On safari, Essex style.

Two years ago, life was very different. In contrast to the dappled, leafy commons of Surrey I work on today, the Essex marshes were flat and wide with big skies, full of the sounds of wading birds. They’re totally different environs, and work is very different, but just as physically challenging.

But it has to be said, that back when I worked as a reserve warden in Essex, one of my favourite things to do was taking visitors out on evening safari. Two years ago around now, was that golden time for doing that. I ran the trips in September because it was still warm and ‘Summery’ enough for lots of charismatic wildlife to be very active, but it was also right in the midst of bird migration. And the sunsets were priceless. Not only was it a good income generator for our organisation (the trips were an exclusive VIP experience with price to match) but I thoroughly enjoyed doing the tours.

Guests would meet me at our flagship reserve after closing, and they’d be my passengers in the 4×4, getting the chance to see parts of the site which were not accessible to the public. They’d get behind the scenes insights into the work of nature reserve wardens, and have the chance to get close up to the wildlife.

One particular evening will always stand out in my memory as textbook perfect. Being the first event of this kind we had done, I had no idea how it would fare. One thing with wildlife is that you never can guarrantee if it will ‘put on a show’ or not. When you advertise events such as these you need to be careful to manage expectations.

After introducing myself to the visitors, we trundled out onto the central grazing marsh and around the edge of the lagoon. Larger flocks of lapwing were beginning to assemble, and parties of avocets and black tailed godwits milled about on the islands in the evening sun. Stopping by the tilting weir, I showed the visitors some southern migrant hawkers patrolling like blue jewels over the shallow edge of the lagoon. These are a rare dragonfly, but often seen on these South Essex marshes; a real Thames estuary speciality, at the moment

Leaving the marsh and heading around the reedbed edge of the lagoon, I stopped so we could pause and look out from this side. I could hear bearded reedlings ‘pinging’ in the reeds. We got out and stood quietly, just as the roving party of reedlings bounced into view, and put on a colourful show a few mere metres ahead of us, much to the delight of my guests. Another passing birdwatcher, fully kitted out with expensive optical equipment, stopped to admire the little birds with us. We chatted briefly, and I learnt that he was all the way from China! He had never seen bearded reedlings before. For some reason this amazed me and made me feel proud; someone from so very far away had come to visit our little corner of the Thames estuary, during his stay in the UK. I assumed he must be staying here on business or family visiting, since South Essex isn’t exactly a holiday destination for international tourists.

After the little group of birds had bounced off on their way through the reeds, we hopped back in my 4×4 and headed out onto the eastern grazing marsh, where I immediately spotted a short eared owl patrolling the rough grass. Alerting my guests to the fiery eyed bird, they gasped in awe as it flew closer. The great thing about watching wildlife (especially the birds) from a vehicle, is that surprisingly, you almost become far less visible or threatening looking, to it. Watching from the truck, we were afforded breathtaking, close views of the owl as it flew low over the edges of the marsh. It stopped to perch on a fence post, and seemed to lock its big bright eyes with ours, slow-blinkingly. We were able to watch the bird for many minutes before it eventually moved on. By now, my passengers were already high on wildlife.

Making our way back along the main track, we were met with several wheatears and whinchats alighting along the fenceline beside us. The smart little passerines were on their way back South on migration. Reserves on the Thames estuary such as ours were ideal stopping-off-and-feeding-up points for migrants in early Autumn, so seeing large falls of wheatear and whinchat was quite typical. This evening it was almost as if the sprightly little birds were showing off, fluttering ahead from post to post, flicking their tails and standing proud and alert.

Marvellous bird encounters aside, the main feature of the evening safari was water voles, and that is how we marketed the event. The guests would essentially learn the field and activity signs of water voles with me as we examined them along part of the ditch network, learn all about their little lives, with the chance to (hopefully) catch some glimpses of them in the flesh. Again, this is where the whole managing expectations thing comes into play. We needed to be clear when marketing this, that actual water voles were not guarranteed. So it could in theory be a bit like visiting someones house when they’re not in.

The particular stretch of water where I’d planned this part of the tour, was where the highest density of water voles on the reserve was found. Being responsible for all the water vole monitoring across the reserves, I knew all the best hotspots, the places where most water vole activity could be seen. Having explained how water vole population estimation is calculated, based upon field signs (mostly, from their shit), I encouraged my guests to examine the plentiful evidence of the comings and goings of the voles, along the ditchbank. I found a very tightly cropped ‘water vole lawn’, at the entrance of a burrow, and explained that it was likely made by a nursing mother who didn’t want to stray far from her litter for long, so grazed a lot just at the edge of the burrow.

“The voles eat a heck of a lot. They need to eat almost their own bodyweight in vegetation per day, so they’re almost constantly eating. And bonking.”

“Sounds ideal”, said one member of my small party. Couldn’t disagree there. The perils of life as a water vole aside – multiple predators, cold snaps, habitat degradation – they have a pretty kushti existence.

