The Fall and Rise of Nature

One of the things I love about the green spaces in urban Hastings (St Helen’s Wood, Alexandra Park, Newgate Woods) is the rich variety of exotic and unusual trees planted decades ago, many helpfully labelled. Many of these are now magnificent, sturdy creatures of stature.  

However, one such tree that I’ve always enjoyed watching through the seasons each year – an Indian Horse-chestnut – came down in last week’s storms.

A native of the Himalayas, the Indian Horse-chestnut (Aesculus indica) is popular in many parks and estates in the UK, where it was introduced in the mid-19th century.

Although in some ways I’m sorry to see the tree fallen, this is not the end of the story.

One of my favourite posts in an old blog of mine is Twist of Fate (do please take a look) – my attempt at poetry about a fallen trunk in Alexandra Park that continues to give life.

Rewilding pioneers Isabella Tree and Sir Charlie Burrell describe how, in their early days of rewilding the Knepp estate in West Sussex, instead of cutting down a previously grand old – now rotting old – oak, made the counterintuitive decision to leave the tree to its own devices – “our first lesson in sitting on our hands and leaving Nature in the driving seat.”

They watched a whole new universe spring to life, as beetles, other saproxylic (dead wood eating) invertebrates and woodpeckers began to find a home and nutrition in this dying habitat.

Voles took up residence in the rabbit warrens amongst the tree’s roots, and a heron frequently perched itself on a lower limb that overlooked a lake.

Isabella and Charlie learnt to leave fallen branches from other trees on the ground – encouraging the natural process of fertilisation for the trees.

As Isabella puts it, “Death became a different kind of living.” [1]

Most spiritualities have a healthy and hopeful outlook on death and dying. My own Christian faith has resurrection hope at its centre. Nature (God’s first “Bible”[2]) has always shown us this, with its patterns of renewal, revival and resurrection amidst its ostensibly messy system of decay and dying.

I write this while struggling with a bereavement myself. Putting these reflections together turns out to be an important cathartic process, reminding me of the hope that I hold.

It’s thought that the Victorians are to blame for our obsession with tidying up. Tidiness may be useful in some contexts, but it spells disaster for ecosystems.

In Nature, nothing is wasted.

Dead wood and fallen trees become sources of vital nutrients, create fresh habitats for new visitors, and give rise to all kinds of life.

The collapse of the Indian Horse-chestnut is by no means the end, either of its own life or that of others. In fact, it might just be an auspicious sign of new beginnings.

I just hope and pray now that the authorities don’t decide to tidy the fallen tree away, but leave it to do what Nature does best.

(Photos all mine, but no copyright!)


[1] Wilding by Isabella Tree (London: Picador, 2018).

[2] See my recent blog post Nature – the first Bible

Advertisement

Nature the Forgiving Giver

This week I read about a fungus that can survive solely on plastic.

[I don’t have any photos of plastic-eating mushrooms but, to celebrate the role of fungi in our world, here are some pics of other fabulous fungi I’ve taken this Autumn in our local area.]

Pestalotiopsis microspora eats polyurethane and turns it into organic matter! And it doesn’t even need oxygen, making it ideal for cleaning up landfills.

And there are other plastic-digesting mushroom species, such as the oyster mushroom (Pleurotus ostreatus). Research has shown that once the plastic is consumed by this fungus, there is none left inside it, so the mushrooms remain edible!

We are still discovering so much about fungi, including their incredible symbiotic relationship with trees and their complex communication systems. They are truly worth celebrating.

Despite our exploitation of Nature and ravaging of the planet, Nature still has a way of offering us solutions to the problems we’ve created. She is so forgiving. A gift that keeps on giving.

I wonder if mankind will continue to turn to Nature for answers to our global eco-crisis.

Like many other people of faith(s), I share the optimism of Julian of Norwich (“despite all evidence to the contrary”, as Philip Carr-Gomm put it[1]), hoping against hope, that “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”

I do believe, despite our perverse tendency to try and detach ourselves from Nature, that ultimately mankind cannot lose its inherent oneness with her.

We may forget that we are part of Nature…

…but Nature does not forget.

