It’s Earth Day today, and the significance of it being in the middle of a pandemic, when Nature is getting a brief respite from the depredations of industry and big oil, has not been lost on people, I hope.
My first guest column at The Wild Hunt.
I have been anxious for months, years even. I have watched with growing horror the rise of right-wing populism, the melting of the icecaps, the burning of Australia, the beginnings of wars over water and resources, the seemingly inexorable destruction wrought by climate change. The protests of Fridays for Future and Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion gave me some cause for optimism, but it is also obvious that governments have not been doing enough to turn the economy around to stop the production of carbon emissions. So when everyone suddenly swung into action to deal with the coronavirus crisis, it gave me some hope that perhaps now the needful actions to deal with climate change (many of which, it turns out, are quite similar to the actions needed to flatten the curve of coronavirus transmission) would seem doable. It also feels like now everyone else is as anxious as me.
If you enjoyed this post, you might like my new book, Dark Mirror: the Inner Work of Witchcraft.
Some years ago, I started the festival of Borrowed. It’s on February 28th or 29th, and is a reminder that the Earth is precious and ecosystems are fragile. It seems even more relevant in the face of the climate emergency.
The festival of Borrowed highlights the idea that we do not own the Earth and its finite resources, we only borrow them, and share them with all other life.
On Monday, we went to the Orange Peel Morris annual Wassailing at Spirit Tree Cidery, Ontario.
On Sunday, I checked my carbon footprint (it was not good) and resolved to go carbon neutral by planting trees.
Someone suggested to the Bodleian Library on Twitter that they should post recordings of ambient library noises on their SoundCloud. I initially misread this as ambient literary noises, like the sound of the snow in Narnia melting… the slight tearing noise made by the Subtle Knife as it opens the way between universes… the ghosts of Christmas tenses manifesting to Scrooge…
There are currently three amazing exhibitions on at the Art Gallery of Guelph (until 16 December): epistemologies of the moon, 1745, and Critical Mass. It is hard to say which of these exhibitions I was the most excited about, as they all address things I care about.
Pagans often say that we want to get in touch with Nature. But there are many among us who don’t know one tree species from another, or one flower from another. It’s all “oograh“.
I was lucky to be brought up by my mother, who pointed out lots of different flower species and taught me to identify flowers by their genus. So I have a fairly comprehensive knowledge of wild flowers. If you didn’t have the luck to be brought up by a keen botanist, here’s how you can become one. My mother is also keen on birds. I like birds and am okay at identifying them – but they won’t stay still, which hampers the efforts of the amateur ornithologist.
Flowers and trees are easier to get started on than mushrooms, grasses, birds, or moths, because flowers and trees are easier to tell apart. Once you have got your eye in and learnt to identify flowers, you can move on to more advanced things like mushrooms, grasses, and birds.
The key to being a naturalist is observation of detail. How big is it? How many leaves does it have? What shape are they? How are they arranged on the stem? How many petals does it have? What are the stamens like? Does it have fruits or seed-pods? Florets or umbels?
Step 1 – learn a few common flower species, or make a list of the ones you know already. Find out whether any of them are part of the same family.
Step 2 – buy a really good flower field guide, with a botanical key. The key will help you to find the plant in the book by checking the number of petals, leaves, etc. It’s also a good idea to learn the names of parts of plants (stamen, pistil, umbel, floret, etc).
Step 3 – Riffle through the book and familiarise yourself with the different plant families, and where they are likely to be found. If you know that the Brassicaceae have four petals arranged in a cross shape around the centre of the flower, or that the Umbelliferae have big umbels (like an inside-out umbrella) it’s easier to get to the individual species by going to the section of the book that deals with that family.
A similar process to the above applies to learning bird species, moth and butterfly species, and tree species.
If you don’t learn the names and characteristics of plants, it is a lot harder to tell them apart. Associating the specific characteristics of a plant to its name (whether it’s the folk-name or the Latin name) anchors in your mind that it’s a distinct species. It’s the way the brain works.
Go for a walk
Walking is good for both body and soul, and a great way to be in Nature (and has zero environmental impact, unless you use a car to get there). I am very fortunate in being quite near the River Thames, which is awesome for nature walks. On Sunday, we found snake’s-head fritillaries in Iffley Meadows.
Whenever you go for a walk, take your flower book and/or tree book with you. (There are probably apps for identifying things, but it’s nice to have an actual book.) Note down the species you see, and keep a nature journal. I have done this intermittently over the years, and it’s nice to read back over old entries. If you are not keen on writing, take photos, make drawings, or take a very small sample for pressing (but never pick the whole plant, and only take part of a plant if you can see at least 20 other good plants of the same kind).
One of the things I do is write “small beauties” posts and post them to Facebook and my other blog. These are descriptions of what I have seen whilst out and about – trees, birds, flowers, interesting clouds, people, boats, buildings. Writing these sharpens your powers of observation, and reading them later is a pleasant reminder of what you have seen.
I love going for a walk and really looking at the trees, flowers, birds, and landscape that I meet on the way. It’s how I relax. And it is really rewarding to be able identify flowers and birds and trees: it gives you a sense of achievement, sharpens your powers of observation, and means that you really engage with nature instead of just seeing it as a vague amorphous mass.
Folklore of plants
It’s also interesting and useful to find out about the folklore and herbal uses of plants. In the past, the witch was the village healer (according to legend, anyway), so it’s good to learn the folklore, symbolism, mythology, and medicinal uses of plants. I am not the world’s greatest herbalist, but I know a few things; and I am a pretty good botanist.
