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.

Wing Beats-British Birds in Haiku


In recasting “haiku as poetic spell”, I wish to emphasise, firstly, an ideal that is poetic as opposed to prosaic, and secondly, an expression that is more akin to a magical utterance than a mere report of an incident, however consequential or inconsequential.”

Martin Lucas, Haiku as Poetic Spell*


It matters little that Wing Beats was published eight years ago.  This beautifully produced collection of 323 Haiku, all of which are ‘solidly grounded in actual experience’, has lasting value.  The poems reflect moments in the lives of, we are told, 131 of the 570 species of British Birds listed by the British Ornithologists Union.  This is, necesssarily then, a local project.  One American viewer was baffled, for instance, by the word tormentil (a small yellow flower that is quite common where I live).  As someone who is familar with, and very fond of, British flora and fauna, though, I find that many of the poems work well as evocations.  They brim with what the seventeenth century naturalist Gilbert White called nice (exact, meticulous) observation of our avian neighbours, whilst Sean Gray’s monochrome illustrations depict each species so convincingly that I’ve been quite surprised that some of his birds haven’t flown up from the page.

The medium of haiku -characterised, according to sources to hand, by immediacy, precision, concreteness (no overt use of metaphor or symbolism), restraint, open-endedness, suggestion rather than explication, and an effacement of human emotional response- elicits slow contemplative reading.  This is not a book to be rushed.

For readers unfamiliar with the evolving tradition of English language haiku poetry, or with British Birds, there is a useful introduction and a series of informative appendices on taxonomy, naming conventions, the process of compiling the anthology, and (a substantial essay) on season words (kigo).  The latter includes interesting comparisons between the avifauna of Britain and Japan, where the associations between various birds and particular times of the year are ‘deeply rooted in haiku tradition’.  Matsuo Bashō often wrote about birds.  British cultural tradition is, of course, also rich in seasonal lore, not least that surrounding ‘the old pagan holidays’.

Interestingly, an early conception of the project was for a book of crow haiku (!) “twisting back from the mythic legacy of Hughes to include Bashō’s famous ‘crow’ haiku”.  Although John Barlow and Matthew Paul chose instead to emphasise ‘the real’, ‘to celebrate the commonplace, the local, the everyday’ and reflect ‘the geography, geology, history, and flora of the British landscape’, they clearly believe that the sensory moments they celebrate ‘refresh the human spirit’.  Stephen Moss, in his Foreword, talks about an underlying indefineable connection with wild creatures ‘the true meaning of which is perhaps known only to our hearts’, and writes that the poems help us reconnect in a deeper, more intense, way, -though ‘an element of mystery remains’.

The quotation (epigraph above) from Martin Lucas -who was a colleague and friend of the editors, and a keen birdwatcher- is taken from an essay in which he likened haiku to ‘a poetic spell’, in which words ‘chime’, ‘beat’, and ‘flow’, have power, and when spoken like a charm, cannot be forgotten.  This recalls Ted Hughes’s conception of poetic magic, though Hughes took the idea further, believing that sufficiently well crafted words could summon an animal, or spirit.  In suggesting that there were other kinds of poetic spell, however, Martin Lucas did leave open the question of what form these might take.

I like this book very much, but a critical voice in me found the lack of an author index frustrating, and would like to have seen more than a couple of passing references to the crisis affecting so many bird species.  The scale of the loss of many once common species is perhaps more evident now than it was in 2008? (See, for instance here).  I’m all in favour of celebrating the beauty of the living world.  It seems to me that many of these haiku have the attributes of Martin Lucas’s ‘magical utterances’, that they have been crafted from the numinosity of nature, and crucially for me, they foreground the agency of other-than-human protagonistsBut its now quite widely accpeted, not least in the burgeoning field of ecocriticism as well as amongst contemporary animists, that celebration needs to happen in a context that tells truths about both the impact of human cultures, especially those framed by global capitalism and late modernity, on other sentient species, and attends to the deathward facing/katabatic aspect of cosmic nature.  This is something that Ted Hughes, at his best, arguably achieved.

I borrowed a copy of Wing Beats from my friend Jo Pacsoo, who has a haiku in the book (and several others here).  Elsewhere she has made effective use of the haibun form, in which haiku are embedded in similarly succinct and controlled prose, allowing personal and/or political context to be elaborated.

But enough from my inner critic.  I would wholeheartedly reccomend this anthology to anyone who knows, and cares about, British birds.  There is a lot to be said for the understated phenomenological precision of haiku as a way of responding to, and evoking, the depth and complexity of the living world.  Taken together, the poems in Wing Beats constitute a valuable repository of testimony to human appreciation of, and respect for, wild land and the multi species communities we are fast losing.  Amid an unceasing deluge of apocalytic news, there is, surely, a pressing need for practices and sites of quiet contemplation and celebration.

B.T. 26th of September 2016.

John Barlow and Matthew Paul, eds.Wing Beats, British Birds in Haiku, Snapshot Press (2008).


Martin Lucas, Haiku as Poetic Spell, a paper delivered at the 4th Haiku Pacific Rim Conference in Terrigal, Australia, in 2009.

Jo Pacsoo, Chiaoscuro, and Earth, Time, Water, and Sky, both from Palores Publications, Redruth.

Entanglements in an Anthropocentric World -Thom van Dooren on Crows and Hospitality.

House Crow (Corvus splendens), Tirunelvedi, India. Photo KI Hari Krishnan, Creative Commons.

House Crow (Corvus splendens), Tirunelvedi, India. Photo K. Hari Krishnan, Creative Commons.

Perhaps it is we who have not yet “evolved” into the kinds of beings worthy of our own inheritances‘. -Thom van Dooren, Flight Ways.

Twice on recent walks I’ve encountered older men who evidently thought I was one of their kind.  Although I am older than Jeremy Corbin and do use a walking pole when out on the hills -not least to test the depth of sphagnum bog or peaty puddles- it soon became clear to me on both occasions that I was talking across a cultural chasm.  Both men seemed desperate to vent suppressed fury, and launched into worrying diatribes.

The first encounter, which occured shortly after the British electorate had voted -by a narrow majority in an ill-conceived referendum- to leave the European Union, was with a man I’ve often shared wildlife news with.  He told me he’d voted to leave, and proclaimed, rather dramatically, that “we need someone who’ll give the bastards a good kicking”.  The second encounter was with a dog walker who approached me when I sat down to have a snack.  My new ‘friend’ began by reminiscing about his alcoholic father, but soon embarked upon an account of the Second World War, which, in his view, we only got involved in ‘because some idiot had decided to invade the poor Germans’.

These unsettling cameos seem consistent with the 42% spike in reported racist hate crime in the two weeks before and after the referendum (see here).  And, of course, a week before the referendum the country was shaken by the appalling murder of Jo Cox, a Labour M.P. with an impressive record as a humanitarian activist.  A fund set up in her memory raised £1 million in three days for Hope Not Hate (an anti-extremist charity), the R.V.S. (who care for elderly people), and White Helmets (Syrian search and rescue volunteers).(1)

I’m writing this on a warm early September morning with the window open, but can’t see or hear any House Martins.  Local birders report that they’ve had a bad year, so I’ve been looking out for the larger groups that should be gathering in preparation for their autumn migration.  I don’t know what multispecies stories underly this disruption, but in a period of unprecedented anthropogenic species loss, one of many concerns about ‘Brexit’ is that we have a farming minister who has described key E.U. environmental legislation (the Birds and Habitat directives) as ‘spirit crushing’.(2)


In the current issue of Environmental Humanitiesa thought provoking open access journal, Thom van Dooren and Deborah Bird Rose ponder the writing and thinking practices that inform their research on species extinctions.  In an article entitled Lively Ethography, Storying Animist Worlds they invoke Emma Restall Orr’s notion of “the relational awakeness” of the world and elaborate an approach ‘grounded in an attentiveness to the evolving ways of life (or ethea, singular ethos) of diverse forms of human and nonhuman life, and in an effort to explore and perhaps restory the relationships that constitute and nourish them’.  Their vision of ecological animism attends to a world ‘woven through with co-forming patterns of responsiveness, attention, desire, and communication.’

