Tag Archives: nature

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.

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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.


Otter encounter

It was fairly early in the morning by winter standards, the sun and been up for less than an hour. I was walking the towpath – which isn’t quiet. A chap ahead of me whipped out his phone, slowed down and appeared to be filming, so I started looking around to see what he’d seen. I was hopeful it would be an otter. Filming otters in the canal has become something we do in Stroud.

He pointed out where the otter had gone, and then when she came back, he made sure I’d seen her before he headed off for work. I’m pretty sure the otter was female, based on size, and the probability – because this is the second otter sighting on the same few miles of canal in a matter of weeks – that she’s working a smaller area than a male would.

I followed the otter for a while. She was hunting, making big ripples each time she went underwater. The distinctive bubble trails looked more random as she chased fish, and when she didn’t make a catch, her time above the surface was brief. I realise how easy it would be to walk past a hunting otter, but now I know what to watch for I may see her more often.

On one occasion, she surfaced just a few yards from where I was stood, and looked at me. It was just the two of us, and we shared a long moment of eye contact. It is a powerful thing, to find nature looking back at you. When anything looks back, it creates feelings of intimacy and engagement. We stop being observers of the scene and become participants in it. The otter showed no signs of being bothered by me, and having checked me out, she got back to the import business of breakfast.

I was able to point the otter out to a dog walker. She’d never seen one before and didn’t know they are in area, and it was clearly a moment for her. The next passerby had a camera and stopped to film, and I left him with her, confident that anyone else going by and paying attention would be alerted to the otter by his presence.

I love the way these encounters allow people who are strangers to each other to engage and communicate as well. Those of us who get about on foot will often greet or acknowledge each other as we pass, and maybe even exchange a few words, but an otter encounter draws people together. We’re better humans when we have other creature to connect and engage with. We’re better humans when we’re showing each other where the otter went, or making sure someone else sees the kingfisher. The world is a kinder, happier place when you can stop a random stranger to point out the heron, or the cormorant in the tree, or the fox in the field opposite, or whatever it is today.

When we make environments that exclude other forms of life, we’re less happy, less well, less able to connect with each other.


Winds from the east

It is the winds from the east, and the north east, which bring winter where I live. Blowing in from Siberia and the Arctic, these winds also bring migrating swans. Bewick swans spend the summer on the Russian tundra, where they raise their young. They migrate to the UK for the winter, flying at night, using the stars for guidance. Young swans make their first journey with parents so as to learn how to do it. There’s more information here – https://www.wwt.org.uk/conservation/saving-wetlands-and-wildlife/saving-wildlife/science-and-action/uk-species/bewicks-swan/

For about three years, I lived in Slimbridge, and then on the canal in the vicinity of Slimbridge – the location of the first Wildlife and Wetland Trust site whose link I shared above. This site was established as a reserve by Peter Scott (son of Scott of the Antarctic) because of the migrating swans. They come to feed on the banks of the Severn during the winter.

While I was living in the village, an older neighbour told me how, when he was a child, the swans would come in incredible numbers and you’d see them flying round the church spire. Swan numbers, like pretty much everything else in the natural world, have been dwindling. It’s now rare to see a migrating swan coming in on a wind from the east early in the morning. It’s happened to me a few times now, and it’s an experience I feel deeply grateful for.

The coming of these winds marks a turn towards colder weather. When it happens varies – the first swan this year showed up in October. Most are coming in now. The colder the weather, the more swans come to Slimbridge – there are other sites migrating swans go to, but the harsher the winter, the further south they head.

Even though I no longer live in Slimbridge and no longer see the bewicks grazing in the fields, they are very much on my mind when the winds come. And this year, I’ve seen several pairs of swans coming in over the hills in the early morning, no doubt heading towards the river.


Season of denial

It turned cold this week. Properly cold, with heavy frost on the ground for my walk to work yesterday. I find myself reluctant to even blog about what’s going on seasonally. The point in the year when temperatures start falling to freezing is always a tough one for me. I can’t find much to enjoy in it. I mostly have to mitigate against it and try to get through.

This morning my hands are desperately sore, and this isn’t a coincidence. Most of me is stiff – there are a lot of things that can hurt in a body that will hurt more if cold.

There can of course be beauty in this season. The sparkle of sunlight on frost, the shapes of bare trees against the sky. Yesterday I saw a kingfisher, and last night the skeins of thin cloud racing past the moon – a few days shy of full – was a dramatic sight. I can find things to be moved, uplifted and filled with wonder by. I can be inspired. But even so, on the whole, I hate the cold and it takes a toll on me.

We had our first snow this week – a brief flurry of fat snowflakes that clearly weren’t going to stick. I worry about the people sleeping rough in this. I worry about the people struggling to stay warm inside their homes. I worry about how long the winter will last.

There are of course a whole array of natural responses to winter. Deciduous trees shed their leaves and wait it out. Bears, hedgehogs and others hibernate. Birds migrate to more hospitable environments. Dying back is normal. Frantically struggling for survival is normal. I can think of fewer examples of creatures who have fun with the snow – foxes play in it, certainly, and otters make slides, but on the whole, happy responses to the dark part of the year may be more of a human thing. Being happy and comfortable in winter tends to depend on accessing those resources and technologies we usually feel set us apart from the rest of nature.


Depression and self esteem

For some years now I’ve watched a number of friends who suffer from depression hit burnout on a fairly regular basis. I used to burnout regularly too. Sometimes it’s easier to think about what’s going on when looking at someone else’s patterns rather than your own.

