The forces of nature

Nature is deity to Druids, explains conservationist Louise Sutherland

As a child I was deeply inspired by David Attenborough, Diane Fossey and Jean-Michel Cousteau. It was my admiration of them and what they achieved that made me want to work in conservation. I’m very lucky to work in this field and I’m still passionate about it. How does studying Druidry affect this? Although it wasn’t a conscious decision I made, the two are so interwoven it’s hard to pick the reasons apart to explain it.

I always experienced the world as very alive, and when I discovered the words ‘animism’ and ‘polytheism’ they seemed to describe the way I had always thought. It was a revelation to discover a community of people with a similar perspective on the world. Nature is deity to Druids. All forces of nature; from aspects of human nature like lust, to mountains, rivers, darkness or rain. They are all seen as the expression of a different ‘power of nature’. Some call these deities, some call it spirit, some call it energy, but gloriously there is no pretence of this being the “Truth”. Just a wry acknowledgment of each individual perspective determining the different ways people relate to what’s around them. Essentially Druidry is about an individual’s relationship with the world around them. To study it is to learn to be conscious of what you do, how you touch everything around you, from people to places. You could say it’s that awareness that fuels my work in conservation; if you are aware of a the high nitrates in a river killing the life in it, aware of the loss of dragonflies and wetland plants, the fewer bird species filling our skies, aware of the loss of woodland or species rich grassland, then you try to do something and conservation work is about trying to help, to protect species or recreate habitats.

But Druidry as a religion, in the original sense of the word, from the Latin religio - meaning reverence for the divine, goes deeper than that. Druids are priests of the land, my work in conservation is like a service to the gods of the land. My awe of these many, many different gods, listening them whisper through a landscape, feeling the hum of their energy – urges me to find an honourable response, to facilitate a balance between conflicting needs, try to restore what’s lost because everywhere all of nature is sacred.

A Druid working in conservation or a conservationist studying Druidry, strives to make an honourable relationship with the land. If a ‘conservation attitude’ affects their thinking, that relationship will be about protecting and restoring the sacred, natural biodiversity. All of it, from the ignored and concreted land beneath our pavements, to the stones and sand of the concrete, to the high wild mountains, is so filled with life, song and energy. I feel it move deeply through me, it fills me with reverence and inspiration - I couldn’t do anything but conservation!

Louise Sutherland works in conservation and studies druidry
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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear