City Life

Homeless People’s Encampment, Manchester, March 2017.

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

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

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

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

B.T. 25th March 2017.

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

Austerity Watch, Cut to Death.


Respectful relationship is widely recognised as a core principle of contemporary animism, but most recent writings on animism, including my own, have tended to focus on relations between humans and other-than-human beings in the context of mounting global ecocide, rather than dealing with the politics of human communities in crisis.  This omission worries me.

In the early sixties, Gary Snyder set out a vision of Buddhist anarchism.  More recently the anthropologist Brian Morris described the social relations of hunter gatherer peoples as a form of anarchy.  “The key idea expressed by the Malaipantaran is one of mutual aid, which includes sharing, reciprocity, and an ethic of generosity”.(1)  Ecofeminsm has tackled what Val Plumwood called ‘human self-enclosure’ (2), as well as the politics of gender relations, and social and environmental equity.

As someone who went through four kafkaesque Incapacity Benefit tribunals while negotiating the challenges of M.E, and previously worked in the ‘mental health’ field promoting self-advocacy, I’m outraged by the ever worsening treatment of people who find themselves reliant on disablity or unemployment benefits, and by the relentless dismantling of the welfare state, and public services (here in the U.K).  There is a pressing need to defend and democratise provision of care and support for vulnerable people.

A recent article in the Sunday Herald  revealed that benefits staff in Glasgow have been issued with new guidance on dealing with unsuccessful applicants for Universal Credit who are suicidal.  Call centre workers have been told to wave a pink card above their head.  A manager will then rush over and listen in while the untrained worker makes an assessment of the situation, asking questions in order to find out ‘specifically what is planned, when it is planned for’ and whether the ‘customer’ has ‘the means to hand’.  The dangers of such an approach should be obvious!  The new guidance also warns staff that they “may have thoughts and feelings about the situation” afterwards, and that this is ‘normal’.  Members of staff should, in other words, get over it.

A friend who was a psychotherapist worked for a while with Benefits Agency staff who, several years ago, were already being stressed and sometimes traumatised by constant pressure to ‘agitate the customers’, and by a competitive culture that sets targets for punitive ‘sanctions’ that deprive people of the money they need to survive.

In March, a parliamentary Work and Pensions Select Committee reported that forty people had taken their own lives since 2012 because of problems with welfare payments.  The disability campaign group Black Triangle then estimated that as many as eighty suicide cases were directly to benefit cuts,(3) and as I write the Guardian has reported new figures from the DWP showing that 2,380 people died between 2011 and 2014 shortly after a Work Capability Assessment found them fit for work, and about to lose their benefit.  Since the cause of death was not recorded these figures need to be interpreted with caution, but at nearly 800 deaths a year, it looks as though either the DWP criteria of fitness for work are woefully unrealistic, or Black Triangle have underestimated the number of deaths attributable to the effects of losing benefits.

Amongst the tragic stories reported by Black Triangle are those of:

Mark Wood, a ‘sweet and gentle’ man, aged 44, who was found fit for work by Atos against his Doctors advice that he had complex mental health problems.  He starved to death after his benefits were stopped, weighing only 5st 8lb when he died.

Paul Reekie, a 48 year old poet and author who suffered from severe depression and took his own life after the DWP stopped his benefits due to an Atos ‘fit for work’ decision.

Leanne Chambers, aged 30, who suffered from depression for many years, and committed suicide soon after being called in for a Work Capacity Assessment”.

The DWP, however, does not regard claimants with mental health difficulties as ‘vulnerable’ (see here).  The new guidelines have been issued ahead of another tranche of welfare ‘reforms‘ spun as saving people from ‘welfare dependency’.  Such rhetoric is, of course, designed to maintain public support for the Tory government’s £12bn programme of cuts to the welfare budget by 2109-20.

This is the Black Triangle Campaign‘s rationale for the symbol they use:

The Nazis forced people with mental and other disabilities to wear black triangles in the extermination camps during the Holocaust. The generic classification they used was “Arbeitsscheu” – literally “Workshy”. This term is also the one most favoured in our right-wing tabloid press to described incapacity and disability benefit claimants today.

This group of people could also include the homeless, alcoholics, prostitutes, draft dodgers, pacifists and travellers (Roma).

It is salutary to use the black triangle as the symbol of the UK Disabled People’s Protest Movement because British society is at present seeing an increasing number of violent and deadly attacks on people of disability in the community, and the tormenting of disabled people leading to tragic suicides and an official policy on the part of the State to infer that disabled people are just “workshy” and must be reclassified as “fit for work.”

It has become socially acceptable to ridicule, demonise and denigrate the disabled, both in public and in the mass media.

This hatred and ridicule derives from the same source as all the other evil in the world that leads to murder and genocide.”

We urgently need a politics of honesty, compassion, and respect, capable of fostering and supporting a culture of sharing, reciprocity, and generosity.

B.T 27/8/15.

If you’re being affected by these issues now, you can contact the Samaritans on 08457 90 90 90, or via their website, here.


(1) Brian Morris, Anarchism, Individualism and South Indian foragers: memories and reflections, Radical Anthropology 37.

(2) Val Plumwood Environmental Culture, The Ecological Crisis of Reason, 2002.

(3) Jon Stone, DWP Staff Given Suicide Guidance ahead of Iain Duncan Smith’s Welfare Reforms, The Independent 27/8/15.

On Austerity in the U.K see, Fraces Ryan’s excellent articles in the New Statesman,

Protest in Context; a (non-technical) astrological note in the wake of the 2015 U.K. election. .


In the wake of a troubling general election I wanted to see what the astrological ‘weather forecast’ for the U.K. looked like over the next few years.  We don’t need astrological help to see difficulties ahead, of course, but astrology can deepen our appreciation of the cyclic nature of time, and might just enable us to ‘collaborate with the divine’ a bit more effectively as we resist injustice and ecological destruction, and try to create ‘more interesting, ingenious, and loving’ worlds.(1)

In order to illustrate this claim I want to focus on one major upcoming transit* -the passage of Pluto, ‘Lord of the Underworld’, opposite the U.K’s Moon (both circled yellow below), in a commonly used chart for the date of legal union between Great Britain and Ireland (2).  This transit will gradually build, augmented during 2016 by Uranus squaring the U.K. Moon, suggesting a continuation of the visceral impulse towards independence already seen in Scotland, and more worryingly, in the success of UKIP, and the planned referendum on E.U. membership.  It will be at its most intense during 2017-2018, and will then fade.