Most of these are about British natural history (because I live in Britain). If you have recommendations for North America, Europe, or Australia, please post them in the comments.
- Collins British Wild Flower Guide – a really comprehensive guide to plant families and individual species. Really clear layout, very comprehensive, beautiful illustrations, and contains a botanical key.
- Roger Phillips, Mushrooms – this is the definitive guide. Not a field guide, but well worth getting a copy anyway.
Folklore and natural history
- Giles Watson, A Witch’s Natural History – a wonderful book with reflections on the various animals and birds associated with witches – bats, crows, insects, toads, and many more. Meditations on what it’s like to be a caddis fly or a dragonfly larva. Marvellous folklore and stories.
- Barry Patterson, The Art of Conversation with the Genius Loci – reflections on place and spirit of place. Life seen from the perspective of a mouse. How to relate to your local geology, history, and landscape.
- Richard Mabey, Food for Free – how to recognise, gather, and prepare food from the hedgerows of Britain.
- Yvonne Aburrow, The Magical Lore of Animals, Capall Bann Publishing, 2000
- Yvonne Aburrow, A little book of serpents, Birdberry Books, 2012.
- Yvonne Aburrow, Auguries and Omens: the magical lore of birds, Capall Bann Publishing, 1994
- Yvonne Aburrow, The Sacred Grove: mysteries of the forest, Capall Bann Publishing, 1994.
- Yvonne Aburrow, The Enchanted Forest: the magical lore of trees, Capall Bann Publishing, 1993.
- Richard Mabey, Flora Britannica.
- Stefan Buczacki, Fauna Britannica.
- RSPB online bird identifier – I just used this to identify that I saw a Blackcap on Sunday, and it was really easy to use.
- Giles Watson – a full list of his books, poetry, and lots of online articles
- Barry Patterson – blog, book list. Embodiment, landscape.
- Creeping Toad / Gordon MacLellan – many wonderful ideas for how to relate to the land in a magical way.
The sit spot
An important part of embodiment is experiencing yourself as part of the world. As climate activists have said, “we are not defending nature – we are nature defending itself“.
A really great way of experiencing yourself as part of nature is to incorporate the sit spot into your practice. The sit spot is a place in nature where you can sit comfortably for around fifteen minutes. While there, you slow your breathing, quiet your mind, and listen to the sounds around you: the rustling of the wind in the leaves, water flowing or falling, bird song. You return to the same spot on a regular basis, so as to become attuned to that particular place and its sounds, energies, spirits, seasons, and moods.
Spending time in your sit spot is a meditation that fine-tunes your sensory awareness. Gradually, patterns in nature become apparent and in time you fall into a “deepening sense of place” (Patterson). Such subtle embodied communion with one chosen place can pattern a sacred relationship to the world.
The sit-spot is similar to the ancient Heathen / magical practice of “sitting out”, known as utiseta. This is a practice for communicating with landwights, and should only be used if you specifically need help or answers.
Lydia Helasdottir describes utiseta:
Start with experiencing yourself, and that which is around you. Place your attention on the trees and the rocks, the root that I’m sitting on, the wind in the trees, the smells. We do this whole thing of “I can see one thing, I can hear one thing, I can smell one thing, I can taste one thing, I can feel one thing.” Then you go to two things, then to five things. Getting to the point of smelling five different things is quite difficult, especially if you haven’t moved your position, but it’s a good thing. So the first point is to be really aware of you and the things around you. Do that with your deep breathing.
Then you contract you attention inside yourself. If you’re wearing a cloak, at this point you put the hood over yourself. Contract your attention so that you’re not noticing anything from the outside, and you’re just trying to find the core of the center of your being, all the way down. Really compress it so that it’s just you. It might take ten or fifteen minutes for you to even get there, and then you do that for an hour or so. Then you expand your attention outwards, but you go past the boundary of your body, so now you’re experiencing all that stuff that’s around you, but not as separate from you any more. And at that point, often it’s easier to commune with the wights and the dead people and whatever else. And you do five or six or twelve or so cycles of that during the night.
Gardening is well known to be therapeutic, but it is also deeply spiritual. It is a process of fostering life, of working with the land and Nature to create beauty – what could be more spiritual than that?
Embodied spirituality is about responding to the world with wonder, creativity and joy; it is not some abstract process – it is about connecting the inner with the outer.
The planting of the seeds in the ground teaches us hope and care for small growing things. Watching the seeds come up is an experience of hope rewarded. Then we must care for the tender seedlings, watering them, planting them out, protecting them from being eaten. We create patterns in the garden – arrangements of plants that flower and fruit in their season. The plants might be herbs that heal, or flowers with scent and colour, or leafy trees, or fruit and vegetables. Plants have symbolism and mythology and folklore associated with them.
The word paradise means an enclosed garden; the earliest gardens were oases of fertility in the desert, such as the famous Hanging Gardens of Babylon, which must have required considerable watering. The fabled Garden of Eden was the mythological model for such gardens. Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ uncle Zovár said that the Garden of Eden was really the whole Earth, because everywhere on Earth is capable of flowering like a garden, and is full of the divine presence if you know how to be aware of it.
Composting (an essential aspect of gardening) is a wonderful metaphor for the process of change and transformation. We compost our dead matter (past experience) and it helps to fertilise new growth (the wisdom that comes from experience).