There exists a special light in woods, it filters through seasons and sun and rain, drifting through lifetimes, whether that of the tiny flowers carpeting the forest floor, your own, or that of the grandest oak.
Wooded mountain valleys can maintain microclimates of their own, entirely different to that a stone’s throw away. Each area attracting a differing clientele, a question of scale within scales, Matryoshka-style.
One side of a wooded valley is entirely different to the other. Different species of trees allow different understoreys, different flora and fauna, all within a tiny area. You can even teach yourself to know what species of trees are present by listening to the wind — different leaves make different sounds, watch, listen, learn: one rustle for oak and another for ash.
To learn about the wood is to learn about life itself. It can teach us as much about ourselves as it does about this tree or that, or who that caterpillar becomes, what chewed those holes, why is this leaf patterned like that, which friend left those tracks?
To learn about the wood is to be reminded of what matters, to be rejuvenated, to be healed of those myriad invisible wounds we receive within the urban environment.
This process can be difficult for some people, taking a step back, revisiting atrophied senses, sometimes feeling enclosed and claustrophobic, primal and imagined fears rearing their head — but the results are worth it. Once, a friend of mine was concerned about my leaving my job to spend time in the woods on my own, worried about the dangerous lone men in the woods, with their knives and axes. I gently pointed out these men are nearly always fictional, that they simply don’t exist and I would be fine out there. With my knives and axe. Alone. It’s not hard to see how these stories and fears appear — if hikers or kayakers had met me at my wildest, with a long beard, woodsmoke-scented, wearing my axe on my belt, a knife at the other side and another around my neck, then I wonder what they would have thought. In the UK, certainly, these things are no longer common, nor always legal.
(As a counterpoint, I remember one long, rambling conversation with my sadly now dead dissertation tutor, Marek Zvelebil. We were talking about woodlands, and life in woods, and he explained about Finnish settlers to the mid-west US, and how they would often plant trees all around their homestead, close, blocking extensive views, the wide-open prairie deeply unsettling for them, having come from a place where the woods were deep and all-pervasive.)
To me, to walk in a woodland, especially one less-managed, less tamed, is to hear the voices of our ancestors, to understand how we are but a blink in time, connected to something vast and essentially, reassuringly, incompressible. They are our ancestral home and to sit beneath the spreading branches of ancient friends is to step back in time, become something we are perhaps meant to be.