Tuesday, 30 September 2014

I Stand With the Badger People…

                                                 (Photo by Richard Bowler, used with permission)
Wild wood wanderer,
Druid of old Albion,
Blessings on the Brock.
May our most ancient Briton,
Ever walk our old straight tracks.

(Martin Pallot)

Badgers have been present in the British Isles for at least 300,000 years, since before the time of the Neanderthals. Modern humans arrived here only 33,000 years ago.

Badgers live in complex underground burrow systems, known as ‘setts’. Some setts can be centuries old, as can the paths that the badgers follow above ground. Their tunnels and ways thread and weave their way across the land like memory…

Much has been written about the cull of our badgers; a Government led attack which began in the summer of 2013 and is continuing in 2014. Licenses have been issued in spite of an independent panel reporting that, “controlled shooting – shooting of free-running badgers – could not deliver the level of culling needed to bring about a reduction in TB in cattle and was not humane”. In spite of the cull's massive unpopularity with the public (more than 304,000 people signed a petition against it). In spite of Parliament voting against the cull. In spite of evidence that the method of culling used was not only cruel but that it could only serve to spread bovine TB further as badgers, no longer connected to their family clans and ancient landscapes, fled for their lives. In spite of the fact that badgers are protected in the British Isles under the Protection of Badgers Act 1992 and schedule 6 of the Wildlife & Countryside Act, 1981. In spite of the fact that badgers were declared a ‘species of conservation concern’ in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan and are listed under appendix III of the Bern Convention. Moreover, the cull itself cost £7.3 million to organise and to police, a cost of £4,100 per badger. This cost was considered reasonable in spite of the fact that large numbers of vulnerable people are having their benefits cut and some families are surviving only by relying on food banks.
At the Conservative Party Conference in September 2014, the chancellor, George Osborne, stated that, if re-elected, a new Tory Government would cut benefits by a further £12 billion and freeze benefits for 10 million households. None of this seems to make any sense and yet, for me, these attacks on our badgers and on the poor amongst us are not unrelated. In the way of radical honey, I am drawn to the root, to the ideology that lurks beneath so many of our Governments decisions. Badgers are dying. People are dying. The wild, in human and non-human animal, is under attack. One of this Government’s very first acts was an attempt to sell off our forests. The Infrastructure Bill, which exempts fracking companies from trespass laws, also contains a proposal that “any animal species that "is not ordinarily resident in, or a regular visitor to, Great Britain in a wild state" will be classified as non-native and subject to potential "eradication or control", therefore preventing the re-introduction of extinct native species. George Monbiot comments that, “this a deliberate attempt to pre-empt democratic choice, in the face of rising public enthusiasm for the return of our lost and enchanting wildlife~. As Baroness Parminter, who argued unsuccessfully for changes to the bill, pointed out, “it currently creates a one-way system for biodiversity loss, as once an animal ceases to appear in the wild, it ceases to be native.” (quoted in The Guardian, 21st July 2014). All that is wild, untamed, labelled ‘unproductive’, and vulnerable is being attacked. The poor, the people of the soil, like the badger people, have always been outcast, painted as the villain; we have much in common.
Badgers will eat several hundred earthworms every night but also love to feast on insects, bluebell bulbs, and elderberries.

The name ‘badger’ is thought to derive from the French, ‘bêcheur’ meaning ‘digger’. In Welsh badgers are known as ‘Moch Daear’ or ‘Earth Pig’. Until the 18th Century badgers were known as‘brock’ in England; names that smell of earth.

Badgers are an inconvenience to many landowners. Since its election in 2010, the ConDem Government has again and again brought in laws, or done away with old ones, which protect the land. The presence of badgers, a protected species, holds up planning applications, and badgers interfere with the gaming industry by eating grouse eggs which are being ‘lovingly’ raised for shooting. A lot of money is at stake. The only instance when a badger can be legally ‘removed’ is if it is vital in order to control the spread of disease. With bTB there is evidence that better dairy farming practices, which would lead to stronger, healthier cows, lessens the impact of bTB on dairy herds. Just as the much vilified urban fox comes to show us how much we throw away and waste, so the badger has come to teach us about our unsustainable farming practices. Instead of listening, we attack. There is also evidence that badger vaccination has a vital role to play and does not lead to family groups scattering to other areas. And yet, in its supposed aim to eradicate bTB, the Government continues to insist that culling is the only answer. Of course, were bTB to be truly eradicated, there would be no excuse to legally remove badgers from land when planning permission was being sought and that would indeed be inconvenient.

