Here are some images as we move into Spring, prompted in part by Moma Fauna’s recent ‘wandering and seeing‘ (in Alaska). We’ve hardly had any winter here this year. Its mostly been mild and wet. The figure aove is a curious flood sculpture. Material deposited on saplings several feet above the usual surface of the stream may or may not have been reworked by human hands. Below are two more ‘uprooted’ images, showing bluish-orangey slate or shale hoisted into the air by the roots of a fallen oak tree. (double click to bring up larger versions).
On a Spring Equinox walk today I was pleased to meet a quite confiding Golden Plover, and later, a pipistrelle bat that had woken up and was hawking for flies in the mid-day sunshine. Here, lastly are red stained rocks, some yellow spring flowers – celandine and gorse – and yellow lichen on a hawthorn, all from recent wanderings.
I’ve decided to retreat into my shell. Life, and this wonderful sandstone outcrop, have called me to put Animist Jottings on hold for a while. Co-incidentally, two of the other blogs I most closely follow are also pausing at the moment, so it looks as though the planets have spoken. I’ve enjoyed nearly three years of blogging exchanges, and learned a lot from fellow writers -which was what I’d hoped for. I’m not sure when I’ll be back, or what I’ll do next, but more photography seems possible.
In the meantime, here’s to all who are working, or relaxing, for a wiser more compassionate world. May it come very soon, please!
If you want to contact me please use the form at the foot of the home or ‘a bit about me’ pages.
I’ve been prompted to think about ‘invasive species’ by a debate currently raging in the Calder Valley, about woodland management, and in particular, the felling of mature Beech trees. As an animist and social scientist (I’m not an ecologist), I find myself frustrated by the terms in which this debate is often conducted. I’ll come back to this. But first, an example that gets to the heart of the matter.
A fine specimen of Purple Loosestrife has been growing in our semi-wild garden for many years. This old friend has a wonderful woody rhizome, and each summer sends up proud spikes taller than me, bursting with rich purple flowers. The species is one of my partner’s favourite flowers. On those rare occasions when we see it growing in the wild, we get quite excited. Sadly, the species (which is native to Europe, Asia, North West Africa, and Southeastern Australia) has been introduced into New Zealand and North America where, because the beetles that normally control its spread are absent, it forms dense monotypic stands that disrupt wetland ecosystems. So, ironically, a plant that was introduced into North America as a medicinal herb (and garden plant) finds itself described as an ‘infestation’. Attempts are now being made to re-instate biological controls by introducing the relevant Beetle species in order to restore some kind of equilibrium.
Peter Coates, who has written about the cultural reception of introduced species in North America, points out that certain landforms, places, and creatures (the Redwood, Bison, etc) have been appropriated, at various times, to create a sense of national identity. Conversely the ‘faunal or floral citizenship’ of biotic forms that are not American in origin, have been embroiled in cultural politics. Alien (=other) origin is often inscribed into species names. In America we find English Sparrow and European Gorse, and the U.K has American Mink and American Grey Squirrel.(1) Introduced species have caused major ecological disruption in many parts of the world, and their presence sometimes poses acute ethical dilemmas. For Mark Woods and Paul Veatch Moriarty it’s important to address the complexity of such situations. Citing the ecological damage caused by Feral Pigs in Hawaii, they argue that all values (in this case conservationist and animal rights) need to be articulated.(2) At the time of writing, millions of Norwegian Brown Rats are being poisoned on South Georgia in the interests of what was once probably the most important sea-bird colony on Earth. Several endemic bird species, that evolved in an environment without mammalian predators, are perilously close to extinction, whilst only about 1% of the island’s burrowing sea-birds remain.(3)
The U.K. has been relatively fortunate insofar as most introduced species have not caused major adverse ecological impacts here. In fact some have had beneficial ecological effects. Sara Manchester and James Bullock note that a few charismatic non-natives (defined as having colonised the British Isles since the Neolithic, c6,000 B.P), such as the Little Owl and Horse Chestnut, are now widely accepted as part of U.K. biodiversity. They also point out that neither dating the arrival of a species, nor defining human agency, are necessarily straightforward. Should species that have found a niche in the U.K because of climate change, for example, be regarded as ‘introduced’, or as ‘natural’ arrivals? They conclude that its not possible to generalise about introduced species. (4)
Our local authority, Calderdale, has drawn up a habitat action plan for the valley’s native woodland, most of which has been neglected and is in poor condition. Not surprisingly, factors in its decline include invasive species. Listed amongst these are ‘non-indigenous tree species such as sycamore and beech’. They associate beech trees with poor ground flora (they can nevertheless co-exist stunningly with bluebells!), reduced carbon sequestration and storage, and soil erosion. In Colden Clough the plan is to thin them by 60 per cent. Calderdale argue that many of the Beeches here are coming to the end of their life, and suffering from fungal infections and limb drop. There may be a case for gradually replacing beech monocultures (that may encourage disease) with mixed woodland, whilst retaining beeches as a valued feature, but the way this has been approached has upset a lot of people.
