July 23, 2017 § 17 Comments
I sleep deeply the night before I go to the wood. The final dream tantalizes, staying only for an instant as I wake before it vanishes like a slippery brown trout in the muddy depths of the river.
With the dreams staining my mood, I climb the padlocked gate into one of the oldest woodlands in England. I am now in another world. A place of ancient oaks, a vast thicket where animists and Druids still chant peacefully in celebration, and I am free to dream whatever I want. The wood feels alive with something I can’t quite articulate. Some may call it magic, a place where shape shifting happens, others will say they are simply unnerved to be walking in something so like the primeval forest that once covered our crowded island. The past is written on the bark of these trees like a pristine memory, and I feel as if I am being watched.
The trees are packed close together, their branches entangled. They say there are over four thousand oaks in this medieval deer park, and many are over four hundred years old. There are many legends of wrong doings and murders, but the one I like best I want to believe is true. Monks once owned the land, and when they were evicted in the sixteenth century they were allowed to plant one more crop: they chose acorns.
But the wood is more famous for its holly trees. They are the largest I have ever seen, and bear little resemblance to those grown in suburbia. It is the holly that takes away the light. It seems to suck it out of the air and swallow it. Thick, tangled bracken grows in these dark places underneath their evergreen canopy, and impenetrable bramble reaches out with its long, spiny tentacles to tear at my skin. But the wood is kinder underfoot, made soft and spongy from hundreds of years of leaf mould and so-called neglect. But I still have to watch where I put my feet, as the ground beneath the leaves hides wandering tree roots waiting to trip me up.
It’s hard to walk upright. I must crouch and creep as if I am in an unfamiliar cave. It would be easier if I were child-size as there is a distinct line above where the deer cannot reach to graze the leaves, the bark, and the young shoots. The holly and oak live close together. Some even appear to be growing out of the same root. I do not understand why this should be so, but I doubt human hands are responsible for this strange coupling.
There is death here, as well as life. Many of the oaks are hollow, their heartwood long dead. I choose one and wriggle inside. Full of cobwebs, it is pinpricked with hundreds of holes where insects have lived and will live again. It smells of damp and fungi. Each tree is an entire city, an ecosystem that I would have missed if I had not crawled inside.
The oaks are neglected pollards. The upper branches were removed every few years and harvested as a vital crop for house and barn building, for tools, for virtually anything. This makes the oaks grow into strange shapes, squat and wide, with thick curled limbs like mythical serpents for branches. They are giants with faces. I see the head and trunk of an elephant, a wolf howling at the moon, a creature, almost human with eyes and mouth, and one large ear of bracket fungus.
A fox calls, but there is no echo and no reply. Someone has draped a yellow glass necklace on a branch, pigeon and crow feathers have been sewn together in the shape of a cross and hooked over a low branch with a piece of red ribbon turning yellow with moss.
I am in a green cathedral, and somehow I expect to see a Green Man. Perhaps it is him watching me while his giants sleep. I flush a pheasant from beneath my feet and it flutters noisily away with the clacking noise that makes my heart race. The spell is broken. Something shifts in my head, so I turn and quickly retrace my steps.