As of a few weeks ago, the couple I share a yard with finally ‘let’ me have half the flower bed. Admittedly, I am entitled to half of it but they aren’t the best neighbours and if it’s taken them four years to finally accept me then I’m going to take it.
It was a mess. Heavily covered in Herb Robert and a massive bramble.
And Rosebay Willowherb, also known as Fireweed, had fallen over on the paving slabs.
But I also knew that there are some welsh poppies and daffodils hidden away somewhere and, as we removed the Herb Robert, we discovered a buddleja! I love their purple flowers and they are so great for attracting butterflies so that was exciting.
I am keen that the space I have will a) be easy to maintain as I do have a disability and most of my carers don’t really garden and b) wildlife friendly. I already had one bird feeder attached to the fence so I got myself a second.
Sticking with the eco-friendly theme, I wanted to reuse materials as much as possible and led me to The Reclaimed Company which is also based just outside York so less fuel use as well! I chose myself some green welsh slate, some roof tiles and a chimney pot.
This beautiful slate was laid on the soil so that it’s easier to reach the bird feeders, especially in winter when it’ll be all muddy.
The Rosebay Willowherb and Buddleja have been staked so they grow vertically not horizontally! A fantastic sage plant has been added, along with a fern and a couple of hostas.
I have bulbs that will go in over the next couple of weeks – more daffodils, snowdrops and crocuses.
The chinmney pot has become the base of a bird bath and it was very exciting to see the birds discover it. I have also laid some roof tiles on the soil to make stepping stones to the bird bath so it’s easier to clean. As I have to rely on carers for some of these jobs, I want to make it as easy for them as possible.
I’m looking forward to finally having a bit of garden space and am so glad I hung onto my garden tools for all these years!
There’s a chi chi chi back and forth between me and her – my nestling – and our parents. Within a chaos of other marco polo calls, we hear our own, our kin. We call as easy as we breathe, and we hear it just as clearly. It’s as though there is a thread, running from my heart, to my parents, and their returning calls are like a gentle tug on it.
The line of the fence top is perfect for testing the not yet entirely reliable hops and skips and jumps. We chase each other playfully in the sun.
I quickly tilt my head, eye to the sky. Is this shadow a friend, a foe, or apathetic to my existence?
I crouch. Breast pressed into the wood.
Then I rise in relief and shake out my feathers. My parents aren’t concerned, not an enemy then.
I extend my wings in a stretch, scratch a claw to my neck and fly down to the ground. Pausing on landing, I look around with wary curiosity, the way I was taught. Eyes alert, head tilting, twisting.
Underclaw, the soil is soft and flattened leaves criss cross each other, weaving textures.
In the shelter of the fence, amongst the tall stems, I peck at scraps, dropped from the wire enclosure that I’ve yet to figure out. It’s a mystery to me how you stick the landing on the thin metal branch and then perch with the perfect balance and then you have to lean and peck.
Later, back on the fence, the two of us wiggle impatiently. My tiny claws dig into the wood, like grappling hooks, and I peer over the edge to watch. He lands, perches, balances, leans and pecks with expertise.
As we wait, our wings flutter uncontrollably and we squeak and squark with anticipation, telling him to hurry, hurry!
And then he comes!
Our mouths are as open as beaks will allow and dad slips his into mine and leaves behind a seed. Then it’s her turn, then mine and we hop and jump and clamour for it to be our own turn again.
A blackbird trills, a woodpigeon cu-coo-cus and there’s a clattering chatter of other sparrow families; chirrups, cheeps, chirps and churrs.
A pair of shadows slide across the courtyard and all the calls stop. The caws of the black demons fill the, now empty, air.
A few sparrows call boldly, distracting the crows away from their vulnerable chicks. But the devilish claws are filled with something that seems more interesting than a tiny, fluff ball chick.
Later, dad lands on the fence again and we flee to his side with hopeful shrieks, to no avail.
A grey-purple stem stands solid in the cool breeze, connected leaves fluttering. Overhead, the sun darts behind a cloud, then peeks out, half hiding like a shy child behind his mother’s legs.
The leaves of the Nettle are elongated hearts, cut with pinking shears. Even it’s hearts wear teeth.
I can just about see the stingers, fine hairs that look soft, but experience tells me they are deceptive. They are the sharp pins from the same sewing kit that held the shears.
As I sit with the Nettle, the air brustles around us and it seems to wave to me. Or is it pushing me away? It feels like it’s leaves are frantically ushering me to go.
