Halfway into a three-month work placement at Fingringhoe Wick nature reserve – organised as part of her MA – Tilly Renyard reflects on the ways in which humans respond to the natural environment, and how her own attitudes and knowledge have changed. Photo © Tilly Renyard.
I have been volunteering at the Wick for around seven weeks now, and it is fair to say I am feeling Fingringhoe. Each day, and every involvement, offers a new familiarity; being able to recognise the patterns within nature bonds together self-discovery and old knowledge. It is an exciting place to be.
As a university student, aged only by conformity, I walk as a lonely representation of youthful eco-attitudes; ones that each day I aim to affect. Being here has proved that appreciation grows not only with time, but with exposure and guidance. There are many tastes of man, but the flavour of dirt is a dish we should all try. The will to dissociate with one’s organic origin is something that is becoming definitive in what it means to be human. Magnolia walls and virtual communication. Certainly for the younger generations, the apple has been given a capital and you can reprogram with a raspberry.
It is not dramatic to be concerned about the future of Essex’s green spaces. Fingringhoe has the right idea. Weekly, up to one hundred tiny humans swarm its some two-hundred acre terrain seeking adventure, exploration, and a day out of the classroom, but mainly snacks. As a volunteer, I try and involve myself in every aspect of the business. Especially the schools: if a child has as much as half the excitement I have witnessing a spider pounce on its prey, I will feel satisfied.
Volunteering at the nature reserve has unlocked my perspective. The same drab journeys that offered no more than a relentless grey now reveal birds of prey lining crop fields like drones. I notice how the hawthorn adopts a pink singe once the petals have parted. I used to look at the floor, to check my footing, but mostly to accept a state of ignorance. To avoid any stares. Now, I still look at the floor, but I am looking for things, I am looking for one of the three hundred and fifty species of ground beetle I have not yet seen. I am looking for speedwell, for vetch, I am looking for any opportunity to show-off and to relate. I can also hold my head up. I can interrupt intimacy to discuss sense. My favourite moments have been flicking through field guides with a stranger trying to decipher the landscape.
There is a lot to be said about the naming of things. About identification and about how proud I am of what I have absorbed in such a seemingly short time. I can aimlessly enjoy, however recognition and distinction emphasise variety, something which graces Fingringhoe with very little effort. There have been moments where my efforts have felt futile. With each confident identification, the eye spies ten times you have been wrong. Now I recognise the knot, it seems I have lost sight of the dunlin.
In relation to the naming of species, I find it interesting how I dress nature’s similes with the mechanical and the manufactured. No matter how much time spent outside, my most immediate point of reference is falsified meteorology and carpeted corridors. I remember the first time I heard a clock, alfresco, standing by Fingringhoe’s Great Lake, from deep within the woodland. Or the likeness of oystercatchers and domestic rodents, each rattle a rise and fall with the same incessant squeal. Though I should not be surprised at the case of comparison. It is true everything comes from the same material. It is generous and versatile. So why is not our love?
Spending time with the children has taught me that disgust and fear toward the organic are both things that are picked up later in life. Perhaps from bad experiences, or perhaps from lengthy detachment; either way, such emotions are obviously intensified by a very adult world. More often than not it is to the supervisors of a visiting group that I have to explain, “Living things tend to want to be alive.”
The food chain is one of science’s first lessons. Invertebrates are rarely big, scarcely cuddly, yet function as a huge supportive base for the remainder of that particular ecosystem, of which we see ourselves the top of. “Stamping on that ant is like cutting off your own fingers,” I tell them, all too aware of how absurd I sound. So if this hatred is something later adopted, or in the process of forming, it is the responsibility of folk like us to nip it in the bud.
Before they have seen too many adverts for weed killer in the television, before they have discovered bug-spray and pesticides, before nature becomes something to be twisted and dominated, we will teach them to appreciate it. I will tell them all the least desirable processes are cool. I will tell the children slugs are my favourite and that dandelions are beautiful, and I won’t have faked it.
I was once asked, “What’s this?” I made a mistake and a friend in honesty, blurting out that I didn’t know.
“I thought adults knew everything.”
So maybe I am creative with some aspects, I seem to be getting away with being an adult. And so long as I read quicker than I am asked questions, I seem to be getting away with being a naturalist too.
Tilly Renyard is an MA Wild Writing student at the University of Essex. She has recently completed a three-month work placement at a nature reserve, where she found infinite inspiration offered to her through observing the motions of nature. Tilly has always loved the outdoors and uses it as an integral part of her creative method. Studying the masters has taught her the importance of perspective of place, not only from the eye of the human, but from whatever may contribute to that specific system and beyond. The world is immense; Tilly can’t wait to see it.