                                                                  (Photo by Richard Bowler, used with permission)

Badgers are incredibly clean and tidy their sleeping chambers by dragging old hay, grass, and bracken outside tucked under their chins.

Badger cubs are born in February, with two to three cubs per litter. By March and early April they are exploring the tunnels and chambers in their family setts and, by mid to late April, they are making their first visits to the outside world. By twelve weeks old, they are being weaned and begin to forage outside with their mother. By fifteen weeks, they are brave enough to forage alone. By the time that autumn comes they are almost the same size as adults and are enthusiastically building up body fat which will enable them to survive the winter.

There is something very inconvenient about our poor and vulnerable too, with our (much eroded) right to healthcare and support and with our calls for hearth and home and family. In a recent survey of 2000 mothers it was found that “1 in 5 regularly go without meals to feed their children, 16% are being treated for stress-related illnesses and one third are borrowing money from friends and family to stay afloat. Teachers have reported that thousands of children are going to school hungry, exhausted and poorly clothed. A study by Tesco estimated that one in five people was going hungry.” (quoted by Nick Cohen in ‘The Spectator’, January 2014) Only those in work, and even moreso ‘hard working’, are considered productive enough to be worthy of support and respect, and only then if we keep quiet. Like the badgers, we get in the way. I am lifting a prayer that we always will.  Like the badgers, we smell too much of earth and what is real. Like the badgers, we remember. Like the badgers, we are not broken and we have a long history of survival.

Taken as separate issues, it is easy to become overwhelmed. Everywhere we look there is something that we find impossible to stomach or to believe. Many of us, understandably, turn away. I believe that if we are able to dig underneath each issue to the radical roots, if we can claw at the bark until we find the rot below, we will find that, rather than being separate, these attacks on badger and human have the same source; a wish to control and to possess, and a belief that what is vulnerable has no value. We have something valuable that those who think only of money and power can never have; “like the badgers, we smell too much of earth and what is real". If we look for the kinship and the connections between us; between badger and farmer, cow and human, we will see that we are not alone in this fierce fight. We can call upon the spirit of the badger people in our own struggle against draconian moves to sell off the NHS and to withdraw benefits, just as they should be able to call on us in stand up against their murderers. No matter which thread of protest and action we might choose we are fighting against the same belief and declaring that we are of value to life. Badgers are fierce in defending their homes and their clans. In fighting for them, we are also reclaiming our right to be heard. We can stand with the badger people in reclaiming the land that was always ours.

In the badger spirit I find…

Ancient digger, old tunneler, keeper of the deep earth songlines, wild forager, quiet earth hunter, Brother Night, Sister Night, dark earth belly, beloved of the Elder Mother, lover of the soil, warrior spirit, carrier of the earth scars, watcher of time, guardian of the land, mapper of memory, protected by nettle, thorn, and rose, by holly and bramble, beating earth heart, honour in connection, power in belonging, breathing earth moving, snuffling the pathways, digging the songlines, earth mover, earth turner, deep heart holder, earth heart holder, wisdom of home and hearth and clan, keeper of the ancient tales of land and tribe, enduring memory of what has been, of what was, unseen warrior, fierce and peaceful deep earth ancestor…

I stand with the badger people…

                      (Photo: Jacqueline Woodward-Smith, taken at the march against the badger cull, June 2013)

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

On Small Beauties...

