By St Nicks Volunteer, Tessa McClary
Look under a leaf, and you’ll spot a bright red ladybug. Dig under the carpet of grass, and you’ll see a worm inching its way through the mud. Watch the puddle next to the bund, until a golden frog lopes his way down to the water. If you volunteer for St Nicks, you may not know what to expect. I certainly didn’t, as I walked along the long, pretty cycle path out of York’s city centre, and down curving streets of brick houses, until I found a sign almost camouflaged into the leafy green landscape that read “Heworth Holme”.
A holme, by definition, is a seasonal wetland beside a river, and Heworth Holme is a large open space edged by walls of brambles, ivy, and tall weeping willows. The site was long cultivated, as a hay meadow harvested with scythes and rakes, and as pasture for cattle and sheep. But as more houses were built around Heworth Holme, the farming stopped and the land was passed into the hands of the City of York Council in the early part of the 20th century. Since then, Heworth Holme gradually became a dense field of nettles and dock, thistles and creeping buttercup. Heworth Holme’s new state of wildness made it impenetrable, even for the water that each winter overflows from the neighbouring stream of Tang Hall Beck. In the past few years the water has not percolated into the soil of Heworth Holme, but spilled into the neighbourhoods’ cultivated spaces.
I followed a limestone gravel path that led deep into the meadow, where I could see small figures working in the distance. Week by week volunteers have worked to open and unfold this space, to untangle the brush, trim the nettles and dock and thistles, and plant native wildflowers. Their aim is to protect and facilitate the biological service of Heworth Holme as a seasonal wetland, and to create a haven of biodiversity for Yorkshire’s native flora and fauna. St Nicks doesn’t shy away from human intervention in the landscape, or traditional land use practices. It is fitting, then, that the limestone path was one of St Nicks’ first project here, an entryway that invites people in, to notice, enjoy, and care for the area.
When I got closer, the people I met were quiet, industrious, and welcoming, like the land. This was exactly what I was looking for! A place to settle my thoughts, work with others, and give back to the natural world around me. I had also been seeking another way to understand this country through which I am a traveller: how people interact with the landscape, and the perspective of the landscape itself, what thrives here. From this natural world, I got my first English nettle sting, right off the bat. It surprised me as I lifted an armful of cuttings to bring them away from the planting area, but was somehow pleasing to know the wildness has the same potency as it does at my home, over 5,000 miles away.
While I worked, the landscape began to reveal its details: delicate purple thistle flowers, soft unlike their spiky leaves, bloomed in the mass of green; I saw a tiny frog (a volunteer showed me the little creature in his cupped hand); later, a larger frog slowly climbed through the grass, and, suspicious of my leaning in to examine his bumpy back and muted patterns, finally leapt away like a ballerina, legs gracefully outstretched behind him. Dogs on walks urged their owners onward, eager to traverse the entire length of this exhilarating expanse of wilderness outside the city. A neighbourhood cat sauntered by, taking in the fresh air and surveying the land. I saw several red ladybugs, bright against the leaves, surely wondering what we were up to, unweaving their plant castles as we trimmed the scrub with our scythes.
St Nicks is known for employing and teaching heritage skills such as scything. You can mow a large area with a scythe, in not too much time. Though it’s physical work, the quietness and repetitiveness of the task makes it meditative. Scythes are designed so you can work long hours. Unlike mechanical mowing, the technique is more targeted and paced, giving animals ample time to move out of the way as you work. I learned about Austrian scythes: how to carry them safely, hold them, place them, use them (stance wide, right arm straight, left arm slightly bent, swirl your body so the scythe sweeps low to the earth in a semi-moon), how to sharpen them with a whetstone. One of the regular volunteers told me the technique makes him feel a connection with our ancestors. He likes scything, though he acknowledges it may not have been as enjoyable working out of necessity, hours on end, those many years ago.
At noon, the sweet prize for our labour was tea time; Sean went into the Scout Hut to prepare us hot drinks and bring packages of biscuits. We sat cross-legged on the grass. The sun bestowed its light on us like a benevolent parent, the air perfectly cool for our work, the meadow calm and pleasant. As we sipped hot tea, we talked about history: the cultivation of England and the wildernesses of North America like the redwood forests of my Californian homeland, how parts of the Americas have also been cultivated for thousands of years, through fire and selective hunting, gathering and seed spreading. It was a lovely discussion, and a contemplative respite from our work.
Back to the task at hand: next to a ‘bund’, and a ‘scrape’ (swales created to catch rainwater and offer habitat for frogs and other wetland animals to delight in the pools), we used metal rakes to pull away some of the low lying growth and expose the soil. Drawing handfuls from a big bag of fluffy seeds of all kinds of wildflowers, some in their feathery husks, we sprinkled seeds over the area, and then tucked them into the earth by stepping on them! It was fun. I said, “Does this work?” And Maria gestured to some tall, healthy and happy-looking purple flowered plants on tall stalks in the distance. “These were sown this way,” she said. Indeed, when I looked around, there were many stands of these flowers, a hint of summer’s wildflower bounty still blooming in autumn.
Heworth Holme has been here a long time—the history of the greater village of Heworth stretches back to Roman times. At one point in the day, we compared printouts of the first Ordnance Survey map for the area, from 1853, and aerial photographs from today. Some of the buildings around the Heworth Holme had changed, but not the shape of the open space, nor many of the roads, nor even some of the trees! This land has been nestled near to human habitation, next to the beck, for centuries. I couldn’t help but find it interesting and beautiful that St Nicks gathers us together to see what will be yielded—in our environment and in our selves—by nurturing biodiversity to honour this land’s long dance with humans. It is an invitation for people, plants, and animals to live well together.
Tessa McClary is from Northern California in the United States. On her travels to England this autumn she had the opportunity to volunteer at St Nicks Centre Environment Centre.