The curious case of the dissolving hymen, and other adventures

I happened to be watching a short video about the human hymen the other day, which is well worth 7 minutes of your day and as well as deconstructing the hymen as a virginity indicator, it mentioned elephant’s hymens.  Which naturally got me thinking… What other animals have a hymen?

Well…

Lemurs and chimps have them.  Buffalo and cattle.  Manatees and moles.  Seals and toothed whales.  Rats and cats.  Dogs and bush babies… camels, alpacas, hyenas and horses…

Guinea pigs are the owners of that dissolving hymen of the title.  It dissolves when they are fertile, allowing mating to occur and when they aren’t in season, it grows back.  This means that they can only be vaginally penetrated when they can conceive which seems practical.

In elephants, the hymen only breaks when she gives birth, and then it will regrow.  There is a small hole in it for the sperm to get through and be able to fertilise the egg but because of the angles of the vaginal canal, the penis doesn’t perforate it during sex.

The role of the hymen in non human animals seems to be a bit up in the air at the moment but one suggestion, for marine mammals, is that it keeps water and water-borne foreign substances out of the vagina.  In humans, it’s thought that it has a protective purpose, keeping any urine or faeces out of the vagina until the young girl is continent.  As a girl grows, her hymen changes consistency and shape and becomes less of a barrier and importantly, the hymen is irrelevant when it comes establishing virginity, or not.

It turned out there wasn’t really enough to write about animal hymens, mostly it seems because more effort has gone into researching male genitalia, in humans and other animals…  So I figured I would investigate the clitoris.  All female mammals have one although again, it seems like not much research has been done as its unclear whether they can be used to reach orgasm.

“Although the clitoris is not well studied, there is evidence of larger clitorides – yes, this is the plural of clitoris – in animals in which sex plays an important part in relationship building.”
The Conversation

Many mammals have their urethra running through the clitoris like the penis, and many have a small bone in the clitoris to help it become rigid during intercourse.

Dolphins have a large and complex clitoris.  Hyenas have a 20cm one that contains the birth canal and causes a variety of issues with birthing…  They are a matriarchal society and subordinate females lick the clitoris of higher ranking females as a show of submission and obedience.  Males also do this but there is no reciprocal penis licking as males are right at the bottom of the hierarchy.

Like the hyena, there are other animals that have large clitorides which have been termed pseudopenis’s which I think is unfair…  But anyway, animals which have these include the European mole, some lemurs, binturong and squirrel monkeys.  The female squirrel monkeys use theirs to display dominance within their social group.

But it’s not just mammals, there are some other animals that have a clitoris.  This includes ostriches, some turtles, crocodiles, and lizards and snakes even have two of them, known as hemiclitores!

If you happen to know anything more about the hymen or clitoris of animals, let me know!  I would have loved this post to be longer but I really struggled to find out much…

Reading:

Ableism in the environmental movement

There is already evidence that the environmental movement is “a site of exclusionary practices including racism and sexism” (Fenney) and there is increasingly evidence of ableism. This matters because any exclusion may reduce the effectiveness of the movement to achieve its goals.

 

As a note, I’m saying environmental movement but am aware that it’s much more complicated than the phrase sounds, that its made up of different groups with different approaches and different strategies.  However, any part of the environmental movement would benefit from considering whether they inadvertently exclude any groups.

There are barriers to certain aspects of sustainable lifestyles, pro environment activities and activism and Fenney suggests that “there are particular features of the British environmental movement which may exclude disabled people”.

Barriers include physical access to meetings, protests and conservation sites.  A lack of accessible information as well as a lack of information about accessibility.  Increasingly websites are relied on for information and these are not always accessible and accessibility information isn’t always up to date.  Financial and social barriers play a factor as well, with the latter that might be being dependant on the help and kindness of others who can refuse, as well as attitudinal issues.

“Broad environmental concerns can also be considered a feature of privilege, however.  It may not always be a priority of disadvantaged groups because of their increased need to focus primarily on the difficulties encountered in their everyday lives and environments”
– Fenney

The social hierarchies from general society transfer over to the environmental movement, but can feel much worse because of the narratives around embodiment.  Assumptions about what disabled people can and can’t do, and are and aren’t interested in, are made unquestioningly in wider society and unfortunately are also found within the environmental movement.

