The Burnt Mosslands

It’s Nos Calan Mai. In our old British myths, this is the night on which, centuries ago, a red dragon’s fiery scream blighted the land of Britain. On the next day, Calan Mai, the eternal rivals, Gwythyr ap Greidol ‘Victor son of Scorcher’ and Gwyn ap Nudd ‘White Son of Mist’ battle for their beloved, the flower maiden Creiddylad. (If either the Summer King or the Winter King take her forever the world will end.)

Five days ago, on Monday, I started my traineeship on the Greater Manchester Wetlands. I was not, thankfully, thrown into either of the fires that had happened on the mosslands in the area that week, but I attended their aftermath.

On Little Woolden Moss I visited the area of wet heath where the characteristic heathers had been burnt along with purple moor grass and brash. This was essential habitat for common lizards, field voles, and field mice, and a crossing place for bog bush crickets.

Gas pipes run beneath and, if the fire had penetrated the peat, it could have resulted in a blaze like a dragon’s breath, like Gwythyr’s flaming sword, which could have taken out the gas supply to much of the surrounding area.

Luckily, the pipes had been protected by scrapes, which had filled with water and been cultivated by sphagnum mosses, providing resistance to the flames.

The fire on Little Woolden Moss was 500 metres square whereas the fire on Red Moss had devastated over a dozen hectares – as far as the eye could see. Whilst the damage to the bog itself, burning off only purple moor grass and leaving the sphagnum mosses intact, was superficial, it was damaging for wildlife.

Small mammals, such as bank vole, water vole, and shrews; amphibians such as toads, frogs, and smooth newts; ground nesting birds such as lapwings and skylark would have lost their lives and, if not, their homes. On my visit I saw a broken nest and lapwings still display flighting over the burnt moss.

The plastic piling dams and drainage pipes were also damaged by the heat. 

This, I am sorry to tell you, was not the work of gods or dragons, but humans who had purposefully lit the fires because it was their sick idea of fun.

Still, the symbology stands, the connections between Nodens/Nudd/Lludd, who put a stop to the dragon’s scream, and his son, Gwyn ap Nudd, the lord of the once misty peat bogs whose sphagnum mosses dull his rival’s fiery feet.

On Monday my line manager suggested I take the restoration of the fire damaged wet heath on Little Woolden Moss as one my personal projects. I had never suspected my work on the mosslands would be so directly connected with Gwyn’s battle against Gwythyr.

This is not a warrior’s, or a poet’s, but a healer’s role – something I never imagined I would step into. Once I believed everything I touched died, but sowing seeds and planting flowers with Creiddylad has already proved that is not the case.

She keeps telling me everything comes back to plants – no sphagnum, no mossland; no heather, no heathland; no food for the bees or the butterflies. She is life and, because of our greed, every day, every night is a battle for her. The plants will be my allies against the anthropogenic forces creating an eternal summer.

Launching the Tern Raft

One of my tasks at Brockholes this week has been being helping to build and launch a raft for common terns (sterna hirundo) who begin arriving from Africa at this time of year to breed.

The tern raft was built from three parts like a sandwich – buoys, plastic crates, and a membrane divided into compartments by wooden boards into which to put gravel for the terns to nest in.

It was my job to help tie it all together. We then cut wooden posts and screwed them on for extra support and stapled on wire mesh to prevent the tern chicks from falling overboard.

On a sunny Thursday morning the tern raft was launched onto Number One Pit Lake by the Reserve Officers, three volunteers, and myself, all in waders, and to our delight and relief it stayed afloat.

Later in the day I returned with the Reserve Officers and a load of gravel in the bucket of the tractor to shovel into the compartments. This was the big test. Although the raft didn’t sink it was decided it wasn’t sitting high enough to weather a storm and more buoys were needed. That work will probably take place next week. Overall the launch was a success.

The launch of the tern raft feels like a good launching pad for my thoughts about the launch of my conservation career as I make the transition from volunteer intern at Brockholes (although I’m staying one day a week) to paid work as a Great Manchester Wetlands Trainee.

I’ve been thinking quite a lot about what I want to take with me on this journey and what I want to leave behind. Over the two years I have been volunteering in conservation I have not only gained practical habitat management skills such as planting, coppicing, and hedge laying, but the ability to erect an electric fence, and to use hand tools to put up bird boxes, fix a tool shed, and build a tern raft.

