July 28, 2014

Although I come from a very rural part of America, and was very excited to be immersed in the bustling cities of London and Oxford during my study abroad experience, I knew that I would not feel completely happy in England unless I was connected to nature in some way. It was because of this feeling that I decided to engage in the Environmental Exploration CLC activity. Since the beginning of the year, I have dedicated myself to a number of activities that have allowed me to learn about and explore the natural beauty of my host country. Such activities include full time work on an organic farm in the small village of Llwyndafydd, Wales; while there, I made several day-trips, including one to the Bristol Museum where I learned much about the history of the British landscape. Upon returning to Oxford for Trinity term, I began to volunteer at the Oxford Botanic Gardens once a week, where I was able to learn much about botany and gardening. I have also attended environmental-themed lectures while here at university, ranging in topic from global warming to British conservation issues. Yet my frequent long walks through the Christ Church meadows and my daily rowing practices on the Isis have also supplied me with equally memorable experiences in the British outdoors. In this way, I feel that I have very much fulfilled my hopes to connect with the naturalness of England (and keep myself out of the library for at least some of my time abroad).

As Hilary Term at Oxford came to a close, and six weeks of break stared me in the face, I had very little idea about what I was going to do with my time off. Funds were short, so going home was not an option. Many of my friends were travelling to distant countries over break, only to live in a series of uncomfortable and cramped hostels; in short, I wasn’t won over. So when my advisor mentioned WWOOFing to me in passing during my last week of term, I immediately signed up for the program and found a host family on the western coast of Wales looking for someone to help on their organic farm for a few weeks. By mid-March I was already settled into the little farmhouse. I can honestly say that my six weeks at Troed-y-Rhiw farm were some of the best I spent abroad. I had transformed from a student visitor to Britain who lived in a dormitory and ate cafeteria food every day to a working member of this family. I helped prepare meals, clean the house, watch the little ones (two chaotic daughters); I also watched the football games with them, went grocery shopping, and even picked up a little Welsh. In short, I felt less like a tourist and more like a member of a community and family with each passing day.

The best part of living in Wales, however, was the work I was doing. Every day I worked outside for six or seven hours. After being stuck in countless libraries, offices, and dorm rooms at Oxford all winter, it was very refreshing to be outdoors for so much of my time. I learned more than I can remember every day about agriculture, organics, and general “farming philosophy” as my hosts used to call it. Every day in Wales, nature was inexplicably tied to everything I did. Each evening we would pick salad from the polytunnels to be used for dinner. Every afternoon I took the family dog, Bean, for a walk down to the Welsh coast (a mile stretch of rolling hills and sheep-filled pastures, gradually leading to a small sandy cove amongst towering sea cliffs). Even my free time was filled with a deep connection to the land. When it was too cold and dark to go outside at night in the first weeks, my job was tending the fire (from logs I split during the day) between verses in Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. When the weather improved, I went for long runs and jaunts throughout the village, the most memorable being a 9-mile run to New Quay and back in which I was caught in a small storm that blew in off the ocean. Yet even then, I remember enjoying every minute of the time I spent outside and in the vast nature of western Wales. And now, only two months later, my time in Wales seems dream-like. Yet I believe that shifting from the several black-tie events and countless hours in the library at Oxford to the dirty, sweaty, outdoor work in Wales was what has made my time abroad feel so comprehensive, truly life-changing, and multi-layered.

It wasn’t until I returned to Oxford from my time in Wales that I began to realize how much practical knowledge I had taken from the experience. While I worked, I was simply having fun and enjoying the Welsh country-side and way of life. Yet as I reflected on the experience, I began to notice how many new skills I had obtained during my time at Troed-y-Rhiw. I left the farm knowing how to sow a variety of seeds, how to plant seedlings, how to harvest dozens of vegetables and flowers, how to cook a large array of delicious meals, how to drive an industrial-sized tractor, how to play a few (easy) songs on the piano, how rugby is played, and even a little bit of the native language. In short, I left Wales not only as a more marketable student in the field of ecology, but a much more knowledgeable person in general.

One of my favorite aspects of living in Wales was the frequent excursions I would go on with my host family. Almost every weekend we would leave the farm for a day trip to Carmarthen, Cardiff, and other cities. During one trip we went to Bristol and I spent most of my time in the Bristol Museum, which included a large number of exhibits dedicated to the natural history, geology, and maritime history of Britain. This proved to be a great learning experience of not only Britain’s changing ecological systems and structures over time, but the way in which it helped to shape the early and modern lifestyles of the people that live here. Strangely enough, I feel that my entire interaction with the British landscape has affected me in this two-fold way. It seems that the more I learn about the environment here, the more I learn about the country and its people.

Some of the most eye-opening experiences at the Bristol Museum were the exhibits on dinosaurs, giant ancient sharks, and the like. As a visitor to England whose conception of the country is founded upon the majestic pomp of royalty, the fine arts of Shakespeare, and the intellectualism of Oxbridge, it is surprising to see how much “other” history England has—especially prehistoric. Even beyond the environmental exhibits, the Bristol Museum offered many parts of English history and lifestyle that seem to commonly escape the minds of tourists and visitors. In this way, learning about different aspects of the country—such as its natural history and geological make-up—is one of the reasons I feel much more connected to England, and Oxford in particular.

