a case study of one, this is no kind of scientific, but I think it’s worth sharing anyway.

Most of the chemicals washing around in our bodies have multiple functions. Adrenaline does panic and anxiety, and also excitement and enthusiasm. Dopamine gives us willpower and executive function, it also gives us feelings of reward. These are finite resources. I’m not very good at feeling rewarded – I don’t get feel-good hits from computer games, or from anything else designed to push those buttons. I have spent my life with a wonky body, constantly having to push to get things done. I live on willpower most of the time. What if that simply means I don’t have the dopamine resources to experience the feel-good side of that chemistry? What if the amount of adrenaline going into panic is why I don’t have any capacity to feel excited?

I don’t get much of a vote around panic, but I do get some say in how much willpower I use. I’m undertaking to rest more and trying to make sure I’m not running purely on willpower most of the time. Unshockingly, I feel better for doing things that way, and at the same time I’ve become a little less numb and more able to feel other things and I don’t think this is a coincidence.

I also have questions about the role diet plays here, because you can’t build your body chemicals if you don’t have the right stuff going in. Poverty is exhausting and depressing and I suspect part of that is just not being able to make the right stuff in the first place.

Treating my body as a delicate system with finite resources is working a lot better than running it hard like I’m supposed to be able to function like a machine. I really shouldn’t be surprised about this. I have got to a point in my life where I have the luxury of options, but for a long time I didn’t have that, and for many people, relentless pushing is all there is.

Blaming Nature

CW assault

One of the things I am incensed about is the way in which humans like to blame the rest of nature for problems that are intrinsically human. This leads to situations in which the natural world is further harmed by projects that don’t solve the problems. 

As a recent hideous case in point, a walrus was killed in Norway because allegedly she posed a risk to humans. The actual problem was that humans refused to leave her alone, but rather than deal with the problematic human behaviour, the walrus was killed. This sort of thing happens a lot when inappropriate human behaviour causes problems with wild creatures. Bears suffer a lot from this sort of thing.

The main argument for filling the night with light is to improve safety and combat crime. Lighting the night has not caused night-time crime to cease. It does however put strain on insects, birds and other wild things. We barely even understand what we’re damaging when we light up the night – and we do so to tackle human behaviour, when that human behaviour is not dealt with by brighter illuminations.

I had a rant recently about how trees were being cut down in response to a local attack. Apparently some women were afraid that predatory men could hide in the bushes – knowing the area intimately I must point out that this was never going to be a serious issue and that many of the trees we lost could not possibly have hidden anyone. Trees and bushes do not cause attacks. This is a people issue, and trashing other living beings doesn’t really make anyone safer. People who might attack you don’t stand around doing self announcing things so that you can see it would be a good idea to avoid them. Equally if someone intends you harm, being able to see them slightly sooner doesn’t change much.

We park our cars under trees and then want the trees cut down because they, or the birds in them, make a mess of the car. We build on floodplains and then we want more dramatic and invasive flood management projects to deal with the water. Trees catch fire in drought conditions and we treat it like the trees are the problem, not the human-made climate change. 

We cannot solve intrinsically human problems by attacking other living beings or by destroying habitats and ecosystems. The trouble is that human problems would take effort and time to deal with, while killing the walrus or cutting down all the trees is relatively quick and cheap, and then you get to say that you’ve been responsible and dealt with the problem.

Some sort of dryad?

I found this beautiful fungi growing on a tree near my home. I’m not sure what it is! And as I have no intention of eating it, that may not be critically important. It might be a Dryad’s Saddle, but then again…. it might not. Anyone wise in the ways please do comment!

When Nature isn’t Nice

The difficulty with nature-based spirituality is that nature isn’t always nice. It’s not all beautiful sunsets and pretty flowers. I blogged recently about how the otters have eaten the ducks locally. It’s all too easy to tip into a survival of the fittest, nature red in tooth and claw kind of take and end up feeling that might is right, along with all the horrors that brings.

Nature of course is complicated and nuanced and vastly diverse. Existence is messy. Nature doesn’t reliably condense down into simple messages, but it does encourage us to accept complexity and avoid simplistic takes on things.

Nature can be especially challenging when we’re thinking about our own bodies. To what degree do we want to accept or resist natural processes? It is perfectly natural to want to stay alive, but at some point, the pursuit of life at all costs will result in something hideous, where death would be a blessing.

To what degree do we see overcoming nature in our own bodies as important? Suppressing natural human-ness is often seen as more civilized and professional. But, keep holding those farts in and you can damage your appendix. There’s a story about a gentleman who actually exploded… 

We ignore nature in our own bodies at our peril. We can’t triumph over body-nature forever – there’s only so hard you can push, only so much you can do without. Our minds and bodies break, sooner or later. We’re better off if we’re allowed to live in gentler ways. We’re better off if we are allowed to respect nature as it manifests in our bodies rather than constantly fighting to suppress it and overcome it.

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.

Nature for everyone

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.

Help ensure everyone has the equal right to nature. Sign this petition.

The Fox Beneath The Window

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.

Encounters with wild things

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.