Thursday, March 05, 2015

Whirlpool ramshorn snail

Giya took this at Wakehurst Place when she was about 14
On Monday this week I spent the morning looking for obscure species of centipede on WikiCommons, along with photos of mackerel, piddocks, limpets, crabs and, one of my favourites because of its name, the whirlpool ramshorn snail.

It took me back to days at Chesworth, in Horsham Country Park, working with Jane Fordham. It was at Chesworth that the menopause poems turned up hot and flustered and where I became fascinated by the naming of moths, in particular, by those Victorians.

At Chesworth there was a comprehensive list of species found in the country park and it was this that came to mind when I was asked to work at Seaford Head school next week.

It's a while since I've been in a school to run poetry workshops but I was asked to take part in a project exploring the artistic and cultural heritage of the South Downs. The challenge for me was to involve all of year seven. That's about 240 11 and 12 year olds.

The project's run by volunteers, fundraising locally, so I have three days to introduce poetry to an entire year group and hope that they'll take it as far as they can. What on earth could I do with so many in such a short time? The school's divided them in to slightly smaller groups than if I worked with whole classes, so I'm doing rolling hour-long sessions with different pupils so they all get a shot at it.

But the whirlpool ramshorn snail came up with the answer - or at least I hope so because I haven't done them yet….it took me back to that list of names in Chesworth Arts Farm, which incidentally is a stone's throw away from the house where Catherine Howard lived with Agnes, Dowager Duchess of Norfolk. Poor Catherine was 19 when she married Henry 8th (she ended up beheaded).

What I needed for Seaford was a similar list of species and, more difficult, a photo to go with each one. I'm not sure what made me think this would be feasible. Naively I believed there'd be a repository of some kind in Sussex that noted these things (as was the case at Chesworth) and that there'd be a relatively easy way to link them up with photos. Everything's a compromise. Two local photographers have supplied the bulk of what I needed and Wiki Commons helped with the rest.

The research has taken days, though, and my initial hope to have the Latin names alongside the common names for each species has fallen away. In fact, some photos of lichen have remained just that, lichen.

But I'm hoping the idea's sound. We give each young person in the year group a notebook and a photo of a species. My task is to kick-start their writing with exercises on metaphor - look closely, describe, look again, what do you see beyond the description? - and ideas from poets like Ted Hughes. Then, with luck, they'll set off and research the species in depth. And with Catherine in mind, what I'd also like them to think about is what would be lost if it disappeared.