Tag Archives: wildness

Wildness and culture

Often, the wilderness is represented as the enemy of, or the opposite of human civilization and culture.  This is, I think, one of the notions that underpins our dysfunctional western cultures and that can be blamed for a lot of our destructive thinking.

All too often, the desire for human civilization becomes the desire for power over the natural world. That in turn becomes an inclination to make everything unnatural – straighten out the rivers, plant the trees in rows, grow vast monocultures, and so forth. We cut the grass at the side of the road because we tell ourselves it looks tidier. What we’ve decided is ‘neat’ and therefore desirable, is stale and predictable.

When we make environments based on the desire to be tidy and in control, we make places that are harmful to humans. We don’t thrive in our austere urban spaces. Our mental health is improved by the presence of trees. We find solace in flowing water and flourishing plants.

Culture doesn’t thrive on sterility either. The best that we do as humans is more complex, and does not grow naturally in straight lines either. Poetry and art, music and extreme maths, philosophy and ethics, science and technology – our most creative thinking is not best served by our most sterile and limited impulses.

So, why do we do it? Why do we force our cities and lives into rigid forms that hurt us? Who benefits from having both people and the landscape under this kind of control? Most of us do not benefit. Most of us are made poorer by this process that has been with us for some hundreds of years.

Straight lines are efficient.  Tidy minds are less likely to have the inspiration for a revolution.

Our environments shape who we are. There is plenty of evidence now to make it clear that we are better, happier and healthier people when we live with trees. And yet we make tree-less environments that bring out the worst in us. And as those environments shape us we become the kind of people who live in empty, lifeless spaces and make straight lines out of our lives.

The wilderness was never the enemy of culture. Wildness is the rich soil in which human civilizations grow and flourish. I wonder how much our collective obsession with tidiness and control is a symptom of a dying civilization. We’ve been harming ourselves in this way for a long time now. Little wonder that so many of us have no idea how to live, and little desire to act in ways that would make life more viable.

Seeking wildness

When we talk about wildness, in the natural world and in the human psyche, we tend to mean something uncontrolled. So a storm is wild, but a gentle spring day isn’t. Rampant lust, extravagant actions, and unguarded behaviour may be labelled wild, or feral in humans. We don’t talk about sleeping as wild, even though it’s one of those basic, mammalian activities. We’re much more alert to the wildness of large predators than we are to small birds living wild in our gardens.

Often, this means that ‘wild’ is a criticism, and the opposite of civilized. It’s a way of thinking that does not help us preserve wildness. It reserves everything tame for the human sphere, so it also undermines our sense of how much we are part of nature.

Wildness isn’t just exoticism, danger, excess and intensity. Wildness exists in the flowers growing at the margins. It’s there in a cool summer morning, and in the slushy greys of a winter day. There is wildness in our parks and gardens. It doesn’t have to be all about drama.

In ourselves, we are wild when we are sleepy and want to curl up in a sunny spot for a while. We’re wild when we’re picking blackberries, when we sweat and when we move around. We might only notice our wildness when it manifests as drama, but really it’s there any time we put our feet on the ground or expose our heads to the sky. It’s there when there’s rain on your face, and when the wind ruffles your hair. It’s there when you seek comfort from the fur or skin of another living being.

You don’t have to be running mad in a forest to be wild. You don’t have to be out of control to be wild – most wild things are not out of control. You don’t have to be extreme or unreasonable – most mammals live in cooperative groups. If we can reclaim the gentler forms wildness takes, we can stop setting up civilization as the opposite of wildness and better see how the two can inter-relate.

Winter Druidry

At this time of year, I’m not out and about as much. The shorter days mean I don’t walk in the evenings as an act of connection. The odds of more challenging weather conditions mean that I am less likely to walk for purposes other than transport. I’m more likely to be ill and stiff – which will also keep me in. I can’t sit out, I don’t have a suitable space for that.

Some years I’ve been able to dig into other areas – community, creativity and service do not require me to get outside and engage. In recent years, lack of space has meant people can’t come to me. Almost anything I might do with anyone else requires a walk of about half an hour each way in the dark of an evening. At this point I’m doing better with being out at night. There have been some winters when weariness has kept me home, and isolated.

Living in a small space, I have no private garden space and nowhere a person might undertake solitary ritual. There are spaces where it’s possible to meditate. But on the whole, I don’t have a lot of options. I can read, study and think so the philosophical and intellectual aspects of Druidry remain totally feasible for me. Overall my experience has been that in the depths of winter, doing anything I can recognise as my own Druidry becomes difficult.

It makes me think of how much of what I do depends on my relationship with place. When I can be outside without that being too unpleasant, that makes a lot of odds. I can do wilder encounters with the elements, but I can’t sustain that when I’m ill and exhausted. What kind of spaces I can access depends so much on my ability to walk. Privacy really matters to me for some of the things I might do. In summer, the combination of undergrowth and drier ground makes it feasible to sit out and that opens up all kinds of smaller, private spaces for me. In winter, those don’t exist.

This in turn brings me to thoughts about what kind of access most of us have to the land. What green spaces are available to us? What kind of wildness can we meet? What room do we have to do that?

