Tag Archives: nature

Reading nature

The idea of reading nature for signs is problematic in many ways. It can be a way of adding to the sense of separation of us, from nature, where nature is seen as one homogenous thing. ‘Nature’ as a word is a shorthand for many complex existences and interactions and we should be wary of reducing it to symbols and then reading it for insight into our personal lives. It’s not all about us.

However, there are ways in which we can meaningfully read the world around us. This takes a lot more work over the long term and is not as human-centric.

We can read the health of a place. Top level predators are a good indicator of the overall health of a system. Diversity is a good indicator as well. If a place lacks for diversity and there are no predators, help is required. We can also read the health of a place in terms of litter and obvious human damage. Again this should be read as a call for help.

We can read the seasons. There are natural shifts in how the seasons manifest from year to year, so just keeping up with that is an act of engagement. With climate change impacting on everything, it is a good idea to read those shifts for information about what’s working and what isn’t.

You can read for your own impact. Are there insects in your garden? If you don’t have a garden, what can you do to support insect populations? I managed to establish a pot garden, and it attracts and feeds bees, so I can watch it for a while and read it in this way, and think about how to develop it. You can read the birds who come to your garden for what they tell you about the wildlife you are supporting. If you have regular insect eaters, you are doing well for insects.

There are times when an understanding of wild things will mean you can read what’s coming. The way creatures get off a beach when there’s a tsunami on the way is a good case in point. Understanding how the living things around you respond to stuff you can’t detect can be a lifesaver in some contexts.

It is better to read nature for the things nature might be able to tell us about its many selves, than to read the wild world for what it can tell us about our own immediate concerns. And if you’re looking for contact with the numinous, for spiritual guidance, and for guides this is still the better place to start. The knowledge you build by reading this way will make you better able to see something out of the ordinary that may be more to do with spirit and less other living things getting on with their lives. Learning to read what’s around you for its own sake is a gesture of respect, which is a good opening move in a spiritual endeavour.

If there is one message that humans need to hear from nature right now, it is that we are not the only things that matter, it is not all about us, and we have to stop acting like it is.

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Paganism and Self Care

There are a number of things about Pagan paths that can help us with self care and living in gentler, more viable ways.

Firstly, this is not a life-transcending path. We aren’t punishing our bodies for spiritual advancement. We don’t have traditions of self-harm as spiritual tools. If you look at the lives of our European Pagan ancestors you can see easily that the majority were after rich, joyful, rewarding, happy lives, with enough mead and merrymaking and art, and food and fun. To live as a Pagan is to live fully, while embracing what this life has to offer.

Secondly, this is not a martyrdom tradition. We do have our stories about dying heroically but there’s no sense that sacrificing yourself in some pointless way has any spiritual value in it.

Thirdly, our bodies are part of nature, and as followers of nature based religions, this is a good place to focus for matters of self care. If you aren’t caring for nature as it manifests in your own body, you’re missing a thing. Self care brings us to all the most fundamental things of our living bodies – sleep, food, water, rest, exercise, what kinds of physical contact we need, fresh air, tree time…

To care for your body, and to take care of nature as it manifests in your body, it is necessary to push back against pressure to work more, longer and harder. Earning more and consuming more won’t lead you towards self care. A quieter, simpler, more peaceful life where you can take care of your simplest needs is key. Slowing down, resting more, having more time for yourself is essential. If you are experiencing in-work poverty this can be a hard cycle to break, but if you can meet your basic needs plus some, it’s worth looking at whether the extra costs you more than it gives you.

There’s a beautiful circular-ness to all this. If we slow down to take better care of ourselves, we consume less. A gentler life is almost guaranteed to be a life of lower carbon consumption. When we take care of nature within ourselves we are likely to change our lives in ways that take care of nature outside of ourselves. Every time you walk instead of driving, you benefit your body and the natural world. Every time you eat raw plant matter, or drink water rather than fizzy pop from a bottle, or sleep rather than staying up late staring at screens, all of nature is served by this.

When you shift your life so that you honour nature in yourself, and thus take better care of nature around you, it moves you a lot closer to living as a full time Pagan.


Managed Woodland

When we think about ‘nature’ it is so often with the idea that ‘nature’ means not touched by humans. If you want nature, you leave things alone to take their natural course. In the case of a wood, leaving it alone often means you get a lot of brambles and if you don’t know what a wood can do, that might look persuasively natural.