The authors illustrate their approach with a series of ethographic vignettes from ‘sites of entanglement’ involving Hawaiian monk seals, lava fields, lichen, and alalā, or Hawaiian crows.  Although the latter are regarded by some humans as aumakua, or ancestral deities, the focus of van Dooren and Rose’s ‘art of witness’ is very much on ecological realities rather than engagements with a spirit world.  Despite my strong interest in the subtle dimensions of inter-species relationship I can see that, in some contexts, such issues might distract from urgent discussions about species loss and nonhuman agency -and in any case wholeheartedly endorse van Dooren and Rose’s concern to ’embrace the ethical call others make upon us in the meaningfulness of their lives and deaths’. (my italics) (3).

Hawaiian Crow, Corvus Hawaiiensis. Plate Mammology and Ornithology, Atlas. Cassin J, 1858. Philadephia, C Sheerman, Creative Commons.

Hawaiian Crow, Corvus Hawaiiensis.  Mammology and Ornithology, Atlas. Cassin J, 1858. Philadephia, C Sheerman, Creative Commons.

Thom van Dooren’s work appeals to me because he writes extensively, as an environmental philosopher and anthropologist, about birds.  In Flight Ways (4) he fleshes out Val Plumwood’s notion of human exceptionalism in relation to the lived experience of species such as Laysan and Black Footed Albatrosses, Oriental, Long-billed, and Slender-billed Vultures, and Whooping Cranes, that face the possible extinction of their kind.  When vultures disappear, for example, what Deborah Rose calls a ‘doubling’ of death occurs as the ecological connections and entanglements necessary for life are unmade.

In two recent articles Thom van Dooren writes about two very different species of crow.  In one he discusses the predicament of the Hawaiian Crow, or alalā (Corvus Hawaiiensis), a bird which has been extinct in the wild since 2002.  Van Dooren explores some complex questions that arise around a captive breeding programme in which two small extant populations survive, focussing on ecologists’ attempts to ensure that despite the inevitable loss of vocal repertoire/vocabulary/animal cultures by captive birds, released alalā behave ‘authentically’ (e.g. eat forest fruits rather than forage amongst human garbage).

One informant tells him that released birds are not really alalā at all.  Hawks no longer respect them.  They have become a different species.  Van Dooren responds by questioning notions of fixed and essential species identity.  Building upon Val Plumwood’s call to reconceptualise evolution in a way that respects nonhuman agency, he argues that behaviour is a relational and developmental achievement.  ‘As crows around the world move into cities and learn new ways of life, they conduct experiments in emergent forms of crowness’.

He goes on to suggest that ethical relations between humans and other animals might require ‘careful and deliberate forms of detachment’, respectful distance, a ‘paradoxical absent presence’.  Humans need learn to ask ‘what kinds of relationships and forms of life are crows themselves interested in taking up?'(5)  Although I’m wary of social theories that rely on analogies between human and other-than-human ‘natures’ and ‘cultures’, the parallels here with, for instance, Rogerian client-centred counselling amongst humans, are intriguing.  In Flight Ways (pp133-142) van Dooren cites research documenting the ability of corvids to show empathy, and it seems, to grieve.  What is being lost in the forests of Hawaii, then, may well be an other-than-human culture that includes ways of grieving -for so many deaths, for the loss of a way of life, and perhaps for an entire species.  Yet amongst human cultures the passing of a nonhuman species is rarely marked or mourned.

House Crow Feeding Chicks, photo Emanjsr2611, Creative Commons.

House Crow Feeding Chicks, photo Emanjsr2611, Creative Commons.

In another recent article Thom Van Dooren directs our attention towards the complex realities of a crow species that may, just possibly, have earned its bad reputation, and of the magnitude and effects of power within late modern/global capitalist human societies.  The Unwelcome Crows, hospitality and the anthropocene (6) tells the story of a small group of about thirty five to forty House Crows, a species from the Indian subcontinent, that had set up home in Hoek van Holland.  House Crows have proved themselves to be adept at stowing away on ocean going ships, and are now quite widely dispersed.  Their ‘invasion’ of Europe has not been taken lightly however, and the Dutch authorities launched an eradication programme based on fears that they would damage crops, threaten other species, and spread disease, apparently without first undertaking a detailed study of the birds.

Thom van Dooren’s visit to the location prompted him to reflect on conceptions of hospitality and to write that that the arrival of strangers ‘is always haunted … grounded in specific pasts and futures, imagined and/or lived’.  The attempted eradication of these avian invaders is juxtaposed against the operations of the gargantuan port of Rotterdam, just across the river, characterised by van Dooren as ‘a key driver, an engine, of the Anthropocene’.  Seven days a week, day and night, ships arrive and depart.  ‘This is how old growth forests become floorboards, how we are able to keep burning fossil fuels at low prices’.  How dirty industries, toxic materials, and carbon emission responsibilities, are outsourced to unseen corners of distant lands.  Rather than blaming a singular ‘humanity’ for all of this ‘we’ need to ‘open up the question of who it is that is marking and appropriating the world at our present time’.  Van Dooren pithily comments that ‘here, at the epicentre of our remaking of the world to suit our designs and whims, the lives of forty crows could not be tolerated’.

He then ponders the ability of jackdaws to get on with the new arrivals, and how humans might have responded differently, by moving beyond the ‘logic of the host’, with its appropriative claim. ‘What is needed … is an entirely new frame of orientation: an acknowledgement that the world and its future were never ours -never any individual or group’s- to give in the first place, to welcome or not.’  In multispecies worlds lives inescapeably overlap.  ‘My house, my body, are always already others’ territories too …. [  ] … alter-territorialities are possible’.  Which brings me back to my own recent unsettling human encounters, played out, of course, against the appalling backdrop of an epic migration crisis in which thousands of our fellow human beings are dying as they attempt to reach the shores of Europe.


11th September 2016.


(1) The Killing of Jo Cox, Wikipedia.  (accessed 1/9/16).

(2) Brexit would free UK from ‘spirit crushing’ green directives, says minister,  The Guardian, 30th May 2016.

(3) Thom van Dooren and Deborah Bird Rose, Lively Ethography, Storying Animist Worlds,  Environmental Humanities 8:1 (May 2016).

(4) Thom van Dooren, Flight Ways, Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction, Columbia University Press, 2014.

(5) Thom van Dooren, Authentic Crows; Identity, Captivity, and Emergent Forms of Life, Theory, Culture, and Society, 2016 Vol 33 (2) 29-52.

(6) Thom van Dooren, The Unwelcome Crows; hospitality in the anthropocene, Journal of Theoretical Humanities, vol21 no2 June 2016.  This article is available here (you can register as an independent researcher).

Environmental Humanities

Thom van Dooren – Encountering Crows

Ted Hughes on Oracular Corvids


This morning, as I was wondering whether to write something about Ted Hughes in the context of recent hill walks on a rather bleak and exploited stretch of the Lancashire/Yorkshire border -a place he reportedly retreated to during the awful personal nadir from which Crow emerged- an e-mail arrived with a link to a documentary involving Hughes, made by the National Film Board of Canada (in 1994), called Seven Crows a Secret What follows is a brief recommendation of the film, and a footnote on a possible source for the idea of Cave Birds.

In the film a rather subdued and life worn Hughes (who only had another few years to live) reads from Crow and (towards the end) talks about the crow as ‘the totemic oracular god of Britain, a fact which has unfortunately been forgotten’.  Interestingly, given his views on the potential magical power of the photographic image, and doubtless also an understandable resistance to biographical exposure, he doesn’t look into the camera at any point.

The film opens slowly, but if you’re interested in Ted Hughes, crows, or bird lore, its worth persisting.  The first interviewee is Leonard Baskin, the sculptor and printmaker whose extraordinary drawings enliven the Viking Press edition of Cave Birds.  It was Baskin (who also had only a few years left to live when the film was made) who had found Hughes in a very depressed state and suggested he write some crow poems.  I don’t concur with the bleak view of birds, or the rest of nature, he expresses in the film, but I wouldn’t want to judge a Jewish artist renowned for his scupltures at the Ann Arbor Holocaust Memorial on that score.

