Tag Archives: nature

Otter encounter

It was fairly early in the morning by winter standards, the sun and been up for less than an hour. I was walking the towpath – which isn’t quiet. A chap ahead of me whipped out his phone, slowed down and appeared to be filming, so I started looking around to see what he’d seen. I was hopeful it would be an otter. Filming otters in the canal has become something we do in Stroud.

He pointed out where the otter had gone, and then when she came back, he made sure I’d seen her before he headed off for work. I’m pretty sure the otter was female, based on size, and the probability – because this is the second otter sighting on the same few miles of canal in a matter of weeks – that she’s working a smaller area than a male would.

I followed the otter for a while. She was hunting, making big ripples each time she went underwater. The distinctive bubble trails looked more random as she chased fish, and when she didn’t make a catch, her time above the surface was brief. I realise how easy it would be to walk past a hunting otter, but now I know what to watch for I may see her more often.

On one occasion, she surfaced just a few yards from where I was stood, and looked at me. It was just the two of us, and we shared a long moment of eye contact. It is a powerful thing, to find nature looking back at you. When anything looks back, it creates feelings of intimacy and engagement. We stop being observers of the scene and become participants in it. The otter showed no signs of being bothered by me, and having checked me out, she got back to the import business of breakfast.

I was able to point the otter out to a dog walker. She’d never seen one before and didn’t know they are in area, and it was clearly a moment for her. The next passerby had a camera and stopped to film, and I left him with her, confident that anyone else going by and paying attention would be alerted to the otter by his presence.

I love the way these encounters allow people who are strangers to each other to engage and communicate as well. Those of us who get about on foot will often greet or acknowledge each other as we pass, and maybe even exchange a few words, but an otter encounter draws people together. We’re better humans when we have other creature to connect and engage with. We’re better humans when we’re showing each other where the otter went, or making sure someone else sees the kingfisher. The world is a kinder, happier place when you can stop a random stranger to point out the heron, or the cormorant in the tree, or the fox in the field opposite, or whatever it is today.

When we make environments that exclude other forms of life, we’re less happy, less well, less able to connect with each other.

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Winds from the east

It is the winds from the east, and the north east, which bring winter where I live. Blowing in from Siberia and the Arctic, these winds also bring migrating swans. Bewick swans spend the summer on the Russian tundra, where they raise their young. They migrate to the UK for the winter, flying at night, using the stars for guidance. Young swans make their first journey with parents so as to learn how to do it. There’s more information here – https://www.wwt.org.uk/conservation/saving-wetlands-and-wildlife/saving-wildlife/science-and-action/uk-species/bewicks-swan/

For about three years, I lived in Slimbridge, and then on the canal in the vicinity of Slimbridge – the location of the first Wildlife and Wetland Trust site whose link I shared above. This site was established as a reserve by Peter Scott (son of Scott of the Antarctic) because of the migrating swans. They come to feed on the banks of the Severn during the winter.

While I was living in the village, an older neighbour told me how, when he was a child, the swans would come in incredible numbers and you’d see them flying round the church spire. Swan numbers, like pretty much everything else in the natural world, have been dwindling. It’s now rare to see a migrating swan coming in on a wind from the east early in the morning. It’s happened to me a few times now, and it’s an experience I feel deeply grateful for.

The coming of these winds marks a turn towards colder weather. When it happens varies – the first swan this year showed up in October. Most are coming in now. The colder the weather, the more swans come to Slimbridge – there are other sites migrating swans go to, but the harsher the winter, the further south they head.

Even though I no longer live in Slimbridge and no longer see the bewicks grazing in the fields, they are very much on my mind when the winds come. And this year, I’ve seen several pairs of swans coming in over the hills in the early morning, no doubt heading towards the river.


Season of denial

It turned cold this week. Properly cold, with heavy frost on the ground for my walk to work yesterday. I find myself reluctant to even blog about what’s going on seasonally. The point in the year when temperatures start falling to freezing is always a tough one for me. I can’t find much to enjoy in it. I mostly have to mitigate against it and try to get through.

This morning my hands are desperately sore, and this isn’t a coincidence. Most of me is stiff – there are a lot of things that can hurt in a body that will hurt more if cold.

There can of course be beauty in this season. The sparkle of sunlight on frost, the shapes of bare trees against the sky. Yesterday I saw a kingfisher, and last night the skeins of thin cloud racing past the moon – a few days shy of full – was a dramatic sight. I can find things to be moved, uplifted and filled with wonder by. I can be inspired. But even so, on the whole, I hate the cold and it takes a toll on me.

We had our first snow this week – a brief flurry of fat snowflakes that clearly weren’t going to stick. I worry about the people sleeping rough in this. I worry about the people struggling to stay warm inside their homes. I worry about how long the winter will last.

