“The Snow, Yo Ho!” – A Winter Walk.

DSCF1743snow laden beech tree, j hole, crp

As a small boy, an old friend of mine wrote a poem in praise of snow.  It went something like this: “Yo Ho, the Snow / The Snow, Yo Ho!”  Not bad, eh?  Well, that’s how I felt last Wednesday when I woke to find picture book snow falling in big white lumps.  The snow kept coming all day, until 5 p.m, leaving the town under a six-inch-deep quilt.  Conifers on the hillside, caked in glorious gloops of white, reminded me of Tove Janson’s Moomintroll children’s books.

Suitably kitted out, I set off up a favourite wooded valley, clomping through pristine whiteness.  All the branches were coated with one to three inches of crystalline powder, creating a dazzling latticework of light.  Many were bowed so low under the weight that I had to crouch beneath them to find the path.  Or knock the snow off, so they sprang out of the way – spoiling the visual effect, but eliciting an almost palpable gasp of relief from the overhanging tree-people.  Avoiding paths that would be dangerous in such conditions -some lead you down steep stone steps, others take you close to precipitous drops- I paused by the remains of a former water mill and wondered about child labourers arriving for work on winter mornings, two hundred years ago.

Following some barely negotiable steps up to the fields above, it soon became apparent that the snow was much deeper there.  Walking conditions became more difficult, and falling snow was limiting visibility, so I turned back into the intimacy of the wood and re-traced my steps.

Everything seemed right with my bit of the world.  I’d only been at the bus stop a few minutes when someone stopped, unbidden, and offered me a lift into town.  Of course, for the sheep, deer, and many birds -not least the somewhat bemused flock of redwings I came across, the snow is a direct threat to life.  And in the U.K. some thirty to forty thousand more humans -mostly elderly folk- die in winter than in summer.  Saturn/Chronos, astrological ‘ruler’ of both winter and old age, is not known as the Grim Reaper for nothing.

Nowadays proper snow is unusual here, and it typically thaws in a few days, leaving streaks and blotches on the higher hills.  A neighbouring town used to have a set of traffic lights indicating whether routes over the Pennines were closed by snow, but these dissapeared some years ago.  The valley now has new street furniture in the form of flood warning sirens.  Various species of birds and butterflies that were once limited to the South of England are now resident in the North.  Flocks of Egrets grace the Lancashire coast.  Nuthatches and speckled wood butterflies are common in our local woods.  Perhaps because I was born at this time of year, I feel more ‘at home’ at midwinter than at any other time of the year, and miss the days when a white blanket would lay, for weeks on end, on ‘the tops’ round here.

Sheep Feeding.  Receding Snow, Two Days Later.

Sheep being fed in the receding snow, two days later.

B.T. 25/1/15.

 

 

 

 

Beech Trees in Autumn

beech leaves Doghouse Lanebeech leaves doghouse lane 2SAM_6371brtrIMG_3667Venerable Beech, Calder Valley

“I’m not sure if my sense of the beechwood’s watery aura was just an aesthetic conceit, or whether I was subconsiously beginning to glimpse something fundamental about how they worked -the slipperiness of life inside them, the glacial quality of their familiars as they unfurled themselves in the shadows and merged into the slow flowing rythms of the wood.  There seemed to be nothing jagged about beech life.  Sometimes I felt like a beech-creature myself, slipping through this deep ocean of sinuous shapes and muted colours ….”.  from Richard Mabey’s Beechcombings, The Narrative of Trees.

Richard Mabey talks about a dialogue between his naturalist and romantic selves.  Speaking in the former capacity he reminds us that autumn is time of furious activity, not a slow winding down.  Trees probably shed their leaves to minimise water loss during the winter, but the blaze of autumnal foliage is also a cathartic detox -the level of toxins in leaves can apparently increase a thousandfold.  They’re also breaking down chlorophyll and sugars in the leaves, and withdrawing them into their woody flesh.  As the green fades, its replaced by orange, brown, and yellow anti-oxidants, which are thought to bind with the toxins.  So the spectacle of autumn colour is ‘a sign of rude health.’

I’m a confirmed romantic and something of a ‘tree hugger’, but its good to know a bit about the metabolism of these wonderful senior citizens of the woods.

Most of the beech leaves have fallen now.  The nights are drawing in.  Once again we can see the tracery of branches.  Somewhere beneath the moist earth, thousands of forgotten bluebells sleep.  Flocks of fieldfares, redwings, and bramblings will soon be arriving to feed on the beech mast and berries.

17/11/14.

Richard Mabey, Beechcombings, the Narrative of Trees, Vintage Books, 2008.

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.

Sources:

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.

Animism on T.V ? Part 1 – Gordon Buchanan with Guillemots and Black Bears.

Guillemots, photo Markos90. Creative Commons.

Guillemots, photo Markos90. Creative Commons.

The work of wildlife film makers is a good place to look at the overlap between natural history and animism, especially when the latter is taken to refer to worldviews and lifeways grounded in respectful relationship and dialogue with a wide range of autonomous and sentient other-than-human beings.(1)  Animism, of course, becomes more problematic for many scientific ecologists when also defined in terms of belief in a minded or ensouled cosmic nature that includes realms and beings (‘spirits’, ancestors, deities, and so forth) that are invisible to most of us for most of the time.

