‘The Chinese count wood as the fifth element, and Jung considered trees as an archetype. Nothing can compete with these larger-than–life organisms for signalling the changes in the natural world. (…) Trees have a capacity to rise to the heavens and to connect us to the sky, to endure, to renew, to bear fruit, and to burn and warm us through the winter.’
Roger Deakin, ‘Wildwood’.
I can’t imagine living without trees. As a child I used to climb them, and feel safe among the green leaves, hidden from view and supported by their strong limbs. As an adult I walk in local woods and make trips to visit venerable and ancient trees.
This is one huge branch of the ancient yew tree at Martindale, in the Lake District, reaching out to support itself. The stone chapel you can see in the photo was built in the twelfth century to accompany it and together they have co-existed in this small Cumbrian valley down the centuries.
This yew could be up to 2000 years old, like at least one of the three remaining standing of Wordsworth’s ‘Fraternal Four’ in Borrowdale, which I also had the privilege to visit. I was lucky enough to be alone with them for a few hours one Christmas day, probably because it was pouring with rain. The muscled, reddish-brown trunks glistened with raindrops as the wind blew curtains of rain through the valley. Hard it was to take in the length of time they had spent in this place, shaped it. Beneath the wind and rain, in the shelter of these huge yews, there was a hush, a serenity, that these old beings emanated. I felt that Wordsworth might step out of the mist and into this grove, notebook in hand, as he did a mere one and a half centuries earlier.
Nan Shepherd (The Living Mountain) said of the fir trees of the Cairngorms:
‘the fragrance is the sap, is the very life itself. When the aromatic savour of the pine goes searching into the deepest recesses of my lungs, I know it is life that is entering.’
On that wild winter day in Borrowdale I felt that I was touching, and breathing in, not life, but the essence of time itself.
Walking through woods is a sensual experience, whatever the season.
Kicking up piles of crisp, golden leaves, hopping over knotted roots, listening to the woodpecker’s energetic drilling, breathing in the heady scent of bluebells or wild garlic, tiptoeing past the tree hollow with its nest of shy owlets, sitting on a fallen log listening to the intense summer hum of insects, glimpsing a fox with a glorious brush tail pause as it sees you and the dogs then silently slip away, resting in the cool green shade on a hot day, rejoicing in the shapely, frosted outlines of bare trees shimmering in the low winter sun.
Here is Nan Shepherd again, on the magic of birch woods:
‘Exquisite when the opening leaves just fleck them with points of green flame, or the thinning leaves turn them to a golden lace, (birch trees) are loveliest of all when naked. In a low sun, the spun silk floss of their twigs seems to be created out of light. Without transfiguration, they are seen to be purple – when the sap is rising, a purple so glowing that I have caught sight of a birchwood on a hillside and for one incredulous moment thought the heather was in bloom.’ (The Living Mountain).
Woods in the daytime and at dusk, woods in winter, spring, summer and autumn – Midsummer Night’s Dream, Under the Greenwood Tree, Wind in the Willows, Teddybears’ picnic….. but what about woods when darkness falls, when Hansel and Gretel are lost, the owls call and mysterious shapes loom in the shadows?
When the light goes, and the trees become an undifferentitiated dark mass then all the sounds in a wood become more noticeable, and the imagination gears up. Where our eyes could see the crows on the low branches, now we only hear the rustle of bush and leaf. Where we could see the path stretching out empty, now who knows what may be ahead or behind us? Our imagination – or at least, my imagination – has been fed by all those old fairy tales I read as a child. Tales that go way back into the past when stories were told, not written, and we all lived surrounded by large dark forests, where you really could get lost, meet strangers, face danger.
As Clarissa Pinkola Estes describes when discussing the tale of the handless maiden, these forests were often the very places where the protagonists had to face their fears and discover their individual psyche or self (Women who run with the wolves):
This large wild forest that the maiden finds is the archetypal sacred initiatory ground. It is like Leuce, the wild forest the ancient Greeks said grew in the underworld, filled with the sacred and ancestral trees and full of beasts, both wild and human.
It is also in the middle of forests that you need to go to seek out the Baba Yaga, the wild woman who knows about both life and death, learn the powers of intuition, as part of your journey towards maturation.
Spending time in the much smaller woods we have around us today, working to protect them, getting a little lost in the process of getting to know them in all their seasons, is one way to get to know yourself, as well as the trees that create the enchantment of these special places. Clarissa Pinkola Estes urges us to go out into the woods;
‘If you don’t go out in the woods, nothing will ever happen and your life will never begin.’ (Clarissa Pinkola Estes)