Tuesday, 25 February 2020

Winter's gift

Every month brings its gifts. February's gift is the light - light returning to remind us that dark is only for a season. I should know better - seasoned (well-seasoned) nature disciple that I am, but it gets me every time. The wonder and awe of the whole thing. 

Discussing scientific / planetary concepts is a daily event in our house. This morning it was explaining to the crafty six and a half year old that morning is morning because Earth spins on its axis as we revolve around the sun. And we call that first light dawn, and dawn turns into morning. All that before coffee. It starts early in the Holly Cottage. 

And so February brings its earth-warming light, but it takes its time. Between January and the last few dwindling days of February's reign, a slumber-full silence has been maintained. Not a silence of the cars that go non-stop, 24/7 on the main road mind. Not a silence of alarm clocks in pitch black mornings. But a silence of the earth - sleepy, dreary, brown-tired - browned off? - restful, turned inward, motioned earth-ward. Seemingly devoid of life. But no - this is dreaming time. Barely a breath or a leaf decomposed. Barely a whisper beneath a foggy shroud. But very much alive. Time to mull and ponder. 
La vie en hiver

In all that silence and respectful pause - nature drawing breath - somehow we see more.

  - The goldcrest that appeared in our garden for the first time ever this winter, flitting from leaf to leaf of sheltering leylandii allowing us occasional glimpses of his beautiful, golden head-dress -

   - And then as if not to be beaten, goldcrest's larger companion - industrious wren - catches the corner of my eye, reminding me she never tires of hunting in littering leaves left where they fell. Wren does wren's bit - helping them return to ravenous earth.

  - And there, peeping up through darkest, rotting leaves - snow-white, snowdrop beauties - heroes of winter's realm and harbingers of spring. Humble warriors that salute us in a sun-hungry world laid bare. Should they be pitied they only experience sun as something rare and hauntingly distant beyond frost beckoning clouds? No - no pity. Only celebration of those that defy the dark. 

And of course there's more - more creatures to be watched - waiting under a leaf, hiding under a rotting branch, burrowing through rich, dark, crumbling earth. Or singing from the top of an ivy clad wall. And we watch what we can, through the barest of days. 

For that is January's gift; beautiful, bittersweet and painfully for some, the longest month of all. As Winter strips everything back to the bone, January honours those bones with time and space, to see and hear more. February carefully, cautiously brings us back, back to the light - back to magnificent glorious, radiant life. 

And then, as if it never was here, Winter is done. 

Sunday, 24 November 2019

A Time to Dance

Lat May I sat at the trusty – though somewhat battered by the three-year-old fella – kitchen table to write about a time to grow. Well, talk about an understatement. Where do I start?

Leaving the comfort of my well-worn battle ground of bogs and trying to get them restored was a moment filled with mixed emotion. Was I overly institutionalised? Was I too specialist? Was I too brow-beaten by the winds in the business world where nature came at the bottom of a sad and pitiful pecking order? At the National Biodiversity Conference last year I listened with great intent to eve
Red sky at night - flying over the Irish Sea,
looking back towards the west (Oct 2019).  
ry word of our inspirational flame-bearer – President Higgins. I’m not ashamed to admit that I near wept the whole way through his speech. Whether he wrote it or not, his delivery and his spoken words of camaraderie, respect and understanding for us ‘weary in the trenches folk’ hit me right in the core. I know I wasn’t alone. Sometimes we don’t know if we can go on.

With all these questions in my head, I walked on. I followed my gut and stepped off a corporate motorway onto a rugged path, with a well self-enforced speed limit, that I had never been on before. Scared? – does a duck quack? Excited? Levels were off the Richter scale, or that was nausea??? Free? As a bird. Think - off the north coast of Erris and an un-limited blue sky stretching over the horizon. Think John Lennon Free as a Bird

Six months later, how I have grown! Not physically (though I have spent a lot of time on my ass sitting and reading). More like - grown back into my curious, wonder and awe skin, back onto new neural pathways in my head, wriggled out of narrowing avenues and out into the limitless space of possibility. And how is that, says you? Well, I’ve had the time to read (part of the job - what a gift!). And it was science, journals, economics, philosophy, and the crossover of nature and business. Grasping nettles and taking the sting out them with understanding. Still plenty of nettles out there, takes time.

