Atolls

In the Animal Totem Tarot, the World card is represented by an Atoll.

“Do you know what conditions are necessary to create a thriving new world?  There is a special ingredient list and everything has to come together at the exact same time.  It is not easy to complete and sustain a thriving ecosystem.  But with time, patience, and perseverance it can be done.  Miss any one step or any one ingredient, and you will not get that which can sustain life.”
– Animal Totem Tarot

The animal totem tarot quote essentially wraps up the essential message here – it’s about creating the right conditions for creation.

An atoll@ An oval white shape in the midst of a dark blue ocean

But what is an atoll?

“An atoll is a ring-shaped coral reef, island, or series of islets. The atoll surrounds a body of water called a lagoon.”National Geographic

In further info, they are found in warmer seas and the majority are in the Pacific Ocean. There are about 440 atolls and they tend not to breach 5 metres in elevation and a lot of the reef hides below the surface.

Atolls develop over epic timescales and can take up to 30 million years to come into being. Some work is just like that, a long long haul where you think you’ll never get there but some things are worth the work and perseverance, just maybe don’t commit to anything more than say half a million years! You are human after all (I assume?).

The creation process starts with underground volcanos (called seamounts) which spill larva onto the floor. This hardens and over time, and many volcanic eruptions later, the larva tower break the surface of the sea in the form of a small island. At some point the volcano becomes dormant. This is when creatures, including coral arrive. The corals build a reef around the island. The kind of coral that creates these reefs are hard corals and they create an exoskeleton of limestone. It is billions of these exoskeletons that make up the reef.

Over time the volcanic island starts to sink but the corals remain, and grow up until a lagoon is formed between the coral reef and the land. The ringing or fringing ring is now a barrier reef with the corals breaking the surface and dying as they do so. The lagoon is warm and shallow water which is great for many animals and the barrier reef also protects the lagoon from harsh winds and waves, making it more of a safe space. And yes, I’m going to ask you to think about your safe spaces, or how you create safe spaces! In a lot of ways, this reminds me of the safety of the Wild Unknown Animal Spirit Sea Serpent card.

In the final stage of the formation, waves break the limestone reef, beating the coral into sand. This sand and other material is then swept onto the reef forming a ring shaped island, or islets, known as an atoll.

I think it’s clear that to create new land, everything must come together at exactly the right time and in the right order. Personally, this is a poignant reminder that I need to think more about the conditions I need to live and thrive in. It can also be a prompt to ponder what your ideal world looks like? What energy and people would you surround yourself with if you were to create space for the life you want to live?

It’s also important to note that destruction was one of the elements of the process and sometimes we need to undo things to make space for new things, a lesson that the Tower in the tarot is good at highlighting.

That being said, atolls also remind us that the cycle of creation is one that happens over long, deep time. Whether that’s literally creating a child which goes far beyond the months of pregnancy and reaches out into their toddler years, their teen years and beyond, or whether it’s an artistic creation that needs seeing from inception stage to completion. Some creations have much clearer start and end points than others as I think the two examples show. If your creation has a clear end point, how do you know when you’ve reached that? Alternatively, if it’s something that will always be a work in progress, how do you know when you can feel good about it, satisfied with its progress?

The kind of coral that creates atolls, lives in warm water which thus dictates where atolls are found; the right place, the right conditions in the right order and with enough time given. Our world can be very fast paced so this might be a nudge to slow down. Things get done when they get done and also ensure you’ve got the right conditions in order to create.

If we think about how humans and atolls have interacted, we don’t necessarily find positive news… They lay low and this has been disastrous. Think of boats travelling the sea and the atoll obscured from view by the waves… Many atolls are uninhabited by humans as they are often remote and unfortunately this has made them good for testing nuclear weapons… The first hydrogen bomb was tested at Bikini Atoll by the Americans but it isn’t the only atoll used for this purpose.

Unlike other islands, atolls tend to be short of natural resources, although are enticing to tourists if they are easily enough accessed. This means things like food and fuel have to be brought to the atoll. Atolls struggle to earn money because they don’t have much to offer beyond tourism. However, some, such as the nation of Tuvalu (a series of isolated atolls in the Pacific) receives millions of dollars every year for use of its “.tv” Internet domain name.

Atolls are also at risk from climate change. As low lying land, rising sea levels are a very real threat and in the Maldives, reclamation projects have started, and the government has looked at land in other countries to repatriate residents should it be necessary. On a more positive note, it seems like natural processes on coral reef atolls may result in better resistance to sea level rise than should be the case given their low elevation. It appears that most coral atoll islands remain stable but of course, the future will determine what happens.

It does feel like atolls show the completed cycle of creation, and highlight that even if it seems complete, it is still changing, that endings are just beginnings and we’re never going to reach a state of perfection where all is done. I know for me, if I feel overwhelmed by day to day things, I sometimes think that if I just get them all done right now, that’ll be it. And of course that’s not the case. I send one email and get another I need to respond to. This puts me in mind of pacing, a concept familiar to many disabled people. It’s a way of getting out of the boom and bust cycle; you don’t wait until you feel ready to face everything you need to do, instead if you have energy to do one thing, you do that. If you wait till you think you can face it all, you’ll most likely hit 75% of it, and then spend the next week in bed recovering. Doing it in a more gentle, intentionally paced way, means you do a thing, you rest a little, you do another thing.

In case this is helpful, the explanation that helped me really understand was about knitting. Say you want to knit a blanket. You could sit and do ten rows and then need to rest for two hours. Or, you do a single row, stretch and wiggle and grab a coffee and then do another. Repeat and repeat (but maybe not the coffee part!) and you’ll find instead of getting ten rows done in two and a bit hours, you get 30 rows done in the same time.

Similar to the atoll, we are not a constant, we’re always being shaped by our relationships and the world around us. Murray Ford, in the article about the Maldives, said:

“The key thing to understand is that these islands aren’t static. They don’t sit passively as if they were in a bathtub and slowly drowning. They are constantly being reshaped by oceanographic and sedimentary processes.”

Isn’t this so true?

If we turn to mythology, we find that in the islands of Tuvalu, it’s believed in some of their mythology that the atolls were created by Te Ali, or the flounder, with the flounder’s body becoming the island.

One website shares the creation myth, saying that they were created by Te Ali and Te Pusi (the eel):

“Carrying home a heavy rock, a friendly competition of strength turned into a fight and Te Pusi used his magic powers to turn Te Ali flat, like the islands of Tuvalu, and made himself round like the coconut trees. Te Pusi threw the black, white and blue rock into the air – and there it stayed. With a magic spell it fell down, but a blue part remained above to form the sky. Te Pusi threw it up again, and its black side faced down, forming night. With another spell, the rock fell down on its white side and formed day. Te Pusi broke the rest of the rock into eight pieces, forming the eight islands of Tuvalu. With a final spell, he threw the remaining pieces of blue stone and formed the sea.”

If we rely on Wikipedia, we learn that the word atoll comes from the Dhivehi word atholhu from an Indo-Aryan language spoken in the Maldives. Darwin took this and used it as atoll, referring to the word’s indigenous origin, meaning a lagoon island.

Sometimes I reflect upon literature in these posts, but for atolls, my findings were limited… I did find a poem entitled Atoll by Robert William Service which looks at the romantic ideal of visiting an island or atoll and being away from the rest of the world. A concept I’m sure we can agree is idealised.