The film also visited Bernd Heinrich, an engaging ornithologist who conducted influential research on ravens.  Heinrich kept pet crows from a young age, and several years before his major life project on ravens began, recorded a dream in which he heard ravens croaking, telling him that their nest was near.(2)  There’s some nice footage of ravens in the film, and the commentary highlights the widespread negative perception of corvids, pointing out that crows are ‘a model of monagmous devotion’, and loyal parents, and that ravens will give their nest over to their growing chicks, going elsewhere to roost in order to give them space.  This endearing habit has been misinterpreted in beliefs that ravens make bad parents.  Prejudice of this kind is contrasted with a Haida story of the raven ‘trickster’ who coaxed little creatures into the world with his beautiful soft voice, before the first Haida Indians were born.

It’s often assumed that birds don’t mourn, so I was pleased to hear about two ravens at the Tower of London, named Huggin and Munin after Odin’s raven emissaries.  After the female, Munnin, died from a heart attack, her partner Huggin mourned for two years before showing signs of interest in another bird.

After centuries of persecution ravens have benefitted greatly from legal protection in the U.K.   Since the 1990’s they have returned to most areas, including the Lancashire/Yorkshire Pennines.  Unfortunately, following a spate of predation by ravens on lambs in Scotland, farmers and gamekeepers are now calling for them to join other corvids on the list of species on the General Licence.  This would enable landowners to kill them without applying for permission each time (at present ‘destructive ravens’ can be shot or trapped under individual licences).  The R.S.P.B. and other conservation bodies are opposing this  move, which could precipitate an indiscriminate cull. (see here).  Gamekeepers, who clearly don’t regard the crow as an oracular totemic god, and who, ironically, often invoke pejorative lore about the ‘unkindness’ of ravens, justify this on ecological grounds.  Research shows, however, that the presence of ravens has not been a significant factor in the precipitous decline (by up to 50% in the last quarter of century) in populations of wading birds such as lapwing, dunlin, golden plover, snipe, and curlew. (see here and here).

Raven, Corax Corax.

Raven, Corax Corax. (Photo, Pixabay, Creative Commons).

Cave Birds?

I’m not a huge fan of Ted Hughes’s Crow collection.  Ironically, given that he clearly realised the harm done by negative lore and beliefs about corvids, Crow, which was truncated by the second appalling tragedy in his life, has been criticised for its unremitting and unredeemed bleakness.  I agree with those who prefer Hughes’s shamanistic sequel, Cave Birds, in which existential anguish is assuaged, if not resolved, in moments of beauty and ecstasy, though like Hughes, I feel ambivalent about its appropriation of ornithomorphic imagery to explore all-too-human concerns.

After writing about Cave Birds (here) I stumbled upon a reference to the use of actual ‘cave birds’ in Hittite divination.  The birds in question were thought to have been a kind of partridge, the tadorna, which were either sacrificed and subjected to haruspicy (the examination of their entrails) or an examination of superficial signs on their bodies, or released so that their flight could be interpreted.(1)  Ann Skea was unable to find the original sources (dated 1963, 1966, and 1975) in Ted Hughes’ library at Emory University, but thought he may have come across them at Cambridge University library, to which he kept returning (pers comm).

Whether or not Hughes was aware of this connection, there’s a tradition within astrology (and other esoteric disciplines) that names can be significant, even where significance was not intended.  Given that an autobiogaphical strand permeates Cave Birds, given that Ted Hughes’ life would be subjected to intense biographical scrutiny, and not least given the poems’ imagery of interrogation, judgement, disembowelling, lobotomy, and the skinning of souls, a co-incidental naming of the collection after birds who were sacrificed and had their entrails examined, would perhaps have been apt.

B.T 2/5/16 updated on 24/5/16.


(1) Michael Lowe and Carmen Blacker eds.  Divination and Oracles, London, George Allen and Unwin. 1981 pp 151 and 153-4 (and references on pp170-171).

(2) Bernd Heinrich, Mind of the Raven, Investigations and Adventures with Wolf-Birds, Harper Perennial, 1999.

Also: Ted Hughes. Crow, From the Life and Songs of the Crow, Faber and Faber, 1970 and Cave Birds, Viking Press, 1978.

On alchemical symbolism in Cave Birds see Ann Skea, Ted Hughes, the Poetic Quest, University of New England Press (1994), also her web page on Crow.







Taking Soul Birds Seriously.

Peacock Butterfly, Aglais Io.

Peacock Butterfly, Aglais Io.

Appropriately, on this variously named festival of the first fruits of the northern hemisphere harvest, Saturn, a.k.a. the Reaper, so named both for the necessity of death-in-life, and as ‘the one who harvests fruitful deeds'(1), turns direct in the heavens and starts to move forward across the last degrees of Scorpio, resonating with a potent configuration of other planets. (see astrological footnote**).

Having stumbled upon Peter Fenwick‘s finding that encounters with a personally significant animal, bird, or butterfly, are quite often reported around the time of a death, I wove this into an article that can now be found online in the latest issue of Paranthropology,  Journal of Anthropological Approaches to the Paranormal ‘Taking Soul Birds Seriously, a Post-secular Animist Perspective on Extra-Ordinary Communications revisits a series of kingfisher dreams and appearances that preceded and followed the death of a very dear friend in 2012, in the context of debates around contemporary animism.

One strand in these discussions has been whether we should abandon the term ‘spirits’.   Because it comes to us saturated in dualistic (neo-)Platonic and Christian assumptions that privilege celestial realms (‘Heaven’) over ecological concerns and the wonders of material embodiment, its uncritical use has undoubtedly distorted Western understandings of indigenous traditions.  My preference, however, has been to reclaim ‘spirit’ and ‘soul’, with due care, for earth-centred spirituality.

Having cited Graham Harvey on this, and sensing considerable scepticism about extra-ordinary experience in his Food Sex and Strangers, I was pleased to hear from him that he has no scepticism about the otherworld or its inhabitants.  His critique was, apparently, aimed at the casual approach of some Pagans towards otherworldly beings.

In the Paranthropology article I argue that we need terms that unambiguously signify discarnate persons or beings, whether or not we accept the possibility of their existence, and that the ontological status of visions, voices, or presences, may well be less important than their meaning and effect, and the power relations surrounding them.  I pick up on Brian Morris’s reminder that binary distinctions need not be interpreted dualistically, and on Patrick Curry’s similar argument that ‘contingent local distinctions between spiritual or mental and material … are not the problem, any more than are either rationality or spirituality per se. It is their conversion into an ideology and programme (rationalism, spiritualism, etc) which is pathological.”(2)

I wouldn’t want to ‘pathologise’ ingrained discursive habits such as dualism, but since, from a human perspective, nature seems riven with dualities -none more radical than the apparent chasm between ‘life’ and ‘death’- this simple move hopefully enables us to separate accounts of ecstatic or transcendental experiences and realities from their dualistic misuse, whilst ‘End of Life Experiences’, not least those involving the arrival of helpful and  loving presences, whoever they are and however we perceive and address them, appear (one way or another) to affirm existential continuity.

B.T. 1/8/15 (updated 2/8/15).

Astrological Footnote:  On the first of August 2015 Saturn went direct on 28 Scorpio, square Venus and Jupiter (on 27 and 29 Leo), and semi-square Pluto (on 13 Capricorn).  Pluto was therefore ‘with’ the midpoints Venus-Saturn and Jupiter-Saturn at 13 Libra.  Stationery periods, when a planet appears to hover at one point for a while, are said to concentrate the planet’s astrological effect – or if you prefer, to intensify the phenomena being signified.  Interestingly, Saturn is concerned with boundaries, thus also binary distinctions and ‘othering’, and (as Chronos) with time.  Death is undoubtedly a ‘limit experience’, and temporal boundary.


(1) Alan Leo, Saturn: the Reaper, Samuel Weiser, 1916.

Graham Harvey, Food, Sex, and Strangers, Understanding Religion as Everyday Life, Acumen, 2013.  

