New Networks for Nature

A few years ago the New Networks for Nature meeting was held in York which was an incredible opportunity and I really enjoyed the whole event.

This year it’s being held in Bath which isn’t quite as convienient but streaming tickets have now been made available! You can get them for Saturday or Sunday, or a combined ticket, through the Eventbrite page. Click on Tickets and scroll to the bottom of the list for the online ones.

You’ll then be able to access an exclusive live video and audio feed of the event in Bath. Note this is not an interactive attendance, so you will not be able to ask questions or comment live, but the social media around the event was very active when it was in York. If you do get involved in social media use #NatureMatters21 to join in.

Saturday will kick off with an exciting sounding panal about art and environmental awareness. Other Saturday panals include the topic of plastics, young people and climate activism and the future of natural-history tv.

Sunday includes discussion around Nature and Spirituality, nature, health and wellbeing and ecotourism.

A full programme is available for you to find out more about the different panals and the many great speakers.

Whilst my life has been taken over by fighting for basic disability access to York city centre, I am very much looking forward to having a weekend to think about nature instead!

Despite the gushing of love about the event, I haven’t been sponsored in anyway. I just really enjoyed it when it was in York and am very pleased to be able to attend virtually!

Untitled

Six year old girl, blonde hair, green eyes, hovers over a dead body. Her first dead body. There is no rule book for this situation, there was no picture book to tell her what to do or prepare her for this.

My sister, two years younger, had run away at the sight of the rusted fur but something tied me to the fox. Its body lay sprawled at the base of a horse chestnut tree. One of many that made up our wood; the envy of classmates who dreamt of tree houses and conkers.

Above, in the protective canopy, white and pink candles proudly declared Spring’s presence. I remember the man we found in our driveway staring at the waxy peach cones, amazed, full of questions about this abnormality. Questions we had no answers for, this was just how they grew, with their darker, smaller leaves and empty spiny shells that disappointed our friends. They had expected the rich smooth gift of a conker.

A glassy eye blinked. A muscle reaction I would later find out.

I stood watch over the body; chestnut tail, russet body, milky ruff and charcoal tipped ears.

There was no blood. The small creature lay seemingly as peaceful as a cat basking in the sun. It was not the fox I feared, it was not the death I feared, but I did fear leaving it alone. It felt wrong to witness death and walk away.

We buried it, my Dad and I, under a beech tree. Near the family pets but not so close that the fox would terrorise the guinea pigs, the chickens or the cats in the afterlife.

Thumbnail Nature

At a recent workshop with Amanda Tuke, I was introduced to the wonderful phrase Thumbnail Nature. Essentially, something about 50 words long that is nature themed!

A forest glade thick with honeyed sun beams. Bees lazily hum and bob on the breeze. A deer and her fawn rest softly amongst moss cushions…

NatureTM. Yours from £29.99 a month1.

Not actual footage.

1. Terms and conditions apply. 

Boxing Day Floods

One of the tasks from the Wild Words course I did was to write about flooding. In York, in 2015, there were awful floods which affected many people and areas that aren’t usually flooded. York does flood regularly but this was the worst I’ve seen in.

Boxing Day Floods, York

Source: York Flood Inquiry

December 2015
wettest month
since records began
Ouse and Foss catchment
saturated

Boxing Day:
unprecedented situation on the Foss

                       weekend Bank Holiday
                       middle of Christmas

challenge escalates

27th BT exchange
flooded

loss of landlines internet
mobile phones
no electronic communication
                        misinformation can take hold

four hundred and fifty three
residential properties
one hundred and seventy four
businesses
flooded

remarkable efforts
generosity community spirit
assistance offered quickly
unstintingly. Donations
                       local, national
                       international

spontaneous volunteers
‘unwavering response from responders’
praised for dedication and contribution

thirteen thousand sandbags
                       builders’ merchants very helpful
                       opened depots on request

voluntary sector:
                        evacuation-meals-shelter-warmth-assisting with clean up-warehousing and distributing donated goods-practical emotional recovery support

disruption
evacuated
no warning
upheaval
traumatic

‘Recovery from flooding does not simply end
when people move back into their homes.’

problems with insurance claims
managing builders
living in a state of disrepair

long-term issues identified:
                       respiratory problems made worse- mental health problems exacerbated-disruption to home-lost personal possessions-strain of moving in with family-strain of being separated from family-breakdown of relationships-financial pressures-lost ability to earn-went out of business

problems do not recede as quickly as water

York will flood again
an inevitability

‘York as a community would benefit from becoming more resilient
and better prepared for an emergency situation.’

