Three years ago I made a decision that would change my life. That sounds like a bold statement, but let me explain…
Things were difficult; I didn’t know it at the time but I was approaching the breakdown and ending of a long-term toxic relationship, whilst being at a career crossroads, and a point of critical personal analysis. 23 years old and I was still living with my parents, and without a clear prospect of affording my own home. I’d skipped the traditional University route in favour of work experience, and had had several wonderful years of training, work, and experience in the conservation and charity sector. Following the completion of a fixed term contract and a spell of uncomfortable unemployment, despite all my efforts, I was working long stressful hours in a ‘stop-gap’ job that didn’t fully suit me. I was tired all the time; full of self-doubt and negativity, and my family and friends commented that I ‘had lost my bounce’. I felt stuck. One thing that I had always turned to for support and distraction since childhood was Nature, and moments immersed in the natural world gave me an escape from the stress, low mood, and negative pressure that I was ‘being strong’ and ignoring.
I took a long walk.
Whenever I need to think, chew over a problem, or just to unwind, I walk. I might start the walk head down, hands rammed deep in pockets, and coat zipped up to my face, wrapped up in my own mind. Slowly, whether it’s by the rhythm of walking, or the effect of green surroundings and fresh air, I begin to relax and unfurl, like a snail coming out of its shell.
I focus on noticing the things around me; the roll of gravel under my boot, the pattern of lichen on sticks thrown down from the trees by the storm, cow parsley seedlings in the verge, the insistent Tsee-Tsee-Ti-Ti-Tseeee of a blue tit in the hedge. All these things draw my attention out of myself, and by focussing on the small things first, the close details, I slowly feel strong enough to expand my view to the bigger picture; the textures of greens in the hedge, the sigh of the downland slopes in the blue distance. This naturally draws my gaze up, forcing me to lift my head, relax my shoulders, and breathe deeper. As my physical perspective changes, so does my mental state, allowing me to think calmer, clearer, to step back and see the whole from a distance. You might call it mindfulness, or mental yoga, or meditation, but regardless of what name you give it, it seems to make a difference.
Incidentally, or perhaps most importantly in relevance to this blog, the same thing happens when I am weeding, sowing seeds, or digging. I discovered this fact thanks to the decision I made on that walk: I would get an allotment.
When I announced my intention, I expected some resistance from my family. I justified my own arguments against my ideas, by putting them in my loved ones’ voices: “Not another responsibility!”, “Aren’t you busy enough already?”, “But you know what you’re like – you’ll do it for a season then fizzle out and give up!”. The response was quite different however, and it seems those closest to me know me better than I knew myself at that stage. I laid out my reasoning: I wanted to slow down, focus on the simple things I enjoyed, do something that was just for me not to please external pressures. It would be good exercise I argued, possibly trying to convince myself more than them. It was something I’d always wanted to do, so I might as well stop striving for perfection and do what I want to do now, not wait till I’m ‘successful’, what ever that actually means.
“Go on then” said Mum, “why not give it a go?”
After some online searching I found the nearest allotment plots were a 10min walk away, I passed them every time I went out. I sent an email to the contact details for the landowner of the plots, closed my laptop down and went off to work. That was Friday 19th February 2016. I wasn’t expecting much, I didn’t get my hopes up; I had heard about long waiting lists and lack of plot availability so thought my chances were pretty slim. Monday morning I had an email reply.
A plot was available, here’s a map, “It’s a bit overgrown but pop along and take a look, and if you want it let me know”. Within half an hour I was standing at a five bar gate, crumpled piece of paper in hand, gazing at an allotment plot I had passed countless times and coveted with green-eyed envy.
Through the gate, down the path, note the water trough, pace out the boundaries. Hesitate. Make a phone call.
It’s slightly shabby, having been vacant for some months. Nettles and raspberries are making the most of the absence of a tending hand, but there’s a rickety shed, and a bed of leeks still poke up through the weeds. There’s a mound of rubbish in the bottom corner, which I try not to look at too hard, but the February sun is softening the frost from clods of crumbly earth. “So, would you like it?” offers the voice at the other end of my mobile-call. And that was that.
