Tag Archives: wild

Natural Magic

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Walking Speed

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

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

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

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

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

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


Re-wilding the water

There’s been heavy rain in recent weeks and all the local streams and small rivers are swollen. They are all brown with the soil eroded by the flow of water, too. Faster moving, the water courses are no doubt more able to strip soil from their own banks right now.

Straightening water ways certainly goes back to the mediaeval period. There’s evidence of it locally on patches of land that used to be inhabited but now aren’t. Straight watercourses give fields regular shapes, and can direct the water flow towards mills, and that used to be an issue locally as well.

However, in heavy rain, straight watercourses allow water to rush through the landscape, taking soil away with it. A wild and curving stream will be much slower even when in full spate. The corners of a wild and meandering watercourse will have places silt collects – usually a river strips material off one side and drops it on the other, so overall there isn’t the same kind of loss. Where there are flood meadows, soil in the water can be laid down to provide future futility. But when all the water does is moves through, the soil goes with it and leaves.

Soil is a precious resource, and letting it wash away like this is a really bad idea.

There are reasons nature doesn’t favour straight lines. Our human obsession with them does us no good at all.


Soothed by wild things

When things are difficult, getting outside can be soothing and healing. Trees are good for us. So are open skies, bodies of water, and the company of other mammals. However, those of us with smaller problems that are easily fixed are often keen to say ‘turn to nature’ without understanding the limits of that.

To get outside in a way that will help you, you need the time to do that. Not as a one-off, but regularly. If your mental health is falling apart, a single intervention isn’t going to save you. Can you get outside for as many hours as you need every day for the foreseeable future? Probably not, because the things that have ground you down will take up too much of your time.

If you don’t feel safe when you’re outside, then the help of wild things is limited.

If you are bodily limited and/or in pain, then it doesn’t matter where you go, that goes with you. Time with trees may lift your heart a bit, but it cannot cure a suffering body.

Part of what makes getting outside powerful is the increased peace it can bring. How much peace you need is also a factor. If you are living in a situation that is destroying you, half an hour outside may be respite, but it won’t fix things.

If you can change things so that you are able to have the time you need under the sky and amongst trees so that you can feel better, part of what heals you isn’t the space. Part of what heals you is having got away from the things that were causing the damage. If focusing on getting out to spend time with the wild things helps you with getting out, and with putting harmful experiences into perspective, that can help you make or maintain changes. Again, what does the key healing here is the stepping out of what is harmful. If you can do that, it really helps, and if you can’t, tree time alone is unlikely to save you.

When the damage is superficial and easily fixed, we can be persuaded that we are healing because we’ve made really good choices about how to heal. We may fail to recognise that the damage, stress or trauma someone else is dealing with is deeper and more complex. It’s a small step from there to attributing blame and deciding people aren’t healing because they didn’t try hard enough. For the person who has never been deeply wounded, it is hard, perhaps impossible to imagine what deep wounding feels like and what that does in the long term. It is better to assume, if you heal quickly and easily, it is not because your healing system is the best, but because you just weren’t that badly damaged to begin with. If ten minutes with a tree fixes everything, there just wasn’t that much to fix in the first place.


Talking to the wild things

Here’s a typical scenario. We are walking, and there are deer in a nearby field. We stop to look at them and the deer become aware of the scrutiny and look round. The deer see us. If there’s something about our location or direction that bothers them, they may just leave, but often they don’t. Often they give it a little while and check us out. At this point one of us will normally speak to them, saying in a calm and clear voice that we mean them no harm, and we aren’t coming into their field. Usually at this point, the deer go back to whatever they were doing.

A squirrel who has stopped beyond arm’s reach doesn’t always run away when spoken to. The same with foxes. Sometimes also small birds. Without a doubt, some of it is about not making sudden and dramatic moves, and not doing anything else that suggests being a predator. However, I’ve talked to wild things many, many times and it is so often at the point after I’ve spoken that they go back to what they were doing, that I don’t think this is a coincidence.

The conventional wisdom (at least here in the UK where there are no bears!) is to be quiet to avoid startling wild creatures. When dealing with urban and semi-urban wildlife, it’s clear they are all well used to our noise. As long as we are engaged in human stuff and not heading their way, creatures are unfussed by us. I have noticed when walking that many people show no signs of seeing the wildlife around them, and that the wild things seem aware that they are effectively invisible. It’s when you notice them that they become alert and cautious.

