Discovering new horizons on my home patch

The Covid-19 pandemic turned everyone’s lives upside down and made us all take stock of what really mattered. And for many of us, re-assessing our situation led to some surprise discoveries.

At the beginning of 2020, I was looking forward to finally being in a position to scale back my work commitments later in the year. For a long time, I’d dreamt of all the things I’d be free to do once the notion of having “leisure time” was no longer just a tantalising mirage.

PaulaBut the arrival of the coronavirus at first seemed to put my most cherished aspirations even more out of reach than ever. My workload as the editor of an academic website expanded exponentially, and far from being able to wind down, from March onwards I found myself working longer hours than ever before. I dealt with the Covid-related work stresses by getting out into nature as much as I could.

In September, my contract with the academic website came to an end and my own personal “Freedom Day” dawned. However, my much longed-for freedom was now hedged around with restrictions.

This was frustrating, but at the same time I was acutely aware that many other people were having to deal with even more fundamental existential issues. Those who had been living on the edge before the arrival of the coronavirus were now in an even worse position, and were struggling more than ever to feed themselves and their families.

When a friend told me about the Veg4Reading project set up by Food4Families (a Reading International Solidarity Centre programme) to help those who had been especially badly affected by the crisis, I realised that here was a way in which I could do something positive and make a difference.

Paula filmingVeg4Reading ticked all the right boxes: it meant a chance to spend more time outdoors, meet an old friend in a safe space, learn new skills and engage in a healthy and socially beneficial activity. It was also a way of becoming more immersed in local issues and making new friends. And on top of all that, the Whitley GrowAllot, where my friend was already volunteering, is only about 20 minutes’ walk from where I live.

I’d only been involved at the GrowAllot for a short time when someone mentioned a new visual storytelling project. This made me prick up my ears: storytelling had been my bread and butter during my decades as a journalist, but I’d always found that telling a story in words came much more naturally to me than relying mainly on images.

I wasn’t sure how easy it would be to switch to such a different approach, but there seemed no harm in giving it a try. I was learning lots of new things about growing vegetables and getting a good deal of satisfaction from my first tentative attempts at seed germination. Why not take that a stage further and learn how to bring the idea of community food growing to the attention of a wider audience, using both pictures and words? My sole reservation was that I’d just embarked on this journey of discovery and could only talk about what had brought me to the starting point.

The tutors and my fellow students soon set my mind at rest. They pointed out that we’re all on a similar journey and that the stage we’re at is less important than our desire to communicate the joy of discovery and our willingness to learn new ways to tell stories.

I’ve always believed that when fate slams a door in your face, the best way to respond is to devote yourself to something that might not have been your first choice, but which might have the potential to surprise you.

I’ve always been very curious about other people and what makes them tick, and this project has provided me with a perfect excuse to buttonhole other volunteers and tease out their stories.

And whether your aim is to place your own experiences on record or to find out more about what motivates your fellow gardeners, acquiring some visual storytelling skills is a good first step along that path.

View Paula's videos: One of Reading's Best Kept Secrets and How I Discovered Community Food Growing and all the videos on Vimeo