Major transits of Pluto to U.K 1801 Moon (shown outside circle), based on Solar Fire Graphic.

Major transits of Pluto to U.K 1801 Moon (outside circle), based on Solar Fire Graphic.

How might this work in a person’s life?

In The Astrology of Fate Liz Greene wrote that ‘the primordial chaos from which life emerges and to which it returns belonged in the beginning to the Great Mother.  The male figure of Hades was a relatively late formulation … whenever myth portrays [his] entry into the upper world, he is shown persistently acting out one scenario: rape’.  The intrusion of Pluto into consciousness ‘feels like a violation, and we, like Persephone, the maiden of the myth, are powerless to resist’.  Her discussion considers the purposefulness of fate, but also evokes the sometimes un-bearable nature of ‘plutonic’ experience.(3)

Since 1984 we’ve hopefully become more aware that allegories of abduction and rape might be inappropriate in relation to cathartic experience and (not least when taken to imply cosmic purposefullness) crises caused by oppression and abuse.  We also have more access to other readings/versions of the story, in which Persephone-Kore, as the original and primary goddess, enters freely into a sacred marriage with Hades. (e.g Sara Pike’s review of Ann Suter’s The Narcissus and the Pomegranate).  That said, we still need to acknowledge the intensity of pain and struggle involved in both personal and communal crises, and the toxic ancestral inheritance that often impels such eruptions.

'Slum clearance', Manchester, 1972. Photo B.T.

‘Slum clearance’, a Personal Moon-Pluto Period in Manchester, 1972.

With the benefit of hindsight my own experience of this transit, in my early to mid-20’s was interesting and briefly turbulent, but ultimately constructive.  I left the parental home (natal Moon) for the last time and went to live in a wood where I meditated amongst the trees while three friends enacted a tense sexual triangle (a classic Pluto theme).  Moving to inner city Manchester I then got involved in housing action and crisis support.  During the following year a personal crisis culminated in an unforgettable visionary experience.

Astrology of the Collective

Parallels between individual stories and the life of nations are of limited value however.  The social is not an individual writ large, and history shows that on the collective level we are far from ‘powerless to resist’.

Mundane (‘of the world’) astrology should perhaps be approached with even more caution than natal astrology.  Its not necessarily obvious how the charts of nations work, and its all too easy to be seduced into making casual claims about history and politics.  What follows is intended as an exploratory excercise, but it does, I think, raise some quite profound existential questions.

The Moon in a nation’s chart is said to represent the people (the masses), and might be expected to reflect conditions for women, and for children.  The U.K’s Moon, at the top of the chart, in the public tenth house, has been linked to our tradition of parliamentary democracy, but could also be read as an image of a people uprooted from the land (far removed from the base of the chart, the ‘Earth Point’/4th house cusp, of roots, the home, inheritance, family origins, ‘property’, land, gardens, fields, orchards, ‘the tillage of the earth’***, and ecological foundations).  Pluto’s major transits signify (and perhaps unleash) periods of turbulence, power struggles, death (symbolic or physical) and destruction, and if conditions are favourable and things go well, transformation and renewal.  They may also indicate material interventions such as mining, or demolition and rebuilding.  A good way of illuminating the upcoming transit of Pluto opposite the U.K. Moon is to look at previous comparable transits.**

Margaret Thatcher Elected

When Pluto squared the U.K Moon in 1979-80, Margaret Thatcher’s election as Prime Minister inaugurated a period of manufacturing meltdown, with the loss of some two million jobs.  Inflation was brought down at the cost of steeply rising unemployment (by August 1980 to 2 million, for the first time since the 1930’s).  Many communities were subsequently devastated by multi-generational unemployment.  With the Pluto transit forming (in 1978) the Ridley Plan, a strategic document outlining the new government’s preparations for taking on the miners (who had defeated a Conservative government in the 1970’s), had been leaked to the press.  ‘Power’ is a keyword for astrological Pluto, and revenge is a Pluto/Scorpio theme.

Thatcher’s victory followed what the right wing media successfully mythologised as ‘the winter of discontent’.  In response to wage restraint and spending cuts (amounting to 20% of public spending) imposed by a Labour government at the behest of the neo-liberal I.M.F, some 2,000 strikes were organised by low paid public sector workers during an unusually severe winter.  Since much is still made of the supposed profligacy and ineptitude of ‘retro socialism’ effective counter-narratives are needed about the causes of these disputes (such as here).  The period was, nevertheless, ‘a positive and transformative time’ for many female activists.(4)  During the early 1980’s there were large scale trade union demonstrations, and inner city riots.

Ther Great Depression

Moving back through history we find Pluto crossing the U.K. Moon during 1929-30, which was, of course, the period of the Great Depression.  At this time unemployment rose steeply (to 2.9 million by the summer of 1932).  The ‘co-incidence’ of finding another period of mass unemployment under this transit cycle is, well, striking.  In 1931 unemployment benefits were cut by 10% and the means test introduced.  Attendance at work camps (‘slave camps’) was made compulsory for the long term unemployed, in the face of opposition from socialists and anarchists (see here and here).  The National Union of Unemployed Workers organised National Hunger Marches against the means test.

My granparents at Herne Bay, Kent, 1934.

My grandparents at Herne Bay, Kent, 1934.

The photograph above shows my mother (sitting on a farm gate) with her parents, on a trip to Herne Bay.  On a much less happy occasion, when my grandfather was made redundant (I don’t have an exact date), he walked about twenty five miles, from Charlton out into the Kent countryside, on the strength of a rumour that there were jobs to be had at an engineering works in Edenbridge.  By the time he got there the jobs had gone.  He would then have had to walk home.  This, apparently, was the only time my gran saw him cry.

