Of Worldly Career and Spiritual Vocation

So it reaches an end. The trajectory that began with volunteering on local nature reserves, took me into paid work restoring the Manchester Mosslands, and eventually led to me working for a local ecological consultancy on developments across the North West. 

Whereas my choice to work in conservation was guided my Gods, when my traineeship reached its end, and no conservation positions came up, I chose my ecology job because it was local, permanent, well paid, and offered financial security, and because I had a good interview and liked the people.

I knew next to nothing about ecology, the high pressure environment, how distant some of the sites would be, or how badly working nights would affect my mental health. I hadn’t thought through how I’d feel about working for developers, some just people who needed a bat survey for an extension on their home, but others who wanted to build on green spaces and nature reserves.

Working just one night a week, the dread beforehand and the tiredness afterwards, had a massive impact on my mental health due to my need for a regular routine and sleep pattern as an autistic person who suffers from anxiety. 

This, combined with travelling to sites over an hour’s drive away, and learning to write technical reports and mastering an unneccessarily complex and counterintuitive mapping system called QGIS whilst, at the same time, organising surveys, preparing quotes, and replying to clients, swiftly led to stress and burnt out.

Within a matter of weeks I went from being a happy, fit, and confident person with hopes of excelling in botany, pursuing an MSc in ecology, and running an official half marathon to being unable to read academic articles or comprehend the logistics of getting to a run or navigating the crowds.

I started waking early in the morning in tears and crying until I went to the gym or on a run and somehow cried all the way through a run on a very bad day.

I turned up in tears, managed to get on with my work, in spite of the crushing feeling in head, which increased as the day went on and throughout the week. I drove the wrong way up to M62 and through a red traffic light. I got hopelesssly muddled on a survey and drew the map the wrong way up. One day my brain melted to the point I couldn’t recall what a PDF was.

My manager took me off nights and I stayed because I liked the team, who were kind and supportive, because I didn’t want to let them down, because it was my mistake for rushing into what was the wrong job but right location and people.

I didn’t speak much to my Gods at first. But when drinking ceased to cure my troubles and I realised it was doing me more harm than good, both in my work life, and strength training and running performance, I began to pray. 

I began to seek a place of retreat and healing as respite from an overwhelming world. “Remember who you are,” said Gwyn, recalling me to my vocation as an awenydd, as Sister Patience, as a nun of Annwn.

Somewhat laughably, as is often the case of Gwyn, at a time when I was craving financial security due to fear of losing my job, He told me do the thing least likely to make money in the world – “build the Monastery of Annwn”.

Yet His imperative, my vocation, could not be ignored. I have set up the Monastery of Annwn as a virtual space; started laying the foundations in terms of daily devotions, a ritual year, and practices such as journeying to Annwn and tending Creiddylad’s Garden; and begun dialogue with others.

Desiring to partake in lectio divina and lacking an Annuvian creation myth I have been inspired to return to writing one – a pursuit I began a couple of years back with a book called The Dragon’s Tongue, which didn’t work out. 

This attempt to weave a new creation story, from the perspective of the Annuvian Gods, from the existing Welsh and Irish myths and also drawing on the Mesopotamian epic ‘Enuma Elish’ and the Bible has been renewed as ‘In the Deep’ (the antithesis of ‘When On High’ – the translation of ‘Enuma Elish’). 

In returning to devotional writing I have found deep joy, which has dissipated as soon as the stresses of work and worldly career have got in the way. 

This positive discovery/recovery combined with the knowledge that, as an autistic person, I am not suited to full time high pressure work, has led to the decision to hand in my notice at my ecology job and seek less stressful, part time work in conservation or horticulture that will allow me to fulfil my vocation.

It has been a relief and a release. Although I have two months’ notice to work I have a myth to tend, a monastery to build, and can find solace at my altar and in Creiddylad’s garden, where the bees are loving the blue geraniums and the foxgloves I grew from seed last year are looking magnificent.

By Fire and Bog and Sphagnum Moss – My Journey from Greater Manchester Wetlands Trainee to Graduate Ecologist

In November 2019 I gave up my supermarket job and started volunteering with the Lancashire Wildlife Trust with the aim of progressing to a career in conservation. This led to a voluntary conservation internship at Brockholes Nature Reserve and then to paid work as a Greater Manchester Wetlands Trainee. 

I was based on the Manchester Mosslands, which include the last remnants of Chat Moss – Little Woolden Moss, Cadishead Moss, Astley Moss, and Rindle Moss, and a couple of others such as Highfield Moss and Red Moss. 

The long drive, up to a 70 mile round trip, an hour each way, longer in heavy traffic, came as a shock to the system after cycling to my local nature reserves.

Over the course of my year-long contract I have faced many challenges, learnt new skills, and had some valuable and transformational experiences. On my first day I was introduced to a piece of fire damaged wet heath and set the task of delivering its restoration and, following training in vegetation surveys, monitoring its progress.