This has really helped with my self confidence as I come from a family to whom DIY is anathema. I was never taught how to make or fix things – if anything went wrong we would always ‘get a man in’.

This, along with other things, such as failing to gain funding for my PhD, to succeed in a career with horses, and to make a living from my writing, had put me in a position of learnt helplessness, and let to me struggling with anxiety and depression.

Last year I learnt that it was likely that I’m autistic and this has contributed to my struggles, making everyday tasks and, in particular, social interactions, far daunting for me than for neurotypical people.

In spite of this I have managed to master all the skills I need by making sure I listen carefully (if I don’t my autistic brain has a tendency to fill in instructions – usually the wrong ones!), ask questions if in doubt, and get loads of practice. One of my most interesting learnings is that memory resides not only in the brain but in the muscles and it’s one thing to know how to do a task and another to have the physical ability and dexterity to fell a tree correctly or to put a bird box up straight.

Gaining these practical abilities, along with having had CBT therapy for anxiety last year, have helped me to overcome some of the negative thought processes that have held me back over the years. Feeling ‘useless’, ‘worthless’, ‘helpless’, ‘impractical’, like I’m a burden to friends, family, colleagues. That the latter is not the case has been proved by the massive amount of support the Reserve Officers at Brockholes have shown me, not only being patient with my outdoor learning, but supporting me through the application and interview process, thus leading to me getting a job.

It’s taken a lot of work to gain the skills for this position and I am aware there will be further challenges ahead if I wish to progress from trainee to Assistant Reserve or Project Officer.

At this moment I am casting overboard the doubts that have held me back and adding new buoys to my raft – I am practical, if I follow my heart I will succeed, I am worthy of this job.

*Coincidentally at my monthly shamanic drumming circle with Way of the Buzzard we have been working with self-worth and one of the leaders, Nicola Smalley, has blogged on the subject HERE.

Watering Cottongrass

Last August, at Brockholes Nature Reserve, I helped on work parties common cottongrass (Eriophorum angustifolium). Winnowing the tiny dark seeds from the fluffy white heads, placing 1 – 2 into each cell of a 60 cell tray, which we had firmly packed with compost, covering them over, praying they would grow.

We sowed 10,000 plants in total. Some have grown better than others. Later I learnt they were for Little Woolden Moss – a strange synchronicity for it was through contacts at Brockholes that I recently gained a six week contract planting common cottongrass and other peatland plants on this mossland (which was purchased by the Lancashire Wildlife Trust in 2012 after having been badly damaged by peat extraction).

Prior to gaining this work I had discovered my patron god Gwyn ap Nudd’s connection with peat bogs/mosslands* in the medieval Welsh poem ‘Y Pwll Mawn’ ‘The Peat Pit’ by Dafydd ap Gwilym. I promised to make an offering to Gwyn next time I visited one. As we were in lockdown I hadn’t expected to go to a peat bog soon (the only area of lowland raised level bog in South Ribble, Much Hoole Moss, has been drained and, to add insult to injury, commandeered as a paint balling site). On receiving the contract, when I asked what Gwyn wanted, he showed me a common cottongrass plant.

So my planting on Little Woolden Moss had meaning in terms of both conservation and devotion.

I loved my time there in spite of the difficulty and what some might call the monotony of the work – pushing heavy wheelbarrows of plant trays along unstable bunds and repeating the same motion of digging five holes with a spear-spade, planting common cottongrass plugs, moving on, for seven hours.

Although we had many cold starts and some days were grim – with constant rain and up to 50mph winds – most were temperate and we were surrounded by the spring song of skylarks and meadow pipits, curlews, lapwings display flighting, brown hares racing up and down the bunds, and deer tracks (but not deer) were often seen.

When encountering the glacial till, seeing the ancient bog oaks exposed by the excavations (with 8 metres of peat 10,000 years of the archaeological record had been stripped away, unknown stories, our exploitation only slightly redeemed in that the compost had been used to nurture new plants) I experienced profound feelings of sorrow, awe, and privilege in partaking in the restoration process.