I heed it’s advice and scurry inside, out the wind, but shortly after I wonder, should I have stayed? Was it pushing me away as a self-protective measure? An extension of the boundaries the stings set? I wonder if I should have stayed, earnt it’s trust, pushed through the harsh outer layers?
And I wonder, what would I have found under it’s tough armour?
A nursery for caterpillars? A buffet for insectivores? An all-inclusive resort for bugs?
Or all of the above.
Butterflies and moths lay their eggs on the Nettle’s leaves; Small Tortoiseshell Butterflies, Peacock Butterflies and Burnished Brass Moths.
Once hatched, the caterpillars feed on the leaves as they grow, protected from predators whilst they make their magical transformation.
Carrot Flies, Black Flies and Aphids eat the Nettle, then in turn, they become food for Ladybirds, Blue Tits and other birds.
It’s thought that more than 40 kinds of insect shelter on and around the Nettle, enjoying protection from grazing animals. These insects in turn draw insectivores such as Hedgehogs, Shrews, Frogs and Toads, turning a nettle patch into a food court.
It’s flowers offer pollen and nectar for butterflies and the seeds offer autumn food for Chaffinches, Bullfinches and House Sparrows.
The nettle is also home to Jumping Plant Lice, Tarnished Plant Bugs and more. These creatures are not put off by the Nettle’s sting, they welcome it, they embrace it. They see beyond the defensive bristling, the measures the Nettle employs in order to avoid being vulnerable. Where so many others see malice, they see potential.
A day later and I pull a few of the more unwieldly plants from my patch of ground. I would rather I tamed them gently and sparingly than the council tried, with brutal force and unrefined machinery.
Despite two pairs of gloves and knowledge of how to approach a nettle, I still get stung. A grey pin prick amongst the whorls and swirls of my fingertip.
When the tiny hypodermic needle brushed against me, the tip broke off and the remaining hair pierced my skin, injecting an elegant cocktail of irritants. This included histamine which I am especially sensitive to, and is likely why my one single nettle sting was still throbbing and swollen hours later.
I can’t think of another plant whose identity is so wrapped up in it’s sting, in it’s self-defence. Other plant protections are utilised, taken for human use – whether it’s the nicotine that protects the Tobacco plant or salicylic acid produced when herbivores bite Willow or the Cinchona trees which use the bitter taste of quinine to repel predators.
There is an old belief that a nettle in your pocket will keep you safe from lightning and give you courage. Perhaps this is a self fulfilling prophecy, not everyone would pick the nettle in the first place…
Or, perhaps it is the gift that comes from knowing the Nettle. Of knowing there is more to a book that it’s cover, more to a nettle than it’s sting. Of knowing the Nettle is more about protection than defence.
It’s 4.15am and I am in so much pain that I am nearly in tears – something that takes a lot for a pro like me. As I’m slowly breathing in and out, I hear a bird. Closing my eyes against the pain, I focus on the melody. Phrases repeat and change and reappear making a tune that feels slightly off familiar.
This time of morning is one I know well. It is my secret segment of the day. A rare alone time. Often, I read to distract from the pain, or listen to an audiobook but now, as dawn edges into the night, I find myself smiling. This in-between becomes my own special moment, a time when the birds are serenading me alone. Sharing their wisdom for the day ahead. In those notes, I hear hope, even knowing that they may well be territorial shouts from male to male.
Another morning, another 4am, another bird call; a song thrush this time. A song, then a space. A space filled with hope. Another call, another wait, no reply. But it’s early in the season, there’s still time for a female to hear and accept the invitation.
I wonder who else hears the songs, perhaps a fox, or a hedgehog? I know there are bats nearby. I have seen them at dusk swooping under a bridge and diving for insects over the lake in the park. They are most likely Pipistrelles; flitting across grey-black night. Perhaps other creatures stir in the night with me, eyes half open, ears filling with the music of the dawn.
There have been so many early mornings when the birds have been my comfort, my companions. Unable to sleep, I’ve had the pleasure of hearing tweets and calls and song, and they have, and continue, to offer me solace in my pain.
One of the fantastic things about everyone else being stuck at home is the number of events that have gone online. As such I’ve been able to ‘attend’ so many talks and conferences that would have been impossible for me otherwise.
Urban Tree Festival – This was held in May and had offerings including talks, workshops and book clubs.
Hay Festival – The Hay Festival also went online during May but don’t worry if you missed it, you can watch a free offering of the week or sign up for the Hay Player to catch up.
Other online offerings I’ve attended have included… a talk about peacemaking circles in Native American communities, a workshop about nature and resilience and a virtual foraging walk. I’ve found these searching and browsing EventBrite.
