Arboreal Oxygen Masks: Taking breath in the woods

Katie Slee goes into the wild

Our short time on the Year Here programme is turbo-charged. We complete a frontline placement, develop our own social enterprises and take up countless opportunities for personal development. I’ve worked frontline in a homeless hostel, started a charity and acted as a consultant for Camden Council.

One of the more unusual opportunities offered was to head into the woods for a few days with the guys at Wild Camp. The camp at Hazel Hill was to be a space to explore ideas with a group of people a few steps further along their paths to create change. An opportunity to escape the city, we would also be free and safe to ask questions, share and experiment.

For us fellows, Wild Camp came at a particularly intense time. We were three quarters of the way through our social venture incubator, with another 2 weeks to go before we pitched to a live audience to secure funding for our fledgling enterprises. The time to develop our projects felt so precious that the idea of taking three days off to go camping seemed, to me, pretty capricious. However cagey I was feeling about time off, it was too late to back out. As far as I knew, a group of busy and important people were already making their way to the woods to meet us.


Out of all that worry, my time in the woods was a revelation. Most of what we did was very simple. We took time to introduce ourselves and explore the beautiful woods. We made and ate meals together, played games and slept out. We spent time in ‘sit spots’ – sitting for half an hour alone in the woods, paying attention to what we could see, hear, smell and feel. Simply registering things in nature – the feathered lime of a fern or some slug slime on a tree trunk – felt like an act of meditation.

We also divided into smaller learning groups to explore some particular questions together. The ‘business people’ were not out of touch CEOs as I’d thought, but really thoughtful and humble people, interested in creativity, sustainability or already running their own start ups.

Of everything we covered in those few short days, a few thoughts stay with me in particular.

Often life in London is task-oriented. Time and resources are under pressure so we learn to behave with great efficiency. At work, we bring people together by holding meetings. We make agreements and choose the right direction to move in order to achieve goals. Outside of the office, we navigate between a series of destinations. We scurry home to our private lives to rest.

Growing up, I’ve repeatedly heard people talk about ‘putting on your oxygen mask before helping someone else’. In the city, this is the epitome of individualism; make safe your own lot before looking to help your neighbours. Yet, I believe in the context of the social sector, this takes on a more nuanced and urgent sense.

It might sound obvious, but if your job is to work with vulnerable people, it’s important to do that job brilliantly. If you’re working with people who are used to being overlooked or let down, paying attention and following through can mean the world. Witnessing hardship can be a burden in itself, so it becomes critical to look after yourself and find ways to be present and resourceful in your role.

With all the stress and pressure of the incubator, going on Wild Camp helped me to come back into the moment. Being in the woods was like taking breath from a clan of ancient arboreal oxygen masks.