(2) Patrick Curry, (2012) Revaluing Body and Earth, in Brady E. and Phemister P (eds), Human-Environment Relations: Transformative Values in Theory and Practice, Dordrecht, Springer, 41-54.

Click to access Revaluing%20Body,%20Place%20and%20Earth.pdf

A Cloud Walk with Raven Conversation.

Low Cloud, Revealing by Concealing.

Low Cloud, Revealing by Concealing.

Yesterday we walked up towards the cloud that was sweeping across the hills.  Apart from one of two spots of last week’s snow, a few clumps of sheep’s wool snagged on fences, glistening spider’s webs, and some strange whitish patches of what looked to be fungal growth on worn out grass, all was brown, green, and pale grey.  And silent.  Wonderfully silent.  Or so it seemed at first.

oak moss lichen burnley forest feb 2015b_crLichens on young trees.
Lichens on young trees.

There were signs of habitation everywhere.  Badger runs, fox poo, deer paths, and small holes everywhere.  But badgers and foxes have become largely nocturnal, and deer are adept at camouflage and evasion.

In their absence we mythologise -anthropomorphise, romanticise- their defensive liminality, perhaps?  We once saw a herd of fallow deer at this very spot.  A local landowner used to keep them, so they had probably escaped his clutches.  Amongst them was a white doe, more magically real, for me at the time, than any folk tale hind.  But that dream-like moment has now receded into memory and story …

What have we here?

What have we here?

Whilst I tend to gaze into the distance, or up at the sky, my other half scans the ground for tiny plants and evidence of small creatures.  So it was she who noticed this fine example of a bank vole (?) run.  We’d been hearing a lot about how mice and voles survive the winter by running about in tunnels beneath the snow.  This appeared to be a perfect example, revealed by the retreating snow a few days previously.  If you click to enlarge the photo you’ll see that the grass above the tunnel entrance has been neatly clipped.

Gazing into the distance, I was suddenly jolted by a voice emanating from the swirling mist.  The voice was familiar, warm, throaty, quite high pitched.  Another similarly resonant voice replied.  Then all went silent for a while.  I stared into the formless mass that softened the rockface and refashiond the hillside, and waited.  Then the voice spoke again.

I offer the following inexpert translation of what was being said:

“I think I’ll just pop over there dear …”.  “Oh, all right then.  If you must.”  “I won’t be long”.  “Love you”.  “Love you too”.

Since one of the ravens eventually emerged from the cloud and headed on slowly flapping wings for the other side of the valley, this wasn’t difficult to deduce.  As I’m sure you’ll know, ravens are very expressive birds.  Their voices and body language are relatively easily read by humans -indeed they’ve been kept as pets because they can mimic human language.

Many testimonies confirm that ravens can be joyful, mischievous, impressively angry, or peaceful. Yes, they do feed on carrion, and yes, like carrion crows they peck the nutritious eyes of dead animals.  Their power and resilience has long been respected.  Some cultures regard them as prophetic, and venerate them for their proximity to the divine.

But when I come across them they often seem to be expressing love and affection for their lifelong partners.  Forget Christian imagery of the raven as bird of desolation, foreboding, and unclean-ness, that led to a long history of persecution.  Forget pagan imagery of the raven as a battle mascot for imperialistic warlords.  Hugin and Munin may have muttered prophetic truths in Odin’s ear, but what really mattered for them, I’m quite sure, was each other!  A chance encounter with a Raven always lifts my spirits.

B.T 11/2/15.

*note 12/2/15 – I’d mis-remembered Ted Hughes’s description of a Pike as ‘magically solid’, meaning ‘both ancestral dream figure and ordinary living fish’. (see Letters of Ted Hughes, Christopher Reid, ed p631).  That white deer felt both materially present and dreamlike, not least because of a local folk tale.


Mark Cocker, Birds and People, Jonathan Cape, 2013.

Francesca Greenoak, British Birds, their Folklore, Names, and Literature, Christopher Helm, 1997.

Derek Ratcliffe, The Raven, A Natural History in Britain and Ireland, T and A D Poyser, 1997.

The Blackest Earth, Reclaiming Alchemy?

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.

Several years ago, when writing an article on Ted Hughes, Shaman of the Tribe, I decided to have a look at The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz, a Rosicrucian allegory of spiritual transformation, written by Johann Valentin Andreae and published in 1616.  Hughes regarded the Chymical Wedding as a tribal dream, and wrote Difficulties of a Bridegroom under its influence.  In one of his letters he suggests imagining Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure performed at a meeting of Rosicrucian practitioners of hermetic magic and religious philosophy, and argues that the characters in such plays perform a symbolic function. The Chymical Wedding includes a description of a play that resembles a mysterious pageant (1), and is itself something of a dreamlike pageant.

I didn’t share Hughes’s enthusiasm for the story, and struggled to make much sense of its alchemical imagery, but was sitting reading the following episode from the sixth of the story’s seven days: – “In this room a bath was prepared for the bird … but after it began to heat, by reason of the lamps placed under it, we had enough to do to keep him in the bath.  We therefore clapped a cover on the kettle and suffered him to thrust out his head through a hole till he had lost all his feathers in the bath, and was as smooth as a new born babe, yet the heat did him no further harm …” -when I was distracted by a commotion in the garden.  I looked out of the window and saw a wood pigeon columba palumbus flapping about frantically in the grass at the foot of the bird table, before flying noisily away (as they do), leaving ‘feathers scattered in the air’ and over the ground.

Magpies chattered raucously.  Jackdaws cawed.  I went up into the garden and was greeted by a robin who flew down and perched in the elder, two or three feet from my head, and ‘proceeded to tell me what had happened’ with great urgency.  Although I was unable to translate the finer points of robin language this had clearly been a sparrowhawk attack.  Had it been the black cat that occasionaly hunted in our garden a pigeon on the ground wouldn’t have escaped. Later that day a lone jackdaw returned and perched, trapeze fashion, on the phone line, bent down over the scene of the crime, and cursed volubly.

The mythical bird in The Chymical Wedding had previously changed his plumage from black to white, and then to colours of incomparable beauty, becoming progresively more docile.  Once his feathers had been removed in the heated bath, a collar was put round his neck.  I can’t claim that woodpigeons (or any other actual species) resemble the bird in the story, and although the pigeon in question left an impressive trail of feathers, she hadn’t been stripped bare.  They do, however, have a white mark on either side of their necks that suggests a collar, giving rise to the widespread folk name ‘ring dove’, and the image of scalding heat removing feathers but causing no further harm seemed a reasonable, if imprecise, metaphor for the sting of the predator’s talons from which the bird had narrowly escaped.

Wood Pigeon, Columba palumba, photo: nottsexaminer, Creative Commons.

Wood Pigeon, Columba palumbus, photo: Nottsexaminer, Creative Commons.

This, then, had been a showing (synchronicity, if you prefer), albeit a minor and unbidden one.  Such occurances need to be read in context, which, in this case, included several other more intimate showings around that time (as ever the best ‘evidence’ is too personal to present to naive or hostile sceptics!), and by then over twenty years of encounters and dreams, many of which decisively associated bird allies with greater or lesser deaths.

My first thought was that the rest of the content of the Chymical Wedding had little to do with this event, which I saw as another example of how the world works -if only we were alert to her cues.  It now occurs to me, however, that the symbolism associated with the dove -a bird of fertility, courtship, and sexual love (Venus) in many cultures, but also the most favoured bird (at least in the form of a white dove) in Christian iconography, where it represents the holy ghost (a dove shown in rays of light or flames), the souls of the redeemed, spiritual love, and innocence, is paradigmatic of the split that alchemy potentially heals.  The dove’s (or columbine) kiss, said to be accompanied by the lovers ‘dying’ in a sexual sense -as Petronius put it: “We clung passionate together and transfused our straying souls back and forth through our lips.  Farewell mortal cares!  Thus I began to die”- was, for instance, reframed by the church fathers as ‘the image of unity and peace which the faithful should have in their contact with each other’.(2)  So, as is often the case, that world-moment may have been more meaning-filled than I first thought.

