Woods are magical places where people fall in love with the wrong people (Midsummer’s Night Dream), Chaucer’s Wife of Bath finds a prince, little girls take photographs of fairies dancing at their fingertips (the Cottingley Fairies, see image below). In the Perigord, where I live, woods are everywhere, part of the ancient landscape. After it rains, those in the know rush out to gather the white mushroom called the cepe, traditionally served with duck and potatoes. Alex and I were once cycling through a wood and found at least 30 kg worth of what we thought were cepes, raced back, showed a wise neighbour who shook his head with a wry smile at the ignorance of today’s youth: edible, he told us, but not particularly tasty and certainly not cepes.
I love woods. I love the smell of woods after rain, their stories, their secret paths, their trees to be climbed, their promise of animals and insects and birds who may appear and who may not. I have watched badger cubs play in woods, glimpsed deer in the corner of my eye, caught the flash of the wing of a rare bird. My stepfather has a wood which once formed part of an important Lincolnshire quarry and it is a treasure trove of unusual orchids, protected now by English Heritage.
My favourite wood in the world is one in the English Lake District called Eggerslack. It is as old at least as the Vikings and although relatively small in area, it is dense and dark, finding its way eventually up to a wonderful viewpoint called the Hospice, on Hamps Fell. On the other side is Cartmel with its elderly priory and its rather avant-garde Michelin starred restaurant L’Enclume where I once ate tartare of venison. When I was 16 I was taken on a night walk in this wood by Frank Dawson and various other leaders who – 30 years later – have actually just been to stay with me here in France and chopped down trees and cooked spectular meals. Each of my group were told to sit down in the wood alone and to ‘listen to the night’. It was the first time in my life I had ever sat alone in the dark in the natural world. I was scared and wondered what it was that I was scared of: ghosts, serial killers, animals, slimey insects? There were noises nearby, crunching, clicking, whispering. Slowly I relaxed and found that I felt, in fact, entirely safe. Of course, in reality, I was. A leader was only a few metres away from me, but I didn’t know that then.
I am not sure how long I sat there on my own that first night, perhaps only ten minutes, perhaps longer. It prepared me for an adventure which I was to have the following year as part of my Young Leader Training for this privately owned field centre/outdoor pursuits centre, a place that changed the lives of nearly everyone who stepped foot in it. At the age of 17, I was taken into the Duddon Valley and ejected from the van with a sleeping bag, some rations, and a map. I bivvied in a wood, heard heavy breathing in the night and then realised it was only sheep, and a day later ran the last few miles of my Solo Expedition into the arms of Frank. I had done it. I had been alone in the Lake District for 24 hours; I had not got lost; I had not been scared. I had done something which was for me miraculous and life-changing.
A few weeks ago I decided to stop in a village I often pass called Issigeac. I found an organic shop and a clothes shop full of beautiful linen dresses. I went into both, bought some tahini and a swirling blue dress. In the latter I talked to the woman behind the counter. She worked there only a few days a week and I asked her how else she filled her time. With this, she told me, and turned her computer around to show me a photograph of a little girl sitting in a wood with a red feather mask on her head (see image at bottom of blog post). It was so unexpected and so powerful that I almost gasped. It could have been me, in my dreams; it was Alice in Wonderland and Lucy from Narnia; it was someone entirely of themselves, caught in a shaft of light in this dark dark wood which promised magic, change, adventure, renewal and transformation.
We talked some more, Elsa and I. She was preparing for an exhibition Dans Les Bois which is opening in late August in Montpazier (one of the images, my favourite, is posted just above this paragraph). She was looking for someone to write an introduction to the accompanying booklet. I was tempted to offer but my French is not good enough and I had only just met Elsa. I drove home, obsessed with thoughts of woods: of Grizedale Wood in the Lakes with its sculptures; of the woods near Limeuil where my partner’s parents live; unexpectedly of the complete lack of trees in the Orkneys which shocked me when I went diving there a few years ago. I thought of literary woods from those of Enid Blyton to the dangerous ones of Ruth Rendell. And I regretted not offering to write a piece for Elsa. I got in, looked up the number of the shop, rang her, and rather inarticulately offered my services.
A friendship was born because of Elsa’s wood. We discovered we had much more than woods in common and I am excited both about this new friendship and about her exhibition. I have seen all the photographs being shown and the story they tell is incredibly powerful. If you are anywhere near Montpazier between 28 August and 28 September please go to the Galerie M, in the Place des Cornieres. You can see some of Elsa’s photos on her website and – I imagine – she will be putting more up once the exhibition is over.
And here is a poem I have taught many times about the way that nature and humanity intertwine, appear to cover their traces, but leave something of themselves behind.
The Way Through The Woods
THEY shut the road through the woods
Seventy years ago.
Weather and rain have undone it again,
And now you would never know
There was once a road through the woods
Before they planted the trees.
It is underneath the coppice and heath,
And the thin anemones.
Only the keeper sees
That, where the ring-dove broods,
And the badgers roll at ease,
There was once a road through the woods.
Yet, if you enter the woods
Of a summer evening late,
When the night-air cools on the trout-ringed pools
Where the otter whistles his mate,
(They fear not men in the woods,
Because they see so few.)
You will hear the beat of a horse's feet,
And the swish of a skirt in the dew,
Steadily cantering through
The misty solitudes,
As though they perfectly knew
The old lost road through the woods.
But there is no road through the woods.