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Hal Rhoades: People And Places Across Time


Launched in the summer of 2019 on a 2,000 acre estate in the Brecon Beacons, Wales, the Penpont Project is the largest intergenerational nature restoration project of its kind anywhere in the world. It has brought young people, farmers, foresters, landowners and others together to restore nature and culture in this special place.

Amongst nature restoration and rewilding projects, we have taken an a-typical approach to starting the generational work of bringing Penpont back to health.

At the heart of this approach is the recognition that, as poet Gary Snyder wrote: “The wild is not about pristine landscapes. Instead, it’s about landscapes that are rich and diverse enough to be interesting for everybody, human and non-human alike.”

Photo: Project partners walk the site.

Here’s what we have learnt along the way:

Get to know the place where you’re working

A place (from the Greek plateia hodos, meaning ‘broad way’) is a living community, formed of multitudes of human and non-human beings and the interactions between them.

No two places are the same. The nature of the places we choose to work in will, and should, shape the outcomes of our work. As with all good stories, it’s important to start by setting the scene. The Penpont Project was no different. From the very beginning it was vital for the partners to understand, from multiple perspectives, the place and wider context the project is happening in. 

At Penpont, we have conducted ecological surveys to better understand the land and waterscapes and their current condition. We have interviewed knowledge-holders, including artists, educators, farmers and foresters, to understand their first-hand experiences on the land. We have spoken to local historians to understand how the landscape has changed over time. By studying place names, we have also delved into the deeper past to understand how earlier peoples saw, passed through and used this landscape.

Photo: Youth Leadership Group member Lily talks with estate owner Gavin.

Bring people together, listen carefully & co-create

Human communities are as much a part of any place as the trees, buildings, birds and plants. In fact, people become members of a community partly because they share a place- a place they are often deeply attached to.

Rather than seeing the people who call Penpont home as beneficiaries of nature’s recovery, we decided from the start that, as a community of farmers, foresters, young people, landowners and charity workers who will change as the land changes, we are leading this project together.

Photo: Youth Leadership Group members left to right, Tessa, Deep, Dom, Khadijah, Hana, Connor.

By meeting regularly, listening carefully to one another and using eco-cultural mapping techniques developed by Indigenous communities, we have co-created a shared vision for Penpont’s future. Penpont’s Youth Leadership Group has named the guiding ethic of this approach: nothing about us, without us.

Good things take time

The means is the end in the making. Short-term, self-interested decision-making by people who are insulated from the consequences of their decisions by age, power and wealth, is driving the multiple ecological, climatic and social crises we face today. Nature recovery projects like Penpont, which seek to not only stop the damage, but to begin to undo it, must embody different ways of doing things.

Photo: The Penpont Project Partners including Action for Conservation staff, Youth Leadership Group members, estate owners Gavin and Vina Hogg and tenant farmers Gareth and Sally Davies.

Getting to know a place and co-creating a vision as part of a community takes time. There will be differences of opinion to be worked through. New discoveries to explore together. Changes of direction to grapple with. Even in a moment of acute crisis, it is worth taking the time to do these things properly.

By spending the time required to better understand the deep ‘biocultural’ diversity of Penpont, we have begun to be able to think in ‘land time’, to think, plan and act with this place. This has enabled us to take a long term view and build the bonds required to work together for a wilder, more abundant Penpont – a place rich and diverse enough to be interesting for everybody, always.

Hal Rhoades works with Action for Conservation as the Land-based Projects & Policy Lead. If you would like to learn more about Action for Conservation’s work, please visit: www.actionforconservation.org or follow them @Action4Conserv on Instagram and Twitter.

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