California Condor

“That which I am may not be pretty to you, but I know I serve a deep divine purpose and I am more than happy to fulfil it.  We each play our part in the divine plan and I know without a shadow of a doubt I am playing mine.”
– Animal Totem Tarot

I’ve written before about vultures and the condor is a New World vulture, a term I’m not really a fan of but is widely used to differentiate between Africa, Asia and Europe vs the Americas.  It was coined back in 1503 by a guy who had travelled from the ‘old’ world to the new and comes with heavy colonialist baggage.

Anyway, back to the California Condor.  They are the largest wild birds in North America, with long, broad wings and a wingspan of 277cm!  Adults have a naked head, black plumage and intensely white strikes under their wings.  The lack of feathers around the face does give them a bit of a scrappy, sketchy kind of look but this is an important part of their teachings.  They implore us to look beyond appearances and to see the inherent value of everyone and everything.

Condors are incredible masters of the sky, able to soar on air currents as high up as 15,000 feet and can do so for over an hour without flapping their wings.  Their heavy, solid body means they can soar steadily, not being buffeted by the wind, they use the wind but do not let it push them around.  These birds mean business and can travel over 100 miles a day looking for food!

In terms of reflecting on the condor, think about where in your life you want to soar, where do you want to feel like you’re pushing forward and in control?  How can you reach this?  We also need to think about how the condor has conquered the element of air, which in terms of tarot is all about the mental realm; thinking, ideas, communication, learning and with all of those thoughts comes worry and anxiety. 

We create little video tapes in our heads of what we think will happen when we do x or y and we do this as a dress rehearsal so we can reflect and make changes.  This can be very helpful in terms of reaching your goals – you can practice what you’re going to say in your job interview etc – but in can become a problem when it becomes about scaring yourself instead of preparing yourself.  Take some time to check in with your mind and how it’s helping, or hindering, you.

Food is a crucial part of any living thing’s life but people get squeamish when thinking about what the condor eats – they are carrion birds, eating dead and rotting flesh, such as that of cattle and deer.  This means they do a great service to our world, without them and other animals which eat the dead, we’d all be knee deep in carcasses… 

“The most valuable role of carrion feeders is the safe disposal of dead, decomposing and diseased animals, protecting human and animal co-habitants from ill effect… a healthy population of such carrion eaters can have an important impact on removing diseased and rotting carcasses from the area.”
Animal Diversity Web

We all have our own roles to play in the world, and so much of being a human seems to be working out what that role is.  What makes you come alive?  What makes you feel the most you?  Find out what those things are, do them, forge your own path and that, that is where you will find your purpose.

As they eat decaying meat, there is a real risk of the condors becoming infected but they are adapted to this lifestyle.  They have things in place which help them stay healthy, such as careful preening, bathing at watering holes and grooming their bald head area.  Sometimes in life you have to get your hands dirty but when you do, you can take your own measures to ensure that one tough action doesn’t seep into the rest of your life, or your soul, and infect it.  You may feel like a jerk when you have to fire someone, but that doesn’t make you a jerk.  You might have done some less good things in your past, but you don’t have to become a less good person because of that.  You have choices.

When they aren’t eating or flying, they are roosting.  They start the morning by sunning themselves, which sounds rather luxurious and on a lighter note, this makes me think a leisurely breakfast is a good idea.  Whether you want breakfast in bed, or want to head off to a little café, think about how you can treat yourself and get your day off to a wonderful start.  Maybe you live somewhere warm and can incorporate some sun basking yourself!

For California Condors, courtship involves those magnificent wings being displayed as well as head bobbing and once the female has accepted the male, they mate for life.  Often people like to think of cute, little, song birds as monogamous and yet they aren’t and this huge, flesh eating creature, mates for life.  It’s a reminder to consider your prejudices and assumptions.  They start breeding starting around 6 to 8 years old and lay one egg every other year meaning they are slow when it comes to maintaining the population.  Something that became a significant concern during the 1970s when they nearly went extinct. 