So, in conclusion, we have themes of time, perseverance and long, deep time, as well as the cycle of creation.

Kingfisher

“It was the rainbow gave thee birth,/And left thee all her lovely hues”William Henry Davies, The Kingfisher, 1910

The kingfisher we’re focusing on today is the one familiar to those of us in the UK, but there are nearly 100 species worldwide, including the kookaburra. The kingfisher of today’s blog post is the one with unmistakable bright blue and burnt orange plumage. Whilst it’s iconic colouring sounds like it should be an easy bit to identify, you have to see it first and the kingfisher is very much a blink and you’ve missed it experience.

“Kingfishers are so difficult to spot, they have inspired a saying: ‘Only the righteous see the kingfisher’.”Woodland Trust

They are at once wonderfully flashy and surprisingly illusive; a magical sight if you are lucky enough.

They are smaller than people tend to imagine – only slightly larger than a robin – and are lone birds.

“Solitary kingfishers have to overcome a natural aversion to one another in order to breed” – BBC Wildlife, Rob Fuller

When they do mate it’s a noisy, frantic, chase with males carrying out aerial displays. During courtship the male presents the female with a gift of fish, in a act called, creatively, a ‘fish pass’ and is a monumental stage in bonding. Once they have bonded, it’s then onto breeding and they start breeding in their first year. Having paired up around February, they then both excavate a nest burrow in the bank of a stream or river.

By late march a first clutch of eggs is laid and both adults incubate them. Once hatched, each chick can eat about 15 fish a day, and there are generally 6-7 eggs making quite a task for the parents. Something I found interesting was that they are fed in rotation – once a chick is fed, it moves to the back of the nest to digest and the others move forward. Given how brutal feeding chicks can be, this felt quite mature and democratic. They raise up to three broods a season, which must be exceptionally taxing for the parents. The high demand for food from chicks means the adults have to be good at fishing, and as their name suggests, they excel at it!

They are incredible predators that perch patiently until they spot their prey, aided by their good eyesight. Their eyes have two fovea which apparently means they are able to very accurately judge distance. Their colour vision is also enhanced and they can polarize light which reduces reflection of the water and helps them to spot fish more easily. Once prey is identified, they dive, bill first, from their perch. As they enter the water, a third eyelid (a nictitating membrane) closes to protect their eyes, effectively blinding them. This is all the more reason why speed and precision is needed.

They hover above the water where it can’t be seen by their prey, keeping their head still until they lock onto prey before entering a controlled descent. As their beak hits the water, they barely make a ripple on the surface. A fish reacting just a 1/50th second faster makes the difference between whether they are caught or not which is incredible.

In Irish, the kingfisher is sometimes known as biorra an uisce, or water spear, which should give you some idea of the weaponry these little birds are working with. They enhance their tools by learning to compensate for refraction, adding to their already exceptional efficiency.

Speaking of efficiency… Their beak is aerodynamically efficient allowing for maximum speed and minimal splash – in fact Japanese bullet trains have taken their design from the kingfisher. Changing the design of the trains not only increased efficiency but also resulted in a quieter train. Looking to nature for design inspiration is called biomimicry and is fascinating and shows the power, diversity and potential that’s all around us. On the note of biomimicry, I heard somewhere that there is technology which mimics the kingfisher’s eye to help people see under the surface of the water, for example to find whales for research.

If we go back to thinking about their fishing  method, we find a variety of metaphors that we may be able to reflect on ourselves; waiting for our opportunity, having an arrow like focus, making a split second decision and going in for the kill. Watch and wait, then pounce on the opportunity.

Despite being exceptionally skilled hunters, there are inevitably threats that face kingfishers, especially young ones. Any shortage of food has a big impact as they need to eat their bodyweight in fish each day. Water conditions also impact of food availability. As chemicals and pollutants in waterways kill off the fish, this means you are more likely to see one near a clean stream or river, and they’re more active in the early morning… early bird catches the worm… or early birder spots the kingfisher which is not at all as catchy to say!

Chicks can be affected by human disturbance of nest sites, by drops in temperature and risk drowning if heavy rains flood their burrow. Heavy rain also reduces water visibility making it harder to fish and flooding results in fish dispersal. Drought of course also poses problems as it decreases or destroys food supplies. Hopefully the blink and you miss them adage isn’t going to extend to them as a species…

Folklore and Mythology

“Kingfishers are a sight to behold.  The dash and verve of this cosmopolitan bird has been admired for millennia, appearing in creation myths, imperial regalia and cultural iconography, and they were once valued as highly as gold.” – Ildiko Szabo

The English name, kingfisher, dates back at least as far as the 1500s and one explanation of the regal name is that ‘king’ is referring to the bird’s blue clock. Royal Blue was coined in response to a challenge thrown out by King George III to clothiers in England. He challenged them to create a colour so triumphant that it could be worn by royalty (Szabo).

Their scientific name comes from Greek mythology. In the legend of Ceyx (son of the day star) and Halcyone (daughter of the god of the winds), Ceyx was drowned at sea in a storm and washed up on the shore.  Not knowing this, Halcyone waited and waited for his return until one night, she learnt of his death in a dream.  The gods admired Halcyone’s fidelity and took pity on her, changing both her and Ceyx into kingfishers so they could live together, happily.  They also degreed that for 14 days in winter, when their female descendents brood upon their nests, the winds would be restrained and the sea would stay calm. Thus, we have the halcyon days, a period of time around the Winter Solstice when the weather is said to be calm.

We find kingfisher’s colouring explained in the bible; before everything happened with the flood and Noah’s ark, their feathers were said to be dull and grey, but Noah sent them out to find land. They flew too close to the sun, got burnt and were forced to dive into the water to put out the smouldering feathers (Tate). Around the world we find other tales which explain the colouration of many kinds of kingfisher.

As well as stories which explain their colour, other common themes include featuring in creation myths, having a beneficial role whilst also, conversely, being associated with fighting

In Egypt, the word that meant kingfisher burrow also meant cavern of the underworld suggesting that the burrows may have been seen as a portal between the two worlds.

A tale called ‘The Fox and the Kingfisher’ from the Jicarilla of the Apache Nation shows that not all people can do all things. In it, Kingfisher plunges through ice to get fish but when the fox copies this, the fox breaks his head instead. Once Kingfisher was bought Fox back to life, he says, “I am a medicine man. That is why I can do these things. You must never try to catch fish in that way again.” It reminds me of the saying about fish trees:

“Everybody is a genius, but if you judge a fish by the ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that is stupid.” – Albert Einstein

Whilst their colouring is explained and celebrated in many tales, it can be detrimental to the Kingfisher as well. Instead of just being an inspiration for artists, at times, they were instead the material… Their iridescent feathers were used by artists in tian-tsui which is a style of Chinese art that’s over 2000 years old. Wearing these kingfisher-feather was associated with nobility and were coveted by brides. Tian-tsui is made from feathers plucked from birds that were imported from what is now Cambodia. It is said that this trade helped to fund the building of Angkor Wat. It is also thought that this trade in turn lead to the decline of Angkor Wat; the kingfisher giving and also taking.

Most of what I found when it came to folkloric beliefs are from Europe so if anyone has any good sources or books they can direct me to for the rest of the world, please let me know in the comments!