Alchemische Vereinigung.  Illustration im Buch Donam Dei - Ortus diviciarum sapiencie Dei.  17th Century.

Alchemische Vereinigung. Illustration im Buch Donam Dei – Ortus diviciarum sapiencie Dei. 17th Century.

The central theme of the Chymical Wedding is an enactment of the hieros gamos, the wedding of a King and Queen, representing a union of (actual or apparent) cosmic opposites – female and male, light and dark, inner and outer, matter and spirit.  Ted Hughes reworked the theme beautifully in Bride and Groom Lie Hidden for Three Days in his ‘alchemical cave drama’ sequence, Cave Birds.  I had thought that alchemy was mostly about dramatising transcendence -releasing spirit trapped in (dead) matter, and/or restoring the world by spiritualising matter- but Aaron Cheake’s Alchemical Traditions in which he argues for alchemy as a ‘nondual process’ in which “so called ‘material’ and ‘spiritual’ realities (are) co-present, interdependent expressions of a deeper ‘existential’ field of being” appeared to offer an alternative view.(3)

Most animists would have little difficulty agreeing with him that ‘the deep relationship … between metallurgised and physiological processes all pertain strongly to the hidden continuity between all bodies, from the mineral to the divine’.  As a Buddhist, however, Cheake still talks in terms of alchemy engaging material existence, at its most dissolute, ‘in order to turn it into a vehicle of liberation’ of the soul from ‘cycles of generation and corruption’, and even of physis, ‘nature herself’.  In this vision a primordial solar nature ‘transforms its material bindings … into vehicles of transcendence’.  Yet the term alchemy can be traced to ancient Egyptian and Coptic names for Egypt (km.t, keme, kemi, chemia) that, according to Plutarch, refer both to ‘the blackest of soils’ and ‘the black portion of the eye’, and to a cosmology valuing both divine darkness and the infinitely subtle material matrix of nature.

In Cave Birds the Socratic rationalist/complacent cock-sure protagonist is eventually metamorphosed into falcon form (as Horus, consort of the goddess), but as Ann Skea points out, alchemical synthesis must be constantly repeated.  The ‘Great Work’ is never finished.(4)  So the apocalyptic cosmic hypersensivity of the last two poems, The Owl Flower and The Risen, is followed by a brief finale announcing the appearance of a goblin.  As animists we might wonder whether the use of bird symbolism in alchemy, and the various traditions it emerged from, reduces other-than-human persons to caricatures and cyphers.  Or might cockerell, peacock, raven, dove, and falcon-persons have become experts in embodying particular divine ‘energies’, particular facets of nature, in which case might it not be reasonable for we humans, not least with all the science, poetry, and free range intuition now at our disposal, to notice and learn from them?

B.T 5/10/14.


(1) Ted Hughes’s Letter to Donya Feuer, 1979 – in Christopher Reid, ed The Letters of Ted Hughes, Faber and Faber, p412.

(2) Beryl Rowland, Birds with Human Souls, a Guide to Bird Symbolism, University of Tennessee Press, 1978 (quoting  Petronius’s Satyricon).

(3) Aaron Cheake, Alchemical Traditions, from Antiquity to the Avant Garde, Numen Books, 2013.

(4) Ann Skea, Ted Hughes, The Poetic Quest, University of New England, 1994 has a detailed account of Ted Hughes’s use of alchemy in Cave Birds.

An Animist’s Bookshelf – Jim Crumley on Eagles, Swans, and Bears.

the company of swans021

Jim Crumley has long been one of my favourite nature writers.  When I read his books I often find myself muttering “yes”, particularly when he’s describing encounters with birds.  As far as I’m aware, he doesn’t use the term animist, but most contemporary Western animists would immediately recognise him as a conspecific.  He’s profoundly respectful of the autonomy, the personhood, of birds, and other animals, and has been a powerful advocate for rewilding in his native Scotland.  His writing is informed by dreams, folklore, poetry and visual art, by indigenous people’s perspectives on relations between humans and other large predators, and, of course, by decades of careful fieldwork.

In Brother Nature he describes how he ‘grew up nurtured by many animal dreams not to be afraid’, and how one of those dreams foreshadowed his enounters with bears when visiting the late Scott Shelton, and grizzly bears, in Alaska.  Shelton had, in turn, been shown how to relate to the bears by his native american neighbours.  For Jim Crumley, Alaska was what Scotland would have been like a thousand years ago, when the Romans were busy capturing hundreds of Caledonian brown bears and shipping them from Berwick, apparently named from this gruesome trade, for use in the Coloseum.

Jim Crumley describes himself as an unscientist -‘every bit as unscientist as the raven’- and argues that ‘the nature writers cause is better served by adhering to a kind of wild improvisation than to the principles and routines of science’.  He’s there to be poetic, to feel, to ‘look into nature’s eyes’, to engage in dialogue, to show that his species is still capapble of intimacy with non-human others.  Too much information can blind you to nature’s mystery.  Yes, yes, and yes.  Yes too, when he voices concern about the use of large plastic wing tags on every red kite at a re-introduction programme.  The kites will only have been successfully been re-introduced once they have eluded their reintroducers.

He opens The Company of Swans, a beautiful little book enlivened by Harry Brockway’s engravings, with a short poem, presumably his own, lamenting the fact that ‘a small mound of white feathers … is all the monument there will ever be to the life of a swan’.  He had, however, already provided a fine monument in the form of Waters of the Wild Swan.  Both books are inspired by ‘a profound love and respect for the wildness of swan and landscape’, and by outrage that whilst ‘we smother chocolate boxes and shortbread tins and matchboxes and theatres and pubs and toilet rolls and much else besides with the imagery of swans’, celebrate them in art, declare them ‘royal’, and embrace them in our folklore, ‘we also ridicule them, poison them, choke them, shoot them, beat them up, strangle them, electrify them, even crucify them’.  Yes!

Crumley writes movingly about his long relationship with swans and describes some wonderful close encounters, but is careful not to make casual claims about his ability to communicate with them.  Unlike many of his peers he’s also open about a premonitory sixth sense that sometimes comes into play, about his ‘almost ceremonial practice of greeting the returning whooper swans’, and about entering ‘the realms of silent worship’.  In the 1992 book he tells us about an inner dialogue in which he eventually resists a conditioned inner voice  urging him to ignore all that “Guardians of the Soul Crap”.  He says he feels less alone because, for twenty thousand years, humans have revered swans, but -typically- then asks “who cares for the soul of a swan?”.

Golden Eagle, Aquila chrysaetos.  Photo Richard Bartz, Munich, Creative Commons.

Golden Eagle, Aquila chrysaetos. Photo: Richard Bartz, Creative Commons.

So I was very pleased when I stumbled upon a new Jim Crumley book in a local bookshop recently. The Eagle’s Way  is about his other long term avian love affair, with Scotland’s eagles.  This is mainly a book about field work, and a work of advocacy for golden eagles and the reintroduced sea eagles.  So, for instance, when describing two occasions when an eagle and a wren became juxtaposed in his life, he doesn’t digress into the folklore that links these smallest and largest of birds.  What he does do, however, is look into the wren’s tiny and ‘inscrutible’ black eye for a ‘trance like moment’ … ‘perhaps a minute’, and ask “what message do you have for me”.

The book opens in Orkney, in the company, as it were, of Jim Crumley’s late friend George Carson, and his friend, the celebrated poet George Mackay Brown.  Crumley follows George Carson’s footsteps to the Tomb of the Eagles, at Isbister, on South Ronaldsay, where he was given four  -four to five thousand year old- sea eagle talons to hold, and had a life changing epiphany about his place in the millennia long relationship between humans and eagles.  The Tomb of the Eagles is well known as a neolithic chambered cairn that was found to contain 641 sea eagle bones -the remains of at least eight birds- alongside the remains of 85 humans.

