How I discovered that woodlands, storytelling and connection will support resilience in our challenging times

| 8th January 2018
A house made of wood

The Ark at Hazel Hill Wood is a unique moment in architecture, and is completely off-grid. It was Brendan's hide out during a weekend in the woodlands. 

Resilience is something of a buzzword - a necessary one in times of austerity and increased anxiety about work. BRENDAN MONTAGUE had read the literature about how being in nature, telling stories and connecting with people all increase resilience. And then he experienced it first hand when he attended a weekend workshop at Hazel Hill Woods in Salisbury. This is his story.

Life in London is what it is. But a few days after my weekend at Hazel Hill I experienced something I had not expected. I felt light, I felt resilient, I felt full of energy.

The screen is flickering, my eyes ache. I close window after window searching for the document I am about to complete having found that one essential fact. It's late in the evening, the coffee is cold. I am at my wits end. And yet, when I go to bed I find myself Tweeting, reading email and closing window after window making sure my iPhone is tidied. I've had sixteen hours of this. And I am not alone. We are generation Black Mirror.   

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"Americans now consume about 12 hours of information per day from screen sources, and since 1980, information consumption which is not work-related has increased 350 percent,” state Harvard Medical School doctors Eva Selhub and Alan Logan in their book, Your Brain in Nature. Another email arrives, from someone I do not know.

Alan Heeks is inviting me to Hazel Hill Wood near Salisbury for the weekend, to learn about how immersion in nature - in his 70 acre forest - can help with resilience, wellbeing and health. This gets my attention. I have been reading the literature about storytelling, resilience and nature from Joseph Campbell’s 1949 classic The Hero With A Thousand Faces to Carole Pemberton’s recent Resilience, A Practical Guide for Coaches

Nature experiences

I have been thinking about how these things are necessary if we are going to be effective in protecting nature from the ravages of capitalism in the decades ahead.

But then excitement fades and exhaustion descends. Spending a week away from the internet - Hazel Hill is offline and off grid - seems daunting and fool hardly. The constant stream of tweets, Facebook notifications, email - all demanding my immediate attention because the world is at stake - won't stop just because I have.

But then again. My addiction to information draws me to the documents Alan has sent over, research and information that demonstrates the impact our obsession with social media has had - and supports his belief that forests are deeply spiritual places and that within them we can find peace, meaning and focus once again.

“Recent studies have documented significant increases in narcissism among young adults, with 89 percent more students answering almost all personality questions in a narcissistic direction in 2009 compared with 1994,” states Your Brain on Nature. “Users with the highest scores on narcissistic personality tests are the most frequent daily visitors to Facebook.”

And perhaps as a member of the media I have further responsibility. “A study… indicates that the highly selective presentation of nature scenes by the commercial media and simulated nature experiences involving scenes highly rated for beauty… cause a decline in support for the… preservation of local natural areas. Google media content is shaping… children’s brains with a bias toward the exotic animals (the giant panda, for instance) and away from the more important aspects of local biodiversity.”

Completely calm

I reflect, perhaps my resistance to accept an invitation in the woods, eating healthy food, and learning about the benefits of being in nature is itself a symptom of the fact I am a child of the city, who only travels outside the metropolis under some kind of duress. And I decide to take Alan up on his offer.

A few weeks later and I am waiting at the Salisbury coach station for a taxi. It's Friday afternoon. The sky is relatively clear, the light diffused and the air clear and refreshing. More to the point, I am on top of my emails. The taxi drops me off at Hazel Hill and with a small scattering of leaves and wood chip at the back wheels, the cabbie is gone.

A feel about my body a gentle fizz, almost like static electricity. I am aware that the stress and concerns of London and work envelop me. But with the sound of actual birds tweeting, the rustle of leaves in the trees around me, this seems alien and disconcerting.

