The making of bats

The making of bats
is an act
that must take place
in the darkest of spaces;
no full moon,
no starlit skies.

Instead shadows and coal,
Silhouettes and pitch.

Hand to heartwood,
whisper wishes to the owls,
pray they take them, swift winged,
to the goddess of the night.

If you are blessed,
hear the sky fill with wingbeats.

The making of bats is a gift,
goddess given,
not a right.


If you haven’t already, take a look at my post on spontaneous generation and read about some of the ‘recipes’ that were believed to create animals prior to the 17th and 18th centuries.  You’ll realise that my own recipe isn’t that unbelievable!

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The making of a witch

Summon the queen of death.

Split open the sky.

Scratch at constellations

‘til stars fall

to sand; petrified

lightning – her wrath.

 

There was a storm once

– long forgotten –

the night threw flames

and set the galaxy alight.

Here lie her eyes;

Deep, mysterious, dancing.

 

Look for old stone stacks,

Moss covered, lined up on paths that are not passed

– her unmoveable will.

An ancient mountain.

 

Find the place where the tide

rips over scorched limestone

and quartz.

Buried below is her heart.

 

Listen to the trees,

the whistle of the leaves.

Hear her.

 

In fog, shapes slowly transform.

In the making of witches,

earth turns to flesh,

stones turn to bones,

and fossils to blood,

under the pressure

of oppression.

 

To know her is to hold a storm

in the cup of your hands.

 

To love her is to offer your heart

to smouldering ashes,

knowingly.

 

Do you give it?

Animal parents: from self sacrifice to murder

In the animal kingdom, reproduction is a vast and interesting topic with many different methods having evolved.  Take for example the frog mums who let tadpoles develop in their tummy and then have to regurgitate them.  Or any one of the marsupials who give birth to jellybean sized young who then have to struggle across mum to find her pouch where lies safety and food.  I’ve written before about kangaroos and how females are essentially a baby making conveyor belt with young at various stages ‘on the go’.

Birth might sound difficult for the kangaroo but I’m betting the hyena is looking on wistfully… Female hyenas experience horrific births.  Their birth canal is a funny shape, it’s longer than most similar sized mammals and the umbilical cord is short.  This means there is a higher risk of asphyxiation, but it gets worse.  The baby’s head is too big to pass through the clitoris (hyenas have an unusual genital makeup and urination, fertilisation and birthing are all carried out through the clitoris) so when a mother gives birth, the clitoris tears.  Not just painful, this can be deadly, with estimates of over 10% of females dying the first time they give birth and more than half of cubs being stillborn.  Things don’t get much better for those cubs that survive either… they tend to arrive in litters of two and the one that is born first tends to kill the second within minutes of birth.

Not necessarily a difficult birth, but the frilled shark has to suffer pregnancy for over three years…  The babies grow a frustrating ½ inch per month and don’t emerge into the water until they reach 1 ½ to 2 feet long…

On land, the longest pregnancy falls to elephants who have to endure almost two years of pregnancy before a baby pops out but thankfully, once little ellie has arrived, the whole herd play a role in raising it.  Similarly, sea lions have collective arrangements with a nursery so they can drop off the pups and then head out to feed.  This rota system works well for sea lions but this communal approach isn’t the case for all animals.  In many species, mum and dad don’t actually engage in parenting and in others, the burden falls on just one parent.  And in some cases, this burden can literally kill mum.

Self sacrificing parents include octopus mums who guard their eggs for several months, starving during this time as they can’t leave them.  Once they hatch, the mother dies.  As sad as this is, it pales in comparison to the desert spider.  When the female desert spider lays an egg sac, her insides start to liquefy.  Once her babies hatch, she regurgitates her innards for her young to eat and nine days later, only a husk remains.

When desert spider lays an egg sac, her tissues start to degrade until the spiderlings hatch. Once this happens, she regurgitates her own liquefied insides for the babies to eat.  9 days later they finish up her innards and then head off into the world, leaving her husk behind…

For orangutans the substantial workload falls to mum who has to spend 8 years raising her babies, longer than any other animal single parent.

Whilst pregnancy and childrearing might be tough for mum, not all dads are hands off.  Indeed, in some cases, its only the male who’s involved in child rearing – the male rhea receives eggs from various females to incubate and rear and the same is true for the cassowary.

