Thursday, August 11, 2016

A Place of Refuge: An Experiment in Communal Living: The Story of Windsor Hill Wood, by Tobias Jones

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Tobias Jones' page-turning memoir about his experiment in communal living is full of insights, empathy and understanding.

When British author and journalist Tobias Jones bought a gorgeous woodland property in Somerset, a county in South West England, he knew he'd made the perfect choice. What better place to raise his young family of three children with his Italian wife, Francesca. They would keep animals, grow their own vegetables, wake to the early song of birds in the morning and skip through wild flowers all the day long. His children would grow up enjoying the quietude of nature, spared much of the hurly-burly of modern day life, with its distractions and trivialities.

But Tobias Jones felt he had a calling. He wanted to turn him home into a commune for society's damaged and outcasts. A woodland refuge would be just the place for recovering alcoholics, the sexually abused, ex-soldiers suffering post traumatic stress and a host of other illnesses. So the family opened their doors and started taking in around five or six people at a time. The average time these guests would stay was about three to six months, sometime up to a year. A Place of Refuge is the story of that experiment, covering a five year period.

The most refreshing aspect of Jones' memoir is his honesty about the difficulties and frustrations of living communally with people who are severely damaged. This is no idyllic story of people walking through the gates of heaven and then finding miraculous, instantaneous healing. There are simmering tensions, individuals with persecution complexes and plain ignorant behaviour. Jones describes one guest who would leave his medication laying about, frequently on the floor. This wouldn't have been so bad on its own, its just that Jones' son, Leo, was a toddler at the time, fond of crawling about and sticking things in his mouth. Mealtimes could frequently be stressful, as guests would have poor hygiene and no table manners, rudely chomping through as much food as they could without thinking of others.

Despite all the frustrations and difficulties, there were breakthroughs. Troubled guests would improve during their stay. Many found the routine and work in the woodlands took their minds off their troubles. People who felt uncared for their whole lives knew there were people trying to look after their best interests.

A Place of Refuge provides a fascinating and empathetic study of society's fringe dwellers. It really is the type of book that makes you step back and take a deep breath as you confront people with serious problems that require understanding a patience. It's also a book full of engaging natural history. Jones' lovely descriptions of Windsor Hill Wood - the trees, the birds, the fresh air - makes you long to visit.

Wonderfully written and full of genuine insights into the human soul, A Place of Refuge is a book with much to teach.

A Place of Refuge: An Experiment in Communal Living: The Story of Windsor Hill Wood, by Tobias Jones. Published by Quercus. ISBN: 9781848662513  RRP: $19.99

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