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International Women’s Day 2022: An Interview with Cheryl Duerden

International Women's Day encourages us to celebrate women's achievements in forestry and arboriculture; Elle McAllister met Cheryl Duerden to ask some questions about her journey and experience so far.

By Elle McAllister · March 8, 2022

I am thrilled to introduce you to one of the newest committee members of RFS South Western. Cheryl Duerden is a woman with a fascinating mixture of experience behind her. Starting with studying journalism and photography in Singapore, to travelling and delving into marine conservation, and finally moving to the UK with her partner and embracing arboriculture, Cheryl is now spending her life in and around ancient trees.

E: Your route into forestry is fairly unique. What made you change that path? What skills do you think you brought with you into forestry from your previous career?

C: I wouldn’t call it a change of path but rather a natural transition. I went from being in full-time photography/journalism, to a chance opportunity working with conservationists and educators who influenced me to pursue a career in conservation. Having explored the marine environment, tropical mangroves, and rainforests in great detail, it was evident that nature had to play an important role in my life. An organic path unfolded with this progressive passion in conservation, which then spurred me on to joining the National Trust in West Exmoor, leading me to discover my true passion for trees, woodlands, and ancient and veteran trees. Throughout this incredible journey I am grateful to be able to apply my media, educational, practical conservation skills and knowledge to the work I have been doing so far.

E: How did you get involved with the Royal Forestry Society? What are you most excited about being involved with?

C: When I first started learning from my mentor, he introduced me to the RFS; he was involved with the South Western division committee. He encouraged me to look at the resources provided on the website, as well as attend woodland meetings. I felt it was beneficial to be a RFS member to keep up to date with the latest news and information and expand my knowledge base on a broad range of subjects. In February 2022 I had the honour of becoming a committee officer for the RFS South Western division. I am thrilled to be a part of this dynamic organisation, helping to positively steer our industry into an evolving future and inspiring younger generations along the way.

E: What in forestry do you really love doing practically? What do you dislike?

C: I really enjoy the physical side of woodland conservation management: getting the PPE on, using my chainsaw, forestry equipment and machinery; feeling like we’ve done a productive day of work in the woods. However I don’t particularly enjoy tripping over and falling into brambles (thankfully an infrequent occurrence)!

E: There are clearly people you look up to and learn from? Has there been anyone specifically who really helped give you a boost in your career?

C: It will have to be my very first mentor in the industry, Rupert Lane! Rupert is a forestry veteran, and what strikes me the most is his generous and unassuming manner. His wealth of knowledge and willingness to nurture has been fundamental in helping me learn the right skills. He always encourages me to move in a positive direction and gives me sound advice. Not to mention that he opened my eyes up to appreciating ancient and veteran trees in the first place! I have so much to thank him for; I hope we will continue to work together and always be great friends.

Cheryl Duerden standing in dense woodland.

E: What is it like being a woman in forestry? What might you say to other women and girls considering the same journey?

C: It is a great industry to get into, as tree people are all good people! I have had nothing but positive encouragement and mutual respect from my peers and other mentors, both in forestry and arboriculture. Not only should there be more people but more women in these fields, as we offer a unique perspective and approach to help channel an industry into one that’s current, dynamic and constantly adapting to a changing environment. If you are considering a career in forestry or arboriculture, do experience as many fields as you can – surveying, research, forest ecology, consultancy, practical forestry, etc – either through education, volunteering, or work placements, and you may just find something that really interests you.

E: You are clearly keen on sharing skills and knowledge; what do you think is the biggest lesson you would want to pass onto others?

C: I believe that it is crucial to be proactive and have a keen learning attitude. When you find something you are passionate about, be committed and most importantly, never give up!

E: Trees don’t seem to be just a job for you, you even write poetry! How much do the arts and creativity influence your life in forestry?

Writing is a channel for creativity and a form of therapy for me. Through poetry in particular, I am able to scramble my thoughts in a lyrical manner and convey discerningly, how I’m feeling at that very moment, pushing me to comprehend things from various angles.

E: Your blog is also very vulnerable at times. Do you find being in nature helps you mentally/emotionally? Where is your favourite place to go to reflect and relax?

C: I absolutely love being in the woods and working amongst trees, especially on days where I feel the need to empty my cluttered mind and just be. I have an intrinsic connection with trees and being around them, absorbing the sounds of nature, really lifts my spirits, and often helps me make clear decisions. My favourite local woodland is Chapel Wood in North Devon, which is an RSPB nature reserve that I also volunteer in.

E: The RFS is always trying to encourage young people into woodlands, to learn and explore. What did you love doing as a child in nature?

C: Growing up in Singapore – an urban environment – I was lucky to live next to a wooded park where I spent most of my childhood. Commuting through the park everyday to get to school and back, I enjoyed exploring nooks and crannies, picking up leaves and seeds and studying them in detail. This behaviour has definitely imprinted on me as I found my way back to nature.

Cheryl gazing up at new growth sprouting on an ancient tree.

It was great to get to talk to Cheryl and learn so much. She has a naturally empathetic and supportive personality and is clearly passionate about what she does. It is wonderful to think of all the women who could come after her, inspired by this journey. Thank you, Cheryl for sharing your time with us.

If you want to read more from Cheryl you can find her own writing at In A Land Of Giants: Confessions of a Tiny Lady Working Amongst Trees and on Instagram

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