I believe that she – and Yahweh, the Divine Presence behind her – will continue to call to us with wonderful solutions like these plastic-eating fungi, to reconnect us, and to heal us and our planet.

—–

(Photos all mine, but no copyright. Feel free to use / share, with my blessing!)


[1] Also this week I listened to a podcast interview with Philip Carr-Gomm, one of the leaders and former Chosen Chief of The Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, who believes that at the heart of the universe is “a divine force of love, which is both highly personal and also impersonal”. That the universe is a benign and nurturing place. That “despite all evidence to the contrary, I have such a strong faith in the ultimate goodness of God / Goddess / Spirit / the Source of all being…that [quoting Julian of Norwich] all manner of things shall be well and all shall be well in the end.”

Wow! I’m increasingly and pleasantly shocked at how much commonality often exists between my (admittedly, fairly broad) Christian faith and the spiritualities of others.

Miracle movements

This summer’s nature sightings in the UK have been marked by a myriad of marvellous migrants, swept across our shores by successive heatwaves.

One of the most obvious has been the Hummingbird Hawkmoth. A friend who doesn’t follow butterfly & moth groups tells me that even her Facebook feed was awash with photos of these myth-like moths.

I imagine this has been a record year for them here. I’d never seen more than one at a time in the UK until this year, but this summer we regularly had 2 or 3 on the buddleia that invitingly overhangs our garden from next door.

Hummingbird hawkmoth in our garden

I’ve seen more photos of Clouded Yellows this summer than ever before. Their bright, warm colouring seems to reflect the sunshine of their homelands in Southern Europe and North Africa. My own attempts at photographing them have been, as usual, not that successful – they never seem to stop for long. This is my best effort this year…

Clouded Yellow, on the Seven Sisters

But my butterfly – and migrant – highlight of the summer (and a first for me) was the Long-tailed Blue I had the pleasure of discovering at Birling Gap on 29th August.

Long-tailed Blue on Russian Vine, Birling Gap

Again, if the sightings I’ve read about are anything to go by, I suspect this has been a record year for this tiny butterfly that somehow journeys all the way from the Mediterranean to Southern Britain. Females, after mating, make the epic flight back to the Med to lay their eggs there.

A more familiar sight to most people is that of swallows….

Swallows (mostly young ones, evidenced by the less ‘pronged’ tail than adult birds), in Combe Valley

I had the privilege of watching this large flock swooping over a waterway in Combe Valley near us in East Sussex, on 12th September, presumably feeding up on insects before their return flight South.

Likewise, terns are a staple part of the British seaside scene and yet always such a joy to watch, set apart from the more ubiquitous gulls by their angular wings plummeting in descent after small fish.

Young Sandwich terns successfully fishing at Bulverhythe
Pair of young Sandwich terns amongst the gulls and Oystercatchers (Hastings in the background)

Like the swallows, these juvenile Sandwich terns, photographed on 20th Sept, were no doubt filling up before returning southwards.

Migration is, to me, a mystery and a miracle. There are no doubt scientists for whom it is less of a mystery but, I hope and suspect, still a wonder. After all, our understanding of the miracle of migration is still in its infancy, and these birds and butterflies use ‘superpowers’ way outside of the five senses we’re familiar with.

Birds, it is thought, navigate by ‘seeing’ the earth’s magnetic field. A chemical in the eye called cryptochrome, that is sensitive to magnetism, could be key to this theory, according to a recent study.

Other recent research suggests that one of the creatures most famous for its mammoth journeys – the Painted Lady butterfly – might be using a solar compass in the club-ends of its antennae to steer its way.

Painted Ladies on lavender, Guestling churchyard

Like the Long-tailed Blue, Painted Ladies also return to the Continent (often at a height of 500 metres above ground) – a phenomenon only discovered during their bonanza summer of 2009.

There is so much yet to discover about the magic of migration.

How birds, butterflies and other animals, some tiny, succeed in covering such phenomenal distances.

How they find their way to suitable destinations.

And, in many cases, successfully navigate back to where they hatched (a process known as philopatry).

Chiffchaff, a popular summer visitor, although many also stay all year round

And we – when we’ve been moving and shaking and doing our thing in the world – do we also instinctively know how to return to our centre?

