Tag Archives: nature

Unspeakable Druidry

Unspeakable in the sense that I seldom have much idea how to explain it to anyone else. However, putting words to experiences is one of the things I think I’m for. My hope is that at some point I’ll understand enough of what I’m doing to be able to come back and talk about it coherently, but for now, it’s a case of trying to speak the unspeakable in the hopes that someone finds it at least a relevant signpost for their own journey.

Back when I read Celtic Buddhism (reviewed here) I had my first run in with Tibetan Bon, a tradition that has no formal practices. It is simply what happens to you as a consequence of how you live with the natural world. This chimed with me, and led me to realise that for some years now, my rather ephemeral and hard to pin down take on Druidry has been about me trying to do something similar.

When I first came to Druidry, I was all about study, meditation, visualisation and ritual. It was a very cerebral response to what I already knew about the seasons and the natural world. It’s been a process for me of recognising that when I work that way, I’m working with an abstract concept of nature inside my own head, not directly with anything else. To clarify, I know for some people, interior work means working directly with spirit, but for me it’s mostly not felt like that.

For some years now, what I think of as my Druidry has been solitary, although I can do it when other people are around. It’s about taking myself outside and encountering and being encountered. It has had the discernible effect of me seeing far more wildlife than I used to. It has meant developing a quality of presence that is alert to what’s around me, and open to it, but also involved in the narrative of the place and my history with it. I’m certainly not in the moment to the exclusion of all else, nor seeking to be. All the time I do this, I’m bodily learning – sounds, smells, movement, colours – information from the world around me that helps me know how to interpret other experiences. The sound of the bird connects to the shape of it and the shape of its flight and so forth.

I am changed by this, and not just in terms of what I know. I am changed, and no doubt have more changing to do in terms of who I am when I put my feet on the ground and move. I exist in relationship to a landscape and to others dwelling in this landscape. I feel a profound sense of connection, but beyond that, very little, and that may be significant too.

I do not come back from this with wisdom to rapidly transform your life. I do not have messages from the natural world that I must tell to people. I do not have secret knowledge, magical power, mystical authority or anything like that. I can’t even tell you with confidence what I think is happening when I do this, only that I know something is happening to me. I will never be able to teach this to people over an expensive weekend course. There are no exciting shortcuts to offer, and no easily explained benefits, just a quiet certainty on my part that this is the right thing for me to be doing. I may well need to spend a lot more years doing it before something properly speakable emerges.

There are consequences of being in the world in this way. Every time I go outside, there are moments of joy and wonder. I see, hear, smell and touch things, and am moved by them. I have a body knowledge of my landscape that comes from having moved through it so many times. I find being away harder. I find big groups of noisy people harder some days as well, because I don’t know how to tune them out. I do not feel adrift, lost, or out of synch any more. I know where I stand, in a very literal sense.


The afterlife of trees

Humans have a strange obsession with tidying up fallen trees. Fair enough if you need to move them off a footpath or out of a road, but a fallen tree is a gift that keeps on giving. Taking fallen wood for fuel or make something can also make sense, but taking it away because it’s deemed untidy is ridiculous.

First up there’s the should-be-obvious point that if you leave a tree to rot down it will slowly return nutrients to the soil, feeding everything else.

A fallen tree provides a home for fungi – sometimes many different kinds. It also provides homes for insects, and as the holes in it get bigger it may provide a refuge for small creatures as well. The insects homed in a dead tree in turn provide a food supply for birds and the aforementioned small creatures, who in turn provide food for predators. Things eating each other is the basis of how the natural world gets things done.

In parks, gardens and managed woodlands, I think the problem is that humans try to impose weird beauty standards on nature. Decay is part of nature. The urge to impose human values is a very human problem. Nature tends not to grow monocultures in straight lines. We train ourselves to tidy up all signs of death and decay and it is an unhealthy and destructive urge. Dead seed heads feed small birds through the winter months. Long, straggly grass provides insects with homes. Dead trees have an amazing afterlife that, even as decay is underway, is full of new life.