Indeed, this system – where the males look after the young from several females, and females spread their brood between several males – is common, especially among fish.
– Olivia Judson

Childcare arrangements vary throughout the natural world with some parents having no involvement, some species specialising in single parenthood and others working together to raise their children.  The type of gestation affects the possible roles for parents.  In mammals for example, where the fetus develops in the womb, there isn’t a lot that the males can do.  For birds however, dad can sit on the eggs and provide food for the chicks just as well as mum can.

Looking at a couple of egg examples, we can see there are different levels of involvement and different roles the parents can play.  The spraying characid is a fish that lays its eggs out of water – the female leaps out of water and lays eggs, then the male leaps out and fertilises them, an act which is repeated until about 300 eggs have been laid.  For the next three days, dad has to stay with them and splash the eggs with his tail to keep them from drying out.

For some leeches, parenting is the basic guarding eggs from predators but for African leeches, a kangaroo style approach has been adopted and they carry their young in a pouch, and for another type of leech, the young are glued to their parents tummy.

But moving onto mammals, we find the Dayak fruit bat where both mum and dad produce milk, taking shared responsibility for nursing their young.  Djungarian hamster males are also devoted to their babies.  They “forage for seeds which they stuff into their pouches in their cheeks; on arriving back at the burrow, they unload their cargo by pushing on the pouches with their forepaws so that seeds stream forth” (Judson).  In addition to finding the food, the males help in the birth process, acting as a midwife and helping the pups out.  They also open their airways and lick them clean, even going so far as to eat the placenta.  Male marmosets also carry out a similar role and will go on to play an active role in childrearing.

Hornbills are another devoted parent.  The female climbs into a nest in a tree and seals up the entrance so that there is only space for her beak.  She is then reliant on her partner to bring her food whilst she incubates the chicks.  Once they are born, the father must bring food for the whole family until it is time for them to emerge.  Overall, the female spends as much as 137 days cooped up in the nest.

But there’s always two sides to a story…  And on the flip side to these dedicated parents, we find infanticide.

In many species where fatherhood is clear, males will kill offspring that is not there.  Infanticide gets pesky children out of the way so that dad doesn’t have to spend resources, time and energy on raising them.  They also do this because without children around, the females get in season and thus he can get her pregnant and have children of his own.  Squirrels, wolves and primates are some of the creatures that engage in this behaviour and about 34% of gorilla infant deaths and 64% of languar infant deaths are down to infanticide (Bondar).

In species which are particularly prone to infanticide, females have evolved a number of countermeasures such as keeping babies in burrows or pouches so that males can’t get to them but there are times when even mum can’t keep their baby alive.

“In rodents, an increased incidence of infanticide is observed for males during periods of food deprivation, and for females during periods of lactation (which confers high energetic demands).”
– Carin Bondar

In coot and moorhen families, who have a large number of chicks at once, parents tend to feed the closest mouth, but if one chick becomes particularly demanding, the parents will try and discourage it by picking it up and shaking it, sometimes killing it.

In some animals, a male having a mistress can lead to the death of the children, the ultimate in wicked stepmothers!  The mistress will often murder the wife’s children and if the opportunity arises, vice versa.

“In both the house sparrow and the great reed warbler, for example, a male with two mates will help only the female whose clutch hatches first, so to ensure herself of male assistance, a savvy mistress will smash all the wife’s eggs.”
– Olivia Judson

Murder isn’t only a risk that comes from your parents; the sand shark practices intrauterine cannibalism, the biggest fetus gobbles up its embryonic siblings whilst in the womb. Whilst an extreme example, siblingcide is not uncommon in the animal kingdom.  In many invertebrates, cannibalism is the way to get rid of your pesky brothers and sisters and thus not only do you get a good meal, you also guarantee increased access to resources going forward.  Whilst not so extreme, eagles and hyenas also kill their siblings, although they wait until after birth.

Of course there are many other interesting births and parenting techniques in the animal kingdom and I could never do any more than scrape the surface here but if these exmaples have whet your appetite, try checking out some of the links below and look into seahorses, that well known fully involved dad!

Suggested reading:

The holly and the ivy (part two)

So, I sat down to write a post about holly and ivy… And then realised I did that last year… In my defence, I was very ill and very starved so my memories of that period are a bit vague…

That being said, I have got new books and new sources and so on since so I thought I would revisit this seasonal topic anyway, possibly focusing more on the mistletoe instead.

