Visit to Wishtree

Visit to Wishtree Permaculture and Agroforestry Site, near Hatherleigh, Devon, June 19th 2018, by Wendy Stayte

Wishtree lies, hidden away, in the folds of fields and woods that make up this part of mid-Devon, Hatherleigh being the nearest small market town. Iain and Wenderlynn Bagnall, of Wishtree, have forged strong links with the community there through their teaching at the Pre-school centre, and involvement with the Incredible Edible movement (http://incredibleediblenetwork.org.uk/ ).

Awareness of the interconnectedness of all life is one of the foundations on which this young 5 acre project is growing, and every intervention, the cutting back of reeds that dominate the usually water-logged land, the creation of clearings in the dense plantation areas of young oaks, is done with sensitivity to its effects on the plants and animal living there, including themselves.

To me, visiting for the first time, with fellow Trustee of PFAF, Chris Marsh, who had been before with David Gearing,[1] what struck me most forcibly was the love and devotion of these stewards of this plot of land, the experimental attitude they hold to learning from the land itself, and from their own actions on it, and their own sensing of what the land needs and asks for.

We came at a time of unusual drought for this place, about 5 weeks without rain, so the ponds dug in many places were almost empty of water in their heavy clay basins, and sustaining the life of seedlings and young plants on a land dependent only on rain water and ground water had become a taxing task.

Acceptance of the challenges that changing weather patterns present, the challenge of competing needs of mice, birds, slugs and snails and humans for food, is a constant dance for these two as for all growers of food, and one undertaken here with apparent grace and good humour and tireless attention to detail.

As we walk around this lush green site in mid-summer, we see how much is used of what this site offers, without recourse to importing any materials from elsewhere eg. branches for making paths and small bridges, arches leading from one part to another, raised beds for growing vegetables, fences, mulch and compost. Human waste is composted for fertilising the land, lots of nitrogen-fixing plants have been added here and there, and, in both the wild and cultivated areas, abundance of life and growth met us on every side.

The naming of this site after the Wishtree that had been part of their marriage ceremony, holds within it the recognition of the mystery of life and growth, the acknowledgement of unseen forces at work of which we humans may only have inklings. I sensed that their recognition and appreciation of this was one of the sustaining underpinnings of this bold venture.

On a more earth-bound note, we were glad to hear from Iain and Wenderlynn that ‘outdoor learning’ is now an essential part of pre-school education, and that they are helping the local pre-school to meet this aim in ways that the children find enjoyable. We were also encouraged to hear that our current government, and local governments, are shifting their attitude to small growers being able to live on the sites that they cultivate. This is indeed a welcome and forward-thinking step in the move away from the destructive practices of large-scale agri-business to the more labour-intensive and nurturing practices of small permaculture and agroforestry sites such as this one. This encouraging news came from the ‘Land Workers’ Alliance (LWA) Planning for Smallholders’ meeting with the Conservative Rural Affairs Group on 6 February 2018 which Iain attended. The aim was for solid policy recommendations in the Tories’ draft of the 2018 Agriculture Bill. George Eustice was focused primarily on post-Brexit agricultural policy. The meeting aimed to demonstrate that new entrants into farming and forestry, many of whom are on smaller sites such as Wishtree, contribute a great deal to the economic and cultural resilience of rural economies.

Altogether, an inspiring and hopeful visit for me. Thank you, Ian and Wendelynn.

[1] See photo-essay from visit in October 2017: https://pfaf.org/plants/wishtree-agroforestry-permaculture-centre-pfaf-visit-4-october-2017/

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