Walking -Gifts of Light.

This has been a wonderful week for walking in the hills hereabouts.  The air is fragrant, the fields full of young lambs, and the light has been exhilarating.  Last Sunday evening a fleet of towering rainclouds sailed over the valley casting ever-changing shadow patterns across the land, and pouring much needed water on to the parched moors.  Apart from reviving sphagnum that was beginning to resemble straw, this may well have stopped illegal fires being set.  Snigging was once a common spring pastime round here.  Moorland fires may look spectacular, but they damage vegetation and peat, release carbon into the atmosphere, destroy the nests of birds such as skylarks, curlews, snipe, short eared owls, and twite (if we have any left), and kill elusive small creatures such as emperor and northern eggar moths.

Yesterday evening looked less promising, but, acting on an astrological hunch, I set off for a favourite wooded valley.  The sky was uniform pale grey.  Beneath the trees there was barely enough light to appreciate the drifts of bluebells and wild garlic.  Climbing above the wood a stone flagged packhorse track leads across more or less flat fields where I paused to take in the view.  A small black cat emerged from the trees and stared at me, but didn’t want to socialise.  Beneath my feet the diminutive yellow flowers of tormentil shone in the grass.  There was quite a lot of pignut in flower.

A couple of fields away two pairs of lapwings performed an elegant sky dance -a ‘display’ of May-time contentment and no doubt amorous, domestic, and territorial satisfaction- that involved each bird looping up in turn, about thirty feet into the air, in an elliptical circle, and giving a single high pitched call.  The rythm of their choreography was mesmerising from a distance, so must have felt brilliant to perform.  The silence was occasionally broken by distant curlews, the odd pheasant or grouse, and on one occasion by a raucous gaggle of cyclists charging down a lane shouting and laughing.  I could still hear them when they were half a mile away.

I had hoped to catch a woodcock roding, but probably left too early.  Note to self: next time you’re out in a wooded area at dusk TAKE A TORCH!  I was not dissapointed though.  Looking roughly north-north-west (we’re only about a month from the summer solstice here, after all) I watched as the pale grey cloud bank began to break up and change colour.  Sitting on a comfortable rock I ‘tuned in’, accompanied by the crystalline voice of a song thrush.

Returning to this world, I stood watching the hills across the valley.  Then, quite suddenly, as though a giant hand had flicked an invisible switch, the entire crest the distant moorland ridge was bathed in pale orange light.  As the light became warmer, the illuminated area gradually receded until only a small distant tip burned red.  Then the sun was gone, leaving an incandescent afterglow in the sky, and for the second time this week, a steady vertical column of light, shining down.

B.T 19th May 2017.



I’ve decided to let Animist Jottings go into ‘hibernation’ for a while, so that I can get on with other things.  I have some more material pending (on a certain D.Trump, for instance) but have yet to decide what form it needs to take.  If articles appear elsewhere I’ll post notifications and/or links.

I’ve enjoyed blogging here, and have met some lovely fellow travellers en-route, but northern hemisphere summer is coming, and it feels like time to move on … for the time being at least.

Au revoir, and may the common good prevail.


The Year of the Toad

‘A toad in the hand won’t get squashed on a road’ …. male toad taking a ride. (Please note: wear gloves when handling toads, or wash hands afterwards).

Froglife have declared 2017 the Year of the Toad.  A recent study estimated that toads have declined by 68% in the U.K over the past thirty years.  Possible reasons include changed farming practices, loss of ponds, urban development, and increased traffic on roads they use, or have to cross, in order to reach ancestral ponds.  Climate change is also likely to be a factor because mild winters have been shown to be detrimental for hibernating toads.

Once again teams of volunteers in our local area have scooped hundreds of toads up from roads and given them a free, if not always dignified, ride in a bucket to their favoured pond or dam.  As this year’s toad rescuing season draws to a close our thoughts have turned to how it all began for us.

My ‘other half’ happens to be a naturalist with a penchant for the common toad, bufo bufo.  Well, more than a penchant actually.  Some would say the common toad was her totem animal, but that would not be her style.  Its obvious, though, from the way she responds to these impressive little amphibians every year, that she has a special connection with them.

According to my archive she made the first record of toads in a threatened pond on the other side of town seventeen years ago, and I was accompanying her on exploratory visits to monitor other sites.  Three years later we watched the spring cavortings of toads (and frogs) in a pond up the hill and talked to the land owner, but were vague about where they were spending the rest of the year.  This is not the place to recount the full story of what followed, of course, but two events stand out for me.

Toad in pond, with string of spawn.

One day in March 2005 I was walking home up a lane through a wood on the hillside.  I’d been walking along there for about thirty years previously without seeing a single toad, but on that day there seemed to be pairs everywhere -little males riding on the backs of larger females- in broad daylight.  Unusually, it was early afternoon.  One particular pair caught my eye.  The female was almost white, a relatively rare albino, and her passenger very dark brown.  I’ve never seen such a striking combination since.

Their presence -within half an hour of the Spring Equinox- alerted us to one of the routes taken by our local population.  We soon realised that many toads were overwintering in cracks and holes in the stone wall that borders the lane, and have been going out on March evenings to rescue them ever since.

A second event that stands out in my memory occured in August 2007 when my partner was struggling with a very stressful situation at work.  At the nadir of that particular crisis, just when a bit of magic was most needed, a strikingly beautiful, calm, and regal, female toad -a veritable matriarch of the toad community (pictured above)- turned up at our back door.   She stayed for a while, spending the day beneath a neighbour’s planter.