Although they may be content to identify themselves as naturalists, some of our best wildlife presenters also clearly have an animist ‘self’ in the former sense.  Their affection and respect for other-than-human beings is obvious, as is their willingness to engage in dialogue across species boundaries.  They combine a sense of wonder at the teeming complexity of the natural world with scientific curiousity and commitment to ecological causes.  Often, however, there’s a noticeable tension between these emerging animist voices and a more ‘rational’ voice schooled in the dominant discourse of scientific ecology.  Perhaps not surprisingly, given the nature of mainstream media, television film-makers also seem less able than nature writers to engage with liminal and numinous phenomena that are difficult to articulate, share, record, or indeed film.

The following notes were prompted by some recent footage that, hopefully, reflects an ‘animist turn’ within Western culture.  A recent example of Gordon Buchanan’s work once again showed that he is an animist in the first sense, at least when in the presence of non-human others, whilst a sequence from Charlie Hamilton James’s series, ‘I Bought A Rainforest’, included a surprising encounter with what the nineteenth century anthropologist Edward Tylor would have labelled ‘primitive’ animism, and in the process demonstrated the potentially intimate connection between these two strands of animist thought and practice.

Black Guillemots, Bangor.  Geograph.org.uk.  Creative Commons.

Black Guillemots, Bangor. Geograph.org.uk. Creative Commons.

GORDON BUCHANAN WITH GUILLEMOT-PEOPLE AND BLACK BEARS

In a recent Springwatch film, Gordon Buchanan, visited the Guillemots of Skomer, a small island off the coast of Pembrokeshire.  Although populations of these birds in Scotland and North East England have crashed due to the lack of sand eels (as sea temperatures rise), as well as changing fishing practices, the Skomer birds eat sprats, so had been doing fairly well, until last winter.

Guillemots are be poster-birds for respectful relationship.  Leading ornithologist, Professor Tim Birkhead, who has studied them since 1972, has described them as ‘basically people’.  Because they breed in some of the densest of all bird colonies, nesting next to the same neighbours nearly every year of their twenty year life, social etiquette is vital, including ‘allopreening’ – the act of preening one’s neighbour.  Imagine that.  They are ‘garrolous’, though, and fall out from time to time.  Like humans, they’re basically monogomous, but have occasional ‘flings’.  They will preen each other’s chicks, and may be as faithful to their friends as they are to their life partners, and ledges.(2)

Young Guillemots are called jumplings, because, for them, leaving the ‘nest’, a precarious looking cliff ledge, involves hurling themselves down into the sea.  Gordon Buchanan has previously filmed them bouncing down a 200 foot cliff in Mull, an ordeal that can take from two minutes to two hours.  Once in the sea, their first task, incredibly, is to swim, with their parents, across to Norway -a journey of some 400 miles!

In a recent Springwatch film he reported the devastating effect of last winter’s protracted storms, that, as well as taking human lives, causing flooding and economic hardship, and remodelling chunks of the British coastline, killed large numbers of seabirds. I was impressed by the complete seriousness with which Gordon Buchanan explained, to camera, that for the surviving Guillemots, waiting on their ledges for partners that would never return, there was ‘a period of bereavement’. Presumably, since this was filmed at a site where the birds’s social relations have been studied for over four decades, this was not anthropomorphic indulgence.

According to the R.S.P.B’s Dr Euan Dunn last winter’s ‘seabird wreck’ was on a scale ‘unprecedented in living memory’, and could have a profound impact on vulnerable breeding colonies.  The R.S.P.B. blame a combination of sea warming, and those huge winter storms – at one point there was an area of forty foot waves the size of the Iberian peninsular out in the Atlantic.  How have the powers-that-be responded?  By cutting funding for the project monitoring impacts on these birds’ survival.(3)

Gordon Buchanan’s animism, if I can call it that, has long been evident in other films, not least when he worked with Dr Lynn Rodgers filming black bears in Minnesota.  During the period of filming he was accepted by a female bear who, at one point, trusted him to babysit her daughter.  Later in the series, when she wandered off in search of a mate, and may have become disoriented by a storm, he made the decision to intervene on behalf of her abandoned youngster, named ‘Hope’ by researchers, over-riding the wildlife film-makers code of non-intervention.  There is remarkable footage of Buchannan hand feeding his young charge. “I feed my birds in the garden through the winter, and if I didn’t do that, they would suffer, so you can’t really take that hard line of ‘don’t intervene’ because almost every single animal is affected by human beings.  I made the decision that the right thing for me to do was help that animal.”(3)

In another memorable scene from the series, the mother bear patiently lead Gordon Buchanan through the forest, eventually taking him back to his vehicle.  She was clearly saying, “I think it’s about time you left now!”  Interestingly, in a subsequent article, Buchanan pulled back from describing the re-union between mother and cub as emotional, changing this to ’emotional, for humans’.

