Tag Archives: nature

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.

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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.


Unspeakable Druidry

Unspeakable in the sense that I seldom have much idea how to explain it to anyone else. However, putting words to experiences is one of the things I think I’m for. My hope is that at some point I’ll understand enough of what I’m doing to be able to come back and talk about it coherently, but for now, it’s a case of trying to speak the unspeakable in the hopes that someone finds it at least a relevant signpost for their own journey.

Back when I read Celtic Buddhism (reviewed here) I had my first run in with Tibetan Bon, a tradition that has no formal practices. It is simply what happens to you as a consequence of how you live with the natural world. This chimed with me, and led me to realise that for some years now, my rather ephemeral and hard to pin down take on Druidry has been about me trying to do something similar.

When I first came to Druidry, I was all about study, meditation, visualisation and ritual. It was a very cerebral response to what I already knew about the seasons and the natural world. It’s been a process for me of recognising that when I work that way, I’m working with an abstract concept of nature inside my own head, not directly with anything else. To clarify, I know for some people, interior work means working directly with spirit, but for me it’s mostly not felt like that.

For some years now, what I think of as my Druidry has been solitary, although I can do it when other people are around. It’s about taking myself outside and encountering and being encountered. It has had the discernible effect of me seeing far more wildlife than I used to. It has meant developing a quality of presence that is alert to what’s around me, and open to it, but also involved in the narrative of the place and my history with it. I’m certainly not in the moment to the exclusion of all else, nor seeking to be. All the time I do this, I’m bodily learning – sounds, smells, movement, colours – information from the world around me that helps me know how to interpret other experiences. The sound of the bird connects to the shape of it and the shape of its flight and so forth.

I am changed by this, and not just in terms of what I know. I am changed, and no doubt have more changing to do in terms of who I am when I put my feet on the ground and move. I exist in relationship to a landscape and to others dwelling in this landscape. I feel a profound sense of connection, but beyond that, very little, and that may be significant too.

I do not come back from this with wisdom to rapidly transform your life. I do not have messages from the natural world that I must tell to people. I do not have secret knowledge, magical power, mystical authority or anything like that. I can’t even tell you with confidence what I think is happening when I do this, only that I know something is happening to me. I will never be able to teach this to people over an expensive weekend course. There are no exciting shortcuts to offer, and no easily explained benefits, just a quiet certainty on my part that this is the right thing for me to be doing. I may well need to spend a lot more years doing it before something properly speakable emerges.

There are consequences of being in the world in this way. Every time I go outside, there are moments of joy and wonder. I see, hear, smell and touch things, and am moved by them. I have a body knowledge of my landscape that comes from having moved through it so many times. I find being away harder. I find big groups of noisy people harder some days as well, because I don’t know how to tune them out. I do not feel adrift, lost, or out of synch any more. I know where I stand, in a very literal sense.


The afterlife of trees

Humans have a strange obsession with tidying up fallen trees. Fair enough if you need to move them off a footpath or out of a road, but a fallen tree is a gift that keeps on giving. Taking fallen wood for fuel or make something can also make sense, but taking it away because it’s deemed untidy is ridiculous.

First up there’s the should-be-obvious point that if you leave a tree to rot down it will slowly return nutrients to the soil, feeding everything else.

A fallen tree provides a home for fungi – sometimes many different kinds. It also provides homes for insects, and as the holes in it get bigger it may provide a refuge for small creatures as well. The insects homed in a dead tree in turn provide a food supply for birds and the aforementioned small creatures, who in turn provide food for predators. Things eating each other is the basis of how the natural world gets things done.

In parks, gardens and managed woodlands, I think the problem is that humans try to impose weird beauty standards on nature. Decay is part of nature. The urge to impose human values is a very human problem. Nature tends not to grow monocultures in straight lines. We train ourselves to tidy up all signs of death and decay and it is an unhealthy and destructive urge. Dead seed heads feed small birds through the winter months. Long, straggly grass provides insects with homes. Dead trees have an amazing afterlife that, even as decay is underway, is full of new life.

Out there in the real world, decay and growth go hand in hand. One thing dies and another thing rises. Beautiful fungi forms emerge from the rotting wood. Dead trees are a key part of the life of the forest. Humans too often treat decay as something to fight and try to control. It offends us. It reminds us that our faces won’t stay smooth and unblemished. It reminds us that we are mortal. We don’t like being reminded that we are mortal, and so we go to great lengths to hide mortality from ourselves. We worry about afterlives we can only imagine, while failing to recognise the beauty and power of the physical afterlife that turns our remains into something new.


