Operation Newt

Here's a palmate newt I photographed earlier.

A palmate newt, Lissotriton helvetica, I photographed a few years ago.

During a week of beautiful starry evenings – Venus has been low in Western sky, as bright as I’ve  ever seen her- we’ve been busy, once again, rescuing toads from local roads.  Tawny Owls have been active in the wood, the males doing their honeyed fluting ‘wooo-oooo-oooo’ calls and a female, quite nearby, emitting loud volleys of what sounded to our human ears like razor sharp curses – K-WICK -K-WICK -kkkkkk-splutter-hiss- K-WIIICK  K-WIIIICK.

This year we were delighted to discover a mass gathering of palmate newts in progress -over a hundred and forty in three consecutive nights- along the edge of a lane we’ve walked down for many years without noticing more than a few.  Sadly, this year, the lane has been resurfaced, and in the process all the ivy and most of the moss on a six foot high dry stone wall has been removed.  Because of this, they (and the toads who hibernate along the lane using holes in the wall) had no cover.

We were unsure what to do at first, but eventually decided to relocate them to the top of the wall amongst the leaves in the wood above, at two points where streams come down.  On the third night my partner found two newts that had managed to climb about a metre up the wall and saw one of them fall back down.  We concluded that they must have been using the ivy to climb the wall on the way to their pond, and that lifting them to the top -picking them up gently by the tail seemed to work well- was the best option.

There were always one or two bird’s nests in that ivy, and, of course, the late flowers are important for red admiral butterflies.  Hopefully the message will eventually get through that ivy doesn’t harm walls and is ecologically valuable.

I’ve long been impressed by the sheer perseverance, not to mention navigation skills, of the toads who make the long journey up to the local ponds, but these little newts are only about three inches long.  We saw one striding purposefully up the road!  Amazing.

And I prefer the feel of them.  We usually encourage amphibians into yogurt pots or plant pots, so there’s no need to hold them for long, but many people are squeamish about picking them up. (if you do, you should either use gloves, or wash your hands afterwards -the places they frequent are often fouled!).  Although I’ve become quite fond of toads and feel protective of them, I’ve never quite got used to holding their cold, damp, knobbly, muscular, bodies.  And as for frogs!  I found a large frog sitting in the middle of the road the other night when both of my pots had newts and toads in (frogs and toads don’t get on), so there was no option but to handle her.  How can I put this?  It was a bit like picking up a squishy bag of wriggling water with legs.  Very other-than-human.  Quite primeval.  Perhaps this is why so many drivers seem unconcerned about squashing frogs and toads?

B.T. 9/4/15.

Palmate Newt Note:  Palmates prefer shallow upland, woodland, or heathland ponds on acidic soils.   The males develop black webs on their hind feet in the breeding season, along with a short filament at the end of the tail, and have plain rather than spotty undersides.  In the U.K, unlike other amphibians, there’s no legal obligation to record numbers of smooth and palmate newts under biodiversity action plans – but ARC (Amphibian and Reptile Conservarion) and ARG (Amphibian and Reptile Groups)  have been organising Great Easter Newt Hunts to monitor their populations.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Natural Magic

BLuebells.

The Common Bluebell ( Hyacinthoides non-scripta ).

Natural magic sounds as though it should be compatible with animism.  Marian Green, in her introduction to the subject, writes that Nature, our mother, ‘mistress of arcane alchemy’, has all the answers.  ‘We are the stuff of stars … every tree, plant, animal, jewel, and other person shares this ancient heritage’.  Natural magic reconnects us with natural cycles.  Likewise, Nigel Pennick writes that natural magic teaches us we’re not separate from nature, and that we have no special privileges.  The earth, plants, and animals, have as much right to exist as we do.  ‘To practice natural magic is to respect one’s fellow humans as well as all sentient beings in the Cosmos’.  So far, so very good.  Why then, despite being an astrologer, benefiting from herbal medicine, meditating, working with dreams, dowsing, and so forth, have I never wanted to describe what I do as magic?  Why does Nigel Pennick’s account of natural magic, in particular, not feel more compatible with animism, as I understand it?