Overtime, threats to California Condors have changed with shooting being one of the threats present in the 1890s.  They were also endangered as a side effect of traps and poison put out to kill large predators.  By 1965, there were an estimated 60 birds left, falling to less than 25 by 1982, possibly because of illegal egg collecting and loss of habitat.  As a result, in the mid 80s, all remaining wild birds were caught for captive breeding.  Whilst the slow rate of reproduction makes replacing population numbers difficult, if you remove the one egg a female has laid, she will lay another one that season.  Through immense effort, attempts to reintroduce them to the wild started in 1992 and today there are now more than 300 birds living in the wild.

Like the phoenix coming out of the fire, the California Condors have survived the unsurvivable and, hopefully, have come out strong.  As it stands their populations are increasing so it’s promising.  In terms of your own life, you can go through things that nearly break you, and come out the other side with greater knowledge. I know it’s a clichéd idea but a lot of clichés are so because they are true.  I feel that there’s another idea here, and that’s that you can ask for help – without human intervention the condors would almost certainly be extinct today (I do realise that without us, they might not have been at risk at all… but still…).

“Who amongst us has not dreamed of soaring effortlessly over the landscape seeing everything in the daily lives of lowly earthbound pedestrians?  With scarcely a wing flap, condors soar over the deserts to the seacoast, cresting the highest peaks and spanning the most foreboding terrain. Such is the perspective of the California condor and perhaps the key to its special place in many native cultures across the Californias.”
California Department of Parks and Recreation

Perhaps unsurprisingly, condors were considered sacred to some Native Americans and as such, their feathers were used in ceremonies and rituals.  They are also said to have been occasionally sacrificed for funeral rites although not in large numbers so would not have affected the population size. They also feature in mythology.  For example, the Wiyot tribe say that the condor recreated humans after they had been wiped out in a flood.  They believed that the California Condor had physical and spiritual strength and shamans would try to embody this by dreaming of the bird and their feathers were used in healing.  A nice condor story from the Yokut tribe tells how the condor would sometimes eat the moon, creating the lunar cycle, and his wings were the cause of the eclipses. 

As we’ve seen, condors, like vultures, are associated with death and are thought to have knowledge about death and the dead. In fact, the death card in the Animal Totem Tarot depicts the California Condor.  Symbolically, the death card suggests a transformation.  You may need to work though some stuff but it will be worth it when you come out on the other side.  When we bring in the condor, this suggests the things you need to work with might be around preconceptions and prejudgements, or it might be around your attitude towards death itself.

Condors make us face death, something we tend to push aside.  This is the time to examine your attitudes towards death, to explore why we suppress it and to think about our own death, and the ritual we would like around it.  Like the condor, these topics aren’t pretty but again, like the condor, they are vital to consider.

With any ending, whether it’s death or something less drastic, we have a beginning.  We may not know what is beginning but things will become clear over time. 

Links

Animal Diversity Web
National Geographic
Audubon
Condor Tales

What’s in a name?

“the heron has had more than 30 local names in Britain, including hegrie (Shetland), moll hern (Midlands), frank (from the bird’s call – Suffolk), longie crane (Pembroke). Dandelion has at least 50, including clocks and watches, conquer more, devil’s milk plant (from its white latex), four o’clock, golden suns, lion’s teeth, piss-a-bed (the leaves are a renowned diuretic), priest’s crown, wet-weed, wishes.”
Richard Mabey

There is a wonderful, poetic beauty in many folk names that our scientific or proper names miss.  Folk names also give us a glimpse into history, into how the people who named them saw the world.

“Common names are a kind of time capsule, a record of the powers of observation and literary inventiveness of ordinary people. They log resemblances, uses, sounds, mythic associations, smells, seasonal appearances, kids’ games, superstitions, habitats. They’re witty, concise, evocative, sometimes even satirical.”
– Mabey

There are in fact so many wonderful names that Michel Desfayes, in his A Thesaurus of Bird Names, lists more than 100,000 European folk names.  And that is for birds alone.  And taking my lead from Desfayes, today I will just be looking at birds.

The world we enter when we look back at names is one with a more intimate connection to the world, to other living beings and through those names, we can see respect, reverence and frustration.  Through names, we see species through the eyes of our ancestors.

