8 Sep 2014
Caspar Walsh on nature, writing and community
Caspar Walsh‘s childhood combined “experience of nature, of writing, rehabilitation from crime, drugs and alcohol, and generally a pretty dysfunctional upbringing”. “I had these three things which were nature, writing and community” he told me. After years as a professional writer, he had what he calls his “aha moment” and thought “maybe I can bring these things together to create something really unique to me in terms of my own life journey and could possibly offer something to help other people”. And so the award-winning charity Write to Freedom was born. Our conversation took place in a wood on the Dartington estate (if you listen to the podcast you’ll hear a steam train in the distance).
Your book ‘Criminal’ tells the story of your very dysfunctional childhood. Did it include access to nature? What role did nature play in your childhood and how did you experience the absence of it, I suppose?
I grew up in London but I also went to schools in the countryside, a very fractured financial upbringing in terms of money for boarding school, then no money. I went to a boarding school called Summerhill which was very much in the countryside, so I had a very strong connection to nature there, and then I would come back to the city in the holidays and London is full of parks, so I was sniffing out trees at any opportunity. I’d be straight up a tree and I’d often sit in it, and I found that was a place where I didn’t have to deal with any adults or any of the stuff that was going on around me.
It wasn’t a conscious thought, it’s only on reflection that I realised what I was doing. It wasn’t “I’m going up a tree because I’m feeling stressed”. I’d just go up a tree like a monkey and sit up there and feel peaceful. I have lots of memories of being in the boughs of trees and looking at people who didn’t know I was looking at them.
There was a real mix of what I call concrete and chlorophyll. I had my green fix in the country and then would be in London, and when I was in London and it all got too much I would scoot off to a park or a garden where I could get some solace.
A lot of the work that you do now is working particularly with young men. What do you observe in a lot of particularly urban young men and the culture that they grow up in now, and what the relationship with nature is to that culture?
We go into prisons or probation or the youth offending teams and as part of our assessment process we have an interview and a written assessment. One of the questions on that is “what’s your experience of nature?” Some of them will say nothing, but then you realise that they used to hang out in parks. There’s some kind of a connection. They may not necessarily have been drawn to it or felt that it was a real need, but they knew they had that thing and there was usually a camping trip story when they went off with school.
In terms of them coming on the courses we run up on Dartmoor and on the coast in South Devon, it’s really interesting. A lot of them come from a prison, they get released on license, so they leave this very municipal environment, a very concrete-driven environment and they get on the motorway, the M5, then the A38 then they get off at Maniton and are on this little country road.
It’s a progression of dropping into the countryside and you end up with these big walls covered in moss and trees overhanging and into the site we use, Heathercombe. Generally what they say is they feel like they’re in a horror movie. Their experience of that kind of nature, the non-urban-park type nature, is this is what you’ve seen in movies, that there’s a werewolf somewhere and you’re going to get eaten.
In terms of the impact on them, it’s profound. They come into that space a bit shaken up and a bit wide eyed. Half of what I do with them, or should say don’t do, is just let nature run its course. She, it, whatever it is, works on them and softens them up so I don’t have to do all the work.
So Blair Witch Project had probably a worse impact on a generation’s understanding of immersion in nature than anything else?
Yeah, I think Blair Witch Project had an impact on me for a while, I was worried about going into the woods and seeing things hanging from trees. I think the Blair Witch Project is the Jaws of the noughties, the land-based Jaws in terms of the impact it had on us.
One of the other things we work with them on is around tracking and connecting with nature and opening the senses to nature. We work with them and allow them to use their experience what it is to be on alert and intuition in an urban environment in terms of being hunted, there’s this big thing about hunting. They are generally predated upon either by pimps or bigger dealers or rival gangs. They’re literally being hunted on the streets. So we allow them to engage in that energy – you’re in an environment so connect to those senses and you’ll be able to tune into this environment and it works every time.
If you’re experience of nature that it is scary and dangerous and you’re actually safer among bricks and concrete and X-boxes and streets, what does that do to people?
How does it change how they develop? What does it do to young men who have grown up with this being their view of the world?
It’s based on the world being a threatening place to live. We’re putting them in a natural environment that they feel threatened by, and the process that we are inviting them to step into is seeing that nature is a resource and an ally to them, and that’s not something that just happens by us sitting down and saying “it’s an ally to you, it’s great, everything’s fine”. They generally have to have at least a weekend with us to get to the end of it and think “you know what, I feel quite good in this space, it’s alright”.
