I love my day job

P1010173As a child I read and re-read a book called Looking at Nature by Elsie Proctor published in 1965. In it a boy (of course a boy, this was the sixties after all) headed off for a day’s field trip. He had with him a fishing net made from bamboo and his mum’s tights, some field glasses, a collecting jar and a flower guide. I wanted to be this boy, heading off for a day of discovering nature but I couldn’t because A) I was a girl and B) It was 1983 and kids didn’t go out into the countryside on their own any more. Instead I would take Looking at Nature into the garden and build pitfall traps to harass the local insects and peel back bark on the long suffering apple tree to see what lay beneath.

Yesterday I set off for work, carrying a fishing net, a pair of binoculars and a wild flower guide. I discovered signs of water vole by the river, I lay in a meadow and worked out what the flowers were. I thought about ways to improve the area for wildlife. I drank a cup of coffee and listened to the swallows gathering overhead and I was being paid to do so.tools of trade

It still seems to me to be a remarkable thing that I got here. That through a mixture of Essex banter and trying really hard I get to fulfil that childhood image of who I would be. How few people get to do that? For most reality strikes, they can’t afford the years of studying, they fail an exam, they have kids and have to earn a crust in a better paid profession. They are crushed by parents or partners and are told to be sensible or maybe their ambitions are just too lofty, we can’t all be pop stars or the PM.

My ambitions were humbler; to spend time in nature and help wildlife. I achieve the first, I try to achieve the second. I still have faith that I do, in some way, achieve the second, despite the crushing forces that oppose this aim. I hope my records from the meadow might contribute to its safety from development. I hope my ideas to improve the river might be taken on board and make things better for the water voles and fish. I know that there are other considerations that might get in the way of the good I want to do, boring things that I don’t care about but others do.

But I also know that I am doing what I can, that I stuck to my guns. I know the childhood me would be so thrilled that I had made it and, whatever new ambitions come into my life, I know I am not willing to give up the day job just yet.


Touching Base

20150815-0007Do you have a place where you belong? A place where you feel most yourself? A place which brings out the best in you? For me this place will always be College Lake, a nature reserve near Tring in Hertfordshire.

If you visit College Lake nowadays you may wonder why this place grounds me. The local wildlife trust landed on site a few years ago and nowadays there is a giant car park and shiny visitor centre selling posh mugs and bird seed, the place, at times, seems full of yummy mummies with noisy children but behind all this is the College Lake I know and love deeply, so deeply, I carry it around with me at all times and open a box inside myself to look at it from time to time to remind myself of what’s important.

So, I spent the weekend touching base. Working in the sun, restoring my beloved Shepherd’s Hut, a project I began eleven years ago when I was a summer warden working for the inspirational founder of the reserve Graham Atkins. It was a project I had suggested to Graham one morning over the normal cup of tea and chat. “needs doing,” Graham said and so I began “doing.”

20150815-0004This weekend, while DIY projects mounted up around my own home, I spent the weekend attempting to strip peeling paint from the woodwork and sloshing on undercoat while goldfinches twittered in the bushes, plums ripened on the trees and the Virgin Pendolino train raced past unseen in the cutting. I painted and drunk tea with Ken Thompson, a long term volunteer, a man who builds computer programmes and also comes here at weekends to restore farm machinery.

Ken on the reaper binder

Ken on the reaper binder

Why did we do it. I can’t speak for Ken but for me it’s two fold. One is for Graham, who died last year but who I sense everywhere at College Lake. The Shepherd’s hut and the old farm machinery were his pet projects and I want to keep them in good order but also I come here for me.

College Lake restores me, now as then, I feel confident, relaxed, centred, accepted, practical. I care not a jot what I look like, I know my own worth, I am my best self here. College Lake weaves a magic within me. I come away surer or who I am and what I want.

How can painting a shepherd’s hut in the sun do that? I don’t know, maybe because working outdoors, doing something of practical use, is what we are all originally built for, maybe because it is a world away from the challenges my real life throws at me. Whatever it is, it works for me.

We all need this, to touch base, in our increasingly busy and hectic lives it is easy to lose site of who we really are. Find your base, go visit it. Once you have, you will wonder why you left it so long.

The finished Shepherd's Hut

The finished Shepherd’s Hut

An evening with George Monbiot

George and me

George and me

Last night I got drunk on free wine and accosted celebrated journalist George Monbiot. It was maybe not my finest moment but I was drunk not just on the wine but on George’s message. I had gone to the Guardian’s Masterclass in column writing expecting a distant formal journalist and a life story of how he made it through good contacts and persistence. The persistence was certainly true, no one makes it without this key attribute of dogged tenacity but George’s message was far more personal.

It was a message of how to live a decent life.

“Live frugally,” he told us. “If you need to earn £30,000 a year and want to be a campaigning journalist then you are going to struggle. Save the money you have for when times are lean. Make sacrifices. If you can live on less you can be free to say no.” It was an evangelical message.

The man in front of me, nodded enthusiastically, “Yes,” he mumbled. “You’ve got it right.”

I felt if we stayed much longer he would be punching the air and shouting ‘halleluiah.’ But in some ways I wanted to do that too.

George Monbiot seems to be that rare thing, an authentic individual. A man who is making sacrifices, getting criticised, getting hate mail, probably getting a price on his head but who is sticking to what he believes in. George is a preacher with a mission to tell the stories that other journalists won’t touch. Just that day George had received a barrage of abuse from readers over his exposure of research that suggests that once people get beyond a certain level of obesity there are no diets on earth that will help them. That the body undergoes certain biochemical changes and can’t change back.