Chartism and the Plug Riots

The next comparable transit occured in 1840-42, long before Pluto was discovered.  This was during the period of chartist agitation for universal male suffage, the repeal of the hated 1934 Poor Law that was forcing unemployed people into workhouses, and the repeal of the Act of Union with Ireland.  During the transit several massive petitions (and see here) were taken to parliament.  In the words of the 1838 petition, presented to parliament by a progressive M.P. from my home town:

“The land itself is goodly, the soil rich, and the temperature wholesome; it is abundantly furnished with the materials of commerce and trade; it has numerous and convenient harbours; in facility of internal communication it exceeds all others.  For three-and-twenty years we have enjoyed a profound peace. Yet with all these elements of national prosperity, and with every disposition and capacity to take advantage of them, we find ourselves overwhelmed with public and private suffering …

We have looked upon every side, we have searched diligently in order to find out the causes of a distress so sore and so long continued.  We can discover none, in nature, or in providence.  Heaven has dealt graciously by the people; but the foolishness of our rulers has made the goodness of God of none effect.

The energies of a mighty kingdom have been wasted in building up the power of selfish and ignorant men, and its resources squandered for their aggrandisement. The good of a party has been advanced to the sacrifice of the good of the nation; the few have governed for the interest of the few, while the interest of the many has been neglected, or insolently and tyrannously trampled upon”.

Atfer both this, and an even larger petition in 1842, had been rejected by parliament, the Chartists organised a massive wave of strikes that came to be known as the Plug Riots (see here, here, and here).  This ‘first general strike’ involved some half a million workers, and was the biggest excercise of working class strength in the nineteenth century.

The Factory System

Finally, and perhaps most surprisingly, in 1771, during a previous passage of undiscovered Pluto across 19 degrees Capricorn (where it will be once again in 2017-18), opposing the Moon in the chart of a yet-to-be-inaugurated United Kingdom, we find Richard Arkwright, inventor of the water frame and ‘father of the factory system’, establishing the first successful water powered cotton spinning mill.  Arkwright, who had moved from Preston to Nottingham to escape the militancy of Lancashire cotton spinners, started with 200 workers, mostly women and children.  Dr Andrew Ure, in his Philosophy of Manufactures (1835) wrote: “To devise and administer a successful code of factory discipline, suited to the necessities of factory dilligence, was the Herculean enterprise, the noble achievement of Arkwright”.  In a chapter on the moral economy of the factory system Ure extolled the ‘sublime spectacle’ of Sunday schools as ‘quiet fortresses’ at times of ‘political excitement'(5). ‘The great transformation’ had been unleashed.(6)

It would be interesting to make a fuller study of this cycle, looking at other possible significations of the Moon and Pluto, other aspects, and other transits (particularly the Uranus square).  But if we accept that the above demonstrates a cyclic pattern, we must surely also conclude that our lives, and the lives of the collectives we are part of, are to some extent ‘fated’ -choreographed by the cyclic dance of more-than-material bodies, planetary powers, some say gods, moving through the vastness of space; and that we live within an intimately communicative, sentient and/or ensouled cosmos.  Unfortunately ‘the foolishness of our leaders [still too often] makes the goodness of [those gods] of none effect …’.

B.T 2/7/15.


* In astrology ‘transit’ refers to the passage of a planet either directly across, or making a signficant angular aspect to, a given point in a horoscope.  Both the transiting body and horoscope point are charged with symbolic meaning that will manifest in various ways during the period of the transit. ** I’ve restricted this discussion to the 4th harmonic ‘hard’ aspects -conjunctions, oppositions, and squares.  Each transit would be close for two or three years, and would fade in and out for several years before and after exactitude. I’ve mostly looked at events that occured while the transits were within a 2 degrees orb. ***Willilam Lilly Christian Astrology

Sources:  (1) adapted from ‘democratic animist’ astrologer Caroline Casey’s Making the Gods Work for You, Harmony Books, 1998.  (2) Michael Baigent, Nicholas Campion, and Charles Harvey, Mundane Astrology, Aquarian, 1984, pp533-439.  (3) Liz Greene, The Astrology of Fate, George Allen and Unwin, 1984. pp38-40. (4) Tara Martin-Lopez and Sheila Rowbotham, The Winter of Discontent; Myth, Memory, and History, Palgrave MacMillan 2013. (5) E.P. Thompson The Making of the English Working Class, 1963 pp395-7. (6) Karl Polanyi, via Molly Scott Cato The Bioregional Economy.

Nurturing the Emotional and Spiritual Base of our Communities.


Common (or English) Bluebell,  Hyacinthoides non-scripta.

Another day, another grim story.  One of the biggest waste disposal firms in the U.K is fitting cameras to its trucks because so many rough sleepers are sheltering in refuse bins.  They found 93 people sleeping amongst the rubbish last year.  Since their machinery couldn’t differentiate between cardboard, wood, and human flesh, this is an extremely dangerous place to seek refuge.

Who knows how many people have taken their own lives because of an ever more mean and abusive disability and unemployment benefits system?  Thousands end up in police cells because there are no crisis services where they live.  Women’s aid refuges are being closed (see here).   Over a million people are reliant on food banks. Some 50,000 social housing tennants were evicted and moved out of their London Borough over the past three years because of welfare cuts and the bedroom tax (see here).  Nearly 700,000 people are now on a zero-hours contract in their main job.

If you care about social justice, these (and many other equally pressing) issues will be all too familiar.  We’re still reeling from a General Election on May 7th that gave the Tories another five years.  Labour failed to make the case that austerity has been bad for the economy as well as for those impoverished, harrassed, and traumatised, by punitive social policies.  They even exploited a groundswell of xenophobia by producing a red souvenir “Controls on Immigration” mug -at a time when more than 1,700 people drowned in the Mediterranean Sea attempting to reach Europe in the months up to April 2015 (see here).

Global concerns, and ecological issues barely registered.  I don’t want to re-run a party political discussion here, but its not just the Labour Party that needs to reflect on what has just happened.

