8 Mar 2022

Inspiring Spaces: volunteering to bring nature to the Health Board

Keith Davies

My name is Keith Davies and I’m a Biophilic Volunteer. Hmm, that sounds a bit like the introduction to Alcoholics Anonymous (or so I’ve been told) and I guess that I would have to admit that I am a bit of an addict—not so much to alcohol but to the aims and philosophy of Biophilic Wales, under the current project run by Kathryn Thomas.

What does Biophilic mean to me as a volunteer?

Being in the great outdoors — for many years of “working” I sat behind a desk or the wheel of the car and I didn’t realise just how much I was missing. Getting my hands dirty whilst developing “potential” to whatever environment we are trying to enhance.

Physical exercise — to help keep the muscles in working order.

Mental exercise — being challenged and stimulated by the task and to help keep the brain in working order.

Planting the Future — It’s like seeing the start of the end result, it’s when you can only imagine the raft of wild flowers, the blossom on the trees, the fresh spring bulbs poking through the soil.

Sharing time with like-minded people with whom you form a team and new friendships.

Feeling pleasantly tired from your exertions of the day when you get home — a feeling of satisfaction, of a job well done, and I know it’s a bit of a cliché, being able to “give something back”.

The idea of creating spaces which can be used by stressed out staff, or patients, or visitors to patients, as quiet havens — away from the hubbub of illness and raw emotions — just has to be up there as a fantastic thing to do.

And if, in addition to the quiet haven, there happens to be an attraction to bees and butterflies and other wildlife, then that would be a bit of a double whammy, in my humble opinion! Above all, it’s a fun thing to be involved in. in spite of it’s underlying seriousness. And have I mentioned the cake?

In reality, I joined Biophilic Wales even before Kathryn had actually started work on the project because we had both been involved with her previous employer, The National Trust, on Gower—her as an employee and me as — yep, you’ve guessed it — a volunteer. It was easy for me to try to support her in her new venture, in spite of not knowing the full extent of exactly what was involved or required — what can I say about that— well I was young and a bit naive…

So, 2 years ago, January 2020 to be exact, was our proper introduction which happened at the National Botanic Garden. There were four of us volunteers who were prepared to sign our life away to a project which was due to run for 3 years (from the previous March!). The four of us decided that Tuesdays suited us all and therefore Tuesdays became Biophilic days—unless holidays or ill health got in the way.

For the first few weeks we were doing bits of work around the Botanic Garden whilst Kathryn went about organising the troops, getting hold of the raw materials and tools and planning the priorities. During this time we obviously were learning what was expected of us and I have to admit that I think I gave Kathryn a bit of a hard time. Why were we doing the job of gardeners already employed on Health Board Sites? And why was all the funding coming Biophilic’s way not going directly to the NHS?

If wild flowers and restful areas around Health Board sites were considered to be so important, why employ new people to carry out these plans?  It sounded to me that the wheel was trying to be re-invented — but as I’ve already admitted — I was young and a bit naive.

In reality, we were able to bring new eyes, new perspectives and new skills and — more importantly — new funding, which was not taking anything away from the Health Board’s important NHS work.

Of course all this was pre-Covid, which hit us in the March, I think it was. I was incensed as I was the only one of our little group over 70 years of age and to be told to go home and stay there —by the Government— felt somewhat personal. But then the first full lockdown happened and scuppered our plans for quite a while.

I had yet to understand the need for wildflowers and restful areas, etc. in and around the Health Board sites.

But, as the pandemic spread like wildfire and we all saw pictures of stressed out medical staff, it slowly dawned on me exactly why such a project was absolutely necessary.  If there are spaces that can fairly easily be enhanced, that exist but are under-utilised at the moment, that can provide a quiet oasis away from the stress, then that has just got to be a better use of that space.

Think of all the many little courtyards within Morriston Hospital that are pretty much inaccessible and have just become collectors of litter, rubbish and weeds. They could be little oasis of calm with a bit of TLC.

Think of the courtyard at Gorseinon Hospital which is well on its way to being a very pleasant and useable space—along with loads of fruit trees and a new hedge around the perimeter which will soften the metal fencing.

The mental health of those stressed staff just had to be addressed and I sincerely hope that we have gone a little way to alleviating some of this problem.

Of course, whilst the Biophilic Wales team is busy trying to create nice areas around the various sites the chances are fairly slim that we will actually get to reap the benefit of our handiwork or even see what has grown from our planting and our muddied hands and aching backs.  Why — because we’re too busy re-creating old spaces — our reason for being.

So, in summary, I hope that I’ve been able to outline the sense of enthusiasm that I and my fellow volunteers bring to the project and hope that it will continue for many years to come.

See highlights of the Biophilic Wales project, currently in the Oriel yr Ardd