I think of heart-felt encounters like these as ‘showings’.  Some would regard that Equinox event as lucky co-incidence.  Maybe it was.  But the Spring Equinox had long been important for me as a key time in the life of Kingfishers, and co-incidentally or not, we happened to hear about a kingfisher turning up on the same day at the pond my partner had surveyed some eight years before.  The second event, the arrival of her amphibian helper, seems to me to illustrate the potential for reciprocity in relations between humans and other species.  Again, given my own experiences with kingfishers, this is not a claim I make lightly.

We always enjoy the toading season, not least the friendly rivalry and camaraderie between rescue sites.  As we’re not quite as able to keep going up and down hills these days we were delighted to welcome some enthusiastic new helpers this year.  Some people have expressed doubt about whether rescuing toads is worthwhile.  Quite apart from the steep decline in their overall population, we know of a couple of migration routes further down the valley that have died out for various reasons.  In any case, once you’ve got to know toads, and seen animals injured or killed on roads you’re likely to want to carry on.  There is always more to learn, and being close to the toads’ springtime rite is brilliant -every time.

To find local toad rescue groups in the U.K go to Toads on Roads, or look on Facebook (if you’re that way inclined -we aren’t :)).

B.T. 6th April 2017.





City Life

Homeless People’s Encampment, Manchester, March 2017.

On a trip to Manchester this week I was shocked by the number of homeless people, many of them quite young adults, begging on the streets.  A group of women carrying sheets of cardboard and tatty quilts.  Men sitting on the pavement, lost to the world.  More than I’ve seen in over forty years of occasional visits to that city.  The tent encampment in the photograph above (one of many that have sprung up in recent years) is less than a quarter of a mile from a building site where hoardings announce the impending arrival of a 30 storey tower of luxury apartments ‘with unrivalled 360 degree views’.  And now we have Theresa May, a Tory Prime Minister, claiming she runs “a government that is working for everyone and for every part of the country.”

My younger self had some involvement in housing action in Manchester in the early 1970’s, when at least there was a lot of council house building, and a relatively more equal distribution of wealth.  Today’s escalating housing crisis, which visible street homelessness is only one part of, has been driven by a raft of draconican legislation coupled with cuts in welfare benefits and local government budgets.  The net result of this is that mutual respect between the super rich, or indeed the affluent, and those cast out beyond the increasingly shredded safety net of the welfare state becomes almost unimaginable.

As I was walking along the towpath of the Rochdale Canal beyond Castlefields, a young man approached me.  His manner was friendly, and he was evidently quite excited about something he wanted to show me.  I asked him what it was, but he couldn’t seem to find any words to describe it – so I offered to go and have a look.  We hurried to a spot about 50 yards further along, where he pointed urgently across the canal.  I scanned the opposite bank, which was covered with scrubby trees and detritus, but still wasn’t sure what I was supposed to be looking for.  Then I saw it.  Standing, stock still, and blending in with the background vegetation.  A heron.  When I told him what it was, his face broke into a radiant smile.  This was his first heron!  What a privilege to share a moment like that.

As he went on his way, I hoped he’d be o.k.  After all, we’ve been ‘told’ often enough how dangerous young black men are …

B.T. 25th March 2017.

For more on homelessness in Manchester see here, here, here, and here.

Three Images, March 2017.

Daffodill Opening -with Dewdrop (single click to enlarge).

Palmate Newt – About to be Relocated to Our Pond.

A Rhino Stone, Surely? (single click to see properly).

With all manner of other-than-human persons  waking up and getting on with their Northern Hemisphere Spring business around me, I thought I’d better post a couple of seasonal images.  Apparently the first word I said was ‘lellow’.  The fragrance of Daffodils is almost as mesmerising as that golden yellow colour, if a bit more subtle.  Although these are not the wild variety, I’m still excited by them every year.  Its a bit on the cold side here today, so that little palmate newt was almost comatose.  She’s now been moved to a much more suitable location, where a potential friend awaits.  Toads have already been out in force on our local roads – perhaps responding to the full Moon, so it’ll be ‘all go’ for a few weeks now.  The third image is of a being with an altogether different sense of time.  This imposing individual looks irresistably rhinosceromorphic to me!

Spring Blessings 🙂

B.T. 13th March 2017.

‘Near Death Experiences’ and Cultural Change.

Earth Rise from the Moon, 20th July 1969, NASA.

Earth Rise from the Moon, 20th July 1969, NASA.

“An unfathomable light fills the entire orb of the earth.
Ringing powerfully through and through is the most highly desired assurance”. 
J.S.Bach, Cantata no 125, With Peace and Joy I Depart.

While he was recovering in hospital from a heart attack, Carl Jung had a series of visionary experiences that have become widely known from the account in his autobiography: “it seemed to me that I was high up in space.  Far below I saw the globe of the Earth, bathed in a gloriously blue light.  I saw the deep blue sea and the continents.  Far below my feet lay Ceylon, and in the distance ahead of me the subcontinent of India.  My field of vision did not include the whole Earth, but its global shape was plainly distinguishable and its outlines shone with a silvery gleam through that wonderful blue light.  In many places the globe seemed coloured, or spotted dark green like oxidized silver.”  This was almost twenty five years before astronauts sent back images of Earthrise from the Moon.

Jung then became aware of a huge black stone floating nearby, reminiscent of some rocks he had seen on the coast of the Bay of Bengal in which temples has been carved.  A Hindu man was waiting for him at the entrance to just such a temple.  “As I approached the steps leading up to the entrance into the rock, a strange thing happened: I had the feeling that everything was being sloughed away; everything I aimed at or wished for or thought, the whole phantasmagoria of earthly existence, fell away or was stripped from me – an extremely painful process.  Nevertheless something remained; it was as if I now carried along with me everything I had ever experienced or done, everything that had happened around me. I might also say: it was with me, and I was it. I consisted of all that, so to speak. I consisted of my own history and I felt with great certainty: this is what I am. I am this bundle of what has been and what has been accomplished“.(1).

