Giving up

Every time I have visited this forest I have climbed the path up the hill.  It is clearly a path – russet and spongy with fallen pine needles – but it is a path that doesn’t make itself easily known.  The trail winds upwards, flanked by bracken and bramble, surrounded by fallen trees.  There are small patches of colour depending on the season: a lone rhododendron, a clump of foxgloves, fruits of fly agaric.  At its peak, it opens out onto a marshy cleft strung with telegraph wires.  Then, the path moves on, straight ahead, deeper into the forest.

Sometimes the forest enfolds and comforts.  Sometimes the forest is everything you fear.  I have always feared the path ahead.  It looks no different to any other path, but when I set foot on it I find myself breathing quietly and moving with caution.  There is a low buzzing in my ears, as though swarms of wasps lie in wait.  Gnarled tree trunks hunch at the edge of the trail.  You might ask why I always seek out this path, when I never feel welcome here, and I can’t answer that.  But I never travel far along it before I turn back.

It has been a couple of years since I was here and on this visit something is different.  The path up the hill is now blocked by two fallen trees.  Yet it doesn’t feel like a barrier, it feels playful.  An invitation to climb over and under.  Telegraph hill is more overgrown than I remember it, but there is a lightness up here that is new.  I walk to the path ahead and suddenly a tan body stumbles onto the trail.  A roe deer.  She stops, sees me and bolts forward into the trees.  I don’t wander any further than the spot where her hooves have grazed the path, but not because I’m afraid.  There is no longer any sense of foreboding here.

The meadows are bursting with wildflowers: buttercups, ragged robin, marsh thistle and orchids, like jewels in the sun.  I see the deer again, grazing on the meadow flowers.  She lifts her head occasionally to look at me, then carries on feeding.  The season of metamorphosis is over.  Flowers are blooming, caterpillars have become butterflies, eggs have hatched.

Almost three months ago, I gave up smoking.  When you give up an addiction, you get through the physical withdrawal and work on breaking the habit of doing that thing when you would usually do it.  And that’s hard.  But you must also confront the reason you have the addiction in the first place.  That empty space that demands something to fill it.  Life becomes flat because you can’t do the thing you want to do; you become restless because that thing is gone; but you are also raw from not having the addiction to cover up what was hidden.

In the weeks since I gave up, I’ve felt positive and motivated, bored and depressed, despairing and emotional.  I could tell you about a hundred vivid dreams but not a single creative thought.  I could tell you about anger, disconnection and fits of uncontrollable crying in the middle of town.  At one particularly dark point, I decided to give up on the constant effort of writing and to destroy everything that I had ever created.  Spring passed into summer without my attention, because the world seemed lacklustre and I was too focused on wrestling with what is inside me.

I didn’t destroy everything I had created.  Instead, I stepped away to avoid doing something I couldn’t undo.   I stopped writing, but I didn’t give up on it.  The forest is a full stop to that withdrawal.  And the forbidden path somehow doesn’t feel forbidding anymore.  Next time I follow it I take a different turning on the trail.  Just beyond is an enormous fallen tree tangled with branches.  After a moment I notice that there is something there that isn’t quite right.  A juvenile owl.  Completely still.  She doesn’t move, not even as the path leads me closer to her.  She’s not a pretty creature.  Not yet.  She looks plucked and a little angry.  She’s still becoming what she’s meant to be.

The solstice dawn contains a breath of winter within it.  The chill clouds my breath.  A cock pheasant is curled like a cat on the edge of the meadow, sleeping.  Like many other midsummer dawns, this one is grey and unspectacular.  In the forest, a chorus of wood pigeons fills the trees, accompanied by a discordant chiff chaff solo.  I walk the trail, until I emerge from pines to the point where the stream begins to curve.  I’m familiar with this landscape, but it has changed irrevocably.  The plantation has been harvested, scythed into an apocalyptic vision, strewn with limbs and stumps as white as bones.  A pair of dead trees still stand in the distance, as though in a doomed embrace.  On my other side, a huge pine has toppled over the stream, needles still feathery and green.  In the pooling water, a staff sticks out of the silt.  It looks like a small figure, arms outstretched in despair or welcome.