I later learnt ‘Little Woolden’ derives from the Viking Vuluedene ‘Wolf’s Valley’. This was significant for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I had previously agreed to write a series of poems for a Ghost Wolf Trail in New Moss Wood, just down the road, for the Carbon Landscape Partnership. Secondly, Gwyn and his father, Nudd/Nodens, are associated with wolves.

Little Woolden Moss is one of the few places that, in the words of storyteller Martin Shaw, I have felt ‘claimed’ by. The only others are my locality of Penwortham and the stretch of the Ribble from the Douglas estuary to Brockholes and those to which I have been a fleeting visitor such as Glastonbury, Cadair Idris, Borth beach, and Coed Felenrhyd (beautiful in their own ways but not truly ‘mine’).

Thus I was disappointed when, after succeeding with an application, and attending an interview, I didn’t gain either of two paid Great Manchester Wetlands Traineeships. I received positive feedback from Lancashire Peatlands Initiative Officer, helpful for other interviews, but assumed I had no future in peatland restoration.

So I returned to my voluntary internship at Brockholes, which I continued to enjoy, 3 – 4 days a week. One of my jobs was watering the common cottongrass, which we planted last year, and is due to go to Little Woolden Moss in mid-June.

On Thursday, after watering the cottongrass, I heard my phone ringing and just missed the call.

“That’s odd,” I said to the Assistant Reserve Officer, with whom I was working, “nobody every rings me.”

When I checked the number I saw it belonged to the Lancashire Peatland Initiative Officer.

“You’d better ring him back,” my colleague said, with a knowing tone in his voice.

So I rang back and, to my surprise, was offered the Great Manchester Wetlands Traineeship on the mosslands, based at Little Woolden Moss, as the previous candidate had chosen another job.

So… of course… I have taken it. The funding for the job will last a year. I will hopefully be starting on Monday 26th April and I have arranged to work my contracted 30 hours a week Monday – Thursday so I can continue with my internship at Brockholes one day a week on a Friday. So it looks like I may be both watering the common cottongrass we planted at Brockholes and planting it on Little Woolden Moss.

In total there are another 45,000 plants to be planted on Little Woolden this year. When Gwyn asked me for an offering of cottongrass I wasn’t expecting it to be in quite such numbers or to be planting it later in the year and, if this traineeship leads to a permanent job in peatland restoration, for many years to come.

Moving In With the Sand Martins

It lives in Europe, in winding holes in sheer sandy hills
– Linnaeus

I.
Riparia riparia
from ripa ‘of the river bank’
sounds like their djirr djirr prrt
beside the Ribble

as they arrive in sixes,
sevens, in their twenties,
swoop in from Africa

tumbling for gnats.

II.
Excited by the sight
of their forked tails and white bellies

we run to prepare the nesting boxes –

all 300 with their sandy tunnels,
dark and cavernous interiors,
tightly locked back doors,

dig out the moat to protect them from predators.

III.
When the world is too big,
the arguments at home intolerable

I think of them snug in their hotel
on their little island paradise.

“That’s it,” I tell my mum and dad.
“I’m moving in with the sand martins.”

IV.
I pack my rucksack full of feathers,
gather twigs, bits of reed, to make my nest

and push my way down the long, dark, sandy tunnel

to the cave where I stay all summer between
three pairs of sand martins and a mouse.

V.
As I sit alone and listen to the chatter
of males and females and soon their chicks
I realise it is not unlike being at home –

surrounded by happy families.

I listen to the tales they tell their young –
of the rite of leaving the cave, exiting the tunnel,
of the bright sunlit river and countless flies that lie outside.

Of how all this was made for them by the goddess of the Ribble.

Of how mighty Belisama loves riparia riparia
and her river-light guides them back.

VI.
I hear them tell of distant gods,
distant flying insects, distant animals
whose shapes I see dancing on the cave walls –

gazelles, cheetahs, wild dogs, buffalo, hartebeest,
scimitar-horned oxen with us no longer.

VII.
I hear the tales of the drought years
passed down from the legends who survived

(they have names like Long-Brown-Wing-Fly-Catcher
White-Belly-Diver-River-Dancer… chattering on
and on that I can’t pronounce in one breath)

the concerns of the elders who have seen
future droughts in the patterns of flies.