He points out that black bears killed forty humans in the last century, mostly because of food stress, and attributes his eventual ability to relate to them so intimately, to their human-like characteristics.  This has, of course, often been commented upon in relation to the extensive lore surrounding bears.  According to Richard Nelson, Koyukon men deal with surprise encounters with Black Bears by talking to them in order to reassure them that they intend no harm.  The Koyukon, who traditionally regard black bears as an important food resource and ceremonial delicacy, have a complex cultural relationship with them in order to cope with the problem of killing a creature so like themselves.(5)

Gordon Buchanan was addressing the issue of recreational hunting in the U.S.A. -Hope was subsequently killed by a recreational hunter.  For a British audience, unused to the presence of large predators, his conservation driven reports from wild places are likley to seem exotically dramatic, and are regularly reported in those terms.  In these alienated circumstances, wildlife film-makers have a potentially important role, but need to protect their animist sensibility from romanticisation on the one hand, and ‘scientific’ objectification on the other.  Gordon Buchanan is one of those who often seems to get it about right.

Part 2 will discuss Charlie Hamilton-James’s recent series ‘I Bought a Rainforest’.

Sources:

(1) Graham Harvey, Animism, Respecting the Living World, Hurst, 2005.

(2) Skomer’s Birdman Returns to keep Watch on Guillemots, Guardian, 16/7/12.

(3) South and West Wales Wildlife Trust, Save Our Seabirds appeal.

Wildlife Trusts, Massive Loss of Life for Storm Hit Seabirds

(4) Wanderlust Travel Mmagazine, Interview with Gordon Buchanan

and, a first(!), a link to right wing tabloid Mail Online, for this article which explains Lynn Rogers work and has some astonishing pictures of Gordon with the bears.

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

Age and Beauty – Some Portraits of Older Birch Trees.

SAM_4070br SAM_4075 SAM_4078

This wonderfully sculpted Birch beside the River Wharfe seemed to be marking a village boundary, which felt right, given that Birches have long been associated with protection and boundary marking.  Compared with other tree species, Birches are not very long lived.  Silver Birches in the U.K. typically live for 50-90 years, with some individuals going on to be 150 years old, though apparently they can live longer further north.  We tend to think of them in their characteristic role as young pioneers, fixing nitrogen in unwelcoming soil so that other species can become established.  They’ve been called the ‘Mother Tree’ because of this ability to open up new habitat, and ‘the Lady of the Woods’ because of their slender form.  The link between birch trees and shamanism is well known, as is their symbiotic mycorrhrizal relationship with fly agaric (amanita muscaria) and other fungi.  I’ve always been drawn to the play of light in birch woods, but nowadays find a particular beauty in the colours and textures of older birch trees.

Birch

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Brian Taylor 7/6/14.

Sources:

Trees for Life:  Birches.

Royal Forestry Society

Animism in the Poetry of John Burnside.

Stag Beetle, by Albrecht Durer, on the cover of John Burnside's 'All One Breath'.

Stag Beetle, by Albrecht Durer, on the cover of  ‘All One Breath’.

An entry in the Scottish Poetry Society website introduces John Burnside as ‘a poet and novelist whose work explores fundamental spiritual and ecological issues about the nature of our dwelling on earth’.  In 2003, he and Maurice Riordan edited an anthology celebrating ‘that most lyrical, and […] persuasively magical of science writers’, Rachel Carson.(1)  Sensing an increasing willingness to speak across the divide between scientific rationality and poetry or magic, they invited poets to work with scientists.

Burnside, who has worked in information systems (and according to one source, botany) calls for ‘a science of belonging’.  ‘Imagine the science (and the poetry) that might have grown up in a society that was not rooted in hostility to, or romanticisation of, the natural world.  A science that had no preconceived ideas about ‘objectivity’, a pagan science in which no crude ‘order’ was projected upon the world’.  A science grounded in reverence for life.  Although (as Wittgenstein asserted) scientific knowledge can have great practical value, it ‘cannot and should not seek to eliminate mystery.  The more we know, the more mystery deepens’.

For Burnside, poetry is a form of ‘scientia’ – ‘a technique for reclaiming the authentic, for reinstating the real’.  Although he rarely uses the term, as far as I’m concerned anyone who writes that ‘a poem (or drawing, or song, or dance movement) that reclaims membership of a wider, more-than-human world is as necessary an enterprise as any I can think of’, is an animist.  In poems such as By Kautokeino, written in Finnmark, Northern Norway, he makes a conscious effort to attune his art ‘to the song of the earth’, which, he tells us, is not a metaphor but an actual sound that can be heard -though it may be necessary to step outside of one’s own culture, and the narrowly human realm to hear …

‘the subtler frequencies of earth and sky, / dead generations buried in the sand, / feeding the ling, feeding the birch trees and willows, / reindeer and Arctic fox and unnumbered men / who made a living here with skill and patience, / their works provisional, / their dreams immense, / their children raised in memory and song …’

He reccomends walking as a political act, because it ‘takes us away from the machine and back into the world …(connecting us)… with the rythm of the earth, the feel of a place, the presence of other animals, the elements, sidereal time, the divine’. (2)

One of the things I most appreciate about John Burnside’s perspective, though, is that as well as engaging with the otherness of what we contemporary animists may sometimes too comfortably call other-than-human worlds, he’s deeply concerned with questions of human identity, community, place and politics.  In a moving autobiographical memoir A Lie About My Father, he describes growing up in a family overshadowed by a violent alcoholic father, and paints a vivid picture of Scottish working class masculinity.  As a teenager he sought refuge in drunken absences, and the ‘sacrament’ of LSD, eventually succumbing to ‘a usually high-functioning, though sometimes catastrophic form of madness’. and admissions to psychiatric hospital.(4)

