Londoner Dwayne Fields was the first black Briton to reach the North Pole. He trains for his next goal – a 700-mile walk to the South Pole – in Epping Forest, his escape route from his troubled teenage years.
Trees are my favourite kind of landscape to train in. I’ve done moors and I’ve done mountains and love both, but I feel safest and most comfortable among trees. They protect you and they feed your spirit. Even though Epping Forest is surrounded by urban life, once you’re among the trees you can’t hear engines, you can’t hear sirens. You can only hear your own thoughts and the natural sounds that put your mind at ease.
Until I was six, I lived in a rural Jamaican village surrounded by forest and mountains. It was, literally, a paradise of cane fields, dense tropical forests of palms and fruit trees and exotic animals and birds. I used to wake up, have my breakfast, and go into the forest at the bottom of the garden to play for hours. You can’t put a price on that kind of freedom.
So when I first came to England, I looked at the grey sky and grey buildings and wondered where all the blue and green had gone. About two months after I got to the UK, we were lucky enough to move to a house with a garden and I spent the rest of my childhood up the apple tree at the end of it making dens. I even made a nesting box out of an empty milk bottle – I saw how to do it on Blue Peter – though, sadly, no bird ever decided it was the dream home they were looking for.
Where are the trees?
These days I go past new estates in London and wonder where the trees are. They don’t even have the space for that tree at the bottom of the garden or outside in the street. Builders say "Oh, we planted 400 trees", but I rarely see anything that looks like it will grow big enough to give shade or harbour wildlife, give some noise protection or be the kind of tree a kid can climb. Yet playing in and around trees is the best exercise outside a swimming pool. It uses all your muscles and all your senses. Every kid should get a chance to climb a tree.
I work with young people on the National Citizen Service scheme and have spoken to hundreds of youngsters after we’ve taken them to open country as part of the programme – for some, it’s the first time they’ve ever been outside the M25. Every single one has said how much they enjoyed it. Many have only known the never-ending ambient noise of urban life and they say things like "I loved how quiet it is, I could think clearly for the first time." Getting out of that urban environment and enjoying the peace of a wood should be possible for all of us.
The calm of British woodland
I was about 17 when I first experienced the calm of a British woodland. Out driving with a few friends, we happened to pass the edge of Epping Forest. I just walked off into the woods and got lost in where I was. The trees worked their magic – the sounds of the road melted away and I was alone with my own thoughts. I thought "yes, this is for me!"
Those trees saved me. I was at a stage in my life where I felt under a lot of pressure from other people to do things I didn’t want to do. From that time on, I got over to Epping Forest at least once a month, and every week if I could manage it. I walked, I biked, I caught three buses, whatever. And I went for a long walk and got my fix of peace and quiet. This was the perfect escape. A minute and half of birdsong in the woods makes you feel better about everything. Birds only sing if they feel safe, after all.
Share the responsibility
That’s why I feel so strongly that everyone, and especially younger people like me, should step up and share the responsibility of preserving and adding to the trees we have – we shouldn’t wait until they’re gone to find out how much we’ll miss them.
To find out about Dwayne’s polar expedition plans, visit dwayne-fields.com. The full version of this article appeared in the Winter 2018 edition of Broadleaf, our quarterly magazine exclusive to members. Its news, features and stunning pictures tell the inside story of how we, our volunteers and partners stand up for trees. To join up and receive your copy visit our membership section.