VIII.
I listen to their final farewells
to their young and hear them depart
to roosts where I cannot follow because

I do not have brown wings, a white belly, a forked tail.

I am not marked by a bar across my chest.
Thus barred from becoming a bird
where will I go this winter?

~

In early March, one of my tasks, as a conservation intern at Brockholes Nature Reserve, was preparing the sand martin nesting boxes on Number One Pit (this is the name of a lake that formed in a pit dug for sand and gravel quarrying).

We opened up the backs of the boxes, cleared out old nesting materials (which can be a hot bed for parasites), added fresh sand and re-filled the tunnels with sand for the birds to push their way through in imitation of tunnelling into a sandy bank. They usually excavate horizontal tunnels up to 1m in length with a chamber at the end.

At this point in time the sand martins had started arriving in sixes and sevens and the day we finished twenty were seen over Number One Pit. They tend to arrive between mid-March and mid-April and to lay their eggs in late May.

This poem was written following a conversation with one of my colleagues, who I prepared the boxes with, about how good it would be to move in with the sand martins.

Crawling Out Of Y Pwll Mawn

The pit of despair is a familiar metaphor. For me it’s a peat pit. Not the pwll mawn,the fishpond-sized peat cutting that Dafydd ap Gwilym fell into whilst riding his grey-black horse across the misty moors of Wales many centuries ago, but the empty expanses of the Lancashire peatlands made into gigantic peat pits by commercial peat extraction.

Drained, the vegetation (sphagnum moss, cross-leaved heath, bog rosemary, bog asphodel, sundew, cottongrasses) of the living acrotelm stripped away, rotovated, left to dry, bulldozed, bagged up for horticultural use or taken to power stations. The catotelm left bare, barren, leaking its carbonic ghosts into the atmosphere.

I’ve fallen into it metaphorically many times over the past year. When the first lockdown struck and all my conservation volunteering was cancelled and my internship postponed, when my mum had a fall and broke her hip, when the third lockdown put an end to all my volunteering but my internship.

Now I’m there for real. On Little Woolden Moss, part of Chat Moss (which was once 10 square miles), near Manchester, which has been severely damaged by peat extraction. Since the Lancashire Wildlife Trust took it over in 2012 the east side is steadily being restored, but much of the west is bare.

This week my task, as part of the contracts team, has been planting the barren section with common cottongrass and hare’s tail cottongrass. I’ve been acutely aware of the wrongness of the exposure of the catotelm, the under-layer of peat, the underworld bare for all to see, its spirits disturbed, released.

Yet it has been rewarding to have the opportunity to make amends, hole by hole, plug plant by plug plant. Slowly but steadily recovering and restoring the broken body of the Mother of the Moss. Giving back her tresses by which, like by the hair of Rapunzel, I may too pull myself out of the peat pit.

It seems to be no coincidence, before I got this temporary contract work, I found out ‘the fish-pond of Gwyn ap Nudd’ was y pwll mawn ‘the peat pit’ and Gwyn, my patron god, was associated with peat bogs. I promised to make him an offering next time I visited him a bog.

Two weeks later I was offered this job. When I asked Gwyn what he wanted, he showed me a cottongrass plant and told me my planting would be the offering – restoring the body of his mother, Anrhuna, who I believe to be a long-forgotten Brythonic wetland goddess.

I’ve long been in a pit of despair because I have unable to find paid work by which I can serve my gods. Now I’ve got it, temporarily at least, and have applied for two other watery jobs – traineeships on the Kingfisher Trail (on Bradshaw Brook) and on the Great Manchester Wetlands.

I’m currently in an in-between place with three weeks done and two weeks left on Little Woolden Moss. Not knowing if I’ll get an interview and where my life might be heading next. A little like the mossland, teetering between death and recovery, this fragmented part of Anrhuna’s body slowly being brought to life.

Gwyn has stolen me to the underworld countless times. He has put into my hands the healing plants. He has sent me back to repair the damage of its exploitation with work and words.

I pray to you my gods, Gwyn and Family, to grant me the means to continue with this work.

Cover Me in Moss

Cover these bare bones
no longer considered sacrosanct.

Cover me with eleven magical mosses:

Give me back my fringe of fimbriatum
and my cow-horns of denticulatum.