Birds are often named for their song, their habitat or their appearance, both the colloquial name and the more official names.  The latter category also often includes birds which are named after a specific person, such as Montagu’s harrier.

To explore folk names, let’s start with the Stonechat.  They have a myriad of names, many include reference to where the bird is found, some to it’s voice, some to appearance, others to it’s behaviour.  The Stonechat is associated with gorse and we find this reflected in folk names such as gorse-bird, gorse-linnet, gorse-chat and gorse-jack.

If we look to the Willow Warbler, we find 31 names containing nest references eg grass wren, ground-oven, ground featherpoke.  In terms of names which refer to their song, we have sweet-billy with sweet suggesting their ‘soo-weet’ call.  Other names include diminutive terms such as the Irish name sally-wren with wren often used in species which are not wrens, but rather to indicate a small bird, in the same way that the suffix -ling is often used. 

“sally-wren is special in combining both a female name, a reference to the habitat or context of willow (as in the various references to Sally or Salley Gardens in Northern Ireland and Ireland, respectively, and of course Salix – the willow), and to sallying (a word from a French root), the behaviour of flaying out after and insect and returning to the same perch or a nearby one.”
– Andrew Gosler, British Wildlife, August 2019

We have seen the use of human names in sally-wren, and I’m sure you are familiar with jenny-wren, but other names for the Wren include kitty-wren, katie-wren, jenny-squit, joey-cutty and kitty-tope.  For the Dunnock, we have hedge-betty and billy hedge-sparrow.  For the Great Tit, we have tommy-tit and so on.  Gosler states that this is a ‘significant indicator of the nature of human relationships with these birds in the past’.  Pre 1950ish, calling someone by their first name was a sign of familiarity and would be used for close friends and family members, as well as children.  Using human names for birds makes them easier to remember as they are already familiar words and makes the birds seem like an extension of the family and thus part of the circle of those we care for.

As well as references to general habitat, some birds have folk names that refer to where they build their nests, information which would have been very helpful for egg collectors – something we have a lot less need to know these days.  Another wonderful example that illustrates the interconnection between human lives and birds comes from the Corn Bunting whose eggs have markings like a child’s scrawl and who has names such as scribble bunting, scribbling school master and writing master. 

Names matter, not only because they provide information, but also because they are not necessarily neutral.  For example, Dunnocks were once Hedge-sparrows but sparrows have been a bit of a pest over human history.  In 1951, Max Nicholson called for name changes for a few birds, including the Dunnock:

“Dunnocks do no harm to us, but haqve in return been exposed to the undeserved insult and injury of being miscalled hedge-sparrows by people too stupid to see the absurdity of such a name.”

We can also turn to names to think about changing human culture and technology.  For example, many folk names refer to the sound of a bird through onomatopoeia because you can often hear but not see a bird.  Additionally, specific features were harder to identify before telescopes and binoculars were readily available. 

Whilst some bird songs lend themselves well to onomatopoeic names, others have melodies that are more complicated and are harder to condense into a human word or two.  This is why we have the cuckoo and chiffchaff, but don’t for example refer to the nightingale onomatopoeically.

When it comes to appearance, over 130 official British bird names refer to colour, with red and black being the most prominent; redstart, red grouse, redwing, blackbird, blackcap…  This might sound a sensible way of naming but it doesn’t allow for sex differences… the female blackbird being brown is an obvious example of this but there are others.

Whilst this is all very interesting, you may be wondering whether it matters?  Well, apparently research suggests that children can learn about nature when it is culturally contextualised.  Gosler refers to teaching students about the folk name yaffle for the Green Woodpecker, named for its call, and the success that this has as it ‘can catch in the mind more readily’ that the official name.

None of this is to say that folk names are superior to official names, or vice versa, but to highlight that both that their own function and their own virtues.  Scientific names allow for precise communication, including that across language barriers and over different geographic areas, without confusion. 