Then I realise quite how alone I am. I can so no buildings, no signs, no people. Just trees and leaves and a large pile of logged wood. I think of the brilliantly intelligent horror film Get Out, and that's what my body appears to be telling me: Get Out. What if I can’t find the meeting place? How embarrassing if I get lost here in the woods, if I arrive even a little late.

Moments later and I find the main meeting hall. It’s a purpose built wooden building with long glass windows. It feels something like a church from the fictional American mid-West. A few people are sitting round. They seem completely calm, contemplative, almost absent. But for the time being, this does not help. 

Wellbeing programmes

I have an acute sense that I am a stranger, not yet part of the group. I've read psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion and attended an APUS workshop inspired by his work. I am well aware of the anxiety being among a group of strangers holds for any sentient person. But I still feel some shame that I should feel any anxiety in this here and now.

Finally, I find Alan and he introduces himself. He has a calm openness about him, and a firm handshake. He looks like every other Englishman about to go on a hike over the fells. He is making some final preparations at the Ark, which is itself a unique architectural moment, and also off grid and low-input. It's a nook. It is a place of safety.

I feel much more at ease now. He introduces me to the rest of the group - about 12 people - authors and ecologists who are here to learn about resilience, story telling and the forest. Alan tells me how he made more money than he expected relatively early in his career. He bought Hazel Hill Wood in 1987. At that time it had managed as a commercial plantation for about 30 years so there has been a considerable amount of work returning it to a natural habitat. 

Its evolution as a pioneering education centre and conservation woodland has depended heavily on his energy and approximately £1million in funding. The Hazel Hill Trust (HHT) was registered as a charity in 2015 to own and operate Hazel Hill Wood. "The move to a charity structure is intended to reduce this dependence, and support the continuity and further growth of this project, especially its education and wellbeing programmes," Alan tells me.

The trust literature adds: "The facilities are in delightful, simple, off-grid wooden buildings. There are also dedicated outdoor spaces, including the Women’s Circle, joining circle, and men’s circle, and we will visit these during the weekend.”

Protected space

A huge and diverse group of people have already benefited from the courses run in this enchanted forest. These include school children, people working in stressed frontline services, and ‘pioneers of change’. Alan is also spearheading “care conservation” where some of Britain’s 200,000 child carers have some time in nature - helping to conserve nature - and at the same time get some respite themselves. 

Then the weekend begins in earnest. The idea is to use the woodland as a safe space, a natural habitat where we can relax into group work, take part in team building exercises and start to feel connected again: connected to each other, and connected to the trees, to nature itself. For Alan, there is a literal exchange with the trees, they act as our protectors and guides.

I find some of this surprisingly testing. I start to feel some anxiety.. First, my phone is drained of power and I have no contact with the outside world. Many of the participants hold specific spiritual beliefs that I do not share. I worry that my own beliefs will prove to be unpopular and my result in me being ejected from the group, in being scapegoated in the precisely the way Bion describes in his writings.

There is in the woods a circle of logs, of stools. At the centre of the circle is a fire. We meet here in the mornings and the late afternoons. The smoke burns my nostrils and seeps into my clothes. The roots of the trees connect beneath us, these tree trunks form pillars which are as sturdy and grand as any Roman design. The canopy of leaves protects us from the light rain, and lets in enough light for us to play, to talk and to walk alone in the woods.

My favourite moment is walking alone around the 70 acres. I find myself at the edge of the public space. Beyond, the areas are being protected so nature and truly run its course. To look into this protected space, the infinite complexity and repeated patterns of the grasses and the leaves fills me with wonderment.

Static electricity

But there is also group work, which is challenging. We lie on the floor together, our heads at the centre of the circle, and describe our dreams. We join together in threes and move through the forest as if we were moving through time - imagining the future and our response to it. We share our hopes and fears. We reveal much about ourselves. 

I feel hopelessly exposed, as though I am going to be found out, exposed and ejected. Knowing these feelings are only too common, only too human, does little to reduce the anxiety.

