Tag Archives: environment


28 Jan

Henk working

If you want to do something interesting in Life, you’ve got to pay your dues.

This is called experiential learning. I have huge respect for autodidacts (my Father), bodgers, make-do-and-menders, the makers of happy mistakes – in other words those humans with a pioneering spirit.

Too much formal education leads to closed minds in my experience.

Way back in January 2002 I went to see a specialist careers advisor-come-psychometric consultant in London seeking help for a new career direction.

I was asked to send in my curriculum vitae. At the appointment the first thing the consultant said to me was: “Looking at your resume I would say that there is a cyclical pattern occurring over about a three year period throughout your career. You seem to start a new job, be very productive for a while and then, sooner or later you torpedo everything and move on. I’d say you were probably manic depressive.”

I was a bit shocked to be honest.

“Funny you should say that” I said, ” but I have just been diagnosed with Manic Depression.”

I had recently been discharged from a Psychiatric Hospital with a prescription for Lithium carbonate, regular cognitive therapy and ….no bloody job. I was facing some hard decisions about how I was going to make a living. The psychiatrist had advised me that teaching (my erstwhile job) was the worst possible thing I could do – because of the particular pressures experienced by all the people in a school. A person with MD (Bipolar Disorder) is under constant emotional stress (because of the lack of an internal ‘governor’) and therefore finds it difficult to maintain psychological stability.

I had to accept teaching was off the menu.

“But I can’t do anything else!” I wailed to Clare, my wife, to which she responded:

“Don’t be so stupid, Henk! You can do anything you want with your brain you wally.”


Impressed by my wife’s pithy rebuke and the  insightfulness of the consultant I asked what job I might be suited to other than academia or teaching.

The careers consultant said “What do you really like?”

I rambled on about challenges, problem solving, team working, communicating and so on and so forth…

She said “This is not a job interview, what do you really like to do?” A tough question because I did not like anything about myself.

So I thought about it long and hard and said:

“I like being outside and I like making things with my hands”

“Well why don’t you think about environmental conservation? You’ll never make much money, but you will get a lot of job satisfaction. With your background knowledge of Natural History, your experience as a teacher and your woodworking skills you should fit right in”

So I did some research and found out that the only way to get into conservation work is by volunteering.

The way you pay your dues in Conservation is by giving your own time for no pay to learn the trade – it sorts out the committed from the merely curious. Since the majority of conservation jobs involve working with and managing enthusiastic volunteers you have to have been one to earn any credibility in this trade.

This made perfect sense to me, and after a little bit of searching I discovered a voluntary position with the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers (now TCV – The Conservation Volunteers) in Wirksworth, Derbyshire as a Biodiversity Officer.

I flogged my motorbike – a beautiful Honda VFR –

Honda VFR800 98 2

to learn about billhooks, biodiversity action plans, tool talks, brewing tea with a storm kettle, endless hacking away at rhododendron bushes, how to drive a mini bus, tow a trailer… and in return was able to contribute my carpentry skills to making and hanging gates, wooden bridges, styles, steps and all manner of access barriers – all in the glorious Derbyshire Peak District with a lovely team of young volunteers – project officers and TCV staff. Outdoors, working with my hands.

Fresh air and friendship. The best head juice I know.

Very slowly it began to dawn on me that I could be happy perhaps for the first time in decades.

The door that was opened in my mind by this Zen-like slap to my forehead has led ultimately to me returning to my boyhood passion, via a joyful 10 years as a countryside Ranger. Believe what everyone says, it is the best paid job in the world.

It is remarkable to me that, through great good fortune I now meet like minded souls who have payed their dues to the traditions and practises of a road less travelled.

“Two roads diverged in a wood and I – I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”   Robert Frost




29 Mar

I have never been very good at ‘goodbyes’, so it is not surprising that I sneaked away from the leaving do I had organised for myself, four other Ranger colleagues and three apprentices last night, whilst the party was in full swing.

For the first time in many years I witnessed almost the entire Sheffield Ranger Service, present and past, relaxing and having fun after a splendid meal at Shapla curry house, in the Devonshire Cat pub. They deserved it.

Sheffield City Council has experienced some of the worst funding cuts recently and for our modest service this has meant several years of restructuring, early retirements and more recently, voluntary redundancies – all under the guise of ‘Achieving Change’. A hideous metaphor for ‘watch your back’, ‘survival of the fittest’, ‘competition for jobs’ and other such works of the Devil.

My friends had gone to a great deal of trouble to construct some thoughtful leaving gifts – a Bonsai Tree for me – which sits proudly in my kitchen window (thank you Tom) as a reminder of the number of massive trees I have felled. As James put it “You’d probably get that one hung up too if you felled it Henk!”. Great words written in leaving cards like Nick’s comment about my ‘obstreperous sagacity’ – a polite way of saying I can be bolshy. Claire had brewed some wine made from the dandelions around the Ranger Base – I shall look forward to sampling this in my workshop – apparently it is rather ‘dry’ so it will cut French Polish rather nicely.

Handshakes from Matt, a volunteer I have gardened with “You really helped me with my confidence by introducing me to the Saw Mill project Henk”. From Bob, the allotments Ranger “Fair play Henk, I don’t know many people who could be as open as you’ve been about having experienced depression and Bipolar Disorder, and used it to their advantage. Whatever you do in the future I reckon you’ll succeed”.

Helen would say “Only Budgies Suck Seeds” and she had persuaded her ex to drive her in from Rotherham to attend the do (she’d broken her toe and her foot was in a cast)  way beyond the call of duty, but a gesture I greatly appreciate from a highly esteemed colleague.

Or Simon, my boss, saying “you know where to come for a cup of tea” in a big gruff bear-with-a-sore-head kind of way, hiding the big heart of a truly affectionate man. The same man, who ten years ago took about a week to suss me out after a meeting in which I had been a bit ‘hyper’ as we Bipolar types would say in the trade. “You were a bit giddy there” he said. Most people do not have his perspicacity.


And this person, my confidant, business partner, lover and heroin – my wife, Clare who accompanied me to the leaving do, making it feel less like losing something and more like eloping for a grand new adventure. This person made it possible for me to make the right choice, to become a countryside Ranger and work outside for 10 years with these wonderful people. She saved my bacon. For make no mistake, without her and without the Rangers of Sheffield I would not be the person I am now.

Bringing the Rangers together over a curry was my small gift to them. It is in the fervent hope that the damage done to this merry band, by the managerial policy of ‘achieving change’ will be put to one side and that they can under Ted Talbot, the Director of Woodlands’ leadership, once again become the highly respected guardians of green spaces they were when I joined. The woodlands, meadows, ponds, heathlands and parks are well served by this team.

So it is to The Rangers I say “Adieu” and not goodbye. My dear old Oma (dutch for Nan) always said “Adieu” because she could never really know when, or if, we would meet again.