Being Sister Patience

I.
It started as a joke.

I can’t remember exactly when. It might have been around this last time last year. I was being characteristically irascible, rash, impatient, none of the qualities that you’d associate with being a nun.

“Sister Patience,” I heard the mocking voice of my patron god, Gwyn.

It irked me, but it also awoke and called to something deep within.

Rising to his challenge, “I will be Sister Patience,” I told him.

And that was how Sister Patience came to be.

II.
She came into my life as an alter ego at first, as I struggled through my traineeship with the Lancashire Wildlife Trust on the Manchester Mosslands, helping me shape and find respite in the sanctuary of Creiddylad’s Garden.

I wrote this poem about her last summer:

The Sanctuary of Sister Patience

Weeks of weeding
are fundamental to the path,

to the wedding of him and her and him –
Gwyn and Creiddylad and Gwythyr.

When Summer’s King vaults over the wall
all the flowers turn their heads towards him, as if to a beam of light.

All the plants need the light and dark reaction to photosynthesise and this is written on her habit in an obscure symbol on one of her voluminous cuffs.

He who stole the light of Bel and Belisama and gave it to mankind…

When he arrives in her garden it is yestereve, yesteryear,
and all the flowers are gloaming and he longs
to know what lies beneath her cowl
for her eyes are two moons
that will shine

upon a future world that will never stop flowering with its own weathernarium…

He is all heat and fire and flame
and she is patience…

in Annwn, in the soil, in the mycorrhizae,
in the roots, in the shoots, in the leaves, in the flowers, turning
towards the light and these are the mysteries –

the poetry of nature not
of the bardic seat.

Like the ranunculi
are the wanderings of
the wild nuns knowing no order –

their names a mixing of Latin, Greek, 
Norse, Anglo-Saxon, Welsh, common and binomial.

This I was taught by the comfrey I bought
when I was first learning to ‘do magic’,
which worked its magic here,

filling my garden with purple flowers,

smelling soothing as the healing of bones,
one of the favourites of Old Mother Universe.

She loves the first one or two tiny cotyledons
of every plant reaching for the light not knowing their origins.

She carries the seeds of all the worlds in the brown paper envelopes
in her pockets rustling when she walks, so carefully labelled
in the language of Old Mother Universe only she knows – 
the names, the dates, the places, so distant…

With them she will build her sanctuary
beyond the trowelling
of my pulse.

III.

Since then, slowly, imperceptibly, the miles between us have closed.

I’ve been patient. I’ve completed my traineeship. I’ve moved on into a new job as a graduate ecologist in which I’ve been faced with a whole new set of challenges. Not only learning to carry out new surveys but a whole new skillset on the admin side – providing quotes, carrying out desktop studies, writing reports, learning to see a job through from beginning to end.

It’s been a steep learning curve and not without its ups and downs. As an autistic person who likes routine and staying close to home I have struggled with travelling long distances to new places and, in particular, with night work.

One of the surveys is monitoring great created newt and wider amphibian populations as part of mitigation schemes on developments. This involves arriving before sunset to set bottle traps, waiting until after sunset to survey for newts by torchlight (as they’re active after dark), then returning early in the morning to empty the bottle traps. This work can only be done in the company of an experienced licence holder who is qualified to handle the newts.

It’s fascinating work and it is a privilege to see these beautiful creatures up close. It’s also a shake-up to my routine, most days get up at 4.30am to do my devotions, meditate, study, and go to the gym or run before cycling to work for 9am, finishing at 5pm, eating, winding down, and being asleep by 8.30pm.

I’ve been lucky to be part of a team who are not only incredibly knowledgeable and experienced, but also supportive and mental health aware. I’ve been able to be open with them about my autism and the anxiety that stems from it from the start. For now, my manager has allowed me to start no earlier than 8am, so that I have time for spirituality and exercise, which are both essential for my mental health, and to do only one night a week.

They have been patient with me and, although I’ve felt like I’ve been slow, looking back, over just a month and a half I have learnt a huge suite of new skills, from assessing habitats and writing species lists on Preliminary Ecological Assessments, wading up rivers looking for otter spraints and prints, investigating buildings for signs of bats, to mastering the routine admin.

When I’ve been tired and shaken and overwhelmed I have walked with Sister Patience and together we have shaped her sanctuary in Creiddylad’s Garden.

IV.
I have been patient.

The garden is coming into bloom.

I have found a job where I belong and feel fulfilled.

On work days I am an ecologist and, in my own time, I am Sister Patience.

I’m hoping the two sister strands of my life will one day intertwine to become one and that this job will provide the financial grounds to shape my sanctuary and, perhaps, one day, build the Monastery of Annwn*.

*Whether this is meant to be a physical or spiritual place I don’t yet know…

Getting to Know Grasses

Of all the plants I have always found grasses the least enchanting.

Garden lawns, roadside verges, the turfs of sports fields and bowling greens. Amenity grasslands where the diverse species are reduced to ‘grass’.

I’ve disliked grasses when they’re tame and when they’re wild and misbehave.

I’ve hated the grass on the green in Greencroft Valley more than the weeds for taking over the wildflower meadow, reducing floral diversity to the homogenous greenery beloved of local councils and small-minded humans.

I’m allergic to grass. It makes me itch and its pollen triggers my hay fever.

Yet the grass family, the Poaceae, the fifth largest plant family on this planet, is an essential food source for humans and for a variety of other mammals including the animal I am closest to, the horse, who evolved along with grasses 55 million years ago, its long teeth evolving as it moved away from fruit.

In my new job as a Graduate Ecologist I have been training to carry out Extended Phase One Habitat Surveys and this involves learning to assess whether a grassland is neutral, acid, or calcareous; unimproved, semi-improved, improved or poor, based upon the species present.

To tell individual grasses from grass you need to get familiar with their structure: roots, rhizomes or stolons, sheath and blade, nodes, culm, the inflorescence and its spikelets, awned and unawned, the number of florets and, within each floret, the glumes, anthers, stigma, lemma, and palea. Then, importantly, there’s the ligule, where the blade meets the sheath, which can be long and pointed, short and blunt, a ring of hairs, and sometimes has auricles.

It’s difficult but not impossible. And, fortunately, I have an eye for detail and am quick to pick up on the general feeling, often called the ‘jizz’ of another being.

As I’ve learnt the names and distinguishing features of the different grasses: Yorkshire fog (Holcus lanatus) with its ‘striped pyjamas’ at the base of the stems, common couch (Elymus repens) with its spikelets broadside like fairy couches, perennial rye grass (Lolium perenne) with its silvery underside, cock’s foot (Dactylus glomerata) named for the shape of its inflorescences and a huge plant with flat stems growing in tussocks, contrasting with the fine wiry leaves of the delicate red fescue (Fesca rubra) and the unforgettable creeping soft grass (Holcus mollis) with its ‘hairy knees’ I have come to see them as individuals and not as the antagonistic homogenous mass I called grass.

I have a long way to go until I know grasses but, at least, I’m taking the first steps.

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.

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.