The Year of the Toad

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

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

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

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

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

Toad in pond, with string of spawn.

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

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

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

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

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

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

B.T. 6th April 2017.

 

 

 

 

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Celebrating Fungi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

velvet-shank-dscf8153_1

Happy wandering!

B.T. 15th November, 2016.

Sources:

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

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

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

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

Wing Beats-British Birds in Haiku

wing-beats001

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).

Sources:

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)

Entanglements

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.

B.T.

11th September 2016.

Sources:

(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

“Wrecking the Earth” – Thoughts Provoked by Michael McCarthy’s “The Moth Snowstorm”.

Pole Trap Set on Widdale Fell near Hawes, North Yorkshire, 2016. Photo S, Downing R.S.P.B.

Pole Trap Set on Widdale Fell near Hawes, North Yorkshire, 2016.  Photo S. Downing, courtesy of the R.S.P.B. investigation team.

Yesterday evening I went up to a favourite spot on the high tops not far from where I live.  As I approached, a Lapwing was herding three tiny chicks along the lane.  I wandered amongst wonderful rock formations, appreciating the immense views, the silence – and the soul stirring call of curlews.  As the sun went down they all seemed to join together in a chorus of trilling bubbling celebration.  Then everything went quiet, and it was suddenly rather dark and cold.

When I first entered a caption for the photo above I wrote ‘Pole Trap Set on Widdale Fell near Hawes, 1916’.  An easy mistake to make given that these brutal devices, that can inflict horrendous injury on any bird settling on the ‘post’, were banned in the U.K in 1904!  Yet on the 6th May 2016 three pole traps were discovered on a grouse moor near Hawes in North Yorkshire, a county notorious for raptor persecution.  A female Hen Harrier was hunting nearby.  As many readers will know, ecological studies have established a firm link between the critical conservation status of the Hen Harrier in England and driven grouse shooting.  Despite large areas of suitable habitat they have not managed to breed in North Yorkshire since 2007.  R.S.P.B. staff hurried to the scene and installed remote cameras that enabled police to identify the individual who was setting up the traps.  Shockingly, however, he was let off with a caution.  For more on this latest development in a long running saga, see here and here.

I had been reading Michael McCarthy’s The Moth Snowstorm, and once again pondering the relationship between the animist fringes of ‘natural history’ -most visible perhaps in autobiographical nature writing such as this- and why it is that some folk are able to feel ‘joy’, appreciation, and/or love (of a more than sentimental kind) in the presence of our other-than-human neighbours, and wonder at the dauntingly complex beauty of it all, whilst so many others remain disconnected or fearful, and a significant minority behave abusively.

McCarthy, who was an environmental correspondent for the Independent, is eloquent about the loss of biodiversity over his life time.  “We who ourselves depend upon it utterly are laying waste to the biosphere, the thin, planet-encircling envelope of life, rushing to degrade the atmosphere above, the ocean below, and the soil at the centre and everything it supports”.  What he particularly mourns is ‘the great thinning’, the loss of abundance, exemplified in the ‘moth snowstorms’ that anyone who remembers driving, or being driven, at night, forty or more years ago, is likely to remember.  Car windscreens no longer have to cope with a detritus of moths.  And this matters, of course, for all the birds that depend on invertebrates.

An engaging autobiographical thread in the book describes how the author first found solace in the beauty of butterflies at the age of seven when he was sent away to live with his aunt when his mother was admitted to a psychiatric hospital.  Seven years after her death he realised that he needed help, and embarked on ‘a slow, painstaking process of unfolding layer after layer of emotions and memories’ with the help of a therapist.  At the core of the book is a potentially important message, about how the recovery of love can deepen our connection with the rest of nature.  Having opened up emotionally, the author seems to have become attuned to experiences of the kind that (following Heidegger, via various writers on divination) I like to call showings.

Peacock Butterfly, Aglais Io.

Peacock Butterfly, Aglais Io.