We’d pretty much had our fill of pellet-shaped droppings, huge heaps of feeding remains, and burrows, when one lady gasped “There’s one there!”

She pointed about 30 metres down the ditch, and I raised my binoculars to look. Sure enough, a plump little individual sat munching at the foot of the bank. I made sure everyone could view it. It was still sat stuffing its face for a good while, before it plopped into the water for a swim, and vanished. ‘Well thank goodness they’ve actually seen the target species’, I thought to myself. I deemed it worth standing in the same spot and waiting for more activity. Lo and behold I spotted another swimming across. We were then rewarded with a third sighting.

‘What good little voles’, I mused. I was immensely grateful to them for putting in an appearance in  such a timely manner. They gave us great views, and the guests were absolutely over the moon. By now the sun was starting to set, and that was doing its wonderful thing too. Thames estuary sunsets can be quite a spectacle, spreading their gorgeous orange glow wide across the huge sky, illuminating the quivering reeds and creating silhouettes of the hundreds of birds.

When the light began to fade, I turned on my headlights to make our way out of the reserve and to drop my guests back to their cars. In the glow of the headlights, another pretty wheatear gleaned insects attracted to the light, trotting along in front of us, and stopping ‘inconveniently’ every few metres, as if it had no idea we were rumbling along behind it.

Yes, all the wildlife had really put on a show that evening; everything seemed right on cue. I went home feeling triumphant and so proud of this little patch of north Thames estuary providing a home for so many wonderful treasures.

When the Essex skipper came home to roost

It was a warm, heavy July day in 2019 and I was sat idly on the patio of my parents’ backyard garden inbetween my day’s run-arounds and jobs. My ears had been giving me such a fight, exacerbated by my tiredness and lack of having eaten any kind of breakfast. I was exhausted by the time I got home for ‘lunch’.

After a brief flop on my box room bed (which I’d long since intended to have vacated following my January run-away from Kent/early mid life crisis), I padded outside, finally exasperated with the heat. I eased my discomfort with the sight of long grasses swaying in the slight breeze, and the hum of insects passing by.

Rewind two Summers, and I had inadvertently took over the ‘management’ of my parents’ garden. I cockily decided to myself that it needed to be more wild. On weekend visits back home I would look out at their barren looking lawn and mutter cusses under my breath at the lack of flying insects and wild flowers.

“Your garden barely has any insects or plants in it, it’s unnatural. You have a very well-managed but flower-less lawn with a bit of scrub at the back,” I lamented to my father. They’d recently taken on the help of their gardener (now my boyfriend) but their instructions to him were too scant and sterile for my liking. His creative talents were not amply utilised.

Living away on duty in Essex, I had no garden of my ‘own’, save for the sprinklered, manicured lawn out the back of the smart little semi detached house I lived in. The back yard was as dull as the one at home, but I had no say over how it was gardened, being a mere tenant. Our starch-suited landlord (or any of the other tenants, I expect) would not have entertained the idea of me turning the space into a meadow. I had to make do with sniggering at the amorous collared doves who would occasionally shag on the creosoted fence. Or the occasional irrascible looking frog caught in nomansland on the jetwashed patio slabs.

On a weekend jaunt to Dungeness one day, I selected a few locally harvested packs of meadow mix; various legumes being the main component. Back at the house – and being more ‘argricultural’ than ‘horticultural’ – I roughly scraped various small ‘plots’ into the earth. I bedded in the tiny mixes, shuffling about in my bare feet, pondering whether I’d sown too late in the season.

As the garden began to develop from a neat monoculture into a mosaic of mixed swards (having advised by mum to ask the gardener to cut some bits shorter, and leave other areas longer), legumes, nettle patches and scrapes of bare earth, the insects returned. I took it upon myself to excavate two little micro-ponds at the rear. I cut pond liner and lay it over the tiny earthworks, crudely sealing the edges with bricks and small rocks, before adding some bits of hornwort to oxygenate the water. It wasn’t long after, that I spotted a pair of common darters in tandem, skimming over the surface of the smaller pool.

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Meanwhile, my previous boyfriend’s latest lepidopteran fixation had been watching the little golden species of skipper; specifically telling Thymelicus sylvestris (the small/little skipper) from T. lineola (the Essex skipper).

The Essex skipper is not – as its English name might suggest – a butterfly limited to the Essex countryside. Its distribution has in fact boomed over the past twenty-odd years, spreading out from eastern central England, into the fringes of eastern Wales and as far as Somerset in the west.

Because of the similarities, the Essex Skipper has been overlooked both in terms of recording and ecological study, and it was the last British resident species to be described (in 1889). (source: Butterfly Conservation)

For all that time, entomologists hadn’t even looked closely enough at the small golden skippers to notice that many were a different species entirely. Searching through the tiny butterflies for Essexes became quite a game for my then boyfriend. He would look out for the straight bold sex brand on the males, and the sharply marked rounded antennae, that look as if they’ve been dipped abruptly in black ink. Another part of the appeal of them was that they are one of very few British species of butterfly which are spreading in distribution, as opposed to most others, whose ranges and numbers are shrinking at alarming rates. Wanting to see lots of them in great number, Paul even drove up to Essex after work on a couple of occasions, to play “spot the Essexes” on one of my reserves. They tended to be far more numerous than the small skippers.

