Nettles

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.

DSC_0097web

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.

The dawn chorus, and pain

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.

Connecting to nature in lockdown

Whilst I have a long practice of connecting to nature from my home, and even from my bed, I have found connecting to nature during lockdown has brought further opportunities.

As well as what follows, you may want to look at my tips for connecting to nature when you’re stuck in the house.

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.
  • York Festival of Ideas – This is always a highlight of my year, with such varied offerings and the wonderful Fox Lane Books who continue to support them this year in their digital format. In terms of nature, you might want to check out talks on The Sustainable(ish) Living Guide , Our Nature Our Lives and Experimenting with Nature. All of these are online events so can be accessed across the world and are happening this month (June).
  • 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.

DSC_0253web

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!

House Sparrow Photos!

Photo heavy post ahead!

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!

DSC_0340web
DSC_0337web
DSC_0333web
DSC_0315web
DSC_0313web
DSC_0344web
DSC_0390web
DSC_0392web

Bird song and coronavirus

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.

Notes

(1) A recent RIDC survey found 50% of people with care support needs are no longer receiving health or personal care visits to their home. Disabled people left off coronavirus vulnerable people list go without food. Ministers warned coronavirus bill threatens services for disabled people.

(2) ‘I feel like I don’t count,’ says man with MND. Disabled people ‘forgotten’ by government strategy.

(3) This already feels a harder label to claim with the ableism within the environmental movements and the wilderness ideal excluding disabled people

The thick taste of petrichor

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.

Nature writing

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.

What are you reading and enjoying at the moment?

Edited to add… if that’s not enough reading for you, check out Katherine Hauswirths list

My outside space

I am currently doing an online course with Emergence Magazine about nature writing and last week we were thinking about place, specifically relationship to place. Normally on sunny, warm days I would be found in the local park which I treat like my garden. If I need to stay home for a delivery or whatever, I might sit out the front of my flat on the pavement. Neither park nor pavement are options right now. What follows is what I wrote about my only option, the back yard.

The back yard is not a space I am intimate with.  It isn’t a space I have made familiar.  I have avoided it as much as possible.  It comes with fear, anxiety and an unwarranted sense of trespass. 

When I first saw my flat had a yard, I filled my imagination with dreams and plans, I designed the space in my head.  And then I met the neighbours I share it with, and their two untrained dogs which bark and leap and scratch all over my allergic legs.  And I saw the dog poo that wasn’t picked up and the dryer fluff that comes out of their window and sticks to the floor.  And I got yelled at and threatened for things I hadn’t done. 

And those dreams and plans were lost.

Four years later.  We can’t spend this sunny afternoon in the park, or sit out the front by the street.  Regular habits have been put on pause by coronavirus so, instead, we snatched at a chance when my neighbours went out.  We sit in the yard.  It is lovely feeling sun on my skin and air outdoors feels twice as fresh.  But a bitter buzz deep in me can’t shake the anxiety and fear that my neighbours, or their dogs, will appear. 

The self I see out here is one who gives copious amounts of space to others, who makes herself incredibly small so they can stamp all over her more easily.

The front of my flat goes straight onto pavement, but there is a small square where the council planted a bush.  I claimed this as my garden.  A bird feeder clings to my window above it, visible from the riser recliner I reside in most of the time. 

I have built a relationship with this space.  Watching sparrows and starlings on the feeder, blackbirds on the bush and pigeons on the floor hoping for scraps of seed.  I track the light of the sky slice I can see.  Weather permitting I keep my windows open, if only a crack, so I can hear the life outside. 

Overtime I’ve ‘trained’ my carers to tell me about birds on the feeder out back that I can’t see from my chair.  They send me photos of nature they encounter on their days off; trees abundant with blossom, daffodils singing about the sun and shells seen on a beach.  These love notes, for that’s how I think of these pictures, always make me smile.  Snapshots of nature in the wider world, sent back to me in this flat, in this chair.

From this chair, I have learnt the names of species but I’ve also got to know the individuals; my friends.  The baby sparrow who could feed itself but convinced mum to feed him (and even though you couldn’t yet tell, it had to have been a boy, a mummy’s boy).  I watched a lone starling grow up and gain his or her starspots.  I have seen a blackbird courting a female and heard his songs from my bed. I have seen bees and butterflies, wagtails and magpies, pigeons and gulls.

This small slice of nature, fills my world and feels so much bigger the more intimately I know it.  A fraction of the size of the yard, yet this is mine.  This is where I grow and glow and beam so brightly that I seem bigger, not smaller.

