Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Learning to look more closely

One of the (many) delights of volunteering with the Community Team at Anglesey is getting to know so many different people and learning from them. The other day, I spent a couple of hours in Hoe Fen with the Green Team, a small group of learning disabled young adults.

I thought I knew my way around Hoe Fen, and, though it held many wonderful things, it didn't hold any surprises. I'd always considered myself to be reasonably observant. On a family walk, it would be me who would spot the circling buzzard, the fuzzy caterpillar and the first bluebell.

Wrong and wrong!

Walking through Hoe Fen with the Andy, Terry and the Green Team was a real eye opener. Everywhere they looked, they spotted things worth seeing that I would simply have passed by. From minute fungi to the tell tale signs of a sparrowhawk kill, from rabbit tracks to tiny snails, nothing seemed to escape their experts' eyes.

Andy explained to me why they emphasise observation: "If you educate people to be observant, that has many benefits. It's all very well teaching people about health and safety, but if they don't know how to look, you're wasting your time.

I think encouraging the guys to look carefully, has an impact on how they observe and interact with people. It helps with teaching tolerance and understanding, something that people on the autistic spectrum can struggle with. Also they enjoy it, it's good to come to a place and observe it closely so you can see how it changes."

As we walked through the Fen, Green Team member Seb photographed leaves, fungi, berries and bark with the team's excellent camera. Next time, it will be someone else's turn to record the day's finds. "They've all learnt how to use the camera, and being in charge of taking photos for the day is a big thing, it helps them feel special. We use the photos as part of our record of what we've done and seen, and display them on a whiteboard for everyone to see."

As an example of the sort of close observation I'm talking about, Terry showed me a speckling of dust caught in a spider's web: "It shows us that there's a wood boring insect at work nearby."

I lost count of the fungi that they pointed out to me, all with intriguing names: false chanterelle, stagshorn, white jelly, shiny ink cap ….all beautiful in their own way when you look closely enough. 

I managed a photo of this tiny coloured stagshorn fungus on a tree stump.

The wooden path in the secret garden is the perfect habitat for
ink caps:

And the spotty leopard slug in this shot is obvious, but can
you spot the tiny snail?

The Green Team spend up to 3 days a week working outdoors, building their skills and confidence. They help manage willow plantations at Hinchingbrooke and Waterbeach, have made willow sculptures (including a mammoth) for Paxton Pits nature reserve and a wildlife garden. At Anglesey Abbey, they've been making artworks with Maddie Geddes-Barton, who writes about them here. The Green Team also help the Anglesey gardeners to maintain Hoe Fen for visitors and for wildlife, by clearing ditches, dismantling dens, and repairing the wood walls. 

By the time our two hour ramble was over, I'd got a definite sense that the Team know the Fen more intimately than I have ever done, and maybe ever will. By learning to look carefully, watch out for changes and by working with the materials they encounter there, they seem to have almost built a rapport with it, if that is possible of a place. To me, I certainly felt that they feel very much at home in the Fen.

And I feel that my morning with them made me think about how much the natural world, and those who know and understand it well, can teach us - and how much more there always is to find out.

Kate Boursnell
Volunteer Community Reporter
Anglesey Abbey

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