Roots Left Hanging in the Air


The past few weeks have been quite intense.  Another flood ravaged the Calder Valley on Boxing Day -we were told that the floods in June 2012, and July 2013(!), were exceptional events, but this was worse- with unprecedented river levels, and extensive damage to homes, businesses, and historical infrastructure.  Chunks of canal bank ripped away.  Mudslides.  And in the small Clough (a wooded side valley) that I’ve been visiting for more than forty years, another mature oak has came down.

Richard Mabey reminds us that plants have more than twenty different senses. “Entire forests are linked by an underground “wood wide web” of fungal “roots” that transport and balance nutrient flows and carry signals about disease and drought throughout the network”. (more here)   The entire Clough now resembles a tree graveyard, towered over by mature Beeches, planted by our Victorian forbears.  A virulent fungal infection is now spreading amongst these, and some have fallen.  Pausing by the newly exposed roots of the latest casualty -the ripped cables of the ‘wood wide web’- I wondered what kind of chorus of alarm must have reverberated along the valley.


I was, no doubt, particularly attuned to the fate of that Oak, because Chris, a close friend, and fellow member of the meditation group that celebrated the seasonal festivals for five years during the late 80’s and early 90’s, died just before the Winter Solstice.  After a three week hiatus, I was privileged to be able to read a passage from his 1995 thesis, on Ecology and Postmodernity, at his funeral yesterday.  The event is far too ‘open’ to write about yet, of course.  Suffice it to day that funerals can be powerfully life-affirming rites.

Chris was well aware that his writing took place in an extravagantly abundant living world, and was delighted to hear about the following small incident that occured when I was reading another passage some years ago.  In a section entitled ‘Facing the Danger’ he talked about “the need to apprehend, to listen, to open oneself to the unhuman Other, to stop the interpreting, to feel, to identify with” and argued that ” in these encounters there is a sort of presence at work”. […] What is forgotten by cultural theory is “the void, the darkness, the concealment from which all unconcealment arises, [… ] an alterity (or otherness) […] whose nearest figures are silence, darkness, void, negativity and absolute limit”.  At that point I noticed a tiny orange mite crawling across the page, neatly underlining the concluding line, which read: “ecological sensibility reminds us, above all, of the smallness of the lighted clearing in which we (all of us, even the literate human ones) come to presence.”

Bon Voyage Chris, and May the Long Time Sun Shine upon You!

B.T. 12/1/16.

Chris Drinkwater (1995) Ecology and Postmodernity, PhD Thesis, University of Leeds, pp195-6.






A Kingfisher Dream.


Living in the nation, and region, with the longest history of industrial urbanisation, I’m all too aware that my lifeworld is radically different from that of the world’s remaining hunter gatherers.  Its a constant source of wonder and surprise to me, therefore, that kingfishers (and other birds and animals) have been such a powerful presence in my dream life over the past twenty five years or so.  I’ve written about this elsewhere, so for present purposes I want to revisit a dream that seems to me to illustrate the possibility of subtle relationship with other-than-human ‘persons’, and with the natural world, in all its strangely beautiful depth, in an urbanised setting.

Many traditions caution that the power of a dream event can be dissipated by inappropriate sharing.  Because of the need to be careful about disclosing intimate personal moments, anyone writing about spiritual/magical phenomena faces the dilemma that many of our most powerful and convincing experiences cannot be brought into the public domain, or reduced to the status of cold data.  For this reason I’ve chosen a dream that happened long enough ago (December 1993) for me to feel that I can write about it without undermining any ongoing (inner or outer world) work.  Although it wasn’t a particularly important or dramatic dream, I can assure you that in the context of the prolonged life crisis I was negotiating then, every appearance of those birds felt like a priceless gift.

At the time I was quite excited by a possible precognitive element, but this now seems much less important than the quality of contact and relationship involved.  Another key feature of the dream was that it was one of several strong kingfisher dreams associated with an incident of harm to a member of the species, or to their habitat.

