Beech Trees in Autumn

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

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

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

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

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


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

Humankind and Ashkind/Shadow over the Ash

Ivy clad Ash tree, Leighton Moss.

Ivy clad Ash tree, Leighton Moss.

Shadow over the Ash

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

Shadow over the Ash

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

Humankind and Ashkind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Mature Ash, Limestone Pavement.

Mature Ash, Limestone Pavement.

Alienated Nature. Representing Introduced Species.

Purple Loosetrife,

Purple Loosetrife, Lythrum salicaria.

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)

Beech Tree, November 2010.

‘Weeping’ Beech Tree, November 2010.

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 significanceIn 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.

Comments can be sent by e-mail using the contact form at the bottom of the home page.  Just say which bits you’d like included.

E-mailed comments:

“… I’ve changed my views about ‘alien’ species lately (though still not sure about sycamore especially as a replacement for ash but I suppose we have to make the most of what we’ve got and I love Himalayan balsam) It sounds too much like xenophobia and trying to keep everything ‘national’. We don’t live in that kind of world any more. Everything/one was a newcomer at one time; how far back do you go? I’m shocked that beech are regarded as interlopers! Nature is not static and can probably reach some kind of balance if allowed, but humans are the biggest invaders. I see it as all part of the current ethos that sees nature as threatening and needs to be in control.  How can they make a fuss about beech trees and not GM crops!! I could get quite emotional about it. …. “.  Jo Pacsoo.

Relational Magic? Thoughts Prompted by Susan Greenwood’s Anthropology of Magic

In a previous post I expressed concern about an instrumental and anthropocentric approach to natural magic, and wondered whether alternative conceptions of magic, enchantment, and divination might feel more compatible with postmodern animism.

My unease with the term magic (however spelt), stems from a long felt ambivalence about neo-Pagan/contemporary Pagan* sub-cultures.  Most of the people I’ve shared or practiced Nature based spirituality with had long involvements (in the eighties or before) in community action, the voluntary sector, feminism, anti-sexist men’s groups, radical self-help therapy, or the peace/anti-nuclear movement, all of which had strong traditions of democratic practice.

Although I shared much common ground with Paganism, I (and no doubt many others) felt wary of (i) an apparent fondness for hierarchical structures (grades, initiations, priests, Chosen Chiefs, etc), (ii) an individualistic ethic, with, it seemed, little concern for social realities, (iii) a tendency towards naïve identification with warrior deities, (iv) an insufficiently critical attitude towards highly problematic sources such as Crowley, or Freemasonry, and (v) the widespread adoption of Jungian (essentialist, binary) assumptions about gender (i.e. that there is a universal set of ‘Masculine’ and ‘Feminine’ qualities).  I would now add the familiar animist complaint that Pagans (other than eco-pagans) revere nature in the abstract but often seem uninterested in the ecology of their local pagus, district, region, or place (c.f. French Pays) after which Paganism is named.  Along with my friends and peers, I was, in any case, much less oriented towards anthropomorphic deities than most Pagans.  We therefore kept our distance from organised ‘religious’ Paganism, and celebrated the seasonal festivals in an autonomous local non-hierarchical group.  I do remember being impressed, however, by Starhawk’s politically engaged Goddess centred spirituality.

Writing as an outsider in relation to capital-P Paganism, then, I was interested to read recently that many Pagans are now talking about animism in the context of questioning the need to follow a particular path.  Does this mean that my younger self’s concerns are being addressed, and that understandings of magic have been shifting in a broadly ‘new’ animist direction?  How do its practitioners relate to other human and non-human becomings?


‘Toadlet’ (Juvenile Common Toad, Bufo bufo) on a Human Road, July 2007.  

In the hope of finding out I turned to some of Susan Greenwood’s writings, and soon found some important areas of common ground.  Citing New Animism’s ancestral foe Edward Tylor, for whom magic was ‘the most pernicious delusion that ever vexed mankind’, Greenwood sets out to re-establish the legitimacy of a marginalised tradition.  Based on her research she contrasts the tradition of High Magic -with its emphasis on transcendence, and apolitical perspective, with Feminist Witchcraft, which is Goddess centred, nature based, and politically engaged.  In the former, magic is seen as a means of reaching human perfection in the search for Ultimate Being.  In the latter, shamanistic methods (such as dancing and drumming) are used primarily for therapeutic purposes or for changing society.  I was less comfortable, however, with her adoption of a fairly conventional psychological framework.  She talks in Freudian terms about ‘the creative use of imagination … to urge the unconscious into consciousness’.  Following Michel Foucault, and others, who have critiqued psychoanalysis, I would be much more circumspect about using its language and practices.  Where these are found useful, I prefer to follow those who talk, for instance, about ‘unconscious processes’ rather than ‘the unconscious’, and would question the Jungian sounding notion of a ‘true self’, even in the context of holistic spirituality.