Historically, natural magic engaged directly with the powers and properties of substances ( planets, stones, metals, herbs, resins etc ), whereas ceremonial magic called upon the assistance of discarnate spirits.  Natural magic can therefore be seen as a disowned ancestral relative of natural science (think of astrology/astronomy, alchemy/chemistry, herbalism/botany).  Despite attempting to master material circumstances however, Renaissance magic was unambiguously transcendental.  It was preoccupied with spiritual ascent.  Patrick Curry observes, for example, that Pico della Mirandola’s magical philosophy was ‘masculinist, will-oriented, anthropocentric … contemptuous of the dark, the feminine, the ensouled let alone embodied, the earth, and all its limits’.  These values, personified in the figure of the Magus, were a major formative influence on Francis Bacon, and hence early science.

The notion of cosmic sympathy, that all divine and material phenomena are connected by ‘sympathetic’ powers or energies within a ‘Great Chain of Being’, emanated from the Stoics, and appears in Plato and Aristotle.  Within this magical paradigm, each animal, plant, or part of the human body, corresponds to a planet or god that can be invoked in order to influence change.  Nick Campion argues that Marsilio Ficino’s translation of the Corpus Hermeticum (gnostic texts from the 1st and 2nd centuries BCE) turned the Renaissance in a pagan direction and ‘laid the foundations for Western esotericism and occultism’.  Unfortunately, the Hermetic view of humanity was grimly pessimistic.  Salvation entailed focusing on the inner divine, and returning to the Light by means of the planetary spheres.  The material world, the Platonic world of becoming, was regarded as illusory.  Only the absolute, unchanging, disembodied ‘Good’ was real.  How far, then, do neo-Platonic assumptions underpin today’s natural magic?

An Animist Response to Nigel Pennick’s ‘Natural Magic’.

Having liked Nigel Pennick’s Celtic Sacred Landscapes, and noticed that he was once a biologist, I looked forward to reading his Natural Magic.  Because he draws upon the nameless artthe magical tradition of East Anglia, which also happens to be the heartland of contemporary English nature writing, my expectations were perhaps unrealistically high.  This is, after all, a brief introductory guide written over a decade ago.  In the event I found myself arguing with the author’s approach, and provoked into reflecting upon my own ideas and practices.  I therefore want to respond by focusing on differences in perspective, and points of concern.

Chapter One opens with an epigraph from the medieval alchemist Basilius Valentinus.  ‘The Earth is not an inanimate body … All created things draw their strength from the Earth Spirit …’.  For Valentinus, the Earth is maternal because it is animated by a nourishing and sheltering spirit, life.  Nigel Pennick, by contrast, describes a unitary ‘creative force within all things, including us’, which is neutral, and goes on to define natural magic as the right use of this force within nature ‘for the good of all beings, without subverting the free will of others’.  For him, magic is ‘a spiritual, not a material, technology’, whose primary purpose is to ‘uphold our free will and direct it towards personal understanding and spiritual growth’.  It is ‘first and foremost aimed at the spiritual empowerment and development of the individual’.

Like magic, animism is inherently pluralistic, but I suspect that the above differs from most contemporary animism in several respects.  Firstly, this is an emphatically dualist project; the spiritual/material divide is firmly drawn.  Secondly, the emphasis on human will, and intervention based upon human moral agency (stewardship?) rather than dialogue and/or reciprocity, would appear anthropocentric to many ecologists, let alone animists.  How is the natural magician to know what is good for all beings?  Thirdly, the use of magic primarily as a means of personal development is vulnerable to the same critique that has been leveled at therapeutic neo-Shamanism, insofar as the latter internalises and individualises realities that might be more fruitfully understood in social, ecological, and political terms.

Do our working assumptions really matter?  I think they do.  Nigel Pennick’s magical philosophy is inevitably reflected in the content of his book.  I was surprised to find that only fourteen of its ninety pages are devoted to working with plants, birds, or animals.  The difference between ‘magical’ and animist approaches becomes clear in relation to ‘Bird and Animal Magic’.  There is a brief discussion of the process of obtaining an animal helper According to Pennick animal helpers symbolize a part of ourselves that we need in order to survive a crisis, and may already be within us in the form of an inner image.  This can be used to connect with their power, or projected on to real animals as a way of maintaining contact.  An external part of our being, our fetch, ‘a projective spirit’ or guardian angel, may appear as an animal.