QUIZ: Are you an ally to disabled people?

Unfortunately it doesn’t go without saying, but this is entirely tongue in cheek, it is not meant to be taken seriously.

  1. Do you know a disabled person? If yes, skip all other questions, you are clearly an ally to disabled people. You know one after all. Don’t worry if you don’t know them well, or haven’t discussed disability issues with them, it’s knowing one of them that matters.
  2. Have you ever spoken to a disabled person? This could be in the street, in a shop, when you attended a charity event, it doesn’t matter where, just that you spoke to one of them. Give yourself five points for each occasion, and you can double those points if you actually paid attention to what they were saying.
  3. Have you ever made a disabled person smile or laugh by joking about the speed of their wheelchair or how they’re too pretty to be disabled? Well, that’s essentially charity work right there! 10 points for each smile, 20 points for each laugh.
  4. Have you ever asked a disabled person to take a selfie with you so the world knows how inclusive and caring you are? 20 points per selfie
  5. Have you ever asked a disabled person what was wrong with them and then been able to offer advice on a cure? It could be that a juice diet was the way forward to get them back on their feet, or perhaps prayer could help them see again. Whatever the method, telling someone how they can get out of their miserable, pityful, hell of an existance makes you an ally. Heck, it makes you more than an ally, it makes you a healer of disability – get out there and spread your message!

Obviously there are other ways to become an ally, but they require a bit more effort.

If you scored:

  • 50+ Congratulations, you are a certified ally! Pat yourself on the back and get back to your life, no need to think about disabled people any more. Phew!
  • 30-50 Excellent progress. Sure, you’re not quite there but you are well on your way! Just one more selfie or a couple more smiles and you can claim your status as an ally.
  • Under 30 Could do better… If you want to call yourself an ally, you’re going to have to put in a bit more effort… But it’ll be worth it. Not only will you look good to others, once you’ve done the work and got the status, you’ll never have to look at a disabled person again. Now that’s some great motivation right there!

Ancraophobia, fear of the wind

Ancraophobia is the extreme fear of wind.  This is not a word for me.  I don’t fear the wind. But I am not comfortable with it either. I feel attacked by the wind. I feel small. I want to retreat, hide, and escape.

Ancraophobia is never present at birth. The fear of wind most often arises as a result of a negative experience in the person’s past… Most often an ancraophobic person experienced a situation where the wind was blowing heavily and they found themselves afraid that the wind might destroy or kill them.
Wikipedia, accessed 29th January 2020

When I was 7 or 8, there was a horrific storm.  It was Christmas Eve and the power cut out.  For some reason that I no longer recall, my dad had to go outside.  The wind was screeching, lightning striking and the sky was crashing almost in time to the flashes.

I was terrified for my dad.  He was out in this hellish tornado, surrounded by trees, and who knows what was caught in the wind.  I had seen Wizard of Oz a few times.  I knew about hurricanes. 

He had been outside for years.  Hours at least.  I was scared.  I opened my mouth but fear held back the words. It took a few tries before I could raise my concerns with my mother. 

Looking back, I can see she was also afraid. But she snapped at me.  Told me off.  Made me more terrified. My teeth bit down on my lips and my fingers curled, nails in skin. Eyes kept on staring into the storm.

I was already petrified, unable to move from my place, on guard at the window.  I didn’t need someone to yell at me and tell me not to be so stupid.  It had taken so much for me to ask. To ask if she thought he was ok. I didn’t need to be knocked down.

