I'm standing in a park with my hand on a tree that looks like the plant version of a 93 year old - all lines, bumps and rolls - there's so much detail to be found when looking closely. I feel wiser just by looking at it?! It's 10 o'clock in the morning on a blustery December day and Moccas Park holds plenty of these ancient figures, spread out throughout the parkland - giant, noble characters that each tell a tale.
I'm here because one of our Community Artists has chosen this park specifically as it is one of many sites for the Ancients of the Future project, part of Back from the Brink. The name of the project itself insights all sorts of visions - old crossed with new! We're here to celebrate the amazing breadth of species that rely so heavily on these ancient trees and all their character - from sap runs to holes to gnarled branches.
You may think the tree is dying and falling apart, and therefore void of life - but actually the complete opposite is true. These ancient structures can support thousands of different species - from bats to insects to rare fungi's with names that could come straight out of a Harry Potter book!
These species all play important roles but with the decrease in ancient tree numbers, they are likely to be lost unless we do something about it! And that's where we come in.
Back from the Brink is working across England to support this unusual landscape, the ancient trees found there and the wildlife that is becoming increasingly rare.
So how do the arts play a part in all of this I hear you cry!
Well, here at Back from the Brink - we want to offer a range of opportunities to get involved and play a part in our rare wildlife's future. Not everyone wants to go to an ID session for a rare plant. I myself simply don't have the right brain to take in facts simply through information alone. I'm a visual person, I like the tactility of doing something with my hands - I like to use my senses in order to create an experience that allows me to connect with wildlife. So the idea of making a banner out of natural materials and then parading it around a stunning park with a group of like-minded individuals sounded pretty marvellous!
And that's what we did. Joanna, our artist for the South-West had held a workshop the week before, where people were invited to her creative space and given the chance to experiment and play with a range of natural materials in order to make flags and banners that represented our rare species for Ancients of the Future. As I stood in the park, still pretty much hugging this epic tree I'd found - I could see the banners waving. A sea of green grasses, red berries and bark. This beautiful collection of organic shapes and designs that floated above us.
I stopped hugging the tree long enough for us to all come together so that I could introduce the project and why we had collected here on this cool December morning. It was fantastic to see such a wonderful range of people - babies, dads, school kids, a teacher, grandma's - we had the lot!
We set off among the gentle giants to see what we could find and we were rewarded. Paul, our Ancients of the Future project officer stopped us several times to talk about the wonders that we couldn't see, beneath the deadwood. It was wonderful to be able to get so close to these living houses of wildlife!
We then stopped by what can only be described as the most beautiful tree I've ever seen. It's the oldest in the park and you could tell, just be looking at it! Gnarled and bobbled and growing all over the place with holes a plenty - this tree had gumption!
We created a circle around the tree and each took turns to step forwards, with our banners, and announce what species it represented. It didn't last long but you could see the sense of pride people felt as they did this simple task. These species are part of their landscape, of it's heritage, and they had clearly become quite attached. It was a beautiful moment.
We then wondered back through the park, the kids climbing all over the trees and marvelling at the holes, hollowed tree trunks and wildlife. It was a wonderful way to spend a morning and the feedback we had from people was just amazing. Thank you Jo, for such a beautiful day and an event that has reached out to the local community in such a unique way.
The second arts event we held had me sitting on a hay-bale on a farm in Kent hugging not a tree - but a delicious pie from the farm shop...
Amanda Thesiger is our artist for the South-East. She had created a day with nature as part of our Colour in the Margins project which, just like the Ancients of the Future project, spreads across England - from Cornwall to the Yorkshire dales... Set on a local farm, Amanda had created the most beautiful space in part of a barn, using hay-bales as tables and seats that people could lean on to do their creative work. Surrounded by pictures of the rare local wildlife, from the Red Hemp Nettle to the Hare, Amanda had created a space where you could let your imagination go wild!
In the weeks leading up to the event, Amanda had been out and about in the local countryside, collecting berries, bark, soils and clay, to make a series of natural inks - purples, reds and yellows. You can read more about her collecting experiences in her blog here.
The paints and inks were stunning and laid out in the barn with an array of different painting materials and assorted cards that had the outlines of our threatened arable species, hand-drawn by Amanda.
It was a sunny but cold morning, yet people still ventured from all over the county to this little barn in order that they might learn a bit more about their local, rare wildlife.