In keeping with her feminist orientation, Susan Greenwood’s The Anthropology of Magic alternates between personal narrative and theoretical discussionThere’s a welcome sense that this is a collaborative exploratory project, and that plural understandings are possible.  The downside of such an approach, perhaps, is that it can be difficult to find a settled definition of magic in the book.  The author acknowledges the influence of her friend and informant, a British shaman called Jo Crow, who in turn appears to have been influenced by Michael Harner’s neo-shamanism.  Greenwood therefore talks about ‘journeying’ in an ‘altered state of consciousness’, about harmful and helping spirits, and soul loss.  This strand of experience has clearly shaped her understanding of what she calls ‘magical consciousness’, a ‘mythopoetic expanded aspect of awareness’ that anyone can potentially experience.  The term is used inclusively to cover a multiplicity of intuitive or associative mental processes and ways of knowing.

One of the criticisms leveled at Harner is that his method reduces shamanism to the dis-located individualism of a New Age psychotherapy; that it is orientated towards self-discovery and empowerment at the expense of ecological relationship, community development, or political activism.  Susan Greenwood’s project -to reclaim magic from reductive anthropological explanations in terms of its social or psychological functions (which she helpfully reviews)- seems to have taken her to a place where social realities are by-passed altogether.  I hope I’m wrong about this, since, in my view, there’s a pressing need to link healing work with an understanding of social forces and power relations that cause harm.  Although Greenwood explicitly asks whether magic can lead to an ‘ecological worldview’, cites Rachel Carson on the importance of childlike wonder in reply to those who dismiss animism as childish delusion, and defines magic as relational, her emphasis still seems to be on inner journeys rather external realities.

So much so that she describes Richard Mabey’s encounter with a Nightingale -when he experienced the bird as ‘a shaman’, whose ‘song seemed to become solid, to be doing odd things to the light’, and who  momentarily entered his head, so that he became the singing bird- as ‘the sort of experience that anyone can have through empathising with another creature in the imagination‘. (my italics).  She then compares this with something similar that happened to her at a shamanic workshop, during an inner journey to find a spirit guide.  The dreamlike visionary experience she recounts involved passing through frighteningly tight labyrinthine tunnels, and seeing imagery of dismemberment in which a large Crow picked over her bones before turning into a ‘white snow owl’.  An obvious point of similarity with Mabey’s experience was that she too briefly had a sense of becoming the flying Owl.  It would be inappropriate to speculate about the subjective importance of these two events, but they were, surely -monist understandings of a conscious universe, and the reality of ‘spirits’ notwithstanding- fundamentally different in one key respect.  Richard Mabey was not empathising ‘in his imagination’, he was relatingas one of our most experienced, sensitive, and articulate naturalists- to a materially embodied and co-present member of a species he had long felt a passionate connection with.  Susan Greenwood was ‘journeying’ in inner space, through imaginal worlds, where she met what others would call a spirit helper, and what she prefers simply to call a friend.

If Mabey was unable, or perhaps unwilling, to find words to categorise his own experience, that’s fine by me.  Susan Greenwood, however, claims it as example of ‘magical consciousness’.  (I would have been happier had she said what I call magical consciousness).  Aside from the issue of categorizing another person’s experiences, I’m not sure whether such a broad term gets us very far.  Frustratingly, we are told very little about the author’s subsequent relationship with Owls as ‘friends’, or how this relates to the lives of flesh-and-blood Owl-people.

Returning to the question of magical agency, the extent to which magic is about turning or shaping events, or consciousness, by acts of will, Susan Greenwood introduces the concept of participation, as developed by Lucien Lévy Bruhl in relation to mystical thought, and contrasts this with causality.  She associates participation with altered states, holistic language, a metaphorical mode that makes emotional, sensory, and psychic connections; with mythology, story-telling, and engagement with an ‘enspirited world’.  I very much welcome the suggestion of dialogue here, but once again, Greenwood’s actual practice (as reflected in what I’ve been able to read) appears to be individualistic and psychologically oriented.  Commenting (in ‘Of Worms …) on her auto-ethnographic research, she writes ‘I’ve found that magic involves looking deeply into the self and facing the subconscious and unconscious’.  Although accounts of shamanic healing give a sense of ‘magical consciousness’ in practice, I would like to have seen more discussion of the quite complex ethical and practical questions that inevitably arise about therapeutic uses of ‘magic’ in the context of a world in which many people people experience extreme states of distress or madness.  Susan Greenwood’s observation that, paradoxically, we need to be strong within ourselves in order to ‘ride the dragon’ -to open ourselves up to, and make creative spiritual use of, magical consciousness, might make a good starting point.  She also touches upon some of the pitfalls, such as ‘magical charisma’.