I don’t imagine that the words matter, but the tone and intention does. Recognition that everyone has seen everyone else and that no one is trying to hide is probably part of this. Based on how they respond, I think the deer are a bit surprised by people who can see them. I think also over time they come to recognise us, and become less bothered by us seeing them.

When we ‘watch nature’ by being silent and observing, we’re casting ourselves as outsiders. When we talk to the wild things, we cast ourselves as part of their world, too. We stop imagining that we are different from them, and I think that’s better for everyone.


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.


The validation of creatures

Often what I do when stressed or distressed is walk. The rhythm of it helps resettle my body, and the activity can help get the stress toxins out of my system. Green spaces are known to be good for mental health, and beyond that, there’s the powerful business of encountering.

I walked last night, with my husband and son, because I needed to try and clear my head and straighten my thoughts. We saw rabbits, deer, herons, a kingfisher, numerous small birds, fish, moths, bats… We got close to several of the herons, who opted to stay put and tolerate us moving through their territory. The deer watched us back. The bats flew close to our faces.

Wild things make their judgements in very different ways to humans. They judge our speed and direction, how loud or quiet we are, what kind of attention we pay to them. If they tolerate us it is because we are interesting and unthreatening. As far as I can tell, they do not care one jot about our body shapes, faces, bank balances, or social status.

To be in a space with creatures, to be in your creature body and in sympathy with wild things is a powerful kind of magic. It is one of the most affirming and healing things I know of. I have a lot of issues around how I deal with people, and whether I’m good enough. Last night reminded me that I am good enough for herons. Little grebes have no problem with me. Deer find me curious.

Domesticated creatures can be incredibly affirming too. The dog who rushes towards you, delighted by the mere fact of your presence, the cat who decides you are worth bothering with. The horse who comes over for a scratch. If a creature has the space to choose, and they choose to engage, it feels like a blessing, to me.

We humans make up a lot of stories and complications over who and what we are to each other and what it means, and what might be important. It’s exhausting, disorientating, and when you’re on the wrong end of it, painful. Sometimes it’s good to just go and hang out with a heron for a while.


Human Nature

One of the popular reasons, historical and contemporary for trying to keep women out of positions of power, is that our cycles of bleeding and pregnancy make us crazy. One of the ongoing consequences is that most women will do everything they can to hide the fact that they menstruate so that no one thinks less of them. Of course some cultures have had different attitudes, treating it as unclean, maybe even segregating women for the duration. Now, for some of us, going off to the red tent for a while may be appealing, but for women who have brief, light periods, that can seem a pointless infringement of liberty.

My fantasy is to live in a world where it is normal to respect the cycles of the seasons and the natural cycles of our own bodies. A world in which needing to work from home for a couple of days because you’re cramping a lot would be fine. A world in which there is no shame in saying that you are bleeding and need some space, quiet, chocolate or whatever. And to have that be true for everyone else too, for the challenges of teenage growing to be better accepted, where we are more open to the trials of menopause, aging and whatever it is that blokes do and I don’t know about…

I’m back to the issue of the ways in which to be socially acceptable, we are expected to hide our animal selves.

Bleeding is messy, however you deal with it. Often it hurts, for me. My breasts swell up, as does my stomach. My back aches, and it usually last about five days. For several days before I bleed, I am usually maudlin. I don’t get the angry effects some women experience, but that may be because my bloke is respectful and supportive, so I have less to get mad about. When it isn’t ok to be, or feel any of the things your body is doing, the rage can come more readily. When I bleed, my emotions are closer to the surface and I find it harder to convince myself not to take seriously things that I feel strongly. Problems in my life become more visible, and I’ve learned to take the blood-wisdom seriously rather than try to tune it out.