Blubells and Ransomes (Wild Garlic) in a Pennine Wood, May 2015.

Blubells and Ramsons (Wild Garlic) in a Pennine Wood, May 2015.

The spring flowers seem to have been unusually vibrant this year.  Perhaps my ageing heart is more open to them, but the need to protect other-than-human nature from those who see the world in terms of economic resources, private property, and status symbols, feels ever more urgent.  As does the need to nurture what we might think of as the emotional and/or spiritual base of our communities, without which alternative green/left politics will surely succumb to the pandemic of alienation generated by whatever we call the toxic mix of patriarchal culture, modernist technoscience, corporate capitalism, and transcendent religion.

As I walked through the woods I couldn’t help thinking about the threat posed to the ‘English’ bluebell, hyacinthoides non-scripta, from hybridisation (with both the much paler, more fleshy leaved and upright, Spanish Bluebell, hyacinthoides hispanica, and the resulting fertile hybrid, hyacinthoides hispanica x non-scripta). The species is also threatened by illegal picking and trampling, and by climate change (it will lose the ‘early advantage’ from storing energy in bulb form as temperature dependent species grow earlier in the year).

There have been patriotic appropriations of this wonderful plant.  A late Victorian source claimed that bluebells blossomed on St George’s Day and that their flowers were as blue as the ocean over which Britannia ruled.(1)  But since perhaps as much as a half the global population of the species is found in the U.K there’s a reasonable case to protect its integrity, hopefully without resorting to xenophobic language about alien invaders.

According to Plant Life the bluebell (a.k.a Fairy Flower or Wood Bell) was once thought to ring out to summon fairies to their gatherings.  Anyone who heard a bluebell ring would soon die.  I’m not sure about that, but its not hard to see why carpets of bluebells were associated with enchantment.

B.T 19/5/15.


Margaret Baker, Discovering the Folklore of Plants, Shire Classics, 1969/2013.

Alternatives to Austerity


Given that animist ethics focus on respectful relationship and ecological sustainability, animists may have a distinctive contribution towards envisioning a world beyond rampant inequality and overconsumption.

With a General Election looming here in the U.K, every day brings further news of the consequences of ‘austerity’ -prison overcrowding, increased suicide rates, homelessness, food banks, zero hours contracts, punitive welfare sanctions, chronic poverty and insecurity – washed down by a daily diet of political disinformation (‘spin’), as the super rich continue to amass absurd levels of wealth, to the point of jeapordising the rest of the economy.

In many parts of the world, things have been much worse.  A recent Channel 4 News report from Greece paused by a colourful piece of graffiti that read: “Why don’t we sweetly fall into non-existence”.

In this context Syriza’s victory in the recent Greek elections feels like a much needed breath of fresh air.  They define themselves broadly as a party of the radical democratic left, encompassing ecological, feminist, and new social movements, a spectrum of concerns reflected in the red, green, and purple flags of their party’s logo.  According to their website they intend to ‘promote a programme of social and economic reconstruction, aiming at development that promotes human need and respects nature’, and to pursue ‘friendly relations with all countries, especially our neighbours’.  The task they face is immense, but as aspirations go, this sounds quite sensible to me.

One of their first challenges has been to confront a barrage of hostility, from some sections of the left (!) -for not planning to leave the capitalist E.U. and expropriating the wealth of the rich- and from mainstream media portraying them as ‘far’ left zealots, as well as political doublespeak in their dealings with Europe.  Many ‘developing’ countries have faced similar situations in the past, where banks lent irresponsibly to corrupt elites, and then the I.M.F. enforced structural ‘reforms’ that imposed punitive burdens on those least able to pay.

The situation in Greece has been portrayed as a story of feckless irresponsible Mediterraneans living beyond their means, but as Yannis Varoufakis, the new Syriza government’s finance minister, makes clear, Syriza opposed the loans negotiated by the previous government, and have been campaigning against corruption and tax immunity.  They are unlikely to get everything right, and won’t be able to do everything they’d like to, but I wish them well.

As our own general election looms, I read with some dismay, following Prime Minister Cameron’s announcement that he plans to reduce the benefits cap (a recently introduced limit to the amount of welfare benefts a family can receive) from £26,000 to £23,000, in the interests of ‘fairness’ to those who work hard for a living, that this was our government’s most popular policy (with 70% support).

Like all good propaganda the benefits cap sounds superficially reasonable, but, of course, the only reason families need so much financial assistance is because rents, driven by soaring house prices (due to the soaring incomes of the aforementioned global super-rich who are currently investing hand over fist in London property), are so high.  Most of these benefits go straight into the pockets of landlords, or in the case of social housing, back into the public purse.

A housing association with properties across the South East of England said that Cameron’s announcement would put three bed houses out of the reach of social housing tennants across the entire region, and in a couple year’s time two bed accomodation would also become unaffordable (see here).  Large families would have to join the exodus of tennants unable to stay in London because of inadequate housing benefit.  Cameron also plans to remove housing benefit from 18 to 21 year olds on Jobseekers’ Allowance, a move described by Shelter’s chief executive as ‘a disaster’ (here).  The solution to spiralling benefits for landlords, of course, lies in measures such as re-introducing a system of regulated fair rents.

I mention this as an example of the doublethink/spin/deception/lies we are continually bombarded with. (for more on Cameron’s justification of the policy, a fallacious claim that the cap forces people back to work, see this by Patrick Butler in The Grauniad).  As the earth around us gradually awakens from slumber of the Northern Hemisphere winter, may we, individually and collectively, see the world around us clearly, and do what we can to create a culture of respectful relationship and ecological sustainability …

B.T. 3/1/15.



Yannis Varoufakis’s blog

Marina Prentoulis, From Protest to Power, the Transformation of Syriza, Red Pepper, Jan 2015.

Nick Dearden, Greece Lights up Europe, Global Justice Now, 27th January 2015.

“Am I Going Mad?” A Note on Hearing Human and Other Voices.

Fly Agaric, Amanita Muscaria, at the foot of a Beech tree.

