A Return To Wildflower Surveying

A first view of Thorpe Cloud, as approached from Thorpe village.

Years ago I used to do the ‘Common Plants Survey’ for Plantlife; the final year of the scheme (in 2014) I wrote about here. I enjoyed it and learned quite a bit, but several things changed including the survey and it felt like time for a break. Then a few weeks ago I decided I would like to take part again, so I looked to see what squares a surveyor was still needed for – and there was nothing anywhere near me at all. The new National Plant Monitoring Survey which replaced the original scheme has tried to distribute squares evenly across the country rather than just near where people live, so there are currently many squares needing surveyors in Scotland with a scattering of empty spaces across the rest of the country, the majority of which are in the less populated areas… Then I thought why not choose a square I would like to visit?

Thorpe Cloud rising above the River Dove by the stepping stones.

Thorpe Cloud rising above the River Dove by the stepping stones.[/caption]My new square, which has the wonderfully palindromic number of 1551, is quite a long way from here, up to an hour’s drive depending on traffic, but what an amazing place I am getting to know! Derbyshire’s favourite rocky ‘mountain’, Thorpe Cloud, once a coral reef all of 287m high, rises above the river Dove where you can cross the stepping stones to Staffordshire if you wish. Ancient ash woodland lines the banks further along, and there is a stream that comes out of a cave at the foot of the Cloud.

Heath Bedstraw and wild Thyme

I don’t consider myself any kind of plant expert, I am simply a gardener who likes getting to know flowers, weeds… and now grasses. What I love the most is seeing how the same family adapts to surroundings. Galium for example, varies from the rather annoying Stickyweed / Cleavers / Goosegrass that invades my garden although makes a nice tea, to lady’s bedstraw that smelled sweet enough to be dried and used in the home, to the short, spreading Woodruff that carpets woodland floor, to truly tiny plants on top of mountains. Quite a lot of it grows on top of Thorpe Cloud along with wild thyme, saxifrages, sedums, tiny geraniums…

What I hadn’t anticipated was that surveying wildflowers would be any kind of spiritual experience or practice, yet it has proved to be so. I had planned to do the first visits with a friend who is an experienced and trained ecologist – who knows different plants from me and is more practiced in looking up oddities in a book. However, every time she was free, it rained. Plans were made, and cancelled repeatedly. I finally realised I should go for a reconnaissance visit by myself on a nearly-dry day, which proved very worthwhile in all sorts of ways.

Lin Spring emerging out of a cave at the foot of Thorpe Cloud

Lin Spring emerging out of a cave at the foot of Thorpe Cloud[/caption]Being by myself, I was able to do a blessing by the Spring and ask the mountain’s permission and support to survey this area of beautiful countryside. I then had a mini-pilgrimage to the top of the hill, where I had never been before, and had the summit to myself. It is a very beautiful ridge, and felt welcoming to me. Just as well after my sleepless night before – I seemed to know in advance this was going to be big for me.

I returned home, with a better idea of what plant groups to study in advance (my soil is acid clay so the flora is rather different) and see how unprepared I was the first time. I also had the oddest feeling that I was studying plants each night while I slept.

New plans were made with my friend, but no, I really was meant to do this by myself – the only day forecast to be dry was the only one she wasn’t free. However there were difficulties. I had to be back earlier than on the day we hoped to go, and there were roadworks and road closures, making for a longer route and busy roads getting there. I just had to trust I would be capable of doing the job, and that I had long enough there.

Thorpe Cloud summit looking North up Dovedale

I woke up early, not nervous this second time but excited and confident. On arrival I again asked the mountain’s permission and support. Remarkably I had whatever space I needed to carry out the survey, without winding a rope around anyone’s legs or lunch despite it being a much busier day, and somehow I got finished with just enough time to climb to the top again. Five areas surveyed, each exactly 25 square metres although some were square and some long, covering five different habitat types. I have a selection of photos to go through to complete more thorough plant identifications, not having time to look anything up and wanting eventually to know every plant that appears on my plots, but goodness I have a lot of work to do on grasses if I am ever to really understand and be able to identify them! As yet, knowing to the family name when they are in flower feels like an achievement, but it is apparently possible to know many of them even after the tops have been nibbled off by rabbits.