“Why don’t you try and establish a colony in your parents’ back garden?” Said Paul, one day. “Let lots of cocksfoot establish”.

The coarse grass cocksfoot, (along with others such as timothy and meadow foxtail), is the favourite larval foodplant of the Essex skipper. So establishing such vegetation in good supply was the main way to invite the species onto our tiny bit of suburban land.

“Can do. If enough coarse grasses take hold, they’ll come if they’re in the vicinity,” I mused. Sure enough, over the course of the next year, the ever more scattered and relaxed mowing regime I insisted upon created a patchwork of short turf, sprays of clovers, rampant creeping cinquefoil and nettle patches, with clumps of long thick coarse grasses, mainly cocksfoot.

I didn’t really give the Essex skipper much more thought, but back to that aforementioned day in July 2019, as I was plodding about the garden I noticed several small golden skippers, and deemed them worth a closer look. Inspecting the individual butterflies, lo and behold, I noted that the antennae were distinctively round tipped and black-dipped.

“Well, they came. If you build it, they will indeed come to it,” I thought happily. “And how fitting; it is after all the year I, another Essex skipper of a different kind, came home to roost.”

 

 

The ‘not quite a gap year’ – 10 months back in the ‘stockbroker belt’, and what it has taught me…

Since the great big 180 degree turnaround of January ’19, I’ve learnt rather a lot of surprising things about life (both human, and wild) beyond nature reserve wardening.

When everything turned upside down at the very end of last year, I had to re-evaluate a lot of stuff; not least where my career would go… or, indeed even if I still wanted to pursue a career at all. Could I not just bugger off in a caravan, with a nonchalent middle finger up at the whole sorry mess I’d got myself into?

Put bluntly, the conservation/ecology sector (especially within the charities – big and small alike) is in a bit of a state these days. Without getting political about the roots of all this stuff, many of my peers are becoming quite overworked, overstretched and underpaid, across the board. Resources are getting sparser, funding is squeezed and in some cases withdrawn altogether. In the onset of the Anthropocene, we’re trying to do all we can to preserve the wild, but circumstances are making that quite challenging.

With all that on my mind, I contemplated many things, including leaving land management entirely, and simply taking whatever employment I could find back here in the ‘home shire’. (Having said that, I did actually also consider simply packing up and heading for Anglesey. There would after all be work for me up there, a markedly lower cost of living, as well as a more sedate pace of life; just the antidote to the chaos of the past few months.)

But I’d only just become ‘settled’ again. I was ensconced back in the fold with my oldest, most loyal friends, and I was starting to enjoy my old haunts again. And it felt so nice to be in just the one place, not in limbo between two ‘worlds’; two counties… two sides of the Thames.

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Langley Vale; Being ‘home’ in one place had restored my sense of ‘groundedness’. I relished the extra time to relax and enjoy my old haunts more.

So, settled back ‘South’, once I’d picked myself up… and dusted myself off after that big fall, I set about earning a living again. Freelancing as an illustrator had tided me over until I was fit and healthy again. But I needed to get back outside and feel normal once more; to feel the sun on my neck and the wind in my hair. To look in the mirror at the day’s end and see the grime in the lines in my face, and feel good about it.

Driving around one warm afternoon, I pulled into a smallholding where a sign advised of farm labourers needed. As a qualified tractor driver, (with most of my other ‘tickets’ still valid, too) and with my varied livestock husbandry experience, I was put to work by the charismatic boss two days later. I was intrigued by the more hands-off approach here, and by the results of some of the more non-interventional ways of doing things. The place was actually brimming with life; it wasn’t sterile, like so many other places that aren’t managed as nature reserves. It was in itself like a little nature reserve, running like clockwork as a (very busy and chaotic) business. Every stereotype about farm businesses neglecting wildlife were certainly defied here. The meadows, not overstocked with animals, were in fact very sensitively grazed and positively chock-full of butterflies, micro moths, bumblebees and flies aplenty. Mosaics of short and longer turf were spattered with the bright colours of vetches, clovers and trefoils. This’ll do very nicely, I thought to myself…

I spent the next month tending sheep, repairing fencing, sweeping, sweeping, more sweeping, making and packaging chaff, packaging and labelling animal feeds, loading hay and horsefeed onto vehicles, mucking out stables, and doing just about anything else I could turn a hand to. It was thoroughly gruelling but good, fun, honest labour. Getting home after every shift, I was grey from the dust and filth… and I loved it. I started to feel like myself again.

But more interestingly, that chaotic month at the smallholding gave me a valuable insight into another side of land management. It had given me the opportunity to see how things could work for wildlife away from the world of reserve wardening, and the procedures, policies and practices that I’d been so bound by for the past few years.  It had been both fascinating and thought provoking.

