Leaving with Flowers

Yesterday I finished my graduate ecologist job with Ecology Services Ltd in Longton. It was a bittersweet moment for I had worked with a brilliant team who are amongst the nicest people I have ever met and in many ways the jobs was ideal. There were lots of learning opportunities, a lot of support, and a high level of professionalism in the rigour of the writing and editing of reports. 

However, I could not cope with the demands of the job due to my autism. These included some stresses endemic to ecology and others more widely to the working world – night shifts, long hours, travelling to new places, frequent changes in routine, working to tight deadlines, multi-tasking, spending 7.5 hours in front of a screen with limited breaks for lunch and brews.

When I first started seeking work in the environmental sector, in conservation, in 2019, I did so under the mistaken idea that it would be like conservation volunteering – practical and survey work every day of the week. As I progressed from volunteer, to volunteer intern, to paid trainee, I realised that such jobs are few and far between and that most people are expected to ‘progress’ to taking responsibility for project and people management. 

Most paths lead from outdoors to the office and require skills outside my skillset – being good with spreadsheets and numbers and mastering the horrendously complex and counterintuitive mapping system which has been the bane of my life since I started following this career path – QGIS.

It’s taken me a while to realise I’ve made a wrong turning for some of the right reasons (such as wanting to learn more about the fascinating plant and animal species who we live alongside of and wanting to give back to the land) and some of the wrong reasons (such as wanting to excel and climb the career ladder and craving not only financial security but more money than I need).

In the process I have gained my creativity and my commitment to my spiritual vocation as an awenydd in service to my Gods and Goddesses back. I have learnt that this is where my skills and passion lie and that I must put this first, whether it means either working full time for a while to buy time for my creativity or working part-time and creating alongside my work. 

As my work is so niche and, a long while back, I sacrificed my ambition to be a professional writer to Gwyn, my Patron God, in return for inspiration from the Otherworld, I know I will never make a living from writing alone so must go on trying to strike a balance between the all-consuming demands of the awen and my financial needs. 

On my last day my colleagues bought me flowers along with a card and a book. I think it’s the first time in my life I’ve ever been bought flowers. Beautiful, fragrant, a reminder of a sometimes lovely and sometimes difficult time.

I have no regrets, only memories, which will soon pass like flowers, not to be forgotten, but to be left behind, as I leave the environmental sector, to devote the next two or three years this time has bought to writing my next three books.

Midsummer Madness and ‘In the Deep’

Three long years, almost devoid of inspiration, since I made my lifelong vows to You, where have You been? You told me to plant cottongrass. Afterwards, I strayed from vocation to career, to safety and security, lashing myself to the Oak. When You wanted me to fall, instead, I climbed a little higher and clung on, resisting the inevitable, why would I resist the fall into Your Cauldron?

*

Three years ago, on the Night of the Super Blood Wolf Moon, I made my lifelong vows to my patron god, Gwyn ap Nudd. I didn’t know what would happen, but I hoped it would be like my first set of vows in 2013 when I dedicated myself to Him as His Apprentice and wrote three books for Him in three years.

Nope. It was incredibly messy. A stress fracture to my foot. An umbilical hernia operation. My navel displaced and all the world around me out of synch. I wanted rebirth. Now. But that was not what the tarot cards showed me.

On that night I held a vigil, before the Lunar Eclipse, at 5.12am, of Seven Hours. For each hour a card and I cannot yet speak of them all but can say I used the Wildwood Tarot and the cards that concern this article were the third and the fourth – ’16 – The Blasted Oak’ and the ‘Eight of Vessels – Rebirth.’

I’m into the third year and moving into the fourth. After my peatland conservation traineeship on the Manchester Mosslands I’d wanted to stay on in spite of the driving distance and, when I realised I could not, I’d applied for and gained a local ecology job, not knowing fully what that entailed.

A series of autistic meltdowns later, brought on by doing just one shift of nightwork and shifting from physical outdoor work to intensive survey work and technical report writing along with trying to master the QGIS mapping system, reduced me to a state in which I couldn’t remember the word for a PDF and to collapsing in tears in the middle of a golf course, in a hard hat and hi-vis, whilst removing bat statics with one of our bemused contractors.

Gods damned autism, why can’t I be normal, neurotypical? Is this autism or some kind of rebellion of my soul? At first I was gutted when I realised my limitations meant I could never be an ecologist, and then the inspiration returned.