Let cuspidatum fill my wet places.

Let flat-topped fallax enfold my curves.
Let papillosum return my pimples rising in the damp.
Let squarrosum be my spikes of dignity.

Return to me my ruby slippers of capillifolium.

Let palustre and subnitens make me lustrous.
Let fuscum dress me in rusty colours.
Let magellanicum work its magic.

Give me back my hummocks
and my hair of hare’s tail cottongrass
and common cottongrass, cross-leaved heath,
bog rosemary and bilberry and I will be a common
for the large heath butterfly where all commoners are welcome.

Cover me in moss come make these mosslands whole again.

This poem is based on my paid restoration work with the Lancashire Wildlife Trust’s contract team on Little Woolden Moss. This mossland, badly damaged by peat extraction, was taken over by LWT in 2012. Since then the drains have been blocked and new bunds built. We are currently planting cotton grass, hare’s tail cottongrass, sphagnum, cross-leaved heath and bog rosemary to recolonise the mossland and make it inhabitable for wildlife. Hare’s tail cottongrass is the food source of the large heath caterpillar and cross-leaved heath is the nectar source of the large heath butterfly. Planting these species will make possible its later reintroduction. The image of the ‘bog in a box’ directly above shows what the mossland will look like when restored.

This poem is written in the voice of the Mother of the Moss – a title of the wetland goddess Anrhuna.

Pondscapes for Great Crested Newts

Over the past year I have been observing with interest within my locality the development of a project run by the Lancashire Wildlife Trust and funded by Natural England that aims to create new ponds and improve existing ponds for Great Crested Newts. In Hurst Grange Park, Walton Park, near Dog Kennel Wood, and at Brockholes Nature Reserve I have seen old ponds dug out and new ones created and this is only a small portion of the work that is taking place across Lancashire.

The great crested newt is ‘the UK’s most pond-dependent amphibian’. Since the last half of the twentieth century it has been in decline due to the destruction and loss of the pondscapes it inhabits. Many ponds on agricultural land have been filled in or destroyed because ‘they reduce the extent and crop yield of fields and are no longer needed for livestock due to piped water systems’. More have been got rid of to make way for housing, roads, industry, commerce, and recreation.

Some ponds have been lost to natural succession – if a pond is not regularly cleared of vegetation the dead plant matter builds up and the pond is filled in and dries out. Chemical pollution, nutrification, and the introduction of fish also make ponds unsuitable for great crested newts.

Another factor is the loss of terrestrial habitat – great crested newts favour ‘rough grassland, scrub and woodland’ and need dead wood and underground crevices beneath roots to shelter. Habitat fragmentation caused by human-made obstacles to their movement is another cause of decline.

North West England has ‘the highest pond density’ in England and Wales. Whilst many of these ponds are ‘flooded, abandoned marl pits’ dated to 150 to 200 years ago ‘they are interspersed with ponds of diverse origin’. Some are also man-made such as ‘brick pits, tile pits, pottery clay pits, gravel pits, sand pits, rock quarries, peat diggings, spoil hollows, water mill ponds, bomb craters, saw pits, mine entrances, textile mill lodges, public reservoirs, farm reservoirs, angling ponds, man-made subsidence hollows (flashes)… moats, duck decoys,’ and ‘ornamental ponds’.

Other ponds are much older and of natural origin such as ‘proglacial lakes, meltwater channels, kettleholes, inter-dune slacks, cut-off meanders and ox-bow lakes’ and ‘ancient subsidence hollows’. These could date back to after the Ice Age and have existed for over 10,000 years during which lowland Lancashire was a water country* of marshland, peat bog, reed bed, alder carr, willow scrub, and damp oak woodland interspersed with countless lakes, ponds, and pools – perfect newt habitat.

Great crested newts are one of Europe’s oldest amphibians. They belong to the family Salamandridae. The remains of their ancestors, salamanders, have been dated to the Jurassic (160 million years ago). The great crested newt (Tritutus cristatus) developed as a species 40 million years ago and spent the Ice Age in the Carpathians then expanded its range across the rest of Europe after the glaciers melted.

It is possible to imagine a march of great crested newts moving slowly northwards, much like our ancestors, from pond to pond, crossing the land-bridge of Doggerland, making their homes here in Britain.