Out there in the real world, decay and growth go hand in hand. One thing dies and another thing rises. Beautiful fungi forms emerge from the rotting wood. Dead trees are a key part of the life of the forest. Humans too often treat decay as something to fight and try to control. It offends us. It reminds us that our faces won’t stay smooth and unblemished. It reminds us that we are mortal. We don’t like being reminded that we are mortal, and so we go to great lengths to hide mortality from ourselves. We worry about afterlives we can only imagine, while failing to recognise the beauty and power of the physical afterlife that turns our remains into something new.

Connecting up trees

One of the most important things we can do for landscapes and wildlife in the UK is to connect up trees. The other, I think is to reinstate wetland. When trees are in small, isolated groups, they’re much more vulnerable to natural setbacks and damage from humans. Everything living in the trees may be cut off in tiny islands, with unviable populations. The more scope there is for tree-dwellers to get around between trees, the better their prospects.

Children’s literature may have misled us a bit – Watership Down and The Animals of Farthing Wood show creatures making long journeys to new homes when their old homes are threatened by human ‘development’. For many, there is no moving on. Dormice don’t like putting their little feet on the ground, for reasons best known to themselves. When the trees run out, a dormouse has nowhere to go. Bats are the same – I was involved in hedge replanting some years ago and part of the aim was to give bats a wider range and thus better prospects. Where the hedge stops, the bat stops.

Recently I wrote about plans to develop a Northern Forest, and I was sceptical about government involvement – because I always am. Politicians are prone to greenwash, and most seem to have no grasp of what a wood is or how it works. However, as The Woodland Trust are heavily involved in this project, there are things I feel confident will happen, because there are things The Woodland Trust normally does. I’ve been a supporter for more than a decade.

One of the surprising things I’ve learned from following the work of The Woodland Trust is how long you get to restore ancient woodlands. If land can be re-treed within fifty years, there’s enough surviving material in the soil for ancient woodland to re-establish itself. That makes a world of difference. No doubt sites where this could happen will be a real consideration for the Northern Forest.

Woods are pretty good at extending themselves if they are allowed to get on with it. One of the things The Woodland Trust normally does is to buy land next to ancient woodlands and just allows the wood to come back in. Given half a chance, nature reasserts itself, often what we need is to just stop messing with a landscape and let it return to how it should be.

Connecting up small patches of woodland creates more scope for resident populations to spread out. Again, it’s often just a case of getting things started and letting wild things sort themselves out. Tree planting can be a great way to jump-start this, and trees planted to connect existing, established woods won’t take long to develop the true diversity of woodland.

Over on The Woodland Trust website there’s an article that it makes it clear the forest will develop with this kind of thinking in mind. http://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/blog/2018/01/a-new-northern-forest-beyond-the-headlines/


Druidry and cutting down trees

It may be as a Druid that your first instinct is to protect trees no matter what. It’s a good instinct, (I would think that, because I do feel it) but at the same time, it helps to understand the historical relationships between people, trees and the landscape.

First up, wood is an amazing material. It is sustainable to use so long as we take only what we need and plant three trees for every tree we cut down. It’s also sustainable to coppice and pollard. Wood is not actually one material, different trees have different properties – alder for example resists water. Venice was built on alder. Wood is durable, beautiful, and effective.

Secondly, if the land has a history of human wood work over thousands of years, then continuing isn’t a bad idea. There are woodland flowers that don’t show up unless patches of woodland are cleared. Small scale, rotational tree coppicing results in a wealth of other wildlife being able to return. Diversity of plants increases insect populations which in turn feed birds and bats… Letting the light in will also help slower growing trees like oaks get started.

What doesn’t work is industrial scale logging. It doesn’t work to cut everything over a large area, especially if you follow through by not even replanting. It doesn’t work to take rare hardwoods out of rainforests, or to put vast monocultures of pine into places pine doesn’t normally grow.

If we are to use wood as a sustainable resource, we have to do it while maintaining the health of the overall wood. In the UK, that can mean radical cutting to get rid of invasive non-native plants. I’ve seen what rhododendron does when left unchecked. All you get is rhododendrons and all other native flora and fauna disappears. Pine plantations tend to be nearly as sterile. A wood is not just a bunch of very tall plants, it is an entire eco system.