After many years’ work he had just completed Psychology and Alchemy, and had been meditating on alchemical symbolism.  It is perhaps not surprising then that he saw, or was shown, a huge black stone, or lapis.  The epilogue to Psychology and Alchemy  concludes with the prescient assertion that ‘mysterious life-processes’ pose riddles that can’t be solved by reason alone.  We must engage with direct experience.  ‘As the alchemists themselves warned us: “Rumpite libros, ne corda vestra rumpantur” -Rend the books, lest your heart be rent asunder’.

During the N.D.E vision Jung met his doctor in ‘primal form’.  Shortly after this he became furious with the doctor’s insistence that he return to the ‘prison’ of earthly life, and frustrated by his refusal to talk about their recent otherworldly meeting.  He was also seized by a premonitory conviction that his own life was about to be exchanged for that of the doctor.  Then, on the day he was finally allowed to sit up in bed the doctor came down with a fever that proved fatal.

After this he experienced a sequence of indescribably beautiful and intense visions of otherworldly weddings, including the mystic marriage between ‘All-father Zeus and Hera’.

Despite his marked reluctance to return to the ‘box system’ of Earthly life, Jung tells us that: “After the illness a fruitful period of work began for me.  A good many of my principal works were written only then   I surrendered myself to the current of my thoughts.  Thus one problem after the other revealed itself to me and took shape.”

In subsequent writings he discussed the alchemical notion of scintillae, or sparks from the light of nature -‘seeds of light broadcast in the chaos’ […] ‘dispersed or sprinkled in and throughout the structure of the great world into all fruits of the elements everywhere’.  I particularly like Cornelius Agrippa von Nettleheim’s observation that from this “luminositas sensus naturae”, ‘gleams of prophecy come down to the four footed beasts, the birds, and other living creatures, enabling them to foretell future things’.(2)  Many N.D.E. experiencers describe meeting beings of light (sometimes percieved as angels) that may lead or follow them, and take their pain away.

Jung’s account raises many questions -about the effect of cultural assumptions, emotional states, and spiritual practice, as well as about the nature of other dimensions or worlds and their inhabitants.  His perception of earthly life as a ‘prison’, for example, seems a rather extreme expression of the inevitable tension between otherworldly ecstasy and remembered pain in this world.  Perhaps he was influenced by the longstanding devaluation of material existence (and of women as agents of incarnation) in Western philosophy and transcendental religion?  This prejudice, which feminist theorists such as Val Plumwood and Grace Jantzen have traced back to Plato -whose Story of Er is regarded as one of the first recognisable ‘N.D.E’ accounts- reached its apogee in gnosticism, and is apparent where alchemy becomes a quest to liberate light ‘imprisoned’ in matter.

N.D.E. studies consistently find that people typically return with a deepened and broadened spiritual sensibility.  Some people have abandoned rigid religious views after meeting spiritual figures or deities from traditions other than their own.  On the other hand many N.D.E’rs don’t associate the ‘beings of light’ they meet with any religious tradition.  Jung’s account is the only one I’ve seen to date in which Pagan deities appear.  His visions differ from the classic ‘N.D.E’ in that they continued during an almost three week period of tenuous recovery, but were typically pluralistic (as well as reflective of his worldview) since he also encountered figures from Hindu, Jewish Kabbalistic, and Christian traditions.

Unfortunately much of the N.D.E. literature is framed in dualistic New Age or Christian terms.  Even Kenneth Ring, an American psychologist, talks about ‘black uncertainty’ and the ‘blackest moments’ of the twentieth Century, and refers to ‘the Light’ coming to show us our evolutionary way forward.(3)   Against this we might mention various positive references to fecund blackness in alchemy -‘the black earth in which the gold of the lapis is sown like the grain of wheat’, or ‘the exeeding precious stone proclaims: “I beget the light, but the darkness too is of my nature” ‘.(4)

My take on this is that we need to recognise the difference between duality and dualism.  Clearly, there needs to be debate about how ‘N.D.E’-like experiences are framed, and how they can be recruited into dominant religious discourse.  Some of the frightening ‘N.D.E’s that have been somewhat marginalised within the dualistic literature may be akin to ‘the perilous adventure of the night sea journey’, shamanic initiation, or the ordeal of the deceased in the Bardo realm of Tibetan lore.  Jung, did, after all, describe the ‘life review’-like element of his visionary experience as ‘an extremely painful process’, and felt depressed about the need to return.

Hieronymous Bosch, Ascent of the Blessed c1490-1516, Web Gallery of Art, Wikimedia Commons.

Hieronymous Bosch, Ascent of the Blessed c1490-1516, Web Gallery of Art, Wikimedia Commons.


A recent research study involving fifty participants from an American town focussed on responding to the often problematic impact and after effects of N.D.E-like experiences.  Suzanne Gordon situated her research in the context of ‘escalating social and ecological crises and an in-progress paradigm-shift away from the still-official Newtonian/Cartesian material world view of Western culture’ [towards] a (re)emergent sacred worldview more comparable to diverse indigenous knowledge systems.  She argues that the marginalisation faced by people who have had Spiritually Transformative Experiences (not just N.D.E’s)  is comparable to discrimination on the basis of sexuality, and has been instrumental in setting up an organisation that aims to listen to the stories of experts-by-experience, de-medicalise spiritual/visionary experience, educate professionals, and establish peer support groups.(5)

Near Death Experiencers tend to become more altruistic and compassionate, and have an increased appreciation of life.  They may feel a greater concern for the ecological health of the planet and some acquire acute psychic sensitivity and/or healing abilities.  The process of re-integration within an uncomprehending mainstream is often challenging however.  Only three of Gordon’s fifty participants had little difficulty with integration -two of whom were the only two African American participants in her project.  One of these women said that her family ‘talk to dead people all the time’.  The only difference her N.D.E. had made was that her ‘windows were open a little more’, and she now had no fear of death.