Phenomena as complex and subtle as this don’t lend themselves to brief summation, but animist readers will note that Nigel Pennick describes the process of contacting animal helpers entirely in terms of human initiative, and may be surprised that he thinks its ‘not too difficult’.  If you’re on a path of wisdom, for instance, you simply look for a ‘perceptive beast’.  After learning about, and observing, your chosen helper, various spiritual exercises (visualising yourself as the animal, and going on an inner journey in that form) purportedly enable you to become familiar with animal’s inner life.  Judging by the difficulty most humans have understanding domestic cats, I’m somewhat sceptical about this claim.  Anyway, at this point, ‘you will be … able to call upon (your helper’s) power at will when you need it’.

Responding to this from an animist perspective I worry about (i) the focus being entirely on human experience, (ii) the tone being dry and technical; the heart doesn’t appear to be involved, (iii) that a lack of guidance around ethics and etiquette is likely to encourage an exploitative attitude, and (iv) that interaction with flesh and blood other-than-human animals is approached instrumentally, as a mere stepping stone towards acquiring the capacity to undertake implicitly more meaningful magical/psychic work in the service of human need.  These worries are greatly compounded by what comes next; a neo-Platonic sounding injunction about going native.  If, when working with animals, we forget that we are human and regress to ‘a sub-human state’, this may impair our ‘spiritual progress towards a state of higher consciousness’.  In numerous shamanistic and animistic traditions, of course, other-than-human animals offer assistance to humans as spiritual teachers, guides, and messengers.

So to an example of the art.  The Toad, is said to be important in natural magic.  A certain bone from a dead toad is traditionally claimed to confer various superhuman powers.  Well, I’ve just come back from a toading trip.  Last night we rescued sixty of these beautiful little animals from a lane where they were in danger of being run over.  I’m sure Nigel Pennick doesn’t want natural magicians to harvest the grisly remains of road kills, but in contrast with various neo-Shamanic/new animist texts (e.g Gordon ‘the Toad’ MacLellan, 1989), no mention is made of the ethical responsibility incurred when collecting the tools of what, at this point, begins to sound like a very odd trade.  We are not even urged to ask permission for the use of body parts.  Once again there is no sense of dialogue or reciprocity.  No sense of the beauty of other-than-human beings, or affection for them.  They are simply there to be used when we need them.

Another claim that animists are likely to raise an eyebrow at, is that certain kinds of trees are more likely to be enspirited than others.  These turn out to be trees that attract human attention in various ways; by their shape, location, rarity, or ceremonial/folkloric associations.  The Wild Wood is a place we can go to for psychic renewal, without apparently incurring any obligation to reciprocate.  Having heard reports of Pagans stumbling into woods at night, heedless of the needs of non-human residents or the sensibilities of place, in order to conduct loud ceremonies, or seek psychic stimulation, I worry about this too.  There may be a good case for making inner journeys instead.

One of the difficulties I have with the M-word is that it confers a patina of authority on truth claims.  When Robert Bly introduced us to Iron John, the Grimm Brothers’ hairy Wild Man, John Rowan pointed out that for unreconstructed men this was hardly a helpful story.  Rowan argued that because Bly’s Jungian fairy tale says nothing about Iron John’s attitude towards women, he’s not a culturally transformative figure. (see also Robert Connell).  Critical responses notwithstanding, variants of the Wild Man seem to be alive and well in Pagan circles as an image of ‘our natural instincts’.  Nigel Pennick suggests that ‘we’ enter the Wild Wood ‘either in reality or on an inner journey’, in order to contact the ‘Wild Man’ within us, and find our ‘true natural selves’.

From a postmodern animist perspective many question arise here, such as: Who is this all-inclusive ‘we’?  Why should our ‘natural selves’ be more worthwhile than the cultivated selves we have grown through decades of relationship and social participation?  Are we talking about ecological selfhood, and if so wouldn’t that entail relating to other species?  Can there be such a thing as a ‘true’ (pre- or a- social) instinctual response, separate from cultural performance?  Should psychological discourse be dressed up as magic?