We don’t have any apex predators particularly in this country. We’ve got things that can kill us but … interestingly their relationship to insects and bugs and stuff, these big heavy-duty gangsters that wield blades, they’re literally jumping into people’s laps when they see a wasp or a spider.
So it has an impact on them because it’s like growing up in a war zone. That was my experience, it was like growing up in a war zone .. that I’m under threat constantly so I have to check and see what’s going on. I’m sitting opposite you – you seem like a nice guy but you could turn at any minute so I’m constantly tuning in thinking is this going to kick off. So it is very much about changing that relationship so that nature becomes an ally and a friend and something they can go to and trust.
What kind of impact do you see that that has on them, that nature immersion? Do you have any stories of people who’ve been through that experience and the kind of impact it’s had?
It’s that thing of the difference between empirical and anecdotal evidence. It’s all anecdotal as far as I’m concerned, we’re working on building an evidence base that this really works. The first impact that I see is a real softening. At the end of the weekend you can see that there’s been a holding or a tightening or aggression, fear basically on their face and that really softens and eases up.
I’m still in touch with two of the lads from the first weekend in 2008 that we ran on Dartmoor. We’re in sporadic contact but they’re there. The fact that they’re still in touch and that they communicate with me through Facebook or text messages says that there was an impact for them. There was a guy who lives in Portsmouth who said that it was a life-changing experience for him. I’m very wary about how much somebody might big up their experience because it’s a very heightened experience for them.
Anyone who says “this thing has changed my life”, it’s like, well, ok that’s great, but I think there are other things at play. What we do is not to say this to bodies and funders and organisations is we’re not the Holy Grail and never will be, and even if an individual says this is the thing that turned their life around, this makes us really happy, but you’ve got to have all these other things as well supporting you in your community.
As education becomes more and more focused on results and all of that kind of stuff, and particularly the young men, who aren’t academically gifted just seem to be failed horribly by that, what would be your sense of how we could bring some of the learnings from that, from more exposure to nature and bringing that more into our education system? What would that look like?
This image of not academically bright or not seen as intelligent is based on the framework of the teaching system that we have in this country at the moment, which is primarily whiteboard learning. It’s downloading information. There are a lot of people who are predisposed to that. I don’t know what the learning style is for that. But the learning styles that I work with is kinaesthetic learning so primarily hands-based learning. You have those individuals who really respond to the whiteboard downloading process and they’ll end up in university and they love a lecture and all this information. I never had a thing for that. I always struggled with it because my body needed to move.
In terms of what would we do is that we could either look at a binary split in the education system between the kinaesthetic learning and the non-kinaesthetic learning, assess and identify those individuals and then stream them to those two individual places; or we have a way to bring them both in where you say there are times when you do need to be sitting in the classroom. With the teaching that we do at the weekends, we try to keep the classroom-based teaching to an absolute minimum. There is a whiteboard but I try and stay away from it, or I’ll just literally put some bullet points on the board and talk to that so that they can see what I’m talking about.
I’m amazed, it’s almost medieval. The lack of common sense, intelligence, understanding, empathy from the systems that deliver education. So many people didn’t know that dyslexia is a major way to disengage from the education system. They’re then seen as troubled kids. They get excluded. They get into trouble. That causes more trouble and they end up in prison.
I’ve worked with loads of young men and you can just track that process from being dyslexic and not really being into school to ending up in prison under a major sentence for a really heavy duty crime. For me that was a real revelation because understanding that I’m dyslexic … I grew up with this thing of not being academically bright. I got to the age of 29, 30 before I fully acknowledged that I was intelligent.
The truth is that the guys that I work with, the young men, they’re all very very bright. They’re just not bright necessarily by other people’s standards. It’s our job to find out where that is. One of the things we do is we say “what’s your genius?” Everybody has a genius. It’s not exclusive to Einstein or Stanley Kubrick or whoever, it’s our job to help discover that, identify it and tell them that, and let them grow into a belief of that.
When young men grow up isolated from nature, what does it do to them? What does it do to us when all we ever see is screens and buses and streets and never experience the wild? When we grow up and have no experience of that, what does it do to us? What bits of our psyche or the way we work in the world are damaged or influenced by that?
It does a lot of things to us. The first response is that it makes me ill. When I lived in Bristol, I’d come back after a weekend in the country and people would say “you’ve got colour in your cheeks”. You see guys coming out of prison and they’re looking quite pale and freaked out, understandably because they’re in a prison environment and have been locked away.