So on that note, European folk beliefs… There are a few that relate to weather which I think is interesting if you consider the kingfisher from an elemental perspective; they are creatures of the air (flight), water (fishing), land (burrows) and fire (colouring). One of these weather related beliefs is that a kingfisher supended by a string in a house would act as a weather vane, always turning it’s beak to whatever direction the wind blew, earning it the name Vire-vent, or turn-in-the-wind, on the Loire. The Greeks believed that the dried body of a kingfisher, once hung up, would ward off Zeus’s lightning (Greenoak).

Another theme I came across expanded on the beliefs that surround the dead body; in 1185 a British writer said that it would ward off moths, that their bodies didn’t decompose and that they had the power to stop other things from decaying as well. Giraldus Cambrensis went further with this, claiming that “if, when dead, they are hung up by their beaks in a dry situation, they change their plumage every year, as if they were restored to life, as though the vital spark still survived and vegetated through some mysterious remains of its energy.”

The plumage of a kingfisher was said to increase the beauty of any woman who wore them through magical means (Newall) and anyone wearing them would have grace and loveliness (Tate). If your beauty wasn’t enough to attract the person of your dreams, fear not, kingfishers can also be used as a love talisman. In eastern Europe and central Asia, their feathers were plucked and thrown into water, collect those that floated and then stroke the object of affection with one (Tate).

And one final note on the kingfisher – in Brittany it was believed they could glow in the dark!

Reading

Grasshoppers

“There is something liberating about not knowing exactly how things will turn out.  The smell of a fresh new adventure tickles the tips of my antennae.  It sends shivers down my body and before I know it, I turn and land in its direction.  As its vibration gets stronger, I trust my inner compass more and more until eventually that which was once unknown now becomes the known.”
– Message from the Grasshopper, Animal Totem Tarot

It’s a bit of an aside but grasshoppers are eaten by Roadrunners which are another of the Animal Totem Tarot cards so you may want to spend some time reflecting on what that means, especially if you’ve pulled both cards.

But back to the main post, the grasshopper, the first card in the Animal Totem Tarot deck; the fool. Something I didn’t know about grasshoppers and locusts until a few years ago is that they are (sort of) the same.  A locust is a short-horned grasshopper but not all grasshoppers are locusts. Got that?! Safe Haven Pest Control describe locusts as grasshoppers that have “superior social characteristics”! Given the right environmental conditions, a short horned grasshopper can transform into a locust. When conditions are right for that transformation, they get bigger, their wings become stronger, their colour changes and they swarm.

Scientists have identified an increase in serotonin in certain parts of their nervous system initiates the changes in behaviour which leads to the swarming. Serotonin, when it comes to humans, is mostly known for its role in depression but it’s a chemical that carries messages between nerve cells in your brain and body. In addition to its role in mood, it affects sleep, digestion and healing.

This Jekyll and Hyde transformation is something I want to consider in relation to this insect along with the two sides.  We have here a being with two very different personas depending on the situation or environment it finds itself in. It makes me think of someone who is quiet and unassuming in their day job but then comes alive and vibrant at night, in the karaoke bar or on stage as a drag queen. Or an extrovert in one aspect of the life but introvert in another. Then there’s the trigger that changes one into the other. Perhaps you’re an introverted performer who can relate to the idea that a certain routine helps you get into the right mindset, or a writer who has a certain environment where they are better able to get into the flow.

Whilst I am going to touch on locusts, as this card is primarily about the grasshopper, let’s start their first. They are ancient creatures which were around about 250 million years ago and key to understanding them, is their powerful hind legs.  These allow them to escape from danger and according to Canal and River Trust:

“These all-singing, all-dancing creatures truly are the gymnasts of the insect world, being able to leap distances of up to 20 times the length of their own body.”

Whilst they don’t actually ‘jump’, they catapult themselves instead, it’s not surprising that we see the grasshopper in the place of the Fool as this Major Arcana card is epitomised by leaps of faith.

In addition to catapulting themselves out of danger, they have a hard shell and some species eat toxic plants and then keep the toxins in their body for protection. They advertise this danger with bright colours. Further to this, when picked up, they spit out a brown liquid known as ‘tobacco juice’. This is actually a mix of saliva and other stomach enzymes and is acidic, smells bad and can stain. In China and Japan this fluid was sold for medicinal uses (Clausen).

They also disappear from predators by hiding in the vegetation that they enjoy, sometimes staying still is wiser than making dramatic moves. Their strong jaw is used for chewing plants, and in locust form especially, can cause serious damage to crops, causing devastation and famine which has a huge impact on their reputation.

Moving through their senses; they have a pair of compound eyes and three simple eyes which detect light and dark. Instead of ‘traditional’ ears, they have an organ called a tympana; a circular membrane on their abdomen which they use to hear. They also have a covering of fine hairs (called setae) which help them detect touch and wind. This makes me want to stand outside, arms outstretched and just feel the air and the weather on my skin!

Some species make the well known stridulation sounds by rubbing together a row of pegs on their hind legs and edges of their forewings.  Often the noise is made by the males and is to attract females or compete with rivals. Sadly, urban grasshoppers are having to make their song louder in order to compete with human noise.

Of course, grasshoppers come together to mate even though they live mostly solitary lives. Females are larger than males and have a sharp point at the end of their abdomen, this helps them lay their eggs under the ground. After hatching as nymphs, they undergo an incomplete metamorphosis; at each stage their look a lot like adults but each time they shed their skin there are a few changes. These gradual changes (5 or 6 moults) end with them in an adult form where they’re able to reproduce and most species have wings by this point.

We all change as we go through life and sometimes it’s harder and more painful than others, but (full) metamorphosis involves fully rearranging your body and even incomplete metamorphosis involves breaking out of your former self. Give yourself the space to grow, the credit when you do and the time to say goodbye to that version of you. There may be the need to grieve old versions of yourself or the people who were there when that was who you were. Not everyone is supposed to be with you for life, sometimes people come into your life, make their mark and for whatever reason then go a different way.

Healing, symbolism and mythology

Taking a quick look at healing and insects in a more physical, less emotional, way, Wikipedia tells us that the femurs of grasshoppers were used to treat liver issues by the indigenous people of Mexico, and further afield, they’ve been used to cure migraines and headaches and are eaten as a source of protein.

We can also find historical sources which refer to the use of the grasshopper. According to Entomotherapy or the Medicinal Use of Insects, classical authors including Pliny the Elder noted that locusts of grasshoppers could be used for fumigation against anuresis of women and for scorpion stings. NB, anuresis refers to lack of urination and I’m unclear why it’s specific to women…

In Tibetan medicine, grasshoppers were considered medicinal, with their spit used for a head injury called ‘dripping brain’ and to neutralise the poison of a particular beetle. We also find that in Tibet, synonyms for the grasshopper include “the lion cub that jumps in the sky” which I wanted to include because it’s a gorgeous image!