There has been vigorous local debate and in some cases opposition to felling has been successful. Opponents of the National Trust’s management regime in Hardcastle Crags have pointed out that beeches are thought to have been in the UK since the Pleistocene. According to Richard Mabey, a prominent advocate for the species, beeches arrived in Britain some 500 years before the Channel opened, and therefore qualify as ‘native’. Prehistoric traces have been found in West Yorkshire. For many of us, it would, in any case, not matter if they had only arrived here due to a fashion for planting them that began in the late 18th Century. They are naturalised and highly valued. One commentator points out that the biggest threat to beeches in Northern England now comes from conservationists. Given that so many of our other tree species are threatened by diseases, it seems perverse to remove healthy mature trees that people clearly love. As I’ve noted elsewhere, conservationists in New England, where European Beeches are valued, are trying to keep older trees going by treating fungal disease. Mabey, describes 400 year old pollarded beeches in the Chilterns, and celebrates their character, beauty, and cultural importance (Paul Nash, for instance, described them as ‘the Pyramids of my small world’).(5)
So, we have an un-necessarily polarised debate, not least because the ecological-forestry discourse of woodland management (adopted uncritically by local green groups?) appears to be privileging a version of scientific rationality at the expense of the (often well informed) feelings of local people. Personally I’d like to see them take a leaf out of the Woodland Trust’s book, and register notable trees; trees that are culturally important, or ‘of personal significance‘. In the context of advancing Ash Die Back, Mabey makes a case for valuing Sycamore (‘the weed of the woods’) as a replacement for Ash trees. Now, more than ever, conservationists should be ‘welcoming outsiders’ rather than ruling non-native species out of court.
Richard Mabey also speaks up for the reviled Indian or Himalayan Balsam, Impatiens glandulifera.(6) Prized by Victorian gardeners as the Poor Man’s Orchid, its energetic romp along British watercourses has seen its ratings plummet. ‘The Himalayan Terror’ has long been the subject of ‘balsam bashing’ events. I wonder how many local conservation volunteers in my area use Bach Flower Rescue Remedy, one of the ingredients of which (Impatiens) is derived from this very plant? Flushed from the success of one such operation, one balsam basher recently commented that her local river “looks more like a British river now, and less like a jungle”(!). Given that (i) many residents in nearby towns (including some of my former colleagues) are from, or have families in, areas where Impatiens glandulifera is a native species, (ii) that ‘bashing’ is a term often used by the perpetrators of visceral violence against those perceived as in some way different, and that (iii) venting rage against other-than-human species that happen to be non-native is a disrespectful way to remove such a potent plant, I find this terminology highly problematic. Thankfully volunteers are now increasingly being invited to take part in ‘balsam pulling’, ‘control’, ‘clearing’ (etc) rather than bashing. Impatiens, by the way, is said to be a remedy for irritability.
Mabey points out that balsam likes disturbed muddy ground not favoured by native species, and claims (on the basis of watching its progress since the 70’s) never to have seen it colonize an area occupied by native riverside vegetation. The species is highly valued by Bee Keepers, for its late pollen. Again there has been vigorous local debate, with one contributor arguing that balsam is a nitrophilus plant that converts human pollution into large quantities of valuable nectar. If this is correct, its contribution to local ecosystems may, in some situations, be extremely benign. Once again, debate tends to be polarised between absolute positions, with little space for nuanced views, and dissenters from the dominant scientific orthodoxy dismissed as ‘contrarians’.(7) There may well be a case for controlling balsam within our local woodland, but hopefully this can be done in a way that is respectful to the plant, and without resorting to emotive militaristic or xenophobic metaphors (blitzing, invading aliens, etc). We are all constantly learning about the intricacies of the natural world. Debate needs to be facilitated in such a way that all values are articulated, and where possible, addressed.