I’ve met some awesome people on this path – there are serious (wow) warriors out there armed with knowledge and understanding, and passion and fire for nature and people, together. Even to brush-off the energy of that fire feeds my own and brings to me great hope where I was probably a bit wanting. Maybe even more importantly, I got to spend more time with the hardy warriors I knew before but never really got to spend time with – you know who you are. Both these close encounters with awesome warriors have helped to rebuild – restore? – my own source of fire, to keep me in the dance. Nature’s worth dancing for, though in my heart of hearts - this I know - nature dances us.

Am I still scared? Yeah, who isn’t a bit scared if they are honest. Life is uncertain, but I have today. And tomorrow will be a gift. Am I excited? Even more than I thought I could be. The future needs us all to work together, from every millimetre of this intricate web. Not one more important than the other, though some can bear a more powerful blow to get us on the right course. And plenty of heavy lifting for us all to do, so hang in there. 

Free? Still flying, high. 

Wednesday, 29 May 2019

Time to Grow

May has passed its peak and there’s barely a thought of a time without full leaf cover or the rainbow meadow patch that has replaced our drills of spuds. It’s been a busy time. Getting used to the thoughts of leaving a work that has consumed much of my life to date, launching a book (click here if you've been on the moon the last month! www.catherinewilkie.ie) and now getting used to thoughts of a new horizon, already beckoning me and only days away.

Growing Time - bring on the bees, 
and the wigwam!
When I started working on bogs I didn’t know a blanket bog from a turf bank, or a brown moss from a less brown moss (mossy brains will get this reference!). I started my postgraduate research in 1996 at a time when bogs (peatlands) were well off the mainstream radar and also when I was probably more engaged with high level academic notions of ecological restoration. Rather than the real thing. Which involves diggers and dozers, and lots of welly wearing by the way.

Twenty-three years later and I humbly bow to the great wisdom of the wet-scapes that bogs and fens are part of, and the lessons that I have slowly and steadily taken on board as I moved through the bog-fairs of Canada, USA, Fenno-Scandinavia, Central and Eastern Europe. I never made it to the southern hemisphere tropical swamps, and much to the disappointment of a long-held aspiration, I’ve never witnessed Orang-utan playing in the branches of their very vulnerable natural habitat. But I have been eaten alive by midges on a breeze free Mayo day, and I have battled with mosquitoes in central Finland! Again, it’s the small things that really put is in our place…

The great events surpass the biting insects though and I have had the great privilege of steering some spectacular restoration work. And I have witnessed the power of nature to forgive the sins of us over-eager humans, by working its natural wisdom and healing to over-turn loss of habitat and species in the space of but a few Earth years. Nature does so much, but it is our nature to recognise when we must stop, understand, and duly restore and rewet as the case usually is with heavily modified wetlands. Nature shows no emotion, nature just gets on with it. There are no mistakes, just lessons learned and new horizons.

And so, do the same. I leave one world, carrying with me the lessons and memories that are etched on my soul. The memory of Mayo skies that go on forever, the wonderful isolation of being immersed in fieldwork yet never alone. The sound of gurgling water moving under your feet and not a clue of what secret pipes are flowing. Finding a new species, or finding a species wearing a different persona and it making an eejit out of you for days. Learning of liverworts and lichens and how the small things matter. My own reflection in a dark and peaty pool that is centuries old. A surprised Otter on a lonely riverbank. Cranes dancing and calling in the early morning Polish mist. Making a dried-out bog wet again, and hearing the birds sing again. Such gifts I carry with me. And friendships, lifelong though many over distances longer. 

To new horizons, though also old. Back to the heart of learning – of pushing boundaries of the mind, of stepping out of a comfort zone, yet with the comfort that nature has my back. Next week I begin my work with the indelible Professor Jane Stout in Trinity College Dublin. She, and others will be working with me to unravel the concept of Natural Capital Accounting – bringing nature onto the balance sheets. That’s right – water, soil, habitats, the whole kit and caboodle. Will it work? I don’t know. But it’s definitely worth a try. I won’t be trying to monetise nature – nature doesn’t do money – but this system may work to target restoration and identify the weak points in the system. The fragile bits that nature-based solutions can fill.