‘believing in the illusion of material power can only end in spiritual isolation, stagnation and collapse… as we fall, the power that floods our senses with pain also cleanses and burns away the illusions and falsehoods… our senses are alive with with the heat of life. Our emotions are ablaze with passion. Perhaps we had forgotten the intensity of desire, the need to keep struggling for understanding. The essence of true strength and enduring spirit cannot be bought with gold or position or grandiose esoteric theory. It is found in the ashes of and flames of nature’s own ‘wild’ card.’
– The Wildwood Tarot

The heat of life. The blaze of passion. In the visions that surrounded the tarot cards I was a bird shot down from the Oak Tree, who fell into the Cauldron, only I was not just boiled in the Cauldron, blood and bones, but I became it.

After I handed in my notice the inspiration returned. A book called ‘The Dragon’s Tongue’, which I began in the first lockdown, in 2020, an attempt at writing an ancient British creation myth with the perspectives of Gwyn and Creiddylad, rulers of Annwn, the Otherworld, at its heart, demanded to be rewritten. 

It was as if, again, I’d become the Cauldron, and could not stop boiling until it was done. Over midsummer, when I’d taken some outstanding leave, I completed the first draft over five dazzling days, hardly dare to look back at it.

It’s called ‘In the Deep’ and I hope it will form a trilogy with two other books whose titles have been in my mind – ‘The Gates of Annwn’ and ‘The Black Dragon’. 

Over the past couple of years I have learnt the cost of sacrificing vocation for career, the void of lack of creativity, the foolishness of trying to lash myself to the Oak. The futility of the attempts, the pretence, of being ‘normal’. What next?

Autism and Challenge

Last September I was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder level one, a lifelong neurodevelopmental disability. This is the ‘mildest level’ and is given to people who can cope with some situations so well that others do not know there is a difference in the way they process information, but once they get to know them, and see them in more challenging situations, notice the differences.

I was told that it is possible to ‘move up and down the levels’. Although I have never been at a level where I need a support worker, it has certainly been the case that I have moved up and down level one – had some phases in my life where I have felt almost neurotypical and others when I’ve felt very autistic.

I have noticed this most acutely in my response to challenge and what constitutes a challenge. Many easy, everyday activities, which are not challenging for a neurotypical person are often very challenging for an autistic person. This is due to a combination of sensory sensitivity and the anxiety that comes from difficulties with interpreting social signals and processing complex information from multiple sources at once.

I hit my lowest level in my early twenties when I was in the second year of university when I had what I believe, looking back, to be an autistic meltdown. This was brought on by the combination of the pressures of achieving a good degree and by poor lifestyle choices – going out drinking and taking drugs two or three times nights a week disrupted my sleep pattern and left me with insomnia, anxiety, and experiences of derealisation.

A massive panic attack on the motorway led me to give up driving. It was a challenge to get out of the house, onto the bus, and to university. I sat at the back in lectures, crying quietly, silent tears running down my face. Everything, everyone, was threatening. When I talked to my lecturers I felt so panicky and light-headed I thought I was going to faint or float away. One day I sat alone staring at a tomato on my sandwich unable to recall what it was.

Nobody noticed. When I had occasional sobbing fits or freaked out about something the response of my ‘friends’ was ‘Lorna’s going west again.’

***

Eventually I sought help. I had a good doctor. We worked out that sleeping tablets and beta blockers weren’t helpful for my insomnia or panic attacks. I got put on a medication called Venlafaxine that helped regulate my sleeping patterns and mood and allowed me to establish a healthy sleep and exercise regime.

Unfortunately, when I was referred to a psychiatrist, I was told I wasn’t eligible for treatment because I hadn’t attempted suicide, in spite of self-harming.

Luckily the medication and developing a good routine helped (it was also helpful that I couldn’t drink on Venflaxine!). I ‘got better’ and, in my third year, got 80% in my dissertation, resulting in a first class degree in Philosophy and English.

Since coming off medication I have had many ups and downs. Sleep and exercise have been the key to leading a near-normal life, but I have been unable to overcome a number of challenges that neurotypical people can handle.

I failed to cope with working nearly full-time at the same time as studying for a PhD (as I didn’t get funding). When I worked as a groom I struggled with six day weeks, late nights and early mornings, and the stress of preparing for competitions.

During the period I moved back in with my parents and devoted my time to my spiritual path and writing, at some points working part-time and at some not at all, I was able to live by my ideal routine, getting up early, doing my devotions, writing, exercising, gardening, early bed. But the benefits of this lifestyle were overshadowed by my anxieties about my inability to make a living.