I had visions flashing through my childhood imagination.  My dad knocked unconscious.  My dad trapped under a tree. My dad squashed by a fallen wall. 

I needed to be told he hadn’t been gone very long.  I needed to be told he was ok.  I needed her to be the adult.  To act unafraid, even if she was.  I needed to know that in a fight between my dad and the wind, he would win.  Not to be shouted at to shut up.  I went quiet, silent and alone with my fears.  And that silence was filled with the bawling wind and the cracks of trees just a couple of metres from the house.

I stood between window and curtains, trying to turn the shadows into familiar shapes. Peering into the darkness, knowing I couldn’t have seen him even if he was there. 

I am not afraid of the wind. I am afraid of the power it has inside my imagination. The destructive whirlwind that rips through my imagination and decimates my safety net.

I am not afraid of the wind.

I am afraid my dad might lose the fight.


Written as part of the Wild Words: Place and Environment Writing course.

A short story of the ones left behind

As part of my writing course we looked at a poem called ‘A Short Story of Falling‘ by Alice Oswald and were asked to write a poem following her structure. I don’t normally write rhyming poems, let alone rhyming couplets so this was a challenge for me. It took a lot of work and tweaking and editing but I enjoyed stepping out of my comfort zone.

DSC_0653
Rugged rocks standing in the tide

A short story of the ones left behind

It is the story of the ones left behind
between ebb and flow of tide

As waves retreat, new worlds emerge
fleeting glimpses, soon submerged

Black rocks gleam, spray kissed, like jewels
stand tall between impermanent pools

Acorn barnacles cling tight
to mussels’ pearly blues and whites

Conical spirals of periwinkles
littered through the seaside shingle

Bladderwrack entangles limpets
cigarettes and fishing nets

Crab’s hermitage, a bottle cap
first cosy home, then prison, trapped

Translucent sea jelly
tentacles of vermicelli

Bag for Life, or Bag of Death?
suffocating final breath

This is the story of the ones left behind
by sea, and, by humankind

DSC_1275-shells-MO-12x8
Limpets and barnacles cling to black rock

Work in Progress

I remember the twisting landscape on the way to the jetty. Leaving Ullapool, overshooting the destination only to loop back on ourselves via the loosely drawn roads. The land ahead was flat, behind was hill littered, and you could see the tarmac snaking through like an S. The coast line still obscured but pulling us closer and closer to the shore.

This was a land of snaking s’s, shores and sand and scenery and the Summer Isles… scaling feelings and mountains came together for me, then. I was scrambling my way out of an eating disorder, a mix of some progress and some back sliding. Following an inner S road, twisting and turning, destination life, or death. Starvation or survival.

On the island, I was sharing a home with strangers who asked their questions – would you like some toast? Some cereal? Something? And noted when something was nothing. Strangers who walked, by torch light, home with me for that week. Toads calling, stars glimmering, paths slippery. And wished me a good night. One like I was his daughter, unaware he was seeing me as a toddler in those fleeting exchanges, but I held that sentiment close. The other, like I was her teenage daughter, concern spilling over. That week, they spoke with such care and concern for me.

That week with strangers was a salve. 

***

On my way up to Scotland, on my way up to the Summer Isles, the train journey wound from York to Northallerton to Darlington, Durham to Newcastle.  Then picked up the fracturous outline of the north east coast. At Edinburgh I switched trains, not too much lingering then a list of train stations to wrap your tongue around;

  • Haymarket
  • Inverkeithing
  • Kirkcaldy
  • Markinch
  • And Ladybank

Heading further north, the autumn haze glossed over the land, golden fields and the sun highlighting the dust that hung around the purple heather. The vast tall sky, stretched up reaching for the heavens, but it’s aspirations were squashed by heavy grey clouds. The dark air that pressed down on the land had been pressing down on me for so long. Oppressing my lungs, making living, breathing, an effort. My blood was treacle and my heart hurt with the effort of pumping it. I had been living with anorexia and depression for so long that I couldn’t remember another way of existing.