We are asked in one of the final sessions what issues we would like to explore. The aim is to develop connection. One person posits joy. Having read the excellent work of Brene Brown - "vulnerability Ted" - I know the primary barrier to connection is shame. I feel emboldened, and I want to do this the best it can be done, at almost any cost. I suggest shame.

People break out into groups, and I feel duty bound to attend the shame group. There are two men in this group of four who follow Shamanism - with which I am almost entirely unfamiliar. They take a lead, and they talk about dark power, of the workings of evil, of patriarchy and the prevalence of violence against women in our society. We diligently walk through shame.

And I feel it. I feel shame. I feel the static electricity return - having failed to notice its gradual disappearance. I feel like my adrenalin has increased, and observe how the colours in the room intensify. I want to leave. I want to be outside. We were told we can leave at any time, but that feels like failure. I listen. I keep an open mind. I learn and try to understand. 

Childlike fear

One of the Shaman addresses the question of whether the schema of good and evil is taken as literal or as a metaphor. I reflect on the fact that people hold very different beliefs and that this does not have to result in conflict. Every day we see people whose beliefs are radically different from our own achieving great things in our challenging world. 

The idea that I may adopt some beliefs which are currently alien to my own creates anxiety. At the same time, there is a powerful need within the human individual to identify with the group. The tension between these feelings is very real in this moment. 

I remember my father. His beliefs were so passionate and important to him. Sometimes he would express anger - or perhaps more fear and frustration. When I was young I found that very frightening. 

I started to understand the real nature of the relationship for me between what I believe, how this may differ from other people, and  how that can make me feel scared. This session took me completely out of my comfort zone, feeling almost alone in my own beliefs. 

Nature itself felt alienating and threatening to me. I wanted to run away, and felt a childlike fear of being swallowed up by the woods.

Autumn storm

And then we drank tea. And I heard bird song, and I took some time alone to reflect. The learning remained, but the fear soon dissipated into the woods like shadows at dusk. This is resilience. I had come to understand something about myself, about my own fears. I don’t think this would have happened without the warm embrace of the Hazel Hill woods.

The following day I felt something like love. I felt warm and open to my fellow participants. Their beliefs interested me, and did not scare me. I watched the rose sunset light as it was refracted through the golden autumn leaves. I felt an intense love for the trees, and for nature. 

And my heart was filled with sadness at the destruction of nature taking place around our entire world. I understood what united us as a group was our desire to protect nature, and to learn from nature how this can be done. I felt bliss.

We hugged goodbye by the fire in the woods. We agreed to exchange email addresses. My taxi arrived. I was leaving a little early, and I was leaving alone. The forest felt so safe, and my trepidation was now triggered by everywhere else. I charged my phone in the taxi, and when we reached a patch of 4G the texts and emails tumbled in like leaves in an autumn storm.

Life in London is what it is. But a few days after my weekend at Hazel Hill I experienced something I had not expected. I felt light, I felt resilient, I felt full of energy. The static electricity returned, but it didn't get inside me in the same way. And later, when it did, I knew what to do.

I am fortunate enough to live close to one of London's beautiful parks. The trees, the open space, a walled garden and wild grasses. And this is where I go. It's where I read stories and where I devise the stories I post online, on Facebook, on Twitter. It is where I face my fears. It is where I am when you cannot reach me via email or text or on Facebook. It is a magical place.

Some weeks later I stumbled on another earth shattering Ted talk. Suzanne Simard’s How trees talk to each other. She explains how trees exchange information and sustenance through a network of roots connected by fungus mycelium. Trees talk. The line between the literal and metaphorical is always shifting. What we believe is always changing. Yet we remain resilient and true to our core values. 

This Author

Brendan Montague is editor of The Ecologist. He tweets at @EcoMontague. Hazel Hill Wood is holding a series of events in the coming weeks. To find out more, and to book places, visit the website

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