Tag Archives: nature

What bears do in the woods

Yesterday I watched brown bears hanging out in an English wood, doing the sorts of things bears like to do. One was using a tree trunk as a pillow. Another got in a large pond and messed about for some time. There was tree climbing, leaf eating, and sauntering about. At times, they were a matter of yards from me.

We haven’t had wild bears in the UK for more than a thousand years, and when people talk about re-wilding, they don’t tend to mention bears. We know bears in the Americas do all kinds of exciting things for trees –particularly because they feed salmon remains to them. We don’t know what UK bears did for trees and what we are missing, but maybe this project will help us find out.

The project in question is Bear Wood at The Wild Place near Bristol. The website – https://www.wildplace.org.uk/ much like the place itself is set up as a family attraction and there’s not much information I could easily find about what’s going on beneath the surface. I gleaned some details from boards at the site.

I have very mixed feelings about all this. For me, encountering bears in this way, was a powerful and moving experience. For some of the other people there, it was clearly the same, and the excitement of spotting creatures – bears, wolverine, lynx and wolves – in a woodland environment clearly had a high impact on some of the visitors. Seeing wolves appear and disappear amongst the undergrowth is a wonderful thing. As a setup, these larger spaces with humans at the margins and animals not so immediately available may help to de-comodify the creatures and return a sense of wonder to the people looking for them.

But at the same time, the play areas and activities here and at other wildlife attractions will encourage some people to see nature as toys for their amusement and creatures as amusements for their benefit. For many of the visitors, it was a place to run round and shout, with no care or respect and no parental guidance. There were plenty of parents who were noisy and who I found deeply annoying in their attitude. I go through this every time I visit the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust site in Slimbridge as well. People who have no experience of nature are unlikely to cherish it, but people whose experience is of amusement and commodity probably won’t do much cherishing either, and I don’t know how you turn careless visitors into people who are awake to the wonder of what they’re seeing.

Exposing children to ‘nature’ does not automatically make them nature lovers. Not if they see it as stuff to break and trample on, throw things at, litter, damage and exploit. Without guidance, outside is just often just one big resource to use and wild things are just toys.

I’ve come away from this with a deep longing for bears. I had no real sense, until now, of what the absence of bears in woodland really looks like. Having seen bears, I will see where the bears are not in a way that is probably going to haunt me. I’m fine with that.

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Natural Magic

I turn my head without knowing why, and in the seconds when this happens, I see a deer moving through the undergrowth. Or a mouse running across the path. Or a buzzard swooping low through the trees, visible for a few seconds only to vanish from sight again. It happens a lot. After years of walking together, is also happens a lot for my son and husband. We’re alert to each other when walking so often when one person spots something, we all get to see it.

Some of this is about being present, paying attention and knowing where to look. There’s a knack to letting your eyes wander over your surroundings, not being too focused on anything, but being attentive enough to pick up movement and signs of life. There’s a knack to having your ears on alert for rustlings and other sounds, even when you are chatting. These are skills that anyone who has those senses available to them can develop with practice.

Some of it can be attributed to the way we are also sensitive to being watched. It’s not unusual to find the deer I notice were already watching me. But sometimes it isn’t that. A few nights ago I crept up on an owl from behind – it was some time before it became aware of my presence. Said owl was perched on a fencepost in low light conditions and I only saw them because I was checking the lane for hedgehogs.

But, there’s also the magic thing. Turning your head before there was anything to see in your peripheral vision. Stopping at just the right moment. Being in the right place at the right time. Some creatures have timetables they follow and some don’t, so being on the path at the moment when a deer takes her fawn across it is unlikely, but that sort of thing happens to me quite a lot.

Wild things tend to have an awareness of what’s around them that enables them to avoid human contact. I’ve watched deer watching people. Stay on the path and act oblivious and the deer could be motionless and yards away and will keep still and remain invisible. If you see the deer and watch them in turn, they become alert to you in a totally different way – often more wary, sometimes fearful, sometimes curious. There is an awareness in wild creatures about who and what is around that humans have the potential for, but mostly don’t bother with. To be outside and a little bit more like a wild thing is to be in a different and more aware kind of relationship with everyone else.

