Jon is an encounter of gentle kindness,
Observing and calm,
He embodies a thoughtful lightness.
Jon is excitement and intrigue,
Humble perspective well-spoken,
Whilst remaining discreet.
Hope to him lies in inspiration
To learn and to see,
To be part of what could be,
And believing in the next generation.
Meet Jon Parkes - Lands Manager at National Trust Jersey.
Even as I am writing this, I am yet to find the right words for Jon’s presence as we sit in the walled gardens at the Trust’s headquarters in St Mary’s. Apart from St Ouen’s bay - a favourite place for both of us as I discover - I can’t think of a better place for two outdoor enthusiasts to discuss hope.
It’s one of those precious winter days here in Jersey - with a clear blue sky and a warm sun despite the crispy air. Yesterday we had gale force winds and dark fronts rolling in. Today the promise of spring is audible all around.
Listening back to my recording of our interview it’s really quite fitting - hope can find us as quickly as a change in the weather can. And just as the sun today, hope can keep us warm for days to come.
Certain aspects of Jon’s path are similar to many others in conservation. The enthusiasm, and the love for the outdoors, for the environment were always there, and the interest to find a line of work that allowed for that connection came to sprout naturally.
“Early on, I was trying to find my way in”, he remembers, and makes me wonder not for the first time, how much bigger our ‘work force’ was if the hurdles to find a way in weren’t so high at times.
“Working in that environment has always been a dream” for Jon. A real Jersey boy, having grown up on the sand dunes out west, camping and surfing, he tells me about how this dream of his came to be.
“The more you learn about the environment and the wildlife around you, the more you learn what you don’t know. And the more you learn, the more you get involved and engaged with it - it kind of awakens something”, he muses.
Jon did persevere, and he put in the work. Over the past 20-odd years, he made his way from his office job in town to managing the areas of this island that so many of us love - 178 sites to be precise! He is rightfully proud of having “landed that task”, and feels equally as fortunate. The gratitude shows in his face, and you can hear the smile in his voice.
One beautiful aspect of his story is hidden in the fact that not having had an academic (environmental) background actually served as an asset to compliment those who do.
Conservation offers more than one path and in fact, needs it.
As with every other interview, I ask Jon why he thought this project of hope was an interesting one to take part in. “We don’t really talk about hope much, and I think it is really interesting”, he tells me, and continues to explain his natural character of “standing back a little to observe”.
I can very much relate, as I also like to see how individuals and the wider public actually perceive topics that are much more politicised these days. Take climate change as an example.
I’m curious when I get to speak to someone like Jon - who does at times struggle with the very personal responsibility he feels. As I feel it, too, and am yet to find my way. Another aspect we both wonder about is whether the public does indeed question “if it is worth doing something”, and I appreciate Jon’s honesty.
With him though, it isn’t a dark question. It is more one of intrigue. Writing it makes me smile. Jon actually radiates intrigue. And here is a second key element in his perspective on hope: inspiration. It is an underlying current in almost everything he tells me. But more on that later.
His calmer tones continue when I ask him about moments of doubt or darkness he’s experienced in his career over the past 20 years. “Sometimes I guess it can get a little frustrating..” - powers, constraints and restrictions due to limited finances is what he refers to mainly.
“That can get me down sometimes. To me, it is the most important thing in the world and of course it is not on top of everyone else’s agenda.”.
I listen to him, and immediately think that there’s a different nature to his response to what I am used to. Instinctively, he does not not refer to the cause being hopeless or pointing fingers, but simply points out the constraints we face in our work. There is quite a difference in how he approaches that question of mine.
“Globally, it can be difficult for people to see how there could be an impact they can have. The local context is very important as you can actively make a difference and show it to people. And I think that’s very important”, he argues.
I can only agree - it is something I am still learning and am coming to appreciate. Speaking to Jon is a gentle reminder.
And so, his favourite aspect of the job is when he gets to do guided walks and talks in places people have hopefully never been before.
“I love seeing their impressions and reactions, and I love sharing that time”. And, as he notes, “those are the moments you realise that, ,oh they are actually interested, and want to know more.”.
And it is beautiful that Jon can find inspiration in what others call a bleak year. Without disregarding the pandemic, he simply feels that our green spaces and our environment were something people started seeing value in, more than they had in a long time. And he laughs about friends - never before consciously noticing birds - now pointing them out to him. “That was certainly inspiring”, he recalls.