A concluding discussion in The Anthropology of Magic reframes the issue of the reality of spirits in the context of a monist universe in which consciousness is wider than individual minds.  During the experience of magic, spirits -beings that have a different order of existence, but are nonetheless real- ‘may share a degree of corporeal materiality, and possess mind’.  Imagination is proposed as an important doorway to expanded awareness, including potentially very powerful experiences, but we must bracket disbelief and act ‘as if’, in order to enter into participatory relationship with an enspirited world.

Bluebells, An Indicator of Ancient Woodland.

Bluebells, An Indicator of Ancient Woodland.

One of the risks with insider research is that identification with (or advocacy for) the subjects of the research can blunt our critical faculties.  I wondered whether this had happened when the author took part in a ‘Wild Hunt Challenge’ in a Norfolk wood, at night, at Samhain (Halloween).  During this mythos based event participants were invited to ‘confront death’ in the form of spectral beings, in a timed challenge emphasising ‘competition, sport, and mastery'(!?!).  In the process one participant reportedly may have seen a black dog, whilst another claims to have seen a medieval knight on a horse.  We are told that the Wild Hunt ‘restores reciprocity between humans and nature’.  How, I wondered, did the flesh and blood other-than-human residents of that wood feel about this?

Although I found Susan Greenwood’s writings thought provoking, and quite like the notion of magical consciousness, I’m not, at present, convinced by her widening of the definition of magic to cover many phenomena that most people would describe in other ways.

In another post I hope to ruminate on Barry Patterson’s take on participatory magic, and Patrick Curry’s animist perspective on divination.


*As the U.K 2011 census findings remind us, terms such as neo-Pagan, (contemporary or postmodern) Pagan,  Post-pagan, or of course, Heathen, Druid, etc. are preferred by different groups of people.  I have no strong feelings about this.  One objection to neo-Pagan is that “no-one refers to neo-Christian”.  Perhaps they should?  Post-Christian might be more appropriate though as a description of some expressions of  feminist/’earthen’ Christianity.  Since neo-Pagan simply means ‘new’ Pagan some see it (like postmodern Pagan) as usefully distancing us from the less attractive aspects of pre-modern patriarchal chiefdoms.


Starhawk, Towards an Activist Spirituality, in Ly de Angeles, et al, Pagan Visions for a Sustainable Future, Llewellyn, 2005.

Susan Greenwood, “Of Worms, Snakes, and Dragons”; Can Magic Lead to an Ecological World View, in Ly de Angeles, Ibid.

Susan Greenwood, Feminist Witchcraft; A Transformative Politics, in Nickie Charles and Felicia Hughes-Freeland, Practicing Feminism; Identity, Difference, Power, Routledge, 1996.

Susan Greenwood, The Anthropology of Magic, Berg, 2009.

Robert Wallis, Shamans/Neo-Shamans; Ecstasy, alternative archaeologies and contemporary Pagans, Routledge, 2003.

Naturalists, Animists, and Spirituality.

In Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold spoke of a ‘need to re-integrate the full range of human faculties into the study of nature’.  Isn’t this what animist ‘spirituality’ is all about?  Some of our finest naturalists write about moments of intimate contact with other-than-human beings.  Their love for their subject matter is obvious, and perhaps best left understated.  Many more naturalists experience such moments, but don’t write about it.  Public discourse about nature leaves human subjectivity, let alone spirituality, at the margins.  There may be some valid reasons for this.  Discussing spirituality could, paradoxically, be divisive, when ecological priorities demand broad involvement.  Many published accounts, however, suggest a continuum of experience, from the kind of silent attunement my father showed me when we watched birds together, through a range of more intense and exceptional phenomena, some of which are plainly inconsistent with Western scientific rationality.

In Whistling in the Dark, Richard Mabey recalls developing ‘a slight gift for intuiting and predicting’ where unusual birds might be seen.  He found he could ‘conjure up a Woodpecker’.  In Landlocked, he talks about the ‘serendipity’ involved in an encounter with a Dartford Warbler; ‘they are usually the shyest of birds, but true to the spirit of that day, this one sported about in the open for a full quarter of an hour’.  The outside world begins to penetrate his ‘fragile membrane’.  In Common Ground the first pair of Bee Eaters to breed in Britain are described as a benediction.  Yet Mabey resists the implication that his sensitivity has anything to do with ethereal spirituality.

Neo-Paganism is often described as a nature religion.  Apart from a few notable exceptions, however, writings in this tradition seem more concerned with philosphical abstraction, deities, technologies of magic, historical research, or human healing – important as these may be – than with the natural world.  Where other-than-human beings feature there often appears to be more interest in otherworldly ‘power’ or ‘totem’ animals or familiars, an animal’s place in lore, or their purported symbolic or elemental attributes, than in their flesh and blood lives or the fine detail of ecology.  This can become problematical, but again there may be valid reasons.  Animism is not all about ecology.  Reaching for my slightly frayed hat as a reasonably feet-on-the-ground social scientist and worker with human people, my own carefully recorded experience, and that of friends, suggests that other-than-human persons may turn up as helpers or witnesses at times when a human is dealing with a crisis, or a death, and in no state to be thinking about ecological concerns.  I appreciate that the subtlety of such a process may tax the scientific mind.