To our place of stillness, where our identity needs no proving or defending?

To Presence, where we can drink of the river of wisdom and resilience, before again facing a manic world?

“Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things.”

From Wild Geese by Mary Oliver

—–

(Photos all mine, but no copyright. Feel free to use / share, with my blessing!)

Nature – the first Bible

I recently had the privilege of taking a group of young children from church on a bug hunt at Ashburnham Place in East Sussex. Or did they take me? I’m not sure.

One of the toads found on the bug hunt
(sorry about the poor pic quality)

Their fascination and enthusiasm for the insects, woodlice, toads and other small creatures they discovered was simply inspiring. No wonder we talk about childlike wonder!

Chrysalis found hanging from tree bark on the bug hunt

I introduced the kids and their parents to the idea of Nature being the ‘first Bible’. As I explained, there seemed to be a lightbulb moment – for children and adults alike.

The Bible means different things to different people.

For some, it’s an outdated book of myths and contradictions.

Or a ‘weapon’ they’ve been ‘bashed’ with, to try and make them convert or conform to a particular brand of religion.

For others, it’s the LITERAL, INFALLIBLE WORD OF GOD!

For me, the Bible as we know it, which was first compiled about 200 AD, is a uniquely inspired, messy and diverse collection of literature that has the potential to impart wisdom, wonder and faith, and ultimately to reveal the complex mystery and love of God.

Wild carrot – past its best now but still displaying its complex beauty

For me, the Bible’s variety of verse, presenting a spectrum of spiritual perspectives on life and God, helpfully reflects the paradoxes and contradictions of life, making it a relatable, believable book.

However, this was not the first Bible.

The first Bible is Nature, “written at least 13.8 billion years ago, at the moment that we call the Big Bang, long before the Bible of words,” as Fr. Richard Rohr puts it.

Recent moonrise

As early as the 4th Century AD, Anthony of the Desert made a similar assertion that there were two books of scripture: the Bible and Creation.

Or in the words of Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274), “Creation is the primary and most perfect revelation of the Divine.”

Like the Bible of words, this first Bible – Nature – is, amongst other things, a uniquely inspired, messy and diverse collection of (living) literature that has the potential to impart wisdom, wonder and faith, and ultimately to reveal the complex mystery and love of God.

Like the Bible of words, the first Bible, with its strange brew of utter beauty, wild wonder, danger, and downright cruelty, reflects back to us the paradoxes and contradictions of life.

Sparrowhawk (sometimes seen as a ‘cruel’ predator), in our back garden

Standing with the diversity of each ‘Bible’, accepting and holding its differing perspectives simultaneously in tension can give us the strength of spirit to navigate the seeming impossibilities of this life.

The Bible itself is filled with invitations to study and meditate on Nature for wisdom and spiritual direction. Its pages are a constant stream of prophecies and teachings, from ancient prophets and from Jesus himself, inspired by the world of Nature.

Ancient oak – a haven for a wealth of wildlife

It’s almost as if the Bible is saying, “Don’t just look at me and enshrine my words – read the first Bible too! Its wisdom will literally jump off the pages at you!”  

A particularly colourful acorn on a younger oak

One small, simple thing I shared with the group on the bug hunt, which I hadn’t prepared but struck me as we were talking, was this:

“We look at all this Nature, and think how wonderful it all is, and marvel at its beauty. How much more, then, does God look at us, and think how wonderful and special we are.”

May you hear the voice of Nature, God and the Universe for yourself, as you look and listen to the world around you today.

Small Copper, Ashburnham

—–

(Photos all mine, but no copyright. Feel free to use / share, with my blessing!)

Working from rest

In my family we’ve argued about whether the first day of the week is Sunday or Monday. Do other families have these weird debates or is it just us?

Anyway…according to the ancient Judeo-Christian creation myth, God made mankind on the sixth day, then rested from work on the seventh[1]……

This means that mankind’s first full day was a Sabbath.

Years ago I heard a refreshing talk about this observation, deducing that our natural starting place is one of rest – that our work or activity should therefore spring from a place of restfulness, or simply being, rather than seeing our rest or Sabbath as recuperation from our work.