One of the most amazing lockdown offerings I’ve found has come from America, from Emergence Magazine who have beautifully written articles, and that’s a wonderful way of connecting with nature in itself. But they have also gathered together a host of community offerings including book clubs, talks, seminars and a fantastic nature writing course which I have been part of for the last few months.
But of course connecting with nature isn’t just about courses and learning. It’s about experiencing. It’s about noticing. It’s about connecting.
We’ve been lucky in the UK over the last couple of weeks and have had some incredibly nice weather and I have managed to get out into my yard which isn’t the nicest place but is outside and safe right now. Normally I would be in the park with lots of nature and people and things going on around me. But instead, I was in a small space, no one but my carer visible and not as much nature. Or at least not as much obvious nature. The longer we were there, the more I tuned into the bird songs and what they were ‘saying’. I saw the ants erratically wandering over the paving slabs. I spent time looking at the greenfly that landed on my leg.
This is the perfect time to focus on place, on the small and slower things that are happening right now. Notice the fluffs of dandelions on the breeze and let your mind wonder where they are headed and what life lies ahead for them.
Point out nature, to yourself or to another being. Doing this helps you to connect for a moment rather than see something fleetingly and then move on. I’ve been doing this with my carers for ages now and I know that they now notice nature more as well which is fantastic! Or take a picture or make a note of how it made you feel to hear or see or smell that thing. Acting on it helps you to connect to that part of nature.
If you know people who are able to go out for walks safely, enlist their help! Get them to take you with them via video call. This is much more fun that pre-recorded virtual walks because you are in real time. And it gives you something to talk about other than the state of the world right now. I’ve also found it helps you get to know the place your friend lives in. If you were visiting in person, you probably wouldn’t see the local park or field, especially if you have mobility issues and said area is inaccessible.
Get yourself feeders, find blogs and books that inspire you to look closer and, most importantly, look out of your window!
I have loved hearing and watching the house sparrows that visit my feeder and obviously it’s the time of year for chicks. I have been trying to get pictures of them, and the starlings, feeding their young but every time something has interfered. I had pretty much given up when I got these images! These are just a select few, if you are as sparrow obsessed as I am, check out my flickr album for more!
The first few pictures are of a male House Sparrow feeding his fledglings and then a couple of him all fluffed up, which is so cute!
“In order to harness the energy of inspiration, you need to connect to your creative centre. This in turn will spark the flame inside of you that is just waiting to burn brightly. Now is not the time for mastery, however; it is a time of experimentation and fun. Learn as much as you can while you can and don’t worry about doing it the wrong or right way.” – Message from Salamander, Animal Totem Tarot
Salamanders are amphibians that look a lot like lizards- slim bodies, short legs and blunt snouts – but they have permeable skin that means they need to live in cool, damp places. As they breathe through their skin, it is hard for them to filter out toxins in the environment and so they can be used as an indicator species; their presence or lack of, reflects pollution levels.
As I write this, I am having an allergic reaction to something in my environment. I am exceptionally sensitive to changes in my environment and so I am alert to any changes, whether that’s consciously or through the rash on my cheek. But you should also be sensitive to energy vampires and toxic people. Especially as salamanders have skin glands which excrete poisons, in some cases powerful neurotoxins.
Some salamanders live in caves, others in moist crevices but most species live in humid forests. They are generally more active during the cooler parts of the day, and wait until night to eat. In the warmer parts of the day, they hide under rocks or in shadowy areas to stay cool.
“To a salamander beneath a log, the first heavy raindrops must sound like the knuckles of spring knocking on the door overhead. After six months of torpor, stiff limbs slowly flex, tails wiggle out of winter immobility, and within minutes, snouts nose upward and legs push away cold earth as the salamanders crawl up into the night.” – Robin Wall Kimmerer
Once out, they head towards water where they will mate and breed. Like salmon, they return to the same waters that they were born in. Perhaps this is a nudge telling you to return home, to visit your birth place or to spend time with your ancestors.
“Part of their direction-finding ability relies on a precise reading of the lines in the earth’s magnetic field. A small organ in the brain processes magnetic data and guides the salamander to its pond… Following the earth’s magnetic gets them to the neighbourhood and then scent takes over to guide them home.” – Robin Wall Kimmerer
The amazing way they find their destination makes me think we should all be listening to our intuition when it comes to travel. Perhaps there is a reason why you are drawn to that particular place over and over again.
Once they reach their destination, the male deposits a spermatophore (a packet of sperm) on the ground or in the water and the female picks this up with her cloaca. Here the sperm fertilises her eggs and they are then laid in water. NB some species do give birth to live young.
