How to Catch a Troll and Other Matters in Modern Folklore

trollOnce confined to the bleak, wooded hills of Scandinavian folklore, now they live among us; lurking in the paradoxical kingdom of virtual reality; loitering in fake Facebook profiles and forums of all sorts.   They are the trolls.

Nevertheless, their behaviour can be equally menacing and it is important that we wisen ourselves to their ways.

Troll Identification

The modern troll is a deceitful creature and thus very difficult to identify but here’s one definition from Wikipedia:

[those who undertake] posting inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community with the deliberate intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion, often for their own amusement.

nigelNow it’s important to remember that the villagers like to incite fear and sometimes “troll sightings” are erroneous.  Conflict and challenge can be beneficial to a community (please see my last blog post).  With conflict however, there is inevitable emotional baggage, as the saying goes; you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs .  I’m sure Nigel Farage doesn’t enjoy being called a twat but if we didn’t call him a twat then where would society be?

Thus, there are two main items to consider when identifying trolls:

  1. Intentions

There’s disruption with purpose (to achieve a particular end) and there’s disruption for disruption’s sake; for pure “amusement” or the satisfaction of ego, one-upmanship etc.  It’s not always easy to distinguish between the two but some key ways of recognizing this kind of behaviour include:

-A tendency to choose language that is deliberately evocative when it is not necessary.  One key marker is passive aggression as this very rarely leads to fruitful discussion and it’s a bit of a strange oxymoron in that it “explicitly deceives” the listener so that a direct response to this sort of communication would be seen as irrational or overly-emotive and it’s really difficult to engage with authentically without appearing passive aggressive yourself.

-Bringing to the table matters that are not relevant in a debate in order to fulfil their ambition as “agents of chaos”

  1. Pragmatism

Achieving social change is a delicate balance between challenging the monty pythonstatus quo and actually just getting stuff done.  I have been part of so many community and activist groups who spend their time scrutinizing every area of action, ratifying motions like there’s no tomorrow (a certain Monty Python scene springs to mind) so that nothing actually gets done (apart from mass consumption of tea and biscuits).  Too much kafuffle can actually be counter-productive and it’s often the trolls who focus on the kafuffle.  In the words of Saul Alinsky:

These Do-Nothings profess a commitment to social change for ideals of justice, equality, and opportunity, and abstain from and discourage all effective action for change.  They are known by their brand “I agree with your ends but not your means”

What to do when you come face to face with a troll:

  1. Let them beat their club around first. It’s very important to be sure that you have caught a real troll, as silencing an important debate is a very grave thing to do indeed.  Without those on the margins of society, we would not truly understand our own ethos and those of our communities.  It is often in times of hardship that people band together and having a troll in a community can lead to deeper understanding and connection.  Without debate, we cannot be truly secure in our convictions.
  2. Do not feed the troll. You must not let trolls run havoc on communities for extended periods of time, creating negativity, destruction and psychological warfare.  If you feed them (by answering to them or playing their game) you only ignite their ferocity.  With time, their energy will fade, but you may need to take action and this might require solidarity.

trollsIn conclusion, trolls, though difficult to really spot, may have an important role to play for a short period of time, if the community can be spared any lasting damage and we must tread very carefully when it comes to silencing valuable and authentic debate but debate must be constrained by the boundaries of the ‘real’ world which is home to people with psychological wellbeing to maintain and perhaps more bluntly, mouths to feed.



Righteous Rage: Bonfires vs Campfires

Lobo_marcando_su_territorio-2Most of the time wolves avoid confrontation, but when they must enforce territory, when something or someone constantly hounds them, or corners them, they explode in their own powerful way.  This happens rarely but the ability to express this anger is within their repertoire and it should be within ours too. – Clarissa Pinkola Estes

The sticks are piled high.  I’m striking the flint and steel over and over; sweating with frustration.  The straw I’ve been drying for weeks is dampening, like my self-esteem.  I’m ready to give up.  And then I remember- the real skill in fire-lighting is not producing flames but keeping them going in those initial stages.

My 28th year began with a fire and throughout this year I’ve been learning about building a steady, sustained fire.  Not an over-the-top burst of flames that singes your eyelashes and melts your face, consuming everything in it’s path but a fire that you can really cook on.  A worthwhile, righteous fire.