Every day, or almost every day, I post my ‘small beauties’ on Facebook. Often these are small, intimate moments of connection to nature and the wild; the light hitting a crow’s wing at just the right second to glimpse the iridescent blue of its feathers, a drift of burnt-toffee coloured autumn leaves, feeling the sun on my face on a cold day, the taste of snow, but they can also be much more human; a smile from a bus driver, a phone call from a friend, the warmth of my beloved’s skin when we hold hands, the taste of proper pie and mash, a song on the radio just when I needed it. In some ways, what the daily small beauties might be doesn’t really matter, and they will be different for each one of us. What does matter is that they are always there.

There are days when I really don’t feel like writing my small beauties; days when I feel heavy or cracked open, days when I am angry with myself and with life, days when I am feeling hurt and lost, lonely and confused, days when a deep depression hits, or days when I am just too, too tired. And yet these are the days when small beauties matter the most of all and, when I do sit and think of everything that I have seen and experienced over the course of a day, often the balance tips and I find that the day was sweet after all. It is all about where I choose to put my attention. Some people have assumed that I can find an ever-growing list of beauties because my life is simple or easy or unusually blessed and, although I do feel that I am unusually blessed in all sorts of ways, that is not where the beauties come from. They are not the words of a simple, unaware heart without a care, nor of one that turns away from what is ugly. Underneath the beauty there is a fierce rage and a determination to draw what is sweet from a life that we are so often encouraged to believe is harsh and uncompromising, a life that means nothing more than when we are next going to ‘escape’ from it all on holiday. I do not want to escape from my life; I want to inhabit it ~ every cell, every tear, every breath, every heartbeat ~ and a part of that is seeing the beauty in spite of, or because of, it all.

                                                   (the light on a winter swan's back, Kennet & Avon Canal, January 2013)

And what I have found is that, the more often I think about and write my small beauties, the more small beauties I see. Where I choose to place my focus is like a muscle that needs to be exercised and, quite soon after I began, it started to crave beauty and to notice it wherever I went. Now, on most days, it just feels easy. I know that for many it really doesn’t feel that way but, believe me, it gets better. Once a ‘giant positivity engine’ starts running there’s not much that can stop it!

                                    (My first ever taste of proper pie and mash from a proper pie and mash shop, Greenwich, May 2012)

But why did I start in the first place? Again, I think that it began on Facebook, where there was an idea of writing ’90 Days of Gratitude’.  It seemed like a nice thing to do so I began and, although it was quite nice, it felt like a pressure and, being a natural rebel ~ or naturally contrary, as some have put it ~ I came to resent it. I felt pressure to do it every day, I couldn’t remember how many days I had done and had to keep backtracking to work it out, I didn’t like feeling that I had been told what to do and then I realised that I wasn’t grateful at all! Often people suggest that I should record my small beauties every day and collect them together in a book or on a website.  Whilst feeling flattered, I have always resisted that and only recently I have worked out why. It is for the same reason that I’m not grateful. I am not grateful because, as a living, heart-beating member of the community of all beings on this amazing planet, I absolutely EXPECT there to be beauties every day and I have genuinely never come across a day without them. My job is only to notice and for that ability to notice I am grateful. Beauties are not something that we need to be grateful for, they just ‘are’, and I don’t record them because, in letting them fade, I am trusting that there will always be more.

                                                            (Lock gate heart, Kennet & Avon Canal, October 2012)

One of my favourite anecdotes is of Desmond Morris, I think, who was doing a study of a group of children from their birth until the age of twenty-one.  When the children were seven, it was decided to explore happiness so each was sent out with a single use camera and asked to take photographs of the things that made them happy. Most of the children took photos of their house, their family, their dog, their school, a favourite park, but the child who was the most naturally happy did something quite different. Instead of her house, she took a photo of her front door, right up close; she liked the brightness of the red paint and the way it shone in the sunshine. Instead of her dog, she took a close up of her dog’s nose; she liked how it sniffed and snuffled, she liked how cold it was to the touch, and how the wetness of it made her squirm. She took a picture of a reflection in a puddle, her shoe buckle, her dad’s ear. I may have made all of this up but, in the telling of tales, that really doesn’t matter. Here are small beauties. When we look at the vast expanse of our lives there may be things that break our hearts or make us afraid but, if we get in close so that those things become too huge to see just for a moment, we might notice the light through a bumblebee’s wing, or the laughter lines by an old ladies’ eye, and we will know that, no matter what comes, life is sweet and there will always be honey for the soul.