During the larval stage, the young live in the water, breathing through gills and resembling tadpoles. By the end of this stage, they have limbs and metamorphosis normally takes place, with lungs replacing gills.
Their reproductive cycle echoes that of life overall – larvae are born in water with gills and grow up into adults with lungs that live on land, like how life developed lungs and stepped onto land. Or most salamanders do. The axolotl provides a striking exception.
Axolotls were revered by Aztecs and get their name from an Aztec deity called Xolotl who was associated with death and lightning. They are strange creatures who never grow out of the larval form, and yet still reach sexual maturity, an odd paradox. In labs, they can be ‘turned’ into land animals through the use of hormones suggesting the potential is there and yet as a species they choose not to take this final metamorphosis. Those that do go through this process have a shorter lifespan.
All salamanders engage in autotomy, or self amputation, to escape predators, and the acolotyl raises the bar incredibly. They can regenerate limbs, tails, jaw, skin and even their spinal cord without scarring.
“You can cut the spinal cord, crush it, remove a segment, and it will regenerate. You can cut the limbs at any level – the wrist, the elbow, the upper arm – and it will regenerate, and it’s perfect. There is nothing missing, there’s no scarring on the skin at the site of amputation, every tissue is replaced. They can regenerate the same limb 50, 60, 100 times. And every time: perfect.” – Prof. Stephane Roy
They can also accept limbs from other axolotls; in a questionable experiment, scientists gave an axolotl a second head… Research into this creature could help people with severe burns, transplant recipients and even cancer as they are more resistant to it than any mammals. They are true survivors but I wonder how we would feel if we came out of a traumatic experience unscarred. Scars can be hard to bear but they show us that we have been hurt and that we have survived, they also prove that the painful thing was real.
“Some people see scars, and it is wounding they remember. To me they are proof of the fact that there is healing.” ― Linda Hogan
“Scars have the strange power to remind us that our past is real.” ― Cormac McCarthy
“My scars remind me that I did indeed survive my deepest wounds. That in itself is an accomplishment. And they bring to mind something else, too. They remind me that the damage life has inflicted on me has, in many places, left me stronger and more resilient. What hurt me in the past has actually made me better equipped to face the present.” ― Steve Goodier
The axolotl brings messages around healing oneself and the power we have within. I am not suggesting we can cure illness with the power of our mind, rather that we can use tools such as meditation to reduce stress and that in turn can help us live healthier lives. It might be time for you to think about your health or to seek out help from experts.
The ability of the salamander, and especially the axolotl, to regenerate is ripe for metaphor. With this card, we are reminded that we have the power to change our lives, to transform ourselves to go into the fire and come out alive like the phoenix.
The axolotl isn’t the only wonder salamander, the Eastern Hellbender – a fantastic name but as if that wasn’t enough, they are also known as Devil Dogs, Lasagne Lizards and Snot Otters – is a large kind of Salamander found in America. They are being studied as they seem to be resistant to BD, a deadly disease which is killing amphibians around the world. They test positive for it and yet show no symptoms so it is possible they can bring hope to frogs, toads, newts and other salamanders everywhere!
In my notes, I have written that the salamander is the spirit of fire in animal form but I have not said where I got that from. Thinking in terms of tarot and elements, we have in the salamander, a creature that combines fire and water. Fire can be destructive and water can balance it, in the same way that the creative energy of the fire element can be intense, overwhelming and destructive and need some balancing out if you want to avoid burn out.
Many beliefs and myths around salamanders relate them to fire. It is thought this is because they hang out inside rotting logs and when these are burn, the salamander would try to escape, leading to the belief that they were created from the flames.
In ancient Rome it was said that salamanders could spit fire and burn water, and that if you touched them you would be poisoned but if you put one in honey it would create an aphrodisiac. These tie in nicely with the elemental ideas above – power and passion.
In ancient Greece, Pliny the Elder wrote:
“A salamander is so cold that it puts out fire on contact. It vomits from its mouth a milky liquid; if this liquid touches any part of the human body it causes all the hair to fall off, and the skin to change colour and break out in a rash.”
In later times, Leonardo da Vinci wrote:
“[The salamander] has no digestive organs, and gets no food but from the fire, in which it constantly renews its scaly skin.”
In France, the folkloric salamander brings poison; simply by falling into a well, all the water would be poisoned, and by climbing a tree, all the fruits would be poisoned.