I am learning about unsustainable, disproportionate flames which blow out, wasting time and fuel.   I am learning about the destruction of those fires which are lit without purpose by ruthless arsonists.

But I’m also learning about the benefits of fire; you can’toast marshmallows on a pile of sticks.  We need fire for nourishment and creativity.  I have learnt of the peace that fire can bring to a group of people sat round it, once the fire has established itself.

Yet before all of this, there’s a lot of work to be done.  You have to breathe on the fire, give it oxygen.  You have to add the right kind of fuel, at the right time, slowly.  You have to learn about patience and humility, but don’t let the rain or someone else’s piss dampen your fire without a fight.

It is in this stage of learning to mark my territory in which I dwell and though I often stumble through youth and inexperience, I will persevere, even if it means getting my fingers burnt and occasionally having to live in a territory that reeks of my own piss.


A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing

wold-sheep-clothing2You wouldn’t want a wolf here, they said.  It’d tear the place apart.

So when they shaved the lamb’s soft, flawless fleece I took it for myself; disguising my coarse, grey coat with pure woolly pleasantry.  Though the weight of it nearly broke my spine and it’s density nearly choked me- I nestled behind the screen of safety it provided.  Camouflaged.  Socially acceptable.

I quivered beneath layers of off-white hair for fear that they should glimpse my all-the-better-to-eat-you-with teeth or catch the golden glimmer in my eye.

I politely chewed on their cud without acknowledging the hunger that oozed out of my pores.

Through my cowardice I denied myself what I truly desired.  I fantasized about feasting on their flesh, letting the blood dribble down my chin, no longer white as snow.  But I convinced myself I was the one with all the power.  They were fools and I was wise in my silence of repressed howls, behind the bleats of stagnant self-deprecation.  Wouldn’t want anyone to feel uncomfortable.  Wouldn’t want to be found out.

That was how it was.

Until the day I saw tapered claws in the silent grass and heard the quiver of a growl behind the bleating.  I was not the only wolf in the village.  That was when it all changed.

The toil and burden of wearing that cumbersome coat only amplified my insatiable hunger to be known.  I was famished of freedom and ultimately alone in a crowded field of fear.

I took it off.  Baring hairy limbs and pointed ears, I unveiled my yellow teeth and remembered what it was to howl.  Though it scares me half to death, and many have fled, I hear them coming, lonesome in the woodland and I’ll stand here waiting.  For my pack.

Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves (Gospel of Matthew 7:15).

Foraging for Wisdom


The stick lady strikes!  Teaching children how to make wig whams at the little diggers allotment club The stick lady strikes! Teaching children how to make wig whams at the little diggers allotment club

Since embarking on this forest school journey, I have become “the stick lady”.  I have even been known to prize a long, sturdy stick from the jaws of a bull terrier that dared to challenge me .  And guess what?  I’m not the least bit ashamed of it.

Becoming a Forest School leader gives you a whole new lens through which to view the world.  See that flower poking through the cracks in the pavement?  Edible.  See that green leaf that’s fallen from the tree?  That would be great for hapazome art.  And that mangled stick that’s fallen off the tree?  That could be a paintbrush, a magic wand, a dragon…..  I feel like I’ve found a portal to another dimension of magic and wonder.

Last Saturday I went on a free foraging…

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The Visitors


They came with food; toffee apples, chestnuts and mulled cider.

They came with words; emotive and sincere; prophecies of the modern age.

They came with stories and laughter.

They came from round the corner.  Some came from parallel worlds.

But most importantly they came with warmth and readiness to share at the fireside.

They were the visitors.

IMG_7185This Halloween we had many visitors at the Moss Side Community Allotment attending our Anglo-Mexican Day of the Dead celebration.  On that night, we fused the traditional Mexican folk art of papel picado with the much closer to home tradition of carved pumpkins and handmade autumn lanterns.   We brought stories and poetry to a flickering fire and an enchanted audience.