On the 1st December 1993 a friend gave me a cutting from the Halifax Courier describing the rescue of a kingfisher caught in discarded angler’s line at a local fishing pond.  After the rescue, Nature Trail reporter Peter Martin hand fed the bird on whitebait from a local fishmonger for several days before returning her to the pond, where he ‘said a silent prayer’, opened his fingers, and released her.  The bird flew away strongly, then several minutes later, they heard a shrill call and the kingfisher came back and flew past them.(1)  Having been moved by this story, I woke the next morning with the following dream (retold in the form I wrote it down).

“I’m on a train passing a bird reserve with many storks.  Dad (my father had died about six years previously, and it was he who had first introduced me to birds) enthuses about them, and spots a side entrance. I remember I’ve seen kingfishers there, so I hurry after him. Then I see a vision of one ‘trapped’ in a book (was it slightly concussed, or just resting in the half open pages?  It didn’t seem squashed, or to have been harmed in any way).  I gasp nervously at the thought that I’ve found a kingfisher that needs rescuing.  Dad picks the bird up out of the book.  I’m too excited and nervous to hold it, or notice which sex it is, but when I ask him if I can feel the feathers of its tail and back, they are like silk, exquisitely soft and sensual.  We put the kingfisher down by the side of the pond and watch as it slowly recovers.  I watch it flying around over the pond (which is reminiscent of a pond in Kent, remembered from boyhood).  Then the bird is joined by a partner, and both are diving.(…)  The pair of kingfishers are unmistakeable in their shape and jizz as they fly and dive.  They do an amazing ‘courtship flight’, flying round very fast, close together, high above the water.  The metallic blue and chestnut-orange of their plumage shine brightly. Frustratingly, I have no binoculars.  They then fly up amongst people who are milling about by some shops, especially a fish shop, where they seem to perch briefly above the window”.

In a later fragment I am walking down through the park opposite the house where I grew up, when a tiny kingfisher catches up with me and comes to rest beside me on the muddy bank.  It calls out repeatedly, making a sibilant whistling note, as if showing me its call.  In the dream there is a clear sense of “oh, so that’s what you sound like”.

On the 6th of December I visited the fishing pond where the rescue had occurred and found that it was indeed reminiscent of the pond I’d remembered from many years ago (the report hadn’t described the pond, and I hadn’t been there, or heard of it).  Moreover, its entrance was from a road, at a higher level, that had a fish shop on the opposite corner.  Well, a ‘chippy’ (a fish and chip shop) actually, from which a pungent aroma of fried fish wafted over the whole area.  I liked the humour in the dream of the kingfishers flying up and perching over the window there, but it also served to highlight a point of connection with the ‘real’ landscape of the dream/event (both this location and the source of the whitebait fed to the rescued bird).  So far, so good, but there was more to this story.

The bailiff of the fishing pond, who had found the injured bird, told me that the rescue had taken place on the 11th of November.  I immediately recognised this as St Martin’s Day, Martinmas or Martlemas.  The Common Kingfisher was once called Martin Pêcheur (Martinsvogel, Martin Pescatore, or Martin Pescador)Giraldus, writing in 1185, called the species Martineta, which is said to be the earliest use of a Christian name to denote a bird, and Christian is appropriate here since the name comes from St. Martin of Tours (remembered for a revelatory dream, but also for demolishing Pagan sacred groves), whose saint’s day was associated with the slaughter of fattened cattle.  November 11th is now better known (in Commonwealth and some European countries) as Remembrance Day, and is closely related (via the Old or Julian calendar) to All Saints and Samhain.  The connection feels appropriate since much of the lore associated with kingfishers relates to the survival of death.

This prompted me to look at what I’d been doing around Martlemas.  As it happens, we’d been planting some willow to provide cover for Kingfishers and other birds. In meditations I had been tuning in to the translucent green resilience of willow.  In an unusually powerful meditation on the 10th, which turned out to be the day before the rescue in Halifax, I had found an illuminated manuscript in a cave like chamber, contemplated the relationship between kingfishers and divinity, and seen imagery of a protective globe woven from willow boughs, and willow spirals in the form of shields or doors.