He eventually took his children, then aged twelve and seventeen, to visit the grave of the grandmother they had never known.  As the family stood contemplating what was written on the headstone, ‘a dead leaf came tumbling through the air towards us on the wind and fell at our feet, right at the grave’s very edge.  And then in the thin sunlight it opened its wings: it was a peacock … at once it set something alight in me.’ Butterflies -the ancient Greeks used the same word for butterfly and soul- had entered his soul.  He thought about it all that day, and on the next day proposed a project of attempting to see all 58 species of British buttterflies during one summer, and inviting his readers to participate.

As readers of this blog will know, I (and others) have logged many instances of birds turning up at significant biographical moments, particularly around deaths and bereavements.  I have also come across several other references to butterflies making similarly timely appearances at graves.  My conclusion, after much careful consideration, is that such events go well beyond cold co-incidence, and reflect a profound and subtle communicativeness and generosity that permeates the very fabric of ‘nature’.  A communicativeness that ‘we’, collectively, have lost the ability to respond to.

Echoing the writings of Theodore Roszak, Ted Hughes, and many others, Michael McCarthy talks about how urban culture has lost touch with the rythms and processes of the earth, and about the loss of an intimate feel for the natural calendar, especially the ‘tiny signs’ and ‘hints’ of the world’s re-awakening after winter, and the importance of the winter solstice as a moment of rebirth.  The emergence of snowdrops around the festival of Candlemas (a.k.a. Imbolc), and the appearance of the first butterfly, should surely be moments when more of us feel the elation that McCarthy shares with us.

Noticing this kind of sign is an important first step, perhaps, towards learning to read signs of a more personal nature.  Again, like Roszak, Hughes, and others, McCarthy bemoans the modernist suppression of non-rational ways of knowing -alchemy, magic, folk religion- that ‘allow the imagination to flourish’, and, for example, acknowledges ‘a hint of the supernatural’ about the hare.  Contemporary animists, who may or may not refer to animism in terms of spirituality, tend to agree on the need to move beyond the notion that non-ordinary or magical phenomena are super-natural, seeing them as intrinsic to cosmic nature, but would no doubt appreciate the author’s tentative direction of travel here

The Moth Snowstorm is thought provoking on species loss, and moving as a memoir, but rather than appealing to a ‘hard wired’ capacity for joy (or presumably abuse), my inner sociologist would like to have seen more upacking of the collective human ‘we’ who, here as in many other ecological texts, are said to be ‘wrecking the earth’.  Whilst it may be important to acknowledge that all of us in the developed world participate to some extent in the orgy of overconsumption and militarisation that fuels ecocide, as Michael McCarthy clearly knows, ‘we’ are not all equally culpable.  Most of us are not the C.E.O’s of global corporations, nor for that matter, owners of grouse moors.

Reading the background to the persecution of raptors in England, for example, its hard to avoid the conclusion that an obscure class war is still being waged by a powerful elite.  I would like to see further discussion of this in terms of assumptions about access to, ownership of, and knowledge about, the countryside, and ‘nature’, in relation to class, gender, and ethnicity.  Mark Avery, who comments on some gaping silences surrounding the case to date, points out that those pole traps were being set on a hill near Hawes by a twenty three year old man.  But he was, no doubt, following orders.

As an animist I would also like to see much more discussion about other ways of knowing and relating to the ‘natural world’, informed by recent debates in animism.  All sorts of cultural and institutional obstacles will have to be overcome before the mainstream is ready for that though, Graham Harvey’s efforts notwithstanding.

Yesterday evening I also watched red grouse giving their strange staccato calls as they flew over the cotton grass, in peace for once.

B.T. 3rd June 2016.

Some sources:

Michael McCarthy, The Moth Snowstorm, Nature and Joy, John Murray, 2015. and The Loss of Nature and the Nature of Loss.

Mark Avery, Inglorious, Bloomsbury, 2015. and for wry commentary and an e-petition (u.k readers please sign if you haven’t already) see his blog.

R.S.P.B Forum Blog: “Proceed with Caution”

Graham Harvey, Animism, respecting the Living World, Hurst (2005) and Handbook of Contemporary Animism, Acumen (2013).

Ted Hughes on Oracular Corvids

 

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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.

