Gabrielle shares her personal journey of nature connection and healing, as she lives and works as part of our Volunteer Team on our wild land in Devon.
~ Photography and words by Gabrielle O’Connell ~
For a year now I’ve watched Embercombe dance through the seasons. One bright, summer day in 2021 I drove through the gates to visit a friend volunteering here. So distracted was I by the abundance of beauty and people, I lost track of time. I never went home that day, but instead I curled up beside my friend in her cabin. We listened to the owls in the tree above and talked about community.
Like a spiral I was drawn deeper and deeper by this place. In the autumn, I worked as a contractor for a few months in the House Team, the flow of the work and the lovely people brought me such pleasure. Those long days of walking the land and taking care of the spaces pulled me further into the purpose of Embercombe.
In the sleepy middle of winter I made the leap to move here and be a volunteer myself. Living in a caravan in winter felt like a risky thing to do, particularly as I was so physically fragile. I’d been chronically ill for a long time and was living without a garden, with the constant roar of traffic all day and all night. My nervous system was so raw and I longed for quiet and the wild. Even on the harshest days of cold, I knew I’d made the right choice.
I’ve seen hard frosts cloaking the slopes of the land in white, heard the wind whistling through the cracks in my caravan and chopped kindling late at night because I’ve forgotten I need it to keep the chill from my toes. I’ve carried water and thermoses of hot tea across the fields and sat in bed with a cup of it steaming as the moon rises. This practical tending of needs grounded me and began to smooth my edges.
As winter drew to a close, I reverently stroked the first crocuses and wove them into Bridget crosses, making a prayer of thanks for new beginnings.
The day the apple trees bloomed I laughed with surprise. I couldn’t believe how the buds could burst out in colour in a matter of hours. Just blink and the whole world has softened to pink and the promise of fruit.
As the earth stretched languorously and opened her arms again to the lovers in the sun and pollinating bees, so did I. Letting the smiling daffodils into my heart I expanded and gentled.
By May I was making elderflower and rose cordial, singing in the herb garden, and had nearly forgotten what panic attacks feel like.
In this moment I’m sitting in the Linhay, wooden beams arching above me and another someone is pottering around the kitchen making tea and humming. On my way across the land I met basking lizards that reminded me to stop and soak in a little light in the hustle and bustle of the day. Each week there seems to be a new butterfly making its dizzy way around the clovers. In the fullness of the summer sun everything is in motion. There is work to be done and like the butterflies, so too do the faces of Embercombe’s family shift as people come and go. Everyone is busy looking to the future of the work here and how to protect it.
Out on the slopes of this valley the meadows are going about their own work of being thick and lush. They are reminding the people how to live together side-by-side in harmony. Hay rattle and saxifrage rub along with lady’s mantle, being wild and diverse and offering shelter for wings.
By the time the apples ripen and fall in the orchard I will have moved on from here. I will remember how last year I’d collected the fruit in the front of my jumper after a long day of cleaning Centre Fire and how I felt like Embercombe was already my home. I took the apples and blackberries and currents away with me to make many, many pots of jam as an offering of thanks. I didn’t know I would eat those same preserves on toast in the communal kitchen come winter time. I don’t know where my path goes now but I plan to come and make jam here for the winter to keep the cupboards full of sweetness. I think I will hear the apples falling in my dreams. And so I come full circle.
I’ve always known that nature is good for healing. I think anyone that loves to listen to trees and feel the rain on their face knows it instinctively too. There’re a hundred books out there that tell you exactly what happens to the parasympathetic nervous when you’re in nature. They’ll tell you how it increases your ability for pleasure and empathy because you shift your focus to the details of the animate world going about the wholesome cycles of life. That information is good to have and it can help the mind to have it all laid out in neat rows of facts and figures. But my body leads me on this healing journey, so I followed the only certainty I have: my love for the earth. Nature is the only medicine that has ever consistently brought me relief from pain.
I came here in search of simplicity and the medicine of the wild, and I found it. I needed to become so familiar with the stars and the hollows of earth in the dark that I stopped relying on a torch. Every night when I got into bed, I knew that nothing would disturb me – no phone could drag me into the wide world, no rumble of the A38 or shouting neighbours. I just needed to fall asleep to the crackling of the fire, to wake up with the sun on my face and to hear the dawn chorus.