So, my path has changed. I carry my scars and my lessons, and I venture out to new horizons. 

Time to grow indeed.  

Wednesday, 17 April 2019

New Leaves

Watching time
It's happening. Every day, every minute, a teeny weeny bit more green creeps through the filter of our winter eyes and widens the lens that will become our summer view. Phew!!! It's often right about this time of year that I am overwhelmingly grateful that we don't have to think about it - it just happens. Summer creeps into view without question, without looking for permission, without caution. 

The winter brought its challenges for sure. Here in the Holly Cottage reality kicked in and we downsized our vegetable patch for the sake of a species-rich meadow - one which is more conducive to the blondies being able to sit in the spring sunshine and ponder the wonder of ladybirds and honeybees just doing their thing. 

I must admit though, March was bittersweet. Paddy's day came and went in its flurry of hailstones but this year there were no spuds to be planted. No chitting, no watching through the dark days of February for heraldic sprouting. And though I mourned the lack of the pratie drills, I did rejoice in the glee of the wee man prancing through the establishing grass mat and hunting for worms. There's still space for a few meandering peas and courgettes, so it's not all lost. It's all a balance. And strawberry promises and fruit blossoms waiting in the wings. 

Balance is where it's at. Sometimes we lose it. Sometimes, when we stop thinking about it, we are trapeze artists. Pause for a moment to see the rope upon which our entire weight bears down on and alas, we can lose faith and tumble down gracelessly. Same when we grit our teeth and try to force it. 

New leaves bring new momentum. For me they bring a sea-change as I emerge from a long spell in a corporate suit and enter the realm of casual free-lance. I'm beginning to feel the difference as the weight of responsibility slips from my shoulders onto someone else's. It's time. Or so the dandelions tell me, and they would know - they double up as clocks don't they?

Other news, The Easter Snow is maturing to its launch date so watch this space. Time to celebrate the story contained within those leaves and begin new ones. Watch this space. 

Saturday, 7 April 2018

The Easter Snow

Five years ago, in the week following Easter, I sat down at our kitchen table in the Holly Cottage to write a story. I had been enjoying writing my random pieces in the Holly Cottage blogspot – tales of ordinary life, gardening, changing seasons etc. But I had a story rattling around in my head and it wouldn’t let me go. So I sat down, I opened my Mac, and I let it flow.

The story revolves around a nursing home. Not quite rock and roll I hear you say, but it’s certainly a setting in which all phases of life pass through at some point and therefore perfect for this story.

And the inspiration? Well, my godfather – Paddy - suffered a serious stroke back in 2007. The poor man never recovered and spent half a year being cared for in the nursing home local to where I was living at the time. I went to visit him once a week. Sometimes he knew me, sometimes he didn’t. Sometimes I was his sister who died when they were teenagers, sometimes I was a nurse. When I walked in those doors, all carefree and able, I walked into another world. And every week I left knowing my health, youth and freedom and how precious that is.

A few years earlier, the ashes of his sister – Lily - who had emigrated to the USA back in the 1940s were returned. Paddy buried her ashes in the graveyard near their home under the shadow of the Hill of Uisneach. I had met her in New York about ten years previous. She was a doll – pure New Yorker, twang and all - lover of cats and friendly neighbour to all who lived in the crammed-with-tiny-apartments building that she called home. She died on her own and after her leaving sixty years previous, they were never to meet in person.  When he collected the lunchbox that contained her ashes at the airport in Dublin, he stepped right up and he hugged it tight. They are together now, buried with two of their three sisters, and their father and mother.

Both of them were to the fore of my mind writing The Easter Snow. She died penniless, after working in a fashion industry that paid little enough. Though he must have thought she had made it. He died with those few of his family left around him that would hold his hand or wipe his mouth dry, when he drank from the strange plastic cup with built in straw that was filled with milky tea in the nursing home for him.

I guess I needed to re-unite them in a way.

And that’s the story behind the story. Five years later, after a few sincere attempts at getting it published the right way, I decided to just put it out there. I use Createspace. If you feel inspired, here's the link: go find it. And then tell me what you think. Does it make you smile? Does it make you think? That’s all I ask.

The Easter Snow is a tale of love and loss, regret and awakening, and finding ourselves where we are. It’s a simple story. Enjoy.

C xxx