Ferrets

“We all have a sneaky side.  It is a necessary skill for our survival.  Whether you have to be the one who is sneaky, or be the one able to spot others in their sly ways, the art of deception is not to be taken for granted.  Smoke, mirrors, and sleight of hand all have their place; the real trick is knowing when and where to use them”
– Animal totem tarot

Ferrets are a domesticated form of the European polecat and it’s likely that they have been domesticated for at least 2,500 years.  Historically they were used for hunting, and whilst they still are, they are more likely to be kept as pets these days.

Their name comes from the Latin furritus, meaning little thief as they like to steal small objects such as hen’s eggs.  Over time, their name has developed into a verb, as in to ferret out something.  This likely reflects their sneakiness and their ability to move in and out of tricky places.  They are adept at moving in tight, twisted burrows, can bend 180 degrees and can change direction very quickly.  They move seamlessly between overground and underground, making them masters of both realms.

Their spines are incredibly flexible and supple making ferrets seem long, floppy and melty.  This makes them adorable but also means they can slip and slide through tunnels like water.  But make not mistake, they use this ability to sneak up on prey with extreme stealth.  They are fast and efficient predators who can kill with a single, powerful bite.  This animal is all about fluidity and strength, flexibility and precision.  Slink stealthily and then attack!  Be the unsuspecting threat, take people unaware and make an impact!  The ferret’s presence goes unnoticed until the damage is done.  I’m not suggesting you go out and cause damage, but you can still shock and wow people and this has extra power if no one sees it coming.  Go out and be fierce!

Despite being powerful predators, ferrets have a wonderfully fun side.  I read something which described them as the clowns of the animal world.  They are funny, curious, mischievous and playful.  They are full of energy, they are trouble makers, escape artists and they are intelligent.  This inspires me to be more curious, more adventurous and more inquisitive.  They will literally tunnel into anything, but we can take this as a prompt to dig into a topic or get our teeth stuck into learning something.

Ferrets have a variety of body language in their repertoire including dancing when they are happy, wrestling which is usually a playful activity and their war dance.  This involves frenzied sideways hops, leaps and is not actually an incitation to war, but an invitation to play.  It often comes with a soft clucking noise and ferrets extend their communication options with an array of vocalisations.  They ‘dock’ or ‘cluck’ when excited, hiss when scared, squeak softly when upset and screech if they are afraid, in pain or angry.

As you might have gathered, ferrets are very high energy animals so it’s probably not surprising that they spend up to 20 hours a day asleep!  They are most active during dawn and dusk and when they are sleeping, it’s thought that they experience more REM sleep than a lot of other pets, meaning they are more likely to dream.  I wonder what ferrets dream about…

It wouldn’t be a blog post of mine without an animal sex fact.  In the case of the ferret, it’s that the male has a hooked penis.  Once he penetrates a female, they can’t separate until he releases her.

Since domesticated, ferrets have been bred for fur and hunting, also known as ferreting.  They were sent down holes to chase rodents, rabbits and moles out of their burrows.  In 1390 in England, a law was enacted limited the use of ferrets for hunting to the wealthy and high ranking families.

Other ways that we’ve used ferrets have also taken advantage of their ability to shimmy through tunnels.  For example, they’ve been used to run TV cables underground, to run through parts of planes for Boeing and apparently to clean steel pipes of a particle accelerator

As they have similar immune systems to us, they have been used in the development of vaccines and in testing flu medications.

And I can’t mention human ferret interactions without bringing your attention to ferret legging.  It was apparently a popular sport amongst coal miners in Yorkshire and involves putting ferrets down your trousers and seeing who can stand the longest. 

Ferrets are often vilified and underestimated, with people projecting ulterior motives onto them.  If you are able to ferret out secrets, you may find that people don’t like it.  They may feel vulnerable if you are able to see under the surface.  Of course this doesn’t mean you should turn off your empathy, but it’s just worth being aware of it.  If you are an empathetic person who can sense other people’s feelings, know that it might make some people feel unsettled.  Also, as a side note, if you are very empathetic, remember you can and should set boundaries, you don’t need to feel everyone else’s stuff!

The way ferrets slip and slide through the world means they have been associated with magic at times and were thought to be witch’s familiars.  Add to their stealth, the fact they are crepuscular, and you can also see why they have been associated with invisibility.

When it comes to mythology, there aren’t many ferret references that I could find, likely because they were domesticated animals, and because they overlap with weasels so it’s harder to find any stories or beliefs that are out there.  That said, I did find that their fur was attached to an eagle feather to give the skill of alertness and ability to elude capture in some native American tribes.  This comes from the ferret’s ability to move unseen, and to track and scout out enemies. 