Fly Agaric, Amanita Muscaria, at the base of a Beech tree.

My mentor in what I’ve come to think of as ‘post-spiritualist’ matters was an older woman who had been a nurse in the days before effective analgesics eased the process of dying.  When I met Mavis we were community work colleagues in the year of the miners’ strike (1984).  Invitations to her H.Q. -a small terraced house in the middle of Burnley- usually involved cheese and onion pie and intense heartfelt conversation.  I’d been engrossed in inner work and had been opening up psychically, so was struggling to adjust to working amongst the harsh realities of social deprivation.  She was an experienced spiritual healer and gifted psychic, working mainly with homeless and unemployed people, so those visits amounted to informal supervision sessions.

Picking up the office phone one day, and hearing Mavis’s powerful voice utter the words “keyword cosmos’, I realised I had an ally.  A diary entry from May of that year reminds me that she could be unnervingly direct at times. On that occasion she said she’d been worried about me and, as I put it at the time, “suddenly told me, quite menacingly, to BE CAREFUL”.  She then asked me “in a point blank way” what I wanted to do with my life.  Given that I was quite naïve and somewhat directionless at the time, this was helpful.  What impressed me most about her, though, was the pragmatic way in which she helped someone close to me who was in crisis.  She was warm and loving, but when necessary, could also be impressively leonine.

We became close friends, and I learned a lot from her.  I’m not spectacularly psychic in the way she was, but during that period I seemed to be being ‘shown’ things, not least when in her company.  For instance, some years later, when recovering from a complicated bereavement that left me with health difficulties, I was seeing a cranial osteopath.  One day, en route to the osteopath, I had to change buses in Burnley, and found myself at a loose end.  Strolling out of the bus station, I became aware of a voice in my head -a fully present, and fully ‘other’, but not unfriendly man’s voice- saying, over and over again- ‘the Mechanics’, ‘the Mechanics’,  the Mechanics’.  The Mechanics Institute is a theatre/arts centre in the town, but I had no idea why I should be hearing its name, least of all spoken in this rather disconcerting manner.  The voice continued and seemed quite insistent, so, since I had time to spare, I decided to walk over there.  As I approached the Mechanics a bus came down the hill and pulled up at the stop by the theatre.  Mavis stepped out and greeted me with a big grin.  When I told her why I was there she commented that this wasn’t her usual stop, so I’d done quite well.

Because Mavis was fairly isolated in her work, she would sometimes say she appreciated talking to me because so few people knew what she was talking about.  Even she sometimes wondered whether she was going mad.  Hearing voices has, of course, long been regarded as a symptom of ‘mental illness’.  I was soon to meet Professor Marius Romme and Sandra Escher who were instrumental in establishing the Hearing Voices Movement in the U.K.  Their seminal work demonstrated that there are many reasons why people hear voices.  For some people voices are not a problem, but even for those whose voices are profoundly distressing, a supportive self-help environment or appropriate counselling can often be much more effective than medication.(1)  Walking through Burnley that day I felt no sense of panic, or that anything was wrong.  I had had far more scary moments.

A lifetime’s exposure to the conventions of Cartesian-Newtonian rationality can leave us vulnerable to moments of self-doubt around extra-ordinary or magical experience.  One such moment occured last week.  The story, involving a group of fly agaric mushrooms whose habitat appeared to be under imminent threat, is too fresh to share here unfortunately.  Suffice it to say for now, that the way in which things fell into place during that walk, enabling to me have a conversation with the landowner, left me with the distinct, and -even after all these years communing with birds, mammals, trees, rocks, and so forth- slightly un-nerving impression that I’d been ‘spoken to’ by a species of fungi. Now, hearing human voices is one thing!  🙂   Why, on earth, though, should it be any more surprising that a concerned upperworld stranger might connect with the psychic mycelium* of a wood when there’s some pressing concern afoot?

B.T 24/9/14.


Prof. Marius Romme and Sandra Escher, Accepting Voices, MIND, 1993 and the Hearing Voices Network

*thanks to Matt for this useful term.

Animism on T.V- Part 2. Charlie Hamilton James in Peru, and Other Rainforest Stories.

Two red and Green Macaws, also known as Green Winged Macaws, (Ara chloropterus) Manu National Park, Peru.

Two red and Green Macaws, also known as Green Winged Macaws, (Ara chloropterus) Manu National Park, PeruBill Boulton, Creative Commons.

I’ve followed Charlie Hamilton James’s work with particular interest because, like me, he adores Kingfishers.  What I hadn’t known was that, although our life paths and perspectives have been very different, he too was drawn to the bird around a time of bereavement.  In Kingfisher, Tales from the Halcyon River, he tells us that, aged six, he drew a picture of a kingfisher for his teacher, without knowing what the bird was called.(1)  In his recent television series ‘I Bought a Rainforest’, we learned that his obsession with other-than-human animals began when he was seven, shortly after his father died.  Mistrusting human relationship he escaped into wildlife.  When he was thirteen he was given his father’s old Nikkormat EL, and at fourteen would skip school to watch kingfishers, changing out of his school uniform on the bus and spending all day by the river.  When he was fifteen he left school to photograph them, and now lives in an old mill-worker’s cottage beside the river where he spent his youth.

I Bought a Rainforest followed Charlie to a 100 acre patch of rainforest in Peru that he’d bought, for £6,000, because a friend had told him that conservationists were anxious to prevent the area being used as a route into the Manu National Park, reportedly the most biodiverse place on earth.  It is home, for instance, to 10,000 bird species -10 percent of the world’s species!  We were told that, in Peru alone, over the past twenty years more than five and a half million acres of rainforest have been destroyed (more than 700 acres a day) to make way for crops, cattle, timber, and gold.  The rainforest had, however, somehow slipped from public view, at least in the over-developed world.