When my time there was done, I was ready for something altogether different, yet again…

Golf courses make up 2% of the UK’s land surface, at around 270,000 hectares. They are typically thought of as pristinely manicured, vast monocultures where everything looks immaculate, rather like the well groomed beards on so many of the gentlemen who play the sport.

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sunrise 

When I went to work at a golf centre however, I saw yet another new side to land management, and those preconceptions I had were challenged once again. I’d seen the job advertisement online for a groundskeeper/golf centre assistant, but was unsure whether I’d be employed at such a place, knowing absolutely naff-all about golf, golfcourses, or greenkeeping. I was a total sports-turf virgin.

I gave it a go regardless, and breezed through a nicely informal interview the following day, with that new cocky, carefree attitude I’d come to adopt since recovering from the big balls-up of January ’19. I was quite frank about my golf virginity, but explained that I was a good, hardworking groundskeeper with ample machinery qualifications, and bags of experience dealing with general Joe public.

I was offered the job on returning from my surprise travels around the southwest, and started at the golf centre the following Monday. It was a brilliant – and once again, chaotic – culture shock. Since Christmas, I had gone from nature reserve wardening, to small farm labour, to sport. I was by this time self employed on the side, contracting as a sole trader, too. I took on any grounds maintenance work (as well as domestic stuff, as well) I was competent in and able to do. Doing my own accounts was a new skill I quickly had to learn, but I relished it.

If someone had told me a year ago, that this would be the next path, I’d simply not have believed it all. It would have thought the whole thing ludicrous. But life does throw some curveballs at us along the way. And so, from July until October, I spent my mornings divoting, leafblowing, golfball collecting, worm-cast sweeping, dew-brushing, strimming, mowing and manicuring, in deepest, Middle Class suburbia. The heart of the Surrey stockbroker belt was an alien environment, and believe it or not, quite daunting to a land girl like myself, who’d only ever really known wildlife conservation.

I soon learned that golf courses can in fact quite ‘gentle’ places, and need not be hostile to wildlife at all… and this revelation made me feel strangely reassured about my place in the world…

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grass growing defiantly in the foot well of the ATV

 

Llinos’fach…

In Taid’s youth, ‘Y Llinos’ / [Carduelis cannabinawas in many parts of the UK and Europe, favoured as a ‘cage bird’ because they look and tweet so sweetly. A perfectly neat, dainty little finch, the male sports a crimson blood-red flush on his breast and poll in his breeding finery. His mate is an equally beautiful grey crowned bird of soft browns and cinnamons, with a smattering of pinkish speckles. Linnets are (almost quite literally) bloody gorgeous. Alas today, the linnet is a UK Red listed species due to alarmingly steep breeding declines, as well as shrinking overwinter flock numbers. They’re afforded full protection under the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981. 

Also today; It’s Summer 2019 and I am in my post nature reserve wardening epoch. I’ve gone independent and I’m officially a groundskeeping contractor, undertaking a wide range of duties for nature, people and the earth. I boast a wide variety of duties throughout my 7 day week, choosing work I enjoy.  I feel blessed, like I’ve sort of gone back to my roots and like I’m finding my loudest voice. Taid would be proud, I think.

Reporting for one of my duties yesterday morning, I was stomping along when I halted, suddenly. A perfect little feathered corpse lay sleeping on the tarmac and my heart fell on the floor.                                                                                                                                       “Be’ ti’chi, ‘deryn fach?” (yn Saesneg;”what/who are you, little {fem}bird?”), I muttered, picking up the soft cinnamon tinged body, still vaguely warm. I turned it over in my palm gently, to wonder if it was merely stunned yet alive. The eyes were still moist and bright, and there was not a single blemish on the little linnet. I blew into the chest feathers and thumbed at the bone. The bird was in good condition, well fed with a good amount of fat reserve. The poor llinos’fach – a juvenile linnet – had flown into the high wall and crashed to the ground a few metres below. It was probably on its first migration from its breeding ground. I wondered where it had hatched; nearby? How far had it travelled already when it hit that wall?

“wel, twll’tin mari’watcin a’r y glaw”, I swore inwardly. How dare this perfect little creature not long ‘born’, fly into a human’s wall and perish, before it could soar and sing and sail above the moors and heaths across England, Wales, or wherever the ‘gach it wanted. Fwcin’ storms in August had blown my little ‘deryn off course, I pondered. Congratulations, climate change, you’ve struck us again.

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I had wanted to revive the little linnet in my hand and free it safely into the wind to resume its journey, but it had already left the mortal coil. Stroking the soft feathers, I swallowed my sorrow and remembered Tunnicliffe in his Malltraeth Summer home. I remembered Y Oriel, and how I marvelled at that mock-up Studio, when I was a kid.

