Teresa Donohue has been WWOOFing for three years and we first became aware of her when she gave some great advice to new WWOOFers on our forum. Here she shares her reflections on three years of WWOOFing.
My decision to try WWOOFing came about (like for many people, as I later found out) at a time of confusion; a turning-point; perhaps because it’s a great way to instigate change. To literally shift yourself into new surroundings, seek new company and swap normality for something totally different, can really do the trick in gaining a fresh perspective. Having run away from an internship, I was feeling increasingly disillusioned by my current career path, was weighed-down with self-doubt and badly in need of direction… So, I chose north, and the wilds of the Scottish highlands.
there’s nothing quite like a change of scenery
In May 2014, I boarded the Caledonian sleeper train in London Euston, for what would be my first real stay in Scotland and my first ever WWOOFng experience. I was headed for a tiny village on the west coast, and my head and stomach were heavy with the mounting anticipation of it all. I had planned a one month stay, and had no idea whether I would be any good, or what the people hosting me would be like. I worried the whole way about all the transfers on my convoluted journey, wondering if I’d make it, or just get lost at the first hurdle in Glasgow. Now, nearly three years and over twenty hosts later, I’ve WWOOFed my way from Scotland to Wales, England, and most recently over to Ireland, and I’m not entirely sure it’s over yet! After my first experience I knew I’d found something worth holding on to and exploring. And the more I explored, the more I was curious… so I kept going. I’ve helped sustain this lifestyle with a few months’ paid work each winter, but otherwise have become somewhat nomadic – living out of a backpack, and staying in each place from days to, occasionally, months. Through WWOOF, I’ve discovered and become immersed into so many different ways of life, been welcomed into the homes and families of wonderful people, and found myself in amazing situations, doing things I could never have imagined myself doing. So now, I wanted to reflect on what’s it all been about, and share some of the things I’ve learnt on this adventure.
In the beginning, one of my main motivations was to reconnect with the wildness of the world and within myself. Our collective human disassociation with nature is staggering, with over half the planet now living in cities. But no matter how technologically advanced or removed from our wild selves we become, we can’t avoid the truth that it’s the living ecosystem that we depend on for our essential food, water and oxygen. I wanted to get back to the fundamentals of life – to find out where food comes from and to try to live more harmoniously with my surroundings. So, what better way to get ‘grounded’, than by working with the soil, learning to feed myself?
Many of the hosts I chose were small, market-garden enterprises such as community groups and box-delivery schemes. I went wherever I was most drawn towards – the sea and rural, isolated areas, including several islands (Scotland is good for this) – where I hoped I could get the most ‘raw’ experiences of nature. I remember how awkward and alien it all felt in the beginning – using hand tools, planting out delicate seedlings, spending long periods of time with my eyes to the ground and my hands in the soil. But I was lucky that my first hosts gave me a great balance between instruction and independence, satiating my hunger for both learning about the garden and exploring the countryside. I was happy to have the daily responsibilities of watering, opening up the polytunnel, and harvesting to re-stock a roadside stall, or to be shown something – like how to sow a tray of lettuces, then left to carry on with it. For bigger jobs we would all work together, and the days were punctuated with tea breaks, hot soup, and temperamental but thrilling blasts of Atlantic weather – sideways rain, sleet and snow, bright sun, stampeding wind… It was such a refreshing and fun way to learn, at the same time as being useful. And as time went on, I really began to feel my physical effort transform into tangible, edible rewards – a kind of job-satisfaction I’d never experienced before!
such pride for my salad seedlings
Then in free time at my first placement, I wandered and roamed in the expansive landscape of the highlands, one of the least populated areas of the UK. My diaries overflow with long, ecstatic entries about encounters with deer and eagles, and give romantic depictions of all the freedom and space I found there. I realised the powerfully therapeutic effect of spending time in contact with untamed, natural wonder; in places that seemed so far away from civilisation; I could spend whole days hiking in the hills without another human in sight. Interacting with nature in this way leaves me deeply humbled, and feeling connected to something bigger than myself.
inclement weather in the Highland spring
And far from being lonely, the solace of being the only WWOOFer for the whole of that first month allowed all the sights and sounds of the unfolding spring to permeate into my consciousness. I wonder, in these times of urban expansion when real ‘wilderness’ is nearly impossible to find, perhaps it is more important than ever to engage with the rhythms and seasons of the earth, through activities such as gardening.