Back in September 1988 an astronaut photographed a greenhouse gas smoke cloud the size of India stretching unbroken from the Andes to the Atlantic.  During that year’s burning season fires glowed from more than 8,000 points across Amazonia.  In December that year, Chico Mendes, rubber tapper, trade unionist, and pragmatic non-violent activist, was gunned down shortly after his forty-fourth birthday.  He had linked local land rights with global forces, and, understanding that human communities are part of any ecosystem, influentially proposed sustainable extractive reserves.  Between 1964 and 1988 there had been 982 killings of union and land rights organisers, yet he had refused to leave Amazonia when shots were being fired at his union headquaters.  The story of his legacy is told in Andrew Revkin’s The Burning Season.(2)

At the outset Charlie Hamilton James seemed to be blundering into a situation where he would, at best, be horribly out of his depth. He appeared surprised to discover that his patch of rainforest was degraded and being used as a coca plantation.  About the only wildlife in evidence was ‘a stunningly clear stream visited by darting kingfishers’.  That was a good sign, surely, though? Germaine Greer, who was persuaded to purchase a larger and much more expensive piece of degraded rainforest in Australia by a resplendant Regent bowerbird, Sericulus chrysocephalus, who came close and danced for her, realised that this was the forest speaking to her.(3)  I don’t know whether, at that stage, Charlie made the connection.

What unfolded was a compelling human drama. When told by Elias, the illegal logger, that he was only cutting down trees to feed and clothe his severely disabled daughter, Charlie Hamilton James was sceptical.  “I felt pretty stupid the next day, when I went to Elias’s house, a small shack surrounded by filthy water and sewage, and met his daughter.  Heydi had fallen in a rice-threshing machine as a baby and suffered permanent brain damage.  At five, she had limited motor skills and was unable to speak; her mother Innes was mocked by other women, who told her she must have drunk too much when she was pregnant.”(4)

The apparently inexaustible Hamilton James then set out to try to understand what life was like for people in the area by working alongside gold miners, and then, across the border in Brazil, cattle ranchers who were burning new areas of forest.  In the process he called in ecologists to survey the impressive community of species living in a single huge Mahogany Tree.  Having previously specialised in wildlife photography -his images of forest creatures are impressive- he began to photograph people.  Human people, that is!

Then, in the third episode, he visited Don Alberto, a Wacheperi ‘shaman’, who introduced him to Ayahusaca, ‘a master plant that teaches us the use of other plants’ and ‘opens the mind to the energies flowing through nature’.  Despite acknowledging the importance of rainforest plants for Western medicine, Charlie, who is no polite anthropologist, intially dismissed this as ‘a load of old bolllocks’ and ‘wanted some proof’.  Don Alberto gave him some Ayahuasca, in an infusion of twelve forest plants, and told him that the forest spirits would come to him in a dream and show him his true path. Through the ‘hallucination’ (sic) the forest would speak to him.  The shaman then chanted to the steady beat of a rattle as Charlie saw visions of many animals, ‘snakes, wasps, spiders, crocodiles’, but only the forest species gave him messages.  Afterwards he said that he had hoped to learn about the forest ‘but, irritatingly, it was about me’.

“Whatever he did, it worked. It really worked … the understanding of myself, and being given this understanding by the creatures of the forest was the most enlightening and profound experience I’ve ever had. It absolutely blew me away”.  He now had some sense of Don Alberto’s ‘world that cannot (normally) be seen’.  No wonder he wanted to cry when he heard the Screaming pea-hen, ‘that crappy little brown bird’ (!), the classic sound of the rainforest, in an area of forest that was about to be torched.

Fortunately Charlie Hamilton James came to realise that local people are the solution.  There was some moving footage of him planting a mahogany sapling with Elias and his daughter.  He now employs Elias to restore the forest and the small tract he had bought has been taken on by the CREES foundation, who support local people with agro-forestry advice.  An ecologist from the foundation made it clear that wealthy individuals buying bits of rainforest was not the answer.  Local community owned solutions were needed.

I Bought a Rainforest‘ usefully raised the profile of rainforest conservation, but given that its presenter was a specialist wildllife filmaker and photographer, rather than an investigative journalist or political commentator, and that critical commentary is rarely permitted on t.v, there were inevitable ommissions.  Charlie Hamilton James’s conclusion that all the allegedly dangerous ‘bastards’ he’d met turned out to be decent folk whose only option in the face of desperate poverty was to destroy the rainforest, though interesting and valid as far as it went, obscured a far from benign history.  The B.B.C.’s Natural History Unit is not known as a beacon of progressive politics, so the absence of authoritative local/indigenous voices in these films was par for the course.  What we did get, though, were links to an Open University website giving more detail of the background issues, and to a crowdfunding initiative that has helped the CREES foundation exceed their fundraising goal for further community development work.

The historical context of colonisation of the Amazon is, of course, a desperately bleak story. On the Open university site (here) Dr Andrea Berardi writes that by the 19th century, the dispossession of Amerindians was almost complete. With the loss of their ancestral lands to which their culture was intimately related, the few communities that had survived faced another sort of extinction.

“The process of colonization has left so-called indigenous peoples defeated, relegated to minor spaces, reservations, bread-crumbs of land conceded by the dominant society. Indians were separated from their sacred land, the land of their ancestors, and from their burial grounds with which they shared a deeply spiritual bond. Deprived of traditional environments, they were not only politically, but economically, culturally, and religiously dispossessed” (Wiessner, 1999:58-59)

In Brazillian Amazonia the impact of European colonization reduced a population of several millions to a present day total of between 180,000 and 350,000.  Many of the ‘uncontacted’ tribes may be communities traumatised by previous colonisation who have retreated deeper into the forest.  Survival International’s 2014 Annual Report refers to a history of genocidal violence -mass murder, torture, bacteriological warfare- slavery, and racism, in the mid twentieth century.  This was documented in a report (written in the late sixties), which was mysteriously lost in a fire, but has now resurfaced.  They find an ‘ongoing climate of impunity’ in Brazil in relation to crimes against Indians, and the theft of ancestral land, and highlight an epidemic of suicide, and continuing attacks by hired gunmen.

