Into the woods pt. 1
Recently I met a friend for a walk who not-so-recently relocated to London, the antithesis of the subdued wildness of North Yorkshire. What with us being in the midst of a second national lockdown, all we could do was go for a walk. Not that I mind. I’m quite thrilled about it actually. While we do keep in touch, there’s no catch up quite like a face-to-face catch up. We had a lot to talk about, from the bane of online dating apps to how his job as a journalist and the long, intense hours that it requires has affected his cynicism.
We were out walking though, so inevitably our conversation turned to walking. We weren’t running out of things to talk about, I just love talking about walking. He was defiant that we would go for a walk in the woods closest to him, following around a long route taking us deep into the woods and eventually up onto the civil war battery, where a squelchy descent through ankle-deep mud brought us back to civilisation.
I’m not really a woods-walker. Call me odd but I prefer thundering up hills. Getting battered by wind and rain up high on fells, mountains and moorland is a real pleasure for me. I like the openness of it all; I experience a sublime authenticity when I’m exposed to the elements with the sound of my panting breath and beating heart pounding throughout my body.
My friend has more specific criteria when planning a walk. All he wants is to experience 3 things to feel that a walk has truly satisfied him:
- Hills with views.
- Water. Whether tarns, rivers or lakes; All he wants is to see water that isn’t getting him wet.
I don’t want you to get the wrong idea. I do like woodland. It holds a very special place in my heart. I appreciate the environmental and conservational capabilities of places that are so crucial to the surviving of the planet and I am a firm advocate of the international drive to reduce deforestation and plant more trees. Even in the ultra short-term forests are fantastic. I’ve heard them be referred to as ‘nature’s air conditioning’ because of the phenomenon of transpiration cooling. As the trees transpire, water is released into the air. This water is turned into a vapour and cools down the air, and you can expect woods and forests to be a good degree cooler just from this. Let’s also not forget about the cover from the sun that a thick canopy of leaves can give us!
There is also so much life in woodland. The mycelium networks that underpin the entire woodland ecosystem connects these large expanses of land in a way that means that all organisms that exist could be considered as unified; a single living, breathing organism. The most incredible example of a symbiotic relationship that there ever was can be found underfoot in a forest. In a world where the international voice is anthropocentric, these places offer a suspension of reality. Humanity is alien to this ecology.
Woodland is one of the most evocative landscapes on earth. There is mystery shrouded by dense woodland and this has been used in everything from A Midsummer Night’s Dream to the Blair Witch Project. It evokes images of fairies and witchcraft, fantastical stories in which entire universes are contained within the mysterious wooded walls of a forest. Nymphs and elves make woodland their home and it is the original realm of the fantasist’s imagination. These evocations are fearsome. They help us explore the unknown and trigger that part of our brain that craves alternative realities.
There is a duality in perception of woodland. Not only are thoughts of mystery and magic provoked, but also of innocence and playfulness. I think of playfulness in the woods and I have distinct images of William from Richmal Crompton’s Just William series playing Cowboys and Indians. Young children playing with their bows and arrows are making dens before going home for supper, with their muddy clothes and scraped knees. I think of Winnie the Pooh and Pooh Corner, a bear with his paw stuck deep inside a beehive fishing for honey. Robin Hood and a bandit with his band of merry men waiting to rob from the rich and give to the poor. These quintessentially British characters played a major part in my childhood and upbringing, and so did the leafy backdrop in which the stories played out.
Clearly then, the woods aren’t a dark and gloomy place. They are vibrant. Woodlands are living beings, breathing life into the imaginations of all those who dare venture into them. Physical and emotional nourishment is provided by this land; a mysterious realm of creativity, imagination, disbelief and ecological regeneration. All this lies within the shrouded cover of your local forest.