In Fenney’s research, participants identified implicit ableism in campaign messages and materials, giving cycling as a key example.  Cycling is often positioned as an alternative to car use but can be promoted in a way that focuses on physical fitness and ability as well as suggesting a moral superiority.  Another participant raised the issues of requiring medication which is produced by big multinational companies and how this doesn’t work in the simplistic view of natural is good and unnatural is bad.  Relying on medication also goes against a narrative of self sufficiency and independence.

“…the environmental movement is deeply attached to the notion of “the solitary retreat into nature as the primary source of an environmental ethic” … By implying that one must have a deep immersion experience of nature in order to understand nature, ecocritics create a situation in which some kinds of experiences can be interpreted as more valid than others, as granting a more accurate, intense, and authentic understanding of nature.”
– Kafer

This emphasis on self sufficiency and solitary retreats erases the importance of interdependence that many people – disabled or not – rely on.  We hear over and over again how we should be independent – every man is an island – and yet there are many environmental benefits to being an interconnected web instead of a lone off gridder.  Of course, different things work for different people but from my corner of the world, there are huge benefits to most people of accepting interdependence as a model.

Even living the rural idyll has its disadvantages for some people with disabilities.  If I had followed my teenager dream and moved to the middle of some fields in Wales, then I would struggle to have my care needs met, to have carers that I love and to have the access to the health system that I need.  It wouldn’t be impossible, by living in a city I have more choices and more opportunities.

For some people, disability and conservation are irreconcilably mutually exclusive.  This can be seen in the creation of accessible paths in natural reserves.  There is this misunderstanding that in creating a certain kind of path or access, you will damage the natural environment.  This ignores the fact that creating any access, even for able bodied people, has an impact.  It has actually been found that some accessible access can actually be more protective.  Instead of soil paths which erode and which mean people can wander off the path and damage the flora, raised boardwalks limit the damage, create sheltered environments under the path which can benefit certain species and mean that animals don’t have to risk crossing a path.

As well as the moral superiority found in some parts of the environmental movement, there can be a competitiveness to be the best at being green and this creates a hierarchy of sorts.  Certain behaviours can be status enhancing and often these aren’t available to all.  For example, being in the wilderness miles away from anything, being able to swim in wild water, getting off the literal beaten path, getting away from technology, the privilege of walking with feet in contact with the soil and so on.

Also on the hierarchy are things like not using straws to drink with – and not letting anyone else either, or at least not without an argument and intense justification.  For some people it’s not easy to turn the heating down by a degree, or use public transport and “inaccessible solutions to environmental problems risk adding to disabled people’s exclusion from participation, as well as threatening the success of these solutions” (Fenney).

Ultimately, the environmental movement needs to consider any implicit or explicit exclusion because without a full spectrum of members, there will never be solutions which work for everyone.  With people living longer, and with everyone at risk of becoming disabled, we need the environmental movement to work in an inclusive way or their goals will never be fully successful.

Reading

Giraffe

“Lift your head and look towards where your goal or dream is and start walking towards it.  As you walk, you will meet others along the way who will be willing to assist you.  Take advantage of all that is offered to you, as you will never get to where you want to be on your own.”
– Animal Totem Tarot

The most obvious starting place with the giraffe is the neck, and whilst this may be their most impressive feature, it is also the most vulnerable.  Somethings are both a blessing and a curse.

As the tallest living animals, giraffes have a unique, telescopic view of the world which allows them to spot danger with comparative ease.  Other prey animals like having them around as they are a free watch tower but giraffes only really concerned about lions.  If threatened, they will use their strong, long legs to run away – at up to 35mph. If a mother giraffe is cornered, she can use a well aimed kick to kill a lion.

Back to that neck… despite it’s epic length, it only has seven bones, the same as a human neck which is incredible.  They use their height to eat leaves and buds which are out of reach for other animals.  Males, being the tallest, feed on the highest branches and reach upwards for food, females on the other hand feed on lower branches and bend forwards and thus there is less competition for food overall.

The neck works a bit like a pendulum to help them balance but is also used to establish dominance and fight over females.  The males use their necks in a sort of wrestling, sparring way.  Once a dominance hierarchy has been established, you can tell the dominant male as it will be standing with his head held high and the submissive giraffe will have his head low and will drop his ears.