Here in the UK, we’re missing our large wild mammals and have been for some time. Our woods have evolved with humans as the large wild mammals in chief. A managed wood will often have far more biodiversity than a wood that has been left to its own devices. Particularly if there’s a history of human involvement. If you look at the history of most woods in the UK, you’ll find human involvement over the last few thousand years.

There is a Woodland Trust wood not far from where I live, and I’ve walked through it a couple of times a year for some years. When I was first walking here, work was being done to clear areas, coppicing trees and building up dead hedges of the cut material. A dead hedge of twigs provides homes for insects, and for pretty much anything else that lives in a wood. Over the last few years, I’ve been able to watch how the coppiced areas have developed. It is noticeable this year that this is where the most woodland spring flowers are growing. Beautiful carpets of wood anemones in particular. I also noticed an intensity of bird song around the coppiced patches, and vibrant new growth on the trees coming up into the space.

If human intervention means tidying up nature and making it into a garden or a park, then of course a wood won’t thrive. However, when people look after woods for the wellbeing of the wood, with an underlying and evidenced understanding of how that might work, the results are impressive. If we get our interventions right, then human activity can increase the health of a woodland and increase the diversity of life within it.

Human intervention need not be a bad thing. We do not have to see ourselves as a life form that can only harm the living world. We can also support the living things around us. We can nurture life, and we can act in ways that are restorative and regenerative.

 


Soothed by wild things

When things are difficult, getting outside can be soothing and healing. Trees are good for us. So are open skies, bodies of water, and the company of other mammals. However, those of us with smaller problems that are easily fixed are often keen to say ‘turn to nature’ without understanding the limits of that.

To get outside in a way that will help you, you need the time to do that. Not as a one-off, but regularly. If your mental health is falling apart, a single intervention isn’t going to save you. Can you get outside for as many hours as you need every day for the foreseeable future? Probably not, because the things that have ground you down will take up too much of your time.

If you don’t feel safe when you’re outside, then the help of wild things is limited.

If you are bodily limited and/or in pain, then it doesn’t matter where you go, that goes with you. Time with trees may lift your heart a bit, but it cannot cure a suffering body.

Part of what makes getting outside powerful is the increased peace it can bring. How much peace you need is also a factor. If you are living in a situation that is destroying you, half an hour outside may be respite, but it won’t fix things.

If you can change things so that you are able to have the time you need under the sky and amongst trees so that you can feel better, part of what heals you isn’t the space. Part of what heals you is having got away from the things that were causing the damage. If focusing on getting out to spend time with the wild things helps you with getting out, and with putting harmful experiences into perspective, that can help you make or maintain changes. Again, what does the key healing here is the stepping out of what is harmful. If you can do that, it really helps, and if you can’t, tree time alone is unlikely to save you.

When the damage is superficial and easily fixed, we can be persuaded that we are healing because we’ve made really good choices about how to heal. We may fail to recognise that the damage, stress or trauma someone else is dealing with is deeper and more complex. It’s a small step from there to attributing blame and deciding people aren’t healing because they didn’t try hard enough. For the person who has never been deeply wounded, it is hard, perhaps impossible to imagine what deep wounding feels like and what that does in the long term. It is better to assume, if you heal quickly and easily, it is not because your healing system is the best, but because you just weren’t that badly damaged to begin with. If ten minutes with a tree fixes everything, there just wasn’t that much to fix in the first place.


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.


Talking to the wild things

Here’s a typical scenario. We are walking, and there are deer in a nearby field. We stop to look at them and the deer become aware of the scrutiny and look round. The deer see us. If there’s something about our location or direction that bothers them, they may just leave, but often they don’t. Often they give it a little while and check us out. At this point one of us will normally speak to them, saying in a calm and clear voice that we mean them no harm, and we aren’t coming into their field. Usually at this point, the deer go back to whatever they were doing.

A squirrel who has stopped beyond arm’s reach doesn’t always run away when spoken to. The same with foxes. Sometimes also small birds. Without a doubt, some of it is about not making sudden and dramatic moves, and not doing anything else that suggests being a predator. However, I’ve talked to wild things many, many times and it is so often at the point after I’ve spoken that they go back to what they were doing, that I don’t think this is a coincidence.

