Back in Suffolk this weekend I’m struck once again by the invisible weight on my shoulders lifting as my train chugs into the familiar countryside. Despite being a city dweller almost as long as my childhood surrounded by fields and coast, I’m still surprised by the effect being home and enveloped by nature has on me. I feel calmer, breathe deeper and my anxiety diminishes.
Yet you don’t have to be out of a grey jungle to feel these effects, as Ruth Allen’s peaceful Instagram feed proves. Browsing her account (@whitepeak_ruth) takes you deep into the natural environment, with the mountains she loves featuring highly and her thought-provoking captions allowing you a minute to pause, breathe and later mull over Ruth’s words. The outdoors has had an enormous impact on Ruth’s journey, leading her from a job and life that no longer felt right to her current interest in outdoor therapeutic practice. This passion sits comfortably alongside her talents as a writer, illustrator, mountaineer and wild runner. This quest for an independent life is one of the many things that urged me to contact Ruth and share her story. An interview to take your time with this one, tea in hand and an acknowledgement that with each reread you will find something new to wonder over….
Of course! My name’s Ruth, and my work-life is a mosaic of different bits that have meaning for me. I’m pathologically incapable of doing one thing but to explain all the threads here would take an age!
You wear many different career hats, and the one that most intrigues me is your interest in outdoor therapy. Can you share more about what this entails?
Outdoor therapy is an emergent field. Most commonly you start as a counsellor/psychotherapist and build from there. It is an umbrella term (used interchangeably with other names like ‘nature therapy’ or ‘ecotherapy’) for work done outdoors with therapeutic/wellbeing aims and outcomes. ‘Therapeutic’ sounds a bit heavy but covers everything from clinical psychotherapy through to mindfulness wellbeing work that everyone can get something from. My interest covers it all. I work as a coach and mentor but I am also formally training to work as a counsellor and therapist. I will be working in this capacity from January 2017. It also includes my interest in animal-assisted therapy (alpacas in my case!) and horticultural therapy. My speciality is connecting others with the outdoors and nature for personal, creative development. I guess I’m trying to carve my own niche here. I would love to do trail work with women, walking with them on long distance mountain routes, like the alpine route I did over the summer, helping them explore their inner strengths and capacities.
I’m also a fan of your artwork. to me, it evokes the same feeling of peace & openness as your photography. Could you tell me more about your creative process when you work on a piece?
I’m glad you can see the links between my artwork and my photography, thank you. New pieces these days tend to start from a landscape I’ve seen, a photo I’ve taken or more often than not some words I have in my head. A lot starts from the words. A few years ago I got my Masters in creative writing, and since then words have been the way in to most of my creative output. I have an idea. A feeling. And then I put visuals around it somehow. If I have an idea, I just go with it. It may or may not work. I don’t worry too much about that.
It’s so clear from your Instagram and artwork that you have a real connection with the mountains and the great outdoors. Have you always felt this way and is it possible to describe the significance they have in your life?
Part of me would love to say ‘oh yes, I was born on a mountain so it’s been vital since I was a baby’ but I’d be doing the truth a disservice. I spent a lot of my childhood outdoors playing (including holidays in Snowdonia) but I didn’t find my real connection to the outdoors until my late teens. At this point I fell wildly in love with mountains and decided to do my undergraduate degree in Geology. From there the obsession grew and I ended up doing my doctorate on mountain building processes in the Himalaya. But I have really grown into my outdoor self through my twenties and thirties and I’m still in a process of ‘becoming’. It’s a lifelong journey. My relationship with nature and landscape deepens all of the time, and becomes more profound the older I get. Time spent outdoors has got me through some difficult times: bereavement, depression and loss, and now my vocation is to help other people build a deeper, more meaningful relationship with the outdoors for their own (mental) health and wellbeing. I’m particularly passionate about changing our perception of the outdoors from a place that is our ‘playground’ to seeing nature as a teacher and facilitator of personal wisdom. We should be in a reciprocal relationship with the natural world…not just taking. So, yes, mountains are deeply significant to me. Nature keeps me together. It inspires me. It roots me in my humanity actually. Is this all sounding suitable hippy? 😉
You’ve recently changed your Instagram handle from blueeggsandtea to whitepeak_ruth. What motivated that change and what (if anything) does it means for you going forward?