Common Blue, just chillin’

In the natural rhythms of life, rest is our priority. Then our activity / work / productiveness. This has important implications for our sense of identity – knowing who we are apart from our achievements.

This does not always come naturally to me. I’m full of energy and drive and restlessness. Maybe due to an addiction to productivity, stemming from an insecure childhood. I may even have undiagnosed ADHD. But probably mostly it’s just my innate personality.

I can be a bit like this Hummingbird Hawkmoth, always busy

Which is one of many reasons I find meditative and contemplative practices so vital in my life.

Ideally, what we do streams from who we are, rather than creating who we are.

Living streams, Sheffield

Rest, then work. Not the other way round.

I wrote most of this piece and took most of the photos while on holiday, reflecting on this timeless wisdom and on my work-weariness. The holiday was definitely a rest from work, and that’s fine…

…but I was also conscious of the need to not just switch off and forget about work, but also to renew my sense of identity, to find strength and revive my soul, for its own sake and in preparation for the return to the responsibilities of day-to-day life.

A Buzzard at rest, taking stock before returning to hunting

Despite my assertion above about the designed order of things, sometimes we need both processes (rest-then-work and work-then-rest) to take place, almost at once.

Holidays, Sabbaths, periods of rest and moments of meditation can be both things: first a time of healing and recuperation from the stresses and strains of life and work, sashaying almost imperceptibly into a state of being, of satisfied stillness, simply for the enjoyment of life itself, as well as reviving us in preparation for the return to the 9-5 (or 8-6 or 12-12).

The stillness and serenity of a Supermoon-lit evening, Devon

For some people, Sabbath is a Saturday, for others it’s Sunday, and for still others it’s whenever they can get a day – or a moment – to rest. The first day of the week, I guess, according to Judeo-Christian thought, should technically be whatever day your Sabbath or day off is.

A bay at rest in the evening glow, Brixham

What matters, most, though, is seeing rest as the starting point that we work from. Making restfulness our (my) priority, for the sake of our own souls as well as for those who depend on us.

“But those who trust [rest] in Yahweh [God / Presence / ‘I Am’] will find new strength.

They will soar high on wings like eagles.

They will run and not grow weary.

They will walk and not faint.

(Isaiah)

Resting comes naturally to Gorka! Here he’s taking shelter from the sun during a recent heatwave.

—–

(Photos all mine. No copyright. Feel free to use / share, with my blessing!)

—–


[1] I believe that accepting the Genesis account of Creation as allegorical enables us to understand depths of meaning and breadths of wisdom that might otherwise be lost by taking it literally. Having said that, I wouldn’t entirely rule out the possibility of literal elements! As I expressed in A Natural Creed:

I believe that science gives us wonderful insight into the origins and progression of the Universe and Life;

that the Biblical accounts of Creation are deeply inspired, allegorical myths that reveal much about the Source of the Universe and Life – and about human nature,

but that there may also be elements of literal truth in those ancient texts;

that we would do well to listen to science and religion and philosophy in order to best understand our place in the Universe;  

but that the origins of the Universe and Life remain a mystery and are probably weirder than any scientist or theologian can imagine!”

A Sea Kale Regale

Just now, in Bulverhythe, East Sussex, the pungent aroma of sea kale (Crambe maritima) wafts strongly and sweetly over each passer-by on this secluded beach.

As I walk through this wildlife haven, the aroma draws my attention to the clumps of flowers dotted around the beach, which remind me (for some reason) of balls of tumbleweed in a spaghetti western desert.

Maybe one day we’ll be able to reproduce smells online. But for now we’ll have to suffice with these words and pictures. Which is fine, because there’s so much to love visually about these plants…..

Not only their effervescent yellow-white florets – the source of that sweet aroma…

But also the way rain drops gather into silvery globules like pearls on their succulent leaves – providing watering holes for little creatures….

And then there’s the striking purple stems….

Sea kale is a popular plant not only with human foragers, but also with tinier diners. Soon, as in previous years, we’ll no doubt see Large White butterfly caterpillars on these nourishing plants.