The great crested newt is so dependent on ponds because they are central to its life cycle. After hibernating through the winter under dead wood or underground it emerges between February and April and moves to ponds to mate. The male chooses a display area known as a ‘lek’ in an open part of the pond. Displaying his remarkable crest he rocks, leans, and whips and fans his white-striped tail to waft pheromones at the female. Once he has gained her interest, touching his tail with her nose, he deposits his spermatophore, which she collects in her vent before fertilisation takes place internally.

The female lays around 250 eggs in a jelly capsule with a light yellowish centre 4.5 – 6mm long on the submerged leaves of plants, carefully wrapping them with her back legs. Species favoured include grasses such as sweet or flote grasses (Glyceria spp.), small wide-leaved plants such as water mint (Mentha aquatica), and narrow-leaved plants such as water forget-me-not (Myosotis scorpioides).


The larvae hatch and develop in the pond and reach a length of 50 – 90mm before metamorphosing into juveniles known as ‘efts’ who grow up to 120mm in length and leave the pond for the first time. They have all the features of adults – black or dark brown skin with a warty appearance and orange ‘nail varnish’ on their claws, but it isn’t until the second season that the distinctive black patterning on their fiery bellies which marks each as an individual becomes fixed and, upon reaching sexual maturity that the male develops his eponymous crest and white tail-stripe. Males reach a maximum length of 170mm and females 130mm and on average they live for around 14 years.

Ponds are the only food source for newt larvae and and are an important part of the diet of adults, who feed on the tadpoles of frogs and sometimes other newts and invertebrates such as ‘water lice (Asellus spp.), water shrimps, small snails, lesser water boatmen (Corixa spp).,’ ‘fly larvae including the phantom midge (Chaoborus spp)’ and also ‘zooplankton such as water fleas (Daphnia spp)’. They also forage above ground, eating invertebrates ‘such as earthworms, insects, spiders and slugs.’

Most of the foraging activities of great crested newts take place within 250m of their breeding pond. When the juvenile newts disperse they may travel up to 1000m to colonise new ponds and attract a mate. Great crested newts fare best in a metapopulation – ‘a group of associated populations’ who ‘breed in, and live around a cluster of ponds.’ This means there is less threat if one or more ponds are lost.

Thus current conservation efforts are focusing on areas that are already well endowed with ponds in the North West. A whole new terminology, coined by Robin F. Grayson in 1994, has developed around this topic. A pondscape is a ‘landscape with six or more ponds shown on Pathfinder maps in each adjacent 1 km square of the National Grid.’ A ‘core pondscape is ‘where the mapped pond density is 15 or more ponds per 1 km square’. A pondway is ‘a linear tract of pondscape, typically 10 or more km in length’. A pond supercluster is ‘a large tract of pondscape, typically covering 100 square km.’

Pondways have been identified across Lancashire. I was delighted to find out there is a South Ribble Pondway, which is located not only in the borough of South Ribble, but covers a strip 25km long and 5km wide from the estuary of the river Douglas to Brockhall Hospital in Blackburn. Grayson links the end of the pondway with the failure of Northern Drift – sands, clays and erratics deposited by glaciers. There is also a North Ribble Pondway 9km long and 2.5km wide, a Wigan Pondway that links to the South Ribble Pondway in Croston that stretches 50km, and a Fylde Supercluster.

The creation of pondscapes for great crested newts fits well with other projects aiming to restore the water country such as the re-wetting of the drained wetlands around Martin Mere (WWT) and Leighton Moss (RSPB) and peat bogs such as Chat Moss and Winmarleigh Moss (LWT).

As winters become cooler and wetter and summers hotter and drier as a result of the climate crisis, the restoration of wetlands will be essential not only for human needs such as flood mitigation and carbon capture, but as homes for the wetland plants and creatures who are at increasing risk due to human and climatic pressures.

*The area around Martin Mere was known as ‘the Region Linuis’ ‘the Lake Region’ and John Porter refers to the Iron Age Setantii tribe of the Lancashire lowlands as ‘the Dwellers in the Water Country’.