You see, occasionally in my interviews, I feel that there is more, that there is something I am not quite grasping yet. Maybe it’s wanting to understand how these calm and positive characters have found their way of dealing with doubt and the struggle that conservation can present you with.
So I dig a little deeper with Jon, and ask him again about the darker moments he would have had over the years. Immediately, he is transported back in time. A month into his role as Lands Manager, the fish in St Ouen’s freshwater pond - one of the prime conservation sites, he stresses, died off at a massive rate overnight.
“A quite complex set of reasons were behind an oxygen crash”, Jon explains.
“I found it quite overwhelming, and felt a great sense of responsibility”, he remembers.
It is clear to hear that Jon experienced these days as a great challenge, having to find the answers to many questions, with all eyes on him.
Once again, the nature of his answer is much more about him personally, as opposed to experiencing doubts about the work itself, or the cause he had committed himself to.
It simply isn’t where his thoughts go, I come to think.
And to me, that says a lot about his mindset.
There’s something to learn here, I feel.
“I could dwell a lot on things that individuals have done in some of our sites. Those actions can really get to you”, he admits when I ask him about it. Could, he tells me - implying that it is a choice not to.
Instead, he simply seems to recognise it as an inevitable part of the job and “something you have to overcome”, rather than a reason not to do the work. It also is about a learning curve, he feels, and not to assume that individual actions are rooted in evil intentions.
And so he adjusts how he approaches it.
Naturally, I ask him how he overcomes - what it is that makes him move forward?
“What I feel is very inspiring” are his first words, and I smile.
“I’ve been lucky enough to do training courses with a lot of inspiring people that make you realise you can do more, that inspire you”.
Major rewilding projects are another source of excitement for Jon. Learning about projects that “captivate the public’s imagination, that’s what it is about, I think.”.
He makes me think of the encounters I have had throughout the span of this project of mine, and how imagination and dreams are such powerful agents for collective shifts.
He also makes me remember the most inspiring people I have met along the way, and how they were arguably one of the greatest influences - instillers of hope in a sense - by doing what they thought was right. By doing their best.
It almost makes him feel guilty at times for not doing enough - certainly an emotion I am all too familiar with. Speaking to Jon I feel the guilt less heavy. Maybe, it makes me wonder, guilt is inspiration and reigned-in excitement in disguise?
And I have to ask him how does he deal with the very real sense of personal responsibility?
“Accepting that not everything is down to me. You just have to take it in manageable chunks, I think. The big picture can quickly be too daunting and negative, so focus on the smaller bits”. By focusing on the smaller things and how they work, you understand and make the work not only more manageable and less daunting. But over time you will also learn how these small pieces connect to other parts of the puzzle, and automatically integrate in the bigger picture.
For your own sake, I wonder, it may be best to start small, and know that it will transcend through the complex layers of the system.
Hoping that Jon won’t feel challenged, I dare to dig a little deeper once again. Would he be doing the work without tangible outcomes to inspire him? Somehow, I find myself laughing when the question makes him stall for a moment. Is not asking these questions maybe a key to not only surviving in conservation, but thriving?
“I don’t know, I really don’t know”, he says after pondering this for a while. And I love it! It might be an uncomfortable question but it is to some extent at the core of what I am trying to find out with these interviews. What is it that drives us? And I am glad that Jon is up for it. “It [a tangible outcome] certainly helps”, he says more earnestly after we’ve had a bit of a laugh.
He takes one of the Trust’s most-known victories as an example - the restoration of the Plemont headland. He calls his role in it exciting, and yes I can’t help but smile again.
As he recalls the process and says that “it only takes a drive up north to rediscover inspiration”, I find myself realising a beautiful aspect of conservation. Something that was achieved years ago will continue to bear fruits both literally and figuratively. Although his actual work in the stakeholder process was finished years ago, “walking up there” is enough to keep feeding his spirits. It isn’t living in the past, it is witnessing what past actions have meant for the present, and hold for the future.
But, I need to ask: does hope play a part in his forward motion? Yes, he says. No hesitation this time around. It comes so quick and with such honesty, it almost surprises me. And for that, I love it. Jon isn’t afraid to say that hope is a requirement in moving forward.
He does go silent when I ask whether he feels that hope is rooted in a sense of fear and desperation. It is a question that prompted my idea for this project years ago.
It stops him in his tracks a little, and I wonder if it simply isn’t where his mind would naturally take him.