There are of course a whole array of natural responses to winter. Deciduous trees shed their leaves and wait it out. Bears, hedgehogs and others hibernate. Birds migrate to more hospitable environments. Dying back is normal. Frantically struggling for survival is normal. I can think of fewer examples of creatures who have fun with the snow – foxes play in it, certainly, and otters make slides, but on the whole, happy responses to the dark part of the year may be more of a human thing. Being happy and comfortable in winter tends to depend on accessing those resources and technologies we usually feel set us apart from the rest of nature.


Depression and self esteem

For some years now I’ve watched a number of friends who suffer from depression hit burnout on a fairly regular basis. I used to burnout regularly too. Sometimes it’s easier to think about what’s going on when looking at someone else’s patterns rather than your own.

Exhaustion can cause depression and will always make it worse. Avoiding this is a process of self care in which you do the pretty obvious thing of dealing properly with your own needs on a day to day basis. However, for people with low self esteem, this doesn’t work in the same way. If you feel that your needs don’t matter, it’s really hard to put them first. If you feel that putting your own needs first would turn you into a terrible, selfish monster, then running yourself into the ground can feel like the responsible choice. In terms of your mental health, it might be less terrifying than trying to be nice to yourself.

People don’t develop poor self esteem all by themselves. I think most of us learn it, or at the very least get it reinforced. And then when you burn out and people tell you off for not taking proper care of yourself, that doesn’t help. I had a lot of rounds of well meaning people pointing out that I could hardly look after anyone else if I wasn’t in good shape, but for a long time that wasn’t something I could work with, only feel as another form of failure.

Low self esteem will keep you feeling like a failure. Feeling like a failure will make you anxious and depressed. You keep running as hard as you can, doing as much as you can and burning out and falling over, and the question to ask is why? Why does that seem like a good idea? It is a hard question to ask and the answers may be tough.

If you don’t feel entitled to exist, then you may spend your whole life trying to make up for being here. Trying to justify your existence, or do something good enough that you can feel entitled to be just like a real person. However, anxiety and depression and burnout won’t raise your self esteem. Not meeting your own basic needs actually adds to low self esteem and keeps you locked in cycles of burnout, effort and despair. These are hard cycles to break. If looking after yourself leads to anxiety about being awful in some way, it’s really hard to look after yourself.

I’ve made a lot of progress on this in recent years, but not by tackling it head on. I’ve done a lot of thinking about how to honour nature in my own body. If Druidry is honouring nature, then treating my mammal body the way I would any other mammal body is something I can get to grips with. Treating my fragility as nature manifesting, as the limitations of my physical self, and the natural realities of my existence has helped me cope with it better.

I’ve also learned that if I am complicit in something unethical, then I support and enable unethical behaviour. I need to model the ways of being that I want to see in the world. There are a number of lovely younger women in my life and I don’t want to show them how to trash yourself and burn out. I want to show them how to live well and take good care of themselves, and to do that, I have to embody it.

It is easier to think about how things impact on other people. If you have low self esteem, it may be easier to do things for other people than it is to do things for yourself. Setting a good example is also something you can do for the people around you. Living in the way you would like the people you care for to live, can be a way of breaking out of the awful cycles that low self esteem can otherwise create.


Dabchicks

Little grebes are easily overlooked. They’re small, brown and as likely to be under the water as on the surface. Unlike the larger and more dramatic great crested grebe, they have sleek heads. If you see one without knowing what it is and don’t look closely, you are most likely to assume it is some sort of small, brown, diving duck.

However, the little grebe, or dabchick, is a charming water bird, and watching them drop below the surface and waiting to see where they will pop up, is delightful. I’ve seen them doing this in open deep water on the larger canal near us, and I’ve seen them in the shallow pools of the canal very near us, where it’s too silted up for boats. Most recently, I saw a group of three foraging together, which inclines me to think that they bred locally this year.

One of the great blessings of the internet is that you can look up what you’ve seen to check it is what you thought it was. I’ve identified birds of prey by searching for the cries of different birds until I found the right one, for example. There’s an absolute wealth of information on the internet to help a person learn about the world.

For anyone in the UK who isn’t confident about identifying a little grebe, here’s a video. (not my video)

For anyone outside the UK, you may well have grebe species where you live, but you’ll need to look them up if you aren’t familiar with them.


Nature, Nurture, Environment and Choice

How the balance between nature and nurture shapes us is something psychologists have been arguing about for about as long as there have been psychologists. How much of who we are comes from the genetic material we inherit, and how much comes from the environment we are exposed to? Faced with these two great forces, do we have much free will at all, or can we only be products of our biology and experience?