David Borthwick has written that a process of ‘anamnesis’ (unforgetting?), informs John Burnside’s eco-poetry.  His male speakers can’t cope with difference or accept the notion of interdependence, and are, therefore, distanced from social relations and alienated from their natural environment.  This is an argument that many Eco-feminists have made, of course, but it needs restating, not least in the context of the broad concensus that animism is all about relationship.  Burnside interrogates habits of domination, and feels that ‘every man in the world, down to the poorest man, has the possibility for excercising power, if only over his even poorer wife and children’.  We (men) need to learn to ‘transform ourselves, so that living is an act of grace, a transcendence of any need for power or control.’  His vision of a reconstructed masculinity involves ‘an inward process’ of transformation, rather than ‘visible achievements, or titles bestowed upon the successful’.  Hearteningly he now advocates the prinicple of ahisma – of doing, if not no harm, then the absolute minimum of harm’, and closes A Lie About My Father in the company of his own young son who, he hopes, will read it.(5)

The terms in which Burnside talks about violence will be very familiar to animists.  ‘Violence arises from the tendency to objectify others -humans, animals, terrain and so on […] – and spiritual enlightenment begins, I feel, in a first recognition that there are no objects in the world, that there is no possibility of being meaningfully ‘objective’.  Thus violence is the symptom of a spiritual failure, a failure to recognise the fundamental imperative to respect and honour ‘the other’. (‘Burning a Woman’. Swimming in the Flood, 36–41).

Much of John Burnside’s poetry has been concerned with exploring the liminal and numinous (though he says that in Black Cat Bone, he wanted to deal more directly with solid real-life things).  This preoccupation emerges in recurrent references to Halloween, reflections of the nature of souls, and references to ephemeral phenomena that appear in twilight or mist.  The Light Trap begins: ‘Homesick for the other animals, / at midnight, in the soft midsummer dark, / we rigged a sail of light amidst / the apple trees beyond your mother’s lawn / and counted moths.’  The poet expresses an animist’s concern that in the process of naming other animals ‘we cannot help but treat them as our own /[…] though they are far from us, and rapt / in other frequencies, / like waves or stars …‘.  In Of Gravity and Light, seagulls drifting in mist are slowed ‘to something like a standstill / – only the barest / wingbeat troubles the air, the pearl and the grey /of light becoming flesh, then vanishing.’

At liminal moments we’re susceptible to change.  Identitybecomes less fixed, more open to possibility.  At the beginning of A Lie About My Father Burnside writes: ‘I have celebrated Halloween all my life.  Most years, if I can, I stay at home.  I make an occasion of the day, a prviate, local festival of pennance and celebration in more or less equal measure.  I think of my own dead, out there among the millions of returning souls …’.  Some of his most moving poems are personal.  In All One Breath there’s a poem about his father’s Funeral that opens with an epigraph describing ancient funerary practices, and the lines ‘We wanted to seal his mouth/with a handful of clay…’.  Another poem entitled Instructions for a Sky Burial includes a request to ‘carry me out of the house, unwashed and naked, /and leave me in the open, where the crows /can find me.’  After the dogs, rats, flowers, larvae, crows, and ants have taken what they need, ‘.. something / inexact and perfect forms itself / around the last feint wisp /of vein, or tendon, something like a song, / but taking shape, implacably itself / new breath and vision, gathered from the quiet.’

Burnside’s responses to the enigmatic notion of ‘soul’ are characteristically careful, tentative, and often elusive, but in An Essay Concerning Light he rejects the injunction in the Bardo Thodol (and implicitly in other transcendent religious traditions) that the departed soul should try to avoid returning to earthly form.  Having included other-than-human beings in his deliberations, he says: ‘Me, I would take the back road, out by the loch: / a moorhen in the reeds, the flush of dawn, / and no-one behind me, calling, again and again, / go into the light /nobly born / go into the light’.

Readers familiar with the work of Ted Hughes, another eco-poet with a strong interest in this metaphysical terrain, will find some curious paralells between their lives.  As a boy Hughes escaped into the countryside surrounding a small working class town under the mentorship of a much older brother with a fondness for shooting the wildlife.  Burnside escaped into the woods and fields around the small mining town of Cowdenbeath in the company of his ‘bright, funny, and utterly merciless’ cousin Kenneth, who ‘knew every bird in the woods, every fish in the loch’.  Both boys fished and trapped wild creatures (see John Burnside’s poem ‘Stickleback‘), and witnessed horrible cruelty to animals.  At the age of seven Hughes’s family moved to a mining village in South Yorkshire.  At the age of ten Burnside’s family moved to the steel town of Corby in Northamptonshire.  There are significant differences too, of course, but the convergences are fascinating.