The conventional wisdom (at least here in the UK where there are no bears!) is to be quiet to avoid startling wild creatures. When dealing with urban and semi-urban wildlife, it’s clear they are all well used to our noise. As long as we are engaged in human stuff and not heading their way, creatures are unfussed by us. I have noticed when walking that many people show no signs of seeing the wildlife around them, and that the wild things seem aware that they are effectively invisible. It’s when you notice them that they become alert and cautious.

I don’t imagine that the words matter, but the tone and intention does. Recognition that everyone has seen everyone else and that no one is trying to hide is probably part of this. Based on how they respond, I think the deer are a bit surprised by people who can see them. I think also over time they come to recognise us, and become less bothered by us seeing them.

When we ‘watch nature’ by being silent and observing, we’re casting ourselves as outsiders. When we talk to the wild things, we cast ourselves as part of their world, too. We stop imagining that we are different from them, and I think that’s better for everyone.


Metaphors for non-humans

Some observations on how we talk about the non-human. I confess to having watched a number of National Geographic videos on youtube recently, and while I enjoy the visuals, the narration has been less appealing. One of the things I noticed repeatedly was an urge in the script writer(s) to apply human metaphors to pretty much everything. The stand out awful one was describing a flying fox as being like Dracula leaving his lair.

Dracula of course is powered by imagery drawn from the natural world and from the (bizarre to me) idea that bats are somehow creepy and sinister. The bats are not like Dracula. Dracula is like the bats. However, when we turn ideas on their heads like this, there are some uneasy consequences.

If you have to recast the non-human world in terms of human metaphors to present it, you are sending people a message that they are separate from what they are seeing. Other living beings can only be understood on human terms. They are like commuters. They are like ballet dancers, leaping gracefully from rock to rock. They are like gymnasts. As if we can only understand other beings by saying how they are similar to us. As though the behaviour of other beings cannot be described purely on its own terms. We can’t look at goat-like creatures jumping about on rocks and say that they are agile. How are we supposed to empathise with an agile mammal on a rock? Most of us know little or nothing about ballet, yet the idea of unfamiliar mammals as ballet dancers clearly worked for someone.

When we do this, we normalise human activity and make the activity of other beings seem other. If it is only by reference to human culture that we can hope to understand them, we make human culture the key point of reference. Most of the examples I’ve described – and I don’t think this is a coincidence – are about forms of entertainment, too. We are encouraged to look at autonomous living beings as human entertainers. We are to see their utility, their benefit to us and not their individual experience of their own lives.

Metaphors and similes are a great way of creating feelings of connection. Used well, they can increase empathy and understanding. Used badly, they assert human dominance and superiority. If we see the world in terms of being like us, we reduce it.


Connecting with nature

Pagans talk a great deal about ‘connecting with nature’ and I think it’s something we could afford to consider. Granted, it can be very useful shorthand, but it can also be a way of making what you do superficial. When we treat nature as generic rather than looking at it in specific ways, what we’re most likely to connect with are our own pre-existing ideas about nature. To make real connections, we need more precision.

It’s important to remember that nature is not one single, homogenous thing all moving in the same direction at the same time. Pagans tell a very simple wheel of the year narrative, but many living things don’t go along tidily with it – I’ve been blogging about alternative wheel of the year stories over at Sage Woman blogs for some time now, I think this is important work. If we want real connection, we have to start by not imposing our stories on what we see.

There is a world of practical difference between what you do to connect with a tree, and what you do to connect with a bird, or a fox, or an insect or a hill. The less experienced you are, the more sense it makes to focus on smaller things – it is easier to try and connect with wood when you have first invested time connecting with specific trees and landscape features within it.

Real connection takes time – you can’t go out for half an hour to connect with a wood you’ve never visited before and expect to have a deeply meaningful experience. There’s a lot you need to learn, first. If, as a newbie Pagan you do that and something, or multiple things have clear and powerful messages for you, there’s a very good chance that you are just hearing the voices of your own ego and imagination. Most wild things are not sat round waiting for a human they can tell all the important stuff to. Most landscapes are fairly indifferent to us and building relationship takes time. You need to turn up frequently, at different times of day, in different seasons, and weathers, and pay attention and be open. If after some weeks or months of this you start to get some feelings about a place, you’re probably onto something real.