I wrapped the beautiful little bird in a glove, and took it ‘home’ with me at the end of my morning. I’ve safely preserved it and intend to use it as a specimen like C.F. Tunnicliffe; study the immaculate feathers in intrictate detail, as he did. Then the little bird will be returned to the sextons and buryers – earth’s little undertaker beetles – to carry it back to earth from whence it came.

The Wildlife & Countryside Act of 1981 is legislation which protects all our native flora and fauna – respect its various schedules, and respect nature & Earth. 

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Through the looking glass – Venus and Luna meet on a Midsummer’s night.

[There’s a full moon over Sunset
Got our feet in perfect stride
And we walk in perfect meter
While we hold our smiles inside
And we hold our smiles inside
Like we’re holding back the tide
And we stride in perfect meter
Like the sun won’t ever rise]                                                                                                               –  J. Hince/A. Mosshart, Ash & Ice, 2016.

“By the moon, by the tide, by whatever you like, I’m just so easily led” purred Alison Mosshart. (Impossible Tracks, Ash & Ice, 2016.) She was bang on the money there. And she would be, she’s a woman; she knows the rhythms of the earth and sky like we all do. If ever there was a Goddess on earth, it’s her. ❤

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It is July 16th 2019 and today is a pivotal moment in the year. It’s a certain wonderful someone’s birthday; the first birthday we’ve not been a couple. But it coincides with a universal spectacle that we’re sharing, just a few miles apart at different sides of Surrey.. A partial lunar eclipse. We’re apart, united in the universe by the moon. How she brings us together, does Luna. Last night I lay under the stars on the downs, in the light of the golden orb. Tonight I was back to bask in the penumbra, alone in my Astra. Connected – smartphone beside me – but alone in my little capsule.                                                                         Quizzing back and forth on the best vantage point, hype was building across the internet. And the viewpoints were busy with rowdy young stoners, the last of the evening’s golfers and sleepy commuters cotching in their corsas. Nouveau-riche types hared along the roads, and the air was heavy and close. Luna is a powerful chick.

Look Southeast, Jones-girl. Go higher up. Try Tattenham Corner.

I duly rumbled away in a modest cloud of gravel-smoke and turned east, looking out towards Tadworth. As I neared the eponymous corner, I gasped and congratulated the sky in pure reverence. The Moon was bloody gorgeous; glowing a sultry pink-orange. The sky was her dusky blue backdrop, and the glow was as loud as an orgasm. My god, what a sight. What a perfect end to a somewhat fractious day.

I’d spent the bulk of the evening not far down the road, back on the arable treasure-lands of Langley Vale. I’d neglected the place since last month, when I paid a casual visit to the corn gromwell site to check on the number of plants there. A good trawl through Surrey’s best kept secret oasis was long overdue, and when better than the golden height of Summer?                                                                                                                                                         I enjoyed so many glorious, lonely hours and miles there last year in the long heatwave. My walking boots were ruined by knife-like sterile brome, which travelled as far as Anglesey with me like a stubborn rash. Even several dunkings in the Irish sea chasing Lion’s manes and compasses couldn’t shift that stuff. I think the boots eventually clapped out way before the last head of brome left the fabric. (Today, they’re festering in a shoebox in the car, like a pair of sorry-arses. I can’t abandon them, it would be like dumping a faithful old hound by the M5 – which isn’t even a good motorway.)

A year on, to the present; it was definitely a “fuck it” kind of day. Catching wind of two rare gems making an appearance in those beautiful margins, I floored it down to the village armed with reliable gen. I needed my arable flora fix.                                                                Venus’ Looking glass is like hen’s teeth, or the flash of a quail’s eye in a barley field. She is a fleeting flower, dainty and discreet, shy and sweet. I’ve never seen her, though I’ve scoured the arable chalk screes and margins of Surrey, Sussex and Wiltshire for her for many hours. She’s an annual, but delicate – she lives on a knife edge in a modern, intensified world; she needs the right level of disturbance or she shies from view. Plough the field too deeply – or indeed, too shallow – and she may decide to vanish for years. She might rebel, flash a cheeky Victory-fingers at you, popping up by a roadside like a brazen hitch-hiker, far away from her chalky roots. She’s fleetingly glimpsed and she’s coveted, like all the most compelling beauties. Maybe that’s why I like her so much – do I want to emulate her charm and guile?                                                                          Alas, she evaded me once again today, in spite of grid references, Google maps, GPS, and all the goodwill and gen I could be spoonfed. (Thank you lovely local botanists by the way – you’re diamonds)                                                                                                                     The day’s tour wasnt in vain entirely, however. With the hawk-like vision of Steve Gale, I managed to wrap my eyes around another absolute wonder; the cutely named Weasel’s snout. A pretty pink annual (like Venus), it does indeed remind me of a mustelid’s nose, and it’s another shy and vanishing relict of the ‘golden’ era I often wax lyrical about.                                                                                                                                                     Scouring the messy scree of a field corner near Nohome Farm, I became distracted by assorted fluellens and flaxes, while Steve soldiered on in search of the main quarry. As I was eyeballing the tiny petals of a small toadflax, he located the single flower of weasel’s snout, stood stoic among the rough ground. I was well chuffed to see this little treasure.                                                                                                                                                         On this emotionally mixed day in time, I found my sunshine yomp around the vale nicely cathartic. Beautiful sprays of wild catmint to sniff. Carpets of round and sharp leaved fluellens running rampant. Small and common toadflaxes. Field madder and sprawling mats of black bindweed and knotgrasses. Delicate sprigs of narrow fruited cornsalad. Rough, common and opium poppies smattering the air with colour. Campions of pink and white. The whole colourful, loud orchestra made just for me, was here to drown out the buzz in my head for a bit.