Many myths and stories seek to explain why an animal has a particular characteristic and for the ferret, we have a Cree tale to account for why it seems to be nervous.  He is running and trembling because he is afraid he is being chased.  This would certainly account for the high energy bursts!

Reading

Wild Speak
Animal Diversity Web

Wilson’s Plover

“Decisions are not always easy to make, and it can be so easy to talk your self out of doing something you really want to do.  But ultimately, you need to make a decision.  Will you go with your gut or will you go with your head?  Everything looks so magical on the shoreline, yet you can’t stay in this inbetween place for long.  Things change quickly here and your time is limited.  There is no room for procrastination here.”
– Animal totem tarot

I find inbetween spaces fascinating, the edges of forests, twilight, shore lines, times and places which are not quite one thing or another.  The Wilson’s Plover is a coastal-obligate shorebird so this liminal space is essential to understanding this bird.  It’s also important to note that because of this, they are particularly susceptible to rising sea levels.

During twilight, another liminal space, they wander the shoreline in search of food.  The shoreline is a place with ever changing boundaries – high and low tide mean it grows and shrinks with the ebb and flow of the sea.  It’s a place where land and sea come together, dancing around each other in a way that gives both access to the same liminal space at different times.  From an elemental point of view, we are seeing the dance between the creative and emotional energy of the water and the practical and reliable energy of the earth.  Bringing these elements together in this cycle of give and take feels magical and makes the shore into a space for magic and manifestation. 

In terms of diet, they hunt fiddler crabs – watching for them and then running after them, lunging and extracting the meat with their strong bill.  They may do this as part of a loose flock, made up of several families.  They also eat other crustaceans, worms and insects.

Wilson’s Plovers nest either as isolated pairs or in loose colonies.  Their courtship involves males performing a ritual nest scraping display which involves them dropping their wings, pattering their feet and spreading and lowering their tails in front of females.  Once he has convinced her that she should mate with him, he makes several nest scrapes, often near some kind of conspicuous object such as driftwood or a clump of grass.  I wonder if this makes it easier to find, like an anchor in the landscape?

Whilst anchors are obviously used to keep boats in one place, I find myself returning to the idea of metaphorical anchors. Places, people, objects and ceremonies can help us feel anchored. It can be easy to feel like you’re drifting through life and many of us have lost the rituals that help to anchor us in time, for example religious celebrations.

“Our elders say that ceremony is the way we can ‘remember to remember’.”
– Robin Wall Kimmerer

Sometimes I will use a stone as an anchor, holding it, turning it over in my hand and keeping it in my pocket in case I need to return to something solid. You might find it helpful to keep something to hand that reminds you of what you are working towards. You might want to build in a Thursday night date night to help you stay anchored to your partner. Or perhaps you want to do something seasonal that helps you to mark the passing time in a conscious way.

Back to the Wilson’s Plover! Their nests are simple scrapes in the sand, with a sparse lining of pebbles, shell, grass and debris.  Once the female has selected one of nest sites, she will lay three eggs which she incubates at night and the male incubates during the day.  This continues for about 25 days.  Once hatched, both parents will tend to the chicks, although the chicks will feed themselves.  They tend to take their first flight around 21 days old and leave the nest soon after hatching.   

In case you were wondering, the Wilson in question here is Alexander Wilson who was a Scottish-American ornithologist and it was his friend George Ord who named the bird after him.

I realise this is considerably shorter than most of my animal spirit posts, and notably lacking in information around mythology and folklore.  Unfortunately, I really struggled to find out much factual information, let alone anything around the symbolism of the Wilson’s Plover… If you happen to know anything more about the Wilson’s Plover then please do share it in the comments below!

My main takeaways from the Wilson’s Plover are really about the magic shoreline and the value in not hanging around procrastinating.  As we saw in the quote from the animal totem tarot, there is no room for procrastination here.  The tide is rising and you need to make a decision before it engulfs you.  Similarly, the chicks don’t hang around long – they hatch and within the same moon cycle, are taking their first flight. 

As I’ve been researching – and failing to find much – I have been wondering why the creators of the animal totem tarot deck included this bird.  Most of the other cards are well known, well researched, well studied animals such as the chicken or the giraffe but the Wilson’s Plover seems to be a mystery.  There is something enigmatic about it and the same is true of liminal spaces and maybe this card is asking us to lean into the unknown, the mysterious and the unclear…

Reading:

All about birds
Audubon