Burnisde’s eco-poetry rarely becomes overtly political, though he does express his concerns fairly directly from time to time.  In Travelling South, Scotland August 2012, he passes through ‘miles of tract and lay-by on the way / to junkyards and dead allotments, / guard dogs on tether’, and regrets the loss of wolves, bear, and other wild creatures.  ‘We’ve been going at this for years: / a steady delete / of anything that tells us what we are…’.  The old gods are ‘buried undead beneath the rural sprawl / that bears their names, or wandering the hills / of Lammermuir and Whitelee, waiting out / the rule of Mammon, till the land returns / -with or without us – ‘.  Another of the All One Breath poems, Earth, is dedicated to David ‘Gypsy’ Chain, who was killed while protesting the clear cutting of Californian Redwoods in September 1998.  Don’t expect the poems to contain a point by point manifesto though.  Like Ted Hughes or Seamus Heaney, he has engaged more directly with the issues in prose, but feels that poetry must ‘stand of fall by its music’.

My feeling is that, given the insistence of traditional/hegemonic masculinities on simple, and ultimately brutal, certainties, and on being rational, and in control, and given the pressing need to find ways of practicing respectful relationship, the alert tentativeness of John Burnisde’s evocations of other-than-human animals, and of the strange beauty of ‘the real’, this ‘actual’ flesh and blood (and liminal and numinous) world, may, in itself constitute a significant political contribution.  When I first encountered his poems -they often have untranslated epigraphs in other languages- I thought they might be the work of another establishment voice.  I’m really glad that I read A Lie About My Father.  Contemporary animism needs to attend to the voices of ‘survivors’, especially those as attuned as John Burnside is to the perils of alienation from the living world.

Brian Taylor, 13/5/14.

Sources:

1) John Burnside and Maurice Riordon, eds. Wild Reckoning; an anthology provoked by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Central Books, 2004.

2)  John Burnside“A Science of Belonging: Poetry as Ecology,” Contemporary Poetry and Contemporary Science, ed. Robert Crawford (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006), 91–106

3) Poetry and a Sense of Place an informal essay, with the hauntingly beautiful sequence ‘ Epithalamium’ appended.  Proceedings of the Writing and a Sense of Place Symposium, Tromso, August 1996.

4) What Makes You Write Poetry?  Interview in The Economist, 5/3/12.

John Burnside, A Life in Writing  Sarah Crown, The Guardian 26/8/2011.

A Lie About My Father, Jonathan Cape, 2006.

5) Borthwick. D The Sustainable Male:  masculinity, ecology, in the poetry of John Burnside, pp63-85, in Masculinity and the Other, Historical Perspectives, Cambridge Scholars Publications.

John Burnside Masculinity; the Problems of Power and the Possibility of Grace, Edinburgh Review, 100 (1999).

John Burnside’s nature writing column in the New Statesman.

Swimming in the Flood, Jonathan Cape, 1995,

The Light Trap, Jonathan Cape, 2002.

All One Breath, Jonathan Cape, 2014.

Poetry as Ecology

Travelling South Scotland, August 2012

Something Astonishing is Happening.

Thanks to the Obliquity of Ecliptic, our mid-latitude Northern Hemisphere world is tilting back towards the Sun, and everything is coming back to life.  Jubilant swallows have returned.  Nuthatches are plastering tree holes to make suitable nest sites.  Lesser celandine carpet the woodland floor.  Wood Sorrel and Wood Anemone sparkle white among ancient horsetails.  Marsh marigolds glow in boggy streamside mud.

IMG_5785_1 SAM_4921_10SAM_4924_9

This Cartesian attitude of an insentient, nonvolitional, unminded natural world […] owes something to the Platonic-Aristotelian backgrounding of plants”.

“Darwin not only put forward the idea of relatedness between humans and the natural world, but his work was the first to demonstrate and articulate the idea that plants are capable of movement and sensations – providing the basis for the discipline of plant signalling […] scholars in this discipline have begun to recognize many points of continuity in the natures and capabilities of plants and human beings.” 

“Working closely in collaboration with plants on a restoration project can allow many Westerners the opportunity to directly encounter the autonomous qualities that plants possess”.

Matthew Hall, Plants as Persons, A Philosphical Botany, SUNY, 2011.

Gorse and Ingleborough-9267_4 IMG_6578b_3 SAM_4873_11 SAM_4929_8 SAM_5005_7 SAM_9191_6 SAM_9201_5

The images are of: lesser celandine, horsetail and wood anenome, marsh marigold, wild cherry (two images), a primrose/cowslip hybrid, new beech leaves, and cuckoo pint.  The celandine were in our local wood, the rest were taken in North Lancashire and South Cumbria.

The Beauty of Vultures: Eco-animism, Astrology, and Underworld Deities – Part 1.

Vulture Poster

Vulture Poster, Aditya Roy.

I’ve never really had the travel bug, so have only seen vultures in the wild once, in Andalucia, soaring over a limestone gorge, and spiralling on thermals above the mountains.  I was quite taken with them, so I watched Charlie Hamilton-James’s painstaking B.B.C. documentary –Vultures, Beauty in the Beast (21.00 p.m on 31st January), with great interest.  Hamilton James turned out to be a persuasive advocate for a species that, with their hairless serpentine necks that can exert a force of 40lbs, and stomach juices capable of dissolving metal, are formidable ecological specialists!  Filming in Africa, he pointed out that if hyenas fail to turn up, vultures will plunge their heads into the rear ends of animal carcasses to dine.  Adult vultures can soar a hundred miles to bring food to their fast growing chicks.  The lovingly crafted documentary showed these maligned birds to be caring parents.