To be continued …

B.T. 24nd February 2017.


(1) Carl Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Knopf Doubleday 2011, and a longer extract here.

(2) Carl Jung, On the Nature of the Psyche, Routledge Classics, 2001, citing Khunrath and von Nettleheim, and Psychology and Alchemy, Routledge Kegan and Paul 1980 (first published 1944).

(3) For example his chapter in Lee W. Bailey and Jenny Yates, The Near Death Experience, A Reader, Routledge, 2013.

(4) Carl Jung, Pyschology and Alchemy, Routledge Kegan and Paul 1980 (first published 1944)

(5) Suzanne Gordon, Field Notes from the Light, PhD thesis, University of Maryland, 2007 and see the webiste of the American Centre for the Integration of Spirituality.






The Importance of Beauty -Some Seasonal Tree Images -31st Jan 2017.


On a dull morning last weekend I noticed that some trees at the top of the hill were looking uncharacteristically white.  Climbing up towards them I found myself walking in much colder air.  This was, clearly, a temperature inversion.  All the trees up there were coated in hoar frost -surely one of the most beautiful spectacles of the more-than-human world, even when unlit by sunshine.

I walked across some frozen fields to a beech wood, and stood transfixed amongst illuminated branches.  My sense of having been transported to another world was heightened by the complete lack of frost in the valley below.  I hope these images (double click to enlarge) give a rough idea of what I saw.

As someone who has always been open to such experience I’m genuinely puzzled that some of my fellow humans seem to be unmoved by aesthetic experience.  At a time when so much anthropogenic chaos is being unleashed upon the rest of nature, its re-assuring to know that there are very many others who appreciate, and are working to protect, the integrity, diversity, and yes, beauty, of nonhuman life.

On another recent walk I came upon these marvellously coiled oak trees, emerging from a rock outcrop.  Their serpentine forms exude a strength and confidence developed during lives spent responding to the prevailing currents of Westerly winds that must regularly pour down from the fields above.


I’ve always liked the muted tones of winter, and the patterns formed by sleeping trees.  But I also find a harsher pared-down beauty in the open moors and upland pasture that surrounds my home town.  In spring, when the birds return, there is an obvious kind of beauty -not least in the song of skylarks- but at this time of the year there is still the slightly uncanny beauty of shifting cloud forms, of varying density, that brush across the land, concealing and revealing.  Here lastly, then, is an image (with no trees) of a restored section of packhorse track, which I like because of its ambiguity.  Was I walking up towards the clouds, or down into a fog bank?


B.T. 31st January 2017.

Chaos, Cosmos, and Chaosmos – 2 Cosmos.

Robert Fludd, The Great Chain of Being from God to Nature and from Nature to Man, from Utriusque cosmi maioris scilicet et minoris metaphysica, physica atque technica historia 1617-1618. Wellcome Library, London. Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons.”

Robert Fludd, The Great Chain of Being from God to Nature and from Nature to Man, from Utriusque cosmi maioris scilicet et minoris metaphysica, physica atque technica historia 1617-1618. Wellcome Library, London. Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons.


For the Pythagoreans kósmos expressed a sense that the world as a whole was pervaded by intelligent order, beauty, and structural perfection.  Robert Fludd’s seventeenth century illustration of the Great Chain of Being (above, and discussed here) in which a prominent female figure representing Nature wears a small Sun and Moon on her breasts, is held on a chain by a celestial God, and holds an ape representing ‘art’, or perhaps the alchemist, on a chain below her, should suffice to remind us that images of totality emanate from a particular perspective.  The power dynamics inherent in such unifying visions have been much discussed, of course.

In Cosmos and Psyche (2006) Richard Tarnas responded to postmodern sensibilities by envisioning ‘a cosmic ordering principle whose combination of participatory co-creativity, multivalent complexity, and dynamic indeterminacy’ would not have been comprehensible to Plato.  Because the world now appears more responsive to human intention and consciousness our conception of cosmos needs to incorporate a correspondingly fluid, complex, and unpredictable relationship with ‘a dynamic archetypal order’.(1)  We might wonder whether postmodernity renders the term cosmos redundant, but my own experience of astrology inclines me to agree that the sense of pattern, order, and structure implied by the term is at least as fundamental to the unfolding of lives (the microcosm) within the matrix of chaosmic Nature (the macrocosm), as contingency, complexity, sponteneity, humour, randomness, and surprise.

