Tag Archives: nature

Beauty and the beholder

Beauty in nature takes so many forms. An old, gnarled tree is beautiful. A barren landscape (if natural) can have its own stark beauty. Meandering rivers are beautiful. Woods and fields, hills, mountains, marshes, dunes – all have their own beauty. Insects, mammals, fish and birds are beautiful. Toadstools are beautiful. We all have our favourites, but no one will troll you on twitter for the size of the hare’s thighs, or the stomach shape of a manatee. Even the least tree-friendly people don’t try to make claims about the trees being ugly.

People are a whole other thing. We look at each other harshly. This is absolutely a white northern hemisphere thing. I expect Australia and New Zealand work the same way. We denigrate people who don’t conform to narrow white standards of beauty. There’s plenty of scope for racism in the mix here. Ageism is absolutely part of it – not looking like an adult is a key part of what we treat as beautiful in women. That’s rather creepy. Men are allowed some signs of maturity, but must maintain youthful standards in teeth and muscles at the very least.

Not only do we judge each other, but we shame each other for not looking like photoshopped magazine articles. I grew up feeling completely unlovable because I was not considered an attractive child. It’s something I carry with me still, and probably always will to some degree. It is a difficult thing to go into the world with a body and face that you do not think other people will be able to put up with. Or that you fear they will reject. I’m aware that I’m passably symmetrical, I have all the usual facial features and body parts in reasonable working order and conventional configuration. I’m aware that my reasons for anxiety are entirely about how I’ve been treated, and that there must be many people who are less conforming than me and have greater reasons for anxiety about how their faces will be judged.

On the flip side, I’ve also had the experience of being told that I am devastatingly sexually attractive. So attractive, that I could hardly expect a man to control his behaviour around me. So attractive that my body could cause him to do things he had no control over. I was told I could hardly blame him for that. While generally feeling unattractive has been a lifelong discomfort, the idea of being so attractive that no one can be held responsible for what they do to me, is terrifying. Even though I know it’s a disgusting, responsibility avoiding lie. These days, I’m married to someone who can express attraction without any need to harm me at all, and it puts the past into perspective. The damage remains.

When it comes to how I see other people, I’m much more interested in the beauty a person creates, than the accident of their appearance. Most of how we look, we have limited control over. I like how kindness looks on a person. I like laughter and warmth, compassion and friendship acting on a body. I like how a person’s eyes look when they love whatever they’re looking at. Bodies expressing themselves joyfully are beautiful. People sharing their creativity, enjoying their clothing, or their own skin, are beautiful. The only qualities I find ugly in a person are meanness and cruelty and things of that ilk.

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Tidiness, nature, and civilization

The human urge to tidy things up has us cutting hedges into smooth edges, trimming verges so as to take out all the wildflowers and generally destroying habitats. What is this urge to be tidy and how do we get rid of it so that we stop needlessly killing wildlife?

Neatness, order, straight lines, square corners – these are not things we generally find in nature but that humans create and impose. You will likely decide at a glance whether a place is natural or human-made, and the straight lines, tidy edges and whether there are obviously dead things will inform that decision. We like to tidy away the dead things, even trees when they fall down in woods. A dead tree is an amazing source of life and habitat for many other species. We do massive damage when we remove them. But, decay, and death are considered unsightly, so aren’t civilized or tidy.

When we force a straight line, or cut back a verge, we’re asserting a human presence into the landscape. Bringing order to the chaos of nature is a project that goes with owning the land, controlling what’s around us and valuing some things more than others. We use ‘straight’ as a word both to indicate honesty, and heterosexuality and I don’t think this is a coincidence. We call things wild in a human context often to judge them. Tidiness is something we treat as a virtue and seek to install in our children.

We’ve had hundreds of years, if not longer, of telling ourselves that being tidy is an expression of being civilized. The uncut lawn doesn’t say ‘home for insects’ to us. It says ‘lazy and uncivilised and a mess’. And so we cut things back that aren’t causing us any real problems. We strim and trim, and take away the dead heads.

Unfortunately, as human influence dominates and wildness becomes ever more threatened, our urge to tidy is simply an urge to destroy. It’s not the tiny, puny humans versus the wilderness any more. We tame and train our landscapes and in the process, we kill so much that should be in them. What we make when we do this is often ugly, sterile and joyless. The cityscapes that we make as ultimate expressions of tidy civilization lack soul, and are not good habitats for humans. We need softness too. We need living green growth, and at least some element of unpredictability.

