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.

The 2.6 Challenge: 26 Wildflower Poems for the Lancashire Wildlife Trust

Between the 26th of April and the 3rd of May I took part in the 2.6 Challenge by writing 26 wildflower poems to raise money for the Lancashire Wildlife Trust. Through the kind support of the followers of this blog I not only met my £260 target but raised £349 to help LWT continue to carry out their valuable work managing local habitats for wildlife and people. Below is a selection of the poems.

1. Primroses at the Junction

Prima rosa they say
you are the first of flowers.
Primula vulgaris they say
that you are common

as dirt, this sacred dirt,
this holy dirt in which I dig,
overturning pieces of clinker –
memories of railway line.

Ghosts linger of navvies.
Ghost trains thunder by filled
with wide-eyed passengers
staring at flower-planters.

At the junction times
and worlds collide. That me
failed to glimpse this me in
the future at a standstill

where primroses thrive
common and holy as dirt
at what feels like the end or
the beginning of the line.

4. That Little White Flower

You’re the little brown job
of the wildflower world

seen everywhere but never
named (by this amateur
wildflower spotter at least!).

Woodland-edger, little crack
lurker, pavement-lover, bridge-
walker, stair-climber, hardy
white-flower hairy-stemmed
with winning rosette of leaves

it takes me years of peering
into the cracks of books chewing
the cud of internet’s tasteless pages
to find out you are hairy bitter-cress,
lamb’s cress, land cress, spring cress,
the stune of the Anglo-Saxon charm
standing heroically against poison.

Perhaps you save us just a little
when you walk these deadly streets
from the choke of exhausts from
the poison without and within.

If only more of us could thank you
by speaking by your names.

5. Herding Cows

They slip into time –
a herd of fairy cattle
with yellow faces

spilling their colours
on the railway banks
munching sunshine.

Happy and contented
until the fairy woman

calls out their names:

Bold Yellow,
Miss Yellow Hood,
White Yellow Eared,
Yellow Feet Dancing,
Quickest of Yellows,
Old Yellow Tail,
Yellow’s End.

Until the fairy woman
calls them back to yellow
the hills of her domain.

8. You May…

Call me May Flower.
Call me Cuckoo Flower.
Call me Lady’s Smock.
Call me Milk Maids

with my white skirts
carrying four shiny pails
pretty in the meadows
on the first of May.

After sunset you may
call me anything you want
except your fragile flower,
your darling May bud.


9. The Bell Without a Ringer

You are the bell that tolls without a ringer
on the first of May – the Fairy King is Dead!

Who? Who killed him? Who made you so blue?
Do you not know that he is eternal and will rise

again from his tomb in the Castle of Cold Stone?
The landscape sways to the nodding of your

hooded heads before from your green leaves
steps the Fairy Queen and her new King.

A brand new tolling across the woodland –
the King is dead! Long live the King!

12. Cow Parsley’s Present

You grow up madly like a child
throwing styrofoam out of a box.
Your mad growth is bottomless.
Nobody knows what you got.

14. Theme Park

You are a theme park
of a flower lantern-headed
your purple and orange signs
always say open never closed.

The common carder bee loves
to swing from you red-tailed
bumblebee and honeybee
the flies I cannot name.

You thrive because you
run not on money and profit
but on nectar freely given when
our theme parks are shut down.

I come to Water Avens a tiny
passenger on fly-back promise
to carry my share of pollen for
one ride in your nodding car.

17. Horsetail

I pull it out.

It pulls me down,
clinging to the contrary
mare’s dock to a swamp where
it grows tree tall.

A helicopter lies
crashed like a dragonfly,
multicoloured wires hanging out,
propeller spinning, four diaphanous
wings folded, broken,
like a child’s toy.

Its imprint is like a fossil.

Toy soldiers
with tiny guns gather round.
They flee when they smell
the burning petrol.

21. Hedge Twinkler

sparkler in a thorny night
purple periwinkle winking
from Creiddylad’s garden
flower of the fairy sight.

26. Healing Prayer

Self-heal, woundwort,
brownwort, heart-of-the-earth
with purple cones and lance-like leaves
will you lance our wounds retune
our energy help us heal-all?