Mating itself is quick, involving a penis that is over 3 feet long… After sex, the father’s job is done as they play no part in child rearing.  After 15 months, the female gives birth to a baby and does so standing up.  This means that the baby’s first experience of the world is via a 2m drop… This throwing you in the deep end approach may seem intense but it is apparently so that the umbilical cord breaks.

In addition to long necks and long penises, giraffes have long, black tongues which can extend up to 45cm and allows them to get even more of the normally out of reach leaves.  This tongue is used a bit like a hand and can easily strip a tree of the juiciest leaves – which means that the giraffe doesn’t need to visit watering holes so often.  As the tongue is leathery, they can eat prickly leaves, again meaning they can eat things that other animals can’t.

The giraffe is a sort of gardener of the plains as eating leaves stimulates the plant to grow more leaves.  One of their food sources, the acacia tree, engages in chemical warfare – as the giraffe starts to nibble, the tree increases the amount of tannins in its leaves and sends a warning signal to nearby trees.  However, the tannins don’t affect the giraffe, they have saliva which neutralises them.  In response to this, the tree hires ants to help it’s cause and the ants irritate the giraffe by stinging their mouth and nose… Don’t piss off an acacia tree!

As ruminants, giraffes need to chew the cud and spend most of the day doing it, pretty much any time they aren’t asleep.  And they don’t need much sleep… They can get away with sleeping just 5 minutes a day and can nap in 1 to 2 minute sessions, whilst standing up!

They rest during the hottest part of the day and have a coat designed to help with temperature regulation.  The skin patch pattern is unique to each individual and in males, the patches darken over time because of testosterone.  It’s also thought that the skin and hair may repel ticks, mosquitoes and bacteria via secreted chemical compounds.

As with everything in the giraffe, the heart is particularly big and strong.  Over two foot long, it has to be powerful in order to pump blood up the long neck to the brain, whilst defying gravity.

Giraffes have a good sense of smell, both in terms of actively smelling what’s around them and also in terms of having their own odour.  The latter is said to be quite divisive; some people find it pleasant, going so far as to suggest it’s use as perfume, and others despise it.

“Throughout antiquity man has co-existed with the giraffe in its African homeland, exploiting giraffes as a source of food and raw material, revering them as religious symbols, keeping them captive as curiosities and pets, trading them as offerings of goodwill in diplomacy”
– Edgar Williams

Primitive depictions of giraffes feature in early art, and some art from Egypt shows the giraffe facing left and to the north, something that is thought may indicate that the giraffes was seen as a bearer of the sun god.  As such tall creatures, they certainly would see the sun rising before others.

By 2000BC, giraffes were being kept domestically, probably as a curiosity.  In 1500 BC, giraffes were captured and transported to Thebes where they were exhibited in one of the world’s first zoos.  The ancient Greeks and Romans were familiar with giraffes, but called them Camelopardalis, or Camelopard, because of the belief that they were an ‘unnatural’ cross between a camel and a leopard.

“The giraffe is the most wonderful, both for the beauty of its form, and the extraordinary manner of its production.  For they say that the giraffe proceeds from a female Ethiopian camel, a wild cow (the Addex, an antelope) and a male Hyena; for in Ethiopia, the male hyena pairing with a female camel, she gives birth to a young one partaking of the natures of both parents: and if this happens to be a male, and to pair in turn with a wild cow the result of this second cross is the giraffe.”
– Timaeus, 260 BC

After the roman empire began to crumble, giraffes were no longer found in Europe and thus their existence was lumped in with that of the unicorn and phoenix, a legend.  Images copied from images copied from images would create some interesting, but not at all accurate depictions of the giraffe!

To 14th century Arabs, to dream of a giraffe meant bad news about finance or property or a wife’s fidelity.  I’m intrigued about why but a quick google didn’t help much…

At various times in history, giraffes have been used as diplomatic gifts including Zarafa who ended up walking from Marseilles to Paris.  In the process, she became a bit of a star!  Once in Paris, she became a crowd drawing sensation with over 100,000 people visiting her.