My next day-off saw me up early, pulling on my comfy boiler-suit that had hung neglected in the hallway for a while since I left college (and the lambing barns and hedge-laying and plant surveying) behind, and out into the chilly fresh morning air. I pushed my wheelbarrow, loaded with tools and watering can, down the street and through the housing estate, smiling and acknowledging passers-by with a cheery greeting. I looked rather an odd sight, but for once I didn’t care. All day I dug, weeded, turned over soil, discovered, and planned. I felt unused muscles stretch, and absorbed the textures of soil and plant matter, natural hues eased my screen-tired eyes, and my mind calmed. I returned home tired, but happy, and bursting with ideas.
The allotment wasn’t an instant cure to my stress and anxiety, but on the days when I could escape from the pressures of day-to-day life and reconnect with myself, with the soil, and with living things that knew nothing of my concerns and worries, I felt better.
The three years that have passed between that first day I stepped onto the allotment plot, and now as I sit here writing this blog, have been full of ups and downs. A relationship ended, with revelations of lies that shattered my founding beliefs, I left my job, and with trepidation started afresh. I also met someone new. I moved into my first home, and was dismayed by damp, dragged down by disappointment. Then one summer I found myself thousands of miles above the earth on my first flight, followed by a magical holiday in Canada. I held my partners hand and climbed a mountain, we horse-trekked through the forests, and drifted off in deckchairs in front of fiery sunsets and under starry skies. The start of the next year was hard; a heavy blanket of ‘winter blues’ smothered my energy and creativity. Another summer and we moved house, and woke to quiet green and bird song.
Through it all, the allotment was dug, weeded, cut back, cut back again, planted, weeded. It grew, blossomed, fruited, and was weeded again. Some days I would go there and just sit, stare and think, entranced by the wonder of the living things around me. I felt ownership of a space and decisions in a way I hadn’t before; would I plant carrots in that bed, or keep it for cut flowers? I also felt companionship, the plot wasn’t mine; I was a custodian of it, like looking after a venerable friend.
I now spend at least one day every weekend at the allotment, and drop in regularly at other times such as when I drive past on my way home from work.
I have created wildlife corners and bug hotels, built a new shed, nurtured honeysuckle, sweet peas, cut flowers and vegetables, and installed raised beds. It’s a cliché phrase, but someone once said; “to plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow”, and it is very true. Every plant you sow or grow relies on your care to flourish; it gives a reason to get outside every day, and sometimes just leaving the house or achieving one small task can recalibrate your entire mind-set for the day. It’s not all about the big things either, every trip doesn’t have to involve digging a whole new flower bed, it could be just watering the tomatoes, picking off a handful of deadheads from the dahlias, or sowing a short row of seeds.
For me, the allotment is a huge confidence booster – if I can grow carrots, why can’t I grow a cabbage… if I can grow a marrow, why shouldn’t I be able to make it into chutney? Not only is eating my own produce or taking a bunch of home-grown flowers to a friend either delicious or beautiful, but it gives me an overwhelming sense of pride and achievement. To see a bee on a flower you grew, is an exhilarating thrill; it’s immensely empowering. The allotment also reminds me to pause, to slow down and be in the moment, to appreciate the little details and small joys. Standing for a few minutes watching ladybirds devour aphids on my crops doesn’t make all my worries disappear, but just that being still and noticing life carrying on around me, can help ease the tension.
I have good days and bad days, negative emotions are part of life and part of who we all are, but I can say for certain that I’m happier, healthier and more resilient thanks to the benefits I derive from spending time on my allotment plot. If I was asked what exactly it is that makes the difference, I’d say time outdoors surrounded by ‘green nature’, connecting with other living things, and the satisfaction derived from planning, nurturing, harvesting, away from social/society pressures and expectation. I make the rules, I slow down, and I reconnect.
Allotments aren’t necessarily the answer for everybody, and they’re not a replacement for health care, nor a magical ‘cure-all’. If you are suffering illness or mental distress, professional support is available, and vital. I’ve been lucky enough so far in life that I’ve never had to ask for medical help, but none of us in this world are immune from pressure and stress. If you are feeling anxious, strained, low or troubled; any of those genuine, legitimate, valid, negative emotions that sometimes threaten to knock all of us off our feet, then allowing yourself to take a step back and sit for a while by an open window, spend just 15 minutes outside in nature, or maybe even plant an allotment, really can make a difference.