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…

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.