On the 11th, after another kingfisher dream, I had headed to a different part of the valley, and ‘tuned in’ by the canal. Quite soon I was transfixed by a crystal clear image, in my binoculars, at unusually close range, of a female bird backlit by low winter sun.  The light alternately caught her sapphire/cobalt/green, back and wings -the colour shifts as the kingfisher moves due to the microstructure of the feathers rather than pigment (the so called blaustruktur or Tyndall’s effect)- etched a phosphorescent silver-blue arc against the dark backdrop of the canal lock as she dived, and outlined her fluffed-up warm orange/ochre breast in molten gold as she turned towards me.  There was a strong sense of restless tension as the bird examined the swirling waters with her dark needle sharp eye.  After half a dozen unsuccessful dives in the quite heavily sedimented water she moved on, and I was able to watch her fishing from two other vantage points over a period of about twelve minutes.  Afterwards I wrote in my diary ‘it would be hard to imagine a better or clearer set of images’. This had been my best ever view of a kingfisher diving.

From a Cartesian/mechanist-materialist point of view these experiences would only seem to be connected by random co-incidence.  From a divinatory/animist perspective it seems to me that they were connected by meaning, purpose, intention, action, and relationship.  If each species has a collective or guardian ‘spirit’, might such spirits not want to respond to human care – the planting of saplings for cover, the act of rescue and rehabilitation- appreciation, and love?  Might they not do so by ‘showing’ particularly well (much as prey animals turn up for hunter gatherers who make the necessary prayers), or by visiting our dreams, at auspicious times?



1) Peter Martin, A Fine Line, Halifax Courier, 18/11/93.

Those Cruel Wars, Part 2.

My Father, taken in 1945 near a former Nazi labour camp,

My Father, outside a former Nazi labour camp near Hamburg, 1945.

Moving forward to the end of the Second World War -widely understood to have been a continuation of the first- I have a photograph of my father on an army motorbike taken less than three years before I was born.  The picture was taken near a former Nazi labour camp where he took turns guarding 10,000 Waffen S.S. prisoners of war, and was told that the parade ground they were using was a mass grave.  This was four miles from Belsen, where he saw huge piles of discarded clothing and number discs.  In a late conversation with my gran she described his condition after the war as ‘shell shock’.

Fascism and Animism.

How then might all of this relate to animism?  Well, at the most basic level, of course, for those of us who believe that the whole of Nature is suffused with mind, intelligence, or ‘spirit’, the ecological damage of war adds another, often overlooked, dimension to the epic tragedies of war.  Until Michael Morpurgo’s Warhorse came out in 1982, for example, the slaughter of a million horses in the First World War had barely been registered.(5)  Faced with the evidence of war, we might wonder what kind of animal we are; whether representing men as rutting stags, or ‘predators’, is helpful, either in relation to understanding other-than-human persons, or in relation to the patriarchal ideology of imperialism that has precipitated so many wars (6); and perhaps, what kind of deities would preside over such slaughter?

For postmodern animists, one of the most troubling connections that needs to be addressed is encapsulated in the following quotation: “We recognise that separating humanity from nature, from the whole of life, leads to humankind’s own destruction and to the death of nations … Humankind alone is no longer the focus of thought, but rather life as a whole … This striving toward connectedness with the totality of life, with nature itself, a nature into which we are born, this is the deepest meaning and the true essence of National Socialist thought.”

Those words, written by Ernst Lehmann -a professor of botany who described National Socialism as ‘politically applied biology’- appear at the head of Peter Stuadenmaier’s disturbing essay on the “Green Wing” of the Nazi Party.(7)  Staudenmaier traces a strand of biocentric and nationalistic thought in 19th Century Germany that, by most current definitions, is clearly animistic.  Despite being a xenophobic nationalist, for example, Ernst Moritz Arndt wrote: ‘When one sees nature in a necessary connectedness and interrelationship, then all things are equally important – shrub, worm, plant, human, stone, nothing first or last, but all one single unity’.  The Volkish movement combined ethnocentric populism with nature mysticism, and sought to reconstruct a society ‘rooted in nature, and in communion with the cosmic life spirit’.  In 1867 Ernst Heckel coined the term ‘ecology’, and developed a ‘monist’ critique of anthropocentrism.