Throughout the 19th century, many giraffes were hunted and slaughtered for sport and their skins and as the 20th century arrived, it looked as though extinction was inevitable.  Perhaps they would truly be relegated to the realms of dragons and unicorns…  Then the world wars intervened.

Whilst giraffes in zoos didn’t do well – some were affected by bombs and others eaten in food shortages – those in the wild benefited as hunters became soldiers and the attention was directed elsewhere.  After WW2, measures to try and protect giraffes started on a very small scale but would result in saving the species for a bit longer.  Today, the giraffe, with it’s iconic long neck, long legs and long eyelashes is a symbol of Africa, of conservation and of grace.

 “[Giraffes are] a People, Who live between the earth and skies… Keeping a light-house with their eyes.”
– Roy Campbell

Naturally most folklore about giraffes comes from African, including a story about why the rhino is grumpy which happens to explain why the giraffe has a long neck.  It is said that it grew after the giraffe ate some magical herbs.  In stories from South Africa, the giraffe is considered holy, sometimes the holiest animal.  The Thutlhwa word means ‘the honoured one’ or ‘the one to be respected’ and in the Zulu’s language, the name means ‘the one who is taller than the trees’.  They were regarded as being able to see into the future and was a symbol of prophets and diviners.

“The giraffe was one of two animals whose spoor* was regarded as sacred to the Great Earth Mother. It was also the symbol of obedience and of peace.”
African Folklore by Credo Mutwa

*the track or scent of an animal

Beautiful, graceful and individual, the giraffe is a clear symbol of uniqueness, but further, a uniqueness which one is proud of. Stand tall and own all of your wonderful gifts.

There are some obvious ways to interpret the giraffe oracle card; stick your neck out, reach for your goals, see the big picture… But there are some other ideas to think about as well; the importance of a strong, big heart, of seeing what lies over the horizon and of having lofty goals.  But beware of standing still with your head in the clouds, daydreaming instead of moving forwards.  Perhaps my favourite lesson comes from both the giraffe and the acacia tree – don’t be perturbed by a challenge, think of creative solutions and workarounds.

Links

The wilderness ideal, nature writing and disability

“Mountains and disabled people have something in common, they both get stereotyped as inspirational”
– Elizabeth A Wheeler

On the whole, the ideal nature person fits into the wilderness ideal which I will come on to but first I wanted to mention the one image of a disabled person in nature, and that is the supercrip.  Supercrip stories tend to be about an individual overcoming their disability through hard work and perseverance in order to do something spectacular.  There is a sense of transcending not just nature but the body itself.  This is a person who ‘overcomes’ their disability in order to scale a mountain or someone who uses a wheelchair but skis.  These people are often the exception and whilst what they do is great, it can’t be the only vision of disability within nature thinking.

Back to the typical wilderness ideal though… There is a particular body type – white, male, fit, ablebodied – who can have the elite, transcendental experience and be a bona fida naturalist.  Having this ideal means you have created the opposition, the person who is not welcome in nature.

Alison Kafer explains that there are “complicated histories of who is granted permission to enter nature, where nature is said to reside, how one must move in order to get there, and how one will interact with nature once one arrives in it”.  Additionally, not only do you need to be in the wilderness, but you should be alone and off any tracks or trails.  And people who can do so are generally cast as better nature people.

As the disabled person has been cast as the antithesis to the wilderness ideal, there are no images of disabled people in nature, let alone a stereotyped image of a ‘normal’ disabled person within nature.  This absence is referred to by Jaquette Ray as the “disability-equals-alienation-from-nature trope” in her writing.  She finds “the only place for the disabled body in the wilderness ideal is as an invisible, looming threat – symbolic rather than actual”.

It seems to me like there is a hierarchy of moral superiority with the wilderness ideal at the pinnacle of the mountain and disabled bodies at the base, unable to climb up unless they happen to fit the supercrip model.

I have a separate post planned about ableism within the environmental movement and will expand on this idea of moral superiority in that context but as a way of seeing this in action, think about this:

There is a hierarchy of species that you interact with as well as where you interact with them.  To see a rare plant or rare creature comes with more status, as do megafauna and exotic species.  This by default means that connections with more common species is seen as lesser, especially if you interact with them outside the wilderness.

