The lure of the woods

‘Now I am traversed by bridle paths, under the seal of sun and shade … I live in great density … Shelter lures me. I slump down into the thick foliage … In the forest, I am my entire self. Everything is possible in my heart just as it is in the hiding places in ravines. Thickly wooded distance separates me from moral codes and cities.’

René Ménard, ‘Le Livre des Arbres’, quoted & translated in Gaston Bachelard’s ‘The Poetics of Space’

If you had asked me when we first moved here in April, I would have told you that I lived in a bramble thicket. Like some wistful, ageing Briar Rose — ensorcelled not in a castle, but in the run-down grounds of a delapidated 1970s bungalow.

Now that I’ve watched through four months of relentless growing and greening, I would tell you that I live in a wood.

What called me here was a wood.

 

 

There are silver ladies in my wood: tall, stately birches, their ageing bark deeply scored with black. Birch is the first tree in the old Ogham alphabet: the tree of beginnings, of rebirth. There is willow too, and holly, and a scattering of baby rowans fetched in on some fitful breeze. This is a witching wood: dark green ivy wrapped around hawthorn; white-faced bindweed snaking through the brambles which guard the threshold to the wood-world beyond. It is a healing wood, too — with yarrow for your wounds, mint for your digestion, sweet violet to ease the breaking of your heart.

What called me here was a wood: night-calls of the stalking fox, early-morning encounters with the badger at the gate. My wood is haunted by magpie and crow, it’s a breeding-ground for goldfinch. Tread carefully on the winding path that we have forged through it, for clouds of speckled wood butterflies will dart up from the wildflowers, just inches away from your feet.

In the beginning was the Wood. ‘When I was but a young lass,’ said the Cailleach — the divine old woman who made and shaped this land — ‘the ocean was a forest, full of trees.’ And I am reminded of the wise words of my friend, activist and garden designer Mary Reynolds, who told me once that all land, left to its own devices, wants to become wood. This wood into which I, seed-like, have blown is on its own path of becoming: a path which grows thicker and greener with every year that it is not cleared or ‘managed’.

I will allow my wood to become wood, and weave myself, wood-wife and weed-wife, into that becoming.

 

 

High in the loft-space of the church-like room in which I now work, an enormous moon-window looks out into the wood.

 

 

To the front of the house, its mirror looks over the loch. I am caught between wood and water, in a web of my own making. Not ensorcelled, so much as … apprenticed.

 

 

Conamara — it was only ever Conamara. Wood and water, sea and stone. And the misty Maamturk Mountains which so long ago captured my heart, drawing me on through the thickets to the reward which waits in the farthest corner of my wood.

For here is the thing about dark, deep woods: if you find yourself a true (if occasionally twisted) path through, and if you tread that path lightly with faith and love; if you throw yourself down into bottomless wells, let the laughing river carry you away and never, ever give up dreaming — you might just find your heart’s desire on the other side.

 

 

‘We all have forests in our minds. Forests unexplored, unending. Each one of us gets lost in the forest,
every night, alone.’

Ursula K. Le Guin, ‘The Wind’s Twelve Quarters’

12 thoughts on “The lure of the woods

  1. Beautiful you found your place of belonging. I am still searching for a settlement. It is alive in my mind, but reality is quite scary. Whenever I am in the land of my dreaming I feel hugely overwhelmed, bitter sweet, can’t breathe it is too much air type of situation, total intoxication, grief at the thought of separation, yet a relief somewhat when away, but not for long, as the yarning of the heart returns just as strong to merge with it again and it continues like this year after year. I find myself quite confused about it all by now…

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    1. If place, as I believe, is the greatest teacher of all, then answers are never going to come swiftly. Hey, I’m 56 and have only just begun to properly figure it out 🙂 And although I think I will not move from this place where house, garden and wider wild coincide in something approximating perfection, something in me feels that my learning about belonging is not quite done yet. Enjoy the journey, scary yearning and all.

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  2. How beautifully you describe your wood and your path through this place. My dreams are alive with thoughts of the place I long to be. I am trying to keep myself open to finding my place.

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  3. I love this piece – every word speaks to my unconscious, but also half-conscious longings. Your Connemara reminds me of my beloved Gloucestershire where I grew up and is always redolent with magic and woods and lush, dense foliage to me. At one point, we lived on the very edge of the Forest of Dean and that has always been Red Riding Hood’s forest to me!

    I’m also 56 and currently live in a city. I love being with people but it is not satisfying on a deep level and a part of me yearns to be alone with the woods and plants again.

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    1. I might have misled you there with all this talk of woods – Connemara is mostly a land of lakes, bog, moor and vast swathes of granite moonscape. And yet there is lushness at all its edges, and hidden magic in the form of woods and copses tucked into the folds of the hills.

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  4. I find the indigineity of your thoughts both comforting and inspirational, thank you for sharing with us. If I may, they bring to mind the words of a respected kumu oli (master chanter), here on the other side of the world:

    “The reverence and respect afforded the wao akua* in ancient times was more than a fear of godly wrath. ʻAumākua** are ancestral gods, and Hawaiians hold that ʻaumakua can take the form of native plants and animals. Such a form is a kinolau, a physical manifestation of a deity.
    When the gods are also your family, and the elements of nature their physical presence, your fundamental relationship with nature is transformed.”
    — Dr. Sam ‘Ohu Gon III

    *(primal forest, literally “gods’ forest”)
    **(deified ancestors, the divine manifestation of a family lineage)

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  5. What a beautiful piece. Your Conamara looks and feels very much like my beloved Shetland – wild hills and bogs and emptiness. We don’t have the woods though! But the place speaks so loud – I never had a sense of place so strong when I lived in the city. Wild places have powerful voices.

    We all need wilderness, and our own re-wilding, to really come into ourselves, I think. Thank you for sharing.

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