We need to stop complaining about things that look untidy, and start celebrating the beauty of nature. Nature isn’t tidy. But when you think about the mathematical elegance of the Fibonacci sequence, it’s also clear that nature has a good deal more to offer than the banality of our straight lines and tightly clipped lawns.


Naming Nature

Naming the world around us can have some very unhelpful effects on humans. It can reinforce a feeling that we’re superior and in control and that nature is something we own. It can be a manifestation of power-over, and affirms the idea that we know what’s going on and what everything is and does. In practice, much of nature remains a mystery to us, and while we can subjugate and destroy great swathes of it, this is a form of power that can only destroy us as well in time.

The other side of this is that we don’t tend to pay as much attention to things we can’t name. There’s a lot of experiential difference between seeing trees, and seeing individual trees of named species. When we use names as a way of sorting and storing information, it can be the basis of forming a more complex relationship with the world around us.

It can be easy to lose sight of the way that human naming systems are just that, and not some kind of ultimate truth. Even when we decide to give creatures complex Latin names that claim to say something about the family tree of their species, we can be very wrong. Nature does not exist to be put in tidy categories by humans, and over time we’ve become more aware that superficial similarities don’t always mean things are closely related. Having divided the world into plant and animal kingdoms (now, there’s a word whose implications stand considering!) we’re still at a bit of a loss to know what to make of fungi.

The names we give things are not a truth in their own right, they’re just part of a story we’re trying to tell ourselves in order to make sense of what we encounter.


Druid seeks bat

For the coming weeks, I’m in the blessed and exciting position of doing some bat surveys at night. A charity that acts to protect wildlife in my area is surveying ahead of work on one of the local cycle paths, and my household have stepped up to do some night surveying. We’re looking for mammals, listening for owls, and we have bat detectors to take out.

This is going to be what we do on Saturday nights for some weeks now. There are two kinds of bat – pipistrelles and noctules, who appear at sunset – which at the moment is a bit before 9pm. Other bats won’t show up until it’s actually dark – after half past nine, and getting later all the time. For me, this means a relatively late night.

Our first survey was a great success – we identified lots of pipistrelles and noctules. You can identify a lot of bat species from the frequency at which they emit sound. Pipistrelles it turns out are much more variable in the sound emissions, but as we also saw them in the twilight, we can be confident about identifying them. We also saw a roe deer with a very small fawn, which was exciting.

This is very much what I want from my Druidry at the moment. Direct encounters with the wild world. Deepening my relationship with my locality. Doing something that helps protect what is wild in my locality. Sharing all of this with lovely people. Coming back from the surveying with good stories to tell.


Feeling and listening to the spring

Yesterday’s post was very much about the visual side of the season, so, for balance, some more thoughts about experiencing the season with your body.

It is of course the point in the year when windows can more reliably be open. So long as you don’t fill your home with artificial noise, you can let the sounds of spring in. The birds are singing a lot more now than they were a few weeks ago – lots of territorial cries, alarm calls to protect nests, and communication between mates. Blackbirds singing the sun down is one of the great things about summer, for me, and they’re getting into that now.

With the windows open after dark, I can often hear owls. Sometimes I hear foxes and badgers at night. There’s a lot to be gained by listening to the spring from inside your own home. If you can get out, then the sound of wind in leaves is now a possibility while the undergrowth is lively with birds and rodents. There’s the hum of insects, and the prospect of that increasing in coming months.

I experience a distinct shift when I can go outside in the daytime without a coat, and a second such shift when I can be out at night without one. Not needing gloves changes how I experience the world around me. Able to shift from my heavy walking boots to lighter summer shoes means I feel more of the ground. Lighter clothing allows sun and breezes access to my skin. On drier days I can sit on the ground for short periods, and feel the earth with my body and the plants touching me.

With more growing, there’s more to sniff, and more to eat. I like nibbling from hedgerows – it’s something I’ve written about before, along with the sniffing. It creates a powerful and immediate connection with a place. It is important to know what you can safely put in your mouth.

If we just look at nature, we place ourselves on the outside, as observers viewing the scenery. To be participants, we need to bring our whole bodies into play and use all the senses at our disposal. Looking at nature isn’t the only way of connecting with it, and not being able to look at it need not be a barrier to connection.


