Monthly Archives: June 2016

10 things you need to know before you WWOOF

WWOOFing = weeding. Lots of weeding
WWOOFing = weeding. Lots of weeding

If you love the wilderness, want a break from the norm and are sick of playing sardines on the tube, WWOOFing can be very attractive.

The unfortunately named WWOOF stands for ‘Willing Workers on Organic Farms.’ Or ‘Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms.’ (The number of times I have had to explain that I am not planning to go around the world barking like a dog, but that WWOOFing is actually a thing is outrageous.) It is a global network of farms, who host volunteers. The volunteers work on their farms in exchange for food, board and knowledge. So if you’re skint and want to travel, it’s rather perfect.

The idea of working for free (or in exchange for food and a bed) is alien to some people. “But what about your pension?” my Dad’s voice echo’s. “How are you going to support yourself?” my therapist quizzes, looking perturbed. But, contrary to popular belief, working with nature in exchange for food can be a wildly liberating experience. You are no longer pimping yourself out to do stuff you don’t really want to do in an air conditioned box. Whilst connecting to the Earth in a very real way and learning about sustainable living, you are – for a fleeting period – free from the grip of money. You literally don’t need it anymore. You have escaped the ratty race, you are emancipated. No contracts, no boss, no shitty coffee machine.

Every WWOOFer has his or her own reason they ended up in the middle of nowhere weeding someone else’s gravel path (it’s harder than it sounds.) For me, it was because I quit my job and was fed up of paying London rent. I needed some new experiences, I was hungry to see the world outside of the box, I was disillusioned with conventional work-life and I absolutely had to get away to think about what the devil to do next with my life.

The view from the 'office'
The view from the ‘office’

So far I have WWOOFed twice this year, and both experiences have been drastically different. The first experience I will spend the least time on, because it consisted of shoveling and spreading endless wood chippings in front of some ‘glamped-up’ yurts for 6 hours a day to make them look pretty, and watching the owner sever his thumb whilst showing off with an incredibly sharp axe. This was followed by being left alone to cook Aldi frozen scampi (I’m vegan) in an out building (we weren’t allowed in the house) for me and my fellow WWOOFer before me sneaking away in the middle of the night in a panic because frankly I couldn’t stand it any longer. It was hardly organic or eco-friendly, and a safe and nurturing environment it most definitely was not.

The second adventure was much more in line with my expectations. A self-sufficient forest garden on the welsh borders, with two punks. I stayed in my own little caravan, I bathed with the ducks in their pond, I ate nettle stir-fry for the first time, and I learnt loads about low-impact living and growing food organically. This is what WWOOFing is about, there’s no taking advantage. Both sides win, and it can work.

Since my story shows that it is easy to fall into the wrong hands when you WWOOF, (after all, you are basically going to live with complete strangers) I am giving you 10 things to ponder before you travel vast distances to give your precious free time away.

1. Expect the unexpected: WWOOFing is kind of like internet dating. You see a profile online, you peruse their gorgeous pictures and brilliantly written blurb and you think to yourself – this is perfect! I have found my soul mate! So you go along with a spring in your step to the date with a super high expectation of who they are, you create a rose-tinted world of what this is going to be. Then you turn up and realise they are much shorter than they said they were and much worse at making you laugh. The same applies to WWOOFing, so make sure you do loads of research about your farm before committing – and read other WWOOFers comments about your farm thoroughly!

2. Bring your own pillow if you are fussy about things like that: Otherwise expect a very flat, lumpy, musty one. Although you’ll be so tired by the end of the day that you probably won’t notice if you were resting your head on a jagged rock. What I’m trying to say is that accommodation is often BASIC. You’ll be very lucky if you get a towel.

 

My nest

3. Expect to be lonely: If you don’t like being on your own, then make sure your farm is hosting other WWOOFers along with you.  You’ll probably have a fair amount of free time each day, and when there’s no electricity and you’ve finished your book – it can become quite boring. If you love spending time on your own though, it can be amazing! The perfect chance to write, meditate or just stare into the distance nonchalantly without a heckler in sight.