“They are a universal currency across cultures and languages, providing consistent names for both familiar organisms and those organisms that neither have a common name nor ever will.  Without Latin names, chaos would rule the science of biology”
– John Wright

As a bit of an aside, if you happen to know Latin or Greek, you can take a stab at working out what species is being referred to by a scientific name.  For example, take Somateria mollissima aka the eider duck.  We have soma meaning body, erion for wool, mollis is soft and issima as a word ending means very.  So, it is the ‘thing with very soft body wool’!  Whilst translating scientific names can be a fun puzzle resulting in, sometimes, poetic descriptions, they aren’t easy to remember, recall or even spell…

Whilst referring to plants, this extract from an article highlights an important point about the closeness of folk names in comparison to scientific names:

“Scientific terms in Greek and Latin, often disconnected from a local environment, aren’t always informative to the average person. Poison oak, for example, is a name that asks you beware of a plant with oak-like leaves. These folk names may often contain valuable descriptive knowledge that, given the vast variety of plants not yet fully classified, may not be available anywhere else but from the local people who live in that environment.
How Language and Climate Change Connect

Of course, nothing in language is static, and we can create our own traditions, especially if doing so helps us connect with the world around us more intimately.  Knowing the ‘correct’ name is not always important.  For inspiration, you can turn to A. F. Harold’s poem ‘Among The Ornithologists’:

“This one I’ll call the Fifth Day of Christmas Bird for its eye’s gold ring,
Here’s the Nervous Bugger who’s always a step ahead, twittering…
… A Single Drop of Blood in the Darkest Night Bird paddles out of a dream…”

(I couldn’t find a link to the full poem, so you’ve just got an extract.  It’s found in Mrs Moreau’s Warbler, by Stephen Moss)

Links

Poetry about paintings

On Saturday I attended a course about writing poetry based on paintings. It’s not something I’ve ever tried before but my poetry group was going and it looked interesting.

Most of my writing wasn’t great but then I was writing about very different subjects to normal. Throughout the day we wrote about being part of a painting, about moving into or out of a painting, about meeting the artist and being the person who was posing. It produced some fun experiments and got me outside of my normal thinking which is always beneficial.

For a couple of my exercises, I chose to think about a cave painting of a bison.

If I could paint like the cave woman…

…you would see animals dancing across the rock
…you would feel the beat of your heart
crash with each thrash of hoof

I would show you the creativity of nature
so you want to reach into the stone
and pull out your own magic
– personal, powerful, empowering

and then you, you
could create your own universe
with your own mystical imaginings

I want to be like the cave woman

I want to be like the cave woman
feeling the rock and knowing
that’s where the spirit of horse
or bear or bison lay
& knowing how to release them
from their prison of stone.

I want to be like the cave woman
who knows earth, and air,
and stone as kin
& the plants that crowd the forest floor
as well as she knows her child.

But I reach out in the dark
of my bedroom, not cave,
to the untamed sculpture
that is my bed
with its heap of books
and phone chargers
searching for the lamp switch.

I could never be without my sacred
night space, it’s coccoon of safety
edged with fleece and teddy bears
and the convienece of electricity
that the cave woman could never have dreamt of

I want to be like the cave woman.
I want to know my home and land
with the intimacy that comes from survival,
but with the comforts that turn survival
into certainty and in doing so,
render the relationship
between the land and me
nul and void.

The Wind

I tried to explain once, to a friend who turned out not to be a friend, that the wind feels like it’s attacking me, personally.  The friend who turned out not to be a friend mocked me.  I was feeling attacked all round.  It hurt. 

It’s a hard thing to tell someone you don’t like the wind.  And it’s more than not liking.  It’s deeper.  More instinctive.  I fear the wind.  And being mocked did nothing to alleviate that fear.

Wikipedia has an entry for ancraophobia, also known as anemophobia, which is an extreme fear of wind or drafts and can cause panic attacks and avoidant behaviour. This is not me.  

Perhaps I don’t fear the wind.  Perhaps my awful feeling is a natural response to feeling attacked.  I feel like I want to retreat.  I want to hide.  I want to escape.

It’s not all wind.  A slight breeze is fine.  It’s the heavy, pushy gusts that I don’t like.