She is there when I emerge from the trees.  The roe deer.  Spirit of the woods.  This morning she is not expecting me.  It’s too early for humans to be up.  I walk on past, leaving her to her business.  And there is the pheasant, still sleeping, this time stretched out on his side.  I didn’t know pheasants slept like cats, but this one certainly does.  He startles as I pass and stalks grumpily into the grass.

Any butterfly will tell you that change isn’t easy. There’s a price to be paid for those wings.  And when they’re unfurled, you’re transformed, but you’re also the same creature you were before.  I’m trying to find out who I am without something I’ve done for more than twenty years.  I can feel a twitch at my shoulders where wings might grow.  After all these years, I’m still becoming what I’m meant to be.  Giving up shouldn’t fundamentally change me, but maybe it will reveal things that have been hidden all along.

 

Secrets of Tocil Wood

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There’s a sense of comfort about the familiar walks that I take.  I know where each path will lead and what I can expect to see on the journey.  I know where I’m likely to find particular plants and animals and there is satisfaction in being able to mark their progress.  But the adventure of the path not yet taken is altogether different.  To know roughly where you are, but not quite.  To know that there are secrets yet to discover, which perhaps even those who live here are not aware of.

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I’m walking to Tocil Wood, a patch of ancient woodland in Warwickshire.  I have a rudimentary map in my head and a maze of buildings and footpaths to negotiate.  I could have asked for directions, but I prefer to see a path and wonder where it will lead, so I head off into the unknown, sure that I’ll find what I seek eventually, but with that slight disquiet of not knowing exactly where I am.  The path I take skirts a pond and is bordered by meadow: a profusion of ox-eye daisies, viper’s bugloss, speedwell and poppies.  Rabbits hop among the flowers and scores of waterfowl rummage around the pool.

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There’s a gap in the hedge ahead of me, so of course I go through it, finding a lush green path bordering a field of young crops.  At its end, a wounded tree forms an archway and what more invitation do I need?  Just as I’d suspected it would, this beckoning leads to a moment of magic.  A secret hollow.  An enchanted, perhaps even slightly sinister place that seems detached from the bright, open world beyond.  The hollow is shady, secluded, riddled with rabbit holes and surrounded by steep banks.  A baby rabbit grazes among the undergrowth.  There is a narrow path in the distance, blocked by trees.  But someone has discovered this place, because on the edge of the hollow a swing has been fashioned from wood and rope.  It hangs, empty, waiting for its maker to return.

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Later, I cross a small meadow of buttercups to reach a lake, fringed with reeds and littered with yellow water lilies.  A grey heron is hunched in the trees by the path that leads into the woods, like a grumpy guardian of the border to this arboreal world.  It’s a world of huge, gnarled oaks and papery hazel coppice: a four hundred year old wood with traces of more ancient earthworks beneath it.  A world of bracken and bluebells.  Of small, winding paths.  There is a brackish stream, straddled by an ivy-cloaked tree that has rooted on both sides of the water.

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I follow narrow paths, deeper into the forest, until I come across a clearing.  A glade sheltered by tall old trees that form a natural circle.  The ground is blanketed with bracken and bluebells, the sun slants in hazy beams.  It is a hushed place, steeped in atmosphere.  A space for magic or devotion.  The clearing has been enclosed by a thorny barricade, perhaps to conserve it, perhaps because if I was to step into it, it would transport me to a fairy realm from which I’d never return.  I long to cross into the clearing, to move between pools of sunlight and the shade of those ancient trees.  Instead, I’m stranded at the border, craving the enchantment that is just out of reach.

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I visit Tocil Wood twice, briefly, between the work commitments I’m here for.  I may never come here again.  But already I’ve found my secrets.  Those little pockets of enchantment that will endure in my memory of the place.  If I was to come again, they would be my pilgrimage places, those pauses that we return to again and again because they spark something inside us.  They’ll become part of my memory map of the places I’ve been, the paths I’ve walked, the things I’ve seen, enriching each recollection.