*Page updated from poetry half marathon to this summary and selection 06/05/2020.

April Dogs

This is not an April Fool but an April Dog! As many people cannot visit local nature reserves due to the COVID-19 restrictions I am offering a free digital copy of my latest poetry pamphlet ‘April Dogs’. This collection honours the birds and other creatures of the wetlands and coasts of Lancashire and beyond and touches on the themes of the climate crisis, science, and war. Most of the poems were written in response to encounters with wetland birds on my stretch of the river Ribble and visiting reserves such as LWT’s Brockholes, WWT Martin Mere, and RSPB Leighton Moss.

You can download your PDF of April Dogs by clicking HERE.

Being in One’s Element

Over the years I have done lots of different jobs. Some I have enjoyed – poetry, writing, editing, working with horses, and others less so – packing, cleaning, admin, working in a supermarket.

Last year I gave up my supermarket job to begin volunteering with the Lancashire Wildlife Trust as a way into a career in conservation. Since then I have worked on a variety of habitats from meadows to woodlands to wetlands to peatlands. I’ve enjoyed tree planting, coppicing, dead hedging, removing tree stumps, building outdoor classrooms, and learnt how to use an axe and lay a hedge.

At my Damson Poets committee meeting last November I described my experiences of planting cross-leafed heath and hare’s tail cotton grass for the large heath butterfly on Highfield Moss. It was a tough but fulfilling day, carrying trays of plants over boggy terrain, welly deep in water, to create finger-holes in the sphagnum for the cross-leafed heath and dig larger holes with pokey sticks in drier areas for the hare’s tail cottongrass. Afterwards Terry Quinn commented, “you were in your element.”

Yes! I thought, he’s onto something there. Far more in my element in the mud and water than when I was stacking the shelves beneath the relentless lights or in a room of a million voices at a million screens. And at the same time, I must be one of a very small proportion of people who would rather spend a cold winter day welly deep in a peat bog rather than sitting in what they see to be a cosy office.

We, as human animals, have collectively been taken out of our element. Abducted by the mad rush of commercialism by which we feed and house and clothe ourselves. Taken away from what we saw as slow hard jobs out in nature – scything the meadows, digging vegetables, chopping wood.

At a great cost both to ourselves and the land for the gain of centrally heated houses, warm baths, running water, ready food, clean clothes, instant connections through phone, email, the internet. Comforts I acknowledge as elements of my life as I sit here in my warm room writing this blog post at my laptop, along with the fact that day in a peat bog would look far less appealing if they didn’t exist.

Still, like on the occasions I’ve worked with horses, I’ve found myself pulled away from the glowing screen. Whether I’m raking up meadow grass, planting trees on the muddy banks of a new stream, or chopping stakes for a new fence to the steady drum of rain on my hood I am in my element.

Take me out of solitude in my room or quiet company out in nature and put me in a brightly lit building filled with people rushing about, talking loudly, playing loud music, arguing, I quickly go insane. And I’m probably the odd one in my love of quietude in a society so addicted to noise I knew a girl who couldn’t sleep without the television on and a woman who left a radio on for her horse…

I’m coming to realise that being in my element is essential for both my physical and mental health. The benefits of being out in nature are becoming much more widely recognised in society as a whole with doctors prescribing time outside as an alternative to counselling and medication and eco-therapy and mindfulness and well being walks proliferating. However, it’s troubling to see that these are viewed as therapies and breaks from ‘normal’ life rather than as something essential to our being.

The need to be in my element is a determining factor not only in my choice to pursue a career in conservation but also in the type of job. There are many positions within the Wildlife Trust with different balances between indoors and outdoors and practical work in nature and engaging with the community.

Over the past few months I’ve worked out that, although I’m a writer, I find offices claustrophobic so a communications role wouldn’t suit me. Whilst I’m a poet and run the occasional workshop, as an introvert I find this work incredibly draining, so a community engagement role wouldn’t work either.