I progressed from helping with volunteer work parties to leading them. Over a long, hot summer we pulled bracken, bashed Himalayan Balsam, and fixed fences. Making the beginner’s mistake of going out in shorts and t-shirt, I had a run in not only with midges, mosquitoes, and horseflies, but the particularly nasty and disarmingly pretty twin-lobed deerfly. This led to itching for days and blisters on my legs I got popped at the doctors. Since then, following advice, I have worn a horse-fly proof shirt and trousers.

One of my toughest challenges was carrying out a site assessment for Cadishead Moss and updating the management plan. Through this I started getting my head around the JNCC and NVC habitat classifications. I was delighted to find that, since the original management plan was written in 2011, this area of degraded lowland raised bog was showing signs of recovering following the scrub clearance, bunding, and revegetating work.

Having enjoyed planting peatland plants I learnt to grow them at Prince’s Park Garden Centre. This involved harvesting cottongrass seed sustainably from the mosslands and sowing it.

I took cuttings from and propagated heather, cross-leaved heath, and other specialist bog plants, and collected Sphagnum to create bog-in-a-boxes. This resulted in an introductory booklet on peatland plants. I also led an AQA in Peatland Conservation and Horticulture for adults with learning disabilities. It was fulfilling to see them progress and see their expressions when they got to the mosslands to plant what they had grown.

I was allowed to pursue a personal interest by researching the prehistoric archaeology of Chat Moss, producing articles, and giving an online talk. I wrote and recorded a series of poems called ‘Ghost Wolf Rises’ for a poetry trail in New Moss Wood and had the opportunity to perform at the Deep Peat event.

A personal highlight has been learning to identify Sphagnum mosses with Anna Keightley, a volunteer with the Sphagnum Squad and a post-doctoral research associate at Manchester Metropolitan University. Following this I shared my knowledge through running training sessions for volunteers.

The aspect of the role I struggled with the most was project management. When I was asked to plan and deliver some contract planting I enjoyed making the maps (once I’d got to grips with QGIS*) but struggled with the delivery due to my insecurities about managing people, uncertainties around contractor availability, and delays with plant deliveries. 

At this point I noticed that, on the mosslands, due to the landscape scale nature of the work, there is a lot more project management than on other nature reserves. I noticed my colleagues taking on increasing amounts and realised this may not be the path for me.

Ascertaining I was autistic half way through also led to a confidence crisis. How, aged forty, as someone with a life-long neuro-developmental difference, could I hope to compete with young, neurotypical people in such a competitive job industry?

However, in spite of my fears about my abilities to use machinery as an autistic person, I gained my LANTRA qualifications in using a brushcutter, a clearing saw and pesticides.

Over the course of my traineeship I took an increasing interest in surveying and monitoring. I surveyed for moths, butterflies, and bog bush crickets (who we also tried to catch for a reintroduction project – not easy!). I attended a spider identification workshop with Richard Burkmar at Rixton Clay Pits and began working with him to set up spider surveys on Little Woolden Moss and worked on our survey methodologies.

I gained experience of setting up Eyes on the Bog and carried out habitat assessments for the feasibility of reintroducing the White-faced Darter dragonfly. For the latter we surveyed for aquatic invertebrates and, as well as dragonfly nymphs, water boatmen, and others we discovered what might be larvae of the rare cranefly Phalocrocera replicata

At this time, when I realised no jobs were going to come up on the mosslands before the end of my traineeship, I began applying elsewhere. I applied for a seasonal nursery worker job, a job as a neighbourhood operative on local parks, and sent my CV to a few local ecological consultancies in the hope that they might have seasonal survey work. 

To my surprise two consultancies got back to me soon afterwards. One, Ecology Services in Longton, just three miles cycling distance from my home, swiftly arranged an interview, then, two days later, offered me not only seasonal work but a full-time permanent position as a Graduate Ecologist on a generous wage.

So, I am destined to be an ecologist. This isn’t something I predicted at the outset of my traineeship, but it became a possibility as my passion for surveying and learning about various species and the ways they interact with their habitats developed. 

It fits with my interest in botany and bryology and spiritual calling as an awenydd to deepen my relationship with the natural world by learning the names of the plants and creatures, their distinguishing features, visible and microscopic, the processes by which they interact with their environment, the poetry of small things.

I am also considering complementing my new job by pursuing a part-time MSc in Biological Recording and Ecological Monitoring at Manchester Metropolitan University. This provides a grounding in research methods and opportunities to specialise in areas such as mosses and invertebrates.

A period of upheaval and self-doubt has been followed by confirmation of my ability to gain a Graduate Ecologist position and that I’m a good fit for the MSc.

I’m currently in transition, working the last fortnight of my traineeship, before beginning my ecologist position on March the 3rd. I am grateful to my line manager, Jamie Lawson, the Peat Team, the volunteers, and all at Prince’s Park, for what I have learnt on the mosslands and am looking forward to moving on into my new role.

*This online geographic information system is notoriously difficult and counterintuitive and learning it has been a source of both pleasure and woe.