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Time to get your hands dirty? Volunteering might help you flourish, inside and outside academia

Written by Cebuan Bliss, PhD Candidate at Radboud University and member of the ESG Early Career Committee – July 2023

Photo by Michael Den Boer


The dulcet song of a nightingale is floating on the spring breeze. Listen closer and you can hear the industrious hum of insects, from bees to dragonflies to mayflies. If it weren’t for the sound of the busy highway, you would be forgiven for thinking you were in some garden of Eden. But this is the Green Ass Garden, part of the ADM community project in Amsterdam. In only a few short years, the garden has gone from being a desolate dumping ground to a hive of human and more-than-human activity. This is in part thanks to the work of Erica, the garden coordinator, and a team of volunteers.


Geodesic dome plant nursery, erected by volunteers

I am one of these volunteers. My research is on animals and biodiversity, so the garden is a good fit. However, the reason I volunteer here is more personal. I find it important that my personal life not only reflects my academic life but also supports it. Volunteering here allows me to contribute to a broader community and grow as a human in the process. The garden, for me, is physically and metaphorically grounding.

As early career scholars, our work is often behind a desk or in the classroom. Some of us are lucky enough to go on fieldwork. But I’m sure many of us share the feeling that we want to do more, beyond the scope of our academic work. This seems especially pertinent given that we often visit or live in different places for our research. Yes, my home country of England is not such a physical and cultural leap from the Netherlands, but I’m still a visitor. Wherever I go, I want to immerse myself in that community, offering whatever skills I have that may be useful with humility and enthusiasm.

Seed nursery in the geodesic dome


Here at the garden, we teach children about nature and where their food comes from. There are also workshops for adults on herbal remedies, foraging and even art. Most weeks you will find me donning a pair of wellies, or sandals when the Dutch weather agrees, and getting my hands dirty. Whether it’s planting in the food forest, harvesting nettles for soup, or building a new willow fence, there’s always something to do. One feels a child-like excitement when picking up a handful of earth filled with luminous worms. The soil here is thriving and nature is unfolding in all her abundance.

The garden’s bee house and peacock sculpture made out of scrap metal

Not only is the garden a wonderful place to find spiritual solace and to learn practical skills, it is also a place of inspiration and connection. For instance, the 7th Food Autonomy Festival hosted by ASEED was a place to meet new people working on different sustainability issues and take part in workshops on composting, sustainable cultivation and even art. The festival was a place to connect with NGOs, farmers, artists, academics, and others who are fighting for social and ecological justice. It acted as a hub for exchanging perspectives, ideas, knowledge and skills about how to live more sustainably, even in a resource-intensive place like the Netherlands. If you are still exploring which path your research might take you down, such connections might prove fertile ground for nurturing your ideas.

Volunteering at the Green Ass Garden has taught me a lot. There is so much wisdom and joy to be gained contributing to our wider communities. This might be volunteering on a project highly related to your research, or it might be something completely different. In any case, it can help us to stay grounded and inspired in our early careers and beyond. It is a moment to take time to celebrate the work that we do as academics and, perhaps more importantly, the work we do personally as part of society. Is it time for you to get your hands dirty?

What you do in life makes a difference, you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.” – Jane Goodall


Erica, the garden coordinator

This is an adaptation of a blog originally written for Sustainability Dispatch, a newsletter of the Radboud Centre for Sustainability Challenges

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