Small scale wood cutting undertaken by people who keep working responsibly with the same wood over many years gets beautiful results. People who know the wood, and care about it, who take no more than the wood can afford to let them have. People who go in and drag wood out, or work with ponies rather than bringing in heavy machinery. People who leave their wood healthy and full of life. It can be done. I’ve seen it done in many places and read about it in even more.

If an environment has never been messed with by humans, then we should leave it alone and not exploit it. However, if an environment has been worked with by humans for thousands of years, it may have evolved around us. That’s true for many woods, for meadows and for the kind of moorland rich in orchids and wildflowers. It isn’t true for the moorlands where the heather is burned off for grouse, it isn’t true of agri-business and giant monocultures, it isn’t true of deforestation. But, working with wood need not mean deforestation.

We can be participants in the natural world. We can work with nature without exploiting it.

Wood Wise

Learning about the natural world is an important part of the Pagan path. Otherwise we run the risks of having some very odd ideas about what nature is. We may end up thinking of nature as something exotic, away and largely unavailable to us – which isn’t true. We may end up with nature as some kind of abstract concept that we celebrate by calling to it from our living rooms, and that’s not optimal. Even if life obliges you to be a mostly indoors Pagan, learning more about nature enriches a practice.

For Pagan parents, aunt, uncles, grandparents etc, teaching children about nature can be a great way of sharing your path with your young humans. I know many Pagans are uneasy about indoctrinating children, and some paths aren’t really suitable for younger folk anyway. This is a great place to start, and a child who grows up with a deep love of and understanding of the natural world is likely to turn into an adult whose values you can respect, regardless of what they end up believing spiritually.

So, as an act of public service I want to point you at this free, high quality publication. Wood Wise comes from The Woodland Trust, you can download it here or subscribe to have it sent to your inbox – https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/publications/2017/07/wood-wise-summer-2017/

You Animal!

Another blog about habits of speech and why they might need some scrutiny. When a human does something especially vile, it is common to refer to them as an animal. There are a number of problems with this.

For a start, it reinforces the idea that humans are fundamentally better than other animals but that we can fall, through our actions, to being at the same lower level as animals. This in turn backs up all the ways in which we otherwise mistreat and exploit other life forms.

Secondly, it gives the rest of us some rather unreasonable insulation. If we give truly offensive humans animal status, we tell ourselves that they are not us. They are not like us. We are not part of the problem. If the perpetrator in an animal, we don’t need to talk about rape culture, or how fascism is permeating our culture, we don’t need to talk about reasons for radicalisation, or gun control or anything else. Refusing to identify a terrible human being as a terrible human being, we let ourselves off the hook for perhaps helping provide the context in which they have acted.

Thirdly – and this generally applies to men – it suggests there was no scope for them to do better. We often apply animal language to men who sexually offend. They are sharks who can hardly be expected to avoid a piece of meat. Which is shitty logic, because it perpetrates the idea that men can’t control themselves, can’t make rational decisions and so forth. It also suggests that rape is a natural/animal thing and it isn’t. Most species have all kinds of complex things going on around sexual selection. Most often it is the female of the species who chooses the male. Mallard ducks aside, most creatures have reproductive strategies that are either cooperative, or about showing off to attract a female.

At the same time, we deny our fundamental animal natures. We are animals. We are mammals the same as all the other mammals. We are different in some ways but there are plenty of differences between other mammals, too. If we reserve ‘animal’ as a term for those we don’t want to recognise as human, we make it that bit harder to identify ourselves as animals, because it becomes a term of insult. We need to recognise our animal selves, and that all humans are animals of the same sort, stop pretending we are separate from nature, stop denigrating nature and stop creating ways to ignore unacceptable human behaviour.

Changing the words we use won’t change everything overnight, but it is an easy place to start. Change the words we use and we can change how we think about things, and that in turn changes behaviours, and ultimately, cultures.

Reduced to my biology

I like speculating about possible evolutionary reasons for aspects of human ways of being. I like reading about the central nervous system, brain chemistry and the way the workings of the human body express who we are. I’m fascinated by the interplay between mind, body, environment and personal choice in terms of shaping us as individuals.