Beneath all the controversy I sense a deeper anxiety, about loss of wildness. As health and safety notices, direction signs, way marks, over sized information boards, corporately approved sculptures, and sundry installations presumably intended to ‘enhance the visitor experience’ -the calling cards of ostensibly benevolent management- go up everywhere, I am beginning to feel quite claustrophobic. Someone recently quipped that Hardcastle Crags (run by the National Trust) increasingly resembles Disneyland. Sylvia Plath – who wrote a striking poem about walking there on a Full Moon night in 1957 – would, I suspect, be ‘turning in her grave’ at nearby Heptonstall.
In his wonderful conclusion to a chapter about ‘the weirdness of Manannán’s subjects’, the denizens of the intertidal zone at Mannin Bay, Connemara, Tim Robinson has one of the most vivid descriptions of an alien species I’ve yet come across. “And the beach watched as we, perhaps the strangest of all creatures, with glacial slowness lifted our gigantic heads out of the seaweed, blinked our meagre allowance of eyes, balanced ourselves on towering appendages, locomoted by a succession of arrested fallings forward, communicated by waves of agitation of air molecules, … bent our spinal cords to coil ourselves into our waiting coccospheres and, rolling on wheels, a device unknown amongst the people of Mannanán, departed – strange to each other, strange to ourselves.” (8)
B.T 10/7/13, updated 10/9/13 to include reference to the status of beech as a native species in the U.K.
(1) Peter Coates, American Perceptions of Immigrant and Invasive Species; Strangers in a Strange Land, University of California Press, 2006.
(2) Mark Woods and Paul Veatch Moriarty, Strangers in a Strange Land, the Problem of Exotic Species, Environmental Values 10 (2001) 163-91. (available online, search title).
(3) Karl mathiesen, World’s Largest Rat Extermination Returns South Georgia to its Bird Life, Guardian 4/7/13.
(4) Sarah J. Manchester and James J Bullock, The Impacts of Non-native Species on UK Biodiversity and the Effectiveness of Control, Journal of Applied Ecology, Vol 37, Issue 5, pp845-864, October 2000. (available online, search Google Scholar).
(5)Richard Mabey, Beechcombings, the Narratives of Trees, Vintage Nooks, 2007. and (6) Mabey in the Wild, B.B.C. Radio 4, July 2011 and 2013. (available online for a year from the date of broadcast).
(7) despite citing the Botanical Society of the British Isles. Alien Invaders?
For a different view of Himalayan Balsam, as a valued medicinal herb threatened by climate change in Pakistan, see: Ghazala Nasim and Asad Shabbir, Shifting Herbivory Pattern due to Climate Change: A Case Study of Himalayan Balsam from Pakistan, Pakistan Journal of Botany (available online).
(8) Tim Robinson, Connemara, The Last Pool of Darkness, Penguin, 2009 p287. note: Manannan Mac Lir(‘son of the sea ) was/is a sea god, the Celtic Poseidon.
Sylvia Plath, Collected Poems, Faber, 1981.
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Every Summer, amid much pomp and ceremony, all resident Swans on the River Thames between London and Abingdon are rounded up, weighed, and counted. The custom dates back some nine hundred years to a time when the Crown claimed ownership of all Mute Swans in England as a source of meat for feasts and banquets. On the Thames this privilege has been shared with the Vintners and Dyers Companies since at least the fifteenth century, perhaps as long as ‘legal memory’ which apparently goes back to the accession of Richard I in 1189. These ancient livery companies or guilds still conduct the Upping.