 


Walking Speed

If your main aim is to cover as much ground as possible, then walking as quickly as you can is clearly the way to go. If you have little time and want to get as much exercise as you can, it’ll be top speed for you. If you are walking for transport and have to be somewhere at a specific time – again the answer is speed.

If you want to engage with the wild world, then speed is not the answer.

You can engage with the shape of the land by moving through it at a pace, but not with whatever else is living there. You have a better chance of spotting wild things by slowing down.

When we move quickly, our own bodies make a lot of noise. Our clothes rustle, our feet pound, our breathing is heavier and our hearts may pound in our ears. All of this drowns out the subtler noises. To hear and thus spot a creature in the undergrowth, you need to be making less noise with your own body. Moving slowly makes it easier to be quieter. Wild things that routinely get human contact aren’t necessarily scared off by our noise, but they can easily avoid us and we are less likely to notice them.

For wildlife spotting, your peripheral vision is critically important. It’s those small signs of movement picked up in the corner of your eye that will likely lead to seeing something. If you’re moving too fast, what’s in the peripheral vision is harder to process – you get a second or two sometimes to register movement and focus on it before the bird or animal has gone. The faster you move, the more you have to focus on the route before you, the less you use your peripheral vision, and the less you see.

Plants are also likely to be on either side of your path, not dead ahead. Again, your scope for noticing plants is improved if you have time to look to either side. If the plants are right in front of you, you’re probably making poor choices about where to walk. Stay on the path and don’t walk over wild plants if you can help it. Our desire for wildness does not entitle us to go stamping about over wild places. We cause less harm when we stay on the path. Wild things are also less bothered by us if we stay on the path and act predictably. Getting off the path doesn’t increase your chances of seeing wild things and may take you the other way entirely.


Family Afternoon Out – a poem

This poem is based on observation of many different people over some years. This is what tends to happen within a few hundred yards of the car-park.

 

Family Afternoon Out

 

They emerge from the four by four

In country wear jackets and boots

With matching children and dog.

Stand at the viewing point, and point

Like models in a clothes catalogue.

Little Jemima shouts repeatedly

About who once sat on which rock

Like she owns the place.

Eyes down, they head off

Talking about Priscilla in human resources

And what Gareth said about Antigua

And Little Christopher is bored

And swipes undergrowth with a stick.

Aren’t children so natural, in nature

In their desperately expensive jackets

Just like mummy and daddy wear.

Meanwhile Hugo the hound runs wild

Sniffs everything, and they’ve already passed

Seventeen brightly coloured notices about

Keeping dogs on leads but Hugo is not a dog.

He’s family, and it is different for him.

Because he’s wearing a jacket, too.

And nice, middle class dogs never worry sheep.

Now back to Priscilla, in human resources

The one with the bad botox experience.

This story is so good it requires enough decibels

For every other walker to hear the gruesome details.

Generations of squirrels now know what

Priscilla did about the stains.

Little Jemima is picking orchids, isn’t that pretty?

Never mind if she’s breaking the law, she’s only a child

Enjoying the flowers and her parents don’t know

What these flowers are called or that you aren’t

Supposed to pick them.

Little Christopher throws stones at everything, but

Back to what Gareth said about Cypress,

And Sudan, and you really must try ice skating in Ethiopia.

Hugo flushes out a bird that no one sees

Too busy with Priscilla and Gareth to look or hear

And does the front bedroom need decorating this year?

Little Jemima throws her phone in a pond when no one is looking.

Darling Christopher stamps on beetles. Were they endangered?

Too late now.

And Gareth said New Zealand is a must at this time of year

And how on Earth is anyone supposed to manage

Mud in these boots. You could wreck them, and the cost

Of replacing them and the dirt in the car

And Little Christopher is banging his head against a tree

Because he’d rather die than walk any further and

Jemima is eating leaves and berries but nature is good for us

So it’s probably fine. And Hugo has done a vast

Steaming turd in the middle of the path

So let’s put it in a plastic bag

And hang it from a tree.

Because we love nature.

Nature is lovely.

And we’ve had such a wonderful walk.

 


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.


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.