Tarnas argued for a post-Jungian archetypal astrology by amassing evidence in the form of correlations between planetary cycles and cultural and historical developments in the history of the West.  Despite his description of archetypes as multidimensional (having a formal coherence and consistency that can give rise to many manifestations and meanings) and multivalent (we may relate to them actively or passively) I’m still not comfortable with an essentialising and universalising impetus, and depersonalising tone (c.f. powers or deities) inherent in the concept however.*

Tarnas’ discussion of the cultural importance of the Copernican revolution illuminates the genealogy of how ‘we’ in the late modern West have come to think about cosmos: ‘To have it suddenly dawn on one that the great Earth itself, the most obviously stationary and immovable entity in the cosmos, upon which one had lived in changeless solidity all one’s life, was in fact at that moment moving freely through space […] no longer the absolute fixed centre […] but rather a planet, a wanderer, an exalted celestial body in a new cosmos whose dimensions and structure and meaning were now utterly transfigured; such a revelation must have filled the mind and spirit with an awe seldom known in human history’.(p5)

This most radical of discoveries ’emancipated the modern self from a cosmos of pregiven meanings’ and affirmed confidence in human rationality whilst simultaneously disrupting a longstanding illusion that the cosmos revolved around the earth, and the needs of humankind in particular.  The subsequent Cartesian revolution that radically separated soul from body, and subject from object, and the ‘Copernican revolutions’ of Kant, who attributed the apparent temporal, spatial, and causal order of the world to the interpretive structure of the perceiving mind, and Darwin, who located humans within an evolutionary framework, along with Freud’s diminishment of the rational ego, further decentred the human in a cosmic context.  Western modernity responded by relocating intelligence, soul, spirit, meaning, and purpose, exclusively in the human self, thereby progressively disenchanting the world.(2)

While reading this it occured to me that Freud wasn’t the first to link Copernicus with transformations in the ‘inner cosmos’.(p44)  Nietzsche, whose writings prefigured depth psychology, dramatised the significance of the new cosmology in the voice of a madman confronting the death of God and the onset of nihilism, and in his Genealogy of Morals wrote: “Ever since Copernicus man has been rolling down an incline, faster and faster, away from the centre-whither?  Into the void? Into the ‘piercing sense of his emptiness’?(3).

Tarnas identified the modernist assumption that any ‘apparent’ meaning or purpose in the universe must have been constructed and projected on to it by the human mind as ‘hubris of cosmic proportions’.  In an epilogue, however, he ventured the hardly less anthropocentric suggestion that the creative, unpredictable, and fallible ‘self-reflective human being’ may be ‘a unique vessel and embodiment of the cosmos’.(p492)

Although Cosmos and Psyche was the fruit of extensive collaboration Tarnas has been taken to task for making only a brief passing reference to the work of other astrologers.  Having defended astrology against the prejudice of modernity he no doubt felt that citing actual astrological texts would jeapordise the chance of his work being taken seriously by the mainstream.  He also, perhaps again understandably, overlooked scholars who have taken ‘cosmos’ in a naturalistic direction -notably Alexander von Humboldt, who is widely acknowledged as having bought the term into the modern world- and Carl Sagan, both of whom also attempted the kind of comprehensive and integrative account that a cosmic perspective has long seemed to demand.

And therein lies a familiar problem, namely the privileging of a lone commentator’s apparently impartial panoramic viewpoint.  My feeling is that Tarnas could have said a bit more about the difficulties associated with the uses and misuses of astrology, and about the situated, partial, provisional, and contestable, nature of astrological interpretations.

Tabula Smaragdina, Macrocosm and microcosm. Engraving attached to Basilica Philosophica, 3rd vol of Johann Daniel Mylius, Opus Medico-Chymicum. 1618. Matthaus Merian.

Tabula Smaragdina, Macrocosm and microcosm. Engraving attached to Basilica Philosophica, 3rd vol of Johann Daniel Mylius, Opus Medico-Chymicum. 1618. Matthaus Merian.

Towards the end of his life Alexander von Humboldt wrote Cosmos, A Sketch of a Physical Description of the Universe, a five volume account of Nature encompassing phenomena from aurorae, through climatic and vegetation zones on earth, to algae, landscape painting, and poetry, whose index alone makes Richard Tarnas’s 569 page opus look like a slim pamphlet.  In October 1834 he declared “the mad frenzy has seized me of representing in a single work the whole material world.”  The result was a massive collaborative synthesising project.

Though Humboldt made no mention of God or spirituality, his sense of wonder, and the importance of aesthetic and emotional engagement, meant that he was taken up by the American transcendalists and English romantics as well as by scientists such as Darwin.  Interestingly, his faith in the stability of nature was shaken by an earthquake in South America.  No longer could he assume that water rather than earth was the element of motion.  Unlike most scientists of his time who focussed on taxonomic classification, Humboldt sought to integrate detailed empirical measurement with a holistic vision of nature as an interconnected web and global force.  As well as undertaking meticulous surveys, he acknowledged that ‘what speaks to the soul escapes our measurement’ and found that ‘nature everywhere speaks to man in a voice familiar to his soul’.(4)

Not least because Humboldt wrote prescient accounts of the effects of deforestation and human induced climate change in South America two hundred years ago, he is now celebrated as a proto-ecologist.  His sense of reciprocity between the human mind and nature informs contemporary definitions of cosmos and cosmopolitics that emphasise communal, participatory, and collective aspects, and relations between human communities and an agentic nonhuman world.  In a move that would no doubt surprise some of Plato’s feminist critics Laura Dassow Walls has reclaimed cosmos as ‘humanity’s oldest ecological vision of our planet’.(5)  Whereas Plato’s cosmos privileged God and Reason and signified an over-arching ordering vision inspired by a Divine Intellect, recent understandings interpret cosmology from a human perspective in terms of stories about our individual and collective place in the universe.

Humboldt’s encounter with indigenous people’s cosmovisions is said to have shaped anthropology, ethnography, and environmentalism (not least through the cosmography of Franz Boas).  For Bruno Latour cosmos is synonymous with “the common good world” -a world in which ‘cosmopolitics’ brings together a pluriverse of peoples and natures living in ‘a commons resilient enough to embrace the future.’  Cosmopolitics of this kind is exemplified by the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, held in Bolivia in 2010, where representatives from the Global South and many Indigenous groups presented a Universal Declaration on the Rights of Mother Earth (UDRME, 2010).  Their decalaration stated that “indigenous peoples, nations, and organizations ancestral ‘cosmovisions’—thousands of years in the making […] conceive of Earth as a ‘person’ or ‘living being with whom [all persons] have an indivisible and interdependent relationship”.  A working Group on Indigenous Peoples identifiedaggression toward Mother Earthas ‘an assault on us’ -meaning all human groups and all other ‘persons,’ including the ‘soils, air, forests, rivers, [and] lakes’ (‘Final Conclusions’ 2010, parag. 2).(Monani and Adamson, 2016:4, citing Latour 2014).

