Happiness is…fulfilling your childhood dreams.

newt close upI was undoubtedly a strange child, the kind that makes their parents worry. I spent most summer days sitting up an apple tree in my parent’s garden, reading nature books and dreaming of such delights as owning my own newt!

Living in a suburb on the edge of London these creatures were a symbol of all the mysterious delights of the wild which were out there, somewhere, if only my parents would allow me to take off into the countryside and go and look for them.

I dreamt of  creating my own pond. I asked my parents if I could, they said no so I dug one in the neighbours garden instead. I figured they would never know. They were in their seventies, rarely went into the garden and never beyond the big privet hedge into the section which had once been the vegetable patch which had now run wild. I roped in my friend and, under my careful instruction, she dug a large hole and we lined it with some polythene I had found in my dad’s shed. I filled it with six watering cans fully of tap water and waited.

A few pond skaters arrived, a red wiry worm wiggled around, mosquito larvae came but no newt. The liner sprang a leak. I got up early every morning to wander up and down the garden with those six watering cans to keep the pond topped up. I waited, I hoped, no newt came.

One night there was a shout and a crash down the bottom of the garden. My neighbour had decided to walk beyond the privet hedge. He fell in my pond. Their was knocking on the door, a telling off, the pond was filled in.

Then, many years later, I owned a house of my own, I roped in some friends to dig a new pond. Under my careful instruction they dug a hole in the garden, I lined it with plastic, but better quality this time. The neighbours complained, fearing mosquitoes and inexplicably frogs, which they were terrified of. I waited.

The pond sprang a leak, but I fixed it. The water stayed high and the newts came, first one, then six, now they wander my garden. I find them under logs, I find them trapped in buckets of water. I rescue them. I delight in them. I think of that seven year old girl who dreamt of newts while sitting up the apple tree and I am happy.

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.


On Chislet Marshes

by MLP

by MLP

As a child I always wanted to be a ‘naturalist.’ I pictured myself heading out for long days in the field with a net over my shoulder to catch all things which swam or flew and a hand lens on a strap around my neck to identify rare plants.

Surveying ditches for the Internal Drainage Board might not sound like such a thrilling occupation to some but it allows me to live my childhood dream. So yes, I get odd looks tramping through the undergrowth in a floppy hat and binoculars. So, yes, I am bored of hearing “Going fishing darling?” from ‘funny man’ dog walkers. Yes, yes, I have days where I spend hours fighting my way through thistle jungles and swaying from heat stroke but I also get to places that few other people are allowed to see, field edges, hidden copses, tangly brooks. I see private glimpses of wildlife, a hovering kingfisher, a cormorant, silver bubbled, slipping underwater in search of fish, sky dancing marsh harriers, wildlife with it’s back turned, not expecting to encounter a person out here where few are ever seen.

This is not a gentle stroll along a footpath, they are, as a friend recently said, ‘hard miles.’ but I love being out all day in the countryside, seeing no one and having a purpose. It is a privilege and I never forget it.

On Wednesday I was out on Chislet Marshes, a vast sea of wheat fields winding their way in from the sea, watched over by the eye of Reculver Towers ever present on the horizon. I had walked many miles along the reed fringed Shuart Dyke, testing the water quality, noting the diversity of plants, searching for water voles.

At lunch time I lay with my head on my bag on a wooden bridge covered with lichens and watched the clouds build and swell . Swallows skimmed inches above the water, almost grazing my chest as they crossed the bridge. I contemplated a skinny dip, fancying the prospect of baking myself dry on the sun warmed timbers beneath me, but the water had high nitrate content (I had tested it) and looked none to inviting. I knew from experience that even the loveliest looking streams could hold nasty surprises, having lowed myself into a brook last year I emerged with a leach stuck to my foot merrily sucking my blood.

Besides, I had already been caught  in a compromising position once that day. I go slightly feral on the marshes in the summer and forget what normal behaviour is. With no one to be seen for miles I had been having a wee quite out in the open when the seaside train to Whitstable had flashed past. I had quite forgotten about the railway line, hidden in a dip. The driver, and passengers got a vision which might scar them for life. Maybe I was becoming more of a naturist than a naturalist.



Snowing in the woods

image from talainsphotographyblog

image from talainsphotographyblog

Snowing in the woods.

As a child I had a book of nature with a picture of a mossy forest. The caption beside it read something along the lines of, ‘if we keep very quiet while in the woods creatures will begin to appear’. I sat by the fire for what seemed like hours, staring at that picture, thinking if I only looked long enough then something really would appear, a deer maybe or even a badger, the sort of half mythical creatures which had long ago vanished from our suburban scrub patches which passed as woodland. Ok, so maybe I was a little slow on the uptake, or had sat by that fire too long and my brain wasn’t quite getting the fact that I was looking at a page in a book not really sitting in a woodland but still, even now, that picture casts the same spell.

This photo from Talainsphotographyblog have the same affect. If I look long enough and am quiet enough and want it enough then the twigs in the distance will part and something, just something will step into view.