Living life not knowing what’s over the horizon

Green Woodworker, Woodland Manager and Natural Builder

Setting off in my car to meet Harry, I’m excited. Not only has Harry become a friend (we’ve worked together on a couple of MAKE courses at Edventure together and he likes hobnobs as much as me) it also means I get to spend time in nature, normal for him but for me, an occasional treat.

I get lost a couple of times on the way, but it’s a sunny day and I’m surrounded by greenery. Finally I find his new workshop – just off the A420 but with 360-degree views across fields and farmland, an old stone barn that could use a new roof. I meet Paddy the dog and Harry quickly gathers and lights a fire to make coffee. Well, that’s a new one for me but of course it’s what you do when you’re off grid. I feel apologetic for bringing coffee from Asda rather than home grown, hand roasted coffee beans, and arriving by car rather than on horseback, but Harry smiles and assures me that although he’s passionate about sustainability, he’s not perfect either.

I quickly grab my notebook and pen and sit down by the fire as I realize the interview has already started. So what was Harry’s first work experience? “I had a Saturday job in a cheese shop. I don’t know why they employed me – I turned up regularly with a hangover and threw up (as the smell of cheese hit me in the morning) but I loved it. I loved learning about different cheeses and small scale cheese-making. Looking back, it was one of my first introductions to artisanal, handmade products.”

I laugh. It’s stories like these that I love, and one of the reasons I started this blog – you don’t find stuff like this in careers books!

“I went to 10 festivals the summer after A levels, to celebrate leaving school. I ended up a bit bedraggled, and a family friend who’s an educational therapist came to the house for dinner. I was delivering the yellow pages at the time and she said, “Why don’t you come and volunteer at my special needs school?” I did two shifts and they offered me work as sick cover for the TAs.

“I was 18, still a child really. I charged around the playground with the kids, and they helped me as much as I helped them… thanks to them I realised there was more to life than hallucinogenic drugs!”

For Harry, like many others, school life had been more of a distraction than a route to his future work life. Given the choice, he’d have chosen to do nothing other than play rugby, chat about history and do some cooking. Which sounds like quite a healthy mix, I suggest.

Harry dropped out of Uni after a year and instead, self-funded two apprenticeships on a shoestring budget. This interests me – my maternal grandfather Tom was a joiner who loved his work, and I know he did several years of apprenticeship to learn his trade in the 1920s, so I ask Harry, was his experience like those ‘real’ apprenticeships used to be?

“It depends what you mean by real – I didn’t get a piece of paper at the end of it! I learned a lot from being around people with a lot of wood working experience, just sitting having tea and listening to them talk…”

We get a bit philosophical about ‘happiness’ at work. I knew when I picked the name for the blog it was a tricky one… that I was at risk of sounding cheesy and flippant. Harry puts it simply: “Being content is not a thing.”

“But if it’s not about being content, what is it then?” I ask.
“I don’t know what the word is… but it’s not about plodding on. A tree doesn’t stop growing. It’s living life not knowing what’s over the horizon but saying ‘let’s find out.’ It’s progression.”

Photo by Fredrick Suwandi

We talk about ‘flow’ and how it’s something Harry experiences on a weekly basis. “I often forget to eat and drink, especially when I’m learning new skills or teaching others. I can almost do this (he’s whittling a butter spreader) on autopilot, but turning bowls and making furniture is more exciting to me at the moment.”

Harry’s work days vary through the seasons, combining his green woodworking, forest work, building and teaching, and clearly he likes the balance. Although he finds the forestry work laborious and rather too solitary, he’s motivated by the idea of having wood to work with that comes from sustainably managed woodland.

It’s healthy not to be constantly in ‘flow’ and at work though. We agree that it’s important for the unconscious development of ideas, and that although routine work like batch production of spatulas and butter spreaders gets boring eventually, even that is sometimes ideal. Harry typically works eight hours a day, but is relaxed as to when the workday starts and ends. Time off is important, even if it sometimes overlaps with work, and it includes being with friends, finding new paths with his dog, wild swimming, making foraged chutney and booze, reading by the fire in winter, and singing.

Clearly Harry cares a lot about sustainability. It was inculcated at an early age he suggests, going to festivals and protests with his parents. We chat a bit about the state of the world and the need for a post industrial revolution towards sustainable sources of energy. “Hunter gatherers lived a shorter but healthier life,” Harry muses. Still, he’s a pragmatist not a purist, and admits to the ‘guilty pleasure’ of Instagram, Netflix and Spotify and the joy of connecting with woodworkers in Japan, America and Africa thanks to technology.

Working with people is also important to Harry. His early work experiences in special needs schools clearly weren’t accidental. He enjoys being part of a team and I’ve observed him to be a patient and empowering tutor who believes in the importance of inclusion – rather than segregating students with special needs, integrate them and everyone will benefit.

I admire Harry’s pragmatism, practicality and honesty, and his philosophy as a green woodworker – in his own words: “Understanding the wood, knowing it from sapling to chair, not imposing your will on it.” I’m reluctant to leave, but I’ve taken over an hour of his time already and I know he needs to get back to work. So it’s back to ‘civilization’ for me, with a nagging sense that there’s something about this off grid lifestyle that we all need more of in our lives.

Reflection questions:

Was school a positive experience for you or more of a distraction? If you could design your own curriculum – what would it look like?

What is your experience of ‘apprenticeship’, whether formal or informal? If you haven’t had one, do you imagine it could be valuable?

Are there mundane aspects of your work that you find rewarding because of the outcome rather than any intrinsic pleasure?

If you, like Harry, have found happiness at work, I would love to hear from you and interview you for the blog. Or, if you’re fresh out of school or uni and wondering what to do next, perhaps I can help? I am a bit of a geek when it comes to researching happiness at work. I trained as a solution focused coach and help people learn to ‘futuresurf’ – navigate the waves and find ‘flow’ through meaningful work.

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