Written by John Hunter, Author of The Fields That Heal
Imagine you get an email from a friend you haven’t seen for some time – an invitation to a party to help launch her new book (about microscopes and the origin of species). And by the way, if you buy her book part of the proceeds will go to a good cause. You accept. It will be a congenial evening; your friend is a good hostess and a good writer. And buying her book will help – what was it? Dandelion something?
So you go, and come home not just with a book and a jar of chutney bought in aid of the charity, but with the seeds of an idea that will dominate the next year of your life.
That is what happened to me on a December evening in 2019. The charity was called Dandelion Time and at the party it was represented not just by chutney and the usual home made cakes, but by Anyès Reading from Dandelion Time, who talked to us about the charity’s work. She spoke quietly, factually, about real people, real problems and real work. No high-flown language. No ‘I have a dream!’ The simple integrity of how she spoke told us more, and reached us more powerfully. Families broken by deprivation need no rhetoric.
‘The child mental health crisis’ is one of those issues which is so generalised that it can sit in our moral file marked ‘deplore’, and never bear close up examination. But Anyès Reading brought it up close for us that evening. I could not afterwards remember her words but I could not forget the pictures she drew – of a child staring all day at a dirty wall in an overcrowded room, a ten-year-old boy lashing out mindlessly until he is thrown out of school, a girl trying to hide her scars but unable to stop cutting her pale young skin.
These were the families and children Dandelion Time was helping. I couldn’t leave it there. The pictures wouldn’t go away, either of the violence and abuse or of the peace, sensitivity and skill with which Dandelion was changing so many lives. All of this seemed inescapably clear to me. But equally clear was that this unique charity could and should be able to do so much more – if only its work were better known and more widely available. How could it grow, so that more children could come out from the dark into the healing fields of Dandelion Time? What was the whole story here? ‘Nature’ was a big part of it, but not the only part. What was Dandelion doing that was different from many other organisations introducing urban children to the natural world? What had been the motivations and rationale for the start up? How had Dandelion come so far with minimal resources? What problems had they needed to overcome? And behind all these, the most enticing question of all – what is that undefined element in the Dandelion mix that seems to draw into some closer engagement pretty much everyone who encounters it – including me?
So what could I do? I was a writer. Write a book was the ridiculously obvious answer. I approached Dr Caroline Jessel and outlined my ideas -’outline’ very much the tone. I had a world of discovery ahead. Caroline talked to trustees, colleagues and staff and key supporters. Everyone undertook to cooperate. And what cooperation it has been – selfless, honest, eloquent. People talked about what they did and – this was what brought everything magically alive – why they did it. These people are, in a large part, the real authors of this book. The other part? The families of children who have been to Dandelion. I was afraid they would be unwilling to talk to me, a strange man stirring up intensely private memories. But again, they weren’t just willing, they were eager to talk, to share. As one woman put it, ‘I want other families in the position I was in to know there’s a way back’. Without people like her there would have been no book.
The Fields that Heal will be launched at the Wealden Literary Festival June 28 2021. Perhaps I’ll see you there.
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