Questioned repeatedly about spirituality, Richard Mabey describes himself as a materialist or matterist, and stresses the importance of the real.  He does however admit to ‘something close to a moment of communion’, in which his own ‘sort of familiar’, the Nightingale, became a shaman – ‘experienced, rhetorical, insistent’ – and he, the bird’s ‘willing initiate.’   As Mabey’s peripheral vision closed down, the bird’s song appeared to solidify and create synaesthetic effects with the light.

Whether or not we describe such experiences as ‘spiritual’ depends on what we mean by the term, of course.  If the presence of love is a hallmark of spirituality, there certainly seems to have been love involved.  We need to come to our own conclusions about this, and leave others to theirs.  Although I’m not entirely comfortable with ‘spirituality’, because of its associaton with earth devaluing traditions, I want to retain it, for the time being at least, as a way of talking about otherworldly experience.  My mentor in these matters was a spiritual healer, and too many of my experiences seem best described in post-materialist terms.

I’m also concerned that some new animist writing seems intent on turning away from other dimensional experience.  David Abram may have had a point when he recast shamans as ecological experts, and argued that in indigenous cultures the over-worked term ‘spirits’ refers primarily to non-human intelligences such as ants or birds.  His redefinition of magic ‘in its most primordial sense’, as the ‘the intuition that every natural form one percieves … is an experiencing form, an entity with its own predilections and sensations’, may not be very far from Richard Mabey’s animist sounding materialism.  Not all animists go along with Abram’s perception of sentience in grass blades or rocks, after all.  I’m not convinced, however, that this is the whole truth about indigenous traditions.

Some elements of the world view of the Ojibwe people of mid-twentieth century Manitoba, as retold by Irving Hallowell in a paper that has become a key reference point for new animism, would not surprise Western spiritualists.  Hallowell’s informants say that souls can leave the body during dreams, and appear in animal form to a distant observer.  They say that all ‘persons’ have an enduring inner aspect; that the human self survives death and continues its existence in another place.  Entities encountered in dreams may be powerful other-than-human persons who bestow revelations, power, and blessings.  Although such accounts are susceptible to interpretation as metaphorical statements about intrapsychic or ecological processes, there are striking cross-cultural parallels with phenomena and experiences that I would describe in terms of earth-centred spirituality.

Richard Mabey reminds us of the value of reflexivity.  He constantly questions himself, and is scathing, for example, about some of his own early writing that reduced a local Barn Owl to a symbol, ‘an emotional puppet’.  As animists we need to be alert to this all too human tendency to appropriate the lives of our other than human neighbours.

But if we want to deploy the full range of human faculties in the study of nature, we arguably need to engage with the subjective realm, and in particular with the kinds of ‘otherworldly’ sensibility that emerge in dreams, meditation, and visionary states.  Not, in my view, because these states and the worlds they reveal matter more than ‘the real’, but because they’re integral to an appreciation of the layered complexity of this world, and our place in it.  Such a project, I believe, entails careful symbolic thought, and writing as cautious, committed, yet poetic as any good naturalist’s.  I’m only a plodding -ologist, but I’ll do my best.

B.T. 29/11/12.


Aldo Leopold  A Sand County Almanac, and Sketches Here and There, Oxford, 1947/1987.

Richard Mabey, Whistling in the Dark, In Pursuit of the Nightingale, Sinclair Stevenson, 1993, and The Barley Bird, Notes on a Suffolk Nightingale, Full Circle Editions, 2010.

Richard Mabey, Landlocked, Sinclair Stevenson, 1994.

Richard Mabey, The Common Ground, a Place for Nature in Britain’s Future, Hutchinson, 1980.

David Abram, The Ecology of Magic, Orion, 10, 3 Summer 1991, quoted in Bron Taylor, Dark Green Religion: Nature, Spirituality, and the Planetary Future, University of California Press, 2010, p89.

Graham Harvey,  Animism, Respecting the Living World, Hurst 2005.

Irving Hallowell, Ojibwe Ontology, Behaviour, and World View, reproduced in Graham Harvey, ed. Readings in Indigenous Religions, Continuum, 2002.

Richard Mabey, God and Me, Granta 93, Spring 2006;  Bioluxuriance, Resurgence, 238;  Definitely Mabey, Interview with Richard Mabey, BBC Wildlife, March 2010.

The drawning by Peter Goode first appeared in a book of poems by Rod Hartle called The Iron Tree, Lantern Press, 1993.