4. Bring your favourite snacks: When you are living on the farm you’ll probably be light years away from the nearest supermarket, and it might be a long time until dinner. You’ll be doing lots of manual labour which builds up an insatiable appetite and unfortunately you are entirely at the hosts mercy in regards to food. When and what they decide to cook is up to them, so there might be times when you are left anxiously craving a KFC. So bring things like nuts, rice cakes, and chocolate to stave of the hanger.

5. Keep an open mind: The deal is that you’ll do jobs that need doing, so you might not be always doing your favourite thing. For every meal eaten, there’s a plate to be washed. So if you end up down at the bottom of the woods in the dark, washing up with rain water in a massive dirty bucket, just remember ‘this too shall pass’ and hold it together.

Washing up two days worth of pots with rain water at the bottom of the woods in the great outdoors. Washing up two days worth of pots with rain water in the woods.

6. Prepare to do heavy lifting: Especially if you are bigger than the other WWOOFers. There are endless heavy things to push, pull and cart around on farms. From trailers to logs, and dirty crockery to bales of hay. So get those muscles flexing and the elbow grease greasing. (Or just hope there is someone bulkier looking than you and stand behind them so you don’t get picked.)

7. Get used to being grubby: You might be one of the lucky ones to have access to a warm shower. If you’re one of these people then good for you! Or you might have access to a cold shower, which you can build up a tolerance to. You might on the other hand not have access to any traditional washing facilities at all – in which case you hope there is a pond somewhere close for you to bathe the old fashioned way. Even if the water looks like chocolate milk and it is brimming with tadpoles, you will get in it – believe me.

My bath My bath

8. Expect to have a ‘WTF am I doing with my life’ moment: This happened to me whilst I was kneeling on my sore knees in the baking hot sun weeding a waterlogged orchard. The weeds were not friendly, I had been doing it for four hours straight and my trowel was all bendy. I was hating life. I suddenly felt the urge to give my host the middle finger. It can be tough, the work can be repetitive and you might feel like a bit of a dogs body. But then they bring out the most delicious dinner of home-grown produce and you remember about taking the rough with the smooth.

9. Prepare to listen to permaculture wizards talking about themselves: You will probably be living with hosts who are incredibly passionate about what they do, or what they have created. This is brilliant, and you’ll probably learn loads from them. They live and they breathe their project, and they probably don’t go out very much because of all the work it entails. So although you are also a very important individual with your own story, and your own goals, prepare for them to want to talk mostly about themselves and their vision. In some cases they might want to talk about their  ‘spiritual journey’ and the time that they ‘meditated for so long that water came gushing out of their palms.’ These words were actually spoken, no joke. So practice your best ‘sincere/interested/captivated’ face.

10. Have some taxi numbers handy in case you need to escape: If the worst comes to worst you’ll just have to do a runner. If you’ve got a really nice boyfriend/girlfriend then they might rescue you. If not, keep a list of local taxis handy, so you can do a vanishing act. Obviously it’s better to come to some arrangement with your host if it isn’t working out, but if you suffer from anxiety and feel like you are trapped and aren’t able to rationalise in the heat of the moment – then get the hell out of there. Call a cab, go home, run yourself a bath, eat a massive sandwich of your choice and revel in your new found freedom. After all, you’re a volunteer and not a prisoner.

If you have any other WWOOFing tips, make it known below.

Annie x

I Quit Being Sensible

Sarah Drawing 002

I haven’t told you this yet but I have done something bold and decisive and honest and potentially foolish. I quit my job.

This, as you can imagine, was not a light decision. This was my first ‘normal’ job after years of bar working and freelancing and I was chuffed to finally have a regular and stable salary and free weekends. Hooray! I graduated the same year that the Credit Crunch took hold in the UK and the jobs market was literally ‘Dodo extinct.’ So I was thrilled to finally be able to pay my ever increasing London rent, and to cook a massive dinner with all the trimmings for all my friends without worrying about how much it cost. Hell, I even shopped at M&S.

For months and months I trudged through a thick soup of depression trying to work out whether it was my job or just me that was making me sad. When you have depression, the difficulty in differentiating between what is a ‘depressive episode, so you’re perceptions are all skewiff’ and what is actually a ‘genuinely shit situation that would make anyone sad’ is incredibly difficult. I tried hard to imagine someone else in my shoes to work out whether they would be unhappy too, but of course, that didn’t work because I am and will always be me. I was crying at cute dogs and old people on the tube, for God’s sake, something had to give.