I have a small bone to pick with Jim at this point, insofar as his condensed account of the tomb omits recent findings that complicate the archaeological story, notably that the eagle bones were deposited up to a thousand years later than the human ones.  Because those human bones were deposited communally, after removal of the flesh, sea eagles may indeed have been involved in excarnation or ‘sky-burial’, and may have been been revered as a ‘totem’ animal and/or guardian of the dead at the time of the cairn’s construction, as his telling assumes.  We can’t be sure. They were certainly revered later.  More importantly a brief reference to recent evidence suggesting that neolithic farmers were much less peaceable than formerly thought, would have helped dispel the impression of a remote arcadian past in which our distant ancestors lived in easy harmony with the rest of nature.  Although perhaps beyond the remit of a book like this, there’s also ongoing debate about the ethics of opening up long sealed ancestral human graves, and no doubt, about cleaning them up and converting them into  ‘must-see’ tourist attractions.

Jim Crumley, who says he normally goes out of his way to avoid dark enclosed spaces, was ‘astounded into something like a state of trance’ in the cairn, suddenly felt overwhelmed, and sped out into the sunlight on the small trolley that conveys visitors into the structure.  As ever, the immediacy of his account transports the reader.  Standing about a dozen yards from the seaward facing entrace of the tomb, he notices a skylark rise from its curved roof.  ‘Skylarks are my good omen birds.  Where there are skylarks, there is hope.  As long as there are skylarks I can cope with anything’.  Yes, yes, yes!

The Eagle’s Way ponders the relationship between the golden eagle, a bird thirled to high and lonely places, and the sea eagle, who ‘has no hang-up about perching on your roof’, and was only re-introduced -to Mull- in 1975.  The re-introduced birds had no parental training in the nuances of the new landscape they found themselves in, and have been subjected to some lurid press coverage.  Against this, he quotes a friend, Ann Lolley, describing a very close encounter with a sea-eagle on a beach in North Fife: “The size and perfection of the bird and its one clear eye which held contact with mine seemed to mesmerise me and hold me in a state of wonder.  Somehow I understood deep within myself that there must be a reason for our meeting.  This was an offering’ […] ‘Perhaps such species have the role of reaching out and mesmerising us enough to make us change all of our destructive habits that impact on the earth’.  Jim Crumley hopes that ‘the folk mind is quietly coming to terms with them’.  On Mull, eco-tourism has won the argument for nature.  Yes.

Brian Taylor 24/7/14.


Some of Jim Crumley’s Books.

Brother Nature, Whittles Publishing, 2007.

Waters of the Wild Swan, Jonathan Cape, 1992.

The Company of Swans, The Harvill Press, 1997.

The Eagle’s Way, Saraband, 2014.

Jim Crumley, Radio Talk: A New Dance with Wolves.

Orkney Jar: Tomb of the Eagles Remains Paints a Darker Picture of Neolithic Life.

and The Isbister Cairn, the Significance of the Eagles.

The Beauty of Vultures: Eco-animism, Astrology, and Underworld Deities – part 2.

Mummy Coffin of Pedusid, detail of chest area showing the goddess Nut, with outstretched wings, in plastered, polychromed, and gilded wood. c500-25 BCE.  Milwaukee Art Museum, Wisconsin.  Photo Jonathunder, Creative Commons.

Mummy Coffin of Pedusid.  Detail of chest area showing the goddess Nut, with outstretched wings, in plastered, polychromed, and gilded wood, c500-25 BCE. Milwaukee Art Museum, Wisconsin. Photo Jonathunder, Creative Commons.

The ancient Egyptians’ sacralisation of other-than-human animals puzzled or offended both the Greeks and Romans -who tended to explain it in terms of the animals’  allegorical, symbolic, or ‘totemic’ importance, or their usefulness- and later commentators, coming from a vantage point of Christian and/or Cartesian anthropocentricism.  There’s been some debate about whether the Egyptians regarded animals as vehicles for, or living images of, their gods, or as inherently divine beings within a cosmology that revered the natural world.  They certainly had a pragmatic and complex relationship with birds, some asepcts of which -notably the sacrificing and mummification of sacred Ibises on an industrial scale- are difficult to comprehend from a postmodern ecological perspective.  That said, the fauna of ancient Egypt was abundantly and often accurately represented in wall paintings, statutes, papyri, and heiroglyphs over a period of four thousand years'(1), and incorporated into iconic theriomorphic figures, including winged vulture goddesses, that retain considerable evocative power.

In his commentary on the Egyptian Book of the Dead (the Spells for Coming Forth by Day), John Taylor reminds us that most ancient Egyptians became parents in their teens, and were dead by the age of thirty five.  ‘More than perhaps any other society they directed a vast amount of their material culture to counteracting death’.  Their literature on death and immortality is ‘the oldest comprehensive expression of human thought about the survival of the individual’.(2)

For the ancient Egyptians the vulture was a scavenger of carrion on the battlefield, but also, and predominantly, a maternal figure.  Perhaps becasue there’s very little sexual dimorphism in vultures, they were seen as entirely female birds.  The heiroglyph for vulture came to mean ‘mother’, or ‘compassionate person’.  Vulture charms, such as ‘the spell for a golden vulture’ were invoked in order to protect the deceased in their journey into the afterlife.  The vulture goddess Nekhbet has been described as ‘both nursing mother of the dead and the womb from which they re-emerged into new life’.(3)

A rare image of an Egyptian Vulture, Neophron percnopterus, on a fragment of IV dynasty wall painting ‘displays a brilliant freshness after forty five centuries’.  According to Patrick Houlihan, the bird’s plumage colour and morphological characteristics are reproduced with great accuracy.  Houlihan describes the Egyptian Vulture as ‘perhaps the most loathsome of all scavenging birds’, because it often relies on human excrement and refuse, but then immediately acknowledges the species’ ecological importance.

The Griffon Vulture, Gyps fulvus, and the Lappet-faced Vulture, Aegypius tracheliotus, are depicted more frequently, though the former often appears in a conventionalised form representing Nekhbet.  One particularly vivid painted relief shows a Griffon Vulture (with unrealistic red, blue, and green plumage) grasping the hierogyph shen (infinity) in her talons.  A solid gold necklace recovered from the bandages of the mummy of a young Pharoah, features an intricate rendering of this huge raptor, again ‘representing’ Nekhbet.  The gold figure has a lapis lazuli bill, and obsidian eye, and fine chasing denoting the layered feathers on the vulture’s underside.  Another golden image of a Lappet-faced vulture, inlaid with coloured glass, on the innermost coffin of Yuaia (XVIII Dynasty), represents Nut, protecting the deceased with outstretched wings .(4)

After writing the first part of this post, I was dreamily contemplating an image of Nut with outstretched wings (above), and the notion of compassionately maternal vulture goddesses presiding over the transition we call death.  I Knew there was more to say, but wasn’t sure what it was going to be.  Then, less than two minutes after publishing the post, the imagery suddenly came alive, in a divinatory sense, when an e-mail arrived from an old friend I no longer see much, telling me that his mother had died.

Artist's impression of Pluto based on images from the Hubble Space Telescope.  C.M.handler, Creative Commons.

Artist’s impression of Pluto based on images from the Hubble Space Telescope. C.M.handler, Creative Commons.

The Moon viewed from the Earth in Belgium.  Luc Viatour. www.  Creative Commons.

The Moon viewed from the Earth in Belgium. Luc Viatour. www. Creative Commons.

Although I wasn’t aware of it at the time, the astrology of that moment proved beautifully apposite.*  Pluto, ‘planet’ of the underworld, was setting, just 22 minutes of arc from the descendant -the Western angle of the horoscope, which in general terms indicates the business of intimate connection and relationship, but also has mythical associations with death (this being the symbolic point at which the sun sets).  A waning Moon was in close attendance, conjunct Pluto -signifying both the death of a mother, and the protective vulture-mother imagery.  The Moon and Pluto are both associated with Goddesses of Fate, who spin, weave, and cut, the threads of destiny on earth.  There was much more to this astrological picture, of course, but the fine detail can’t be shared here.

My conclusion, based on contemplating evidence from astrological practice over the past thirty years or so, is that occurances such as this, where the unfolding of earthly circumstance appears to be closely mirrored, described, and to some extent impelled, by the configuration of the ‘planets’, show that the material world is suffused and shaped by meaning.  If divination is grounded in a sense of the possiblity of meaningful dialogue with more-than-human worlds, divinatory moments, whether bidden or, as in this case, unbidden, re-connect us with a presence that feels both infinite and intimate.