And that feels like a great point to step into symbolism and mythology…

The story of how the first grasshopper was created is told in a Greek myth. It tells of Aurura, Goddess of the Morning who fell in love with a hunter, a mortal called Tithonus. In turn, he fell madly in love with her. So much so that he agreed to forsake the land of mortals to live with her in the land of the gods. They were happy for a while, until Aurora become overcome with the idea that he, being mortal, would die. She approached her father, conveniently the King of the Gods, and persuaded hum to make Tithonus immortal. She forgot to specify he would remain youthful and so, whilst she remained young and beautiful, he grew older. And as he grew older, he got sadder until he asked Aurora to be allowed to return to the realm of mortals. She did release him but as she did, she said: “From now on you shall be a grasshopper so that whenever I hear the grasshopper’s clear, merry song, I shall be reminded of the many happy days we spent together.” (Clausen)

Aside from that particular myth, Athenians held the grasshopper high esteem and hence it was unlucky to kill one. In China they are also considered lucky and are associated with fertility. Grasshoppers were used in ancient Egypt as a hieroglyph, a seal, an amulet, a symbol of beauty and an illustration of life along with Nile. But it’s not all good news for our symbolic grasshopper… It seems like their reputation is fickle…

The Aztec view of the grasshopper returns us to our earlier Jekyll and Hyde analogy with their ability to change overnight from grasshopper, a symbol of fertility, to a locust more associated with destruction.

If we turn to Aesop, we find that the grasshopper in the fable is recklessly living for today, where the ant is planning for tomorrow. Perhaps a sign to look up the ant card as the moral is that the grasshopper perishes and ant survives.

This perspective continues and in Shakespeare’s day, they were figures of careless improvidence and hedonism, focused on the joy of today without a care for tomorrow. And in some western cultures they were seen as irresponsible, because of their seemingly sporadic leaping (Insect Mythology, Kritsky and Cherry).

As a result of their link with locusts, they are associated with plagues and famine and so are linked to bad luck. Native Languages explains how tribes dependant on agriculture felt strongly against them whereas tribes that focused more on hunting and gathering were less affected.

They further say “In some tribes, it was said that grasshoppers could predict the weather and even had power over changes in the weather (especially drought and rain)” which makes a lot of sense when we consider how weather affects food supply and food supply affects certain kinds of grasshoppers. If they become locusts then a famine and reduced food supply would ensue.

We see the link with weather in amulets; farmers would sometimes carry a grasshopper amulet with them to protect from poor harvests (Bodyguards, Desmond Morris).

In India, the Sumi Nagas have used animal behaviour as a weather predictor. Grasshoppers are seen during the hot and dry weather so indicate the hot season has arrived or is coming and will be a dry period. A large increase in the number of grasshoppers leads to concern about a pending drought.

Other stories detailed on Native Languages link grasshoppers with tobacco. This Abenaki tale sees the grasshopper hoarding tobacco and refusing to share it, selfishly keeping it on an island. The hero of the tale, Gluskabe, is able to retrieve the tobacco and when grasshopper comes looking to claim it back, Gluskabe declares that grasshopper cannot be trusted with it. However, he does give grasshopper enough tobacco to enjoy for the rest of its life. The tale also explains that grasshopper couldn’t be trusted with the magical canoe to return to the island so Gluskabe split the back of it’s coat and gave it wings. To this day, grasshopper flies with these wings and chews his mouthful of tobacco, and if you ever pick up a grasshopper, it will immediately spit it out, “as if to say, “See, I am willing to share.””, “I am no longer selfishly hoarding tobacco.”

The Fool

Thinking about the grasshopper as the fool in the tarot deck, we can reflect on the cultural concept of the grasshopper as a student, never the master, as we all are. No matter how much we know or learn, we will never master all knowledge. This is not meant to be a defeatist kind of energy, but rather to encourage you to accept where you are, and still keep seeking and learning. Keep growing and keep moving through the phases of your life.

We have a creature here that has a lot of energy, taking leaps of faith, but who is also attuned to the world; they can literally feel the wind by the hairs on their back.

Finally on grasshoppers, because I have to share this:

What’s the craziest grasshopper fact you know?

“Grasshopper brains can be controlled by a worm! While eating vegetation, grasshoppers may ingest eggs of the parasitic horsehair worm. This worm hatches and feeds on the innards of the insects, changes their behavior, and ultimately drives them to seek water. The adult worm emerges from the drowned grasshopper, finds a mate, and lays eggs. A passing mammal (usually a cow, in Arizona) drinking from the water source will swallow worm eggs. After the eggs pass through the cow’s digestive system, they end up in poop on the grass, which is then eaten by a grasshopper, repeating the cycle.”

Locust

Where the grasshopper is seem in a positive light, the locust is seen as chaotic and destructive, and one of the key turning factors is the environment, and those we surround ourselves with. If you feel you aren’t acting the way you’d like to or showing up in the world in the form you’d want to, then have a look around you – it could be the friends, your workplace or even your social media that’s adding toxic energy to your life.

It’s important to note that a plague of locust is not sustainable; if they devour all the available food, there will be a mass die off due to starvation. This naturally limits populations through boom and bust cycles.

A final note on locusts, is just their power to disrupt ecosystems much larger than themselves; a power for good or for not?

Reading

Being queer and disabled

“Most of the time, I need to choose between being disabled and being queer, even if, in reality, that’s not possible.” – Katie Reilly

Sadly this is something that many of us who are queer and disabled can relate to. Spaces that focus on disability, often don’t consider sexuality and gender. And spaces that are carved out for queer people, tend to be inaccessible.

Perhaps we’re talking about the LGBTQ+ bar that’s up a couple of steps and doesn’t have an accessible toilet. Or the event that hasn’t thought about sensory impairments. Or a gig that doesn’t have seating…

I’ve been heavily involved in York Disability Rights Forum for the last couple of years and it’s been really important to me that people of all sexualities and genders feel able to get involved. I’ve tried to make sure our social media reflects an array of experiences and that we have pronouns on our About Us page.

But, the biggest display of this ethos and this intent to make a space where people don’t have to choose between being disabled and being queer, is Quiet Pride! Brought to you by York Disability Rights Forum and Portal Bookshop!

Reads Quiet Pride above YDRF logo and The Portal Bookshop logo

Quiet Pride.

A space to feel welcome, without music and crowds.

Drop in for as little or as long as you want.

The venue is wheelchair accessible, has nearby accessible toilets and accessible parking. BSL interpreters are booked 4-6pm (we may be able to extend that to cover the full three hours but can’t confirm yet).

Join us with your ear defenders, your mobility aids, or just bring your wonderful self! We want you to feel safe to be your most comfortable self, whatever that means to you. Wherever you want to sit or stand, there will be no pressure. Bring a book if you want, whatever makes you feel at home.

We’ll have a ‘quieter corner’ where you can just sit and be, and a space to work on a communal art project or individual art. There’s also going to be a timetable with optional activities including art and games.

When you book, you’ll get the chance to tell us about any access needs you have, but you can also get in touch with YDRF directly: hello@ydrf.org.uk or leave a message on our answer phone 01904 326781.

We will be sending a video with subtitles and voice over to people who’ve signed up with information about how to get to the room, Blue Badge parking etc. If you have any other questions, or want to have a contact number for on the day, get in touch and we’ll share a personal mobile number.

Being bi, the other post…

Triggers for domestic abuse, sexaul abuse, mental health and self harm. No details but stats etc could be upsetting.

Whilst my tongue in cheek blog post about being bi is fun and lighthearted, being bi comes with things like a higher risk of depression, anxiety, self harm and suicide when compared to other sexual identities.