At the beginning of May, however, before the flowers had unfurled, I was overjoyed to find a more special, less commonly seen larva on the sea kale at Bulverhythe – this very handsome Garden Tiger Moth caterpillar (also known as a Woolly Bear):

Thank you, sea kale, for giving so much to this area, both nutritionally and aesthetically. And thank you to the Ultimate Source who feeds the birds (and insects) and clothes the fields (and beaches).*

—–

I’ve also written a book, Coming Home for Good (available on Amazon). Autobiographical, it’s more about homelessness than nature, but do take a look if you think it may be of interest. You never know!

—–

*Jesus, in Matthew 6

In Celebration of Spring

English weather rarely follows any sort of predictable pattern. It’s all jumbly, bumbling around all over the place like a drunken bee in winter.

This year, though, a period of spring-like weather has coincided neatly with the official start to Spring. How very un-British.

Just in these last couple of weeks I’ve already seen 7 species of butterfly – a very good start to the year:

Small Tortoiseshell, Peacock, Red Admiral, Comma, Small White, Brimstone, and Holly Blue.

In sheer celebration of this colourful and rapid emergence of Spring butterflies, here are a few photos taken over the last few days, all on the sun-kissed edges of Summerfields Woods, Hastings:

Peacock
Peacocks: two for the price of one
Comma
Holly Blue, on rhododendron leaves
Small Tortoiseshell:
a butterfly that’s been making a remarkable and very welcome comeback in recent years after suffering major decline for many years

The Eternal Resilience of Nature

It takes more than the destructive wake of extreme weather like Storm Eunice to stop Spring life from displaying her finest robes.

Tree in Alexandra Park, Hastings, brought down by Storm Eunice

Even if it means growing horizontally!

Crocuses and daffodils, still emerging from the base of the fallen tree

I can think of ordinary people in the news today, and many others closer to home, whose lives reflect the same kind of inspiring resilience. Downtrodden but not defeated. Rising up, proud and strong.

When Life Brings Storms…

…pick up the flowers.

Seaspray in 60mph+ winds at Hastings Pier

Last Friday, when Storm Eunice hit, they advised to avoid the seafront here in Hastings, where I live.

Horizontal waves at Harbour Arm, Hastings

Well, that was an invitation for some photography if ever I heard one!

Harbour Arm, Hastings

I had to get down there with my camera.

It was definitely a walk on the wild side, but so worth it!

Not only was I pleased with these results, but our local press used some of the pics as well.

Wave being whipped up vertically, then horizontally, by the wind
Gulls somehow managing to fly against the wind

Like a lot of people, we suffered some storm damage at home. Nothing too dramatic – our next door neighbour’s cherry tree fell on our fence. That is, one major bough toppled on to a fence that was already in need of some repair.

My neighbour and I chopped and sawed the fallen tree, and we’re getting the fence fixed. No lasting harm done.

(I didn’t think to get a picture of the tree first. Sorry for that missing bit of the story!)

Not one to waste an opportunity to delight in the gifts that Nature brings my way, I picked up a few of the snowy blossom-laden twigs to brighten up the kitchen.

Janine and I have enjoyed their presence the last few days as they’ve slowly shed their tiny, white petals over the worktop.

I started this post with my own version of the old “When life gives you lemons…” platitude*:

When Life brings storms, pick up the flowers.”

I’m not much of a fan of far-too-easy platitudes, but sometimes they do resonate.

I’ve experienced a storm of stress and anxiety with physical symptoms recently, which is all calming down now, and I’m beginning to glean some bright fragments of blessing from the debris: things I’ve learned that will carry me through into a better future.

The Divine often has a way of speaking to us through Nature.

Whatever the weather, whatever the season, there’s always something to be received, to connect with, to draw us closer to Divine Reality and therefore closer also to ourselves and others.

—–

(All photos mine, but I’m not precious about copyright, so feel free to use any of them if you wish, with my blessing.)

*For an “alternative”, less platitudinous version of “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade”, check out Kaitlin Shetler’s version. It’s brilliant.

The Magic of Nature

Everywhere we look, the complex magic of nature blazes before our eyes”, according to Vincent van Gogh in the Doctor Who episode, Vincent and the Doctor.