Wilder Walking

One of the easiest ways to have a wilder walking experience, is to walk in more challenging weather conditions. If the weather is more dramatic, impacts on you, poses challenges and risks and difficulties, then the walk becomes an encounter with the elements. I wouldn’t recommend too much of this for the inexperienced walker, especially not in more treacherous landscapes. People who get too far out of their depth can be killed or injured. If you’re considering wilder walking, it’s important to know your experience level and not push too far beyond it.

In wilder weather, a landscape that is normally tame and full of landscape consumers becomes wilder. A wild landscape becomes potentially dangerous.  The sort of people who rock up in a car to air a dog don’t tend to show up in the frozen mist, the pouring rain, or the howling winds. This changes the feel of a gentler landscape significantly.

The trouble with this kind of walking is that you do need more specialist kit and that usually costs money. Getting soaked to the skin in winter is a wild and intense experience, but unless you have a really robust body, it can be an expensive one, too. I’ve never done it deliberately, although I’ve been caught out repeatedly having to walk in conditions for which I didn’t have the gear.

Stout, waterproof  boots with good grips are essential. I find waterproof trousers make the whole thing more feasible. I’ve also found that all of my waterproof coats will soak through at the shoulders and elbows especially in torrential rain. Get wet for long enough and the trousers soak through too, and water down the leg will eventually get into a waterproof boot.

This weekend I experimented with a poncho made out of the remains of a dead tent. I wore it over my regular waterproof coat. I was out for a long time and some of the rain was pretty intense – enough that it would have got through the coat in the normal scheme of things. I was delighted to find the upcycled poncho repelling water – my coat did not soak through. My scope for adventuring is much improved by this, and I’ve kept material out of landfill by successfully re-purposing it.

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.

Rain on skin

One of the things I’m looking for is the opportunity to have intense experience of my own body as part of the living world. Working on a computer for hours every day, it is all too easy to become a head and hands in relationship with a screen. It is important to me to spend time outside, and time in motion.

I notice that it is the more dramatic experiences that give me the strongest sense of myself as a body. Rain on skin makes for an intense experience because of the constant triggering of nerve endings by the contact of falling water. The literal impact of an element upon me. The coldness of rain against the heat of skin warmed by a summer day and by motion.

I can only afford to be rained upon in these warmer conditions. In winter, getting soaked to the skin is a real problem, leading to muscle stiffness, chills, and pain. In summer it becomes a joyful, sensuous experience and a chance for immersion in a feeling of wildness.

Inner wilderness

I’ve read Women who run with the wolves (Clarissa Pinkola Estes) twice now and the idea of connection between wilderness and inner wilderness has been with me for a long time as a consequence. Mostly as a theory. I let myself become domesticated and mostly tame a long time ago. My creature self chafed at the bit, and frequently tried to misbehave, get off the leash, wanted to run and hide and do all the needful things that would give me my life back. But I wore the leash for a long time, and it was not wholly of my own making.

The last few years have been a time of retreat for me. We’ve lived quietly, close to nature, with not much stuff. Evenings of candlelight and soft talking. A lot of walks and cycling. I’ve not held responsibility for anything much outside my own family, and I’ve been very much caught up in the practical realities of boat life. That might seem like further taming and domestication, but it hasn’t been. I learned how to howl, and how to laugh from my belly. I learned how to grieve, and how to be angry. Bit by bit, I let that animal self express, and breathe.

I know when to turn the computer off and go outside. I know when, and how to say ‘no’ to anything that needs saying no to. As a side effect I’ve come to feel a lot more able to say ‘yes’ as well.

These last few months I’ve been out in the world again, doing events, seeing people I’d not seen for years, re-connecting. In the last week I’ve been invited to a Druid gathering, and to be on standby as a mummer, just in case. Old threads come into the new weave. I’ve worn skirts again – of necessity it’s mostly been trousers. But I’m dressing more like I did in my college days and I feel more like a me I can recognise. It’s a good process.

I can feel, in a really tangible way, the wildness on the inside waking up again. Not like it was before though. This is a wildness that knows where its roots are. The wildness of a forest tree that has deep and stable connections with its soil. The wildness of birds that know how to do all the things that make them birds and keep them alive. The wildness of my communal, sociable friend the badger, pottering about, wide arsed and badgery. Nature comes in many forms. Wildness is not all growly and in your face and shagging everything, necessarily. My wildness runs on its toes, and dances more easily than walking, and has an uncanny knack for spotting rodents. I know what I am. I know who I am, roughly, and the more I test it, the better I feel about things.

It’s been so much about having the space and quiet to get my head straight, and the support of people willing to accept me as I am, and willing to give of themselves. This week I have explored fear, again, but I’ve also stretched my wings a bit, and remembered that I have them, and listened to the owls calling at night. Nature on the inside is just as important as the nature we find outside of us, and if you can’t work with your own animal self, cannot love the mammal skin you are in and the tides of nature as they flow through your body, loving and honouring what lies on the outside of your skin (which incidentally is a fairly arbitrary place to draw a line!) is not easy either. I learned that one the hard way.

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