We are less likely to come out at work or with our family (Stonewall) and have more confusion around our sexual orientation. Bi women in particular have elevated levels of stress and experience isolation and exclusion from both the LBGTQ community and the rest of the world. This isolation from the LGBTQ community is likely felt more by the 80% of bi people who end up in a relationship with someone of a different gender and who are thus often cast as straight.

In terms of mental health, there is the stress caused by being part of a minority group and living with the stigma and fear of backlash or abuse, which as we’ll see shortly, is a very real fear. Not having the same feeling of community or belonging that the LGBTQ community can offer can result in loneliness and feeling lost.

I also read somewhere that bisexual people experience microaggressions more frequently than lesbian and gay counterparts.

Further, the double discrimination adds to the feeling of being marginalised; by which I mean the way we often find ourselves defined by our current partner. When in a gay or lesbian relationship, we face all the same homophobia as a gay or lesbian person but when we are in a hetero passing relatsionghip, we face discrimination from the LGBTQ community as a result of bi stereotypes.

Societal ideas about bisexuality not only causes external pressure, but also internalised negativity, such as internal bi-phobia. In a world which is full of myths about what it is to be bi, figuring out if you might be bi, or experience attraction to more than one gender, is confusing and can be filled with shame.

In the US, in 2010, the CDC (cited by HRC) found:

  • Bi women are more likely to experience rape, physical violence and stalking by an intimate partner when compared to straight women and lesbians; 44% of lesbians and 61% of bi women compared to 35% of straight women.
  • And 46% of bi women have been raped, compared to 17% of straight women and 13% of lesbians.

Back in the UK, LGBT+ people are twice as likely to have experienced domestic abuse in the last year, and more than one in three bi people report at least one form of domestic abuse since the age of 16.

However, 80% of lesbian and bi women who’ve experienced domestic abuse have never reported it, citing barriers such as few specialist services, assumptions that the service won’t be inclusive and might actually be discriminatory. Where specialist services exist, bi people can worry they’ll be viewed as wasting their time, that they aren’t the ‘right’ audience… Even though their experience as a bi woman may be because of being bi, and even if it isn’t, they are still under the umbrella of LGBTQ.

There are more awful statistics but I felt that was enough to illustrate the increased risk that being bi brings with it. These stats also suggest reasons why mental health is such a concern for bi folk. If you are continually facing discrimination and abuse, it’s very understandable that your mental health will suffer.

In addition to all of that, biphobia, bi-erasure and stigmas around being bi are prevalent in our society and lead to negative opinions of people who are bi, such as that we’re hypersexual. The misbelief that we want to have sex with everyone and want to cheat on our partners can see us being viewed as less trustworthy by partners, less likely to be faithful and more likely to need ‘controlling’ in a relationship. Which I’m sure is clear to you that it’s a way of excusing abusive behaviour.

In case we needed any more awful stuff, there’s the insidious idea that bi women are doing it for men’s attention which can result in men trying to make a bi woman straight with ideas around ‘corrective rape’ and ‘not having found the right man’ yet.

On top of this, for some reason, the acceptance of being bi is lagging behind the acceptance of people being gay or lesbians… Likely down to the stories societies tell about bi people.

Julia Shaw echoes this in her interview with the Guardian:

We’ve seen people become more comfortable talking about a range of sexual identities in recent years, with the word “queer” gaining particular prominence. You’re saying that due to negative connotations, the term “bisexual” hasn’t been embraced in the same way?

It hasn’t. People cringe when they say it, or don’t say it, about themselves, because they’re worried about the reaction, including me. There have been many occasions where I’ve used the word “queer” instead of “bi”, because I don’t want the reaction that comes with saying “bi” and “queer” is a bit more vague, frankly. It’s fascinating that because of internalised biphobia in so many people, we shy away from that word.”

I do wonder how much of this internalised, and externalised stuff comes from the three letters that can be found in bisexual… that is to say S E X…

Sources and Resources:

Shoebill

“Depending on your perspective, a shoebill either has the same goofy charm as the long-lost dodo or it looks like it might go on the attack any moment.”
National Geographic

The shoebill is a bird of various names including such incredible titles as The Whale Headed King and King of the Swamps, but also the less prestigious Boat Bill or Bog Bird. It’s scientific name, Balaeniceps Rex, deconstructs to ballaena (whale), caput (head), rex (king). The extremes in their names, and the take on them from National Geographic suggests a divise nature akin to marmite; you love it or you hate it.

A coloured sketch of a shoebill's head

With their prehistoric appearance, they are often described as living dinosaurs. More so that other birds which are less obviously descended from dinosaurs. They stand at an impressive 5 foot, with an 8 foot wingspan and their bill is thought to have the biggest circumference of all birds. The centring of their bill in their name is not surprising when you see a shoebill – the clog shaped, razor edged bill can be up to 9 inches long and is so big that babies have trouble standing because of the imbalance.

In addition to being tall, with a long wingspan, they have comically long legs and long toes (their middle toe can be up to 18cm long!). As they live in marshy wetlands, having longer limbs helps to spread weight and enables them to walk more steadily on unpredictable territory. The shoebill could be suggesting that you too spread your weight when facing unpredictability.

Accompanying their large bill is a large head with large eyes that come with a piercing stare. Blinking infrequently gives them an unnerving appearance, combined with their ancient appearance. Their stare actually serves an important function, helping them to catch their prey with about a 60% success rate. They eat lungfish, catfish and even baby crocodiles and, standing perfectly still for hours until prey appears, they attack with speed and ferocity, using their sharp hooked bill as a weapon. The bill holds the fish, allowing no escape.

The wetlands they inhabit are in Eastern Africa and tend to be areas of flood plain with papyrus and reedbeds. As they need fish to come close to the surface, they also frequent areas of poorly oxygenated water; lungfish can breathe through lungs (hence the name!) so will head up to take a breath (Animal Diversity).

Before we move onto mating and raising chicks, there’s just a few other things it’s good to know about the shoebill;

  • They can take off near vertically and their long wings means they don’t have to flap them as often as many birds
  • They aren’t very vocal, but when they do greet other shoebills, they use bill clattering which has been described as sounding like a machine gun or a jackhammer
  • Shoebills are in a taxonomic family of their own and are not, as some people assume, storks; in fact their closest relatives are pelicans
  • They defecate on their legs to keep themselves cool; heat from the warm blood in their legs works to evaporate the liquid poo and the result is that cooler blood circulates back through the bird

They are generally solitary, with the exception of when they are breeding, and even then, the male and female prefer to occupy opposite ends of their shared territory. This feels like sharing is a stretch; even when they want or need to share an area, it is done with a sort of resentment and reluctance. Despite that, they do form pair bonds for the breeding season (although no longer than they have to!), a reminder that sometimes, you do need to engage in team work, even if your tendency is to march on alone.

Strangely, given their seeming distaste for company, both parents participate in every aspect of nest building, incubation and parenting. This includes something called egg-watering, where adults pour a mouthful of water of the nest, this helps to keep the eggs cool. They also place wet grass around the eggs, rolling and turning the eggs over. This all feels very caring and resourceful of the parents, and yet, we shall now see, the offspring are somewhat more viscious…

There are between one and three eggs and once hatched, the chicks start life highly reliant on their parents for food and water. This is likely a key factor in the extreme sibling rivalry between the chicks. The dominating chick (generally the one born first) will bully and torment the submissive chick. This leads to the dominant chick getting more food and water, so they grow faster and are healthier. This can result in a parent making a “choice” to neglect one of their chicks. This is very hard to hear about but if we think about resource management it makes sense; if you haven’t got enough to keep two chicks alive and healthy then neglecting one means the other is more likely to make it to adulthood and to breeding, that is to say, to continue the genetic line.

