Damien Pestell, from Be Your Business meets Luke from Project Rewild and finds out how he found his true nature.
I grew up in the 1980’s in the heart of the Sussex countryside. My early childhood memories were of carefree times with long summer days spent outside exploring and cosy winter nights curled up next to an open fire. The countryside was my childhood and I can vividly recall the feeling of complete wonder when lifting rocks in our back garden to unveil a microcosm of thriving life.
Later, I ventured beyond our garden into the local woods and played for hours on end with my friends – engineering camps or building fires to warm our hands and feed our hungry bellies. As I grew up, I spent less time outside, but I always had that foundation of nature, returning throughout my life for peace and connection when I needed it most.
Project Rewild is a local organisation which connects local people with the natural world and their own inner nature. I arranged to meet founder Luke Funnel in the woods where the project is based.
Churchwood is an oasis hidden in the heart of Hollington. As I crossed the pedestrian bridge into the woods, I sensed a change in the space around me as the dense cover of trees enveloped me, I wasn’t in Hastings anymore. I found Luke Funnel in a clearing in the woods and sat down to wait for him while he finished with a group of happy looking, rewilded children. I settled on a tree stump and slowly felt my body start to ease. Luke sat down on the tree stump next to mine and started to tell me his story.
Luke grew up in a council estate just a few hundred yards from where we sat and it was in these woods that he spent his childhood, in much the same way I spent mine.
“The childhood I had was wonderful and without knowing it, I built this relationship with the natural world – the smells, the feelings and the ability to light fires and make dens. My favourite memories were being outside and free, it was a wonderful time.”
Luke described an idyllic childhood where children were free to roam and communities gave a sense of belonging; he knew all his neighbours and was part of something. But as he grew older the innocence of childhood faded and life began to feel more strained, “It was a confusing time, I got lost in that pressure that society brings.” Luke described a point where he could have gone down a path that led to a bad place but fortunately at 17 he found work in a sports centre where one of his jobs was leading an under fives children’s group, “I was always drawn to working with children because it felt like I could be like a child – I particularly liked working with the naughty kids.”
Involving young people
He found that working with children helped him stay on the straight and narrow and he went on to train as a social worker and then a youth worker. “Luckily I have always worked with kids, which I am very grateful for because being with children has always given me that anchor to an essence of joy and fun that children have.”
Being with and around children helped Luke stay centred in himself, but he still encountered a persistent sense of longing. “I felt like I was always searching for something to fill this endless hole, but it only ever felt filled when I returned to nature, I realised that there was never actually a hole there, but I just had to accept who I was.” Luke did forest school training and began to realise he wanted to work with children in a more natural way. “The relationships you can build with young people in nature are so much more powerful than in environments like youth centres.”
Following his instincts Luke, built a career working outdoors, for various organisations including charities, forest
schools and outdoor experience companies. Things were going better, he was earning good money in the place he felt most at peace and at home he had started a family and had two young children, but he still needed to go deeper. He felt that what he was doing had just scratched the surface of what was possible, and the companies he was working for were limited in their outlook. The charities didn’t have the money to deliver quality programmes and the outdoor companies only catered for people who could afford it.
Change came shortly after, “I went off and did two years of nature connection training with Rob Fallon, a trained Shaman from Wild Nature which culminated in being dropped off in rural Scotland with nothing but a knife to survive for seven days. The power of it was to feel what it meant to be part of nature on a very deep level.” Luke found so much solace and peace through deepening his relationship with nature and himself. “I Discovered my own true wild nature. It changed my life and gave me a grounding that I never had before.”
Keeping it simple
Around this time, Luke’s children were growing up fast, and he saw first-hand how they were missing out on the simple things that helped him so much. “My son, who is eight, can’t go out and play because there is no one to play with. There are kids on our street, but they aren’t allowed to come out of their houses. The rise in structured clubs for kids in the last 20 years has been massive, but that’s not the same.” Luke saw that it isn’t just time in nature which is important, but time alone in nature that is vital for children’s development. It gives them the space to find their independence and connect with the outside world. He wanted to ensure opportunities for nature connection were available for his and other children and dreamt of starting a business that didn’t have the limitations of other organisations.
Project Rewild was born to get people outside in nature more, to reconnect children, families and communities with the natural world and it was set up to be accessible for everyone in the Hastings community. “A lot of our work is free and funded because I want to make it accessible for everyone.” Since 2018 Project Rewild has achieved much by creating a place for people to connect to nature and themselves. But that is only just part of it, it has also built a strong community place which is available to everyone.
“Some of the work is about teaching people about the natural world, but that is only one aspect, probably a more important side is the community part – Singing songs, telling stories, sharing food and drink together.” Luke has sought throughout his life to live honestly, using a strong sense of integrity to guide his decision making and live a life which feels natural to him. In doing so he has created a space that gives people the same crucial opportunities that he had, of connection to nature, to self and to community.
Through our time together I could see that if something didn’t sit right with Luke he simply couldn’t do it. While that may make the journey uncomfortable at times, I cannot help but admire his outlook. I left feeling that I had met a kindred spirit and it enhanced my intention to return to my roots as Luke has done. Living in a way that is connected to nature, ourselves and each other can only create a better world and help us all to be healthier, happier humans.
• Find out more at www.projectrewild.co.uk
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