The Queen’s ‘Swan Marker’ wears a red jacket with a swan’s feather in his cap. At a lock close to Windsor Castle, a royal residence, the flotilla halts and everyone toasts Her majesty as ‘Seigneur of Swans’. Andrew Collins, who has written a panoramic account of Swan mythology, suggests that the Vintner’s ‘mystery’, as the company was once called, developed from a Saxon Guild, and has possible antecedents in an Isis cult in Roman London. The Vintner’s Hall has a Swan room where their Swan banner is kept, and a stuffed Swan prominently displayed. Because this is paraded at a banquet held at Martinmas (11th November, related to Samhain/The Day of the Dead/All Souls) when Geese were eaten in the saint’s honour across Europe, Collins suggests there may be an unbroken line of symbolism extending across centuries, even millennia, from a time when Swans were venerated as psychopomps.*
Although Andrew Collins‘ meta-narrative about the cosmological primacy of the star Cygnus (the Swan) is a bit too all-encompassing for my taste, I like the fact that Swan Upping coincides with the yearly maximum display of the Alpha Cygnid meteor shower, and was pleased to read that during a trip to witness the custom he was blessed with a feather from one of the Swans, and later saw a propitiously timed Alpha Cygnid meteor.
Nowadays Swan Upping is about the conservation of legally protected birds, but you don’t have to be Michel Foucault to sense that this ceremony, perhaps all ceremony, enacts a formal display of power relations. The Vintner’s company is, after all, one of the twelve great Livery Companies of the City of London, one of the great vortices of global capitalism. The Swan Marker’s red coat, proclaiming the authority of the monarch, recalls the scarlet coats worn by the British army in the days of empire, and now reserved for their own ceremonial purposes. From this perspective our quaint annual pageant on the Thames begins to look less like archaic swan shamanism than a piece of greenwash for something altogether less innocent.
Other species have their own ceremonies, of course. Geese and Swans perform what ethologists call a triumph ceremony, a relatively simple but effective sequence of posturing and trumpeting. Individuals, couples, or family groups of swans do this after successful territorial skirmishes. Sadly, the elaborateness of human triumph ceremonies doesn’t make them ethically superior! The Romans, for example, held lavish ‘Triumphs’ (victory parades-come-thanks-offerings to Jupiter Optimus Maximus) in which defeated enemies, captives, the spoils of war, and sacrificial animals, were put on public display in a choreographed celebration of imperial power.
We humans are perhaps closer to other species when it comes to the intimate ceremonial of courtship, though commentators often prefer to emphasise our uniqueness. In New Guinea, for example, men use the feathers of Birds of Paradise in their head-dresses, whilst Bowerbirds take shiny human artefacts to decorate their love nests. Geoffrey Masson and Susan McCarthy found that accounts of these ostensibly similar customs tended to explain human action in spiritual or aesthetic terms, whilst birds were said to be acting mechanistically or to be motivated by competition. Many other-than-human species preen, dance, and present gifts during courtship, much as humans do. The Great Crested Grebes’ remarkable ‘weed dance’ springs to mind. Although this is not a public event bringing a community together, some other-then-human-people do undoubtedly conduct public ceremonies. At the time of writing, the dawn chorus, arguably a collective celebration of unparalleled beauty (not just a cacophony of territorial claims), is getting under way.
Mark Bekoff has collated examples of other-than-human funeral ceremonies. On one occasion he witnessed four Magpies standing round the dead body of a mature Magpie. They gently pecked the corpse with their beaks, then stepped back in turn. One bird flew off and returned with a beakful of grass, which was laid on the body. Then another bird brought some more grass and added it. Finally all the birds seemed to bow their heads slightly before flying away. Since publishing his account he has received many similar reports of funerals involving Magpies, Ravens, Crows, and in one case Starlings.
Lawrence Anthony was a remarkable South African conservationist who, at some personal risk, rescued a group of nine traumatised Elephants. When he died, the Elephants, who had not been near his home for a very long time, made a twelve hour journey and kept silent vigil outside the house for two days.
As a boy I remember being amazed by the sudden appearance, one day in high summer, of thousands of flying ants. Suddenly the neat gardens of London’s Kentish suburbs would be transformed into a wild place, the air thick with winged Black Garden Ants, Lasius Niger. Although no-one was able to tell me at the time, these were young queens setting out on nuptial flights, accompanied by vast numbers of males who only live for a couple of days after the mating flight is over. The much larger queens, by contrast, can live for up to ten years. I remember sensing that these insects were engrossed in their own benign business. Must we interpret their impressive communal celebrations in mechanical terms? After all, these tiny ants are capable of farming aphids.