Our traditional ofrenda

But we had also been expecting other visitors that night which is why we setup a traditional ofrenda or “offering” filled with the fruits of the harvest and candles and flowers.  They don’t call it Day of the Dead for nothing.  After all, for centuries in both England in Mexico it has been regarded as the one day in the year when the veil between the dead and the living is at it’s thinnest and thus the dead are able to commune with the living.  I like to think they were there, rubbing their hands at the fire (though admittedly it was a warm night so they were probably knocking back cider in the back row, waiting for the apple-bobbing to commence).

Whether they wereIMG_7225 - Copy there or not, our event allowed us to acknowledge the end of the harvest and welcome in the new season of short days and long, relaxing evenings.  Most importantly, it allowed us to celebrate our wonderful creative and giving community.

Howl Often

wolf-howling-at-moon-with-trees-tattoo-3-tsukiko-from-the-night-circus-by-caylalydon-on-deviantart….those who don’t exhibit their influence

They’re only holding candles     

To the sunshine

-Kate Tempest

Why do wolves howl?  As a signal to the rest of the pack to say “This is where I am.  Find me.”

Sniffing around the forest as a lone wolf has it’s perks.  No responsibilities.  No drama.  No conflict.  Just you and the world and all it’s beauty and adventure.  But there comes a time when you have to venture out of your solitude and be reunited with your pack.  The pack might be the one you were born into or it might not.  It could be in some far-off place or right on your doorstep, but you’re not going to find them just by sniffing the ground.  You also have to howl; loudly and often.  Standing still right where you are and waiting.

This year I’ve had a lot of practice at listening.  Listening to others, listening to myself, listening to nature.  This is important, especially if you want to learn how to howl for yourself.  But if you run in the direction of every howl you hear, you spend all your time chasing and not really living and loving.  Too much listening and not enough howling can be a real drain, and there are lessons to be learned from calling out, telling people where you are and rallying up the troops, even if sometimes you have to bark up the wrong tree.

So what do I really mean by howling?

In my final meet-up for the One Year in Transition course, we explored the relationship between love and fear.  A big old topic if there ever was one .  You might say that love and fear are opposites.  One is a sinking feeling of relaxation and bliss, the other is of anxiety and restlessness.  One gives life and energy and the other takes life and energy away.  One seeks, one runs away.

Now we all know you don’t get one without the other.  Love can be like a masseuse with slimy hands; feels good, but you don’t really trust it.  It’s that bliss that we’ve finally found something worth having with that fear we’ll have it taken away.  In the nauseating words of Phil Collins “’love don’t come easy.”  And that doesn’t just go for romantic love but friendships and families and communities also come up against the same challenges.   Love and fear are so intrinsically connected that we might easily mistake one for the other.  People spend years stuck in relationships out of fear just as much as love.

But the heart is a muscle and like any other muscle in the body it can be made stronger and there is scope for love with pumped-up, beefy muscles.  The kind that doesn’t scarper when the other bares it’s ugly yellow teeth and howls loud and strong because you don’t get real love without the scary stuff thrown in.

There are many ways to howl; standing up for what you believe in even if one day you might be wrong, saying I love you when you might not hear it back, crying in front of people, painting, writing, putting time into becoming part of a close-knit community, taking a lead on something you sincerely care about, dancing, making a complete plonker out of yourself, telling a story to a group of strangers, quitting that job you hate, trusting, saying yes and saying no, admitting you’re wrong, asking for what you need.  It’s different for everyone.

Howling ultimately is a kind of intimacy and trust, it means coming out from your hiding place and saying where you are.  It’s tough but life makes you brawny and you can only get better with time and patience.

My course is complete (actually it finished a couple of months ago).  It’s been a massive year for me because it’s been undertaken in the context of me coming back home in search of my pack after a lot of pleasurable sniffing.  I’ve learnt a lot about what I want and how to learn from my own life and what’s around me.  I’m all prepared for rough waters and the lessons ahead to be learnt.  I’ve started storytelling, something I’ve secretly been wanting to do for years but thought wasn’t a very sensible idea and I’m finding my own voice; quite an achievement for a person with chronic shyness.  I’ve begun forming a closer relationship with my local community and neighbours, sinking real roots into the ground and deepening my connections.  I even have my own set of keys to my beloved community allotment which brings me so much joy.

My wandering alone in the forest has made me strong and curious and the time is coming to stand still for a while and howl.  And wait.  Watch this space.