When I returned to Oxford in late April for Trinity Term, I knew that being away from the farm and not spending so much time outside would be difficult for me. To help allay the problem of such a sharp transition (I had gone from growing, picking, washing, and preparing my own organic food in Wales to being served exquisite and elaborate meals at formal dinners in Oxford), I began volunteering at the Botanic Garden, a large tract of land dedicated to botany and ecology not too far from my dormitory. Once a week I spent three or four hours at the gardens with a handful of other volunteers. Our duties included weeding, moving brush and other debris, tending to plants, and moving potted plants. Most of the time, however, we were called to “eradicate a pernicious weed (Nothoscordum borbonicum)” (we called it NB for short) that was plaguing much of the area owned by the Botanic Gardens and even threatened to force Mary, the caretaker, to consider closing the gardens down for the season (something that hasn’t been done since they opened several decades ago).

Yet while removing a grass-like weed by hand for several hours a week seems less than attractive and not really a candidate for true learning experience, my time at the gardens were some of my most educational at Oxford. Just being around such a wide variety of plant-life and people passionate about botany made me a much more rounded environmentalist. In Wales, I learned much—not only about the hands-on aspects of agriculture, but what I called the farming philosophy. In the same way, I not only learned the “proper” (usually Latin) names of lemon trees and cactuses, but also the mindset with which a botanist approaches the environment. It was very interesting to compare the very economic, food-centered philosophy of the farmer as compared to the academic, plant-and-flower-centered perspective of the botanist. And while both care much about the environment and imagine a greener future in England and the world, it was interesting to note the differences and conflicts that exist even within groups that seem to have a similar goal.

One reason that I enjoyed working at the Botanic Gardens—other than the ability to stay connected with nature even in a bustling university town—was the simple human interaction that I had there. Attending Oxford University gives one a strange perspective of the city, since anyone who doesn’t attend seems to be filtered through one’s sight. Perhaps this strange phenomenon is due to my experience of life in America, in which the university campus is set aside from the town it is in and is therefore filled only with students. Either way, working at the gardens opened my eyes to yet more natural beauty of England, but also allowed me to re-imagine my place in the community of Oxford. Because I was one of only a few students that participated in the volunteer program, I found myself surrounded by a distinctly different crowd of English citizens. There was a pair of elderly women, a working-class man and his brother, as well as a few retired professors and other locals. And while I felt connected to nature during my time at the Botanic Gardens, I also felt—due to this more eclectic mix of people—more connected to the English community as well. I was able to talk to people from a range of backgrounds and people who have lived in England for forty or fifty years. This alone provided me with a very different experience of the country and a new perspective. Before then, I didn’t realize how homogenous my interactions had been with the British: when I wasn’t talking to British students, I was usually talking to British professors. I didn’t notice until I worked at the gardens how narrow my view of English life had been.

During Trinity Term, during my work at the gardens, I was also attending weekly lectures on ecology and modern environmental ethics. In my first lecture, I learned more about the history of British ecology, human interaction with the land, and modern conservation techniques. This was especially interesting considering my similar studies at home. Not only did this lecture highlight the great differences in America’s different environmental issues as compared with Britain, but also the techniques that are used to solve them. Even small things, such as acid rain (America became responsive to this after forests were destroyed while Britain became interested in the problem due to its effects on old stone buildings) underscored a difference not only in ecology, but in history, culture, and politics.

My other lecture, on environmental ethics, was similar in the way that it opened my eyes to a new perspective of problems that I have studied at my home university in the states. Because of the sheer size of America and because it does not have many neighboring countries like Britain does, many of the environmental concerns of England are disparate from those of America. Yet these seemingly small differences influence not only parts—but all—of the perspective that makes up British environmentalism. For example, while England can look at ecological problems and environmental policies at a national level fairly easily, and must consider their response to the environment in terms of their neighboring countries (since pollution and water laws will undoubtedly affect close-by nations), America must split up the country into many different sections to be dealt with separately. Also because of its size, American environmentalism typically looks inward (only) when considering responses and effects of policies, rather than possible effects on bordering nations.

Though the lectures I took were provided the least amount of direct interaction with the landscape of Britain, I felt that it was very helpful to me and also afforded me a much more balanced understanding of the country and its environment. As much as I loved working at the farm and working at the gardens, my time in the Bristol Museum and at lecture offered me some of the more academic knowledge of British environmentalism that I would not have learned with only a hands-on approach. In this way, my four major activities: working at the farm, volunteering at the gardens, visiting the Bristol Museum, and attending environmentally-themed lectures all coalesced into what I believe is a very robust and broad understanding of the natural landscape of my host country.

Yet while these major events marked a large part of my learning and engagement with the British environment, I also found myself constantly seeking the outdoors during my time abroad, especially in times of stress or homesickness. Because of this, I feel that my ties to England are much more than cultural and academic. I did not simply “visit,” but came and lived. Perhaps it is due to my character alone, but I feel that one cannot truly understand or appreciate a place until they have walked through its trees, stepped barefoot upon its ground, and experienced the changing of its seasons. So while I am very glad that I was able to walk through busy London streets, study in the Bodleian Library, and attend formal dinners at Hertford College, I know I will remember much of my time here in terms of those intimate connections with physical places: watching the sun come up over the Isis on my way to an early rowing practice and running along the high sea cliffs of Wales.

There are innumerable things that I have learned and will take back with me from this past year abroad. I have found new friends, gained new knowledge, and have connected with my country and city of study in a very deep way. Yet I believe—because of my connection to the environment and natural history of England—that I am leaving with much more than some of my peers. I feel that my experience here at Oxford University gained an extra (and substantial) layer of meaning and purpose (not to mention fun!) and has made this entire year that much more special. As the last entry of my journal (kept in Wales) aptly summarizes: “After this visit, my eyes shall never again be amazed by the natural beauty of the world—which is just another way of saying: they shall never stop being amazed.”


Andrew Norkiewicz, Stonehill College Student, University of Oxford, Hertford College