When I was signed off work for anxiety and depression and trying to fill my days with mind nourishing things to make me better, I gradually realised that although I am prone to periods of depression and big bouts of anxiety wherever I am in the world – it was a great deal worse when I was at work. Being away from work made me feel human again. I explored and I read and I walked and swam, I got back in touch with a childlike curiosity for life, and the simple things that make life wonderful (like growing cress in pots, climbing trees, making banana bread, talking to my Mum, reading the Beano.)  I realised I was actually quite happy about most of life, but that I hated my job.

I had been telling my therapist that I had survived a breakdown. He didn’t like the term ‘breakdown’ and so he did something incredible which was to flip it completely. “No” he said “You’ve had a realisation, a catalyst for change, an exciting epiphany.” I wanted to throw a heavy object at him and tell him sternly that feeling like you can’t get out of bed ever and that you are wading through mud on a daily basis does not feel like an exciting epiphany to me. But now, after a bit of time, I can see exactly what he means. This was a realisation, an arrival at the idea that something in my life had to change, something in my life was making me unwell. It was liberating and it was scary. I knew I couldn’t stay in my job. It was a lovely job, a sensible job, but it wasn’t for me.

I realised that too many of the decisions I have made in my life have been because I think I should, and not because I have wholeheartedly and passionately wanted to. I studied Sociology instead of Art at College because I thought it was more sensible, and I did Hospitality Managament at Uni because I thought I’d get a stable job at the end of it, I chose baked potatoes instead of chips in restaurants because I should, I even went to church because it would be ‘me being good.’ Too many choices taken out of wretched fear or a sense of obligation.

Ever since the day I realised that I would have to find a job when I grew up, I’ve been suffocated and worried by the idea of fitting into the world, and by the question ‘what to do’ with my life. This, I think, has been the real root of my anxiety. I took my full-time stable job because it looked like the safest option, it wasn’t my dream job but it was something that would pay me money and was vaguely connected to the thing I’d trained for. But it didn’t make me want to live. The truth is, I took the job because I didn’t know what I wanted to ‘do’ next with my life. And because the pressure and alienation and guilt felt when not knowing what to do with your one-and-only-life is hideous.

From childhood we are conditioned to find our place in the world, a place that will earn us money. Money is a necessity, I know, and there is a mind-bogglingly large number of ways to get it. But after a breakdown/realisation something changes in the very core of your being. In a way, things become simpler. You have seen what the bottom looks like, and you don’t want to go back there, so you need to follow what feels good in your very soul, what is quite literally your guttural instinct.  You have a need to find something that makes your life worth living each day. So now, the only option is to feel my way through life. Does this feel right, working in this office? No? Then get the hell out of there. Life’s too short. Do you feel good working with this tree and this soil and these worms? Yes? Then keep doing it. It’s about using your intuition and it’s smart. Surely this is a route to contentment.

The luxury that wild animals have that we don’t, is that they can and do simply act on instinct. Generally speaking, the animal kingdom goes through life doing exactly what it feels like doing. Starlings migrate to the other side of the world because they feel in their bones that that is the right thing to do. Us humans however often have to disregard instinct because we need to earn money to survive and life just ‘gets in the way’ of doing what we really want to do. I’m not sure if anyone’s instinct is to sit behind a screen for 8 hours a day in a stuffy office doing budgets, but I’m sure it’s lots of peoples instinct to tell stories, to run in fields, to make art, to swim in the sea. Perhaps this is a simplistic way of looking at life, but to me it feels right.

So, to follow my nose I’m taking time out from the pressure of ‘having to be something’ in the world. As part of my healing process and my recovery I’m just going to be me.  It means I’m absolutely stone broke of course, but I think it will be worth it in the end. I’m going to try everything, everything that I feel like. Eventually I want a job that is going to make me sing when I wake up in the morning; so I’m going to volunteer all over the place, with elephants and the elderly, with nature reserves and Buddhist monks, I’m going to explore explore explore like Phileas fucking Fogg until I find the thing that makes me tick. I’m on a grand new voyage, a quest for realness, wholeness and not for obligation. So I say bollocks to being sensible. Life – I’m coming for you.

Annie x