Once we become old enough to act for ourselves to any degree, we become active co-creators in making and choosing our environments. What we let ourselves dwell on, what we look at, listen to, go back to repeatedly – these are all things that shape us environmentally, and we do get a say in them. There’s a lot of practical difference between reading a book of nature poems and reading a fascist newspaper, for example. Why we choose one over the other may have a lot to do with where we came from, but at any time, any of us can choose these experiences, or refuse them.

Do you go for a walk in the wood or do you stare at your phone for an hour? Are you listening to music you love or is there some kind of wallpaper noise on in the background? Do you pause in your day to appreciate the good things and to express gratitude? Do you make time for self care or do you treat yourself like a disposable resource? How much time do you spend on things that give you joy, and how much time do you spend doing things you think are pointless, boring, or unpleasant? Do you go online to seek out inspiration, or to pick fights?

It’s in our smallest choices within a day that we construct the environment we inhabit.  It is easiest for us to do the things that align with where we’ve come from, but it isn’t inevitable. A little curiosity to explore what we don’t know can open up our choices no end. A willingness to notice what we feel good about and what we don’t and take action on it can lead to radical and powerful life changes. Often it’s the things we do with least thought, as habit, as what people like me do, that define us without our knowing it. No doubt some backgrounds and experiences make it harder to be the kind of adult who can look at how they live and make deliberate changes. Harder, but not, I think, impossible.

We are all shaped, one way and another, by where we come from. It’s easy to mistake that starting point for ‘real’ self. We are all full of far more potential and possibility than we can explore in one lifetime. We all have the scope to be more than we are, and other than we have been. Real freedom comes from owning that, taking total responsibility for who you are, and then living from a place of choice rather than habit.

 


Toxic things

Nature is full of toxic things. Some of them will kill any of us, some will only make a few of us sick. Sometimes those same toxic things can be used for healing by those who know what they’re doing. The poisonous foxglove gives us the medicinal digitalis.

For some people, bee stings are unpleasant, while for others they can prove fatal. Even plants that many people find beneficial – like clove and garlic, can turn out to be toxic to some of us. I have terrible trouble with cloves. At the same time, I have a far lower reaction to stinging nettles than is normal.

What proves indigestible for one person, may be the best thing imaginable for another. What drives one body into violent allergic reaction may heal and nurture another body.

I think sometimes this is true with people, as well. Some people are toxic to anyone they encounter. Some people produce reactions in a few, and not in everyone. Some of the people in our lives come like bee stings, and a lot depends on whether we’re fatally allergic to that. Some people may contain nuts…

As with the rest of the poisonous natural world, sometimes toxicity in other people can act as a healing catalyst. Not that this necessarily lets them off the hook. Sometimes what we find toxic in others has more to do with what’s going on inside us in the first place than ever it does with them. But, just as I have to avoid cloves for my own wellbeing, there are also people it’s better if I don’t engage with.

We need to know what we find toxic, for our bodies and for our emotional lives. We won’t all find the same things affect us in the same ways. How you react is entirely yours to own and be informed by. You shouldn’t feel any more obliged to deal with a person who makes you uncomfortable than you would feel obliged to eat a food that does ghastly things to your insides. However, it’s always important to remember that your personal reaction may not be a measure of the thing as a whole. My allergy to cloves doesn’t make cloves a toxic, dangerous food that should be banned. My aversion to some people doesn’t make them terrible people, either.

However, my aversion to air pollution for example, is very different. None of us do well with polluted air. None of us do well with abusive people, or unsolicited physical violence. Some kinds of toxicity are limited and personal. Some kinds of toxicity aren’t good in any context or useful by any measure. If we can glean some good from a situation, it doesn’t make it any less toxic, it’s just a measure of our own determination to make something better.


How to Create Your Wildlife Community

A Guest Blog from Aspasίa S. Bissas

Experiencing community is one of the more rewarding aspects of life, especially when you find it in unexpected places. In my last guest post on Druid Life I wrote about my wildlife community; in this post I thought I’d share some tips on how you can forge a relationship with your local wildlife and create your own, perhaps unexpected, community.

Learn About Wildlife: If you want to get along with wildlife, you need to know how. What do you do if you come across a nest of baby bunnies? Is it okay to feed birds bread? How should you react if you come face to face with a coyote? A great source of information are wildlife rescue organizations. Find the one(s) in your general area and check out their websites or follow them on social media. Here in Toronto we have a fantastic group, the Toronto Wildlife Centre. Wildlife conservation groups are another good option, but be careful—some of them are little more than advocates for hunters.

Provide Habitat: Once you learn what kind of wildlife live in your area and what sorts of needs they have, you can help them by providing habitat. If you have a yard, you’ve got habitat, and it can be as simple as not removing dead plants and leaves from your garden in autumn, or as elaborate as planting specifically for wildlife and adding a pond. You can even make your garden an official Certified Wildlife Habitat.

