‘You don’t get that many opportunities to do things with other people who aren’t either the people you work with, or your family, and there aren’t that many activities that aren’t just about spending money. So it’s nice to be outside and doing something for the community.’ – local volunteer, interviewed at Nature Vibezzz’ Knight’s Hill Wood regeneration project, May 2017
I volunteered with Nature Vibezzz the morning I woke up and heard that Trump had been elected. I felt the need to do something, however small, to try and create the kind of world I wanted to live in – and I knew that sounding off on Twitter or signing online petitions wasn’t enough. So I went to http://www.do-it.org and searched for organisations that were doing the kind of work I believe in: environmental (I’m a writer who mostly writes about nature), grassroots, cross-cultural and cross-generational, and community-focused.
I’d been thinking about the word ‘community’ since the Brexit vote. That was the point at which it became clear to me that Britain was far more fractured than I had previously supposed – even friendly, multicultural, Remain-voting Lambeth, where I’ve lived for the last 12 years. My Muslim friends reported slurs and intimidation. Social media was awash with newly emboldened hatred and bile. In 2017, what was a community, beyond an assortment of people who happen to share a postcode, or who pass one another in Sainsbury’s Local now and again?
The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘community’ as ‘A group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common; a group of people living together and practising common ownership’. But it’s been the volunteer sessions with Nature Vibezzz at Knight’s Hill Wood, a bus ride from my house, that have really shown me what that means. Along with a diverse bunch of strangers and a gaggle of completely brilliant kids, we’ve been transforming what was a dark, unloved, rubbish-strewn, ivy-clad urban wood into a clean, sun-dappled pocket park with winding paths, wildflower areas, a bug hotel and adventure play opportunities for children.
One of the most rewarding aspects of the project is the interest and support from passers-by; everyone, from pensioners to teenagers, wants to know what we’re up to, and everyone seems pleased when we explain. At our most recent session a lady brought us a big punnet of strawberries, “because you’ve all been working so hard”. It felt good to know that what we were doing was valued – and we haven’t even finished yet!
The work itself is as strenuous or as easy as you make it: you can pick litter, pull ivy or clear heavy scrub, it’s up to you. Nobody tells you what to do; it’s a case of turning up, chatting to the others to see what they’re doing, and pitching in as best you can. The kids either play, or help out if they choose to – many have been taught how to use tools in Nature Vibezzz’ Forest School sessions. Everyone keeps an eye on them; there are enough adults around that they can spend a couple of self-directed hours in nature only semi-supervised, which is an incredibly valuable thing. Knight’s Hill is a long, ongoing project, with no opportunities for quick fixes; there’s no looking around at the end of a session and thinking ‘Well, that’s the job done’. Neither is it about individualism or ego: working in a big, loose group, over the course of three months, there’s no room to take personal ownership of any part of the project. What there is instead, though, is a huge sense of pride in what we’re achieving together.
And that’s what community is, I reckon: people working on something together that’ll last and be of benefit to everyone, and bringing their own individual skills and capabilities to it. Doing it little by little, and understanding that it’s about the process, as well as the result. And demonstrating to the next generation by actions, as well as words, that we care about each other and about the place where we live. We know that strong, interconnected communities act as bulwarks against intolerance and extremism, and in today’s fraught, fractured and sometimes atomised world that’s more important than ever. At Knight’s Hill Wood we volunteers are making a place for nature to thrive and children to play; but in our own small way, we’re also helping to build a better world.
Melissa Harrison is a writer who lives in Streatham