Scarlett Penn, WWOOF UK Coordinator, and also one of our 680+ hosts, chats with one of her post-retirement WWOOFers
So then...would you like to introduce yourself?
Sure! I am Martin, I am 68 years old, living in Finland for most of my life but born in Germany. I retired from my job as a carpenter and carpentry teacher this summer.
How did you get into WWOOFing?
All my life I’ve been taking part in volunteering. I choose things which interest me, ecological things and enterprises that are not commercial. In 2004 I discovered WWOOF. Probably I found it online while looking for new volunteering opportunities, but I cannot remember exactly. The first time I went WWOOFing was in Fife, Scotland. It was the remarkable Monimail Tower Project. What interested me was to see how a community works and Monimail is part of the Diggers and Dreamers network of intentional communities. I’m more of a Digger and Thinker! Anyway, I’ve now been four times. It’s very interesting and a nice way to learn about people and the area I am in.
What do you like about volunteering your time?
When I make holidays I’m not the guy to be on the beach for three weeks burning and browning. Or to run from one castle to the next church, sightseeing. Although sometimes they’re interesting, it is not for me. I like WWOOFing because I’m doing something constructive. I know this is now a bit of a bad word for WWOOF, but I like it because it’s work. On other holidays I have to think ‘what shall I do’ and then report what I have done – I’ve seen the Eiffel Tower! I’ve done this, I’ve visited that! With WWOOF I get given tasks, so I don’t have to think about what to do and I like that. I am in interesting surroundings, I eat plenty of nice food, I cooperate with the ‘boss’, the person in charge, I get to know them very well and that’s usually nice. Then I can go home to my family and say ‘I got a new experience, this holiday I built a glass house’ and they can be impressed.
Martin with Scarlett's dad, Rob
On this exchange we are concentrating on a small building project, and you are very handy to have around for that. We especially benefited from your ability to fix broken tools and equipment. What other kinds of activities have you done as a WWOOFer?
Oh, all sorts. I am a cabinet maker so I often get asked to do some wood creation. At Monimail I built them a splendid rack for their plates, which is much admired by neighbours. Every time I go there is the joke they have the most famous dish shelf in the Kingdom of Fife! I have made a chicken house with the best view in the Mediterranean, I have done roofing, made doors, blinds for windows, created specialist shelves and miniature chairs for grandchildren. But also I have done bakery, ceramics, made ale, fixed bicycles and other farm items and of course, done gardening.
Besides Scotland and England, where have you done all this volunteering Martin?
Many places: Northern Sweden, Northern Spain, several times in France, Northern Italy, twice in Germany and then four months in Japan. I bought a bicycle and toured around to four or five hosts there.
And last week you cycled from your friend in Bath to here in Shropshire. How far was that? Did you enjoy it?
It was 100 miles, from Bath to Ludlow. A wonderful local lady offered me a lift up the steep hill as I neared the farm, but I declined. You see, I want to approach slowly the place where I go. You learn already about the place and what it is. The journey is very important to me. One time I woke up in a wonderful, beautiful place in Southern France but I had been collected from an airport and driven at high speed to my lodgings. I felt disorientated.
Martin and his bike
That’s not bad for a 68 year old! You’re obviously very fit and healthy. Have you ever had any discrimination or negative comments about your age?
I have never felt any bad reaction to my age as a volunteer. I can understand a surprised reaction that a guy of my age is coming, but it’s different to paid work. When you retire from paid work there’s a line; OK you reach this age, you must stop working, right now, finish! WWOOF is not like that. Of course a host might want to take age into account and wonder, is this guy fit enough for this or that, they might make sure we know our own boundaries and borders, and that we don’t overestimate our own physical ability. Sometimes we forget we are older you know! I can understand a host would want to guard against someone older having a heart problem for example, or falling down.
Are there advantages to being a more mature WWOOFer?
Yes. You have a kind of ‘power’ through your age, which younger people do not have. A confidence. I have also found my age can have a calming experience on a host, and sometimes between hosts and WWOOFers, should it be needed. I see it as an advantage. I don’t look to the clock – I do tasks and that’s it and hosts appreciate that because they are the same. It’s good for the body to be used, to keep going. Older people who keep going are fitter than much younger people who do not.
Was it easy to find a host in the UK?
I sent out five emails to hosts in the West Midlands and received no replies. I understand that hosts have a lot to do, I don’t blame anyone, but it made things very awkward for me as I needed to book a flight and it was all very uncertain. I sent out a further email and got a response from you here in Shropshire, thankfully. It would have been so helpful if there had been a response from the previous people, any response, even if very short or even a lie! But just to know.
What has been your favourite learning or experience while WWOOFing?
Noticing how much of a cultural thing eating is in places like Italy. And learning how food is grown and how much work has gone into it, at many levels. A young couple in Spain had bought an abandoned village near the border of Galicia. It was on a hill and they had the rights to the water in the valley so they could build a mill. Well from nearly on top of the hill there was a wonderful irrigation system, all the land was terraced, you could see how much work these people have been making for hundreds of years, all these little details, to produce food. Yet we abandon this huge amount of work of our ancestors because we can no longer go there with our tractor. I was in Northern Sweden and there was nothing more growing there than cows in pastures. I started to understand that a farmer gives freedom to the cows, they don’t have to fear the wolves. In the end the farmer calls one of these cows over and – bang – that is the end of you. Even though I am vegetarian I can accept that. But not 1000 cows fed by computers. Optimised systems that produce udders so big they need bras. Not natural.
Do you have anything else you’d like to share?
Host are a bit special people. They have an attitude of ecology. Money is a factor, but it’s not so important, like it is in normal society. To me it is very important a host does not depend upon WWOOFers, and I would not choose a big commercial farm. I like to volunteer and help, but if you want to make money from me then you have to pay me! Hahaha. The host gives a lot of themselves; the volunteer sees the whole family in the family home and setting, the pets, their hopes and dreams, it’s very nice that people open their home. I want the possibility to choose a host that fits with my ideology when I’m applying. Clear and honest host descriptions are very important, and it’s my responsibility to read them carefully. I went to a place advertised as a community in France but there was only one communard left! The guy had a whole zoo in a way. Doves, chickens, donkeys, cows, sheep, goats. It was so interesting to see these animals, these anarchistic goats. They did what they wanted, they were in the trees! Wonderful crazy eyes.
Anarchistic goats with crazy eyes – what an enjoyable image you leave us with! Thank you for sharing all this with us Martin. Tomorrow we say goodbye and you will cycle to Manchester via Ironbridge; a diversion, but you are curious to see where the Industrial Revolution started. It has been a great pleasure to experience someone who lives the phrase, ’Age does not depend upon years, but upon temperament and health’.