Holly

Holly is a plant of lightening, eternal life and the White Goddess (before it was co-opted by Christianity).  The berries, being scarlet, could be used to repel witches and Pliny the Elder went a step further and said that holly trees around the house prevent sorcery.  Self seeded holly plants would bring good luck as well as protection from storms and fires.

There are two kinds of holly, the male prickly version and the female smoother type, and according to a Derbyshire tradition, they should be brought into the home at the same time.  This would ensure that the year ahead would be prosperous.  If you accidentally brought the male holly in first, the master of the house would have absolute rule in the year ahead and if you brought the female holly in first then the mistress would be in charge.  Despite this, there is also a tradition that says that holly shouldn’t be brought indoors at all.

Whether you decorate your house with holly or not, you shouldn’t harm a holly tree.  One explanation is that holly was the tree on which Jesus was crucified and so hurting the tree would lead to his blood and tears flowing out of the wound.  Another is that holly sprang from Christ’s footsteps.  Holly is also said to be representative of his crown of thorns, the red berries his blood and the white flowers a reminder of purity and his virgin birth.

Ivy

Like holly, ivy has a mixed reputation.  During the 19th and 20th century, some people considered it unlucky and wouldn’t bring it into the house at any point in the year, possibly because ivy is associated with graveyards.

“Anyone who wishes to dream of the devil; should pin four ivy-leaves to the corners of his pillow”
– Cornish Folklore, The Penguin Guide to Superstitions of Britain and Ireland

Other uses for ivy in divination include popping a leaf in your pocket before you leave the home and the first male you see will be your future husband.  Ivy can also be used to foretell death.

Ivy leaves have been recommended as a cure for various ills including corns which could be treated by wrapping the leaf around the corn.  Cups made out of ivy wood were thought to cure whooping cough.

Ivy was said to be sacred to Dionysus and Bacchus, gods of wine, and thus was hung outside inns to show that good wine could be found there.

“In ancient Greece it was called cissos because, according to a mythological legend it was named after the nymph Cissos, who, at a feast of the gods, danced with such joy and abandon before Dionysus that she fell dead from exhaustion at his feet.  Dionysus was so moved by her performance and untimely death, that he turned her body into ivy, a plant which graciously and joyfully entwines and embraces everything near it.”
– Folklore and Symbolism of flowers, Plants and Trees

Ivy growing on a home would protect the inhabitants from witchcraft although if it starts to wither, watch out for disaster, infertility, infidelity or financial problems.

Ivy has become associated with love and fertility, possibly as it clings to all it touches…

Mistletoe

And talking of love… I don’t mean to put you off kissing under the mistletoe but…

The toe of mistletoe meant twig and mistel may be connected to the Germanic word for dung… Possibly because a common belief was that mistletoe didn’t grow from seeds but instead was the result of bird droppings, because it only grows high in trees and never on the ground.

In Scandinavia, we have stories of the gods and the much loved Balder began to have nightmares.  In order to try and ease his fears, his mum, Frigg, stepped in:

“Goddess Frigg made all swear never to harm Balder the god of light, but she overlooked the insignificant mistletoe plant, deeming it too young to swear the oath.  Loki, spirit of evil, gave a mistletoe dart to Hod, the blind god, who, unseeing, threw it and killed Balder.”
– Discovering the Folklore of Plants

The idea of kissing under mistletoe in Britain at Christmas was first reported in 1813 and may well be the result of misunderstanding that dates back to Pliny the Elder in AD77…  With this in mind I’m not going to look at the idea that it has links with paganism and druidy, this is covered in detail elsewhere and may be part of convoluted information initiated by Pliny…  That said, one article I read (I accidentally deleted the link) suggested the shape of mistletoe was reflective of a certain piece of anatomy and thus might be the reason for the link with sexuality and love…

In terms of superstitions and traditions, there are limited associations beyond kissing, however:

“It is considered very unlucky for a house unless some mistletoe is brought in at Christmas.”
– Derbyshire tradition recorded 1871

“If you want to have extra good luck to your dairy, give your bunch of mistletoe to the first cow that calves after New Year’s Day.”
– Yorkshire tradition recorded 1866

“If you hang up mistletoe at Christmas, your house will never be struck by lightening.”
– Staffordshire tradition recorded 1891