Sources:

(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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Spring

Rumworth Morris at Todmorden Folk Festival

Rumworth Morris at Todmorden Folk Festival

“Our hats are standard bowlers, painted white and decorated with flowers and jewellery. Six strands of navy blue ribbon, about three feet long, are attached to the hatband at the back – and can make a nuisance of themselves when we dance in strong winds, as they wrap themselves around arms, garlands and faces.

We wear white collarless shirts, with a gold sash that goes twice around the waist in the style of a cummerbund and is tied and pinned at the inside hip.

We also wear a red sash that goes over the inside shoulder and is pinned at the outside hip. This asymmetric arrangement of the sashes means that you are dancing in either the left hand or the right hand file – but not both, at least not in any one ‘spot’. (Unless you’ve tried it, you would not believe how long it takes to put those sashes on!)

Our breeches are navy blue corduroy, with three gilt (brass) buttons on the outside of each leg just above the hem.

Our footwear is the traditional black clogs that are one of the trademarks of the North West Morris dance …”.

After a long, dark, wet, mild winter, punctuated by horrible flooding that left a tangle of human and environmental challenges in its wake, the return of spring has been eagerly awaited in the valley.  A fine gathering of morris teams lifted our spirits recently.  They were all good, but I particularly liked the floral hats worn by Rumworth Morris from Bolton. (the above comes from their website.)

We’re just back from another trip to Wharfedale, where the woodland floors were jewelled with violets, primroses, and wood anemones.  There’s something special about the colour of primroses.  The name apparently derives from the Old French Primerose, or the medieval Latin, prima rosa, first rose.  It comes as no surprise to find them associated with love, protection, and faery lore.  In North Yorkshire spring garlands of green leaves, primroses, and buttercups, were made to welcome spring, and confer good fortune.(1)

Robert Graves declared that ‘the lotus crowned goddess in the Corinthian Mysteries … must be worshipped in her ancient quintuple person, whether by counting the petals of lotus or primrose, as Birth, Initiation, Consummation, Repose, and Death’.(2)  Fiveness is said to be about ‘the creation of order out of chaos, bringing together things that are naturally separate into a formal relationship with one another’ (3).  In alchemy the quintessence is present in the four elements, not as a separate substance, but as the pre-exisiting spirit which all possess in common, and by which they are united. (4)

P1000691_1 P1000719_1

But Spring is also a site of struggle.  Other-than-human-persons don’t spend all their time ‘respecting’ each other.  We watched female bee-flies, hovering, their long proboscises dangling ahead of them, depositing eggs, with a sudden darting movement, into the nest holes of solitary bees.  The larval stage of bombyliidae parasitises bees, wasps, or beetles -but (I find myself speaking as the anthropocentrically judgemental liberal here) some varieties redeem themselves as important pollinators.

We also came upon a contented looking Stinking Helleborine, that, like the primrose, embodies fiveness in its petal-like sepals.  The stinking helleborine’s flowers are, however, tinged with maroon, and it sometimes smells of wet dog, alerting us, hopefully, to the disconcerting fact that the plant contains toxins that can induce nausea, vomiting, diahorrea, headaches, mental confusion, numbness of extremities, hypotension, muscular spasms, cardiorespiratory failure, and finally death. Some of the poisons can be absorbed through the skin. see here.

Stinking Helleborine

I was not in any mood to dwell upon katabatic powers, however.  Pulled on by April sunshine, I embarked upon what turned out to be the longest walk that my rather challenged body has managed in many a year with no small help from the invigorating powers and presences of the Wharfedale landscape.  Birks Fell, a beautiful hill with an elongated ‘snout’ resembling the prow of an upturned boat, or perhaps the tail of a limestone whale, formed by, and marking, the confluence of the Wharfe and Skirfare, pulled my heart strings from across the finely sculpted valley, and put a spring in my step.

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B.T 24/4/16.

Sources:

(1) Margaret Baker Discovering the Folklore of Plants, Shire.

(2) Robert Graves, The White Goddess.

(3) David Hamblin, Harmonic Charts, A New Dimension in Astrology.

(4) Paul F. Cowlan An Alchemical Countdown; The Quintessence, Four Elements, Tria Prima, etc, Alembic, 2010.