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In Life on the Floodplain: A Garden Wildlife Diary 2020, whitefox author Ceri Leigh documents a year of wildlife photographed in her garden in rural Wales, as well as a bigger story of trauma, mental health and the power of nature to help heal the mind. Ceri has been fascinated by wildlife since she was a child, and went on to study conservation and wildlife illustration before joining the Natural History Museum in London, becoming Exhibitions Manager for Design & Conservation. However, an accident on her way home from work one day resulted in severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This caused flashbacks, seizures and anxiety, which still significantly affect Ceri’s life today. After moving back to Wales with her family to cope, Ceri started taking photographs of the surrounding landscapes and wildlife. She wrote brief notes every day about the wildlife in her garden, nestled between the mountains beside the Usk floodplain. Working with whitefox, Ceri transformed these into Life on the Floodplain.
In your incredible new book Life on the Floodplain: A Garden Wildlife Diary 2020 you talk about your longing to write about nature from a very young age. What was it that inspired you to write your book, and why now?
Watching wildlife calms me. With PTSD it’s been a long journey of piecing my mind back together with small steps every day. As a distraction from the anxiety I began taking photographs on my phone of the plants and animals in our garden and the surrounding area. At the beginning of 2020 I started journaling my observations alongside my photographs. As for all of us then, little did I know that a pandemic was coming and the world would change. Lockdown meant less traffic on the roads and I could clearly hear the birds singing and so I included notes about this to highlight the contrast with the outside world. I continue to journal and photograph my experience of life on the floodplain as a coping mechanism. Even in a busy city it can be surprising how many species of plants and animals are there if you take a moment to pause and look around.
What was your intention behind writing your book in the form of a diary?
With the hypervigilance of PTSD I find it extremely difficult to concentrate for any length of time. So although I wanted to write I found it a struggle to know how to approach it. Then I began writing a journal about the wildlife I observed every day and realised this would be a manageable way to write. By writing for ten minutes to half an hour a day, by the end of a year I had a book. I felt it would be interesting to note in detail the comings and goings of wildlife — for instance, exactly when the geese returned to the floodplain. The closer I looked, the more details I saw and I found it fascinating.
Have you always had an interest in photography as well as writing? Why did you choose to capture the local natural surroundings of the Usk Valley in Wales?
I was always interested in illustrating and writing about natural history as a way of communicating my enthusiasm for the natural world. When I was a child, my uncle gave me his old instamatic camera and I immediately began photographing the horses and cows on a farm holiday in West Wales! I was given a roll of film for my birthday but I recall I was reprimanded for ‘wasting’ it by taking photographs of the cows in the fields! I thought about that at art college, when I sat in a field sketching cows. I thought about that again when I was refurbishing the bovine case at the Natural History Museum. And I thought about it recently as I photographed the cows in a nearby field!
Unable to get out alone or travel far in lockdown during the pandemic, I simply watched the wildlife in my garden and across my view of the floodplain.
Why did you decide to self-publish with whitefox, and are you glad you did so?
Yes, I’m glad I did so. It’s been a very interesting process and something I’ve always wanted to do. As I struggle with PTSD I thought it best to begin by self publishing, so that I kept control of the process and whitefox have been brilliant at helping me through it. I’d like to continue writing.
In your book, you’ve mentioned the severe impact of an accident you endured, leaving deep physical and mental scars. Has creating Life on the Floodplain been a form of therapy for you?
It certainly helped me. Taking control of my story has been profoundly therapeutic. My therapist was supportive in my endeavour and I acknowledge her in the book. Weaving in the story of dealing with trauma throughout the wildlife journal has helped me to piece my mind together a little, integrating my past with my present and maybe given me some direction for the future.
What challenges has publishing a book helped you face, and what personal goals has it allowed you to accomplish?
The process of publishing has helped me to communicate with people again. Socialising becomes a difficult prospect with trauma. I wasn’t in a place where I could manage it before but, over ten years down the line I was ready to explore this route. It’s related to work I used to do, but in a manageable way, and it’s increased my confidence. While not a cure, it’s a big step in the right direction.
Were there any aspects of the book production process that you particularly enjoyed?
Writing every day gave me a focus and brought together my notes and photographs. I found the editorial process fascinating and bringing the whole book together was really interesting.
How important to you was it that your book be sold in independent bookshops?
It was very important to me to support the local community. It took more social interaction than I initially felt I could manage, but I wanted to support independent bookshops.
What do you hope readers learn and gain after reading your book?
I hope that it may help someone else. I knew little about PTSD before it happened to me and it can happen to anyone in the blink of an eye. I hope reading the book may also encourage people to enjoy the meditative quality of watching wildlife in their own local environment. It is only by appreciating what we have in the natural world that we can protect it for the future.
What was it like to finally receive and hold in your hands the beautiful printed edition, and exhibit your work at the Found Gallery?
It was an overwhelming experience to see my finished book for the first time! Opening the box and holding that first book in my hands was amazing. It was wonderful to touch the pages and see the completed journal and images together. I was delighted to be offered exhibition space at Found Gallery and I am so grateful for all the local support. To see people supporting each other this way has helped me take a step back into the world.