Megalithic astronomy confirms that the human impulse to orient ourselves in relation to cosmic nature is both ancient and widespread.  Across the over developed world this powerful impulse lives on in folk dance, communal rites, and the quiet alchemy of contemplative practice, that may honour the cardinal directions, visible stars, or phases of the Moon, and affirm our interdependence with the living land and a teeming diversity of other-than human life.  Ronald Grimes writes that ‘ritual is the predication of identities and differences (metaphors) so profoundly enacted that they suffuse bone and blood, thereby generating a cosmos (an oriented habitat).  In rites we enact a momentary cosmos of metaphor”.(6).

B.T. 10th January 2017.


*ref ‘archetype’, I prefer to think in terms of story and relationship, but if an astrological equivalent were needed planetary principle should suffice (see Mike Harding, Hymns to the Ancient Gods).


(1) Richard Tarnas, Cosmos and Psyche, Intimations of a New World View, Plume, 2007 pp73 and 489.

(2) Richard Tarnas, A New Synthesis, Resurgence, 199 March-April 2000, and see here.

(3) Frederick Nietzsche The Genealogy of Morals, Anchor/Doubleday, 1887/1956:291-2.  See also Frederick Nietzsche The Gay Science, New York, Vintage Books 1882/1974:181-2

(4) Andrea Wulf, The Invention of Nature, the Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt the Lost Hero of Science, John Murray, 2015 pp54,72,235.

(5) Laura Dassow Walls, The Passage to Cosmos; Alexander von Humbolt and the Shaping of America, University of Chicago Press 2009.

(6) Ronald Grimes, Performance is Currency in the Deep World’s Gift Economy, in Graham Harvey ed.  The Handbook of Contemporary Animism, Acumen, 2013.

Bruno Latour, 2004. “Whose Cosmos, Which Cosmopolitics? Comments on the Peace Terms of Ulrich Beck.” Common Knowledge 10 (3): 450–62.

Salma Monani and Joni Adamson, Ecocriticism and Indigenous Studies, Conversations from Earth to Cosmos, Routledge, 2016.

Laura Dassow Walls. (2009) The Passage to Cosmos: Alexander von Humboldt and
the Shaping of America, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Laura Dassow Walls. (2015) “Cosmos.” In Keywords for Environmental Studies, eds. Joni Adamson,
William A. Gleason, and David N. Pellow, 47–50. New York: New York University Press.

Chaos, Cosmos, and Chaosmos. 1- Chaos.

When at last I had disabused my mind of the enormous imposture of a design, an object, and an end, a purpose, or a system, I began to see dimly how much more grandeur, beauty, and hope there is in a divine chaos -not chaos in the sense of disorder or confusion but simply the absence of order- than there is in a universe made by a pattern, this draught-board universe my mind had laid out: this machine made world and and piece of mechanism; what a petty despicable microcosmos I had substituted for the reality.” Richard Jeffries, The Absence of Design in Nature, 1887.(1)


Chaotic Flow as Attractor Type and Plasma as Rendering Mode, Free Software Association. Creative Commons.

Chaotic Flow as Attractor Type and Plasma as Rendering Mode, Free Software Association. Creative Commons.

Chaos evokes the dark abyss of infinite space, the primal matrix of creation and destruction from which ancient Mesopotamians, Egyptians, Taoists, Native Americans, and many other human communities have variously imagined the emergence of deities, stars, elements, other-than-human ancestors, and ultimately humankind.

You’ll no doubt be familiar with feminist accounts of how mother goddesses that once gave form and order to life were demoted during the Bronze age as ‘numinosity was transferred to a father god’.  The Iron Age Babylonian creation epic Enuma Elish (‘from on high’) is said to have been the first story in which a mother goddess who generated creation as part of herself was replaced by a god who ‘made’ the world as something separate from himself.  Anne Baring and Jules Cashford regard Marduk’s violent overthrow of Tiamat, in which a Goddess who once sacrificed her son/lover became the sacrificial victim, as the mythological root of patriarchal religion and as a template for subsequent dragon slaying hero myths.  They argue that it marked the overthrow of ‘a goddess culture’ emphasising ‘relationship between every aspect of creation’ by a ‘new culture’ that venerated male deities and rewarded mastery, control, objectification, and violation.(2)

Some three millenia later the feminist philosopher and theologian Grace Jantzen identified a masculinist Western imaginary (a formative constellation of constructs, images, meanings, and values) obsessed with death, and suggested privileging its repressed other, natality, as a transformative possibility.  Far from emerging ex-nihilo, or being ‘thrown into existence’, she reminded us that we are born from a mother’s womb ‘into a welcoming and nurturing web of relationships’.  She argued that a culture of natality would validate empathy and respect, and foster a sense of kinship with other-than-human beings.  ‘We have all begun as part of somebody else; we have all been utterly dependent […] and we are still deeply dependent on the web of relationships with other natals and on the earth that supports us’.(3)  On re-reading this I found myself wondering whether memories of perinatal experience as described by Stanislas Grof -which have often proved uncannily faithful to the mother’s lived experience of birth- might somehow have informed cultural images of chaos?(4)

Wendy Hollway writes “Underneath the image of nature in modern science as passive and entirely knowable is a suppressed signifier of nature as ultimate force, capable of wreaking havoc over mind and culture.  It contains intimations of something which always resists being fully known (like woman) and fully controlled (like woman) -else why the emphasis on pursuit and control.”(5)

I have Bernadette Brady to thank for sparking this train of thought.  She begins Cosmos, Chaosmos, and Astrology (6) by referring to Hesiod’s telling of an ancient Greek creation myth in which a dramatic binary distinction between ‘gloomy chaos’ and the glorious heavens supplanted archaic imagery of a creative and generative primordial chaos.  In Hesiod’s Greece chaos and cosmos were conceived as opposite poles or states within a single continuum.  Cosmos brought knowable and reliable order out of chaos and was thus associated with reason, and valorised.