***

When I realised I would never be able to make a living from my writing I turned to conservation, as something I’d volunteered in, and believed in. Slowly I took the steps, faced the challenges, of progressing from a volunteer, to a volunteer intern, to a trainee, before moving into ecology.

As an autistic person every new thing was challenging – travelling to a new place, meeting a new group, learning a new task or to use a new tool. On my first day as an intern at Brockholes I was terrified of using a radio due to how self conscious I felt about my voice and of losing the key to the tool cabin.

With support I progressed to being able to do most of the tasks needed for the smooth running of LWT’s flagship reserve including driving the pick-up (which I was, at first, extremely nervous about reversing due to poor spatial awareness).

It helped that I figured out I was autistic when I was in counselling for anxiety at this point, so was able to locate the root of my limitations and explain them to the reserve officers, who were both supportive and understanding.

My traineeship with the Lancashire Wildlife Trust on the Manchester mosslands was even more challenging not only due to the long drive but to stepping up from a volunteer into a paid role and taking on more responsibility.

I faced and overcame a number of challenges such as leading volunteer work parties and AQAs, passing machinery tickets, and carrying out surveys. I coped because I was open with my line manager about my autism and he gave me a manageable workload and a regular routine.

Completing my traineeship gave me a lot more confidence and led to me gaining a new job as a graduate ecologist at a local ecological consultancy. This job has brought its own challenges – new surveys, new vans to drive, driving to new places, and, again, my manager and my colleagues have been very understanding about my autism and allowed me to tackle one thing at a time.

The thing I have found most difficult, which surprised me at first, but shouldn’t have done looking back, has been dealing with night work. During my traineeship I had a fixed routine of getting up at 4.30am, doing my devotions and meditation, exercising, then working five hours onsite and two and a half hours admin from home flexibly, eating, bathing, studying and/or writing and getting to sleep by 8.30pm.

Going out to do great crested newt surveys when I would be going to bed and getting in a few hours after my bed time has been draining and disorientating. The next day and, for a couple of days afterwards, I’ve not only felt tired but been in a low mood and had trouble concentrating and with fending off negative thoughts that don’t usually come through when I’ve had eight hours sleep.

It has been a blessing to be part of a team who are very aware about mental health. I have told my manager how important both sleep and exercise are to maintaining my mental health and we have agreed that I never need to start earlier than 8am, so I can get my exercise in, and I can do only one night a week. In a profession in which night work is central I am very grateful for this.

In the couple of months I have been at Ecology Services Ltd I have not only learnt to carry out surveys, but the process from start to finish, from speaking to a client, setting up a quote, organising the survey, doing it, and writing a report, and found a great deal of pride in doing the job and doing it well.

At present I’m coping and feel like I’ve grown in confidence quite a lot. However, I am apprehensive about the fact that the nights are getting longer and that bat season, the busiest time of the year, is approaching. I am hoping that, with continued support, I will be able to make it through the summer.

Ecology and the Language of Home

I.
‘Ecology’ from the Greek oikos and logos
seems to suggest there is a logic to our home.

And ‘home’ from ham (like in Penwortham),
from the German heim, from the Norse heimr
‘abode, world, land,’ is so much more than a haus.

Hiraeth is the Welsh word for the longing for a home.

II.
Do the Welsh gods want this English awenydd
to untangle the threads, to follow this longing back
to when she started asking questions about her home:

“Why did only one group of snowdrops from the hundred
bulbs we planted in Greencroft Valley ever come up?”

“Why did the bluebells take so many years to appear?”

“How do the crocuses spread around the garden?”

“Why do the starlings disappear come back greedier?”

“Why did the mouse come in May and make a nest of my feathers?”

“What is it with spiders and September?”

III. 
Do we ask science to explain
because we are no longer able to talk to
the creatures because we have forgotten their language?

Because we have forgotten how to speak and share our home?

Did we know the answers to these questions long ago
when we were more at home rather than longing?

Is it the ecologist’s task to call us home

with all the words in her repertoire –
Anglo-Saxon, Brythonic, Latin, Greek?

IV.
In the Norse myths
Heimdallr guards against
the threats to the home such as
invaders, Ragnarok, the end of the world.

One blast on his horn will blow a warning.

Is it the ecologist’s task to be a horn-blower?

To sound the alarm and call us back?

*This poem is a series of reflections on my transition from working many miles away restoring the Manchester Mosslands to my new job as a Graduate Ecologist much closer to home. I am seeing it as a form of homecoming.