Within the wilderness ideal trope, we find the narrative of technology as an antithesis to a good experience.  We are told to leave tech behind in order to have a more embodied experience, one that is more about presence but this ignores the value of tech.  Technology allows electric wheelchairs and other mobility aids to experience the world, phones include apps that enhance the experience and provide a safety net for those of us who cannot be alone without backup on hand.

Writer Edward Abbey took this rejection of technology to the extreme and positioned electric wheelchairs with cars, and both as alienating us from nature and the wilderness.  He pressed the issue by telling people to get out of their electric wheelchairs and that unless one walks, one cannot experience nature.  The only way to know nature is to move through it on foot.  Whilst Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness was published in 1968, the thinking is still very present in many people’s minds.

Extending this narrative to nature writing, we are told that writing with pencil and paper is somehow better than writing on a computer or speaking into a dictaphone.  Again, this way of thinking pushes writers with disabilities out of the picture, assuming we even managed to get into the scenic nature photograph in the first place…

“There is a long tradition in ecological writing that defines people with disabilities as the opposite of environmentalists.”
– Wheeler

Much nature writing is first person and may touch on a bit of health but often as something to overcome either through nature or so one can return to nature.  Often it is a short term condition, or one at least that can be managed well.  It might be cancer or depression and this isn’t to make light of those serious conditions but there is a difference between something you can recover from and having a chronic, long term health issue or disability.

“First person nature encounter narratives generally focus on the interaction between one specific body and one specific landscape.  A narrow focus can eclipse the possibility of other body types and other landscapes.”
– Wheeler

Many nature writers talk of the personal transformation or spiritual experiences that comes when you are alone in the wild or having reached the summit of a mountain, something clearly not accessible to everyone, disabled or not.

Polly Atkin wrote in the New Welsh Reader about what has been called ecocrip.  She writes particularly about poetry but obviously what she has to say extends to nature writing more generally.

“As ecopoetics has become established, certain practices and expectations of ecopoetic process and content have also become established.  These predominantly presuppose able-bodied practitioners, who can conduct energetic field work and outdoor workshops, focusing on walking, running or swimming as both poetic process and means of connection with the wider ecosystem.”
– Polly Atkin

Miranda Cichy said that “a lot of nature writers seem to believe that you have to go our alone and on foot in order to write about it.” But this doesn’t have to be the case.  A genre needs many voices, many perspectives and disabled people can add their own experience.

“The love of nature does not require specific bodily abilities.”
– Wheeler

I have written about my own way of interacting with nature and I do hope some of the examples I’ve given help other people to feel inspired and to value their own experiences, even or especially when they differ from the norm.  Kafer affirms that “the experience of illness and disability presents alternative ways of understanding ourselves in relation to the environment.”

I wanted to end with some quotes that I find inspiring and that validate my way of interacting with nature and encourage me to share the way I see the world.

“Waiting to be discovered is a wildness which is smaller, darker, more complex and interesting, not a place to stride over but a force requiring constant negotiation.”
– Kathleen Jamie

“Dominant stereotypes and ableist narratives tend to overlook the richly textured ways in which people may experience nature; not to master it or to overcome impairment but rather to ground oneself in the world, to know and feel part of nature.”
– Bell

“Nature writing has created this image of environmentalist as white guy who goes out into the wilderness… but there have always been culturally diverse writers and women writing about the natural world as well, bring other ways of seeing this human-nature connection – not nature as a remote place to recreate in tranquillity, but nature as a place intimately connected to human habitation, culture and identity.”
– Melissa Tuckey

“Did you hear about the rose that grew
from a crack in the concrete?
Proving nature’s laws wrong it
learned to walk without having feet.”
– Tupac Shakur

Reading

Within her essay, Atkin mentions a few ecocrip writings:

I’ve just bought all three so maybe that’ll be the basis of a future blog post.

My interactions with nature

Since become disabled, my interaction with nature has changed.  My last couple of blog posts have raised some of the issues that come with this but it has given me an opportunity to reframe how I interact and create new ways which give me a new intimacy.