That wiki page goes on to say:

Ancraophobia is never present at birth. The fear of wind most often arises as a result of a negative experience in the person’s past. This experience may or may not be recalled in the conscious mind of the person but this has been imprinted on the subconscious mind. Most often an ancraophobic person experienced a situation where the wind was blowing heavily and they found themselves afraid that the wind might destroy or kill them.

When I was little, I might have been about 8, there was a horrific storm.  It was Christmas Eve and the power cut out.  For some reason or other that I no longer recall, my dad had to go outside in this storm.  The wind was screeching, there was thunder and lightening.  I was scared for my dad.  He was out in this hell and surrounded by trees and who knows what was caught in the wind.  I had seen Wizard of Oz a few times.  I knew about hurricanes.  This was not far off.  He had been outside for what felt like years.  Hours at least.  I was scared.  Tentatively I raised my concerns with my mother. 

A mistake.  Looking back I can see she was scared.  But she snapped at me.  She told me off.  She made me feel more afraid.  I was already scared.  I didn’t need someone to yell at me and tell me not to be so stupid.  It had taken a lot for me to ask if she thought he was ok.  I was scared.  I had a hundred and one visions flashing through my child’s imagination.  Dad knocked unconscious.  Dad under a fallen tree. Dad under a fallen wall.  I needed to be told he hadn’t been gone very long.  I needed to be told he was ok.  I needed her to be the adult.  To act unafraid, even if she was.  I needed to know that in a fight between my dad and the wind, he would win.  Not to be shouted at to shut up.  I went quiet, silent with my imagination and my fears and that silence was filled with the screaming wind and the cracks of trees outside the window.

So when my friend mocked me, she mocked that little girl who was afraid that her dad had been killed by the wind and that her mother didn’t know how to be a mum.

But maybe it was more than a difficult experience.  As late as the 1900s in America, there was an idea that night air is poisonous.  That breathing it in would damage your health, to the extent that leaving the window open at night was a step too far.  Think about the word malaria, it comes from the words bad air.  Air is bad.  This belief may have travelled over from Europe where various types of winds were associated with illness and death.

Going back as far as the ancient Greeks, there was a belief that the type of winds that affected an area also affected the health of the residents.  For example, hot winds were linked with excessive menstruation and irritable bowels.  Hippocrates wrote about winds and health, saying:

“Those cities which are faced towards the sunrise are healthier than those which are faced towards the North and than those which are faced towards warm winds even if the distance between them is only one stadium”

There may have been some element of truth in what the Greeks believed, in that the winds do bring particular types of weather.  So whilst we know that north easterly winds don’t bring chills, croup, sore throats and so on, they may bring the conditions which allow said ailments to prosper.

In a more imaginative vein, a French scholar described the African samiel wind which was said to separate limbs from bodies.  Another horrific wind is the khamsin which leaves bodies warm, swollen and blue.  The harmattan was said to parch the skin but did actually have curative properties and finally the sirocco wind had a depressing effect, stopped digestion and killed overeaters.

Whilst I said these were more imaginative, there is again, an aspect of truth behind these fanciful sounding winds.  For example, the harmattan wind is dry, relatively cool and blows from the north east, bringing relief from the damp heat of the tropics and thus, likely provides an element of relief from certain conditions.

But this cannot explain my aversion to winds.  I am already ill, the winds do not seem to have an immediate effect on this.  Perhaps we need to return to my roots, going back further than 8 years old.  Back to when I was 8 months old.

It is 1987 and the UK is facing what will become known as The Great October Storm.  Most people are aware of it because of an infamous weather broadcast where Michael Fish joked about how a woman had called the BBC to ask if there was a Hurricane coming.

The most damaged areas were many miles away from where I was living but the sheer level of destruction sent shockwaves through the country.  My mother’s side of the family live in Kent, perhaps my reaction to this storm came, like the one when I was 8, through my mothers reaction.  I imagine it was a time of fear.  Ultimately, 18 people were killed by the storm, there was £2 billion of damage (in 1987 terms) and 15 million trees were lost, including ancient and beloved ones.  Whilst the significant destruction occurred in the South, I have found that where I was living was subject to winds of about 30mph and there was flooding in the north of England.  Perhaps, instead of the direct pain of the storm, I felt the pain of the land, of the trees, of the roots that were ripped from the soils.