Sue Branford, a respected green/left commentator on Latin American affairs, who, unsurprisingly, I’ve never seen on television, has recently reported on ‘Seeds of the Forest’ a sustainable community project set up by a nun, Sister Angela Sauzen, in Brazil.  Sister Sauzen has had a gun held to her head, and knows that another nun, who established a similar project further along the Transamazonica highway, was killed in 2005.

last October Sue Branford also reported from Santarém in Brazil on a sham public consultation meeting about a hydro-electric dam project, quoting an open letter published by Survival International in which Munduruku leaders described the proposed dam site in the following terms: “The Cachoeira de Sete Quedas (Paribixexe) are beautiful falls, containing seven stages in the shape of steps. It is where the dead live, the sky of the dead, in other words, the reign of the dead. It is a sacred place to the Munduruku, Kayabi and Apiaká, where the fish procreate, where the mother of fish exists. On the rock face there is art left by the Muraycoko (father of writing), the writing left for the Munduruku through the surabudodot writings, in a very remote period. There are also funerary urns buried there, where our ancient warriors are buried. A portal also exists there which cannot be seen by common men, only by spiritual shaman leaders, who can travel to another unknown world without being seen.”  The site has now been destroyed.

Charlie Hamilton James may have been lucky that he went to Peru rather than Brazil.  I don’t know, but I’m glad he made ‘I Bought a Rainforest’and look forward to seeing his work moving in a more journalistic direction.

Brian Taylor 14/7/14.


(1) Charlie Hamilton James, Kingfisher, Tales from the Halcyon River, Evans Mitchell, 2009.

(2) Andrew Revkin, The Burning Season, The Murder of Chico Mendes and the Fight for the Amazon. Houghton Mifflin, 1990/Shearwater, 2004.

(3) Germaine Greer, White Beech, The Rainforest Years. Bloomsbury, 2014.

(4)  Charlie Hamilton James, I Tried to Save a Patch of the Amazon but I’d Bought an Illegal Cocaine Plantation, Observer, 16th March 2014.

Video clips on BBC I-Player I Bought A Rainforest page.
Digital Rainforest site.
Charlie Hamilton James, The Rainforest and Me, in Pictures, Guardian, march 2014.
Charlie Hamilton James’s Website.

Seigfried Wiessner, Rights and Status of Indigenous Peoples: a Global Comparative and International Legal Analysis, 1999.

Sue Branford, Lula’s Last Challenge, The Amazon, Open Democracy, 9/12/09.
Sue Branford, Tapajos, Public Consultation? More of a P.R. Excercise? , Latin America Bureaux, Latin America Inside Out Blog, Amazon Journey 2013.  4/10/13.
Sue Branford, Brazil’s Amazon Conservation Project Threatened by Loggers and Landowners, Guardian, 7/1/14.

Survival International, and their Annual Report 2013.

The Rainforest Alliance’s Peruvian Amazon Partner wins environmental award.

Spirits of Place? Animism as Deep Political Ecology.

High Close Field Systems, Grassington.  Image courtesy of Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority.

High Close Field Systems, Grassington, where medieval field walls overlay prehistoric field boundaries.  Image courtesy of Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority.

Very occasionally a place has touched me in a profound way and left me with an overwhelming sense of peace and wellbeing, or with what I suppose I would have to call a visionary experience.  Moments like this feel fated, and divinatory.  On one occasion we were walking along the side of a glacial valley in Swaledale.  There were patches of late snow on the hillsides.  Pausing by the ruins of an old farmstead, I sat down to look at the view.  As I sat there I began to feel an extraordinary happiness, quite different from the giddy euphoria I usually associate with snowy landscapes.  That feeling was so intense, so rooted, that I became very reluctant to leave the spot.

My formal connections with the Yorkshire Dales are fairly tenuous.  Some recent ancestors on my father’s side were church people in the Ripon area, not far away.  I had very little to do with them, and haven’t researched the genealogy, but that experience, some years ago, made me wonder about ancestry, and the possibility of past lives.

Last week we went up to Wharfedale.  Walks by the river seemed to confirm the redundancy of the term ‘spirit’, at least in relation to the exuberant busyness of the more-than-human ‘natural world’ at this beautifully embodying time of the year.  The place was buzzing with life.  I’ve never seen so many sand martins.  They were zipping about amongst clouds of mayflies, taking food back to their mud-tunnel nest holes to feed rapidly growing youngsters.  Common sandpipers systematically worked the water’s edge.  Dippers hurtled along, engrossed in territorial displays.  Immaculate oystercatchers announced their presence with loud piping calls.  Mandarin drakes flew russet pennants.  Buzzards floated overhead.  Trout hovered motionless in the current -‘like paintings of themselves’, someone said- their mouths breaking the surface every now and again.  Young men leapt from an improbably high outcrop.  All of us revelling in the surprise of warm sunny weather.

River Wharfe at

River Wharfe at Loup Scar.

One day we walked up to have a look at the ancient field systems near Grassington.  At places like this the depth of human habitation in this landscape is palpable.  Beneath long parallel medieval dry stone walls, which are about six feet high, an intricate pattern of small prehistoric field boundaries radiates around a Bronze Age burial cairn.  In the same area there’s also the site of a former medieval village, a beautiful walk-through cave -more a rock shelter really- in which animal bones and a single, possibly Iron Age, burial, have been found, and a Brigantian hill top fort.

And, of course, wild flowers in profusion.  The limestone scar around the cave was a mass of colour.  We found shining and cut leaf cranesbill, rock rose, stitchwort, crosswort. speedwell, forget-me-knot, gromwell, biting and English stonecrop, wood sage, sweet cicely, and lots of hawthorn blossom.  Nearby there were also bluebells (deep indigo carpets in the wood – which was also home to swathes of lily-of-the-valley, and clusters of cowslips and primroses ), cow parsley (everywhere along the lanes), nettles, and lady’s mantle.

Not surprisingly, I came away from that day’s walk elated, and with a sense that it was not just ‘me’ -that for some ‘people’, some of the time, at least, this had been a happy place.  Once again a very particular ‘glow’ that seemed to have come from a specific locality, accompanied me for the rest of the day.  Had I met some benevolent genius loci, some guardian of the hillside?  I don’t know.

Mossy Moor and Dumpit Hill Stone Circle (I think!).

