I’ve just returned from an inspiring week in Birmingham, training to be a Forest School assistant.
My passion to re-engage people with nature was reinforced as I spent the week learning about Forest School, surrounded by riots of fear fuelled, angry young people and opportunistic criminals.
It is vital that there are green and wild spaces in our cities and also within the grounds of our schools. Wild spaces that are not “wildlife museums” but instead an integral part of people’s daily lives and education. With a large part of the experience being the sustainable use of the space, so it exists in the same state, or even a state of greater biodiversity, for the well-being of our future generations.
For when we become the ancestors of our children’s children.
The woodland we played, sorry, learned in for the week was initially a disappointment to me. I expected to go to Cannock Chase, which is near by and spend the week learning outdoor skills in the stunning forest there… Instead Paul, our Forest School trainer, led us through an inner city high school, across a playing field, to the edge of a line of young trees. It doesn’t matter where you are or who you are, entering a woodland, particularly if you have to duck down & push through branches, is thrilling! So it was with us, as we entered the woodland we would be training in for the week. However, after this initial buzz my heart came crashing down. Litter. One of my new friends looked at me with a frown on his face “so much litter, wow..”
Ever since bushcraft had a renaissance a few years ago, I’ve often come across collapsing shelters, tied together with plastic. It’s become something that I have a problem with, it jarrs me. I immediately get a little bit of a grump on, as instead of being able to soak-in the woodland, I feel I want to be tidying it up & cutting plastic off tree trunks & branches that are being strangled as they grow. As we walked through the litter strewn wood, we passed a little stick shelter here, a big shelter there, a stick chair… a stick table… twiggy trinkets in the trees…
We arrived at the fire pit in the middle of the woods and after what to me felt like a heavy pause, Paul started to talk of how important it is that young people were using the woodland, that they were coming into the woods and having fires, cooking and experimenting with shelters & structures. What was lacking was an awareness of their impact on the woodland and what that could mean to others and therefore themselves.
Perhaps the next step for these young people could be Forest School, where they’ll have the opportunity to allow that awareness to evolve within them, through engagement with the woods, alongside a role model and guide?
This was the most powerful moment for me, the picture below is of a mobile I created to communicate what I’d learned on my first Forest School day. I’ll treasure it for ever, as not only will it remind me of my first day of Forest School but it will also help me to remember why I do what I do and what being in nature did for me…
I grew up in rough council estates in Scotland and London. I would have been the kid joining in with the riots, not really aware of what I was doing or why but enjoying the kick with my mates and sticking two fingers up at what I’d decide that day represented authority. I wouldn’t have cared because I wouldn’t have understood. Confusingly my life felt worthless and yet controlled on every level in a way that suffocated. Without any sense of purpose I constantly felt a sense of injustice, a sense of “what’s the point?”. Rioting would have felt like a huge release of pent up rage and frustration, like taking back control… like freedom.
If I hadn’t been dragged into nature and forced to experience what true freedom feels like, I very much doubt I’d be running Save Our Woods, with no funding and only a few friends for support, while at the same time working hard to live as low impact a life as I can on a piece of land in Exmoor. I certainly wouldn’t have this burning desire to share it all with as many people as possible.
The taste of true freedom I was given that has led me to the life I now live, was a two week outward bound course to the Brecon Beacons when I was 14 years old. Where they made us hike all day, cook on a camping stove and sleep under the stars, on the top of a hill, with just a large plastic sleeping bag for shelter.
Since that two weeks of true freedom I haven’t looked back. I learned more than how to be in the outdoors, I was given a taste of what I had within me, I had a light shone on my potential.
I was taken to another World, a beautiful World where it seemed like I was capable of being given responsibility, like I could be trusted and more importantly, where I could trust. It felt good.
I learned that all I needed I could fit into a rucksack and carry on my back. I learned I was more than just a mindless consumer, having products dangled in front of me, constantly just out of reach, reminding me of how much of a failure I was because, at 14, I couldn’t afford any of it. I learned what it meant to be strong without violence, I learned compassion, I learned that being creative didn’t mean you were soft, I learned being soft was ok. I learned all these things from being enveloped in nature, from being guided by people that were gentle and that I hardly knew were there.
Forest School is all that I thought it would be. It’s a teaching method and ethos that can and should be part of every school, from pre-school right the way through to University and beyond! Shine a light on our potential and allow us the freedom to explore our natural environment, to find our true place in the World and we could start seeing a generation of people that are aware of their worth and are capable of a sense of responsibility, that care for each other and our environment. Not because they’ve been told that’s how things work but because they’ve experienced for themselves that’s how Life works.
Perhaps then, when the government or corporations want to exploit our natural resources for immediate gain without regard to the future, we will understand better why our immediate reaction is to stop them!
It wasn’t long before the woods became our home and I found myself the comfiest spot in the Universe!
The government has hit us with another attack on our natural environment; the Draft National Planning Policy Framework. It has the potential to be more disastrous for our green and wild spaces than the Forest sell off ever could be. One of the most frightening aspects of the policy draft is that the definition of sustainability being used seems only to refer to economic sustainability. A contradiction in terms.
Applying that definition to planning is leading government to recommend that applications be approved on the basis that it is economically worthwhile, even if it means building on greenbelt, ancient woodland, in fact any of our green and wild spaces.
These spaces have the ability to guide a young person to a life of respect and compassion in their community. We can’t let them be destroyed in the name of profit.
We MUST make the government understand the true value of our natural environment, we MUST be worthy ancestors and say “enough, we want more for our children’s futures”! There IS another way.