untamed natural wonder
working in the garden, a different kind of wonder
As I continued my travels, I found that staying long-term in a place could be particularly enriching; to see the seasons progress, and get a deeper understanding of the cyclical nature of farm work through the year. WWOOFing then also becomes so much more than just about work, through the close bonds that form with people over time. One family I stayed with welcomed me into their home for over three months, and included me in everything from birthday outings, to dancing around in the living room. Generosity and kindness like this from people who are basically inviting complete strangers into their lives always amazes me. In this way, it’s not only skills and knowledge that can be exchanged, but a sense of community, and ‘home’. I found the situation allowed me to fill-in many different roles beyond farm work, like reading stories to the youngest, building dens, taking the dog for walks, and even minding the house while they were away. And it’s perhaps these extra little things that, although hard-to-define, are what makes WWOOFing really special. Many hosts too, appreciate and even seek out those unique qualities – like the motivation, ideas, company, and novelty that volunteers bring to their lives. ‘We can’t go out and see the world, so we invite the world here, with us’, one host told me.
extra little things make WWOOFing a very special experience
Practical help remains important though, even essential, to many WWOOF hosts. Most of the small farms and businesses I’ve visited simply wouldn’t survive without volunteer help, and only four out of twenty-one hosts I stayed with made their primary livelihood from farming. It’s an interesting observation, and made me realise that nobody farms organically to get rich. It’s a way of life, more than a methodology and one that unfortunately doesn’t ‘pay’ in mainstream society. Being ‘organic’ is about staying small, slow, and local. It means reward as the whole process, and not just the commodity produced; concepts that are completely contrary to mass production and monetary profit. It’s a different, broader way of looking at things. For instance, the ‘inefficiencies’ of crops getting eaten by pests, the time and effort in making compost, and manually weeding all the time, are far from wasted energy, but translate into: wildlife biodiversity, nutrients recycled into healthy soils without expensive and harmful chemicals, and vegetables that are clean and taste so much better because they contain personal involvement, hard work and emotional investment. I realised these things through all those I’ve met; both hosts and WWOOFers aspiring to change their lives. And it’s been a privilege to spend these last few years with people who truly love what they do – who live guided by joy, and work not out of greed but out of passion, even if it means an endless struggle to eek-out a living on the land.
the most free-ranging chickens I’ve ever seen
Volunteering overall has made me re-evaluate my ideas of work, effort and pay. Money is a useful symbol for trade, but has no inherent value in itself, and forgetting this point seems so often to make people vulnerable and limited. It feeds a mentality that says ‘I’m not ——- enough/ I don’t have enough ——- (so I can’t ——-)’; whereas without money, exchanges with people become more imaginative and inclusive, because everyone can play using their own gifts of time and energy. Then we discover that, in fact, we already have everything we need, plus the unlimited potential to do and be anything, through the power of co-operation. This ‘give what you can, take what you need’ mindset seems to me a likely road to equality and happiness, and is something always worth reminding ourselves about.
The flexible nature of WWOOFing allows everyone to make of it what they want, and perhaps helps cultivate a little more trust in a world. For me, it’s been a gateway into other ways of thinking and being, and has helped me connect and find my place in the world through self-discovery. In learning to look after plants and animals, I’ve cared for my own personal development. By stepping into different lives in so many places, I’ve been challenged, suprised and very grateful. And in working for free, I’ve been much more inclined to find things that really interest and motivate me.
the road less WWOOFed…
Finally then, a note on two of the most frequent questions I get asked, which are – ‘are you volunteering… as part of a course or something?’, and ‘…so, what do you hope to achieve – at the end of all this?’ Well, I used to struggle to answer these, but now they just make me smile. Long-term nomadism may be unconventional, and certainly not to everyone’s taste, but I like to think I am waving the flag for a little bit of unstructured living. No, I’m not undertaking any sort of formal study in agriculture, although I’ve dabbled with the idea. I still don’t know how long I’ll continue to WWOOF, or where I see myself in five years, and I certainly know it will be difficult to regain a more conventional lifestyle, if or when I do.
But what reasons do we really need for doing anything, beyond that of being fun and interesting at the time, and because we can? In an age when people get shunted through institutions from birth, the pressure to belong to ‘the system’ is so intense; it seems to leave no room for finding fulfilment in the here and now. As a result, so many friends of mine have suffered with depression and anxiety attacks at some point in their twenties. So I would argue, that any period of time spent NOT in pursuit of the future, not making plans, and not collecting qualifications to decorate a CV, can benefit anyone curious enough to find out.
WWOOFing and wandering all over the country for the last three years has helped untangle a lot of the root agitation that set me off in the first place, about who I was, where I was going, and to what purpose. And my answer to the second question then, is that honestly, I think I’m already doing everything I want to be doing – right now. The world is so full of colour, and variety, and my only aspiration is to carry on exploring it, for as long as it makes me happy.