We all need to get away from things from time to time. To recharge our batteries and to regain perspective on our often chaotic lives. And there is no better place to do this, science is now telling us, than in the outdoors. Where we can leave our troubles behind us and embrace the deeper rhythm of the natural world. Where we can take time to heal.
This is the premise behind Windsor Hill Wood, in Somerset, where Tobias Jones and his young family turned a house in the woods into an ‘extended household’ for those in need of a place to recover from whatever life has thrown at them.
A place of refuge is the story of the first five years of the Jones family’s venture. It explains their motivations for setting up this unusual community (yes, they are religious, but the author doesn’t go on about it) and tells the stories of the lost and injured souls who have joined them on this journey.
As an insight into the ups and downs of communal living, or into the problems faced by those who suffer from addiction or who have suffered physical or emotional injury or abuse, this book is excellent. But it is as a guide to what makes us ‘tick’ as human beings that it really comes into its own. And, as a bonus, it is delightfully written and tells a compelling story.
In reading this book, we learn – alongside the author and his family – that we humans are a deeply social species. That we need to interact with each other. That we draw strength from community. That we yearn to belong.
We also learn that living in a community is not easy. (As anyone who, like me, grew up with a large-ish number of siblings will already know.) Boundaries have to be set and routines have to be instilled. Jones and his family were initially reticent about setting rules for their extended family, though, but soon realised that everyone in their community actually became more relaxed when duties and rituals were established.
Some might feel that surrendering oneself to communal living in this fashion goes against the doctrine of individual freedom that many hold dear. And, to be honest, I started off as one of them. But Jones makes a compelling argument that acting solely in our own interests – “enslaved by our own urges and narrow ambitions” – is far from freedom. True freedom, he suggests, stems from seeing beyond our own desires and responding to the needs of others, too.
I started reading this book because I was interested in learning about a life lived in the outdoors. But it is, in fact, about so much more than that. It is about our need for a community in which to envelop ourselves. It is about the importance of humility and compassion. And it is a timely reminder that, as the author quotes, “there isn’t anyone you can’t learn to love once you’ve heard their story.”