Mossy Moor and Dumpit Hill Stone Circle (I think!).  Please avoid disturbance to ground nesting birds (i.e look from a distance) between March and July.

However, not least because Wharfedale has a long and significant industrial history, this place (as a whole) hasn’t always been a haven of peace.  On the way up towards Grassington Moor the local curlews struck up a raucous chorus of alarm and circled us, tilting their heads to check our intentions.  They must have had nests near the track.  The same thing happened at Mossy Moor, which was teeming with ground nesting birds.

The atmosphere at the top of Hebden Gill and round to Yarnbury was very different.  I didn’t get round the whole area, but the sense of post-industrial desecration was familiar to me from similar scenes where coal has been mined not far from where I live.  It looked as though those in charge had taken what they wanted and left buldings to crumble and spoil heaps to pollute.  If trauma happened here -and, in various ways, it surely did- its memory has become entangled in the complexities and machinations of power, much as happens with memories of personal abuse.  There are dry historical summaries, a small museum with a few artefacts, and a lead mining trail promoted as an ‘interesting day out’.

Lead was being exported from the Pennines by the Brigantes.  The Romans sent their prisoners of war to the lead mines on nearby Greenhow hill.  Eventually the Yorkshire Pennine lead-zinc-flourite orefield produced some 1 million tonnes of lead concentrates, and lesser amounts of associated minerals.(1)  Production above Grassington declined from the late nineteenth century, and with it an entire culture and vocabulary disappeared into the archives, and ultimately tourist brochures.  Words such as bales, ore-hearths, meer stones, gin shafts, hushes, bouse teems, buddles, crushers, dressing areas, knocking floors, coes, leats, and adits, no longer have functioning referents.

Remains of mining activity, Hebden Gill.

Remains of mining buildings, Hebden Gill.

Spoil Heaps on Grassington Moor.  Geograph. Chris Heaton, Creative Commons.

Spoil Heaps on Grassington Moor. Chris Heaton, Creative Commons.

The ‘gleaming, white and deadly’ lead, once eagerly sought for its practical versatility, has left a legacy of human suffering and environmental damage.  The harm it does to the nervous, digestive, and reproductive systems, and calcium metabolism of the human body – especially to the neurological development of children- is all too familiar.  An account of the 1851 census for Swaledale shows that the lead mines there employed more than three times as many children under the age of 15 as men over 60.  The Kinnaird commision of 1864 found that the average age of death for lead miners and smelters was 46.67 years, compared with 60.79 for those in other occupations.(3)  If ‘I’, in some past life, or some contented ancestor of mine, once lived in Swaledale, it was surely not as a lead miner!  Conditions in the mines, where poorly ventilated seams were opened up by gunpowder and worked by the light of home made candles, were clearly not conducive to a long and happy life.  No wonder they pegged lucky stones (ones with a natural hole) to the wall by mine entrances, or carried small ones on pieces of string.

Geomorphologists have recently shown that much of the immediate floodplain of the Swale still has either ‘a high probability’ or ‘a likelihood’ of being contaminated by lead, and that ‘a substantial proportion of the metals [mined] have been incorporated into alluvial deposits’ and ‘will continue to act as a major secondary source of metal contaminants over many hundreds of years’.(4)  It wouldn’t be a good idea to eat the trout then!  Back at Grassington you don’t have to be Frederick Engels to notice that this is a landscape shaped by social class.  During four centuries for which records are available, only three families owned mineral rights on the Grassington Liberty.(5)  Higher up on the moor, the aristocracy have enjoyed Grouse shooting for some 250 years.  Risking draconian penalties, local miners ‘had a reputation’ as poachers.

Grouse shooting has long been associated with the persecution of birds of prey.  An ecological study of the breeding success of Peregrine Falcons, published ten years ago concluded “the breeding data show that there is significant variation in Peregrine breeding success between nest sites, with those in areas managed for grouse shooting resulting in markedly fewer fledged young than sites away from grouse moors, on average. This difference is statistically significant and cannot be explained by any natural factors.”(6)

The above suggests that listening to voices that speak from, and especially ‘for’, a particular place, is by no means a simple matter, that ‘otherworlds’ might be as complicated and politically fraught as this one.  I suspect that most animists would agree that we need to understand the ‘political’ as well as ‘deep’ ecology of the places that we love.  One of the legacies of growing up in a culture that marginalises both earth-centred ‘spirituality’ and critical political analysis, is that I sometimes feel as though these two kinds of knowledge and practice come from completely different parts of me.  That’s why friends who understand why they’re intimately connected are so important.

Brian Taylor 29/5/14.

Some Sources:

(1) A Jones et al, Mine Water Geochemistry and Metal Flux in a Major Historic  Pb-Zn-F Orefield, the Yorkshire Pennines, U.K.  Environmental Science and Pollution Research 20:7570-7581, 2013.

(2) Janet Montgomery, et al, Gleaming, White, and Deadly, using lead to track human exposure and geographic origins in the Roman period in Britain. Journal of Roman Archaeology, suppl 78 pp199-226.

(3) J.L,.Barker, The Lead Miners of Swaledale and Arkengarthdale in 1851Memoirs, Northern Caverns and Mines Research Society, Vol2. No2 pp89-97.

(4) M.G.Mackin, et al A Geomorphological Approach to the Management of Rivers Contaminated by Metal Mining, Geomorphology 79, 2006 pp423-444. and The Significance of Pollution from Historic Metal Mining in the Pennine Orefields in River Sediment Contaminant Fluxes to the North Sea, Science of the Total Environment, vols 194-5, 291-397, feb 1997.

K.A.Hudson-Edwards et al. Assessment of Metal Mining Contaminated River Sediments in England and Wales, Environment Agency, 2008.

(5) M.C.Gill, The Grassington Mines, British Mines No 46, A monograph of the Northern Mines Reserch Society, Keighley, May 1993.

(6) Ian R. Court, et al. Status and Productivity of Peregrine Falcons in the Yorkshire Dales, British Birds 97, September 2004, 456-463.


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.


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

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.