“Some of the stories I tell, people just don’t want to hear,” George admitted. “They will ridicule you and tell you that you’re mad but even if someone is vehemently disagreeing with you they are still reading what you say.” Be true to yourself, be true to your values, that was George’s message. “There are people out there who are professional liars. Who are paid to discredit research and twist facts to benefit those in charge. You have to be prepared to get into a fight with these people. Don’t frame your arguments around the values of your opponents, it just gives weight to their values. Stick to your own values.”

I thought of all the times I had been told to find the middle ground, to appease the people who were opposing me, to be realistic. I thought about the director of a project I had worked on who had told me that “Conservation is compromise.” and I felt validated for all the times I had stuck my ground and said. “No, this is simply wrong and we should expect better.”

After the break, George told us how he goes about writing his weekly Guardian column. Days of research are followed by a breakneck rush for a deadline at 3.30pm on Tuesday afternoon. Many gasped when he told us he didn’t even begin writing his article until 10am on Tuesday morning and then intersperses his writing and editing with bouts of twenty press ups. He told us that there are days when his discovery of the dark plots of the world gets him down, that he needs to compartmentalize his knowledge of how the world works and get on with his life regardless.

“I get to see through some of the deceptions,” he said. “Most of us never do get that chance but I am very thankful for the chance to be paid to read about the world and this is something we should all do. Even if no one ever reads your blog or your articles it still has value. The act of discovery is part of the process of being a human being,” George said, “and that has value in itself.

A Good Read – Memorious Earth, A Longitudinal Study – Autumn Richardson and Richard Skelton

memorious-earth-bookMemorious Earth, A Longitudinal Study – Autumn Richardson and Richard Skelton

Memorious Earth is a beautifully presented slice of Cumbria, a Cumbria both under our feet but often overlooked and a Cumbria lost and remembered only in name.

Reading this book was like stepping into a cool bath on a hot day, like stepping off of an over packed tube train and walking through a clean, airy museum of beauty and thought. Throughout the pages ordinary bits of the countryside are bottled and presented as things of importance, as museum exhibits, ordinary life, which could be lost just as the raven and the lapwing and the wolf has been lost from the landscape.

This book mixes scientific facts with folklore and poetry. It felt like a justification for my own relationship with the countryside. So often, those working in conservation can look at things in isolation and be terribly level headed. If, when out doing my survey work, I come across a really amazing plant filled river, I know I am meant to be sensible and scientific and start working out the names of everything and their relative importance, when what I really think is “wow, that’s how the past looked,” and this is often followed by a desire to engage, to slip into the river and discover it with fingers and toes, to taste it, to entwine myself in it. Am I odd? undoubtedly. Afterwards I will pull myself out and discover the names of things. The names can be a wonder in themselves but they can also be dry. Science can increase knowledge but reduce wonder. Science can both expand and diminish.

Autumn Richardson and Richard Skelton in Memorious Earth take the science but also create wonder. Tree rings created from ancient languages felt like reaching in and touching the trees memory of all the people who have stood next to it and spoken its name. A photograph of a bone. A wolf bone? (please don’t tell me if i’m wrong) seemed like a holy relic, a reminder that the English wolf was once real and walked the earth.

There is something in this work that makes it tangible, that makes it reach out and place a finger on you. It unsettles you, it affects you. It is the heavy weight of absence. This becomes particularly clear in the last section, The Medicine Earth, when you sense the tred of ‘the harmful one that throughout the land roams.” you feel the unseen presence that flickers just out of sight and you feel the overwhelming sadness and hopelessness behind the words ‘this shall be whole again.’ a mantra, as if by saying it enough times, it might make it true.

The book is a beauty, a puzzle, a riddle to slip into.

Memorious Earth is available from Corbel Stone Press


Show some appreciation



By Bombman356 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.

By Bombman356 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.

Oh the irony, on the very day I get my Buglife membership pack, intent on supporting a charity who are fighting to protect our most prescious ‘brownfield’ sites from development, I step on a wasp nest while doing a survey of a river channel.

I had probably been standing on the wasp nest for a good twenty minutes before I realised what I had done, intent as I was on trying to indentify an unusual dragonfly. The wasps clearly felt that they had been patient long enough and this huge dark shadow wasn’t about to move so they began to crawl up into my trouser legs. Even then I didn’t become aware of them until they began to also swarm around my head and sting.

I did what any self respecting person would do. I ran. flinging my trousers off with abandon, despite the busy road nearby. Several wasps flew away. I put my trousers back on, only to find more wasps still in there, wedged between the folds in the material. Off the trousers came again and this time I put them on inside out to be sure.

Decidedly shaken, I limped back across the field but thought better of trying to retrieve my bag and binoculars, which were now covered with a mass of angry bodies. I trudged back across to my car, the shock having subsided, my leg now felt as if it had been stabbed multiple times with a poison dart (which indeed it had) and shooting pains were skedaddling along its length. There was nothing to do but wait, suck up the pain and sit tight until the wasps calmed down and I could go back for my stuff.

I poured a hot drink from my thermos and opened my Buglife magazine, only to be faced with a picture of a wasp. “Aggressive and can sting multiple times,” I read. They weren’t kidding but actually I had got off pretty lightly, amazed, when I checked, to find only two stings, the jabs I had felt after that I could only imagine had been inflicted by the wasps jaws. As my leg reddened and the pain increased I had to give the wasps the respect they were due, for a small creature they can pack quite a punch. hornet-11514_1280