Provide Food: First, find out which animals can be fed and are likely to need the help (as well as which ones should never be fed). Once you’re informed and are committed to providing food—whether a pot of flowers for bees, or feeding stations for different species—it’s important to always be consistent with the frequency and amount of food offered. It can be disastrous for wildlife if the food supply they’ve come to depend on suddenly stops. Providing water year-round is also a big help.

Protect Them: One of the best ways to keep wildlife safe is to keep your cats indoors (or, if you must let them out, use an enclosed space like a catio). Not only is it better for wildlife, but your cats will also live longer, happier, healthier lives. Outdoor cats decimate wildlife, in some cases wiping out entire species of birds. It’s not their fault—all cats have a strong instinct to hunt, which is why it’s important to give indoor cats toys and playtime. Being outside puts cats at risk from disease, cars, other animals, and unkind humans. They can also get lost, and contrary to a common myth, pet cats don’t do well when they have to fend for themselves. To quote The Little Prince: “You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.”

Other ways you can protect wildlife include never using glue traps (they’re inhumane and tend to catch everything, not just rodents), checking your lawn for small creatures before cutting the grass, and making sure water features are shallow enough for small birds and animals to get out easily if they’ve fallen in (you can put large stones in deeper water to give them something to climb onto).

Be Respectful: Show wildlife respect by keeping your distance, not allowing pets or children to chase or harass them, and not making a lot of noise or big movements. Prey animals like rabbits appreciate not being stared at. Sometimes when I’m out walking I’ll cross paths with wildlife. If they’re in the middle of crossing the road I’ll back off to let them finish so they’re not stuck waiting in the street, potentially putting themselves at risk. Sometimes they retreat until I’ve passed. I do always say hello, though; it’s only polite.

Help Wildlife: If you’re on social media, spread the word—share posts by wildlife rescue organizations, tell your followers what they can do, and talk about conservation issues. If you’ve got time or money, consider volunteering or donating. Some wildlife groups ask people to help with research, usually by recording what animals they spot in their local area—consider taking part. Keep an eye out for orphaned or injured animals, and if you find any get them to your local rescue (don’t try to take care of them yourself—animals need specialized care that the untrained simply can’t provide).

Get to Know Them: Chances are if you have habitat, food, and water, you’ll be seeing a lot of wildlife, and often the same animals will keep returning. If you pay attention, you should be able to start telling who’s who. If you can wear the same type or colour of clothing whenever you fill the feeder or work in your garden it’ll help them get to know you too. Once they feel they can trust you they’ll still be wary, but you may be rewarded with memorable encounters.

As long as we live in proximity to wildlife, we’re already part of a community. But if we want to be good members of that community we need to make an effort. Given the negative impact humans have made, and continue to make, on the world around us, taking the time to help your community can make all the difference.

 

Aspasía S. Bissas is a seeker of everyday magic, and is the author of the dark fantasy novel Love Lies Bleeding. She can be reached via her website, or her Facebook page. https://AspasiaSBissas.com,  https://www.facebook.com/AspasiaSBissas

Resources:
Toronto Wildlife Centre: https://www.torontowildlifecentre.com
Make your garden a Certified Wildlife Habitat: https://www.nwf.org/Garden-For-Wildlife/Certify.aspx
Catio information: https://catiospaces.com/

Autumnal shifts

It’s been later getting cold this year than is usually the case. I still haven’t got any heating on at home, I sit here typing wearing a long sleeved shirt, and no jumper. No doubt this is climate change at work, but I admit to feeling gratitude alongside my unease. I struggle with being cold; my body hurts more and flexes less in cold weather.

I have poor circulation and can get chilblains, so autumn always means shifting away from being barefoot, and needing to wear gloves while outside. I have lightweight gloves for this time of year, and much heavier ones for if it gets really cold. My body informs my experience of the seasons in very direct ways. In the cold half of the year I have to resist what the season does to me.  Nature as manifest in my body and nature as manifest in the season are never going to be in harmony.

Of course this isn’t just an issue for me. Some birds migrate to deal with shifting seasons. Hedgehogs and bears hibernate rather than deal with the winter. Trees drop their leaves in self defence. Some parts of nature are falling into sleepy time, other parts are gearing up for a long fight to survive. There’s no one right way to experience this, and no single narrative about how it all works.

In this as in all things, I think you have to start with nature as it manifests in your own body. If you try to work with a wheel of the year narrative that doesn’t reflect how you feel and experience things, you’re always going to feel out of kilter with the seasons. You also run the risk of turning ‘nature’ into some abstract story, something to think about in rituals rather than something to live. How we live day to day defines how we experience everything. It is your body, in your landscape, at the moment you find yourself in that underpins everything else.


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.