SOURCES

Robin F. Grayson, ‘The Distribution and Conservation of the Ponds of North West England’, Lancashire Wildlife Journal, Numbers 2 & 3, (1992/3)

Robin F. Grayson, ‘Surveying and Monitoring Great Crested Newts’, English Nature, vol. 20, (1994)

Tom Langton, Catherine Beckett, and Jim Foster, Great Crested Newt Conservation Handbook, (Froglife, 2001)

‘New life to Europe’s oldest reptile and amphibians’, LIFE-Nature Project, (2006)

How to Speak of a Newt

in the twenty-first century?

Unreptilian metaphors –

white paint spots
orange nail varnish
road-marking tail

cannot capture his majesty.

When he comes to me
with his great tail-question
forefeet planted firmly on the floor

waxen crest waving like a dragon’s

and asks me to bear his progeny –
in back-leg leaf origami
to fold up our eggs

I am tempted by his
awesome belly-signature

the colour of fire the setting sun
reminding me of his salamandrine past
in ponds and pools of the Jurassic

to make his lek my dwelling place and give birth to efts –

each with their unique belly-stamp only one
of each in this ever-burning universe

with a fire-tipped tongue give them
mystical names – Sun-Spotted, Fire-Born,
Gold-Eye, Dragon Crest, Alchemist.

He forgets I am a nun – instead

I promise to renew the pond-ways,
the pond-scape, the ecology of land
and language so he, his mate, his young
will inspire poetry here on and on.

*I recently started a conservation internship at Brockholes Nature Reserve and the task of the volunteer work party on Tuesday was building habitat heaps from alder logs. Later in the day, serendipitously, Lorna Bennett, the reserve officer, found a great crested newt along with approximately 20 adult and juvenile smooth newts, 2 juvenile toads, and 5 frogs whilst moving some old compost bags. These amphibians have been placed safely into a habitat heap to hibernate over winter before they emerge in spring and hopefully head to the new ponds to breed. The ponds were created for them by LWT’s work with Natural England to remedy the decline in great crested newts.

Birthday Dragonfly

I.
You land
on her sky-blue
shoulder

four red dots
on the webbing
of your wings

red-tailed

eyes brown
and flickering
swivelling

like a rock star
with a guitar

washing soap
from your face
as if preparing
to make

a confession.

II.
It’s the 19th
of November

and over a year
since the accident
when my bike
met wings.

Since I
listened to
your message
and obeyed
the summons
of wetland
things.

III.
It is not you
who needs to confess
to make it up to the land
somehow but I

preserving
your pond from
willow and typha
and phragmites.

In this work
I forget my anxiety.

IV.
I can push
a wheelbarrow,
wield a mattock,
loppers, saw,

not like
technologies.

Weep for the willow
but know it will
survive

far longer
than electricity.

V.
In the midst
of the lockdown
the sun shines on
my birthday.

And you
are red on blue
washing the suds
from my eyes
clearing

the ponds

teaching me joy.

*I record my accidental killing of a common darter and the impact it had on my life HERE.
**These photographs were taken at Fishwick Bottoms Nature Reserve, Preston, where I currently volunteer on a Thursday.

Being in One’s Element

Over the years I have done lots of different jobs. Some I have enjoyed – poetry, writing, editing, working with horses, and others less so – packing, cleaning, admin, working in a supermarket.

Last year I gave up my supermarket job to begin volunteering with the Lancashire Wildlife Trust as a way into a career in conservation. Since then I have worked on a variety of habitats from meadows to woodlands to wetlands to peatlands. I’ve enjoyed tree planting, coppicing, dead hedging, removing tree stumps, building outdoor classrooms, and learnt how to use an axe and lay a hedge.

At my Damson Poets committee meeting last November I described my experiences of planting cross-leafed heath and hare’s tail cotton grass for the large heath butterfly on Highfield Moss. It was a tough but fulfilling day, carrying trays of plants over boggy terrain, welly deep in water, to create finger-holes in the sphagnum for the cross-leafed heath and dig larger holes with pokey sticks in drier areas for the hare’s tail cottongrass. Afterwards Terry Quinn commented, “you were in your element.”

Yes! I thought, he’s onto something there. Far more in my element in the mud and water than when I was stacking the shelves beneath the relentless lights or in a room of a million voices at a million screens. And at the same time, I must be one of a very small proportion of people who would rather spend a cold winter day welly deep in a peat bog rather than sitting in what they see to be a cosy office.