Look at this place.  It’s a little piece of Heaven in Surrey. A bit of rough cantering cockily through the stockbroker belt like a football-pitch streaker.

Rambling around this little pocket of the county almost reminds me of my paternal grandfathers, great uncles and aunts. They were travelling farm-labourers. Itinerant and quiet – like me – but gobby and plainly spoken. I am an apple that did not fall far from the little perllanau-afal in the villages and mountains.

But don’t tell too many folk about rare treasures. ‘Cause then everyone goes scrumping, cocks it all up and Y berllan is no more.

Venus is a secretive maiden, and Luna is Queen.

With thanks to Steve, and of course ex-nghariad’annwyl…

..and love and gratitude to my hard-as-nails ascendants. You made me and you sustain me in this fucked up today-world. 

Nightingales in the city; Urban lyrical love and language.

On making our way out of a well known magical city in the west a few days ago, fascination (and a little gentle coaxing) pulled me into a small church. Holy buildings have strong travel-ties with me. I only ever step inside such a building if I am in a foreign land, or something special (or sad) is taking place. They are places of transition and wonder, put simply.

And so, sensing that this little holy building was a little ‘gwahanol’, I crept in. I breathed in the comforting cocktail of old book, woodsmoke, limestone and dust. And a breath of calm flooded my head, as everything slowed down. The tinitus stopped. The music in my ears stopped. I tested the acoustics of the perfect little cathedral, and basked in the silence. I experimented with sounds. Still no ringing. It was glorious.

A couple entered. The gentleman of the pair – about 60 in years – struck me like a gentle chord. He reminded me of old times, a sort of urbane Jonny Kingdom. He was smart and eclectic looking, whiskered yet tamed. Wild yet quiet. Reassuring.

I watched him walk into the nave, and he stood like a beautiful work of art, in the spotlight.

I sat on the soft red step just below him, and stared. I glanced back at his mate, long haired and beautiful as she gazed at her rusty-plumed nightingale.

As he began to sing, I forgot my fucked up ears. My mind was silent, drinking in this mountain stream of pure love crashing softly past me. Each time I glanced back to smile at the lady, she was happily transfixed, and quiet. She was like the skulker in the hedge, the female nacht-songstress.

His words were clear as Exmoor water, and I heard every syllable, every phrase, every trill and whistle. He was a bird. A skylark on an Essex marsh, a pied flycatcher in an oak hanger, a yaffle in an orchard. When his chorus concluded, I cracked the silence with impulsive applause, guttural Welsh congratulations and English smiles and thanks.

He spoke no Cymraeg, but we exchanged a few words in various brief linguas, verbal and non. I am reliably informed that as I left the building, Mrs Nightingale chimed soft phrases back to him.

As we neared the van to leave the city via an incredible fudge shop, we spotted a harp. Feeling emboldened by the songster in the chapel, I got cocky and shambled over to the curly haired harpist. As I interrupted his mobile phone conversation in abrupt Anglesey-Welsh, he looked up and smiled sweetly to reply to my question.

“No, sorry, not much. But I have lived in Carmarthenshire. I am actually from Braintree”, was his gentle, home-counties lilted reply. He could easily have fooled me for Paraguayan, sat with his harp and quiet, dusky demeanour. Maybe of Chubut.

I smiled, and said I’d not long moved ‘home’ from Essex.

“Do you know Milgi Milgi? That one is as Welsh as the hills, but not harp-compatible, come to think of it. Learn Dac’w ‘nghariad. Your harp will be perfect for that.”

“Dac’w n’ghariad. Right. Got it”, he smiled.

“If ever we see eachother again, I shall expect to hear it…” I smiled broadly and waved ffarwel to the friendly young smiler.

And off I flew, once again.

If you read this, Glasto-bound little Bellbird… then that is what I shall call you; Bellbird of the harp.

 

 

Happy eclipse day 2019

As I get older (but never the wiser), I realise with deepening conviction that life is cyclic. The moon, the tides, the boom and bust of predator and prey, the seasons, our organ systems… the way our lives unfold in general. I am in a philosophical mood again because today, a saros cycle in my own life has completed, pulling at my heart a little.