Dragonfly in Newgate Woods, where I walk my dog, Gorka, most mornings

A wealth of artists, from poets and singers such as Van Morrison[1], Mary Oliver and The Unthanks[2], to writers Richard Mabey[3], Brian McLaren[4] and Mackenzie Crook[5], to the genius Vincent van Gogh himself, have helped and inspired me to delve further into the ‘magic of nature’ – to dive deeper into its divine depths.

Combe Valley

Maybe it’s me but I feel that both science and theology sometimes reduce the world around us to a utilitarian thing. An ‘it’. Call me picky (and I have been known to be picky about words), but the religious use of the word ‘creation’ for ‘Nature’ slightly jars with me….

…like Nature is seen as an inanimate object – there simply to ‘give glory to God’….

….rather than being a living, breathing entity given to us, to enjoy and love for her own sake, in her own right….

… to dance with, sing with….

enjoy being a part of.

Be family with.

My daughter with an exquisite male Orange-tip butterfly

I think this delights God’s heart.

Like tree-hugging: an exchange of vital gases, of complementary textures. A sharing of lives, of life. Of the Love that flows through all things.

Religion can sometimes be so intent on trying to worship God that it misses the wood for the trees – literally.

Highwoods

Likewise, science can be known to scrutinise, compartmentalise, to explain away in binary detail, until all awe and wonder have evaporated in the heat of cold analysis (I do like a paradox!).

Of course, it needn’t be – and isn’t always – like this. We need science and religion, both of which have the potential to lead us into the sheer, incredulous amazement that our souls were born for. Brian McLaren’s book, God Unbound: Theology in the Wild, is a great example of this.

As for me, my ever-deepening immersion into Nature, and my habit of talking to birds and trees, has led me to question whether I’m straying from my Christian faith into something more pagan. Fearing that my love for the created world exceeds my love for her Creator.

It’s good and healthy to question ourselves, and my self-query led to self-reassurance.

I find myself walking in the steps of St Francis, who acknowledged the consciousness and unique personality of each wild animal and addressed them as ‘brother’ and ‘sister’.

…St Francis, who in turn walked in the steps of Jesus, who in turn followed the pattern of thousands of years of wisdom teachers and prophets, who walked in and with Nature, learned and taught from Nature, found God in the everyday and not-so-everyday miracles of the wild.

My dog, Gorka, bedraggled and yellow-spangled, after running through a rape field!

And, as one of Jesus’ own best friends, John, made clear, our love for other human beings – and by extension all our fellow creatures – is a good barometer of our love for God.[6]

Rather than drawing us away from God, our deepening love for people and Nature is in fact an accurate expression of our love for God. And this is true even for those who profess no religious faith!

Our Western society and, sadly, Christendom, have a poor record of respect for the Earth, preferring largely to conquer rather than acknowledge and celebrate our oneness with her.

And the more industrialised, commercialised and technologised we become, the more we lose touch with Nature, with the Earth – and in the process lose something of ourselves and our experience of the God who lives and shines humbly and vulnerably from the natural world: incarnate through every creature, as well as in the infant Jesus.

Little Egret, at Cuckmere Haven

As we desperately try and reverse our tragic destruction of our home planet (and therefore our self-destruction), it’s surely more vital than ever that we as a human race recapture our oneness with Nature.

I rather like this quote that I recently came across: “Prayer is the act of resacralizing the desacralized world.”[7] I think that a prayerful approach to any situation enables us and those around us to (re)discover the inherent sacredness of anything and everything.

And I realised that when I enjoy my contemplative walks through woods and wilderness, I’m simply enjoying the sacredness, the magic, the holy wonder of Nature (of Creation, if you like!).

Trees – the Earth’s ‘lungs’

Although I do sometimes pray with words during these walks, I often try and avoid using words, even in thought, because words can be so superficial, so one-sided, and a hindrance to the experience of God in the presence of stillness, silence and songs of Nature.

My wife and daughter on Bulverhythe beach

Photos all mine and taken in glorious East Sussex.


[1] E.g. Sense of Wonder; In the Garden.

[2] Folk group featured in Detectorists and Worzel Gummidge

[3] Author of Nature Cure

[4] Author of God Unbound: Theology in the Wild

[5] Writer and star of Detectorists and Worzel Gummidge

[6] 1 John 4:20

[7] Andy Squyres