Then, slowly, he looks at me. ”No.. I don’t, I don’t think it is actually when I think about it” he contemplates. “I can think of times when I felt that overwhelming sense of doom, but I don’t think that those moments made me feel I had to work harder, or inspired me to work harder. I think it just made me reconfirm that I want to be part of the solution, not the problem”.
And well, isn’t that a thought worth holding on to?
“I don’t kid myself that what I do makes a huge impact”, he tells me. And he makes me think that maybe it really isn’t the question to ask anyway. It is more about knowing and feeling that you are part of something that simply works towards better.
Why am I trying so hard to get a grip on this, you might wonder.
The wider message of conservation seems to run along the lines of time is running out, of little hope being left. If hope is indeed a driver for conservationists, then in this project I want to capture what shape it takes for them. And in the public communication of conservation issues, somehow the element of hope has gained a bitter-sweet aftertaste.
With Jon, however, hope is being stripped back to its more positive core. And I think if I didn’t use the word ‘hope’ as much, he wouldn’t either.
Rather, the sense of inspiration and excitement run through his every word when I ask him about hope and what drives him. And it makes me smile over and over again as I write this. And now it is my turn to be intrigued. In my introduction blog I specifically separated those two sensations from hope. And here I listen to Jon, thinking that maybe one does fuel the other after all. Possibly even translates into it.
It’s the excitement to actually be able to do something, isn’t it, I ask him, and he agrees with a smile. And if that is the origin of hope rather than a sense of despair, doom and gloom, then I thank Jon for his words and carrying a different sense into our island’s collective mind.
There’s another reason I am glad to be sharing Jon’s story. Has his outlook on conservation changed over the years? For the second time, his answer takes me by surprise. He actually feels that was once perceived as a niche bunch of ‘“treehuggers, hippies and greenies”, nowadays feels much more important and recognised in the world.
More so, Jon thinks that the ways of conservation are changing. He offers a very different viewpoint, musing that a lot of the old-style conservation types - think WWF, Greenpeace and others - are gradually being replaced by very important things being done on a community level.
I have got to say, I like the idea of moving into a new era where communities take control over the preservation of what is dear to their individuals.
That perspective of his is emphasised by what gives him hope in Jersey in particular. “What I am seeing, what I am experiencing, I am having conversations with people about things I didn’t think they would ever be interested in”. To him it is the uptake of interest by the public across all ages. Witnessing the reactions islanders have to the green spaces “goes a long way” , he says. And shares with me one of his personal sources of inspiration: leafing through the visitor guestbook in the Wetland Centre in St Ouen.
It goes to show that we don’t always know what impact our words may mean to a stranger somewhere down the road. It is the little things indeed.
Talking about his favorite place on the island - St Ouen’s bay - and what it means to him, his words actually carry another message on why there is hope on our island. One side of the Five Mile road you will find an incredibly important area marked as a site of special interest. Cross the road, and you will find a busy beach restaurant and nightclub.
We might long for the great outdoors sometimes, but let us not forget what is actually possible on a small island as ours. Something to recognise, to embrace, and to strengthen. After all, it is an island with one of its greatest challenges being ever-increasing population pressure, as both Jon and I agree.
And then I engage him in a question I wasn’t actually going to incorporate into this post. But it's right at the end of our interview that he says something so very unassuming and yet - to me personally - so very profound. It makes me smile for the rest of the day, thinking of how simple a change in perspective and tone can cause so mighty a shift. A thought so simple is not nearly as easy to live by though.
I tell him of stories in conservation and how years ago, they made me wonder how conservationists kept going in the face of them, despite them?
“We’re really going dark now, aren’t we?”, he laughs with me. Nonetheless, he instantly recalls a memory of diving with Manta Rays in Indonesia. For many, a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
And yes, Jon and his wife did have the magical encounter with those gentle giants. Upon jumping off the boat, the sheer amount of plastic in the water, dissolving in front of their eyes, Jon tells me, “that was a moment it felt like a car hit me”. It had a profound impact on him.
At that moment, Jon couldn’t help but think that this was it, that these beautiful creatures wouldn’t be here in 10 years’ time, “there’s no way”, as he remembers saying.
He follows up on his own memory, and tells me that “that’s exactly it, isn’t it? Because of that you can’t give up and throw your hat in, can you?”
Thank you Jon, for sharing that memory with me. It isn’t that we continue the work despite of it, or that is it reason enough to give up. These are the things reason enough to continue.