The Accidental Conservationist: Seeing the light

Amanda Lawrence Glow Worm

‘A ribbon of lights’

One summer night in 1919 a young girl walking home across the Slad Valley collected enough glow worms along the way to decorate her straw hat with 'a ribbon of lights'.
I came across this story in 2015 while researching an art project themed around the changing landscape and wildlife of the valley where I live and work. A number of questions arise from this, including what our heroine was doing walking home on her own at glow worm time (well after 10.30 pm on most summer nights), but the one which came to mind at the time was just: ‘Glow worms?? Really?’ I had no idea that the UK hosted any wildlife so exotic, still less that they had once lived here, on my own ground.

A lost natural wonder?

My research included interviewing long-time residents about what the valley’s wildlife meant to them and what changes, if any, they had noticed.  I began asking about glow worms.  More stories emerged.  An interviewee confessed to having once used glow worms to write ‘welcome home’ to her stop-out husband on their front lawn.  By the time he returned from the pub, most of the message had wandered away.  Another remembered looking from her window towards the far side of the valley and seeing our local high point, Swifts Hill, ‘lit up by glow worms’.  Several others recalled regularly seeing them in the hedgerows.  But, now they came to think of it, not recently.  Not in the last few years.  Not, perhaps, in the last decade?  I began to think glow worms were just another lost wonder of our shrinking natural world.

A new hope

Then I interviewed Pete Bradshaw, at that time GWT’s reserve manager for Swifts Hill.  Pete remembered that the previous summer, when checking up on a group of young people illegally camping in the reserve, he was greeted with “Oy mate, do you know you’ve got glow worms up here?”  Which gave me a sliver of hope, and somewhere to start looking.

Moment of joy

Picture me, then, on a warm night in July, trying not to use my torch, cautiously picking my way through the gathering darkness.  Many small white flowers grow on Swifts Hill in summer and believe me, at that time of night, with the light almost gone, they all look like glow worms.  Until you see the real thing.  When a tiny, gold-green light suddenly appeared in the grass ahead of me, the adrenalin rush was extraordinary.  It was a moment of absolute joy, never to be forgotten.  I have been privileged to experience a few stand-out wildlife encounters since then, including being 20 feet away from a wild tiger, but my first glow worm is up there in the top three.

Amanda Lawrence Glow Worm

Amanda Lawrence Glow Worm

Glow worm geekery

That moment was also a significant step in my conversion to born-again conservationist.  Having previously been not that interested in insects, I now talked about glow worms to anyone who would listen.  I made glow worms in glass.  Worrying about their future propelled me into properly recording them and trying to persuade others to do the same.  I ran a glow worm walk for our valley’s social club and was lucky to find a real expert – entomologist Denise Gibbons – to lead it.  Thanks to Denise, words like luciferin and luciferase entered my vocabulary (for my fellow non-biologists, they are the chemicals that, when mixed in the glow worm’s tail, make it glow).  She also gave me some startling mental images – such as a glow worm larva patiently riding on the shell of a snail it has just poisoned, waiting for it to die.  Meals on wheels, glow worm style.

Glow worms in trouble

From Denise I learned that, though glow worms are not yet a lost cause, they are in trouble.  Even in former strongholds like this valley, they no longer exist in the kind of numbers remembered by my interviewees.  In many places they no longer exist at all.  Because few of us now walk in the countryside late on summer nights, no-one sees them, so no-one knows where they are.  Which makes it easy for their habitat to be accidentally destroyed, even by those who wish nature well.  I found when I began organising glow worm surveys that many people are not comfortable wandering about in the dark.  A suspicion attaches to those of us who are.  Locals seeing lights on the hill at night tend to assume nefarious activities in progress (and sometimes they’re not wrong).  Our relationship with the night, and the creatures who inhabit it, has become distant at best.  So we miss the changes, the quiet disappearance of night time sights and sounds that earlier generations took for granted.  Yet there is some encouraging news locally – this summer significant numbers of glow worms were found in the next valley along.

Amanda Lawrence Glow Worm

Amanda Lawrence Glow Worm

The why and wherefore of ‘wow’

For me, seeing that first glow worm was what Simon Barnes (of Bad Birdwatcher fame), has described as a ‘wow moment’.  Writing in a recent issue of British Wildlife magazine he compares such moments with falling in love – argues that in both cases the ‘wow’ doesn’t last, but gives way to something deeper, involving commitment and, usually, hard work.  Some people, he argues, never get beyond the ‘wow’.  But there I disagree with him – I don’t believe that’s possible, if you have a real ‘wow moment’. 

Connecting…

Artists and makers know about ‘wow’ - it’s what sells our work.  ‘Wow’ goes beyond appreciation of something beautiful.  It is less about fascination and more about connection.  It is a rare privilege to see someone make a personal connection with a piece I have made, when my vision that inspired the piece touches someone else’s vision of what matters, and strikes a spark.  A real nature ‘wow moment’ is similar, I think.  It’s more than delight in the sight of a glow worm or a tiger – it’s an intense awareness of occupying the same space and time as another species.  Just for a moment – but a moment can last a lifetime.

Amanda Lawrence Glow Worm

Amanda Lawrence Glow Worm

… And reconnecting

Much has been said and written about reconnecting with nature since lockdown.  I agree that we need to reconnect, but I think there’s more to it than going into the countryside to exercise (though that’s a good start).    We humans suffer from a strange mental malady.  We all think, to a greater or lesser extent, that we are separate from ‘the natural world’ and that when push comes to shove, our needs take precedence over those of, for example, glow worms.  Even those of us who live in the countryside think that.  I believe that ‘wow moments’ make us know, briefly, that we and the glow worm are intrinsically connected, that our joint needs are intertwined.  It is a kind of love.  I agree with Simon Barnes about the effects of ‘wow’.  As with love, a real ‘wow moment’ invariably leads to commitment, wanting the best for the beloved, and therefore to personal change.  If we’re to recover our relationship with this planet, surely that’s the kind of reconnection we need?

Amanda Lawrence