They have been considered a bad omen with beliefs such as if you see one when fishing, you’ll not catch much and yet this assumption led to protection; because they were seen as bad luck, people were afraid to kill them.

This contrariness is seen again when we consider that despite being terrifying and bad luck, they have also been beloved and appeared in ancient Egyptian artwork; again a bit like marmite…!

Resources

Birds: What’s in a name? Peter Barry

National Geographic

Audubon

Animal Diversity

https://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Balaeniceps_rex/

Encyclopedia

Animalogic: Shoebills are metal

BBC Earth: The dark side of shoebill chicks

Animal Educate: Dinosaur bird

Tobacco

Tobacco has a long and variable history; despite it’s use in rituals, it is so potent it can kill through skin contact alone but is also so addictive it fuelled a war against Native Americans. Our mixed perspective on tobacco only increases when we turn to An Empire of Plants by Toby and Will Musgrave:

“In medical opinion tobacco has gone from hero to villain, from miracle wonder to a tool of the devil. Some of the darker aspects of tobacco include its links to smuggling, piracy, the development of the slave trade”

In terms of the plant’s qualities, it contains the alkaloid nicotine that wards off insects however, it is also addictive for humans as I’m sure you know. It is the addictiveness that has led to the tobacco plant’s success with it now being grown en masse. I do think it’s important to note that whilst nicotine is a powerful neurotoxin, much of it is destroyed when burnt. This means cigarettes are comparably safe when compared to eating the leaves, which is exceptionally harmful.

Looking back in terms of social and historical importance, the cultivation of Nicotiana goes back as far back as 5000 BC and human use for smoking, dating back at least as far as the first century BC when it was used by the Mayan people for smoking in sacred and religious ceremonies. It’s use then spread through neighbouring tribes including use by Native American Shamans in religious rites and ceremonies such as before a battle, a hunt, an expedition or peace talks. It was also part of a sacred ritual that provided a link between the human and the divine worlds. Protection from approaching storms could be acquired through and offering of tobacco, it was left on graves as offerings for ancestors and tobacco also sealed peace treaties. For the latter, there could be a special pipe known as a peace pipe and those who were in disagreement would hold the pipe between them and would be encouraged to smoke together.

The spirits were said to be a fan of tobacco but couldn’t get it for themselves, instead only being able to get it through the Native Americans through smoke and offerings. The Native Americans in turn had received the tobacco as a gift with the giver varying, for example coming via the Kinkajou, the animal which led me to the wonderous rabbit hole of tobacco.  

In more recent Native American literature, Robin Wall Kimmerer talks about leaving a gift of tobacco before tapping a maple tree for syrup and how the offering is an expression of gratitude. She does not (as a botanist) assume that the plant recognises the offering, but in offering it, she is reminded of the debt she owes to the plant. She also writes about how “when the Skywoman buried her beloved daughter in the earth, the plants that grew are special gifts to the people sprung from her body”. Of most relevance is the gift of tobacco that grew from her head. But other gifts include sweetgrass, strawberries, corn, squash and beans.

“With their tobacco and their thanks, our people say to the sweetgrass “I need you”.” – Robin Wall Kimmerer

Another contemporary writer, Linda Hogan, writes about tobacco ties which are squares of cotton that hold tobacco and are tied with twine and strung together. They are called prayer ties and each tie has a prayer, intention or gratitude held within it. Anyone coming into contact with the prayer tie is blessed by the prayer or intention.

Heading back to precolonial times, the Native Americans also used tobacci for curing a number of ailments including asthma and depression. The potential for healing would later be “discovered” in Europe.

So, how did Europeans discover tobacco? Well, it’s important to note that history depends on the lens that views it firstly, so the term discover comes with a heavily colonialist connotation and I want to note I am writing this as someone who has access to historical information in Britian. This means my version will come with the bias of the materials I have access to.

That out the way. It is believed that in 1492, Christopher Columbus first came across tobacco when the leaves were gifted to him by the Native Americans. As Columbus and other Europeans started to take up space in North America, smoking tobacco played a key role in the negotiations. Whilst initially this strange leaf based gift was rejected, within a century tobacco had migrated to India, Japan, Africa, China, Europe and the Middle East.

In the 1500s, Europe started trying to grow tobacco in Central American and by the mid 16th century, Sir John Hawkins took the questionable honour of being the first person to introduce tobacco to England. He was also the first English slave trader… Giving us a hint about the direction the tobacco trade is headed…

The first known European to smoke tobacco was Rodriguo de Jerez who returned to Spain with it, lit up in public, frightening his neighbours as smoke came out of his nose and mouth. So terrified was the community that he was imprisoned by the holy inquisitors. In spite of this brutal introduction, Spain would go on to lead on exploring tobacco as a possible medical resource; it shortly became a miracle cure able to help with multiple illnesses and ailments including toothache, worms, halitosis, lockjaw, coughs and cancers.

Over in England, Sir Walter Raleigh popularised smoking at court, not always smoothly; he was once soaked with beer by a servant who, upon seeing his master smoking, thought he was on fire and so helpfully put it out!

If we consider further supposed healing properties of tobacco at the time, we find it was thought to ward off the plague, a belief so strong that boys at Eton were forced to smoke a pipe every morning or be flogged.

As with many things that seem to take focus away from religion, tobacco would go on to be banned. Tobacco shops had begun opening in 1610s and by a decade later, the pope had banned use of tobacco in holy places. The reasoning being that snuff was related to sneezing which in turn was related to sexual pleasures.

As all of this was going on, it was discovered that tobacco doesn’t grow well in Europe and so England, being the colonising money makers they were (are?), they started to look for places they could grow it. The American colonies were, in their minds, an excellent place to grow a crop that had established demand. In fact, tobacco plantations were so successful that they brought in substantial customs revenue to Britain and as crops increased, so did the need for people to work in the fields; that is to say slaves.

Tobacco and slavery seem to have gone hand in hand once Britain became involved… With Virginia passing various racial laws and in 1705, legalising lifelong slavery:

“all servants imported and brought into this country, by sea or land, who were not Christians in their native country… shall be… slaves, and as such be here bought and sold notwithstanding a conversion to Christianity afterwards.”

As an aside, Christianity has had a big role to play in suppressing sexualities and gender identities around the world as colonialisation happened, although that’s a topic for another day.

Of course, tobacco had to be moved from where it was grown to the customers:

“The produce of the colonies, both legal and illegal, had to be conveyed in ships between colony and mother country, and as the colonies grew more prosperous there grew a demand for European furniture and other luxuries. This trade also encouraged the development of unlawful industries, including smuggling and privacy… So important was the tobacco trade that, even when Britain was at war with the French in the mid-18th Century, a special treaty was concluded to allow the lucrative business to continue.” – An Empire of Plants

As that quote illustrates, the growth and trade of tobacco was highly valuable and in Britain, it would allow urban and industrial development. By the 1720s, Glasgow for example, was handing over half of all the American tobacco brought into Britain.