But, as Hamilton James found out, the demise of several species has caused a major ecological crisis in India, and may soon do so in Africa.  Veterinary diclofenac, a non-steroid anti-inflammatory drug used in cattle, causes renal failure in vultures.  Its use has  wiped out 97-99% of the 40 million vultures that used to consume about 12 million tonnes of rotting flesh each year in the Indian subcontinent.  In their absence, the spread of wild dogs, and then of rabies, lead to an estimated 50,000 additional human deaths.  The vulture crisis is said to have cost India around $34 billions in just one decade.(1)

There are readily available alternatives to diclofenac, yet the drug is now being legally sold in Italy, and Spain, the country that hosts the bulk of Europe’s Vulture population.  The Vulture Conservation Organisation, and other conservation organisations are campaigning for it to be banned in Europe.

Rupell's Griffon Vulture.

Rupell’s Griffon Vulture (Gyps rueppellii). Creative Commons.

As an astrologer, it seemed clear to me that these magnificent undertakers of the natural world would be ‘ruled’ by Pluto, planet of the underworld, so I was not at all surprised to find that the documentary was aired under a tight conjunction of Pluto with Venus (Beauty in the Beast), both closely opposite Jupiter (amongst other things, the planet associated with large size and high places).  It turns out that the huge Rupell’s vulture has been recorded flying at 36,000 feet -the altitude typically used by jet airliners- higher even than those bar-headed geese that cross the Himalayas.  They have apparently developed a special kind of haemoglobin that makes their oxygen intake more efficient.  So the astrology,  as usual, included a concise symbolic picture or signature of the subject matter of the film.

Of course, brief statements such as this obscure the material reality of Pluto as a body of rock and ice that’s currently about 4.8 billion kilometres from earth.  There is, I think, a terrible beauty -of the kind often characterised by the term sublime- in the apparently consistent synchrony between planetary motion and the unfolding of meaningful occurences on planet earth.  ‘As above, so below’.  I haven’t looked at other horoscopes involving vultures, but having looked in some detail at the astrology of the underworld, would expect to find confirmation of Pluto’s rulership in carefully observed events  (another project!).

There is much debate between those who conceptualise astrology as divination and those who see it as spiritual science.  Suffice it to say here, that I tend towards the former, and would be looking for the persuasive force of a carefully observed single moment, or sequence of moments (such as expressed in planetary cycles), rather than for a statistically significant population of data.  Astrology is about cultural meaning, the poetry of the planets if you like, so it feels important to resist the Western temptation to curate an underworld ‘archetype’ (in the manner of Jung’s collective unconscious).  In some parts of the world the ‘second most massive known dwarf planet’ we call Pluto, is named after indigenous underworld deities such as (Hindu) Yama, or (Maori) Whiro.  I might be interested in hearing about Izanami, Anubis, Masaaw, and the often invoked Ereshkigal, but there’s a limit to what I can hope to say about them.

There is, of course, a considerable amount of lore, mythology, and cultural practice involving Vultures.  In India, Vultures no longer visit the Parsi Towers of Silence, to consume the bodies of the dead.  The ancient funerary practice of dokhmenishini is now in crisis.  In both Parsi dokhmenishini and Tibetan sky burial, there’s a sense of  giving alms to the birds, and expressing gratitude and respect for the vital work they do.  Asked when vultures started to disappear from Mumbai, a Parsi woman recalled them coming for the bodies of her grandmothers but said that when her father died only kites and crows came.(2)

All of which raises interesting questions about how some other-than-human animals seem to specialise in certain ecological niches, and develop gifts and skills associated with the corresponding planetary principles or deities (principles sounds rather dry, but do we know who deities are?) becoming in the process emissaries, and teachers in the shamanic sense.  Charlie Hamilton-James did a good job flagging up the perils of disrespecting vulture persons, but I was left feeling that he may have got closer to their beauty if he had paid more attention to the many and various cultural stories about them.

(1) Tony Juniper, What has Nature Ever Done for Us?

(2) Thom van Dooren, Vulture, Reaktion Books, 2011.

To be continued shortly in Part 2.

Protecting the vulnerable

toad in pond. with string of toad spawn.

Contented Toad – in our local pond. with a necklace of spawn.

Our world is warming up again.  Milder evenings are waking toads from their hibernation.  So, once again, we potter up the hill with torches, buckets, smaller pots for the occasional frog -who wouldn’t want the company of toads- and yogurt pots for palmate newts.  What better way to mark the arrival of spring!

The lane through the wood tucks into the hill, so its often warmer there, protected from the chilly westerly wind.  On clear nights the tree branches above us are lit by sparkling stars. Sometimes the silence of the night is punctuated by Tawny Owl conversation.  The small ragged wood is thick with memories.  In summer we’ve often gone there to watch bats, and I’ve had several very close encounters with foxes.

This week we’ve been finding male toads (which are smaller), sitting upright in the lane, sniffing the air.  Last night one perky individual was squatting on a stone.  They’re probably hoping that a female (they’re much bigger, and scarcer) will come along, so they can hitch a ride, or failing that, perhaps some friendly hominid with a bucket and torch?  Their migration, along the lane, and either up through the steep wood, or across two fields, to their ancestral pond, is an impressive feat.  I sometimes worry that our assistance might be interfering with their navigational ability.  Are they adapting to our participation in their annual rite?  Some may have had several rides in our buckets by now.