I look forward to many return visits.

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Dreams

I nearly did a terrible thing this month: I nearly gave up a dream.

For a long time I have dreamed of getting a book published. I have started several since I attempted my first novel when I was about twelve, and three (one non-fiction, two fiction) reached the stage of being sent off to agents.

‘The Musical English’, my first full length book, is subtitled a social history of two thousand years of English Music. The first notes for it were made twenty years ago, and most of the work was done five years later when I had some time and a computer. I even had some positive feedback, had I recognised it for what it was at the time, but eventually I decided there wasn’t enough original work in it and I moved on.

My second completed book was a novel about a group of young people learning white water canoeing, called ‘Not For Lemmings’. Again I learned a huge amount by writing it, about me, about canoeing, and about how to write. The number of rejection slips increased.

I started a new novel, ‘A Chance To Paint’ that I hoped would have more direct appeal to agents and publishers, a life-changing story about a young woman who is sent to look after her Great Aunt and after a series of sometimes dramatic events, never returns. Lots of agents say they love it, but don’t feel they can take it on. So I started yet another novel.

Then I got pregnant with M, so stopped writing for a while. I began this blog, and the tree stories which have the advantage of being written only to please the trees and myself. I’m being slow, I don’t find I can get into short stories in the same way as full length novels, but I also can’t get into full length novels when my time is constantly interrupted by the demands of a toddler. I redit A Chance To Paint, and remember how much I liked it and other people liked it, and send it off again to get some more rejections.

I start a plan for a new book, having finally decided not to finish what I started pre-M.

Then suddenly I get a crazy idea for a novel based on a fairytale, follow it for a few days, get very excited. Until real life intervenes. I have a house to get finished, a garden I want to redesign, clothes to make or shopping to do, and a little girl who I want to spend time with. I realised something had to give, and being a lot less attached to things than I used to be, it was the writing which felt like the luxury ‘extra’.

At this point I should have felt freer, a lightening of the load, of all the things I was trying to do. I did briefly. So that was that, I thought.

Except several days later I had a realisation: I wasn’t happy. This wasn’t particularly connected to anything, apart from a questionnaire on happiness where I was scoring myself only 6 or 7 out of ten in most areas and noticed my health had slipped down to a 5. I realised I felt a bit ‘flat’, even to the point where I didn’t feel excited about anything I was doing (sewing, gardening, reading, piano, etc) and it was only M that was keeping me going. I suddenly realised I was back to where I was a few years ago, or maybe worse because then I was on an upwards curve, whereas this one was flat. And not only that, but my health was getting worse again, with stiff hip joints and then a bad cold settling on my chest causing me all kinds of problems. This wasn’t a me I recognised right now, so what had happened? Why were things all going in the wrong direction? Then it dawned on me, my decision about writing was wrong. It had extinguished my inner flame. I have spent so much time over the past few years trying to work out what I should be doing and where I should be going, and yet somehow I had never realised that writing was my dream!!!

It was almost as bad as when I was a teenager, and nearly didn’t study music. (I was studying Maths, Physics Chemistry A-levels, but filling all my free time with music…) A serious depression set in, until I made what was then a brave decision to go against all advice, and suddenly everything felt good again. This was the same, in a minor form since I worked out the problem sooner, but what a colourless half-life I would be living if I hadn’t!

So I did a visualisation to not only see myself writing, but also to relight my inner flame. It filled my whole body and shot out of my arms and head. It is still burning now, with maybe a few holes where I don’t want them and where my body has temporarily lost trust in me, but I am on the mend. My writing is going better than I could have imagined, and somehow I just gave myself permission to write. Non-attachment might be a great thing, but not where dreams are concerned. Because if I don’t follow my dream, what am I doing here?