If you’re getting messages that cast you in an important role, be suspicious. Interrogate yourself and check your own motives. If you get messages that ask you to do things you wanted to do anyway, it may well not be coming from outside of you.

If you want to dedicate to a place, a tree, a creature or some other aspect of the natural world, the most important offering you can make is to look after it. Wild things do not need our incense anything like as much as they need not to be choking themselves on discarded plastic. They do not need our prayers anything like as much as they need us to petition other humans to keep them physically safe.

If you want to make deep connections with ‘nature’ you can only really do this by being specific. Don’t ‘get out into nature’. Go to a particular hill, stream or tree. Watch an individual bird and listen to its song. Spend time with a specific plant. Being outside doesn’t automatically make you connected. If you walk through a landscape, oblivious to its details while telling yourself a story about what a good Pagan you are for connecting with nature, you’ll not see the woods, or the trees.


Nature: specific not generic

When we talk about ‘nature’ – as Pagans are wont to do – we run the risk of unwittingly defining nature in ways that are harmful. Covering all the life of the planet with one word reduces our sense of the diversity of what’s out there. We’re dealing with vast and complex systems of life and many different kinds of species. If we call all of that ‘nature’ and talk about ‘nature’ then we may encourage ourselves to think of nature as a single, simple thing.

If there is nature, there’s an implication that there’s also ‘not nature’. I think many of our problems currently are rooted in the idea that nature is other than us, and that we are separate from the rest of it. What happens to ‘nature’ may be sad – cue pictures of homeless orang-utans and whales full of plastic – but it isn’t happening to us. We aren’t nature. This is a dangerous way to think because we also breathe the air, drink the water, and eat what comes from the soil. The habitats we destroy are also human habitats.

The idea of pristine nature as something seperate from humans is an idea that enables us to keep damaging what’s around us. If we only care about nature as separate from human activity, we don’t protect the places where we can see human activity in the mix. When we see nature as being all around us, and present in every environment, when we see human constructs of part of a wider environment and ecosystem, we have to think differently. Whether that’s about hedgerows in farmland, urban trees, or what lives in our roof tiles, the nature around us needs our care.

It is of course a useful shorthand – hard to write a blog post like this without using it. On the whole though, I think it’s a word to watch out for. In many contexts, it is more effective and engaging to talk about something more specific. We can say ‘I go out into nature’ or ‘I go out into my local woodland’. I go out onto the hills where the larks are singing and orchids grow in amongst the long grasses. I go past the old industrial estate where a family of foxes have taken up residence.


Pronouns for nature

Normally when we talk about trees, plants and landscapes, we use the language of inanimate objects. There is a world of difference between saying ‘this is the tree that grows near my house’ and ‘this is the tree who grows near my house’. My grammar check rejects the second option.

Equally, when it comes to living beings, we’re more likely to call them ‘it’ (which is the ‘proper’ grammar) than to use pronouns in a way that foregrounds their individuality. Compare ‘it is an otter, it is eating a fish’. With ‘she is eating a fish’.

Where I can, I prefer to use he/she pronouns for nature, because it makes other living beings sound less like objects, and I think that’s important. This is of course not without issue. Some creatures I can gender-identify at a glance because of size, plumage or behaviour. Some I can’t, and I have to guess. For many, gender doesn’t really apply. Mushrooms, most trees, snails, earthworms, fish – there’s all kinds of living things that don’t do gender the way mammals do, and are hermaphrodites, or change genders. Mammals don’t always do gender the way we use language to construct mammal gender. I’m conscious that if I use gender pronouns for creatures who don’t do genders, I am perpetrating the fiction that nature has only two sexes in it.

To call a person ‘it’ is to put them down. To call an animal ‘it’ is similarly to reduce its status. To call an animal he, or she, is to reinforce his or her status. Using ‘they’ or ‘their’ in this context has interesting effects. This is language we still aren’t sure about for humans, so in terms of lifting a living creature out of objectification, it doesn’t always work. We’d have to be more comfortable talking about humans as ‘they’ not to have a feeling of othering when it’s used to talk about an individual. Perhaps in time, this will change.

In the meantime, I invite you to think about who gets which pronouns. Pets tend to get pronouns, wild animals, and farmed animals less so. We only use pronouns when we identify an individual as unique and when we value them. Plants are alive, but we normally frame them with language as though they were simply objects.