Not surprisingly, then, chaos, in one guise or another, has often been suggested as a remedy for modern worlds in the grip of alienating Cartesian logic.

In James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, for example, “While HCE (Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker/Here Comes Everyman) is the patriarchal hero on the ‘ghostwhite horse’ (FW 214.15) who, like Kalki, the tenth avatar of Vishnu in Hindu and Buddhist eschatology, concludes unilinear history and the world, in Joyce’s writing of a ‘whorled without aimed’ (FW 272.4-5) he is toppled in the play of chance.”(6)

The Victorian writer and naturalist Richard Jeffries has been celebrated as a forerunner of Chaos ecology.  Fascinatingly, his ‘The Absence of Design in Nature’ (epigraph above) was published in the year before the Flammirion Engraving (also above) depicting a medieval missionary poking his head through a membrane dividing the sublunary world from a mechanical looking celestial sphere.  Perhaps this figure, thought to be the work of a Victorian era artist, expresses a gendered desire to escape incarnation and the memory of ever having been born?  I take Jeffries’ ‘absence of order’ to refer to the absence of an authoritarian overarching order -the kind of blueprint that might be produced by just such a seeker of transcendent cosmic knowledge- rather than an absence of regularity of any kind.

Dynamical Plane. Image used in the exhibition 'Dynamical Systems and Chaos; The Arnold Family." IMA@50 Festival of Mathematics and its Applications. Manchester, July 2014. Lasse Rempe-Gillen, Creative Commons.

Dynamical Plane. Image used in the exhibition ‘Dynamical Systems and Chaos; The Arnold Family.” IMA@50 Festival of Mathematics and its Applications. Manchester, July 2014. Lasse Rempe-Gillen, Creative Commons.

Scientists of complexity define chaos in terms of its negating function as ‘disorder, irregularity, and unpredictablity’ but also relate it to complex systems that manifest positive emergent properties.  Flocks, swarms, herds, crowds, and cities, are often cited as examples of such systems.  At worst, and this may be a caricature, the science of chaos seeks to ‘explain’ the complexity of life in reductive terms, using simple deterministic laws.  Cognitive scientists, for example, describe consciousness as an emergent property of the complex system of brain neurochemistry and brain-environment interactions.  Although mathematical conceptions of chaos (and images generated from them) may have a certain glacial beauty, my difficulty with them is that they effectively erase the subjectivity, interiority, and agency of the myriad persons, human and more-than-human, who co-create the worlds they describe, and reduce questions about relationship to population level formulae.

Bernadette Brady draws attention to the work of the 8th/9th Century Persian Jewish astrologer Masha’allah ibn Athari who talked about aspects (the angular relationship) between planets in terms of relationship.  Under certain conditions Mars may want to ‘talk’ or ‘work’ with the Sun, but the sun is not open to an exchange (pp61-62).  I’m with her all the way when she compares what I would call his animistic perspective favourably with Kepler’s ‘pursuit of a mechanical sky’, and when she expresses reservations about some twentieth century reductionist approaches that leave no room for sumpatheia.

This Stoic term (or its Pythagorean equivalent harmonia) expressed a sense that, as Diogenes Laertius put it in the 3rd century B.C.E., all things are ‘rendered continuous by their mutual interchange’.(p7).  Crucially, for the Stoics, the cosmos was a perfect living body whose parts depended on the internal tension, or tonos, of the whole, created and sustained by the divine breath pneuma, or world soul.  Sumpatheia also referred to shared feelings.  Our English word “compassion” comes from the Latin compassio, which, it seems, was coined as a loan-translation (also known as a “calque”) of this Greek philosophical term. (see here).  The assumption of interdependence and relationship (of many kinds) encoded in such terms is now more vital than ever, of course.

The key question here seems to be whether we regard chaos, cosmos, and chaosmos, as descriptions of a living world.  Collectively we are now confronted with a paradoxical scenario in which those who see the Earth as a resource that can be ransacked without consequence -the forces of mastery and control- are set to intensify an already alarming trajectory towards anthropogenic chaos -in the negative sense of the term.  It may be too late to hope for some humility in the face of Nature (!?), but its never too late to remember that we humans are (also) an incredibly creative, resilient, and compassionate species.  Harmonia!

B.T. 6th December 2016.

Part 2 looks at Cosmos, and cosmography.


(1) Richard Jeffries, 1887. The Absence of Design in Nature, cited in Heidi M. Scott, Chaos and Cosmos; Literary Roots of Modern Ecology in the British 19th Century.

(2) Anne Baring and Jules Cashford, The Myth of the Goddess, Evolution of an Image, Viking, 1991.

(3) Grace M. Jantzen, Becoming Divine, Towards a Feminist Philosophy of Religion, Manchester University Press, 1998.

(4) Stanislas Grof, 1985. Beyond the Brain; Birth, Death, and Transcendence in Psychotherapy, State University of New York.

