Autism and Living in the Fog

I was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder Level One* on the 28th of September. 

The day before Gwyn’s Feast. “Happy Autism Day,” he said, “welcome to my people.”

Still, I didn’t feel much like celebrating. I’d hoped that a diagnosis would bring clarity. However, being told that I have a lifelong neuro-developmental disorder or disability cast me into a fog of wondering how much my autism had played a role in my difficulties with social relationships and to hold a stable career in the past and how it was going to affect my future. 

I’ve been a trainee with the Lancashire Wildlife Trust on the Manchester Mosslands since April. It’s been a great job, on great sites, with great people.  Yet my enjoyment of the practical work of growing, planting, translocating, clearing scrub, building dead hedges, of the remarkable opportunity to restore the last remnants of our mosslands to their boggy glory has been overshadowed, fogged, by my anxiety about what people think of me, whether I’m doing well enough, measuring up, whether I will be able to progress to the next position up in this competitive job industry.

I’ve felt like I’ve been on trial and in some ways I have and in some I have not. I know my colleagues would rather I enjoyed my traineeship than see it that way. Still, I’ve had to meet my short term objectives and training targets. When it comes to progress I will have to meet the next person specification.

Good news is that a meeting with my line manager and project manager recently revealed in just six months, in spite of being autistic, I am nearly there. 

Job-wise I’m good. Still, I’ve spent a lot of time dwelling on how my autism and the anxiety that stems from being an autistic person in a neurotypical world, finding it hard to read people and projecting negative opinions of myself, has skewed my perceptions of others and affected my relationships.

Few of us are psychic, but being autistic leaves me less able to judge what others think and feel unless I am directly told. Living with uncertainty is tough but, I’m learning, is better than living with the false certainty everyone hates me.

One of the upsides of living in the fog is the moments it parts like when a friend and I were lost on Cadair Idris and, after a man and his dog approached, the mists shifted and we found ourselves looking down on Llyn Cau. Being able to see and speak the uncomfortable truths that others avoid or ignore.

At least I know I’m living in the fog and, as a devotee of Gwyn ap Nudd, ‘White son of Mist,’ can know and embrace it as my patron god and as a friend.

“Welcome to my people,” he says and I see the faces of all the others down the centuries who have been able to swing an axe or a mattock or push a wheelbarrow, to write poetry under the trees, to walk light-footed as a will-o-wisp across a peat-bog but could not endure one day of electric light in the office.

“Welcome to my people,” he says, “to doubt, uncertainty, anxiety, and truth.”

In the fog, in the unknowing, I walk along the bunds that will bring the peat-bogs back then disappear into the moss as it swallows its surroundings.

It’s cold here and it’s November, but at least I know I’m living in the fog.

*This is the current term for what was formerly known as Asperger’s Syndrome.

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.