Last week Rach headed East to Thetford Forest to photograph the TrashMob Academy.
A heady mist hangs over pine and beech in Thetford Forest. It brings the message that autumn is here, and with it comes a changeable, humid mood that clings to the morning like sleep clings to my eyes.
Rich and I are at High Lodge in Thetford Forest, here to deliver the TrashMob Academy programme to several school groups. This is the first time I’ve been able to join an on-the-ground Academy. After my early morning drive to reach the forest, I’m glad to be here to observe and photograph, leaving the facilitation to Rich and Jake, the Active Forest Coordinator at High Lodge.
There’s something quite magical about seeing kids when they first enter a woodland. The way they reach for things, twigs and leaves and moss. The way they wait to be told off, only to find in the woods the rules change, and we all become curious.
We gather the first group together to begin. I shake my head to try and clear the internal fog, only to realise I’ve caught a child’s attention. She’s wrapped in a pink puffa coat and wellies, her hair radiating out about her face. She stares at me with that blank curiosity most kids unashamedly carry as she tries to figure me out. I stare back at her, in all honesty to do the same. The teacher next to her nudges her shoulder to pay attention, and she eventually rolls her eyes and turns away.
Jake opens with a question: “what’s something we might find in the forest that doesn’t really belong here?” Hands shoot up, the bold shout out their answers. The girl in the pink puffa stays silent, subdued. These are no novices when it comes to environmental responsibility. One student explains eloquently the impact of single-use pollution on wildlife. It never fails to surprise me; how much they know that we didn’t when we were their age.
Before long Rich has them up on their feet. We’ve married TrashMob Academy content with Forestry England’s newest activity, ‘disk golf’. Armed with frisbees and litter pickers, students head off on a nine-hole course through the woods.
Many are enthralled with their picker. The bracken curls in shades of amber around their bare legs as they disappear into the ghostly mist, only to re-emerge moments later champions, a piece of discarded rubbish held in their claw.
It’s hard not to be nervous when you tell a group of kids they’re doing a litter pick, but most take to it with glee. The girl in the puffa spends the first twenty minutes glaring at Rich, but he’s patient. He never chides her, doesn’t utter a word of disobedience. She slowly softens at his encouragement, at the space he makes for her. I find their group around the eighth hole, and she’s admiring some mushrooms growing off a fallen tree. She chatters away about her love for the fungi. I tell her she can get a book to identify them, and then she could pick some to take home. She grins, says she’d like that a lot, then charges off into the treeline to find more rubbish.
The TrashMob Academy remains a point of discovery for me as a new employee at TFT. At High Lodge I experience how remarkably simple it is. The programme is educational, but also acts as a container for the abundant experience that can only be found in wilder places. It’s not merely a programme to encourage environmental stewardship; it provides a space for connection for these young people. Connection to nature, yes, but to more than that too. To their own sense of wonder, thrill, peace - to who they are, and who they’re becoming.
The girl in the pink puffa wraps Rich in a bearhug before they leave. I wander into the forest while we wait for the next group, the cold pressing deeper into my cheeks. I find something for myself in the trees before the sound of the next group peaks my ears - all chatter and small laughs. There’s a smile on my face as I turn back to find them.
Special thank you to the Forestry England and Go Ape teams at High Lodge.
Images and words by Rach, Digital Community Activator