The Forest as Mediator
During the morning of my visit to Westonbirt Arboretum, we left the main forest path and stepped into a small clearing full of people, working and chatting under the trees. A crumpled cylinder of biscuits lay beside two hot cups of coffee, and next to those were a collection of small wooden mice, handmade by one of the community volunteers who made up the group. The people here had different reasons for being there, but they were all passionate and hard working, and had either struggled to find regular work or were more in the ‘retired’ mindset and wanted to spend their free time in the forest.
I didn’t need convincing of the benefits of volunteering in a woodland like this. Numerous studies have proven how important nature is for our mental and physical health, and volunteering enables everyone to feel valued, make friends and learn new skills, as well as making a huge contribution to the health of the forest. The volunteers here were more than happy to show me the different handtools they used, and they even let me have a go on their crosscut saw. In the olden days, a team of two would use a crosscut saw to chop up huge fallen trees; one would stand above, while the other would stand below, and these became known as the ‘overdog’ and ‘underdog’ (the underdog was the worst of the two positions!). The community group leader told me how one autistic volunteer, who struggled with some tasks, absolutely loved using the crosscut saw because he found its rhythmic nature comforting.
Westonbirt’s interpretation officer Susanna Bayliss (who gave me a brilliant tour of the arboretum) and I enjoyed a fascinating discussion about forests and how any negative associations in the past have changed. Phrases like ‘out of the woods’ reminded us of society’s fairytale history and how forests were once something to be feared or avoided, and we also talked about how ‘tree hugger’ and ‘hippy’ - once condescending and derogatory terms - are now not only widely accepted, but have become associated with important environmental issues that concern us all.
Westonbirt is a safe space for all its visitors - from the volunteers who find purpose beneath the trees, to the dog walkers who find conversation comes so much more easily in the open air. The forest enables everyone to think more clearly and feel more at peace with themselves and the world around them.