“Salamanders were used as symbols in heraldry representing mastery of passion passing through its fires unblemished. They represent the virtues of courage, loyalty, chastity, virginity, impartiality. They are symbolic of Jesus, who baptised with the fire of the Holy Spirit, the Virgin Mary, and the devotion of Christians who keep the faith.” – zteve t evans
The salamander is a very interesting creature, both scientifically and in terms of symbolism. Healing, regeneration, sensitivity and homing are themes at play, along with the element of fire, especially in combination with water. I hope you have enjoyed this wander through the salamander, are there any animals you’d like me to look at next?
Some evenings the bird chatter – the kaa ka kas, the pep pip pips, the alarm calls- grate on me. During the day I love hearing them and it grates on me that it grates on me and thus a vicious cycle spins on.
This is a new thing. Normally I love hearing the birds as I settle into bed so I wanted to interrogate this, to try and understand what is going on.
My initial thoughts were about time of day; come evening, I am much more tired, and right now I am more likely to be fed up and despondent by the time I get into bed. This is also the first time I am really alone in the day and I sink into my subconscious whirlings. I don’t feel naturally aligned with appreciation, appreciation of anything, at this time of day.
I spend the day noticing and loving but by night I need distraction – tv, film, reading – something I can escape into. And whilst the birds are incredible, they are inevitably out there in the world, right now. And my mind will not let me forget that I am not, and will not let me forget that I am hearing them so much clearer because of the global pandemic.
The birds do not give me the escape I need in this phase of my daily cycle. Their caws and cacks instead pull me away from the fantasy world I plunge into and remind me that my escape is just an illusion. That however hard I try, I am still living in a world with a virus that could kill me and the people I love. A virus that has already killed.
I am still living in a world where the reckless acts of strangers ignoring the rules could turn out to kill. They could be carrying it, walking bombs waiting to be detonated. I am still living in a world where disabled people are being devalued repeatedly in clumsy attempts to get through this crisis, where we are told we may not get the care we need to stay alive (1). And that now that able bodied people are stuck home too, suddenly technology can be used to meet up, to do courses. to offer talks online. And suddenly working from home is perfectly possible.
The calls of the blackbird on the roof pulls me back into a world where people with a week or two of being stuck home under their belt, are suddenly experts on loving nature from home. Despite their daily walks, possibly through countryside and woodland, and their good sized garden, they speak with the authority of a housebound disabled person who has lived this for years. Our voices, those with lived experiences and expertise, are still not heard. We are shouting and going unnoticed because we are disposable, literally right now. Worthless. Valueless. (2)
I have shed many shackles since becoming disabled; the idea that my value is about my economic contribution and my productivity; that my self worth is tied to doing… Is the evening bird song grating against another shackle? One where I cannot be a nature lover, or a nature writer, if I cannot always appreciate it and embrace it?(3)
The nightly scrabble and scramble of starlings on the feeder doesn’t seem as endearing as it did hours before. And all that has changed is me. I have moved through my day, and now I want to tune out the world, and all the noise that tries to tell me I am unimportant. When the messages scream so loudly, so constantly, they cannot help but echo and reverberate around my soul.
By the time I get into bed, I need to escape. I need to live in a different world or a different time. And those birds that I love so deeply and dearly, peck through the bubble I am trying to build.
Come the dawn chorus, I am back to noticing, caring, loving and appreciating.
This is a fragment of my writing from the Emergence nature writing course I am currently doing.
The thick taste of petrichor
Microorganisms in the soil – actinobacteria – decompose dead and decaying matter, turning the no longer living into nutrients and life – the fantastic, eternal, circle of life.
And as they do this, they create a kind of alcohol called geosmin, to which our noses are very sensitive. This is one of the compounds that creates the smell of rain, earthy and nostalgic.
When it is dry, they are less active, when the air is humid and the ground is moist they speed up, releasing more geosmin. So what we are breathing in is the recycling of life, the cycle of life and death and rebirth, the cycle of ransformation. We are smelling the process by which a tree becomes food for a daffodil and the bones of a rabbit become a nutrients for a carrot.
It is also a signal, a sign of a symbiotic partnership that has played out over and over for almost 500 million years.
The bacteria release the odour to attract a specific arthropod, a Springtail, which responds by eating it. This is less suicidal than it appears. Bacteria spores stick to the Springtail and get relocated, as do those excreted in faeces. This helps the bacteria to spread and create new colonies.
Next time you smell the lush, slightly salty, tang of rain, spare a moment for the minute lives whose drama is plays out beneath our feet.
At the moment, I am finding it hard to put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard. I have many fragments of writing, notes scribbled on scraps of paper but I find myself unable to connect them cohesively. I know this will pass but in the meantime I thought an easy to write post would be a list of nature writing books and articles.