Staff blog: The Phoenix Forest

Kevin Lelland, the Trust’s head of communications and membership, travels to Glenlude to find out more about a growing partnership

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Light-hearted laughter, in stark contrast to the dark granite sky, can be heard across the hillside at the John Muir Trust’s Glenlude property in the Scottish Borders. The constant drizzle isn’t dampening the spirits or work rate of the 30 tree planters from ‘Recovery Through Nature’, a UK-wide initiative by charity Phoenix Futures that connects people with nature to aid their recovery from drug and or alcohol problems.

It’s the fifth year a group has come together at Glenlude to plant a native tree for every person that has successfully completed the recovery programme in Scotland in the preceding year. There are 189 saplings going into the ground today, taking the total on this patch of land to 600. The result of conversations betweenJohn Deeney of Phoenix Futures and Karen Purvis of the John Muir Trust: their idea has quite literally grown into ‘the Phoenix Forest’.

John has been with Phoenix Futures since 2004 and is currently the team leader of the Recovery Though Nature programme in Scotland. He’s obviously proud of the project and what it is achieving, but he’s keen that I talk to others rather than him - shouting down the hillside to locate those he’d like me to speak to.

David Brockett, Service Manager at Phoenix Futures Theraputic Community has travelled across with a group from Possil in Glasgow. He’s currently working with 12 individuals who take part in the project every Thursday as part of a six month drug and alcohol misuse programme. Those involved can have any variety of dependencies on drugs including heroin, crack or amphetamines. Many have also been involved in crime as a result.

“People who take part in this project engage better with our wider work,” he says. “There’s a sense of purpose that leads to a higher level of involvement. What’s fantastic is that we’ve brought two bus loads today and most of those filling the seats were at risk of losing their families, their freedom or their lives just three months ago.” He tells me he knows it’s a cliché, but the work with conservation organisations including the John Muir Trust really is about growth. Phoenix Futures has evidence to back this up – since it was introduced Recovery through Nature creates a 77 per cent increase in people successfully completing their treatment programme.

Alan, Scot and Shaun have all been with the Recovery Through Nature project for about seven weeks. Scot wants to know that I can see him okay before we start chatting – he’s been kitted out in camouflaged waterproof trousers and jacket by the Trust’s land team.

“I’ll get a good sleep tonight” says Alan before adding, ”that’s a big thing for me, all this good exercise means my brain won’t be going crazy through the night like it often is.” He continues, “Today’s the first time I’ve had an empty head for ages. Not thinking too much, being outside and being active. It’s taken me back to my roots. I used to do things like this when I was a kid.”

Scot explains that the three of them are on a “residential” – a service that Phoenix Futures describes on its website as a ‘therapeutic detox before offering three month and six month placements… helping each resident to acquire the tools needed to live a substance free life.’

“Coming out here planting trees gets us out of an intense environment,” Scot says, “It feels good. It’s funny because people dread coming out, but once they’re here they love it.”

Shaun, nods his head and says “there’s a motto at Phoenix ‘Act as if’, meaning we need to motivate ourselves to act as if we want to get involved, because when we do, we enjoy it.

"This is also Shaun’s second time doing a John Muir Award. I ask him if that’s important? “It’s a big deal,” he assures me, “it’s hard work, but you earn it as part of a group and you get recognised for it with a certificate - which is good and helps when looking for work.”

His views echo those of almost everyone I talk to through the afternoon. Common themes include the importance of being part of a group, of working towards something bigger than yourself, of supporting others and in having that work recognised by getting their John Muir Award: a first for many of them and a big confidence booster.

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Lyndsey Hague, Head of Operations, Scotland at Phoenix Futures is mucking in nearby with the tree planting. She has brought her young collie who is adding to the energy on the slopes by dashing from tree planter to tree planter excitedly. “Today is a celebration” she says, “we’ve got several Glasgow groups here as well as our newest group from Fife. We see time and again that taking part in activities like this leads to a dramatic improvement in a lot of the people we work with.”

With the final tree in the ground the group starts the walk back towards the Trust’s wood cabin in search of some heat and a cup of tea. I take the opportunity to catch up with John Deeney one last time. He tells me that the partnership between the John Muir Trust and Phoenix Futures has been in place for 11 years with groups coming to the site several times a year to volunteer. “The relationship has always been good,” he says, “but now that we’ve established the Phoenix Forest, it’s 10 times stronger.”

In talking with him I’m struck by how powerful a partnership this really is. The Phoenix Forest isn’t just 600 trees helping the Trust’s rewilding work, it’s also part of a broader connection and message that is being planted among all those who have dug a hole or bashed a stake - that by helping nature to take care of itself, we help our own health and well-being.

Back in the cabin, the wood burner heats the space quickly. Shaun produces a guitar. It turns out he’s a talented musician and after a couple of songs the atmosphere that has been created is brilliant. I am amazed at how positive and friendly everyone is following several hours of hard work in the rain. But I shouldn’t be. Heading home I reflect on something else that many of us already know: being active in a wild place is good for you and it’s in these special places that many of us connect with those who support us in life - whatever our own challenges might be.

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