I’m conscious that dodgy science has been used to diminish all kinds of people. The idea that gayness is a disease to be cured is a case in point. It’s difficult to talk about the fascinating possibilities of evolution without feeling the cold shadow of eugenics. I can understand why plenty of people are anxious about any line of talk that seems to reduce them to their biology. That which is only about the biology is all animal, and there are too many people who think animals don’t have souls, sentience, feelings.

My feeling is that we need to reclaim our biology. Not just for us, either. If we are proudly biological beings, then the idea that other mammals, other creatures are lesser, is a good deal harder to maintain. The trouble with being more than your biology is that to stay special you have to be better than all the other pigs, with all due reference to Animal Farm. We’ve had thousands of years in the west of telling ourselves stories in which we are different from all the other animals. Special. Made differently by God The Father. Stories that say it is ok to exploit anything that can be reduced to just being its biology. Those stories are hard to resist because they are so deeply ingrained. And of course, we like to feel special.

I am carbon and water. I am tiny flashes of electrical energy passing between synapses. I am light impacting on my retina, turning into messages that paint an idea of the world on the inside of my brain. I am cells, and DNA, I am the history of my ancestors woven into genetic material. I am blood, bone, gristle, flesh and skin no different from any other being with the potential to become a piece of meat on the table. I am the complex dance of interacting chemistry that is emotion. I am the cradle to grave pattern of inhaling and exhaling. It’s all about how you frame it.

There may of course be other things going on as well – we really don’t know how consciousness works and whether it is matter that underpins consciousness, or consciousness that underpins matter. I am happy not knowing. If anything decisive turns up, I will be perfectly comfortable with whatever turns out to be going on.

I cannot be ‘reduced’ to my biology if I celebrate my biology. I am better protected from bigots and asshats dealing in pseudo-science by knowing something of how my body works. I do not need to be more than this body, this brain, this one shot physical presence in the world. If that isn’t the whole story, I’ll worry about the next bit when I get there.

Marching in a straight line

Humans make things in straight lines, with right angles, and clearly defined edges. We plant monocultures. We bend and prune plants into shapes that we think are more pleasing than their natural forms. We sweep the chaos into neat piles, we dust away the spider webs. And yet, when it comes to what we find visually beautiful, most of us will pick a wild view over the sight of a building, a road, or a regimented set of fields.

It’s not that what we do looks better, I think, it is that it looks different. It says ‘we were here’. Perhaps, long ago, when human settlements were few and the wilderness was vast, that meant something. These days we leave so little of the landscape unmeddled with, that the cry of ‘we were here’ seems a bit redundant.

We do it to ourselves, as well. The ideal human is groomed in such a way that they do not appear subject to nature. They are not hot, or sweaty, or windswept, there is no mud on them. They smell of chemicals – a sharp flavour that we’ve been taught to associate with cleanness. A sharp flavour often marketed to us as some kind of natural smell, which it most assuredly isn’t. And yet we spray on forest grove and pine and lemon. Or the vague illusion of them.

To be in a natural condition is to be primitive, or a barbarian – words we have used for centuries to denigrate and disempower people who don’t impose themselves on the landscape in the way we do.

We call our straight lines progress, even as they destroy eco systems. Our monocultures are good business policy, even though they are damaging the very things we depend on. We create horrible, depressing habitats for ourselves, even though we know we do better in greener spaces. Perhaps we are just afraid to admit that we are part of nature too, and that we need the natural world. We aren’t cleverer than a natural soil structure, or an underground fungi network, or the bees. It doesn’t matter how high we build or how much tarmac we put down, the mission to conquer nature remains a project of self harm.

Poverty and Nature

Recently, a survey carried out by a washing powder company suggested that some 60% of parents don’t want their children playing outside because they don’t want them getting dirty. Clearly, given the outfit paying for the data, there’s scope for bias here. However, it got me thinking. The knee jerk reaction is to see misplaced parental prioritise, or laziness, but there could be another explanation, and that explanation is poverty.