Exhaustion can cause depression and will always make it worse. Avoiding this is a process of self care in which you do the pretty obvious thing of dealing properly with your own needs on a day to day basis. However, for people with low self esteem, this doesn’t work in the same way. If you feel that your needs don’t matter, it’s really hard to put them first. If you feel that putting your own needs first would turn you into a terrible, selfish monster, then running yourself into the ground can feel like the responsible choice. In terms of your mental health, it might be less terrifying than trying to be nice to yourself.

People don’t develop poor self esteem all by themselves. I think most of us learn it, or at the very least get it reinforced. And then when you burn out and people tell you off for not taking proper care of yourself, that doesn’t help. I had a lot of rounds of well meaning people pointing out that I could hardly look after anyone else if I wasn’t in good shape, but for a long time that wasn’t something I could work with, only feel as another form of failure.

Low self esteem will keep you feeling like a failure. Feeling like a failure will make you anxious and depressed. You keep running as hard as you can, doing as much as you can and burning out and falling over, and the question to ask is why? Why does that seem like a good idea? It is a hard question to ask and the answers may be tough.

If you don’t feel entitled to exist, then you may spend your whole life trying to make up for being here. Trying to justify your existence, or do something good enough that you can feel entitled to be just like a real person. However, anxiety and depression and burnout won’t raise your self esteem. Not meeting your own basic needs actually adds to low self esteem and keeps you locked in cycles of burnout, effort and despair. These are hard cycles to break. If looking after yourself leads to anxiety about being awful in some way, it’s really hard to look after yourself.

I’ve made a lot of progress on this in recent years, but not by tackling it head on. I’ve done a lot of thinking about how to honour nature in my own body. If Druidry is honouring nature, then treating my mammal body the way I would any other mammal body is something I can get to grips with. Treating my fragility as nature manifesting, as the limitations of my physical self, and the natural realities of my existence has helped me cope with it better.

I’ve also learned that if I am complicit in something unethical, then I support and enable unethical behaviour. I need to model the ways of being that I want to see in the world. There are a number of lovely younger women in my life and I don’t want to show them how to trash yourself and burn out. I want to show them how to live well and take good care of themselves, and to do that, I have to embody it.

It is easier to think about how things impact on other people. If you have low self esteem, it may be easier to do things for other people than it is to do things for yourself. Setting a good example is also something you can do for the people around you. Living in the way you would like the people you care for to live, can be a way of breaking out of the awful cycles that low self esteem can otherwise create.


Dabchicks

Little grebes are easily overlooked. They’re small, brown and as likely to be under the water as on the surface. Unlike the larger and more dramatic great crested grebe, they have sleek heads. If you see one without knowing what it is and don’t look closely, you are most likely to assume it is some sort of small, brown, diving duck.

However, the little grebe, or dabchick, is a charming water bird, and watching them drop below the surface and waiting to see where they will pop up, is delightful. I’ve seen them doing this in open deep water on the larger canal near us, and I’ve seen them in the shallow pools of the canal very near us, where it’s too silted up for boats. Most recently, I saw a group of three foraging together, which inclines me to think that they bred locally this year.

One of the great blessings of the internet is that you can look up what you’ve seen to check it is what you thought it was. I’ve identified birds of prey by searching for the cries of different birds until I found the right one, for example. There’s an absolute wealth of information on the internet to help a person learn about the world.

For anyone in the UK who isn’t confident about identifying a little grebe, here’s a video. (not my video)

For anyone outside the UK, you may well have grebe species where you live, but you’ll need to look them up if you aren’t familiar with them.


Nature, Nurture, Environment and Choice

How the balance between nature and nurture shapes us is something psychologists have been arguing about for about as long as there have been psychologists. How much of who we are comes from the genetic material we inherit, and how much comes from the environment we are exposed to? Faced with these two great forces, do we have much free will at all, or can we only be products of our biology and experience?

Once we become old enough to act for ourselves to any degree, we become active co-creators in making and choosing our environments. What we let ourselves dwell on, what we look at, listen to, go back to repeatedly – these are all things that shape us environmentally, and we do get a say in them. There’s a lot of practical difference between reading a book of nature poems and reading a fascist newspaper, for example. Why we choose one over the other may have a lot to do with where we came from, but at any time, any of us can choose these experiences, or refuse them.

Do you go for a walk in the wood or do you stare at your phone for an hour? Are you listening to music you love or is there some kind of wallpaper noise on in the background? Do you pause in your day to appreciate the good things and to express gratitude? Do you make time for self care or do you treat yourself like a disposable resource? How much time do you spend on things that give you joy, and how much time do you spend doing things you think are pointless, boring, or unpleasant? Do you go online to seek out inspiration, or to pick fights?

It’s in our smallest choices within a day that we construct the environment we inhabit.  It is easiest for us to do the things that align with where we’ve come from, but it isn’t inevitable. A little curiosity to explore what we don’t know can open up our choices no end. A willingness to notice what we feel good about and what we don’t and take action on it can lead to radical and powerful life changes. Often it’s the things we do with least thought, as habit, as what people like me do, that define us without our knowing it. No doubt some backgrounds and experiences make it harder to be the kind of adult who can look at how they live and make deliberate changes. Harder, but not, I think, impossible.

We are all shaped, one way and another, by where we come from. It’s easy to mistake that starting point for ‘real’ self. We are all full of far more potential and possibility than we can explore in one lifetime. We all have the scope to be more than we are, and other than we have been. Real freedom comes from owning that, taking total responsibility for who you are, and then living from a place of choice rather than habit.