At Perth, another change. So many changes on the journey north. So many changes needed to find my true north. Suspended raindrops blurred the land with sky. Wispy clouds clung to highland rocks as we wove our way through the Cairngorms to Inverness. Purple and gold hillscapes flickered past the train windows. White houses. Green forests. Grey rivers. A landscape of texture – soft ferns, prickling pines, hills undulating, rocks protruding. Ruins pull you into memories, yours and the memories of the ghosts who haunt the land.

A ruined stone building, grass and fern in front and heather in the background

Inverness brought with it a bookshop trip. A treasure trove of second hand books, my safe place. If nothing else, I always know I can enter a bookshop and buy myself a brief moment of groundedness. The certainty that knowledge brings. The feeling of being surrounded by information, research and other people’s stories would help me feel a small glimmer of hope that my story, my book, would have it’s own ending. Unclear whether the ending would be happy or not didn’t matter, just that this drowning would end. Sadly my bag was full so I left with a couple of postcards instead.

The bus from Inverness dropped me at Strathpeffer, where I sat, hoping that I’d planned the journey right and the next bus would turn up as the timetable suggested. My mind already planning what to do if not. Anxiety running riot. But it did, no emergency plans were required. Finally I arrived in Ullapool. A long day of travel had taken me 420 miles from home, and ended with another bookshop. I would be staying opposite this particular bookshop on the overnight pause in travel.

Wild Words: Place & Environment Writing

Because I’m not already ridiculously busy, I thought I’d start a writing course in January. It’s called Wild Words: Place and Environment Writing and is going to be a mix of considering texts and writing our own responses to the topics. We’ll be considering ideas such as nature, dwelling and wilderness and ahead of the course, we’ve been asked to reflect on any previous reading which relates to place and environment.

A close up photo of a grassy meady with flowering heather and unidentifiable yellow flowers

Any long term readers of this blog will probably have realised I have done a lot of this. I spent a year or so following my own loose curriculum around nature and writing and reading formed a large part of that.

There was Tarka the Otter which captures animal calls so well, Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us which is a great example of her ability to translate potentially difficult, scientific ideas into a language of poetry, and there was the incredible book from Elizabeth Tova Bailey – The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating – which makes the everyday experience of illness seem so much more inspiring.

It is hard to choose just a few as I have read so widely about nature and place and environment over the last few years. And so many different kinds of books as well. There’s the question and answer format from Dr Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation which offers agony aunt (or should that be ant?) style help to different creatures. There’s the wonderful series from Reakion which looks at animals predominantly through a human lens and considers how we have integrated them into our cultures and beliefs.

Of course poetry has featured in my reading, including Isabel Galleymore’s Significant Other, The Lost Spells from Jackie Morris and Robert MacFarlane, and Basic Nest Architecture from the lovely Polly Atkin.

I read books about nature writing itself, and eco-criticism, and how to guides.

And diary style formats as well – such as Mile’s Richardson’s Needwood – and collections by different writers such as The Oxford Book of Nature Writing which also takes you on a journey across time.

I read articles such as Death of the naturalist: why is the “new nature writing” so tame? by Mark Cocker, and a responding article from Robert MacFarlane, Why we need nature writing. There was also a post about the two articles considered together.

And I read myths and legends. And magazines. And journals.

Essentially, there’s been a lot of reading, about different aspects of nature and environment, and I love the variety of forms and approaches. I love the many different topics that are covered, the passion of the authors and the new ways of seeing that they introduce me to. I hope that each one leaves a trace of itself in my creative mind, a glimmer of a snail’s track, and that I can weave some together to create my nature writing. Whilst I love and admire many different writers, I aspire only to be myself, to be my voice.

I am not vulnerable. I am Helen.

During the pandemic there was been a lot of use of the word vulnerable… And many of us don’t feel it’s the right choice of language.

“One of the most pervasive and damaging myths in modern liberal societies is the idea that disabled people are ‘the most vulnerable’.  This is a by-product of a culture that still widely associates disability with tragedy and perpetuates an individual analysis for something that is fundamentally structural… Disabled people, truth be told, do not need to be vulnerable… Vulnerability comes when politicians choose to pull the support disabled people need in order to live dignified, fulfilling, independent lives.”