I am a mammal, and once a month, the inherent naturalness of my body becomes visible to me. But bleeding, and talking about bleeding are still social taboos. But here’s a curious thing, because what else do we currently, and historically tend to find distasteful, or obscene? Urination and defecation are right at the top of the list. There are so many social complexities around eating, too – especially for women. How much should you eat, and of what? Gluttony is an old sin, being overweight is a modern one. Appetite is so often offensive. We’ve got fewer taboos around sex and the discussion of it than we used to, but that doesn’t say much. It’s still really hard to talk about rape and abuse or to talk about kink, polyamoury, or anything else much outside the het-romance standard. Breathing is ok. Nothing obscene about breathing. Birth and death we try and keep away from other people. Natural body smells have to be masked with weird chemical ones. I could go on…

The more I think about this, the more it troubles me. Our most basic and natural functions are the ones we are under most social pressure to disguise and deny. We are animals. We have animal bodies that do all the things other animal bodies do. Pretending they don’t is just silly. Pretending that we don’t have urges and appetites, pushing them under so they come at us in sudden lunges, does not make us better human beings, only more confused ones.

There are few things I find more attractive than the scent of my bloke’s sweat. Chemical smells make me feel queasy. I love body hair. I have always loved the feeling of tiredness that comes after physical exertion, be that work, or sex. I bleed. I also cry, sometimes so much that snot leaks out of my nose. I am a creature. I shit, and eat, but not usually at the same time. I need fresh air and exercise on a daily basis. I need to roll in the grass and rub against trees and have my feet bare. We write ourselves manuals for looking after other creatures who live in our houses (or boats), reminding ourselves what sort of habitats they need. I need epic views, or I get miserable. We don’t pay much attention to the habitats and natures of our own animal selves. Most of what we do to ourselves is entirely about suppressing what is animal, what is natural and wants to run wild. But then, you can’t work in an office all day or stack shelves for hours at a time if you are wild. I know, I’ve done enough of this kind of thing along the way.

But if we did allow ourselves to be natural, perhaps we’d see those little office cubicles as being as cruel, and undesirable as battery farms. Perhaps we’d look at people with long, miserable working days and find this as vile as making wild animals perform in circuses. If we took human nature seriously, we’d want to do some pretty radical things as a consequence. I want to break into offices, like animal rights activists of old, and let all the people out. But, like anything that has grown used to a cage, most of them would probably be too confused and alarmed to run for it. Still, I like the image.


Wild Weather

by guest blogger Autumn Barlow

There’s a refrain in a song by Tom McRae where he’s chanting under a swell of orchestra. The storm is rising in me; the storm is rising in me; the blood is rising in me; the blood is rising in me.

They send a shiver through my bones, those lines. They swirl around me when the weather is rough – when the wind howls, the rain batters, and something calls me to run through wild places.

When it drizzles, or it’s cold, I’m like anyone else. I light a fire and curl up with a cup of tea, reading a book or listening to music. But when the weather is truly awful I am tugged outside by something deep and visceral.

Maybe it’s about extremes. The raw physicality of being a small, fleshy, fragile human in the grip of something large, impersonal and unpredictably violent is appealing – it reminds me I’m alive, and challenges me to survive. I’ve been caught in a red-hot dust storm on the Lincolnshire Fens, a frightening and unusual experience in theUK. There’s no shelter for miles on these expansive flat fields, and when the sirocco comes in, fromArabiathey say, it tears through your skin and leave behind a fine dust.

Once, I was walking with a friend to Dolgellau over the foothills of Cadair Idris inNorth Wales. This is an area that demands respect. I worked in the Youth Hostel nearby, and more than once the Mountain Rescue were called out for people who’d wanted to test the story that if you survived a night on Cadair Idris, you’d return a poet – or mad. As we reached the highest point of my journey, a sudden and torrential downpour opened up. We were instantly soaked, and found ourselves buffeted from rock to rock, and my friend launched into the most extraordinary one-man recital of King Lear. It seemed the most appropriate thing to do.

Maybe it’s about The Wild Hunt. When the clouds are being thrown across the sky in a boiling mass of shifting, forming, re-forming grey and black and white and yellow, it’s very easy to see the riders pass overhead, the hounds of Annwn with their red ears and eyes, Hereward – my local folk hero – riding with them.

Maybe it’s more mundane. It is true that I enjoy the storm because I know it will end. It’s a safe danger, for all I talk of violence and mortality. I’m not too likely to be hit by lightning or swept up into the clouds to ride with Arawn. I know that there’s only so wet a person can get, and within a few hours I’ll be at home, bathed, warmed, snug and secure.

Right now the storm is rising in me, and I’m putting my fell-running shoes on.

The song I quote is called a & b. Check it out on youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z0Xtk5BzVpw. More of my day to day blog at http://autumnbarlow.wordpress.com