Tag Archives: nature

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/

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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’.


Nature is my collaborator

One of the things I’ve been doing recently is painting on shells. The shells in question have generally turned up as unwanted things other people had around their houses. I wouldn’t source large shells by taking them directly from a beach because you can’t easily tell if they are inhabited (even if the first occupant is dead, other things may have moved in). I’m also wary of supporting shell selling businesses for all the same reasons – empty shells are part of a beach ecosystem. However, people have been taking shells for a long time, better to do something with them than send them off to landfill.

One of the things I’ve found paining shells is that it’s a very different experience from painting on a manufactured or already crafted surface. There’s a lot of variety in a shell, in terms of shape, texture and colour. I could have just put my intention onto them and used the shells as a hard surface to paint on, but I didn’t.

I’ve taken each shell as an individual, and tried to work with, enhance or respond to what the shell already is. In effect, I’ve been treating the now deceased shell maker as my artistic collaborator in this project – respecting their choices, and trying to see where I might add to that. Of course there’s a power imbalance, we can’t talk about it, one of us is dead… but nonetheless I’ve found it a really powerful experience.

I’m an animist, so taking a physical thing and treating it in line with the belief that is has acted deliberately and has intentions and preferences I can work with, is not a difficult line of thought for me.


Fox Tales

I’ve been seeing a lot of foxes lately. It might be tempting to read something spiritual into this, but I don’t think that’s the size of it. My energy levels have improved so I’m up later, and walking back from things later which increases the chances of an encounter. I’ve also built up, over the last few years, an awareness of where foxes tend to be, which helps.

Stroud bus station is not an overtly promising wildlife site. It’s not even a proper bus station – just some bays along the sides of a rather busy bit of road. Nonetheless, it’s a good place to see foxes, and I’ve spotted them around there repeatedly. On one occasion I called out ‘look, a fox!’ to alert the rest of my party, and the fox stopped at this and looked at us. We also had an otter encounter in the bus station on one occasion.

Recently, on one of those late night wanders home, we ran into a fox, and then realised said fox had cubs, and the cubs were trying to cross the road. There was a lot of traffic, and several heart stopping near misses. Now, when it comes to wildlife my default is to leave it to do its thing. I won’t rescue anything from anything else. However, that rule doesn’t apply to cars or any other human way of accidentally or deliberately killing creatures. We were a party of four, dressed darkly, with no kit, and we could not leave the fox cubs to play with the traffic.

It would be fair to say that foxes are not the easiest creatures to herd, because they are clever and inherently uncooperative. It would also be fair to say that a fox idea of road safety is a whole other thing. Mamma fox had picked the least visible spot on the road from which to jump out – through a fence and down a drop of several feet into the oncoming g traffic. I appreciate that the element of surprise often works for foxes, but not on this occasion. So, we put ourselves in the way, and we kept the fox family off the road until the traffic calmed down, then we left them to it. We were gifted with some close encounters, and a cranky mamma fox trying to outwit us to move her cubs.

It was in many ways a humbling experience. I have no magical fox talking gifts that allow me to explain to a wild creature why it might want to work with me for a few minutes. I had no way of telling mamma fox that I was not the threat to her cubs. I had no way of telling the curious cubs that I was not to be taken as a model for human interactions – we got close a few times as we kept them out of the traffic. I had no way of magically protecting them. It comes to something when you’re stood on the side of a road at ten o’clock at night looking a grumpy fox mother in the eye and saying ‘please, just stay there a minute, we aren’t trying to hurt you, we’re trying to keep you alive’ and then she makes a longer loop to run round you and try again. I worried about how tired she was getting. I worried we were making the wrong call, and not helping at all just playing out our arrogance. Just because you think you’re a Druid doesn’t mean you can step in and save the day.

One of our party bravely went back the next day to see if there were any corpses. I thought about it, and worried, and could not bring myself to go and look. But, there were no squashed fox cubs. As close to a validation as I will get.