Druidry at twilight

One of the most important points for me in the wheel of the year, has happened this week. It’s the time when the evenings are light and warm enough that I can go wandering at twilight. There’s a point in the autumn when I have to give it up again, but that can be harder to spot, not least because I’m often a bit in denial about it!

Sauntering about at twilight, I get to see a lot of wildlife – rabbits, and foxes in the fields. Small birds still active in the trees. Owls emerging to hunt. Bats taking to the air. In many ways it the best time to see wildlife because so much of it is active in the twilight. However with the light fading of course, it can be harder to make sense of what I do see. Yes, there was definitely something moving at the top of the field. No, I have no idea what it was!

For me, this is the Druidry of showing up. There are no rituals involved. I’m mostly quiet. The walking is contemplative, but not meditative – there’s no structure to what I do with my head and no intention. Some evenings I am more present than others. If I need to think something through, I do that. As there’s no intention, I’m simply open to whatever happens. Mostly I do not have mystical experiences. Usually I see something beautiful.

I’m fortunate in that there are a number of paths in the area that are flat, have trees along them and are safe enough for me to be walking them in poor light levels. Clearly this is not an option everyone will have. If you want to be all ‘back to nature’ then a path with no lighting, to which you do not take an artificial light, will serve best. But, there’s reasons we have street lights and they are to do with not falling in holes or being an easy target for muggers.

You don’t have to be out in the wilds to have wildlife encounters after dark. Mostly you need to be out and looking. Cars will insulate you too much, but anything that allows you to trundle about at low speed and engage your senses, will work. Sitting in a stationary car with the door open would be worth a go if moving about independently isn’t viable.

Wild things usually have territories and habits, so once you know where to look, the odds are you’ll keep seeing things. Or hearing them – listening to foxes and owls at night is a joy.


Return of the green

Greenness has been returning to my local landscape for weeks now. The slow unfurling of buds, the return of undergrowth, the shift in colour. The re-greening of spring is a long process, not an event. As I get outside every day in the normal scheme of things, I engage with this aspect of spring on a daily basis. I can heartily recommend it.

There have been years when I’ve failed to engage with the spring – mental health issues have been a big part of that. Experiencing it not as a daily development but as a dramatic moment is easier when you aren’t properly paying attention. That in turn is disorientating and has, in some years, left me with a profound sense of dislocation from the season.

‘Out into nature’ doesn’t have to be a big or difficult project. If there is anything non-human living where you do, then there’s scope to engage. Grass changes colour with the spring, becoming much more lush as it starts growing again. Flowers and small plants, even saplings will grow in the least promising of places. Any neglected ‘wasteland’ is soon reclaimed. Nature is not away, somewhere pristine and free from human meddling. Nature is with us all the time. Street trees do not consider themselves inferior to forest growth. The sparrows roosting in the street trees do not consider the trees to be anything other than their proper home.

When I was out yesterday, it felt like the greenery had reached a critical point. It no longer felt like it was getting started, and now feels like it is all under way out there. The green has returned. Small, opening leaves are everywhere. From a distance, the trees can look pretty bare, but up close, the unfurling is obvious. It’s also the smaller trees that leaf first – taking advantage of the light before taller trees get going – so to see what’s going on, you can’t view the wood as a whole thing from a distance.

For me, connecting with the plants is one of the easiest ways to connect with spring energy. Even if I’m not feeling so lively myself, I can delight in watching everything grow.


Too much information

Put me in a wood, a field or similar, and I’m a happy creature able to spot other happy creatures. Put me in a modestly busy human environment and I still function. However, in a busy human space, I can get really stressed and panicked. It’s a simple case of too much information. I can’t tune out the visual information or sound information coming to me. When there are hundreds of people talking and moving, I can’t concentrate on anything.

Some of this is hyper-vigilance issues, which in turn are a consequence of anxiety. Some of it is that I’ve always been good in woodland and able to spot small birds and rodents as well as larger presences. What’s good in a wood isn’t good in a heaving conference centre.

I made a bonnet for a recent steampunk event. Bonnets are Victorian gear, so, I knew it would fit in ok. They also radically cut down on peripheral vision. I reckon what I made cuts down my field of vision by about a half. Most especially it stops me seeing people who are almost behind me and enables me to focus on people who are in front of me. I was unsure whether this would reduce or increase stress. I think it depends on whether information overload or hyper-vigilance is your primary issue.