Blue Eggs and Tea was a life changing thing for me. I set myself up as an artist selling on Etsy in 2013 at a time when I wanted more creativity in my life. Up until that point I hadn’t done any art since GCSEs, but I started doodling on my laptop and this lead me into the world of digital art. From there I grew my skills and developed my style and started getting illustration commissions. By 2015 I was able to make this a full business, which allowed me to totally change my life, and carve out the time free from my then-full time job to explore what I really wanted for my life. But it was a victim of its own success and I discovered that what I really wanted to do was to consolidate everything and retrain as a counsellor and psychotherapist to add to my coaching and mentoring qualifications. This is something I’d always wanted to do on some level. I was just looking for the links. White Peak Wellbeing is my future now and I want to focus on this, which means I have to make some sacrifices. Blue Eggs and Tea is one of those. I feel like it has had a wonderful life span, and opened whole other worlds for me, but I only have so much time in the day and FOCUS is a concept I need to become better acquainted with at this point in my life for better or worse. It’s time to bring together my creative head, with my love of the outdoors and my desire to work in a socially useful capacity.
What or who are you currently inspired by?
Oh goodness, I have to say that most of my inspirations are the real, everyday people around me that I find myself rubbing up against on and offline. My friends. People I am learning with. Who better to inspire us? But I am also reading a lot at the moment so there are authors who are inspiring my outlook and thinking. People like Adam Phillips. Visually, I am getting excited to go to London and see an exhibition of one of my favourite all-time artists, Paul Nash. This will be inspiring, I know it already. Really though, it’s the natural world that does the job for me most consistently.
What do you most enjoy doing?
Walking and talking in the mountains. Kayaking beneath the mountains. Cycling or running up mountains 😉 No, truthfully, I have so many passions and interests that they all jostle for air time. Aside from mountain time I really like just sitting around thinking. Or writing. Drinking tea in our campervan. Feeding my chickens. Travelling about. I’m a really simple soul. I mainly do what my heart implores me to do – I’ve become good at listening to its needs and acting on them. But it takes practice and a hushing of the inner critic that says “do more, you’re not worthy enough yet”.
What are you most proud of accomplishing so far? And what are you hoping to accomplish in the future?
I didn’t know this until I started writing, but I’m most proud of finally starting to become the woman I want to be, and navigating the twists and turns of life as they come along. Building resilience. Feeling strong in my abilities. I have always been the type of person who has a 5 year plan, but over the last few months I have started to understand more profoundly than before that the future is nothing more than a wish. Whilst it’s good to dream and work ambitiously, it’s also important to balance that with a priority on the present, because the life we have now is the only life we really have. That said, my future will be White Peak Wellbeing if I get it right, and the core therapeutic work that sits behind that. I hope I’ll also write a book or two one day. This is something I start and stall often as my ideas shift and change.
Conversely, what has been the biggest challenge in your career? How did you overcome it and what did you learn?
My biggest challenge was accepting that it was ok to leave my education career behind, and that it didn’t make me a bad or failed person. After all the work I had invested for a decade. I worried that I was abandoning good money and esteem from colleagues in exchange for what? I didn’t know then, but I knew I had to go looking for meaning and purpose. To be honest, I was in such a state of despair and misery that my back was against the wall and I had to act to save myself from breakdown. So I went in one morning and resigned. Just like that. And after months of crying in the toilets, not wanting to get out of bed and face another day living a life I was unhappy with, that freedom move gave me the strength to take the next steps. I became emboldened and rediscovered my confidence. I learnt what I had forgotten over 10 years – that I can steer my own ship competently given half the chance. I also had to remember that nothing will ever happen if you don’t just get on and try. The life I longed for – the freedom to choose my path – was passing me by. I had to act.
And finally, what does an independent life mean to you?
Oh goodness, this is a brilliant question. Before I give you some idea of what it means to me, I just want to say that I’m aware that my definition might be quite different to others and I don’t consider my definition to be right, or others to be wrong. Also, I’m acutely aware that I am a white woman in the western world. I am privileged to have had access to education. To freedom. To choose a path. I take none of this for granted. An independent life to me means that my need for freedom is supported by those who could close me down with their doubt or self-interest. My husband knows my need to be independent – to travel alone sometimes. To be financially independent. To deeply question whether I want children. To keep my own name when we got married. These things and more. Independence to me means making my choices and standing by them even when they don’t work out. It means knowing I can survive alone if I need to. My independence is important, but so are the people who make space for me to grow. It takes a lot of trust and love to support someone in a way that could take them away from you. But consequently an independent life means I get to choose to be dependent too without risk of becoming consumed by another. Independence means different things to different people though – I make no judgements, but I would love to help others explore what it means for them.
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All images @whitepeak_ruth