Today I am in the West of England, on a cool July night. And some people very dear to me are right over the other side of the world, in the cold Atacama desert. They are watching that same golden moment I shared with them in Jackson Wyoming almost 2 years ago. That perfectly unforgettable moment in time and space. Immaculate totality.

My friend, I feel my heart ache a little bit when I think of you far away in Argentina, on this magical moment in our solar system. But I know you are in good company and happily basking in the beautiful umbre once again, my favourite eclipse chaser.

I treasure our moment in the light. And the shadow. For always.

Love from the Space cat.

The broken vixen.

Travel seems to be a prevailing theme in my mind at the moment, which comes as little surprise. Since my strange lonely nocturnal drive a few days ago, my thoughts have turned more and more to other creatures of the shadows, and the parallels between them and I.

With every passing year in the towns and cities, foxes appear more ubiquitous, numerous and bold. Within my own lifetime, I remember urban foxes being an occasional treat to watch at a distance at the far corner of the fields. As children, we’d even summon eachother to watch them from the window, binoculars in hand.

Nowadays, I see numerous individuals, day and night. As our species spirals out of control, our respective lives are becoming ever more entangled, in suburbia. It is almost like they smell humanity’s apparent moribundity and are rebelling against it, as our out of control capitalist fever sickens us all. As we move further from our own nature, foxes are communicating indignation and exasperation with us. Litter, pollution, concrete sprawl, agricultural intensification, ever conflicted land use. We’ve gone too far, and animals are pushed to their limits. Then humanity persecutes them some more.

Just a fox. Ubiquitous. Numerous. Pest? So how could I leave that vixen on the busy road, that summer evening?

It had been another nocturnal drive. I’d been somewhere with purpose on this occasion though, even if it was just to nip out for fast food. The irony there does not escape me. Nearing home, I saw her laying crumpled in the road, a motor casualty.

She was so gravely wounded that she scarcely bared her teeth or even moved as I hovered over her. Her chestnut flank rose and fell in morbid agony, and I felt a wave of relief that I’d found her in time. She would have died there overnight slowly in the road, unable to move or save herself with her broken leg. Seeing my car parked with the blinkers on, a man in another car stopped to give me a blanket. As I threw it over her fractious body, she struggled a tiny bit in my arms. She wouldn’t bite me, she was too hurt, and her muzzle was wrapped carefully away from my wrists.

Placing her on the back seat, I drove her home. Just before my friend (a wildlife rescue friend) and I were about to take her off to hospital in the crate that he’d just whizzed over to my house, there came a rather firm knock at the front door.

When I answered, two police offers curiously peered at me, saying they’d had reports of suspicious behaviour in the road, and traced my number plate to my address. A member of the public had seen me bundling the slightly wriggly shapeless lump into my car, and phoned the cops. After feeling slightly bemused by the fact that someone had assumed I was up to no good, I conceded that it must have looked a bit odd under cover of darkness.

“Oh, everything’s fine, it’s a fox. She was struck in the road. Come and see”, I said. Beckoning my doorstop guests to the back of Chris’s car, a pair of worried eyes shone back at them through the bars of the crate.

“Awwwww!” said the lady officer, taking a photo of the little vulpine face.

And after a moments admiration (and relief at the lesser amount of paperwork, I expect) we were left to business.

“Ok, thanks for that, we’ll let you get on…”

The vixen spent a couple of weeks in hospital being repaired by wonderful, skilled, loving humans.  And she was returned to whence she came, home to the street where I scooped her up. Her territory.

She’d certainly have died. But when and where I can take action and responsibility for my own species, I must pay our debts to animals. Just one fox, some might say. Not just a fox. A soul sister.

 

 

 

I am a sparrow. I am a paradox.

I am a sparrow, I am a paradox.

Beguiling but boisterous, beligerent, brazen, brave and bold.                                                    Cheeky, chippy, with a heart of solid gold.                                                                                        I’m frenetic, feisty, fun, flawed, fantastic, furious.                                                                        I’m contradictory, captivating, charismatic, curious.

I’m tied to brick built dwellings, even though I have wings,                                                        I tustle with the dust, but rise again to sing.                                                                        Itinerant, rebellious, ballsy, brassy, and proud.                                                                              I chirp in doom’s face when life kicks me to the ground.

I’m tied to my roots, wearing sharp clawed boots.                                                                          Jostling with my crew in my Sunday best suit.                                                                              I’m noisy and rowdy, but life is trying to hush me.                                                                        I ain’t gonna shut up, the world will never crush me.                                                                                                                                                                                                                             They think I’m just a sparrow, they think I’m red book bound,                                              That just ’cause I’m an enigma, the solution won’t be found.                                                They think that I am dwindling, they think I’ll never fly,                                                              That the world will try and deafen me, laughing as I cry.

But house sparrows and humans are one and the same.                                                              Our hearts are made of fire, they’ll never dim our flames.                                                          So chill, little sparrow, we’ve no need to frown,                                                                    Because together united, they’ll never keep us down.