There are subtle changes in weather which once were easily overlooked – throw on a coat, grab an umbrella and so on – but which now act as a backdrop for the play that is my life.  Rain and electricity don’t mix well, so I have to be aware of this when I’m going out.  The level of precipitation dictates where I go, how I get there and even if I can go out.  Ice and snow and ungritted pavements go about as well as you can imagine.  Then there is the effect of weather on my body itself.  Warmth helps my pain levels, cold does the opposite and worst of all is when days are noticeably warmer than nights and my pain levels flare up.  Hot days stresses out my autonomic system, making me feel faint, breathless and generally yukky.

The way that the weather plays out in my life, on my body, means I am much more aware of it than I once was, much more attuned to it and by extension to the changing of the seasons.  I also find I am more aware of light levels, possibly in part because I tend to spend my morning drinking tea in the same seat.  A seat which faces into the sun as it rises over the houses and then later in the day, it reaches me from the other side, through my kitchen window.

When I am outside, whether its considered wild or not, I struggle to lose myself in my environment in the way that many people speak of doing in the wilderness.  It is not possible to engross yourself in the land around you if you are always scanning for roots and holes and puddles to avoid – this also doesn’t fit with the image of the romantic ideal of nature

“Detailed scanning of the environment is part of disability culture’s everyday adaptation and troubleshooting”
– Elizabeth  A Wheeler

There is, necessarily, a constant adjustment and awareness of the environment, a sensitivity and responsiveness to changes.  In man made worlds, that might be an intimate knowledge of where the drop kerbs are, where the pavements get too narrow for a wheelchair or where the path is in need of repair.  Take that same intense scanning into a more natural space and you will find the intimate relationship now becomes about roots and twigs and soil.  This is not capital N Nature as some people see it, but this is personal and is another model for being in nature.  One that often focuses on the smaller things in the landscape, and in doing so can mean you are attuned to other beautiful aspects such as fungi and leaves.  Back in that man made world, I see the tenacious plants that weave through the cracks in pavements and the feathers that have floated down to the tarmac.  It is a different experience, but different does not mean inferior.

“Disability narratives can widen the emotional repertoire of possible responses to nature”
– Elizabeth A Wheeler

Another way in which I connect to nature in an intimate way is through the birds that visit my bird feeder.  I have predominately house sparrow visitors and have been able to watch the parents rush back and forth taking food for their babies.  I have seen those babies venture out to sit on the bush by the feeder, waited on by mum and dad until they are old enough to get food for themselves.  One little baby pushed this and, even though I knew it could feed itself, still begged some mealworms from mum… Unless I had seen this family virtually everyday, I wouldn’t have known that was the case.

Aside, although I tend to call the sparrows my babies or the sparrow family, the correct name for a group of sparrows is a flock, but can also be called a knot, flutter, host or quarrel… I think my birds might be best described as a flutter…

Similarly, there is a single starling that has been visiting since it was a chick.  I have no idea why it has ventured here alone but it’s been incredible watching it grow and develop it’s iconic starling markings.  There have been a few scuffles between this starling and the sparrows but I’m pleased to say that in the last couple of months a peace agreement seems to have been made.  Yes, it does seem like they both give each other sly glances and they aren’t going to be best friends any time soon but on the whole it makes for a much more serene experience.  Except when the lone starling was joined by about thirty friends… It’s only happened on a couple of occasions but I did think that maybe the apocalypse had arrived… Thirty black birds descending on one small feeder less than a metre away from me, with only the window between us… The sparrows looked horrified – yes I may anthropomorphise my little babies – and because the starlings were just fighting for feeder real estate, none of them actually got any food anyway… On the last occasion, when the mob left the feeder vicinity, they joined a black cloud of other starlings and I was slightly concerned an entire murmuration might descend… thankfully they didn’t, I’m not sure the window would have stood up to that…

As well as being a great and accessible way to engage with nature, whatever the weather, bird feeders help people become more aware of their local wildlife and the types of birds that visit.  Watching them eat means I’ve got to know the different beak shapes and the different ways they use them.  Feeding birds has also been shown to change human behaviour, for example being more concerned about cats that visit the area or being more aware of a sudden increase in the number of birds.