But is this enough to explain my visceral reaction to gusty winds?  To the way I retreat inside myself when I have no choice but to face the wind?  I feel unsteady, unsteady of my feet but unsteady in myself, in who I am.  I feel unstable as if the person I am could blow away as easily as the autumn leaves that rush down the street. 

Watching a gale from the safety of my home, I still feel the need to withdraw from the window, to wrap myself up in a blanket, as if to hold myself together.  The wind, more so than any other weather, makes me vulnerable.  It is as if I can feel the terror of the trees that are violently buffeted back and forth, uncontrollably.  I feel exposed and as if the wind is whipping through me, as if I no longer am.

Perhaps I am not scared of the wind.  Perhaps I am afraid of disappearing.  Of being unable to hold onto myself.

Another historical reason to fear the wind comes from its link with malevolent spirits.  High winds and storms were often attributed to evil spirits or the actions of witches or the devil.  It was said that a witch could summon a storm by whistling which makes me wonder, does the whistling wind exacerbate the storm? Self summoning?

In many cultures, the wind was thought of as a god or goddess, or a collection of them, often with different gods/goddesses for the different compass directions.  For the Greeks, there were eight wind deities with four chief gods; Boreas for the north wind, Zephryos for the west, Notos for the south and Euros for the east.  Each of these chief gods were associated with a season as well.  In addition to bringing a new season, many of the wind deities were thought to bring change, both good and bad.  Perhaps this is what makes me uncomfortable, the threat of change?

Whatever the reason, the wind agitates both the land and me.  It aggravates me.  It whips under my skin and threatens the integrity of my being.  It is a monstrous, invisible threat, bringing with it cruel taunts of devastation and destruction.  The restless tempest howls, outside and inside.

As I write this, Storm Dennis is swirling in the street, hot on the heels of Storm Ciara. For someone who is not a fan of strong winds, it’s been an intense few weeks…

The wilderness ideal, nature writing and disability

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reading

Within her essay, Atkin mentions a few ecocrip writings:

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

My interactions with nature

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New networks for nature: time for nature

The past few days I’ve been at the 11th annual New Networks for Nature event and it has been amazing! It was in York for the first time and that meant I was able to go without too much stress and physical health impact. The venue was mostly accessible – the internal ramp was apparently broken so I had to go outside to get between levels to use an external ramp. That was ok although I did get rained on heavily but at least there was an option. Outside of the main venue, there were I think three venues for other aspects and two out of three of those were accessible. In order to manage my energy and pain levels, I wasn’t planning on joining those events but it’s nice to know I could have done a couple.

Anyway, venue accessibility aside, the speakers were wonderful, engaging and so diverse! There was so much information and it was really well communicated – rare is the event where all speakers are engaging! I’m going to mention some, possibly many, of my personal highlights but the entire agenda was fantastic and you can find that online – if you are interested in nature then I’d recommend having a look as many of the speakers have books available.

We kicked off Thursday night with a wine tasting, hosted by Ryedale Vinyards who had some lovely white wine. This was followed by an introduction and welcome from Amy-Jane Beer and Ben Hoare. Then there was a mix of music and readings and then I took an early leave so I could face the early start on Friday!

Friday and Saturday were jam-packed days, with scattered coffee breaks and lunch which allowed me to have a bit of down time and to compress all the wonderful things I’d heard. It also meant I got to visit the Fox Lane Books stall and part with a chunk of cash…

As an aside, I’ve met Fox Lane Books at a number of events this year and they always have a fantastic array of relevant books, including those of the people speaking at the event.

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I can’t mention all of the speakers as this would become an epic post but if any of you happen to read this, you were fantastic!

Robert E Fuller kicked off Friday by talking about his wildlife photography, painting and the inspiring camera system he has set up in his garden. We were honoured to see some footage as well and his entire set up is inspirational and perhaps if I win the lottery I’ll seek his advice and create my own version!

As the theme was time, we had a session about nature in deep time which looked at the idea of what is natural in Britain from a deep time perspective and how the time frame we focus on affects our idea of native and alien species. For example, the ubiquitous brown hare, probably arrived in the 2nd century BC. This session also looked at ice age art and past woodlands.