Frances Ryan, Crippled

It brings with it connotations of pity and helplessness and makes it seem like it’s our fault if we die, rather than the societal inequalities around us. As Baroness Campbell said, “We are not vulnerable people. We are in vulnerable situations.”

But the word has been used in link with disability for much longer and it comes with an innate power imbalance between the vulnerable and those who are “helping” us, and that in turns allows for control and abuse to occur, or keep occurring. The word vulnerability brings with it an, often unspoken, idea that someone needs to rescue the person in question. It takes away the opportunity for self empowerment and is generally a regressive, outdated way of thinking about disability.

“The word ‘vulnerable’ is not consistent with the social model* in that it suggests that the disabled person is inherently and inevitably inferior. It is a use of language that locates the essential problem within the person with the impairment, and, in doing so, removes attention from the role played by the socio-economic structures of the system we live under in putting disabled people in situations of risk.”

Ellen Clifford, The War on Disabled People

(*For more about the social model of disability, watch a short video from Scope)

Labelling us as vulnerable is to emphasise the disabled person as being the problem, not the systems and contexts that are creating the vulnerability. And this in turn means the systems that can make us vulnerable aren’t challenged and the power imbalances remain. It also takes a large population with diverse needs, impairments and characteristics and reduces us to a generic population. In short, it erases us.

It can also affect outcomes. When we are labelled as vulnerable, it creates a culture where decisions can be made on our behalf, for our “best interests”. Measures are put in place for a sweeping population of so called ‘vulnerable people’ and in missing the nuance, you end up with a situation that rarely fits anyone. Such as some of the measures we’ve seen implemented around the pandemic.

Using the word vulnerable creates a culture where are lives are deemed to be a small price to pay for the greater good. Our deaths can be excused because of our ‘vulnerabilities’ and, because vulnerable suggests a fixed state, work doesn’t need to be carried out to move us out of the vulnerable category.

In her book about how society treats disabled people, Katharine Quarmby asks why disability hate crimes get missed or categorised as something else:

“One of the key reasons has to be that the victim is labelled as vulnerable.  This labelling does not happen with other forms of hate crime.  By failing to see the motivations for disability hate crime, the attitudes that underpin it, and by putting the responsibility onto the victim by describing him or her as ‘vulnerable’, we are letting those responsible for hate crimes continue t get away with it… By confusing vulnerability with targeted hostility towards the victim – we do not see the crime for what it is.”

Katharine Quarmby

More broadly, by speaking of us with the sweeping term vulnerable, it affirms the idea that we are of lesser human value, less human, and therefore less entitled to our human rights.

Further, such sweeping generalisations reduces us to objects, affecting the way we are treated and reducing us to one characteristic – we are no longer a mother who’s also a keen swimmer and helps out at school, we are now just vulnerable, not even a vulnerable person.

This fixed and blanket way of seeing us also means that the nature of vulnerability is obscured. It misses the fact that vulnerability is as much about the environmental context as it is the individual context. That is to say, you can be vulnerable in one setting, in one context, in one way, and resilient in a different setting or context or way but by calling us vulnerable, you miss these nuances. You ultimately miss our strengths.

Calling us vulnerable denies us our agency and can impinge on our self esteem and sense of worth, which are often already dented as a result of living in a capitalist society which doesn’t value disabled people.

When talking about the word vulnerable and relating it to yourself, Jasper from Wheelie Queer said:

“It reminds me of when you’re getting ready to go through PIP assessments, and things like that and suddenly you’re having to look at yourself through this new lens as weak and all the impairments that you have. It can be quite difficult to associate yourself in that way when you’re used to showing your strength, adapting around the issues that you face.”

Jasper, Wheelie Queer

Further, when we are being described as vulnerable, it becomes harder to feel proud of who we are. It is harder for others to see us as resilient and it reinforces the idea that to be disabled, to be vulnerable in some way, is inevitably a negative experience.