The creative sessions weren't the only things on offer. To start your experience, you would wonder off into the arable landscape, with a trusty map showing different routes that took you along the margins till you came to a piece of land that holds some of our rarest plants. Even in the middle of winter - people saw birds, found plants and collected small pieces of nature that meant something to them, before walking back to the barn for a pie, a hot drink and a range of natural paints to get stuck into.
As I sat there with my second pie, yes - second pie, I looked across the barn at the people who had just come in from the wild and windy arable margins, leaves and berries in hand, ready to get creative. It was wonderful to see them trying out the different inks, creating paints using the local chalks and soils, and learning about the wildlife. With my pie held high, I wound my way across the barn to the microscope that had been set up for people to look at some of the rare plant's seeds.
I don't know if you've ever put a seed under a microscope? I certainly hadn't. But these little blogs of brown suddenly came alive with character - spikes and swirls and all sorts of patterns, each one different.
It was a wonderful day. Being outdoors, surrounded by nature, meeting new people, getting creative and tucking into some hot goodies at the end of a walk - I personally can't think of a better way to spend a Saturday and I can't wait for more events like these in the summer when the fields will be a carpet of colour and the arable margins come alive with wildlife.
But there's something beautiful about the arable landscape in the winter. The hedgerows, having shed their leaves, do little to hide the little birds that use them as cover - small gems of noise and commotion dotted throughout. You have to use your imagination and see the hidden beauty that lies there.
A massive thank you to Amanda for all of her work. She's going to be doing a series of very similar workshops, on a slightly smaller scale, within some local schools too and we can't wait to hear how those go!
But that's not all! Just last week I found myself, once again, out and about - this time to Thetford.
Thetford sits within our Shifting Sands project, based within the Brecklands - a strange and unique landscape of sandy soils and windy trees, blown by the coastal winds... It's one of the most bio-diverse areas of the UK and you can see why when you get out and about in the local landscape. But I won't go off on a tangent - you'll just have to go and visit!
For this event, I found myself within a local school, in a large open space filled to the brim with inspiration.
With art and small models on the walls, and a presentation with different photos of our rare wildlife found in this area of Norfolk and Suffolk - Chris, our artist for the East had done a fantastic job at enticing the imagination!
Chris is a sculptor, based in Norwich. He had planned and created a series of workshops for the school children and their parents where he demonstrated how to make small models, using materials you could find around the house, of the rare wildlife close to the school.
From the Wormwood Moonshiner Beetle to Basil Thyme - the students were given instructions on how to mould simple structures using wire, fabrics, paper - you name it, we probably used it!
The students loved it! Through allowing them to use their hands and learn about the form, structure and tactility of these species - we were able to engage through a much softer means of communication - the rarity and importance of the local wildlife. Their parents were also able to join in and see the love of creating something out of, what to most people might appear to be - very little!
Half of the children are apparently now going to be artists when they grow up, though in my experience, that does tend to change... Weekly! Even so, the children really enjoyed it - they were working together, working independently, learning about the heritage of their local area and wildlife, and loving every second! You can't ask for much more...
And that's what we're aiming to do - with all of this work - to inspire people to want to learn more about the animals, plants and fungi close to them - that could be lost without their help!
We can work all over the country with specialists, project staff and conservationists. But at the end of the day - people are more powerful than they give themselves credit. And if we work together, as a nation, to help our rare wildlife - here in England... Well, I reckon not only will we have achieved more than we could have ever imagined, we would have created a community of like-minded individuals who care about wildlife - a movement of conservation that spans age, gender, likes, dislikes. The lot.
Because at the end of the day - everyone loves to be creative in one way or another. So if we can unite people through that means and allow the focus to be on a cause as important as wildlife... The possibilities are endless!
See you soon.
Community and Outreach Officer, Back from the Brink.
If you'd like to know what's happening on our Community Arts project - join the Facebook page here.
If you'd like to work with us to inspire a nation, we are currently looking for 5 creatives for year 2 of our Community Arts work. Details here.
And finally, if you'd like to help our wildlife. Take a look below...
Would you like to help these incredible species? There are numerous ways in which you can:
- Why not volunteer for Back from the Brink? Check out our events page for opportunities near you.
- Help us to spread the word of this species, and the others we will be helping over the next 3 years, by sharing our message across our Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube pages. Follow us: @naturebftb.
- Finally - help support the work we do across England by donating. Our impact will be greater with your help.