                                                      (A tempting badger hole, Glastonbury Abbey, April 2013)

                                                             (Into the world of small and furry leaves, June 2013)


                                        (Bees, fungi, and primroses in a stained glass window, Nevern, Pembrokeshire, May 2012)

                                                                         (A spider's nest filled with eggs, Caversham Lock, Reading, July 2012)

                                                                                 (Tiny mushrooms in the Beech woods, Hampshire, February 2010)

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Welcome to Radical Honey...

Welcome to Radical Honey, where in future months you might find all manner of things grounded in a call for sacred activism through connection, community, creativity, cultivating wonder, reclaiming, snuffling out the truth beneath the obvious, small beauties, dancing bravely in the edge places, foraging, mindfulness, seeing what is real, acknowledging what is broken and calls for mending, open hearts and soft bellies, kindness, the power of vulnerability, everyday acts of small subversion, wild acts of fierce courage, and the quiet magic of a whistling kettle and a nice cup of tea. It had not been my intention to begin sharing these writings on the autumn equinox and yet, as is so often the case when we just let things happen, it does feel perfect to let them go as we begin our turning towards the dreaming dark. Who knows what spells we will spin, and what wonders we might catch sight of in the autumnal mist?

'Radical' is such a maligned word and many of us have been taught to be afraid of it, carrying as it does within its few letters a whiff of what we have come to think of as harsh, strident, confrontational, and aggressive. And yet, when we look beyond these learned fears, we find that radical is a deep and beautiful word, meaning 'of, or related to, the root', or going to the origin and fundamental nature of something. It is all about digging deep and seeing beneath what we might see at first or have been told. It means asking 'why?' When I feel out what the word 'radical' means, I imagine curling into myself like a fox, snuffling through layers until I find what smells like good earth, and I sense the power of connection and community underneath all those things which seek to divide us. When we are radicalised, brought back to our roots, there is no hope of dividing us and this seems to me to be a powerful standpoint from which to challenge all that we wish to change. 
And what of honey? For me honey symbolises creativity, the gathering of beauty to nourish our spirits, to sustain us through times where we feel a lack of what is good and sweet, and to help us trust in healing and abundance. And the sister bees are dripping with the magic of community, connection with the song of the land, the value of the individual woven into the collective, and the rightness of placing what, and who, is the most vulnerable in the centre of all that we do in an ever-changing, ever-flowing movement of love and care. In bees I find She~Who~Is and the Source. It is significant that they are struggling in the world, just as many of us are. Our relationship is old and there are many threads of kinship woven between us.

 And so Radical Honey is to call for sacred activism and change, through connecting to our roots and drawing on deep wells of creative and joyful honey. In a world like this one, any act of connection or happiness is a radical act, and a rebellious one. I encourage each one of us to acknowledge our rebellion, from standing in front of line of riot police on a fracking protest, to speaking out for those who have no voices, from joining a march, to seeing the beauty in a magpie's wing. And, after it all, knowing that often we all just need some kindness and a hot cup of tea in order to stir up something that might change the world. This is Radical Honey; nothing, and no one, is insignificant. Everything matters.

In the next few weeks, I hope to write about my own small acts of rebellion and the ways in which I support myself in community with all beings. In my own small community in London this might mean introducing fly agaric mushrooms and harebells, blue alkhanet and the local squirrels, ashy mining and hairy flower-footed bees, the man from the kebab shop, foxes and cats, my human neighbours, soil microbes, moss, the crows on the Heath, the pigeons on the Green, hidden rivers and wildly growing weeds, and, moving further afield, the Kent sea, and Sandstone Hill Woman and Silver Spring Valley Woman; spirits of the land where I spend my free days wrapped up in love. All are part of the community that sustains me. This is where I find my radical honey and from that ground there shall be adventures. Who knows what the autumn will bring...