We, as human animals, have collectively been taken out of our element. Abducted by the mad rush of commercialism by which we feed and house and clothe ourselves. Taken away from what we saw as slow hard jobs out in nature – scything the meadows, digging vegetables, chopping wood.

At a great cost both to ourselves and the land for the gain of centrally heated houses, warm baths, running water, ready food, clean clothes, instant connections through phone, email, the internet. Comforts I acknowledge as elements of my life as I sit here in my warm room writing this blog post at my laptop, along with the fact that day in a peat bog would look far less appealing if they didn’t exist.

Still, like on the occasions I’ve worked with horses, I’ve found myself pulled away from the glowing screen. Whether I’m raking up meadow grass, planting trees on the muddy banks of a new stream, or chopping stakes for a new fence to the steady drum of rain on my hood I am in my element.

Take me out of solitude in my room or quiet company out in nature and put me in a brightly lit building filled with people rushing about, talking loudly, playing loud music, arguing, I quickly go insane. And I’m probably the odd one in my love of quietude in a society so addicted to noise I knew a girl who couldn’t sleep without the television on and a woman who left a radio on for her horse…

I’m coming to realise that being in my element is essential for both my physical and mental health. The benefits of being out in nature are becoming much more widely recognised in society as a whole with doctors prescribing time outside as an alternative to counselling and medication and eco-therapy and mindfulness and well being walks proliferating. However, it’s troubling to see that these are viewed as therapies and breaks from ‘normal’ life rather than as something essential to our being.

The need to be in my element is a determining factor not only in my choice to pursue a career in conservation but also in the type of job. There are many positions within the Wildlife Trust with different balances between indoors and outdoors and practical work in nature and engaging with the community.

Over the past few months I’ve worked out that, although I’m a writer, I find offices claustrophobic so a communications role wouldn’t suit me. Whilst I’m a poet and run the occasional workshop, as an introvert I find this work incredibly draining, so a community engagement role wouldn’t work either.

What excites me and calls to me and makes me happy is spending time immersed in nature, restoring and maintaining valuable habitats, giving back to the land, in the quiet company of others. Having done a combination of work on reserves and project work I’m beginning to realise that I would prefer to be grounded in a particular place, leading volunteer work parties throughout the year, than restoring somewhere as part of a particular project and then moving on to the next. This has helped me discern that I would be a better ranger, warden, or reserve officer than a project officer.

Another question that has been raised is what kind of habitat I’d like to work on. Where am I in my element? Whilst I enjoyed my day on Highfield Moss, in the Salford area, I recognised it is not ‘my place’. There is an incongruity in driving to a project 30 miles away which aims to help with carbon capture whilst leaving my own carbon footprint.

Unfortunately the mosslands that covered Penwortham, Hutton, Longton, and Farington, along with the intertidal marshlands that lay along the banks of the Ribble, have long been drained away. What we have left, in the wake of industry, is a ‘mosaic’ of habitats which are slowly being restored by the Wildlife Trust and other organisations.

Birch and mixed woodlands on the banks of old rail and tram ways or newly planted on landfill sites. Alder carr and willow scrub on the banks of streams too steep to build on and beside old ponds. Wet meadows sandwiched between roads and houses on boggy ground. New lakes in the pits of quarries planted with reed beds and re-wetted marshlands calling to them moorhens, coots, mute swans, widgeon, tufted ducks, reclusive bitterns, beginning to recall the ancient wetlands that once were.

These messy suburban places, too often seen as inferior to urban but not quite rural, as in between but not liminal, where bags of dog shit hang on trees and one can find the weirdest bottle bongs, but also, occasionally, might see the flash of the kingfisher come to feed on the lake or hear a willow tit, are my element. Not glamorous, I know, not unique, like the Manchester mosslands. Yet they are my place.

So it is toward being a ranger or a warden or a reserve officer as locally as possible where nature and industry and people meet in all their messiness and unexpected scraps of grandeur I will strive towards.

In being in my element, striving to be at one with the elements, even as they are seen to turn against us. To reclaiming an old way of being-with humans and non-humans, listening, sharing, before it is too late.