What excites me and calls to me and makes me happy is spending time immersed in nature, restoring and maintaining valuable habitats, giving back to the land, in the quiet company of others. Having done a combination of work on reserves and project work I’m beginning to realise that I would prefer to be grounded in a particular place, leading volunteer work parties throughout the year, than restoring somewhere as part of a particular project and then moving on to the next. This has helped me discern that I would be a better ranger, warden, or reserve officer than a project officer.

Another question that has been raised is what kind of habitat I’d like to work on. Where am I in my element? Whilst I enjoyed my day on Highfield Moss, in the Salford area, I recognised it is not ‘my place’. There is an incongruity in driving to a project 30 miles away which aims to help with carbon capture whilst leaving my own carbon footprint.

Unfortunately the mosslands that covered Penwortham, Hutton, Longton, and Farington, along with the intertidal marshlands that lay along the banks of the Ribble, have long been drained away. What we have left, in the wake of industry, is a ‘mosaic’ of habitats which are slowly being restored by the Wildlife Trust and other organisations.

Birch and mixed woodlands on the banks of old rail and tram ways or newly planted on landfill sites. Alder carr and willow scrub on the banks of streams too steep to build on and beside old ponds. Wet meadows sandwiched between roads and houses on boggy ground. New lakes in the pits of quarries planted with reed beds and re-wetted marshlands calling to them moorhens, coots, mute swans, widgeon, tufted ducks, reclusive bitterns, beginning to recall the ancient wetlands that once were.

These messy suburban places, too often seen as inferior to urban but not quite rural, as in between but not liminal, where bags of dog shit hang on trees and one can find the weirdest bottle bongs, but also, occasionally, might see the flash of the kingfisher come to feed on the lake or hear a willow tit, are my element. Not glamorous, I know, not unique, like the Manchester mosslands. Yet they are my place.

So it is toward being a ranger or a warden or a reserve officer as locally as possible where nature and industry and people meet in all their messiness and unexpected scraps of grandeur I will strive towards.

In being in my element, striving to be at one with the elements, even as they are seen to turn against us. To reclaiming an old way of being-with humans and non-humans, listening, sharing, before it is too late.

Moving Forward

The rain falls. The leaves fall. Trampled underfoot they turn to mulch. They squelch beneath my trainers. As again I run past the man from across the road with the black Labrador and walking stick he says, “You’re going round in circles”. It’s necessary for a run to be a circle leading from home and back again and it can be made of smaller circles – same place, different time, a little further ahead.

Running’s simpler than writing. You know through sheer perseverance, putting one foot in front of the other, breath by breath, you can achieve that goal of going a little further, a little faster each week. It’s similar with Taekwondo. Turn up, train hard, you’ll progress through the belts. Although, of course, there are limits. As an injury prone thirty-eight year old a half marathon in 2hrs 10mins has proved to be my threshold and I doubt I’ll have the flexibility and bounce to get beyond Second Dan.

Writing’s trickier. Hours put in and perseverance are no guarantee one’s work will be any better. I completed my two best poems in 2012 when I was new to poetry and polytheism and riding a wave of excitement and inspiration. ‘Proud of Preston’ and ‘The Bull of Conflict’ were gifts from my gods.

The awen, the divine breath of inspiration, no matter how much one chants, does not come on command but flows to those who are in the right time and place and ready to do the work. There are no check points, no belts, only that shiver of beauty and truth, which is confirmed by the reactions of others. I believe this sense of awe can be found in the three books I’ve published. It was felt when I read the poems and stories back to my gods and to the land and when I’ve shared them in public.

Since my completion of Gatherer of Souls I’ve been slogging my guts out trying to find a new and original take on the Brythonic myths and failed because in doing so I only made them more inaccessible. My quest to explore Annwn and share my findings resulted in fragmentary obscure visions. I seemed to have hit a limit and the lack of awen signalled I was heading in the wrong direction.

This was made worse because I was trapped in the vicious circle (“you’re going round in circles!”) of working in a supermarket job I could not leave until I’d found a way to make a living from my writing yet being in that trap, and it making me miserable, was depriving me of the inspiration to escape.