I think it creates a disconnect and there can be a predisposition to panic at that disconnect, to say that there’s something that’s broken in that individual. Our thing as well is that there’s nothing actually wrong with any of them. What’s wrong is what’s going on within the system, and the opportunities that they’ve had. The speed with which they reconnect, not necessarily at a conscious level but an unconscious level, actually physically the blood starts to rise into their cheeks.
We had a guy recently, we were running a project with the Torbay Youth Offending team. They were in group situations, which I don’t really favour any more. I just want to get them outside as quickly as possible because that’s where they want to be. This kid was really disengages in the sessions, irritating and I found him really difficult to work with. We got him out into a wood and another guy, another friend of his for the day and he just became like an animal. I don’t mean tearing around ripping things apart, but he was immediately in tune with the environment. He had had some connection to nature.
So in terms of what it does to them, I think it creates a disconnect, but for us not to be afraid or think that we’ve got some massive onerous task in order to help them reconnect. As human beings, our neural pathways and our senses and our sensory awareness crackles to life like static electricity when we’re put into a natural environment very very quickly. You can’t really destroy the soul of a man or a woman. I don’t think you can really take that away.
But in response to your thing about the games, I’ve been thinking about this a lot because I spent a lot of time in front of computers as a kid and a lot of time in front of the television. I also spent a lot of time outdoors and I wonder whether there’s a bit of moral panic around that. It’s what teenagers do.
I think there is a bit of a problem, I think it’s more intense than it was when I was younger but it’s a process that encourages them to get out. There was a Facebook photo that I saw, which was a picture of a forest, which said “the original Playstation” I think it’s great to be in the forest and there are advantages. There’s a really good TED Talk about this, the advantages of console game playing. But everything needs a balance.
You mentioned prison before. Prison is by definition the ultimate nature deficit experience. You’re indoors 23 hours a day or whatever it is. Could you imagine a prison system that brings nature more into what it is and how it works?
I could and I see it. The young offender institution that I work with was starting it. One of the things with Write to Freedom was looking at creating a programme where we could bring the wilderness experience into the prison. Obviously there are restrictions on what you can do, but we were looking at creating a fire where they could sit around a camp fire, have tents and things. It was a nice idea but it didn’t actually work. They often have gardens in prisons, they’re quite municipal-looking gardens with nice arrangements of chrysanthemums and begonias and things.
But there is a connection for them. Park Prison that I work with, which is a young offender and an adult prison have increasingly extensive flower garden and I think they grow vegetables as well. There’s a project in America which has a major food growing project in the prison which ended up supplying food to the local community. It provided a lifeline and massive levels of rehabilitation for the offenders, and reconnection to the community. Originally, they would say – we don’t want vegetables grown in prisons, as though they’re going to be infected in some way. But they were eating them and thinking, actually this is really good.
My take on the prison system is that it’s a necessary place for some people. The majority of people don’t need to be in prison but some do for their own safety and the safety of the public. So to some extent, there needs to be, not a total removal but “this is a stark environment and I don’t want to be in here”. I don’t mean turn prisons into Medieval dungeons where people are dying and are terrified. They have to have humanity within them.
There needs to be a balance, and giving them a taste of nature, giving them a connection with it is important and it happens. I haven’t been to all the prisons in the UK. There’s a prison in Suffolk which has a bird of prey centre in the prison. They have buzzards, hawks, eagles, and the young prisoners work with these animals in the prison environment.
Fantastic, thank you. Any last thoughts on why it’s important to make space for nature in what we do?
There’s a phrase which I’ve started using. It’s not a new one, but that nature is a life support system. Obviously it provides us with the oxygen that we breathe. But I do think there is a disconnect. The growing cities – my sister for instance doesn’t spend much time in nature at all. The more you’re away from it, the easier it might seem, that sense of not really understanding that something’s missing, not fully being yourself, not in great health. Because it happens over time, it can be like looking in the mirror and not really noticing you’re aging. There can be an incremental detriment.
But as I said before, get them out. There are lots of parks and there’s a real passion for parks and when the sun comes out people want to get to the water, to the sea. So it’s absolutely central to what we do. When I tell people what Write to Freedom does, that we offer wilderness and writing activities, the wilderness comes first. The writing is a way to express those experiences that come up within that, how we feel about that.
The last thing I’ll say is that yes I believe we’re damaging the planet and we’re losing species and animals and plants. But I have no doubt that when nature really has had enough of this part of her, which is us and what we’re doing, we’ll go and it will regenerate in a couple of hundred thousand years. I don’t think we’re so powerful that we could wipe out nature, but I think we’re powerful enough to wipe ourselves out.