There was a session about activism which saw a woman only stage – apparently the overall conference had 50% of female speakers which is great! And yes, I’m starting to reuse my superlatives but it was such a good conference…. We heard from Ruth Peacey, a filmmaker, Sally Goldsmith, a poet and campaigner involved in the Sheffield trees campaigning, a Hatti Owens who is a ClientEarth lawyer. They gave three very different approaches to fighting for change and I think that is really vital. We see a lot of media coverage of traditional protests and marches but they aren’t accessible to everyone. I know I feel that I am not being a ‘good activist’ because I can’t engage in those activities but it was a great reminder that activism has different strands and that you need all these threads to come together to create a strong rope that can enact change.

The Jewel of York, or the tansy beetle, gave us a bit of history of this incredibly rare creature and charted it’s rise from obscurity to a conservation icon which can now be found as a mural on the side of a building in York. This was followed by three very different children’s writers discussing using nature in children’s books. Then after a coffee break, we got the joy of a comedy session!

Simon Watt, founder of The Ugly Animal Appreciation Society, Helen Pilcher and Hugh Warwick made us laugh before we headed off to a gin tasting with Sloe Motion. It was a wonderful way to end the first day.

Saturday was equally as interesting and included a session about “the tiny majority”; flies, bees and crickets in particular. In part it was about the role these smaller, often overlooked animals have in our world, but it was also about celebrating them for themselves. Erica McAlister, a true fly enthusiast, spread her joy and interest for these little critters. We often see flies as a generic species and in doing so, pay no attention to their individual wonders. Without a certain species of fly, we would have no chocolate. Ditto for black pepper and many other things we take for granted. They clean up the planet, they recycle waste, they pollinate, they eat the things which eat our crops, and they inspire technology.

A session turned our eyes to the uplands, space where gods once dwelled and humans dreamed of, rarely visiting. Today of course we visit much more of the land but the land still holds it’s secrets. Prof John Altringham shared with us some research which reveals the vast numbers of bats which live under the surface of the uplands, in the caves. They have also been able to work out what makes a cave attractive to bats! This session also included Dr Isla Hodgson talking about conservation conflict between different groups in respect to the grouse shooting debate and the factors which underlie such conflicts.

The New Directions for Nature Writing was another diverse session with Katharine Norbury, Anita Sethi, Zakiya McKenzie and Richard Smyth. Despite discussing intersectionality, gender, race and class, the word disability was missing. And this, for me, reflects the barriers that disabled people often face when engaging nature more broadly. Inevitably nature writing reflects those people who are able to “go into” what we typically think of as “nature”. This is not to do a disservice to the speakers, they were great and made a lot of relevant comments.

However, I felt it absolutely necessary to make a comment. My hand shot up faster than it probably should given my shoulder has a propensity to dislocate! I made a point of saying the word disability and went on to say that one of the most powerful experience I’ve had with nature was when I could barely get out of bed for six months. And how even though it was a powerful experience, the image of nature portrayed in Nature Writing and writing about nature more broadly, made it feel harder to own it.

It is because of this that I am writing more and more about nature and disability and I have a pile of notes about this which I plan to spin into a series of blog posts in the next couple of weeks.

In the meantime, remember that you don’t have to “go out into nature” to connect with nature:

I’d like to leave you with an image from a couple of years ago:

I am laying in bed, incredibly ill.  Every time I move I am violently sick.  But my bedroom window is open and through the net curtains I can hear a blackbird singing.  When I last made it into my kitchen, I saw a female blackbird repeatedly gathering nesting materials and flying up to a vent in a wall.  I do not know, but I like to think, that this is the male who was with her.

A wood pigeon coos the repetitive ‘coo coooo coo cu cu’ and I am reminded of the two, with their soft grey jackets and peach breasts, that perch on my fence, day after day.  Occasionally interacting, often just coexisting quietly like an old couple in companionable silence sitting on a bench in the sun.

I cannot leave my bed, I can barely sit up to look out the window, but I am nature and I am with nature.