I also wonder whether we’re simply saving them from the danger of being crushed beneath a vehicle’s tyres, or under a human foot, only to serve them up as fox or badger snacks?  But the latter have to eat, and last night we found half a dozen freshly killed individuals on the road, so I think its better to intervene.  When we put the rescued toads down most of them strode off purposefully, as though they knew where they needed to go.

Over the years my partner has researched some ten migration routes locally, and found volunteers to look after them.  If you’re in the U.K and would like to help out, go to Frog Life to find your nearest toad rescue site.

A newt in the hand.

A (palmate) newt in the hand.

We’re fortunate to live in a small town in the North of England where quite a lot of people get  involved in these kinds of activities.  But even here there are many who, are at best, oblivious.

These are, no doubt, the same people who are unable to empathise with vulnerable fellow humans, and who succumb to the relentless propaganda against benefit claimants.  Most of my past involvements were in community action and community development work (supporting self-advocacy), rather than conservation or ecological activism.  Although this blog has focused mainly on relations with the ‘natural’ world, animism makes no sense to me unless it also engages with social justice issues.  I’m no longer able to be politically active, but I’ve been incensed by the ever increasing inequality (over the the past 35 years), and by cuts to essential public services and welfare benefits.

Images from Community Action, Manchester, 1972.

Memories from Community Action, Manchester, 1972. Inequality is now far worse.

Today’s news includes a report from Oxfam -who now run anti-poverty projects in the U.K- showing that five super-rich families have more personal wealth than the poorest 20 per cent of the population.  A long term psychiatric patient at our nearest hospital, who recently had a heart attack after her treatment had been stopped, and was still being harassed by the Department for Work and Pensions after she had gone into a coma, is one example of how government cuts are targeting extremely vulnerable people.  Its now beyond reasonable doubt that people are taking their own lives due to benefit ‘reforms’. (some testimony can be found here).

Although the issues are, of course, rather more complex than rescuing toads, there’s an urgent need to raise awareness of what is happening, to resist cuts to essential public services and welfare benefits, to propose alternatives, and to ensure that vulnerable people in our society are respected and protected.  There’s also a need to stay sane, perhaps, with the help of some small amphibian friends.

B.T 17/3/14.

Comment by e-mail: “What a great toad photo! I like the way you linked it with vulnerable people too.” J.P.

Humankind and Ashkind/Shadow over the Ash

Ivy clad Ash tree, Leighton Moss.

Ivy clad Ash tree, Leighton Moss.

Shadow over the Ash

I’m pleased to be able to re-publish an article written by my friend John Billingsley in response to the imminent threat to the U.K’s Ash trees from Chalara fraxinea, otherwise known as Ash Dieback.  John is a folklorist and editor of the long running ‘earth mysteries’/neo-antiquarian magazine Northern Earth, where the article first appeared in issue 133, Spring 2013.  His tribute to a much loved tree reviews the lore and folk traditions surrounding the species.  Click on the title below to open a pdf of John’s article:

Shadow over the Ash

I’ve written some accompanying comments on the ecology of the disease and human responses, based on the writings of Richard Mabey and other naturalists:

Humankind and Ashkind

The Ashgrove how graceful / how plainly ’tis speaking …”.

A huge landmark Ash tree, double the height of the house next to it, presides over our hillside.  By day corvids chatter and curse amongst its branches. By night tawny owls announce their presence, fluting or ker-wicking into the darkness.  I’ve occasionally been privileged to hear a pair of owls performing a passionate duet from the upper storeys.  Ash Keys are a favourite food of the bullfinches that live nearby.  Having walked beneath hir boughs (an ash tree often has both male and female branches and flowers) for almost forty years, I find it very hard to imagine the hillside without this lofty neighbour.  But its something I’m likely to have face in the not too distant future.

Because ash trees don’t cast dense shade they have been well described as convivial.  Ashwellthorpe, a rare and beautifully named fragment of one thousand year old ash woodland in Norfolk has early purple orchids and carpets of bluebells in Spring and white admiral butterflies in July.  Ash bark provides a suitable habitat for mosses and lichens.  Twenty eight species of invertebrates are said to be monophagus on Ash, meaning that they eat nothing else.(1 and 2) When Chalara fraxinea was found in mature ash trees here, local naturalists felt devastated.

We are expected to lose most of the U.K’s 80 million Ash trees due to the relentless advance of this mutated fungus, though estimates of its impact vary.  Richard Mabey cautions against catastrophising Ash die back however.  The Great Storm of 1986 reduced woodlands across the south of England to matchwood.  Although it looked and felt apocalyptic at the time this turned out to be ‘the most important event in British nature conservation since the war’.  It taught us that cataclysmic events are entirely natural, and that, left to its own devices, woodland recovers. Where conservationists attempted to clear up the debris, forest soil was scraped away making it very difficult for new trees to grow.  Where the wood was left alone, its now very difficult to find any evidence of that storm.  Mabey argues that Ash die back is another such opportunity for humans to take another approach.

