The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
– Robert Frost
I’m waiting for the moment when dusk tips into night. At dusk, clarity comes to the woods. Trees are sharply silhouetted against a luminous, milk-blue sky. Just after sunset, I can still distinguish the deep greens and grey-browns of the larger trees. The smaller, leafless trees appear black against the sky. There is still an ochre glow in the distance as the sun dies, but the moon has risen, waxing a vivid sliver towards the west. Darkness doesn’t fall immediately. Waiting for night, dusk seems to last forever. Imperceptibly, the pale sky darkens into a truer blue and the tree silhouettes become blurred at the edges. The birds continue singing well into the darkness, until the sky, finally, becomes a midnight blue, the last blackbird quietens and the stars become visible in the sky.
The woods are a different place at night, full of thick darkness and echoing mystery. In places, they’re steeped in a cool green glow from the lighted path, from within which the trees appear to emerge. The woods at night are silent, other than the rush of the wind and the intermittent hoot of tawny owls. I’ve never been afraid of the dark, but here, at night, I have a sense that there may be something to be afraid of. A wooden cabin seems somehow insubstantial. Out on the veranda at night, smoking, anyone could approach us in the darkness.
Our stay in the forest has been accompanied by gales. As the wind swells, the trees creak, rustle and finally roar. At night, the bellow is ferocious and unrelenting. Inside the cabin, there are disquieting thuds from above, as twigs and pine cones are blown onto the metal roof. I’m usually energised by feral weather, yet here, my excitement is tempered by a touch of trepidation. But what exactly is there to fear? Every horror movie fan knows that axe murderers stalk the woods, but the forests of North Yorkshire aren’t their usual habitat. The only large animals here are deer. And though I believe in magic, I don’t imagine the woods to be filled with dreadful supernatural creatures.
In her wonderful book, Gossip from the forest, Sara Maitland writes about the link between forests and European fairytales. She talks about the ways that forests are places where we can get lost but can also hide; that woods are places of trial that can be both dangerous and exciting. She writes about both the fear and the adventure to be found in the woods, advocating that we reclaim both our interaction with the forest and our fairytales for future citizens of the UK.
And though there is that sense of unexplained anxiety I feel in the darkened forest, I also experience the thrill of being in what is, to a town-dweller, such a vast and enigmatic space. In the woods, there are many things I can’t name and many things I don’t know are there at all. I’m left with the impression of something immense and mysterious out there in the darkness.
During the day, the woods are a playground. People swarm out of their cabins in hiking boots and waterproofs, with dogs, on bikes, carrying picnics, forgetting the fear they may have felt in their cabins at nightfall. They trudge through the forest, enjoying the well-marked paths and hoping to spot the wildlife. This is plantation forest, where the trees are primarily Scots pine, Norwegian spruce, larch and birch. They stand in narrow serried rows, separated by lines of stumps and drainage ditches. The floor is a soft mulch of rust-coloured needles, discarded cones, twigs and branches. There are some shrubs and small beech trees, but in many places the landscape appears barren. It isn’t ancient woodland, but still, I find those sentinel trees very atmospheric. They bow and flutter in the wind, the crowns throbbing like jellyfish moving through water.
But even in daylight, the woods can make me nervous. I walk uphill, alone with our dog, through the trees behind the cabin. It’s lonely up here. Twigs snap loudly under my feet with virtually every step. Someone has constructed a domed shelter from fallen branches. It’s well-camouflaged and I don’t see it for what it is immediately. I step inside to explore, though my first thoughts were about the nefarious purposes it may have been put to, in this strange spot behind the last clutch of cabins. We carry on, the dog and I, weaving our own path through the trees, moving further from the cabin, and although I know that I’m not far, that I only have to head downhill to get back to civilisation, I still can’t help but feel anxious. We town-dwellers don’t often walk where no-one else walks. Suddenly, I hear a muffled knocking. I freeze to listen, feeling vulnerable. Then, there’s a loud creak, and I realise I’ve been spooked simply by the effect of the wind in the trees.
It’s almost a tradition for my partner and I. Wherever we go on holiday, there’s always at least one day of rain. We love this, experiencing the different moods of a place. And the forest is different again in the downpour. Smells are more defined and birdsong seems louder. Colours are more vivid. There are no people around. We walk to a different part of the woods, where beech trees grow and bronze leaves still obscure the ground. The sky is full of rain and in the distance the trees are thronged with mist, but as we walk, the rain stops. The landscape is bright with colour, scent and the patter of water dripping from branches.
The woods at dawn feel still but are far from silent. The wind continues to roar through the trees and birds trill, chirrup and yak. At dawn, the light is thin and washed out, the day still fragile, and there’s that tranquillity that comes from other people still being in their beds. The wind brings us treasure on our first morning. A small mound of lichen-encrusted twigs, jewelled with pine cones, lies against the veranda door, as if in offering. It’s a welcome from the forest: our own windfall. These gifts will make the trip home with us, to be used for decoration at Beltane, as a reminder of our time in the woods.
The woods are a place of inspiration and contemplation. They’re the perfect place to take a break from normality and brew creative ideas. There is no mobile signal, no broadband, only five television channels. When I’m in the forest, I see endless views I want to sketch and paint. When I’m in the forest, ideas for stories swirl around my head. I photograph the woods obssessively, taking reference pictures for future projects, wanting to hold onto the insight I have while we’re here. And on our last morning, the wind finally abates. This dawn is serene and sentient. The birds I’ve heard all week make themselves visible, as if from nowhere: tits and tree creepers and robins, revelling in the stillness. It has rained overnight and on the ground there appears to be growth where there wasn’t any before, startling greens sparkling in the damp morning sunlight. The forest has shown us all its sides this week, but it has finally divested itself of all its disguises and revealed its exuberant splendour.