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The Volunteers

A memoir of conservation, companionship & community

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Carol Donaldson


Carol has been made redundant from her job and is newly single after the end of a fourteen-year relationship. Lonely and living in a damp, freezing flat, she takes a job running a volunteer group who head out into the countryside each week to carry out practical conservation management tasks.

Despite this shaky start, she slowly wins the respect of the group. A community begins to form that will become vital to its members and ‘volunteer’ day soon becomes the highlight of Carol’s week. The volunteers range in age from their early twenties well into their seventies. Some of the young people have had run-ins with the law or are struggling with mental health problems; some of the older people need companionship and a sense of purpose. They join the group because they want to do something positive, to keep fit and busy and makes friends, but along the way they find that the group helps them put life into perspective and provides an alternative support system. The simple recipe of working outdoors as a team gives people confidence, improves their physical and mental well-being and helps some move on with their lives. Eventually it helps Carol move on with hers, too.


‘Tender, warm-hearted and honest, Carol and The Volunteers are all and any one of us; the “Wild Service” undertaken is a blueprint for community, belonging and care, with its roots in farm labour up to the Second World War, reimagined to stem the loss of wildlife since. It’s heroic, it’s funny and kind. It’s Detectorists, but for nature, and without your own kit.’
Nicola Chester, author of On Gallows Down

The Volunteers gripped me from the first page. Carol Donaldson writes fluently and honestly, reliving for us a period in her life of momentous change and unexpected relationships, centred on a love for working with and in nature. Threaded through a tapestry of wonderful wildlife descriptions, the individual characters Carol worked with are fondly described. Tales of her group’s adventures, from installing a kissing gate to clearing vast areas of invasive Himalayan balsam, are highly entertaining. I did not expect to get hooked so fast… but then who can’t relate to being part of something good, in a wildly diverse team of volunteers drawn together by a passion for wildlife?’
Vicki Hird MSc FRES, author of Rebugging the Planet

The Volunteers is the Detectorists with a touch of The Outlaws; a gentle, warm, vulnerable book that buzzes and sings and blossoms as it reveals the warts-and-all experience of leading a group of nature volunteers. I loved the personal backstories of prison time, neglectful upbringings, lost loves, confidences dashed, and all of it being healed with rain, tea and scratches from brambles – it’s so very human. The frustrations of the job are soothed with a sublime background song of a nightingale in the scrub or a swim in a river. Donaldson shows that it is not just nature that benefits from working with the earth – the human soul heals and grows too. There is camaraderie and irritation, and there is the sadness of death, but there is wisdom and pure human kindness in abundance, and all of it reaches through the pages and makes me want to get out there and join in. It is also woven through with the big environmental issues we face, as well as the scourge of depression and anxiety that plagues modern society. With lives as tangled and bright as the wildflowers in the verges, this book gives us a privileged glimpse of nature volunteering, and it is a joy to read.’
Mary Colwell, author of Curlew Moon and The Gathering Place