If your body is hyper vigilant, then things like having your back to a wall and being able to see all entrances and exits is more likely to reduce stress than simply reducing the information. Being caught unawares, or being harmed by what you can’t see coming is what your body is afraid of. The degree to which hyper-vigilance is an issue may also vary depending on how threatening you find the location. If you’re willing to experiment on yourself, cutting down on visual input may help you tell what’s going on with you, but the experimenting could cause discomfort. Also, we all react differently to different things, so if you do decide to explore this, bear in mind that you could have very different things happen.

Wearing the bonnet and cutting down how much I could see made me less stressed. I also had the opportunity to wear a large, woollen octopus on my head. The tentacles of the octopus also reduced my peripheral vision. I came through several large, very busy train stations while wearing the octopus, and that also reduced stress.

This leaves me pondering designs for blinkers – like the sort horses often wear to avoid being panicked. My suspicion is that blinkers could look kinky, so they may not be suitable for all circumstances. I’m also going to explore some hat modifications, because ear flaps might get me the same effect while helping keep my ears warm, and might not draw as much attention. Sometimes it’s good to be in a public space with a knitted octopus on your head, but sometimes it’s preferable to draw a bit less attention.


Urban Nature

I spent last weekend in the vicinity of Trafford Park – a massive shopping centre on the edge of Manchester. I was there with my husband and son for a steampunk event, held on an industrial estate, and staying in a Travelodge. At first look, this seemed like an intensely human-made environment. Signs for how many thousands of car parking spaces were available left me feeling a bit queasy. The traffic noise was relentless. It did not seem like a place in which a person could find much nature at all.

We walked between locations. As soon as we got moving, there were various small birds evident in the scraggly undergrowth. We had a close encounter with a wren, and my son identified goldfinches. There were rabbits grazing behind a massive fence. On the way back that evening, we saw three buzzards spiralling together over the monstrous shopping centre. All the low to the ground and close clipped shrubbery will provide a happy home for rats (Tom saw one), and rats provide food for buzzards, and likely foxes, too (although I saw no sign on them).

Walking from the Travelodge to the train station, we saw a heron, and Canada geese. Hawthorn trees were putting out first leaves.

Several times over the weekend we had lifts around the area from various people. From inside cars, we saw nothing of the wildlife.

If wild things can live in what looks like urban wasteland, then I think it’s safe to say that wildlife is most places. The smallest patch of grass, a single tree, are indicators that there will be other kinds of life, too. My sense of place changed dramatically when I realised I wasn’t in a terrible desert, that even with the soulless human constructions around us, life continued. Such spaces remain appalling habitats for humans and every other living thing, and we need to create much kinder spaces for ourselves.


Windows for Druids

I like the idea of going outside every day and spending time under the sky. When I can do it, this is a key part of my Druidry. However, it’s not always an option – extreme weather, illness and simply not having enough energy all keep me housebound at times. This has taught me to be uneasy about any practice that depends on being able to get out.

I’m also wary of what I’ve come to think of as living room Druidry. This is where you do all the rituals and meditations inside based on an intellectual understanding of what nature is and what bits of it mean. This doesn’t have to be a consequence of limited options, and may be a deliberate choice. When nature is abstract, you can celebrate the seasons according to when the wheel should have turned rather than struggling to work out if it has. You don’t get dirty, and no one will interrupt you. This is nature as an idea, not lived experience.

Windows make more direct encounters possible in times of limited options. I can sit at my window to watch the snow or rain falling, to watch the impact of high winds on the trees around me. I can watch the birds, and sometimes I’ve seen foxes go by as well.

With the window open, I can reliably hear bird song and flowing water. I can smell the air from outside. Even with windows shut, if I keep my household quiet, I can still make out the sounds of birds – including owls at night. If I don’t overwhelm my space with artificial noise and light, and if I direct at least some of my attention outwards, my home ceases to be a place cut off from nature. I can make the boundaries permeable.

Even the least promising window will reveal something of the sky – even if its only how the light falls, or when the darkness creeps in. There is so much to gain from experiencing nature as it manifests around you, rather than letting it become something abstract, or something you imagine happening somewhere else.