Picking up on the lovely “Forgotten Forests” project, I made a point of going back to some of my personal “Forgotten Forests” when I was visiting my parents a couple of weeks ago. They still live in the house where we all grew up, in the ‘concrete jungle’ that is Cumbernauld New Town. Out of that visit, came the following….
I spend a lot of my time “on the road”, travelling around, visiting schools, telling stories, leading workshops. Emotionally, I’m very self-contained but once in a while, I find myself wishing I was travelling with someone else, someone to share experiences with. And this time, to share these woods with. For these are the woods that shaped me, gave me the chance to become who I am now. These trees, stones and pools offered solace and shelter and inspiration to my teenage self. These forgotten forests were my refuge as I grew into an awareness of myself as both gay and pagan.
Red Fox Valley. Blackwood. Here I watched my first roebuck, encountered the scarab-excitement dor beetles for the first time, caught my first Great Diving Beetle, met wood anemones and the sharp, sour leaves of wood sorrel. There are pools at the heart of both places: ponds for exploring, offering palmate newts and common toads and a richness of delight.
Blackwood in spring sports bluebell clouds among the rubbish that is scattered through the trees. The bluebells suggest age and some of the trees hold a century or two, predating the quarry and somehow surviving the devastation of the rest of the hillside. Now the trees have claimed the quarry site as well, branches knitting over awkward hollows and sudden drops. The main quarry flooded at some point. A deep, dirty brown pool with fish that moved the water but that I never quite saw. The water gave no clues, reflective but with no clarity, it could have been bottomless or maybe just waistdeep. Mysterious. Kelpie waters, full of invitation, promise and threat. The oldest trees are on the edge of the woods. Their offspring crowded inwards, to the very banks of the pond. They are not big trees, but hefty, gnarled and twisted, holding their own mystery with their moss and lichen and those defiant, enchanted bluebells. The faerie trilogy of trees: Oak, Ash and Thorn.
To walk through Glencryan Woods, along the edge of Red Fox Valley is to look down into a forested depth. A canopy view from the rim of the glen, peering down into the burn’s cut, layers of sandstone quarried by water and tunnelled by men looking for fireclay. The old mine workings were always a temptation and a threat, unstable tunnels, dropping bricks. There were caves too, to scramble into and dream of wildlives, living rough, foraging Crusoes; the lost, unknown, mysterious wildmen of the woods. For me, greater and more lasting than adventure, Red Fox Valley woods brought stillness. The pool at the head of the glen was where “meditation” moved from exercise to experience with the reflections in that water and the trembling leaves of birch trees. Back down in the glen, line of old, old beeches taught me patience, with branches to scramble onto and there to sit and simply stop. The beeches’ presence kept clear the earth beneath green-filtered canopy, offering a space for my first dances of transformation, My first, adolescent, ceremonies were here, opening myself, giving myself to a green world.
These were the forests that shaped me, that held my heart safe in their wooden treasure-chests until I was ready to leave, a sapling myself, and go out into the world beyond the woods. My own Broceliande, a faerie land where I could disappear and be safe from that other world from a while. They are still there, these woods. Maybe not forgotten anymore. They look more cared for now. There is less rubbish, but more people. Blackwood is ringed by some new estate of smart houses but the old, twisted trees have survived; while the woods in Red Fox Valley have grown, are growing, swallowing the old sneaky tracks through the trees, offering sensible gravelled paths instead. But a wildness is still there, in both woods; a freedom of toads, adventure and stillness. A wildness at the heart of things.