“These human responses were in some cases tied to people’s emotions about their observations, particularly anger.”
Observations at bird feeders

If you’re thinking about getting a bird feeder, there are different options out there, some will work better than others for you and for different birds.  I currently have two bird feeders, one which is a hanging feeder that is attached to the back fence and gets filled with fat balls, and one which is stuck to my living room window and is filled with mixed seed and mealworms (it took a while to find the food that my birds like, they’re surprisingly fussy…).  I also have a couple of ceramic poppies which collect rain water, or can be filled with water in the summer.  If you’re lucky and have some privacy in your bird feeder location, you could add a camera!  I did research, it’s not ok for me to point a camera at my feeder because it takes in a large view of the pavement and street… boo!

Anyway, I hope that by touching on a couple of ways I engage with nature, I have made an argument that having a disability does not mean your interactions are inferior.  I also want to make the point that more inclusive ways of engaging with nature are more accessible to people who might not go hiking or bird watching otherwise.

(in)accessibility and nature

I will be talking primarily about access from a mobility perspective in this post because that is my main experience.  There are so many ways in which health and disability can affect engagement with nature and I do hope to touch on that in another post.  In the meantime, if you want to share your own experiences, please do so in the comments.

As I have discussed, there is a privilege with which many people view and experience nature.  There is an unspoken assumption that nature means somewhere “out there”, away from humans, somewhere that could be described as wilderness.  By creating that distance, we not only put ourselves outside of nature but we make it impossible for some people to engage with nature.

Immediately my mind goes to those of us who can’t walk, or who don’t navigate the world in the same way as the majority.  Some of us require carefully cultivated paths which regulate our experience, inevitably some might say.  But is that not because an able bodied world has determined that we don’t need the same access as others?  That by adding a short circular route near an information centre the tick box exercise is complete.  That we don’t need anything more.  That being disabled is a uniform experience and thus we want a uniform way of being in the world, and by extension in nature.

Hidden and undiscovered or rarely used places – that tend to be less maintained and hence are less accessible – are often considered to be more natural than tarmacked or wooden decking paths.  This means I cannot truly experience nature in the eyes of those people but I know that this isn’t true.  I experience nature deeply in my own way, perhaps more so because of my disability and limitations. Of course, there are other reasons people may not be able to get off the beaten track including where they live, finances, transport, lack of information and so on.  Race, gender and class all have roles to play as well and of course these barriers need to be broken down too.

Another common narrative about getting into nature is that of getting away from technology.  If I am leaving my house, I have to either be pushed by a carer or go in my electric wheelchair, with the latter being much more comfortable and more independent.  Technology is not antithetical to nature.  Like everything in this world it’s about how we use it.  Technology can help us to identify bird calls or trees, put names to the flowers we’re seeing and, in that way, can help to more deeply engage us with the nature we are experiencing.  Taking photos with cameras and phones can help us see more closely and help us to slow down.

A third thread of the discussion around getting into nature is that of how easy and simple it is to go out in nature and how foolish we are if we don’t.  Again, an example from my own life.  Say I have found somewhere suitable to go and be in nature, somewhere accessible, with parking so we can take my wheelchair and not worry about the battery dying.  Say all of those things are sorted and then it rains.  Just a little rain, no big deal; the words of many people who think nature is easy.  We whip out my wheelchair waterproof, wrangle it over me and the chair and in doing so I’ve got wet.  Assuming no more water leaks in, which it always does, I will still get chilled and probably ill as a result.  The same is true in winter, even on dry days – being in a wheelchair, not moving, means you feel so much colder than those around you and for many people with physical health issues, this has greater consequences.

This is to say nothing of all the mental work that goes into finding somewhere suitable to go in the first place.  There is a dearth of information about accessible nature out there.  It is improving but you can still get better information about where to go for a romantic stroll on the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust website than you can for wheelchair suitable walks.  If you filter by the latter, you will get zero results, even though I know at least a few of their sites are wheelchair accessible…

But, despite all of this, there are some very easy ways to make the nature ‘out there’ more inclusive.  Adding edges to the paths means visually impaired people who are using white canes can identify the borders of them more easily.  Replacing locked gates with radar locks.  Making kissing gates a little bigger.  Even just providing all of this information online and through other methods helps immensely.  Styles with spaces for guide dogs to walk under.  Adding wooden board walks.  Adding a ramp into a bird hide.  Adding benches every so many metres and having a map to show where they are.  Adding a gap into a cliff fence at wheelchair height.  These are not difficult changes, they just require things to be done differently.  Instead of repeating what has always been done, an open mind can come up with easy ways to make the nature ‘out there’ more accessible to everyone.

