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.

The idea of a journey

In the movie ‘It’s a wonderful life’, George Bailey says that the three most exciting sounds in the world are ‘anchor chains, plane motors and train whistles’. I agree completely with George’s sentiments and, although ultimately it’s an uplifting movie about being grateful for the life you have, I’m always struck by the tragedy that George is destined never to leave Bedford Falls.

George spent years growing the idea of a journey in his imagination: he read leaflets about interesting jobs in exotic locations and had picked out in his mind just the type of suitcase he’d want to take with him. But it was only the idea of a journey, without all the detail that would bring it to life. And in the end, the journey that George took was of a very different kind: into what life would have been like without him.

Close to my home, there’s a working river and international port. Every evening at the same time, I can walk to the end of my street and watch an enormous passenger ferry sailing by, as though levitating across the end of the road. Often, the air is filled with the hoot and buzz of ship’s horns, sounds that always make me long to be on the sea. Often, we visit the port to watch the ships berthed there. I never imagined that the world was filled with so many unique designs of ship: the sleek passenger ferries and cruise ships; the sturdy pilot and tugboats; the flat cargo ships piled with rusting containers; and the futuristic sub-sea construction vessels. I’ve taken to researching those that are particularly strange in appearance, to discover their purpose. Sometimes, I’ll look up lists of expected shipping: Sapphire Ace, Star Comet, Havla Phoenix, Pleiades Spirit, Ice Crystal – these are just some of the evocative names of ships shortly to arrive.

All journeys begin with an idea, but all journeys are a trip into the unknown. Even the short trips we take every day can become filled with unexpected events. I didn’t travel abroad until I was 21. Before I ever left the country, I yearned for travel, devouring travel programmes, collecting travel books and studying brochures. I planned trips and developed many ideas of journeys, just as George did. But they are only ever ideas of a journey – often seen from someone else’s perspective.

On the first trip I took, to Italy, I could never have imagined the reality of the journey, both good and bad. I couldn’t have predicted the coach breaking down in the Swiss Alps and the motion sickness I was stuck with long after the journey. Nor could I have anticipated the emotional reaction I had to the wonders of Rome, when I’d always imagined it was too familiar from TV and movies to inspire me with any kind of awe. But then that’s the wonder of a journey – you look forward to it because you think you know where you’re going, but the real excitement is that you don’t know at all.

For me, the idea of a journey is glamorous, exciting, full of anticipation and wonder; but there is also a touch of fear and the sense that I don’t want to leave the familiar environment of home. Often, once the trip is booked, I have a reluctance to discuss it and make any kind of preparations. This, I think, is because of the ambiguity I sometimes feel about the journey: longing to go, yet not wanting to go at all. The idea of the journey is much more comfortable than the journey itself.

Starting a story is similar to starting a journey. It’s still the idea of something, but you can’t imagine the ways it will develop on the way. There’s the same sense of excitement, of thinking that anything is possible. And there is also the trepidation – the fear that the words won’t come, that you won’t be able create the vision you’ve shaped in your mind. You may have a plot or characters, or both, but there’s always some part of the story that’s out of your control.

I never believed those authors who said that their characters did unexpected things, as though they were alive and decided to do the opposite of what their creator had planned. How could it be possible that something you’d created yourself was outside of your control? But then my own characters began to do things that were unexpected. My plots meandered off in surprising ways. And most startling of all, was that these unforeseen changes seemed to make the stories come together, as though they’d always been meant to be that way.

So you begin to write as you begin a journey: starting with an idea, which is an idea of how the story might go. But part of the frustration and part of the excitement of writing, is where the journey eventually takes you and what happens along the way.

Does the idea of starting a journey inspire you? Have your characters taken on a life of their own to change the direction of your story?