As tempting as it is to mentally stuff 2020 into a metaphorical bin bag and drop it down the mineshaft of history, it's worth remembering the few sparks of light over the past twelve months of unremitting gloom. The last year may have seemed quite overwhelming, but we shouldn't lose sight of the fact we're probably already quite skilled in getting through hard times. As we grew up, we learnt how to cope; we managed to face down fears.
In fact, children have one of the most effective coping strategies, working through fears through play (it's no surprise to hear that a number of corona-themed playground games have emerged). By reflecting on the playful, happier moments, and the sparks of light in the darkness, we can tap into the wellspring of our resilience.
Accentuating the positive
In March, as the lockdown days began to pile up, we organised a virtual campfire for our volunteers and families. It was at the point when people were really beginning to feel the strain, so it was a welcome relief to give and get some mutual support. We made a nature camera out of a cardboard box - which would capture memories as we went on our walks - and a campfire out of tissue paper and a Little Sun light.
It was consoling to hear most people had been able to get outdoors every day. Having been in contact with charity workers and teachers across the globe, we knew that in some countries lockdown had really meant lockdown, with kids confined to their houses for weeks at a time.
Thankfully, here in the UK, official guidelines have, in the main, emphasised the benefit of time outdoors, and on the whole continue to do so. Having children's play at least a bit 'officially' recognised as essential was, for us, one of the silver linings of the year.
Bright spring days helped lift the spirits. Stripped of the constant background noise of traffic and planes, we heard birdsong in a way that we’d never heard it before.
Home working, home learning, new technologies to get to grips with, a new rhythm to the day. If we hadn't done so before, we truly appreciated the value of decent public services. Empty streets, empty skies, the world of commerce and capital overturned. Coupled with the protests following the death of George Floyd, which gathered momentum in May and June, it seemed like things were shifting deep below the surface.
Wellbeing as core to the new way of things
Recognising that time spent outdoors was essential to people's wellbeing we restarted our Wild Walks programme at the first opportunity, although changing Covid guidelines made it a very different experience. We were so, so grateful for a small grant from Arc'teryx UK that helped keep this going.
Pre-booked walks and limited numbers dampened the spontaneous atmosphere, and if people didn't show, it meant the walk would be a write-off. But the majority of the walks were fully booked, and it was clear on these occasions how much people missed the company of others and their connection to the natural places.
The walks evolved and continued until the November lockdown, and we've since substituted guided walks with ideas and suggestions for self-guided walks and activities shared through our social channels and groups.
Outdoor Family Camping
We knew many London families were desperate for a break by the end of the first lockdown and many had no prospect of a holiday, so with the encouragement of our partners Pearce Coggan Foundation, based at Green Farm, we decided to push ahead with two much-hoped-for Outdoor Family Camping trips. The first was in the heat of the summer; the second in the October half-term, when the weather was much more autumnal. Both were glorious, magical, and a huge learning experience for all.
In the summer we pitched the tents in blazing sunshine (2020 has been recorded as one of the hottest years on record in the UK). The trip meant we could rejig the procedures to take into account Covid restrictions - and also begin to develop some new activities with Green Farm around healthy eating and sustainable farming practices.
A foraging walk was very popular, led by Claire, one of our volunteers, as was making (and eating) jam from the fruit that we found. We also loved learning to cook the rainbow of vegetables that Green Farm provided on our individual camp stoves, and in the autumn we carved pumpkins - a first for everyone on the trip. On our October trip we all decided pumpkins are WAY easier to carve than turnips!
It will be great to see how this added dimension will help shape future Family Camping trips to Green Farm. Helping children to learn about the land helps them to develop a greater connection with nature, and means they will be more likely to want to protect the planet when they grow up. We hope a better connection to food will also support healthier eating habits too.
In October the weather was much less forgiving, and in the evenings in particular it became distinctly chilly, as the sun sank beneath slabs of grey cloud. Physically distanced, sitting in our bubbles on either side of the fire, we enjoyed the company, if not the close proximity of our fellow travellers.
On the first afternoon the children led us on a frog hunt into the deep ancient woodlands. We found no frogs, and neither the whisper of a newt, which wasn't altogether surprising, given it was not the season for frogs and newts (or maybe they had all been scooped up by the north wind, to rain from the skies in Dover). However the lack of amphibians was more than made up for by the superabundance of fungi, including some really magical finds...
We learnt about the fungal mycelial cultures that exist under our boots – each single organism made up of a million interconnected threads, stretching for hundreds of metres.
Whatever the success of our springtime Zoom digital campfire, it was immediately apparent as soon as we sat around the real thing how the virtual was a thin substitute for being in the presence of friends, families and colleagues and the deep stillness of green spaces.
When the dark can takes the form of our worst fears, we can raise each other’s spirits. But if the last year had shown us anything, it has been our interdependency, our capacity to help and heal.
So over this third, and what might well be the toughest lockdown, we will be tapping into these sources of resilience. At Outdoor People, we're keeping an imaginary campfire burning, keeping a mindful eye on the flames, remembering that protective sphere of warmth and light. The wolves and the bears may still be out there, but we can draw together, knowing there is always some hope to share.
Big thanks go out to our sponsors (Marmot, Vango and Pearce Coggan), grant givers (Arc'teryx Piccadilly, Hackney Giving and It's Great Out There) and all the customers of Outdoor People, without whom we couldn't fund our Development manager Beth to run our Wild Walks Programme, connect with our community or go on Outdoor Family Camping Trips.
Photo Credits: Liz Seabrook and Outdoor People