In the twentieth Century, the renowned philosopher Martin Heidegger, who had been an active member of the Nazi party and remained silent about their crimes after the war, wrote poetically about humanity’s ‘play’ or ‘dance’ with earth, sky, and gods, and the need for authentic ‘dwelling’ on earth.

Les Jouers de Skat, Otto Dix, 1920. Cypriconan, Creative Commons.

Skat Players, Otto Dix, 1920. Cypriconan, Creative Commons.

Nazi ideology embraced organicism, holism, nature conservation, and re-agrarianisation.  Hitler referred to ‘the eternal laws of nature’s processes’, and was knowledgeable about renewable energy sources.  There seems to be little room for doubt that many of the inner circle of the Nazi Party were vegetarians and animal lovers, given that they implemented ecological farming, nature protection, and animal welfare policies that were well ahead of their time.

Staudenmaeir concludes that ‘even the most laudable of causes can be perverted in the service of criminal savagery’.  The “Green Wing” of the N.S.D.A.P were fully complicit in the Party’s infamous genocidal programme.  Their biocentric perspective and fetishisation of natural ‘purity’ provided a veneer of compensatory respectability, and fueled their virulently racist ideology.  For Staudenmaier the Nazi’s displacement of clear-sighted social analysis by mystical ecology is a key issue.

As something of a ‘mystical ecologist’, my initial response to this is to suggest that animists need to be anthropocentric enough to be able to distinguish between intra-species and inter-species ethics.  The parameters of respectful relationship -our ethical, social, and political responsibility towards other human beings, and towards other-than-human beings, have to be negotiated in each particular context -and there’s a fundamental difference (that need not imply a simple hierarchy of value) between intra-species and inter-species relationships.

That said, the Nazi’s biocentrism was framed within a thoroughly anthropocentric conception of the nation state as a Darwinian organism (a matrix of blood and soil) competing for ‘lebensraum’ with other nation states, and beset by various human ‘parasites’ and ‘cancers’.  There can be no clearer evidence that animism needs to be explicitly framed, informed, and accompanied, not only by clear sighted and critical minded social understanding -especially of processes of ‘othering’ and dissociation- but by an ethical commitment to diversity, care, compassion, and either non-violence, or the minimisation of violence and harm.

I’ve know several fathers and sons in my own postwar generation who, perhaps unsurprisingly, took opposite stands in the pacifism v just war debate.  The paradox of Fascism, of course, is that at the very point where its crimes illuminate the necessity of a tolerant, compassionate, democratic, non-hierarchical, post-dualistic, social order, they also test the principle of non-violence, perhaps to the limit.(8)

As a boy I had a visceral abhorrence of regimentation.  When asked, at the age of ten, which Grammar School I’d like to go to, I chose the only one that didn’t demand membership of the scouts or cadet corps.  As a student in the 1960’s my youthful androgynous looks caused predictable confusion.  A group of Italian customs officers, who wouldn’t have seen a young man with hair as long as mine, seemed genuinely puzzled about my gender.  My father, a gentle nature loving soul, was also troubled by my evident ‘softness’.  One day in my late teens, he asked me to come round to the garage with him, where he confided that he’d like me, as his eldest son, to have his Sam Browne army belt.  Suppressing a gut-wrenching jolt of emotion, I said ‘I won’t be needing that’.  His reply, which seemed to combine incomprehension, exasperation, and contempt, was ‘if Gerry came back today, he’d cut through your lot like a knife through hot butter’.  I protested that Gerry wasn’t coming back, and that what we were facing now was the atomic bomb’.  Looking back, from what feels like a rather more fully ‘human’ vantage point, I can now empathise with both positions.

I have become unashamedly pragmatic.  We are so much creatures of our time, place, generation, and community, that its not possible to say who we might have been, or how we would have acted, under different circumstances.  Nor can moral decisions be made on the basis of perfect knowledge and/or cold objectivity.  Embodied human existence is, indeed, unavoidably messy and morally complex.

B.T 1/2/14.


(5) Michael Morpurgo, Warhorse, Egmont, 2007.

(6) See, for example, my recent post Changing Men.