What we call nature and why it matters

What is nature is a difficult question imbued with cultural associations and assumptions and so to limit this to one blog post, I’m considering this from a broad UK perspective.

Nature is cast as a thing out there that we must head out into.  It is a wild and tangled space complete with certain iconic creatures, preferably rare and hard to see.  It is the peaks of mountains that one must summit and conquer.

It is this view that means we so often overlook the space around us, privileging a weekend hike into nature and forget that we are nature and we are embedded within nature and we cannot escape nature.  Even in the densest city, ‘nature’ can be found, and found thriving.

We step over plants pushing through cracks in concrete, ignoring their force to survive and thrive.  We move past walls with delicate purple petals clinging on.  We don’t see the pigeon that is pecking away on the pavement.  This could be argued, because of the specific idea our cultural has created about what nature is.  So let’s start by unpicking those assumptions.

Raymond William wrote, in 1976 that:

Nature is perhaps the most complex word in the language.

For many people, nature is intrinsically linked with wild and wilderness and with being alone and surrounded by countryside.  This is an association which is prevalent in our culture so I do not seek to disparage those people, but I do hope that eyes will be opened to urban nature.  Increasingly, magazines, newspapers and books are speaking of urban nature with the merit it deserves and we have to remember that Britain has very few places untouched by human hands.

Stephen Moss speaks of the agricultural history of our landscape in his book Wild Kingdom; “everything I can see, all around me, has been shaped – and indeed is still being shaped – by human hand”.  We have historical land boundaries, enclosures, ruined buildings, plough marks, forests which no longer stand, trees which have been coppiced, pastures where sheep have grazed for hundreds of years… All of which are the result of human land use.  Very few parts of our country escape this, so the wild nature which many of us in the UK idolise, has not really existed for thousands of years.  Our focus on this untouched idea of nature is detrimental to ourselves – Cynan Jones notes that a fascination with far off wilderness can blind us to the local wildernesses.

And local wildness is beautiful.  Just think of the dandelion which forces its way through the crack in the pavement and persists and perseveres.  Mark Cocker talks of the overlooked inner-city wasteland where nature thrives.  He explains, whilst this “completely subverts our conventional notions about beauty in landscape… almost every other part of the country is intensely managed at a physical level and we are, in some sense, guided towards a particular intellectual and emotional response.  Even in nature reserves and national parks our attitudes are largely prescribed. By contrast, urban dereliction is entirely free of these restraints. Uncared for, unmanaged and unintentional – it is, in a way, the nearest thing to true wilderness that we possess.”

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“We must learn to love the narrow spot that surrounds our daily life for what of beauty and sympathy there is in it.  Fore surely there is no square mile of earth’s inhabitable surface that is not beautiful in its own way, if we men will only abstain from wilfully destroying that beauty.”
– William Morris

With the exception of the word man, I agree wholeheartedly with Morris’s sentiment. We know that in one square metre of English woodland soil you can find more than 20,000 mites, 15,000 springtails and about 1,300 maggots (Erica McAlister) as well as many other species in the soil and the space and flora above.  Many people overlook the space around us, privileging a weekend hike into nature and forget that we are nature and we are embedded within nature and we cannot escape nature.  Even in the densest city, ‘nature’ can be found, and found thriving.

By rethinking what nature is and isn’t, we can create a practice of connecting with nature that is vastly more inclusive.  It is more inclusive for people with disabilities, for people who may be financially excluded, it covers class and race and gender.  By focusing on where people are, as opposed to where they might go to, we can see that connecting with nature is accessible to virtually every person who wants to experience it.  Connecting people with nature helps more people to care about the natural world and it is ultimately an emotional connection that will help people to change their behaviour on an individual level and seek change on a more institutional level.

Of course, it is not enough to tell a disabled person that they don’t need access to the nature out there because they have nature all around them.  Of course, we still need to identify and break down the barriers that prohibit or limit access to forests, national parks, nature reserves and so on.  That will be the topic for my next blog post.