Back in the states, Virginia settlers thought of tobacco leaf as ‘as good as gold’ and it was used as a local currency; they even paid the passage for their prospective brides in tobacco. This use of tobacco as a currency lasted for 200 years.

Beyond America and Europe, we find Alaskan native tribes who make something called punk ash  by mixing tobacco with the ash of a burned mushroom that grows on birch trees. By combining it, the effect is much stronger as ash helps deliver it straight to the brain.

In India, creamy snuff is popular among women and is sold in tubes a bit like toothpaste and similarly contains cloves and spearmint. It was recommended that you brush with it morning, night and any time you’re in a state of despair.

A takeaway from this post is that tobacco has long been seen as healing despite it being harmful to those imbibing it today, and to the many lives affected in the historic and current production processes.

Whilst the history of tobacco isn’t great nor is the more recent story. In fact, tobacco industries have had a horrible habit of targeting marginalised communities.

By 1960, all US states had laws preventing the sale of cigarettes to minors and in 1970, President Nixon banned cigarette adverts on radio and TV despite being a keen pipe smoker himself. Whilst this sounds a positive move, it left tobacco companies in need of new ways of reaching potential customers and that led to some unsavory tactics.

If we zooom forward a few decades, we find a 2016 report from the Truth Initiative that looked at how tobacco has played a unique role in LGBT history as a result of businesses intentionally targeting this community:

“While the stress associated with social stigmas, discrimination and the coming out process, more prevalent alcohol and drug use, and exposure to bars and clubs all play a role in the tobacco use disparity, predatory marketing practices are critical to understanding the truth about tobacco use and the LGBT community.”

Data in 2021 reiterated the higher use of tobacco by LGBT communities, noting that:

“For years the tobacco industry has made efforts to appeal to LGBT consumers through things like targeted advertisements in LGBT press, cigarette giveaways, and free tobacco industry merchandise. Today, the LGBT community is among the hardest hit by tobacco.”

As well as targeting LGBTQ communities, the tobacco industry has also used their predatory marketing practices against black communities. But how did we get to this place?

Many years ago, health warnings about smoking came into mainstream ways of thinking. Fearing for profits, the companies responded by advertising directly to women eg with Virginia Slims which used the slogan “You’ve come a long way baby”. The male law makers responded critically as it was their wives who were being endangered by tobacco which was now known to be unhealthy. Then, with women out of reach, tobacco companies turned to children. This took forms such as Joe Camel using a cartoon character in 1987. Again, this was too much for the family men in charge of law and decision making.

So, to avoid potential legal battles, the tobacco industry turned to communities that law makers didn’t care about; black and LGBTQ people. At the time, both groups were upsetting law makers in their efforts to make society fairer through the civil rights movement and so were seen as an enemy to the state. Following the logic of my enemy’s enemy is my ally, tobacco companies started donating to black groups and sponsoring music events where black people would gather. Benson and Hedges put an advert in a gay magazine and another company targeted a specifically gay neighbourhood. Both companies aligned themselves with LGBTQ and black people to increase profit. As the law makers and government didn’t care as much about these “other” people, laws weren’t put in place to protect them in the way it had been for women and children. This led to higher tobacco use in LGBT and black communities which in turn resulted in increased health inequalities. Alongside this seemingly ally-like behaviour, tobacco companies were still donating to anti-gay lobbies.

As we all knew starting out, tobacco is not a neutral topic but I hope I have been able to provide a varied and nuanced take on such a controversial topic.

Resources

Wicked Plants by Amy Stewart

Dwellings by Linda Hogan

Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer

An Empire of Plants by Toby and Will Musgrave

Tobacco Free Life

https://www.mpm.edu/content/wirp/ICW-166

LGBTQ Tobacco Use – Powered by Rainbows

RWK

An Empire of Plants by Toby and Will Musgrave:

LGBTQ Tobacco Use – Powered by Rainbows https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YhE53feN6KA

Tobacco timeline

Truth Initative

To be bi…

…is to be a slut, but let’s unpick that a little more…

You must be greedy because you have all that choice of partners…but expect to be rejected by both straight and gay people, and prepared to experience biphobia from everyone. Something that’s somehow all the more painful when it comes from the queer community; you don’t experience oppression because you can pass for straight so you’re not really part of the LGBT+ community. Your life is easy cos you get to turn off the ‘gay’ part of ourselves and just be straight.

The LGBT+ community is right to reject you because you’re a) experimenting and using them, b) using queerness to be more interesting and/or c) you’re letting down the gay side of the team when you have ‘straight’ relationships.

You must be very indecisive, the only reason you’re bi is cos you can’t choose a side. And you’re probably indecisive because of being so greedy – why choose when you can have everything and everyone? Alternatively, you are just afraid to commit and settle down with one person… Probably because you’re selfish and unstable…

Another reason it’s so easy to be bi is all the choice! You never need to be without a partner or someone for a one night stand.

But it’s important to realise that bisexuality isn’t a real thing, you must be a lesbian and not wanting to admit it because you’re in denial or you’re confusing friendships with women for something more. You’re not attracted to her; you want to be her.

In fact, bisexuality (as much as it’s considered ‘real’) is all about attention seeking. You’re trying to get the attention of the men you’re so desperate to be with. If the man gets takes the bait, you might even bring the other woman into the bedroom for a threesome! Lucky guy!

As someone who’s bi, you inevitably have an insatiable sex drive (perhaps the real reason you won’t pick a side) and therefore you must be promiscuous and a terrible choice for a long term relationship. And when it comes to sex, you’re probably really kinky – after all sex is right there in the label! For the same reason, you can’t be a bisexual virgin, how do you know you’re into men and women if you’ve not had sex with both?

If you do end up in a long term relationship, you have finally chosen a side; you’re straight or a lesbian. And if you haven’t fully committed to the side you’ve picked, there’s a very high chance you’ll leave your partner for someone of the opposite gender eg, you may leave your female partner because you decide you really want a baby and as we all know, the only way to become a parent is when a man and a woman come together for ‘special time’. The only way you’ll be happy is if you’re in a relationship with a man and a woman (despite us all knowing bisexuality is just a social construct designed to arouse men).

To come out as bi involves demonstrating your bi-ness by getting out your logbook of past sexual partners. You then need to count up men and women you’ve had sex with (sex is important, a relationship that didn’t get sexual doesn’t count – remember sex is in the label) and they need to balance, or nearly balance. If they don’t, if you have more encounters of a different gender* then you’re straight and confused, if you’ve had more of the same gender, then you are gay and afraid.

*there’s more than two genders, for me bisexual means being attracted to people of the same gender, and other genders, not being attracted to men and women.


Obviously this is sarcastic.

I will soon be doing a post about how being bisexual means you’re more at risk of interpersonal abuse, being raped and more likely to experience things like depression and anxiety.

Kinkajou: Animal Spirit

The kinkajou: relative of the raccoon, that is easily mistaken for a primate and is sometimes called honey bears despite not being ursine.

Ok, I’m guessing you don’t know what a Kinkajou is, so let’s start there. I didn’t either until very recently and since that first encounter, they’ve cropped up a few times in my life so I felt drawn to find out more. That, and they are rather cute (which sadly means there is a horrific pet trade issue around them). They have short, woolly hair that’s golden brown on their backs and creamy yellow on their tummy’s.

