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.

I Say Farewell

Farewell Little Woolden Moss.
Farewell Great Manchester Wetlands –
an end of contract and news of a failed job interview
fall on the same day but I haven’t failed
because we planted that last plant,

that last little plug plant of common cottongrass,

greening and rimmed with red like a sunset,
ready to turn golden next month’s dawn.

Farewell to hare’s tail cottongrass,
tails showing like the tails of brown hares
racing up and down the bunds like celebrities.

Farewell to all eleven species of sphagnum,
bog rosemary, cross-leafed heath, long
may you grow and prosper beauties.

Farewell to the oyster catchers who we saw
back-to-back on the bund, reflected in the water,
who cried weep weep in the air far from human tears.

Farewell to the lapwings in their black-and-white mating flight.

Farewell to the curlews with their cur-lee cur-lee-eee,
to the four flying over with down-curved beaks.

Farewell to the skylarks keeping our spirits up
and to the meadow pipits piping away.

Farewell to those I worked with now friends.

Farewell to the porter cabin and the fact we had a toilet.

Farewell to the journeys down the M6 (busy and contentious).

Farewell to a journey now complete – back home now
I will wait, again, to hear the will of the gods…

~

This poem relates to the completion of the contract work I have been carrying out planting on Little Woolden Moss for the Lancashire Wildlife Trust and my failure, on interview, to gain the paid position of Great Manchester Wetlands Trainee.

These photographs show the development of common cottongrass on a mossland over time.