Hester’s 9-month placement: 4 months in!

I started my nine-month placement in late September- I’d been looking forward to it all summer; having already gone through the three-month traineeship in the spring, I was constantly comparing the sweltering streets of my hometown of London with the shaded slopes and cool river of Lower Sharpham, much to the annoyance of everyone around me.

Despite this I arrived at the station in Totnes feeling nervous, stressed out and tired. My packing process had been, as usual, both chaotic and mostly carried out the night before departure and my train carriage was inexplicably stuffed full of loud young guys with buzzcuts and ironing boards (I later realized they must be on their way to the local army training center). In addition to these solid reasons for stress, I was worried- I was on my way to live and work somewhere for nine months, the longest I’d ever lived away from my family home. Despite the fond memories I had of the spring traineeship, this was still a slightly daunting prospect. Would I find people I got on well with? Would I enjoy the work? Had I remembered to pack my toothbrush?

As I mulled over these serious questions, a car pulled into the station car park and the window rolled down to reveal the familiar bearded face of Phil, Ambios’ Conservation Ranger calling out a friendly insult and I felt myself relax – this was going to be fine. My arrival back on the farm was a whirlwind of greetings, introductions, and hugs. I saw old friends for the first time in months, and was introduced to the Rob, the other volunteer I’d be working with during my placement (he kindly ignored by awkward attempt at a handshake and gave me a big hug). I settled into the wagon I’d be occupying and drifted off to sleep listening to the owls calling in the valley.

The next week was spent mostly getting acquainted with my new coworkers and reacquainted with the beautiful landscape around the farm in a new season- the way the sun rises over the River Dart, illuminating the green slopes of the valley and the rippling reedbeds, awaking the birds to their songs. Less glamorously, we also spent the week deep cleaning the bunkhouse to prepare for a new cohort of eight trainees to arrive. We scraped and painted, scrubbed and swept, washed, cooked and fixed. It was, frankly, great fun.

The trainees arrived on a hectic day of introductions, far too many new names and luggage. The previously quiet and spotless bunkhouse became a whirl of conversation, laughter and empty mugs as the trainees settled into their home for the next three months. With the course in progress, the weekly schedule for Rob and I drastically changed- we spent more time on food orders and cooking, but also got to join in on the parts of the course we were interested in. The species ID courses and discussions about rewilding were fascinating, but one of my personal highlights was probably the day we all went out in the field to build tree guards- something about lugging heavy rolls of barbed wire and tools up a hill together before cheering each other on in our inept attempts to nail in staples straight really inspires group feeling!

Not everything in the role has been without its challenges. During the first month or so of the placement I did struggle to find a rhythm with all the varied work tasks, and with feeling a bit unsure of my place on the farm – not a trainee, but not quite staff. Having talked to other people who have occupied this volunteer role, I believe this is a pretty common experience at the start of the placement. It’s an unusual position, and the flexibility that allows you to take control of the role can also leave you feeling a little at sea before you find your footing. As the weeks passed, this feeling of uncertainty faded as I got more stuck into the work. My favourite day is usually Thursday, when I go out into the field with some other volunteers and help with the site’s tree planting program- I often see wildlife such as sparrowhawks, bullfinches and voles, and the physical work of building tree guards is deeply satisfying.

 

I enjoy other jobs too, such as helping to build the Farm’s new barn; watching the growth of a building from start to finish is a very rewarding feeling. There are still challenging days, and some jobs are more engaging than others – I tend not to enjoy the (rare) days spent working inside, and the winter weather adds an element of challenge to all outdoor work. The dark January evenings can feel long in the bunkhouse, the cold pushing everyone inside, and some of the work that needs to be done to keep everything running can be, at times, monotonous. I’ve never once regretted taking the role as a long-term volunteer though. I live in a stunningly beautiful part of the world, with fascinating wildlife right on my doorstep and a community of interesting, kind, like-minded people doing work that makes me feel like I’m doing something worthwhile.

In the nearly 4 months I have been in the role I have found myself doing a wide range of tasks and activities from the mundane (scrubbing out old fridges), to the fascinating (plant ID courses) and from the ridiculous (watching a trainee apple bobbing while dressed as a species of rare marine worm at a Halloween party) to the sublime (canoeing down the Dart on an autumn evening, the blazing foliage reflected off the dark, mirror smooth water). I have made friendships that I hope will last for a long time to come, I have learned to do things I’ve always wanted to do and other things I’d never imagined doing. I’ve gone on morning walks so beautiful that I’ve felt near to tears, and morning swims so cold I’ve felt near to frostbite. I’ve learned to lay a hedge, distinguish between common and creeping bent grass, process rough timber down to panelling, cook a tasty meal for ten in a hurry and play the guitar (sort of).

I can’t wait to see what wildlife, experiences, new skills and new people the rest of my nine months bring!