Dark and deep

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Between the worlds

Often, I imagine all the writers and artists of the world, toiling away in our separate creative spaces, scattered, but connected by our need to create.  I love to look at photographs of writers, but it’s not the portraits displayed on book jackets that I want to see, it’s those of the writer captured at work.  I want to scrutinise their tools, their notes, their keepsakes – to watch the creative process at work.  I think of them engaged in their work at old battered desks, piled with papers and books; at scoured kitchen tables, littered with coffee mugs; curled up in bed against a pile of cushions; or scribbling in a notebook among the bustle of a busy cafe.  I love, too, to see artists in their surroundings: in huge industrial spaces filled with mysterious objects; airy attics crammed with canvases and adorned with clods of paint; or perched with easel or sketchbook on the brow of a mountain or in the hollow of a sand dune.

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What we all have in common, when we’re immersed in our work, is that we’ve found our place between the worlds, where the magic of creativity can occur.  The phrase ‘between the worlds’ is sometimes used by witches to describe the space generated when we cast a circle.  It’s a space apart from, but within, normal life.  Most of us don’t have our own dedicated ritual space, just as many of us don’t have a separate study or studio, so the circle acts as a marker, conjured from energy, in which to enact the ritual.  And I believe this is also what happens when we create.  I don’t cast a circle when I write or paint, but almost unconsciously, I build an intangible space around myself, forged from the energy I’m using to create.  The real world becomes blurred as I get lost in words or images.

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The places in which I work are varied and dependent on what it is I want to create.  There’s a tiny room, packed with books, keepsakes, art and writing materials.  It’s a peaceful space, with a comfortable chair and a blanket for warmth that I use for contemplation.  There is the spot next to the window in our sitting room where my easel is placed, because it gets light and I can still interact with the life of the house.  My creative space is also portable: it’s in my notebook, my sketchbook, my laptop.  We all need a place where we feel we can create, but what space do you actually need?  Is your creative space a physical one, or is it a space inside your head?  None of the places I use are dedicated ones.  But when I’m creating, they become sacred space of a kind, so that it’s possible to tune out the mundane things and forge something out of nothing.  Magic is creativity and creativity is magic, in the sense that we’re using something we can’t see (energy), to make a physical change in the world.

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If the world is nothing but energy, vibrating on different frequencies, as modern theories of physics seem to suggest, there’s nothing to stop us making creative space anywhere.  And just as in magic, where the energy raised might be used to heal, to bind, to celebrate, so creative space can be used for many different purposes.  Whenever we work, at that moment, in different parts of the world, there will be countless others writing, painting, sketching or sculpting, all using creative energy.  If you try hard, you can feel the force of it, all that energy, like a furnace forging change.  If you’re finding it difficult to focus, or to find a suitable space to dedicate to your craft, perhaps you can channel it.  Consider the type of energy that you need and gather the circle around you to create your own world between the worlds.

Destination inspiration

I’ve spent hours of my life on buses, but the time has rarely been wasted. A bus journey is often a source of inspiration and a space to meditate on whichever creative project I’m working on at the time.

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Buses don’t have the same sense of glamour or excitement as some types of transport. There’s no doubt it’s easier to jump in a car than to wait for a bus that may be late. Journeys may take longer and you may still have some distance to walk to your destination. There’s little joy in waiting at a bus stop in freezing weather or pouring rain. And you have no say in who shares the journey with you.

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But I’ve always found bus journeys to be a perfect trigger for creativity. There’s a feeling of respite in boarding a bus and allowing it to take you where you need to go. You have little control over the journey, so you may as well surrender to it. On buses, you can be anonymous. Other passengers, armoured by their ipods or newspapers, rarely pay you any attention. On buses, you don’t have to watch the road, so you can notice things you wouldn’t on a journey by car. Usually, you can take a window seat and simply gaze at an array of scenery slowly passing by.

Buses give me time to think. The majority of my journeys last about half an hour, which is plenty of time to ponder. I’ve had many good ideas for writing on bus journeys. I’ve reshaped plots, developed characters and changed the whole direction of stories, all because I’ve had that time to think. I often scan passengers as they board the bus, watching how they behave and inventing theories about who they are. Thinking on a bus is different to thinking at home or in another place. Perhaps it’s the fact that for half an hour there’s nothing else I have to do. Or maybe it’s something about the forward movement through changing scenery and the regular drone of the engine that takes me to another place. A bus journey is never just a trip between destinations: I travel into other worlds on a bus.

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Let me take you on one of my regular bus journeys. Imagine yourself settled comfortably beside the window. It’s been raining outside and the bus is warm and steamy. You can feel the hum of the engine, lulling you into a meditative state. We travel first down a quiet road, past warehouses and compounds filled with rusting cranes. The road has an air of dereliction, but there’s also a kind of beauty in the twisted metal and decaying buildings. You just begin to wonder about the characters and the activities that might take place there, when the road opens out onto a panorama of the river. It’s not long after sunrise and the light is clear and tinted with pale blue and pinks, ideal for painting. You scan the buildings lining the banks, including the ruins of the priory overlooking the river mouth and you watch the small ferry crossing from north to south. There are layers of history and experience along the river, waiting to be brought to life.