B.T. 2/4/14.


* My astrology programme was out of action at the time, but in any case it wouldn’t have felt appropriate to rush from the emotional response of the moment to the cooler, more transpersonal, beauty of astrology.  For many reasons, I’m cautious about using astrology, not least given that we live amongst something of a pandemic of anxiety and ‘paranoia’.


(1) Ingvild Saelid Gilhus, Animals, Gods, and Humans; changing attitudes to animals in Greek, Roman, and early Christian ideas, Routledge, 2006.

(2) John H. Taylor, ed. Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, Journey through the Afterlife, The British Museum, 2010.

(3) Thom van Dooren, Vulture, Reaktion Books 2o11, and Akkadia Ford, Isis, Afrikan Queen, Capall Bann, 1999.

(4) Patrick F. Houlihan, The Birds of Ancient Egypt, Aris and Philips, 1986.

Jules Cashford, The Moon, Myth and Image, Cassell, 2003.

Patrick Curry, ed. Divination, Perspectives for a New Millenium. Ashgate, 2010.

Brian Taylor, The Discovery of Pluto, An Unbidden Omen, pp249-330 in Suzi Harvey, ed. Orpheus, Voices in Contemporary Astrology, Consider, 2000.  Written c1995, and in need of updating, but includes the sequence of ‘co-incidences’ surrounding the ‘planet’s’ discovery.


Two Corvid Stories, Ted Hughes’ Crow and the Battle of the Birds

Apollo with Black Bird, Delphi. Archaeological Museum Delphi. Photo: fingalo, CC2.

Apollo with Black Bird, Delphi. Archaeological Museum Delphi. Photo: fingalo, CC2.

Ravens and crows have long been regarded as oracular birds par excellence.  According to one story, Zeus sited the oracle at Delphi where the flight paths of his two Ravens crossed.  Odin also has two Ravens, of course.(1)  When the bodies of ravens and crows were left as offerings in pits at the Iron Age British hill fort at Danebury, one raven wing was carefully placed on a platform of flint and chalk (2 ).  The Celts are said to have brought divination to Ireland, where a text from c900-1200 A.D gives twenty eight prognostications based on raven behaviour, and a further seven based on their calls.(3)  Ninth century Tibetan commentaries on Buddhist scriptures include a detailed manual of crow divination.(4)

I’ve been wondering to what extent stories about birds enhance or detract from our ability to understand and appreciate flesh and blood birds.  With this question in mind I want to reconsider two corvid stories.

Ted Hughes’ Crow.

My favourite poet, Ted Hughes, spent a formative childhood here in the Calder Valley (in the North of England).  Remarkably for a neo-Pagan with a strong interest in shamanism, he became Poet Laureate between 1984 and 1998.  Hughes was also an environmental educator and campaigner whose deeply animistic work has been celebrated for its engagement with ecological crisis.  Terry Gifford, for example, based his notion of post-pastoral poetry on Ted Hughes’ work (particularly Cave Birds).(5)  My feeling is that Hughes was drawn to birds because he experienced an exceptional sequence of bereavements.  It was during this extended life-crisis that he became pre-occupied with the figure of Crow.

The first thing to say about Crow is that even supportive critics have found it problematic.  There are ‘too many facile poems of violence and apocalypse’,(6) and some gratuitous images of all-too-gendered human violence, that may reflect Hughes’ response to the circumstances under which he was writing.  Moreover, the sequence was truncated by a second major tragedy in the poet’s life. That said, Crow marks the beginning of a period of intense engagement with bird imagery.

Ted Hughes was inspired, in part, by Native American creation stories from the Pacific Northwest, in which a Trickster deity -called Dotson ‘sa, or Great Raven, by the Koyukon people- creates and re-creates the world(7), and by the comparable figure of the Guiser in English folk lore.  His disturbingly bleak ‘epic folk-tale’, forged from, though not reducible to, the raw psychic material of personal crisis, needs both an accompanying explanatory text (such as that provided by Ann Skea), and the resolution found in later poems, particularly Bride and Groom Lie Hidden for Three Days (from Cave Birds, a shamanistic continuation of Crow).

In Cave Birds, An Alchemical Cave Drama a cock-sure protagonist undergoes a period of Nigredo (blackening), during which his hardened persona is broken down by descent into numb darkness before he can be transformed.  The Nigredo stage was referred to by alchemists as the Raven’s Head, and is personified here in the figure of The Executioner, drawn by Leonard Baskin as a puffed-up and pitch black raven, and described by Hughes as the Sun god in his ‘aspect of judgement’.(8)  Hughes also invoked European raven lore, notably the lurid story of Apollo and Coronis (Apollo turned a white raven black when the oracular bird insisted on bringing him unwelcome news), and that of the Raven God Bran, and his wife Branwen (White Raven).

One of the many achievements Ted Hughes’ has been credited with is significantly widening the cultural range of English poetry.  He likened mythology to a thesaurus of symbols.(9)  Although he was influenced by the neo-Platonic tradition, Robert Graves, and Carl Jung, Hughes expressed his craft in such a distinctive, committed, and locally grounded voice, that he probably honoured and re-payed any borrowings.  Respectful eclecticism arguably raises awareness and provokes creative dialogue.

Was Crow fair to crow-people though?  I’m not sure about this.  Some naturalists have been keen on the work of the ‘Yorkshire shaman’.  Paul Evans says that his younger self liked the fact that Crow ‘shat on the sensibilities of those for whom Nature was somehow set apart from the world as we live it, to be preserved as chocolate box landscapes inhabited by cuddly animals’Hughes’ voice ‘articulated wild life’, and described the vitality, the ‘dangerous manners’, of nature beyond human governance.  Where ‘natural history and scientific ecology tries to banish poetic metaphor’, Hughes embraced mythology.  His Crow and the Birds works as an antidote to ‘the RSPB view of nature’.(10)

Because most of Crow is concerned with human existential angst in the wake of the multiple cataclysmic tragedies of the Second World War however, my feeling is that many of Ted Hughes’ other bird poems –Snipe, A Swallow, Bullfinch, Wren, Treecreper, The Moorhen, Tern, The Kingfisher, A Cormorant- come closer to the lives of actual birds, whilst often commenting wryly on human parallels.  There are some very powerful poems elsewhere that evoke ornithomorphic figures, such as The Angel in Remains of Elmet, And the Phoenix has Come from Adam and the Sacred Nine, or A Flayed Crow in the Hall of Judgement in Cave Birds. Perhaps these are more successful because they suggest neither avian nor human consciousness but various primal hybrid states beneath and beyond either.  Some of Hughes’ later poems, particularly the River collection, are widely regarded as his most profound celebrations of Nature.  

According to Richard Nelson, Koyukon people have an ambivalent attitude towards ravens, but make more ‘prayers’ to them than to any other animals because their powerful spirits show benevolence towards humans.(11)  Corvids are noted for their wit and resilience.  Ravens have a reputation for teasing other animals.  They scavenge, feast on roadkill, and peck the eyes out of dying and otherwise vulnerable animals, so its quite reasonable to associate them with the katabolic, death-facing, aspect of deity.  What is not reasonable surely, is to appropriate that part of their lives in order to stereotype them as mascots of war or harbingers of misfortune.(12)  As Esther Wolfson puts it ‘the battlefield drew (and no doubt draws) crows to feed, yet human disgust is for the feeding birds, not for the pointlessness of war, for the instigators, the paymasters, the makers of arms, or indeed the apparently insatiable human desire for the often illusory attainment gained only by conflict’.(13)  I doubt whether ravens are any more likely to accompany death than other species of birds.