I’ve been here in the past, to break that circle, only to enter a wider one circling it. I give up a job in order to put all my best efforts into my writing in the hope this time round I’ll succeed in making a living from it, fail, go back to another job, then in six months to a year’s time I’m quitting again – same place, different time, only a little further ahead.

Greencroft Valley October 2019

This all came to a head when I decided to try writing fantasy because it sells better than poetry and polytheism. Whilst attempting to dream up a fantastical wetland I killed a dragonfly on the way to a real one.

It was a wake-up call on many levels. It showed me I wasn’t listening to the land. This was partly because I was trying to imagine up a fantasy novel rather than focusing on the living beings around me. On a deeper level it was because I was trapped in a vicious circle that had severed my connection.

Shortly afterwards two things happened at once. One bad – I had a horrendous night at work where I was stuck on the tills. They kept breaking down whenever I put potatoes on the scales and I had to move myself and all the customers onto the next one, then onto the next one, leaving a trail of broken tills.

One good – the episode with the dragonfly at Brockholes Nature Reserve prompted me to look at volunteering opportunities with the Lancashire Wildlife Trustand I was struck by the realisation this might be a way into paid work I enjoyed as well as a way of reconnecting with and giving back to the land.

Finally I divined a way of breaking out of both circles. Firstly by starting volunteering as a way into a job I will stick at due to its importance in this time of climate crisis and because it is a way of serving the land and my gods. Secondly by giving up the illusion I will ever make a living from the type of writing my vocation calls for.

So I’ve handed in my notice at work and am starting volunteering with the Lancashire Wildlife Trust on the Woodland Oasis and Carbon Landscapes projects. Both fit really well with my values because they involve restoring wild landscapes and connecting people with the land. The latter provides training qualifications in ‘carbon skills’ and it’s looking possible I may be able to contribute some poetry as a way of inspiring others to love and be inspired by the land around them. I’m hoping such work will feed and nourish my creativity and lead to new unexpected avenues to explore.

At last I am moving forward onto a path that will be both materially and spiritually fulfilling.

Avenham Oct 2019

Completion of Penwortham By-Pass: The New Ribble Bridge

Since my last post (1) I have walked the proposed stretch that will join the newly proposed route of Penwortham By-pass to a new bridge over the river Ribble.

By-pass to new Ribble Bridge - CopyWhether this will be built is open to conjecture at the moment. However what makes it significant is that the completion of Penwortham by the new route will only work if it is built. There are many flaws with this.

It needs to pass Howick Cross electrical substation.

Seen in the background, far left.

Seen in the background, far left.

It will destroy an area of natural coastline.

Natural Coastline River RibbleIt will run through Lea Marsh, which is a Biological Heritage Site. I have learnt through LERN (2) that this is a grazing marsh composed of salt marsh grasses and rushes. It is the home of two rare species; long-stalked orache and meadow barley.

Through the Lancashire Wildlife Trust I have found out downstream lies The Ribble and Alt Estuary Special Protection Area. Unfortunately Biological Heritage sites are nowhere near as well protected. In this case, if a bridge was built it would be acceptable for saltmarsh and mudflat to be restored elsewhere.

Personally I don’t agree with the argument that it’s acceptable to destroy a piece of land so long as a similar habitat is created somewhere else. It won’t be the same. In fact this is an insipid cover for the fact a unique piece of land will be ruined, its grasses gone for good, its birds and wildlife dehomed.

I’ve been in touch with the RSPB but they haven’t got back to me about the different birds who live in the area yet. However a walk down the river reveals this is the habitat of herons, cormorants, oyster-catchers, lapwings and a variety of gulls.

Heron and sea birdsIs the destruction of this natural coastline, its vegetation and the homes of many birds worth an extra ten minutes off travel time to the industrial sector at Warton, for those privileged enough to be able to afford to own cars? My answer is no.

(1) https://lornasmithers.wordpress.com/2014/09/20/completion-of-penwortham-by-pass/
(2) http://www.lancspartners.org/lern/

I’d like to thank Nik Bruce at LERN and David Dunlop at Lancashire Wildlife Trust for their quick replies to my e-mails and making this information avaible.