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Next, we pass through a small housing estate and reach a bridge. On one side is a park, with cascades of water running down the hill towards the river. On the edge of the park is a hospice and you consider the stories of the people coming to the end of their lives there. Perhaps they think about their lives as they watch the assortment of boats sailing in and out of the marina on the other side of the bridge. They may mark the days in the daily arrivals and departures of the ferry from Holland, or watch the oil rigs and cranes lining the river and remember when ships were built here.

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Further on, we pass through an industrial estate, where the streets are named after Swedish cities, and through wasteland, dotted with pylons. We cross a bridge over the line used by the railway museum for steam train rides, and pass the old wagon ways, which were once used to transport coal from the mines to the river. Our final destination is the business park, packed with newly built, perfectly landscaped buildings that are standing empty, like shiny sentinels, waiting for someone to inhabit them and bring them to life.

Any of these things on their own could spark a story or a painting, but a bus journey is a kaleidoscope of sights unfurling one after the other. Some are barely registered, but they percolate in my imagination, sparking ideas and connections which I might use in the future.

So, if you don’t usually take the bus, why not try it? You don’t have to have a destination in mind. Choose a time outside of the rush hour – mid-morning is good – when you’re likely to get a seat to yourself. The type of route and the scenery don’t matter, it’s the movement and the letting go that do. See what comes of your journey. And if you can’t take a bus journey of your own, perhaps you can take a little inspiration from mine to help you on your way. I’d love you to share your experiences.

Remembering what you love

© Mandy Bland

© Mandy Bland

As we approach Valentine’s Day, many of us will be thinking about and celebrating the people we love. It’s often our loved ones that are our greatest inspiration: inspiring us to be better, to work harder, to become the best person we can be. But usually, we need other things in our lives to love, so that we can be the person who is capable of loving another human being. So this year, as a Valentine’s gift to yourself, why not also remember the other things you love: the things you love to do the things that inspire you and the things that make you feel most alive.

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How often do you take the time to do the things you love? If you’re like me, you find a way to fit them around your day job and other commitments. You snatch slivers of time that are never enough and procrastinate because you know you’ll never achieve all the things you want to achieve. Or are you lucky enough to do the thing you love as your day job – and if this is the case, do you still love it as much as you used to, or does having to do it take away some of the pleasure?

I spent my childhood with a sketch pad and pencil in hand and wherever I went, I would draw portraits. My love of art continued until high school, but at that point it became work. To carry on, I had no choice but to take a qualification in graphic art, but I didn’t want to draw advertisements or design product packaging. And eventually, I fell out of love with art.

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When I was young, I also loved horses. In those days, there seemed to be many fields with resident horses, before collections of new houses sprang up on every green corner. I could stroke and feed the horses on my way to school. Despite the fact that I couldn’t afford to learn to ride a horse, let alone have any chance of owning one, I took every opportunity to be around them and read endless books on horse care, horse breeds and collections of horsey stories. And it’s not so much that I fell out of love with horses, as that I seemed to forget about them.

But when my mother was dying, I rediscovered both my love for art and my love for horses. Almost all of the paintings I created depicted horses. I made an effort to visit places where horses would be. The timing of these rediscoveries seems odd to me, as though perhaps having my mother die somehow took me back to childhood. During this period, as I regained two of my passions, I lost others – my ability to write and to concentrate on reading. But now that I have all of those things, my life is richer than ever with creativity and inspiration.

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But why do we give up the things we once loved? I suspect that it many cases it takes an enormous amount of will and passion to hang on to them. Other things become more important. Or life is such that we forget the things that are important. Perhaps we forget that life is meant to be enjoyed as well as endured. We realise that only the few are able to make a living from creative pursuits and accept (whether it’s true or not) that we aren’t one of them. Or we conclude that we just aren’t good enough. It seems wasteful of so much talent and inspiration that if writing or painting are the things that we love, there doesn’t appear to be enough success to go around. It suggests that creativity isn’t valued in the way that other jobs are, that often, it isn’t viewed as a ‘job’ at all.

© Mandy Bland

© Mandy Bland

So how do we recapture the joy in the things we once loved to do and lost? For me, it was accidental. I didn’t consciously choose to paint, or to revisit my obsession with horses. It was, in fact, a very difficult period in my life that brought them back to me. I think, ultimately, that life made me re-prioritise and I realised that the career I’d spent so much energy on wasn’t actually very important to me at all. And for me, this only underlines the value of my ability to write or to paint – that in the worst of times, I could find comfort and inspiration from being able to create. I needed practical support from social workers and doctors, but without art and writing I wouldn’t have been able to get back to myself.

So on this Valentine’s Day, I hope that you’ll celebrate the things, as well as the people, that you love. And if you’ve forgotten what they are, take some time to remember them. If you recapture a lost love or you’ve found a way never to lose it, please share it with me.