(5) Wendy Hollway, 1989 Subjectivity and Method in Psychology, Sage, cited by Stephen Frosh, 1994. Sexual Difference; Masculinity and Psychoanalysis, Routledge pp102-5.

(6) Bernadette Brady, Cosmos, Chaosmos, and Astrology, Rethinking the Nature of Astrology, Sophia Centre, 2014.

(7) Simon Crook, 2015.  A Petroglyphic Monad: The Constellation of Megalithic Art, Finnegan’s Wake, and Benjamin’s Arcades Project, The Grammar of Matter accessed 28th November 2016.



Celebrating Fungi


Its been a very good year for Fly Agaric, Amanita Muscaria, where we live.  Walking up a lane that goes along the top of a local beech wood a couple of weeks ago we were delighted to find about eighty of these gorgeous fungi.  The photos above shows some that are going over, but still look wonderful, I think, as they melt back amongst fallen leaves.  Photographing them felt like a suitable way of paying homage to a remarkable and surely extrovert denizen of the wood.

I was prompted to tap this dispatch by two programmes about fungi on the radio this morning, from which I gleaned the following more or less familiar morsels.  There are about five million species of fungi, compared with about 100,000 species of plants.  Without fungi there would be no life on earth.  As decomposing agents they make room for new life to emerge, and release nutrients into the ecosystem.  Fungi live underground, and within other organisms.  Through their mycellia they supply water and minerals to trees, and get sugars in exchange.   The mushrooms we see are the fruiting bodies, so are comparable to apples on a tree, or flowers on a plant.  Every individual fungi releases billions of spores.  Some release trillions.

In an edition of his fascinating Natural World series, Brett Westwood, a naturalist with an interest in cultural history, described the Fly Agaric as ‘brilliant’, ‘charismatic’, ‘magical’, and ’emblematic of autumn’.  Unusually amongst fungi, the stunning Amanita Muscaria often elicits an affectionate response from humans.  Unfortunately, though, they didn’t show for Brett on this particular foray with a mycologist in the New Forest.  When you go out with a confident idea about who you expect to find this often happens, of course.  In the event the no-show didn’t matter much as the programme focussed mainly on how stories about Siberian shamans’ use of Fly Agaric as an entheogen, and Gordon Wasson’s claim that it was the soma of the Rig Veda, have been taken up in the West -from Lewis Carol’s description of disturbed perceptions of space in the story of Alice, to Santa Claus and his flying reindeer.(1)

In another fungi programme Professor Lynn Boddy, a mycologist from Cardiff University, talked about her research that demonstrated that fungi were present in live branches within the canopy, and that when wood dries out they can quickly link up to form ‘extremely long individual decay columns’.  I was surprised to learn that the canopy is where the decay process begins, and where much of it happens.  Professor Boddy is also studying ‘extremely aggressive interactions’ between different species of fungi, which she likens to chemical warfare.  Understanding the compounds secreted by fungi under such circumstances may be significant in relation to our human need to develop new anti-microbial agents, and in relation to biolgical controls of plant pathogens.(2)  I wondered whether those Amanita Muscaria might be able to defend the beech trees against the bleeding canker that is currently marauding through our Victorian monoculture beech woods.

There are advantages to knowing a local patch well.  On another perambulation of my rat run, about a month ago, I noticed that a new resident had appeared on the scene.  Next to a fine group of about 40 shaggy ink caps, a cluster of quite striking and unfamiliar fungi were surfacing beneath a mature horse chestnut.  I photographed them and sent a sample to an ex-neighbour who has become our local fungi specialist.  She in turn took them to a meeting of the mid-Yorkshire fungi group where they were eventually identified as phaeolepiota aurea, a.k.a. Golden Bootleg or Golden Cap.


The unusually dry autumnal conditions meant that these specimins had an unusual cracked appearance, and were not able to reach prime condition (see here for more photos, and a description of the species).  To make matters worse they were ‘cleared away’ by a gardener.  Historically, mycologists have struggled to place the species within existing genera, so now regard phaeolepiota aurea as monotypic (in a genus of its own).   The photos above show the fungi emerging from their ‘grainy sheath’.  Local mycologists told me that ‘the texture of the cap surface and the underside of the ring are almost unique in their granular surface’.  Pleasingly for my ego the species had not been recorded in the valley before.

There are too many species of fungi to be included in books, and identification often requires microscopic inspection (I’m not an expert), but having photographed the striking crop of fungi below I felt sure that they were Fammulina velutipes, Velvet Shank.  These  winter fungi are said to appear in abundance when wintry weather gives way to thaw and mild westerly airstreams -which is what happened here last week.  The book that convinced me (Andreas Neuner, Chatto Nature Guide) said there was ‘no risk of confusion with other fungi that grow in clusters’ but didn’t mention a key point of identification -the lack of a ring (or sign of a ring) on the stipes or stalk.  Many thanks to sporesmouldsandfungi for pointing this out and suggesting that these were probably a variety of Armillaria or honey fungus.


Happy wandering!

B.T. 15th November, 2016.


(1) Brett Westwood, Natural Histories: Fly Agaric, B.B.C Radio 4, 15th November 2016.

(2) Jim Al-khalili, The Life Scientific, Interview with Professort Lynne Boddy, B.B.C. Radio 4, 15th November 2016.

For an account of some quite intimate animic relations with fungi visit Moma Fauna’s blog, here.

For a broad historical perspective on the political ecology of human-fungi relations see Anna Tsing, Unruly Edges, Mushrooms as Companion Species, Environmental Humanities, May 2016, 8 (1) : http://environmentalhumanities.dukejournals.org/content/1/1/141.full