A kinkajou on a branch

According to A-Z Animals, the name kinkajou comes from a native Algonquian word meaning wolverine that was taken by the French and applied to the kinkajou. A reminder to us that words aren’t neutral and can have their own, important history, in this case a history that feels like it’s probably linked to colonialism. Other names suggested by the A-Z Animals website include night ape and night walker as well as la Llorona which means crying woman and refers to their loud call.

A long, prehensile tail is probably the Kinkajou’s most defining feature but perhaps their second eye catching feature is their large eyes. As nocturnal creatures living in tropical forests in Central and South America, large eyes are beneficial. Often, nocturnal animals either have very small eyes or very large eyes depending on how much they use sight vs other senses.

During the day, they are often found sleeping in dens created in the hole of a tree with their social group, apparently using their tail as a snuggly blanket! Come dusk, time is spent grooming each other and socialising before heading out alone to search for food.

Their prehensile tail acts a lot like another arm, aiding their balance and they often hang from it, incredibly it can take the entire weight of the kinkajou! This is a unassumingly powerful creature with hidden skills. They are deliberate in their movement, carefully placing their legs and tail for good balance and their tail allows for reaching and grasping branches, or ideas if you’re thinking symbolically or metaphorically.

Incredibly, they are able to turn their feet backwards to run easily in either direction along branches which puts me in mind of moving forward and backwards through time or journeys. This flexibility and manoeuvrability is enhanced by an extremely flexible spine and is perhaps a reminder that life is not always about moving forward. Sometimes you need to revisit the past or perhaps if you’re grieving, it’s a reminder that the so called stages of grief aren’t steps, they are a process and you may, will, move around within that process.

Their nimble claws are dexterous as as we’ve seen with the racoon, it helps them to manipulate food. They can feel more nuance than perhaps the average creature and that might be an encouragement to lean into nuance. Whilst we tend to view the world in very black and white terms, there is so so much greyscale that’s really worth looking into. So often two things can be true at once even if they seem like competeing ideas.

As we’ve seen from the opening statement, the kinkajou doesn’t have a solid image or identity as seen by others. But then nor do we, how people view us or define us depends partly on the lens that they are seeing us through and partly on how we are presenting at a particular point. This doesn’t mean you aren’t a fully integrated whole person, just that the self we show more of in the workplace is different to the self we show more of when we’re catching up with our best friend or on a night out.

Whilst originally thought to be solitary, they actually have complex social interactions with a social group often comprising of two males, one female and offspring. Dominant males mate with the females of their home group as well as females on the edge of the territory. Like with so many animals, scent marking is important for communication, including sexual communication, and kinkajous use scent glands to mark tree branches. They also communicate through grunting and growling, chattering and screaming and when they’re happy, they make a kissing noise! Maybe your communication could be clearer to others?

When it comes to parenting, it’s down to the mums but, as Animal Diversity said whilst “males do not provide any direct care [they] are not aggressive toward young and have been found to regularly share fruiting trees and day dens, and will occasionally play with the pups.” This seems like a key nudge around gender roles in your life – if the kinkajou has shown up for you, what might need rebalancing it terms of gendered work. Are you always the one in the relationship who’s keeping a mental track of upcoming birthdays? Do you wait until the night before the kids run out of clothes to do a wash? None of these are judgements, but if you are in a relationship, you may need to take some time to consider the roles that you’ve fallen into. If you’ve consciously chosen a role that fits your skills and interests (maybe you love to cook) does that mean that your partner is picking up a role that they don’t want (like taking out the bins).

As they eat a lot of seeds and pollinate when they feed on nectar, they are carrying out the role of forest gardener which is an important role to play in an environment. Further, they are food for predators such as birds of prey, jaguars and other predators. Both their roles as food and creating food are vital for the local environment they live in – how are you being benefited and benefiting the place you live?

Superstitions and beliefs

There is a Colombian superstition that if a kinkajou barks during the day, a family member will die. This is often the case with nocturnal animals.

There’s a really interesting link between the kinkajou and tobacco and I’m thinking perhaps I’ll dig into tobacco itself more separately. But for now, the kinkajou are seen by Yanomami people as the animal-person responsible for discovering tobacco and celebrating it.

With the South American Yanamomo people, there was a man who was crying as he walked through a forest. He was crying because there was something he needed, he dodn’t know what it was but his craving for it made him emotionally numb. He came across the ancestral tobacco god, kinkajou. Kinkajou knew just what the man needed – it was tobacco. Kinkajou gave it to the man who started chewing it and wherever he spat it’s juice, tobacco plants grew and flowered and hummingbirds came and sucked the nectar and this resulted in tobacco becoming widely spread.

Other myths expand on the addictiveness of tobacco and there are various versions of these myths, some involve the kinkajou spreading tobacco and some where an agouti was involved who taught the kinkajou how to cultivate the crop. In another version, it was Caterpillar who gave Kinkajou tobacco and there are various versions of man turning into Kinkajou and Kinkajou turning into man.

Regardless of which myth you lean towards, there are clear themes around intoxicating substances, addiction and transformation. How do these apply to where you are right now? Are you in need of a deeper, spiritual awakening through substances? Are you overdoing that use? Or are you in need of a personal transformation? Certain substances can change our perception of our realities, but it feels important to say that we can’t change our realities though our perceptions can make a huge difference.

Sources

Nature, Framed

So yesterday was my birthday and I spent it in a way that was very much me but sounds a bit weird to some people…!

I started the day by co-hosting a nature writing workshop with the wonderful Amanda Tuke. She had invited me to be part of a series of workshops she was co-hosting over a year and this one was the last in the series.

If you’ve been here long, you’ll be fully aware I’m disabled and for me that was a key way I wanted to approach the workshop. A lot of my nature is experienced through and from my flat and this naturally shapes my writing.

A couple of incredible writers, Polly Atkin and Josie George, have similar ways of approaching nature and their nature writing. Indeed, Atkin has said:

“We dwell in our bodies; our bodies in the world. Everything we experience of the world we experience in and through and with our bodies. Our relationship with our body informs our relationship with the world. For some people this is easier to forget than for others”.

There are many reasons why it may be easier to forget for some people than others, in my case it’s around my disability but for others it might be around gender or race. I wanted the workshop to reflect that and to start from a place that was hopefully accessible to everyone, or almost everyone; their home.

A warm up exercise focused on what is through the window and I was pleased to be able to write a little whilst the participants did their own writing.

Through the window a car alarm pierces through my nature writing, cuts my reflections, brutally shatters my snail trail of thought.


Settling into my windowside chair, with it’s tarmacked street view, eyes flit over a discarded Double Decker wrapper caught on the winter bare bush. Eyes resolve image, releasing an iris, crocus, iris where the chocolate litter was. Spring crept by, left paint splatters in her hasty retreat. Dots of white on mud, tufts of lime on wet-black twigs. A season on the cusp of committing.


Out the window, nettles leaves wave, so fresh they’re more lemon than lime, but same tang. Browned grass stems drift wearily, remnants from last year, planted by overly zealous starlings as they squabbled for the feeder.

Inside the window, a snail hibernates, stuck itself to the apex of the frame. A gamble with it’s glue, a fall will shatter. I think it’s a male, self confidence borders on arrogance.


My birthday wasn’t just about nature writing though! There was wine and word games and friends and takeaway. That being said, starting it with a nature writing workshop was a great way to kick off the day!