In Herefordshire, mistletoe was thought to be associated with dark magic and wouldn’t have been taken into the home lightly or used to encourage kissing.  So think carefully the next time you find yourself under a sprig with someone else…

Resources:

  • The Penguin Guide to the Superstitions of Britain and Ireland
  • Discovering the Folklore of Plants, Margaret Baker
  • Folklore and Symbolism of flowers, Plants and Trees, Ernst and Johanna Lehner
  • Folklore Thursday

My bedside table…

Each issue of Mslexia ends with an interview with a writer, journalist, poet etc. The prompts take a standard format and I thought it would be interesting to ponder my own answers…

The Table

An awful metal and plastic trolley that screams disability. Chosen because it can be moved easily, it can be easily reached without having to stretch and it does have a lot of space on it. Books also litter my bed.  And everywhere in my flat, you can stretch you arm out and grab a book.  I find it very comforting to be surrounded by books.

The Costume

Comfy pjs. Soft, stretchy bottoms and a t shirt. Preferably enough like lounge wear that I can get away with wearing when I leave the house.

The Method

Because of my disability, I read most of my books on my tablet and like to have both the audio and kindle versions so I can move between them as my health dictates. I have a foam triangle covered in non-slip netting that I use to prop up my tablet or book so I don’t have to bend my neck too much. In the past I’d have been laying on my side, propping up the book on a bear.

The Books…

Right now. I always have many books on the go… The main fiction book right now is Owlknight by Mercades Lackey, the last of a trilogy which makes me sad as I really like the characters. That said, there are other books set in the same world so I have more to move onto. There’s also Lady Killers by Tori Telfer and Stiff by Mary Roach.

Couldn’t put down. Pretty much anything by Robin Hobb definitely applies here. I also devoured Lucy Cookes’ Unexpected Truth About Animals over the summer. As a child, everything in my local library was unputdownable and included sweet valley books, Enid Blyton, Helen Forrester, E. B. Nesbitt and so many other books… Reaktion books are really interesting as well.

Gathering dust. I have so many books that many are literally gathering dust. Metaphorically, if I’m struggling with a book, I’ll leave it a while and return to it when I’m in a different mood. If I try this a few times and get nowhere, I’ll give it to a charity shop. Life is too short for bad books. My disability already reduces how much I can read so I’m not inclined to waste that on books I’m not enjoying…

Changed my life. This is a really tough question! I’d probably have to say all of them, but especially the books I read as a child and teenager. They gave me a way to escape, they showed me what was possible, they gave me friends and they inspired me. The Tamora Pierce books were very memorable and stood up to being read as an adult. They are an interesting take on gender and a recent twitter thread highlighted them as one of few books that mentioned periods…  And on that note, there were also the Judy Blume books…

Related posts:

If a mama bear gets angry, imagine the Mother of the Mountains…

The Mother of the Mountains

If a mama bear gets angry, imagine the Mother of the Mountains.
Mess with Her children, She’ll dust off an avalanche;
step out of line, She’ll realign your bones.
She’s a blue-eyed beauty,
and the mountains have their Mother’s eyes: deep lakes.
Gaze into them, you’ll see their thoughts like fish –
quick schools, slow rainbows – look deeper,
and you’ll learn to dream like a stone.
What does She feed them? Rain for breakfast.
Anything else? She peels them the sun for lunch.
And at night? Big helpings of quiet,
then the Mother of the Mountains sings them to sleep with snow.
The trees are Her grandkids; She brings them birds to play with.
Whenever it’s their birthday, She gives them an owl
’cause though She’s a blue-eyed beauty, She’s still kind.
Even soft  . . . even fragile . . .
Wolves howl to Her to show their gratitude. What about you?

Rob Carney

I love this way of looking at the mountain, a true deep personification, the mountain as mother, as provider and as oh so loving.

*  *  *

If a mama bear gets angry, imagine the Mother of the Stars.
Mess with Her children, she’ll scatter white hot embers
and comets that burn
slowly
making Icarus seem like the lucky one.

Step out of line, She’ll set Draco on your trail.

She’s a wild eyed goddess
and the stars have their Mothers smile: radiating luminosity, intensity
burning bright.
Daring you to look and
punishing if you try.

What does she feed them? Diamonds and moon dust,
meteorites and wonderment.
She picks planets as though they were grapes,
offering them out as treats.