We humans have a lot more in common with corvids than we may think.  John Marzluff and Tony Angell point out that humans and crows are both  family orientated, gregarious, long-lived, diurnal, vocally and visually astute, reliant on memory and individual recognition, and generalists who utilize many links in the food chain.  Crows and ravens care for each other, form largely monogamous pair bonds, show mutual affection (groom each other more than other birds), engage in foreplay, sunbathe, make tools (use ants as insecticide), have complex family relationships, and co-operate to sleep in safety.(14)  In other words, they are self-evidently other-than-human-people.  Furthermore, Marzluff and Angell report two extra-ordinary soul bird stories involving crows.

There are some beautiful descriptions of raven flight ‘displays’, as ornithologists like to call them, in which pairs (sometimes two pairs) of ravens perform synchronised aerial dances.(15)  I have been privileged to witness some very moving raven performances, and can only say that I find their emotions, including love for each other, palpable.



The Battle of the Birds.

We had a hot dry spell here recently.  The ground was parched and the grass was like bleached straw.  Farmers gathered in the hay.  Then there was a great storm.  Thunder, lightning, torrential rain, and flooding.  Roads became rivers.  Then came Lughnasad (Loafmass, or Lammas), our (northern hemisphere) festival of First Fruits.  So it was against a backdrop of dramatic weather that I came across a Scottish harvest story, Cath nan Eun, the Battle of the Birds, featuring a magical raven.

Although various versions were collected and translated from Gaelic in the mid nineteenth century, the story is said to have been handed down through previous generations.(16)  It begins with a wren who offers to help protect a farmer’s crops, and is challenged by a mouse.  The wren musters an army of birds, and the mouse summons a tribe of rodents and crawling creatures.  When the protagonist, Mac Righ Cathair Shioman, a King’s son, arrives, the only combatants left are a Great Black Raven and a Serpent.  The Serpent is coiled round the raven’s neck, but the raven grips the Serpent’s throat in his beak.  Neither dare move. The King’s son decides to help the raven by slaying the serpent, and is given various gifts in return.  “For thy kindness to me this day I will give thee a sight.  Come up now on the root of my two wings”.  So the King’s son rides on the Raven’s back ‘over nine bens, nine glens, and nine mountain moors’, and in one version the bird takes him on his first hunting expedition as well.  The raven then helps him overcome a Giant and marry the Giant’s daughter.

As the adventure begins, the King’s son is told he must ‘keep tryst’ with the raven.  ‘ Be sure that thou meetest me tomorrow morning, here in this place. ‘  But on the third morning a mist descends and the raven cannot be found.  In his place a ‘beautiful yellow ringletted man, with a golden comb in one hand and a silver comb in the other’ appears.  The King’s son enquires whether he has ever seen a big black raven, and is told “thou wilt never see the raven again for I am that raven.”  The young man then hands the King’s son a magical bundle, and the story continues.

Alexei Kondratieff makes some intriguing connections between Cath nan Eun and the Celtic god Lugh, who was concerned with sovereignty, and venerated as guardian of the crops at Lughnasad.  Many-gifted Lugh seems to have been associated with both the wren (the etymology of his name suggests he is Lu, little, and the wren becomes King of the Birds through trickery, by riding on an Eagle’s back) and, as Lugus, with the raven.  In Iron Age Britain Lugus is thought to have been assimilated into the Roman figure of “Mercury”, protector of travellers and patron of trade, but also god of language, winged messenger (he wore winged golden sandals), and psychopomp.  Like Mercury, Lugus was linked with oracular birds.  Three ravens, with white feathers, are said to have flown down at the time of the founding of Lugdunum, inspiring the establishment of an oracular shrine.  Odin’s ravens (Odin may have been a variant of Romano-Celtic ‘Mercury’) are, of course, messengers associated with faculties of mind.(17)

What appeals to me in the Battle of the Birds is how vividly the agency of other-than-human-persons, and dialogue between humans, deities, and the rest of Nature is evoked. The imagery of metamorphosis would be no less striking if we were to read it as a strong expression of existential equivalence, empathy, and communion between humans and birds. However, the golden haired young man in the story, who had been ‘laid under spells by a bad Druidh’, identifies himself as ‘the black humpy raven, Fitheach Crom Dubh’, ‘the Bent Black One’.  In Irish Celtic literature Crom Dubh appears at Lughnasad, bent under the weight of the sheaf of grain he  carries up from the underworld.  He then fights, and is killed by, or becomes, Lugh, who releases the harvest from the spirits of the land.  Interestingly, in the Scottish story, the raven, a manifestation of Crom Dubh, carries the young prince on his back, and helps him to become King.

The wren, whose Welsh name dryw also means ‘seer’ (though the plural is different), and is similar to derwydd druid(18), and whose Irish Gaelic name dreoilin may derive from draio ean druid bird(19), is also associated with ornithomancy.   Lugh’s association with magical birds is echoed in the Welsh story of the death of Llew, who is transformed into an eagle, and back again.

Ted Hughes made much of the fact that the Calder Valley was part of the ancient Kingdom of Elmet, the last outpost of the Celts in England.  I like to think that the kind of sensibility expressed in these stories would have been familiar to those who lived here many generations ago.  For me, though, the real test of the value of such stories is whether they reflect and encourage respectful relationship with flesh and blood birds.  For an urban twenty first century readership, alienated from the land, such stories may, of course, exacerbate a tendency to exoticise and romanticise both birds, and non-ordinary states.  Its important, therefore, that we don’t let them become a rigid filter through which we perceive the natural world.  That said, I hope that stories such as the Battle of the Birds can still work as allegorical reminders of the possibility of subtle and intimate connection between ourselves and our avian neighbours.


1) Beryl Rowland, Birds with Human Souls, a Guide to Bird Symbolism, University of Tennessee Press. 1978.

2) Dale Serjeantson, Ravens and Crows in Iraon Age Britain, the Danebury Corvids Reconsidered, in W. Prummel, D.C. Drinkhuizen, and J. Zeller, eds Birds in Archaeology, Rijksuniversiteit Groningen, 2008.

3) Glynn Anderson, The Birds of Ireland, Facts, Folklore, and History, The Collins Press, 2008, citing Best R.I. Prognostications from the Raven and Wren, Eriu, Dublin, 1916.

4) Lama Chime Radha Rinpoche, Tibet, in Michael Lowe and Carmen Backer, eds. Divination and Oracles, George Allen and Unwin, 1981.

5) Terry Gifford, Pastoral, Routledge, 1999.  Ted Hughes, Collected Poems, Faber, 2003.

6) Terry Gifford and Neil Roberts, Ted Hughes, A Critical Reader, Faber and Faber, 19981.

7) Richard K. Nelson, Make Prayers to the Raven, A Koyukon View of the Northern Forest, University of Chicago Press, 1983.

8) Ted Hughes, Cave Birds, an Alchemical Cave Drama, Viking Press, 1978.

9) Ann Skea, Ted Hughes and the Poetic Quest, University of New England, 1994.  And see her website.

10) Paul Evans, Crow Nation, Guardian 4/11/98.

11) Richard Nelson, the Watchful World, in Graham Harvey, ed Readings in Indigenous Religions,  Continuum, 2002.

12) Edward Armstrong The Folklore of Birds, Houghton Mifflin, 1959.

13) Esther Wolfson, Corvus, A Life with Birds, Granta, 2008.

14) John M. Marzluff and Tony Angell, In the Company of Crows and Ravens, Yale University, 2005.

15) Derek Ratcliffe, The Raven, A Natural History of Britain and Ireland, T. and A.D. Poyser, 1997. e.g. pp108-9, quotes Ryves, 1948.

16) J.F. Campell, Popular Tales of the West Highlands, Orally Collected, Vol 1, Edmonston and Douglas, 1860.  (the full text is can be found in Google Books)

17) Alexei Kondratieff, Lugus: The Many-Gifted Lord, An Trìbhís Mhór, The IMBAS Journal of Celtic recontructionists, Lúnasa 1997.

18) Mark Cocker, Birds and People, Jonathan Cape, 2013, quoting Jim Perrin.

19) Peter Wood, The Wren, 1997.

20) Edward Armstrong, The Folklore of Birds, Houghton Miffin, 1959, says that the wren was known in Ireland as ‘magnus avium’, that Cormac’s Glossary describes it as a druid bird that can give predictions, and that wren oracles survive.