Connecting up trees

One of the most important things we can do for landscapes and wildlife in the UK is to connect up trees. The other, I think is to reinstate wetland. When trees are in small, isolated groups, they’re much more vulnerable to natural setbacks and damage from humans. Everything living in the trees may be cut off in tiny islands, with unviable populations. The more scope there is for tree-dwellers to get around between trees, the better their prospects.

Children’s literature may have misled us a bit – Watership Down and The Animals of Farthing Wood show creatures making long journeys to new homes when their old homes are threatened by human ‘development’. For many, there is no moving on. Dormice don’t like putting their little feet on the ground, for reasons best known to themselves. When the trees run out, a dormouse has nowhere to go. Bats are the same – I was involved in hedge replanting some years ago and part of the aim was to give bats a wider range and thus better prospects. Where the hedge stops, the bat stops.

Recently I wrote about plans to develop a Northern Forest, and I was sceptical about government involvement – because I always am. Politicians are prone to greenwash, and most seem to have no grasp of what a wood is or how it works. However, as The Woodland Trust are heavily involved in this project, there are things I feel confident will happen, because there are things The Woodland Trust normally does. I’ve been a supporter for more than a decade.

One of the surprising things I’ve learned from following the work of The Woodland Trust is how long you get to restore ancient woodlands. If land can be re-treed within fifty years, there’s enough surviving material in the soil for ancient woodland to re-establish itself. That makes a world of difference. No doubt sites where this could happen will be a real consideration for the Northern Forest.

Woods are pretty good at extending themselves if they are allowed to get on with it. One of the things The Woodland Trust normally does is to buy land next to ancient woodlands and just allows the wood to come back in. Given half a chance, nature reasserts itself, often what we need is to just stop messing with a landscape and let it return to how it should be.

Connecting up small patches of woodland creates more scope for resident populations to spread out. Again, it’s often just a case of getting things started and letting wild things sort themselves out. Tree planting can be a great way to jump-start this, and trees planted to connect existing, established woods won’t take long to develop the true diversity of woodland.

Over on The Woodland Trust website there’s an article that it makes it clear the forest will develop with this kind of thinking in mind. http://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/blog/2018/01/a-new-northern-forest-beyond-the-headlines/

 


Druidry and cutting down trees

It may be as a Druid that your first instinct is to protect trees no matter what. It’s a good instinct, (I would think that, because I do feel it) but at the same time, it helps to understand the historical relationships between people, trees and the landscape.

First up, wood is an amazing material. It is sustainable to use so long as we take only what we need and plant three trees for every tree we cut down. It’s also sustainable to coppice and pollard. Wood is not actually one material, different trees have different properties – alder for example resists water. Venice was built on alder. Wood is durable, beautiful, and effective.

Secondly, if the land has a history of human wood work over thousands of years, then continuing isn’t a bad idea. There are woodland flowers that don’t show up unless patches of woodland are cleared. Small scale, rotational tree coppicing results in a wealth of other wildlife being able to return. Diversity of plants increases insect populations which in turn feed birds and bats… Letting the light in will also help slower growing trees like oaks get started.

What doesn’t work is industrial scale logging. It doesn’t work to cut everything over a large area, especially if you follow through by not even replanting. It doesn’t work to take rare hardwoods out of rainforests, or to put vast monocultures of pine into places pine doesn’t normally grow.

If we are to use wood as a sustainable resource, we have to do it while maintaining the health of the overall wood. In the UK, that can mean radical cutting to get rid of invasive non-native plants. I’ve seen what rhododendron does when left unchecked. All you get is rhododendrons and all other native flora and fauna disappears. Pine plantations tend to be nearly as sterile. A wood is not just a bunch of very tall plants, it is an entire eco system.

Small scale wood cutting undertaken by people who keep working responsibly with the same wood over many years gets beautiful results. People who know the wood, and care about it, who take no more than the wood can afford to let them have. People who go in and drag wood out, or work with ponies rather than bringing in heavy machinery. People who leave their wood healthy and full of life. It can be done. I’ve seen it done in many places and read about it in even more.

If an environment has never been messed with by humans, then we should leave it alone and not exploit it. However, if an environment has been worked with by humans for thousands of years, it may have evolved around us. That’s true for many woods, for meadows and for the kind of moorland rich in orchids and wildflowers. It isn’t true for the moorlands where the heather is burned off for grouse, it isn’t true of agri-business and giant monocultures, it isn’t true of deforestation. But, working with wood need not mean deforestation.

We can be participants in the natural world. We can work with nature without exploiting it.


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/


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.