As exemplars of ‘the sheer energy of wildness’, Bears and Wolves get a raw deal from Nigel Pennick.  They are only considered in relation to martial arts and the battle frenzy of warrior cults.  The Viking Beserkers, who ‘took their power from the Bear’, apparently often lost control and became ‘possessed’, running amok and killing friends and family.  Likewise, werewolves were said to be more dangerous than real wolves.  Well quite.  I would suggest that stories like this need to be evaluated in the context of a discussion of militaristic masculinities.  The notion that co-operative social animals such as Wolves live lives of unconstrained instinctual spontaneity is surely a product of human discourse, concocted for all-too-human purposes.

No-one has a monopoly on the M-word, of course.  Susan Greenwood, for instance, -who, in contrast to Nigel Pennick illustrates and tests her developing ideas about magic against personal experience- talks about magical consciousness.  She draws upon Lucien Lévy-Bruhl’s participation mystique, as indeed do some of those currently writing about enchantment and divination.  In another post I want to consider whether these ideas offer a conception of magic, enchantment, and divination, that feels more compatible with postmodern animism.

to be continued ….

Sources:

Marian Green, The Elements of Natural Magic, Element Books, 1989.

Nigel Pennick, Natural Magic, Lear Books 2005.

Roy Willis and Patrick Curry, Astrology, Science, and Culture; Pulling Down the Moon, Berg, 2004.

Nick Campion, The Dawn of Astrology, A Cultural History of Western Astrology, Vol 1: The Ancient and Classical Worlds, Continuum, 2008.

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

Gordon MacLellan, Sacred Animals, Capall Bann, 1997.

Robert Bly, Iron John, A Book About Men, Element, 1990.

John Rowan, The Horned God, Feminism and Men as Wounding and Healing, Routledge, 1987.

R.W. Connell, Masculinities, Polity Press, 1995.

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

There’s Toads About

toads about216

At about this time every year my Nearest and Dearest starts to get twitchy.  She keeps opening the door.  Her finely tuned nostrils begin to quiver.  Then one day she proclaims: ‘It’s time!  I can smell it in the air”. What smell? I ask.  Something about the air changes, apparently.

Sometime in March or early April all over Northern England (and well beyond) when the weather turns mild and damp, thousands of toads finally wake from their winter torpor, stretch, yawn (well, I would), and feel the urge.

Many local toads hibernate in dry stone walls, from which they emerge like proverbial toads-in-the-hole.  They seem to hang around a bit, like little camouflaged Buddhas, waking up and getting their bearings, before setting off on what can be quite a long trek (up to 2 0r 3 miles) to their ancestral breeding ponds.  Every year I’m aghast at how they manage to navigate the terrain.

The route to our nearest pond involves going down a lane, then climbing a steep hill through an intervening wood.  Toads will persist in going to the same pond even when it has dried up, or when a new road blocks the way, and often return to the same site after breeding.  Sadly many choose to migrate along or across roads, where large numbers are killed.  Over the past ten years or so my Other Half has researched migration patterns in the valley, and teams of dedicated volunteers now patrol about ten routes.  On one of these almost 1,000 toads share road space with buses and pub traffic!  According to Frog Life some 62,985 toads were rescued from the U.K’s roads last year.

'A toad in the hand won't get squashed on a road' .... male toad taking a ride.

A toad in the hand won’t get squashed by a van’ …. male toad taking a ride.

Male toads are much smaller and more numerous than females, and like to hitch a ride on a female’s back.  Males engage in protracted wrestling matches for the privilege.  The best part of this annual jamboree, for me, is seeing toads reach water.  There’s a palpable sense of joy as they transform from lumbering crawling land critters into fast graceful effortless swimmers.  And, of course, they’re here to mate.  Large numbers of males often form squirming clusters on and around the females, some of whom, sadly, drown in the process.

When you next meet a toad, bear in mind that he or she could live for up to 40 years, given the chance.

If you’re in the U.K and want to get involved in helping these remarkable little folk you can find your nearest Toad rescue site by contacting Froglife via:

www.froglife-frogbites.blogspot.co.uk

Source: ‘War Games and Sex Games in Britain’s Toads’, Gail Vines, New Scientist 15/7/82 ( online ).

Toads eat: insects, slugs, worms, and occasionally young amphibians (including toads!), and are predated by hedgehogs, foxes, otters, rats, herons, gulls, and crows.

The Common Toad Bufo Bufo is found across Europe, eastwards to Japan, in North Africa, and across northern and temperate Asia.

Comments sent by e-mail:

“I love your toads page. Made me laugh too.”
Jo P.