In love, tolerance and solidarity with this iconic species, who has experienced a decline from an estimated 12 million pairs in the 1970s to between 6 and 7 million pairs in the current day.  And to my own tribe of sparrows (human and avian alike) who are as loud, loving and lairy as I am. 

V is for viper, V is for Venus: A tale of snakes, love and femininity.

The general rule of thumb in my part of the world, is that weather permitting, the adders will start to emerge from hibernation within a fortnight of Valentine’s day. I’ve found this to be true in each of the years I’ve been observing them, bar 2018 when the Beast from the East threw things out of kilter somewhat.

Following the local adders became an integral part of my life several years ago when I was a young woman. I became completely captivated by them. To the present day, no matter how many times I see this species, I find it just as enthralling as the electrifying moment I first clapped eyes on it. It was a warm September evening when two large females unexpectedly crawled by within whiskers of my feet. That moment almost seems too dreamlike to be real now, too fleeting. One zigzagged ribbon followed by the other, vanishing into obscurity. I was hooked. They were like medicine.

The following Spring, something happened to me, and the adders were symbolic of that. I began to stir from the apathy I felt towards my life. I simply started to bore of feeling hurt and wallowing in my broken, tattered heart. I wanted to start living. This sense of renewal was buoyed by my having a car for the first time. Being able to go wherever I pleased whenever I liked was a golden novelty, and I revelled in the new freedom.

And so on a warm February day several years ago, I came out of hibernation along with the vipers. And there marked a pivotal time in my life.

I felt a strange optimism that morning, and headed up onto the meadow. I padded around the edges of thickets with soft rolling footsteps, creeping like a bittern peering for eels. Then my heart leapt, as I happened upon a perfect viperine coil, hugged by rank grasses at the edge of a blackthorn bush. I discreetly sat myself down beside it at a few feet away, studiously immersed in this new found enigmatic world of cold blooded animals. He knew I was there, and we simply basked together, in mutual respect and curiosity.

Over the ensuing weeks of that Spring, I spent days up there combing the place for them. I found many more. I came to recognise individuals by knowing their unique head markings. I learned that the spot where I found the first of the season was an emergence site; other individuals emerged from around the thicket, meaning there was a hibernaculum there. I carried out formal surveys of them, there and elsewhere around the county. I came to make friends who also loved the adder, on the common. I even met the love of my life because of them, and our first ‘date’ was spent creeping around searching for them.

Every year since then, no matter what has been going on in my life, I’ve been ‘checking’ on the local population at various points in the reptile season. I developed a huge sense of personal custodianship over them, which many people may find eccentric. Even when I took on land management roles of nature reserves which held populations of adders, my ‘home’ adders were always the ones that were ‘mine’, rather than the ones that I ‘catered for’ at work.

This sense of guardianship of course brought with it some worry, like a parent worries for their children long after they’ve grown up.

Adders in the UK and parts of wider Europe are in peril.  I began to ‘realise’ this on a more personal level a couple of years ago when I acknowledged that the changes in my records, sightings and encounters with them were making me uneasy. The following notion is bordering on romantic of me to cogitate on, but I still find it compelling.

Theory has it, that women are more in tune with reptiles than men are. Apparently this is particularly the case at certain times during a woman’s cycle, when a woman can spot or detect snakes quicker than a person typically would on average. This is supposedly due to the influence of hormones, bringing about a heightened ability to detect ‘threats’ to the foetus in utero. In all mammals, nature dictates that for the preservation and continuation of life, a carrying mother must be able to protect her charge in every way possible. Perhaps there is grounding in this; I couldn’t say for sure, since I am only aware of one study (from  Nobuo Masataka of Japan’s Kyoto University) on the theory.

I can only offer my own experience, in response to that information. I am highly adept at locating lizards and snakes. Ever since I knew where to look for them, I could often find them quicker than my male counterparts could. In spite of having a hearing impairment and being short sighted, I can detect an animal and often identify which it is, by the flash of sound it makes, fleeing through the undergrowth. I can often tell whether I’m going to have a productive time searching or not. It could all be bollocks for all I know (I don’t think it is, however). And of course, I could in fact simply have seriously badass fieldcraft skills, but my perrenial scatter-brain and clumsiness convinces me otherwise, frankly. Who really knows? Maybe vipers and women are mysterious in exact equal measure.

Anyway, if factual, this feminine serpentine-sensing means that in sweet irony, this defence mechanism works in reverse in women like me, who seek – rather – than avoid reptiles. I’m not a maternal person, but that doesn’t alter the fact that I have the same biological mechanisms as any female. I can, perhaps turn this to my advantage in field-herping. The feminist beauty of this? It is a defiant victory-fingers-up at the society-bound expectation of all women to want to birth babies. I don’t want to bear life, but I want all life to thrive. I am a woman, and it is in my nature to nurture. All women may well have a ‘biological clock’ in the most basic sense, but it ticks in different ways for different individuals. Such is my theory.

Long live the viper, for she is one and the same as me, in a different body. She symbolises life, survival and feminity in all forms.