Listening to the Undergrowth

Where there is undergrowth, there is life. It may not always reveal itself to the eye, but it will be available to the ears if a person is quiet. This isn’t just about beautiful remote places, but about the undergrowth on the edges of urban spaces, lanes, roadsides, the hedges on fields that are otherwise lifeless monocultures…

We humans have the bad habit of taking our noise with us – be that in earphones, over-involved conversations, or the noise that goes on in our heads. A person doesn’t have to move in careful silence to hear what’s around them – in fact conversation is still possible. What’s needed is more presence. If we fold into the little world of the verbal exchange we’re having, everything around us can go unheeded. If we’re first and foremost present in the landscape, and the conversation is secondary, then the landscape opens to us in new ways. Obviously if you can’t hear at all, this line of thought will be useless to you, but any sound sensitivity can made use of.

People who walk with me have to adapt to this! I will interrupt absolutely anything to point out wildlife, because the wildlife won’t wait for polite opportunities. I’ll break conversation threads for clouds and buzzards, plants and effects of the light. I delight in walking with people who do the same and will leap out of a conversation to alert me to a plant or some other point of interest. (Nods to Robin, if he’s reading this.)

The loudest sound in the British undergrowth is often the blackbird, foraging amongst the leaves. Attention to the sound will lead you to the bird, who is likely close by. Other ground foragers – thrushes, robins, wrens, can also become visible by this means. It is possible to see small rodents if you track them by sound. They tend to be quieter than birds, and sometimes all you can do is track the disturbance of the undergrowth where the rodent passes through.

Mammals tend to know we are around and will often move away from noisy humans before we get any chance to see them. However, if you can move through a space without disturbing it, you may get audio cues about mammal activity. It’s not as easy to see wild mammals as you might assume, but sometimes the sound will give them away. Many deal with humans by being still – in their silence and immobility, we don’t register them, often. But, a moving animal makes sound, and you can hear the movement over the terrain in that sound sometimes, and it is well worth paying attention to.

Of course listening also opens up a world of bird song, wind sound, sometimes water sound and animal cries, but that’s another story.


Consenting Creatures

Last year I read a book called Becoming Nature and reviewed it for Spiral Nature (you can read the proper review here spiralnature.com/reviews/becoming-nature-tamarack-song/). Part of the reason I was interested was that it suggested a person could get to the point of being able to touch a wild animal. I’ve handled mice and birds when rescuing them, and hedgehogs for that matter, but I imagined being able to reach out a hand to a deer, and knowing how to do that seemed really appealing.

The author’s method turned out to be all about creeping up an animal, predator-style, and making contact before they know you are there. At this point I realised that I don’t want to sneak up and touch a creature. If I’m going to touch a wild thing outside of a rescue context, I want the wild thing to have consented.

Most usually what I end up touching – or being touched by – is insects. For them, I’m just terrain, and they land on me, or walk onto my hand if I need to move them. I’ve got some very friendly robins around the flat.  I’ve managed to get within a few feet of them on several occasions. I suspect if I had mealworms, they would come to me. I’ve been within feet of wild deer on a few occasions as well, with their full knowledge.

The idea in Becoming Nature is to be a predator, and to avoid being noticed by your prey. In that system you have to avoid paying too much attention, because the creatures will feel you looking at them and move away. I’m not a predator. So in some ways I’m moving through the landscape more like a herbivore, and I’m paying attention. Frequently, what alerts me to the presence of a deer is the feeling of being watched, and it will turn out that one has been eyeing me up. I often find that regardless of who spotted who first, we can hold that mutual interest for some time as long as I don’t make any threatening moves. I suspect that the deer round here see me often enough to be somewhat used to me anyway.

I would love to touch a wild deer. That’s only going to happen if for some reason, the deer approaches me. I don’t want to steal contact as an ego trip. I have nothing to prove. The odds are it’s never going to happen, and I’m fine with that. I am not entitled to touch anything I want to touch, and for me, consent is an important consideration with any sentient being I engage with in any context.