In Poland between ten and twenty five per cent of ash trees have some degree of immunity, and in Lithuania ten per cent have survived the infection for eight years.  Ash trees in the U.K may be more genetically diverse.  Mabey points out that ash trees have been evolving for millions of years, and are clever.  We may be able to ‘tag along with the trees own cleverness’ and plant out resistant varieties.  He urges caution even in relation to this tactic however, and rails against the folly of relying on tree planting as a way of revitalising woodland.  We have, in effect, been planting out ‘battery saplings’, and in the process ‘have made many of our woods as conducive to virulent epidemics as hospital wards’.  The trees are too genetically uniform, too even aged, too densely packed’.(3 and 4)

Oliver Rackham, whose name my naturalist friends mention in hushed tones, indicts the commodification of Nature, and consequent globalisation of tree diseases and pests, as ‘the greatest threat to the world’s trees and forests’.  The W.T.O are not about to let anyone bolt the stable door however.(5)  According to plant disease specialist Dr Stephen Woodward (quoted in the Guardian piece) the chances that Chalara fraxinea was carried to the U.K by the wind are minuscule.

In striking contrast to most media coverage, Alan Lockton, from the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland, points out that disease creates diversity in both habitats and the gene pool of species, and says that ‘some infected trees may eventually die’ whilst others will recover, before dying from other causes.  He speculates that some 50% of mature ash will die over the next 100 years, a ‘turnover’ only sightly higher than normal. Furthermore, since Ash has greatly increased in England and in lowland areas of Wales and Scotland over the last 50 years, in part due to the absence of Elm trees, ‘a slight reduction of Ash is unlikely to do much harm’.(6)  Time will tell whether his optimistism is justified.

Chalara fraxinea is undoubtedly a serious concern in limestone areas, such the White Peak, where ash is the dominant species.  It would be a tragedy if the miniaturised mature ash trees that grow tenaciously in the limestone pavements of northern England are lost.  Landmark trees in urban areas, such as my huge ash neighbour, are unlikely to be allowed to decline in peace once weakened by the disease.  It is, of course, the loss of these familiar trees that will hurt most.

As an animist I wonder whether Richard Mabey’s understandable impatience with anthropomorphic responses to trees is simply a green version of the culturally dominant denial of the possibility of respectful relationship with them as persons?  He complains that ‘we hug them, plant them as civic gestures and acts of reparation, give them pet names’, and treat them as if they were ‘vulnerable children or biddable machines’.  In an unstable world we appropriate them as symbols of security, continuity, and peacefulness, then ‘when this cosy relationship is turned upside down we are shipwrecked, wondering if we have been bad guardians …’.  Mabey is equally caustic about tree planting, describing it as a painless ritual of atonement for the devastation our species has wreaked.  We are culturally unwilling to acknowledge that trees are resilient, dynamic, and evolving vegetation.  In ten year’s time the ash trees near his house will have metamorphosed into ‘complex catacombs of decaying wood full of beetles and woodpecker probings’.  It seems to me that, in this description, trees have regained their autonomy, their otherness, at the expense of any sense that we humans might be able to relate to them as persons?  A cursory glance at some of the many books on working with non-human allies suggests that ‘we’ contemporary Westerners find this a very difficult balance to strike.

The Norfolk naturalist filmed talking about the prospect of losing the mature ash trees at Ashwellthorpe stands with his hand resting on the trunk of a huge ash tree throughout the interview.  His gesture says what he, as a spokesperson for a public body, is unable to put into words.  Faced with the prospect of seeing trees that we love dying and/or being cut down, we may well need to grieve and rage (especially if the cause turns out to be human greed or stupidity) in safety.  Only then, perhaps, will we be able to think and act clearly?  Prompted by Richard Mabey’s observations I’ve been ruminating about at my own identification with familiar and much loved trees, not least some that I planted.

Does talking about trees (and other non-human beings) as persons encourage us to project our all-too-human emotions on to them?  Why is it so painful to let go of significant trees?  Are some of us better at relating to other-than-human beings than to other human people?  How different are the challenges involved?  Are women better than men at these kinds of relationships?  Animism raises so many questions.  Personally I feel much less confident about relating to trees (or stones, or the land) than to birds or animals, but think it would be unhelpfully reductive to generalise about all close relationship with them in terms of fantasy, delusion, or child-like regression.  We arguably need to be as careful about how we enter into relationships with other than human people as we are, hopefully, about relating to other human people.  Let’s not foreclose the possibility of deep emotional connection and intimate dialogue with both!

Sources:

1) Patrick Barkham, The Ash Tree Crisis, a Disaster in the Making, Guardian, 30/10/12.

2) Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland, Ash Dieback, 2012 (consulted 9/9/13).

3) Richard Mabey, video clip: Ash Dieback, Richard Mabey on What we Should Do,2012.

4) Richard Mabey,Our Ash Trees are Dying, Don’t Despair, Catastrophes are Natural Events, New Statesman, 7th June 2013.

5) Oliver Rackham, Ash Disease, the Present State of Knowledge and Ignorance, 9/11/2012.

6) Alan Lockton, Ash Dieback, Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland. Updated 25/11/2012.

Mature Ash, Limestone Pavement.

Mature Ash, Limestone Pavement.