(7) Peter Staudenmaier, Fascist Ideology: the ‘Green Wing’ of the Nazi Party and its Historical Antecedents, 1996quoting Ernst Lehmann, Biologischer Wille und Ziele biologischer Arbeit im neuen Reich, München, 1934.  George Mosse, The Crisis of German Ideology: Intellectual Origins of the Third Reich, New York 1964.

also Laura Elaine Hudson, The Apocalyptic Animal, 2008 (via Google books).

(8) A pacifist case (for ‘active sustained nonviolence’)  is put by Quaker human ecologist Alistair MacIntosh, in A NonViolent Challenge to Conflict, in Whetham (ed) Ethics, Law, and Military Operations, Palgrave MacMillan, 2010.  He cites successful mass non-violent resistance against the Nazis, involving large numbers of people who were willing to put their lives on the line.

Changing Men?

Eco-feminists have traced a Western hyper-separation from Nature back to Plato -whose gendered conception of reason underpinned a master identity defined in terms of domination and exclusion of the feminine, the slave (race, class, and gender oppression), the animal, and the natural- and Descartes, whose cogito -“I think therefore I am”- establishes its claim to authority through separation from the body and nature.(1)  What follows is a brief autobiographical commentary on a meeting of an anti-sexist men’s group, c1983. 

Thomas Taylor, born in the1850's.

Thomas Taylor, born in the 1850’s.

When my turn came to suggest a theme for a meeting of our anti-sexist men’s group, I chose a colour healing exercise. This entailed getting into pairs, centring ourselves, and taking turns to visualise a colour and ‘pass’ it through the palms of our hands to the hands of another man, who would then say which colour he’d received.(2) We were quite surprised, perhaps a bit spooked, by the accuracy with which we all seemed to be picking up these delicate invisible transmissions. Some will, of course, dismiss this episode an outbreak of unreason, a collective delusion, but my understanding of what happened is that our success reflected the high level of trust we had painstakingly established, by doing a lot of careful talking. In other words, it was not a trick, or a technical skill, that could be taken off the shelf and made to work in any circumstances.

But were such activities nothing more than cosy, or effete, self-indulgence? Some critics insisted that what we were doing was irrelevant to the lives of ordinary-decent-hardworking ‘blokes’. In retrospect I certainly find the juxtaposition of that almost magically peaceful gathering of men, and my father’s wartime exposure to such convincing approximations of hell, at about the same age, poignant. I now have a much clearer sense of how our bodies were both imprinted by, and enmeshed in the writing of, incommensurable yet intimately interwoven histories. At dad’s funeral, a distant uncle was visibly shocked when I walked into the room, and said it was ‘just like having Eddie coming in, -you’re just like him’. Although I found this timely observation both unexpectedly and profoundly pleasing, my life continued to be very different from my father’s. During his married life, for instance, he had no close friendships with other men, -in fact, no friends outside the family at all. I remember him becoming so embarrassed once, when two footballers hugged on the television, that he hurried out of the room. It was as though masculinity happened through him, its code of ingrained habits and assumptions remarked upon only in the breach. Relations between us mellowed considerably in his later years, but I was never able to talk to him in the way I would have liked, about the strange new world that had my men’s group in it.

Unfortunately, the atmosphere of relaxed openness in that group appeared to deter potential ‘recruits’. One man, who came once and didn’t return, said he’d assumed we were all gay. (this was a ‘mixed’ group). Some initially rather awkward and obligatory hugging had paved the way for a much more relaxed and open way of relating, and because most of us were co-counselling, we were used to sharing quite intense emotional support with other men. But my recollection is that we also had enough experience to keep a fairly clear perspective on the political implications of meeting as members of a privileged group. We were hoping to change the world as well as our own lives, and most of us had been, were, or soon would be, engaged in the wider community. Coming together consciously as men, and learning to work together in new ways, informed the rest of our lives.

(1) Val Plumwood, Feminism and the Mastery of Nature, Routledge, 1993.

(2) This came from a then recently published book, by a professor of nursing. ( The Therapuetic Touch, Kreiger, 1979 ).

This account was first published in  Brian Taylor, Responding to Men in Crisis, Routledge, 2005.

The theme relates to the upcoming Animist Ethics ‘issue’ of Animist Blog Carnival.