During seasonal ceremonies humans often wear animal costumes, or adorn themselves with flowers. The Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, for example, involves a hobby horse, ‘Maid Marion’, and six deer-men. The latter carry reindeer antlers that have been dated to the 12th century, but are thought to have been imported some time between the 11th and 17th centuries since reindeer were extinct in England, and we have no evidence of domesticated herds being kept. Although the custom may have originated as a parish fund raising event in Tudor times, it attracts an enthusiastic following amongst those who feel it evokes sympathetic hunting magic. Andy Letcher argues that the history of the dance needn’t detract from its efficacy. For him it clearly works, not least by ritually weaving a community together.
Sometimes such rites make my hair stand on end, sometimes they don’t. I’m uneasy, for example, when horns, sticks, or ‘weapons’, are deployed in a way that reinforces normative assumptions about ‘hard wired’ masculinity (“that’s how we’ve evolved, you can’t expect us to change”). Much depends on the tone. If its warm, joyful, inclusive, democratic, subversive -or indeed respectful of the spirit of an animal, the land, or the non-human world- I’m likely to enjoy it. A ceremony can, of course, only be understood in relation to its cultural context, and there will always be differing perspectives on its merits!
Occasionally the intimate life-rites of other-than-human beings’ coincide with important seasonal moments in the human calendar. Early in the morning on the 19th of December 2008 we looked out of the window and saw five Roe Deer in the field. There was some gentle head butting going on. A buck was standing on the slope of the hill with his head raised proudly, while a doe raced, as fast as she could, round a fallen conifer, immediately beneath him. Each time she hurtled round the tree, winding up the tension, she almost brushed his upraised head. He stood perfectly still, muscles tensed, charged up.
In retrospect I’m puzzled by this since Roe Deer courtship normally occurs in July and August? (see my next post) Anyway, for us, the doe’s circling round a Tree of Life felt like a joyful ‘showing’ for the Solstice, which was less than forty eight hours away. There was a sad aftermath however. Some time during the late spring/early summer of 2009 we stopped seeing the deer in a nearby wood. Then we heard that discarded deer parts had been found in a field. ‘Our’ deer family had evidently been shot. A few months later, in October of that year, a woman friend who was staying with us, and hadn’t heard the story, dreamed that a young deer came out of a wood and climbed on to her lap. In the dream a hind and buck stood at the edge of the trees. She placed the fawn at their feet and walked away.
Then, of course, there are those magical times when other-than-human-beings appear to bless human rites with their presence. Some years ago my journey through a very complicated bereavement and its intractable aftermath was illuminated by many such appearances. For example:
Having finally managed to sell my mother’s house, I went down to London (in April 1995) to say goodbye to the place where I grew up, dispose of some furniture, and salvage various mementos. Because of the intensity of what had happened there this was a wrenching moment, a rite of passage. I decided to mark the transformation with a small fire in the back garden, and made a ‘nest’ of dry grass and magnolia leaves for the purpose. At the precise moment when I finished the rite, the air was filled with a loud screeching call that I didn’t recognise. I looked up just in time to see five Ring Necked Parakeets take off from a bough near the top of a huge Oak tree overlooking the house, and fly away in linear formation. These exuberant lime green birds were newcomers in the neighbourhood. I’d never seen them before, anywhere. At the time I was more than happy just to receive the affirmation, but with hindsight I see those birds as a vivid symbol of change, and evidence, yet again, that (what I now call) an animist is never alone!
Other animists’ takes on ‘Ceremony and Community’, the theme for this month’s ‘issue’ of the Animist Blog Carnival, can be found via: http://postpagan.com/
* Note: Psychopomps guide the souls of the deceased on their journey into the afterlife.
On Swan Upping:
Andrew Collins, The Cygnus Mystery, Unlocking the Ancient Secret of Life’s Origins in the Cosmos, Watkins Publishing, 2008.
Mary Beard The Roman Truimph, Harvard University Press, 2007.
Geoffrey Masson and Susan McCarthy, When Elephants Weep, the Emotional Lives of Animals, Jonathan Cape, 1994.
Marc Bekoff Grieving Animals Saying Goodbye to Friends and Family, Psychology Today (July 2012) accessed online at:
and on Lawrence Anthony, The Elephant Whisperer:
Andy Letcher on the Abbot’s Bromley Horn Dance:
and Ronald Hutton, The Stations of the Sun, A History of the Ritual Year in Britain, Oxford University Press, 1996.