Washing and drying clothes costs money – electricity, cleaning products, water, some means to dry. You’ve got to have enough clothes for the child that they can change while you deal with suddenly dirty clothes. You’ve got to buy that clothing, or source it from hand-me-downs. Further, there’s nothing like being out in nature to risk tearing and damaging your clothes, which is a problem if you can’t afford to replace them. And if that wasn’t enough, being outside for much of the year in the UK requires extra kit – waterproofs, wellies, extra warm things, more socks… if you have no money to spare, these are pressures you can’t necessarily manage.

Then there’s the question of accessing nature. The poorer you are, the less likely you are to live somewhere green. Big tower blocks with areas of grass around them do not nature playgrounds make. So you have to travel someone and to do that, you need to know where to go and to be able to afford to get there. Again, these may be luxuries that just aren’t available. Children in poverty are known to have less access to outdoor recreation, and are less likely to have bikes and other outside gear.

Back when we lived on the boat, my son went to a running club after school. They ran in all weathers, but he didn’t. It’s fine to come off a field filthy and soaking wet to be bundled into a car and back to a hot shower, a tumble drier, a massive supply of towels. It’s quite another thing to be filthy and soaked with a mile to cycle home, and nowhere really to dry anything when you get there. I expect the woman running it thought I was being a wimp, making a fuss. She pointed out to me that running is an all weather sport, and I didn’t feel equal to explaining to her the practical implications of living on a very small boat.

I recall a parallel story about urban archaeology exploring the contemporary archaeology of homeless life in Bristol. Homeless people came to watch and share information, but would not dig because they had little scope to change or clean their clothes and could not afford to be wet or filthy. It’s a similar issue. It is easy, safe and comfortable to get cold, wet and dirty when it’s quick and uncomplicated to sort that out afterwards. Not everyone has this option.

There is a known correlation between parenthood and poverty. There are increasing numbers of children in poverty in the UK. If we’re worried about children accessing nature (and we should be!)then simply blaming parents isn’t the answer. The problem of getting dirty may not be about middle class fussiness at all. I suspect it’s something else entirely.

Talking about Nature

Earlier this year I ran into an free online course being run by the University of Gloucestershire, teaching ecolinguistics. It’s called The Stories We Live By. http://storiesweliveby.org.uk/  I’ve not completed it yet because I decided to read Arron Stibbe’s book Ecolinguistics. Each section of the course has notes from this book, so I figured it would be as well to read the whole thing.

Back when I did this sort of thing more (a degree course many moons ago) I always read whole books rather than the bits tutors waved at us because I wanted a broader and deeper understanding of things. I am out of practice with reading academic books, and it is slow going as I adapt to the language and concepts. Also, reading to study is no longer my primary concern, I just don’t have as much time to devote to this as I did when a student.

So, why ecolinguistics? This is about studying the kind of language people use to talk about the natural world, and how that language shades our stories and thus informs our choices. I feel that by studying this I will be better able to challenge other people’s ideas and dismantle them where I need to. As someone dedicated to the bardic path, the way stories work is an issue that matters greatly to me.

Mostly though, ecolinguistics is, for me, about my fiction work. I realised this year that I do not want to write books that could easily be classed as utopian or dystopian. I want to write books that imagine a better sort of future and how we get there, but I don’t believe in utopias, or find them plausible. I’m taken with Kevan Manwaring’s concept of Golden Dark, but I’m not sure I want to pin myself entirely to the dark side of the equation.  I also don’t have a clear enough sense of what, in terms of the details of how we live, needs to change. So I’m doing this course in search of inspiration.

One of the things the ecolinguistics course has made clear is that cultures are built out of shared stories. Those stories not only reflect where we are, but steer us in certain directions. They affirm some values and undermine others. While we tell each other stories about profit and power, conflict, consumption and GDP, we tie ourselves to planet destroying trajectories. We need stories about kindness, co-operation, hope, health and wellbeing and being part of the web of life. That all sounds profoundly Druidic to me! We need to change the stories we share, and look hard at the stories (often manifesting in adverts) that are telling us to trash everything for short term ‘profit’.