And at night? She drapes the sky with lush black velvet
then the Mother of the Stars steps back into the wings and lets her lovelies shine.

The milky way hides her grandkids as they grow;
She brings them tales from the cosmos, millennia old,
to fuel their fires and light the sparkles in their eyes.
Whenever it’s their birthday, she gives them pencils of sunlight
to practice joining dots into constellations.

Down on earth, eyes heavenwards, owls gaze in awe and gratitude.
What about you?

Nature and writing project: An update

So I’ve had a busy few months and whilst I’m pleased I’ve still been blogging, my nature and writing project has been paused.  A combination of going to Stanmore for three weeks, resting and recovering, and also getting used to having a lot more care.  With this in mind, I put my nature and writing project on hold – it had a summer holiday!

This means I will start getting back into it now that the summer holidays are over and the school year has begun again!  Expect more tarot and animal spirit posts as well as I’m planning – long term – to work through all my animal allies cards, my animal totem tarot cards with a focus on the animals.  I’m also planning – very long term – to work through all the tarot cards, having been inspired when I started with the ten of swords.

There are so many directions to take the nature and writing in and I think this is partly why I’ve not done much recently.  I was really clear about the different topics for the different months and now I’ve covered a lot of these, or at least touched the surface of them, and I don’t know whether I want to return to a topic or go with a new one!  So many choices and so little restrictions!  I think that’s why I’ve been doing the tarot and animal allies posts because then I’m not having to decide what to focus in on!

Animal Allies wise, I have the following to look into:

  • Bighorn sheep
  • Boar
  • Canary
  • Coyote
  • Mountain Lion
  • Opossum
  • Rat
  • Skunk
  • Squirrel
  • Turkey

As well as looking forward, I wanted to look back. I’ve been retired for over two years now and whilst I retired in May 2016, it was the September when things finally started to fall into place so I could have a life.  I decided that September 16-17 would be a bit of a ‘gap year’ for me.  I was overwhelmed at retiring, at having lots of things I wanted to do with my life and unsure what and how much I could actually do if I wasn’t destroying myself working.  It felt like there were so many directions I could go in and yet I didn’t want to commit to just one.  In the end, the gap year involved a good mix of things; art, Saturday classes at the university, writing and reading.  It was January 2017 when I started on my animal spirit posts and it was from there than I formed my nature and writing project.

I had a feeling before but now I know for certain that I am a lot happier when I have projects like these which are long term but with smaller short term chunks (the entire deck of oracle cards but also each individual post).

I have also finally found the kind of writing that comes naturally to me at this stage in my life.  As a child I wrote a lot of stories and created magazines and newspapers for fun.  As a teenager I wrote an awful lot of (probably quite awful) poetry.  I was a prolific poet and it just streamed out of me without much thought or effort.  As an adult I have tried to recreate the stories and the poetry but its felt forced and definitely didn’t flow as it once did.  This year whilst I was reading and writing and learning, I came across the term creative non fiction and it felt like a validation that my posts about animals, about nature, are creative and they do count as creative writing.  Because they are non fiction I had essentially dismissed the creativity in them.  And because they weren’t in a voiceless, facts only style I had dismissed them as non fiction. It wasn’t until I found the term creative non fiction that I was able to figure out what my writing is and from there I can learn more about the style and how to improve and explore different techniques.

There have of course been lots of other realisations and discoveries in the past year of my nature and writing project but the thing I am most proud of is that despite having 6 months of being incredibly ill, I didn’t give up.  I had to change goal posts and I had to instil patience in myself because I wasn’t physically able to do what I wanted.  I also had to spend my energy fighting for help when I wanted to be doing my nature and writing project instead.  But despite this, since I started it last September, I have written over 165,000 words and 186 blog posts.  I have carefully researched the topics I talk about and have done some really interesting reading and watching of documentaries to fuel what I am writing about.  For a year which involved six months of starvation (literally… I couldn’t swallow much food…), I’m pretty proud of myself.

I couldn’t possibly chose a favourite topic or post but the one I find myself telling people about more than any others is the post I did in October about the very real and very serious cases of animals in court on trial.  If you read nothing else I’ve written (except obviously some of this post to reach the link…), read that.

Illustration from Chambers Book of Days depicting a sow and her piglets being tried for the murder of a child. The trial allegedly took place in 1457, the mother being found guilty and the piglets acquitted.