Into the Woods
At the moment I am reading The Wood by John Lewis-Stempel. It’s a passionate ode to woodland, full of interesting facts and poetic language. It has me captivated - and was the inspiration behind this week’s post.
Shortly after 5 am on Sunday, May 5th I was in the woods - Tincleton Hang - enjoying the magic of the dawn chorus.
As the darkness slowly faded, blackbirds and garden warblers welcomed me into their secret world. A distant pheasant cok-coked, as more birds joined the chorus — thrushes and siskens; woodpigeons, robins and wrens. At about 6.15 am, I sat on a low tree stump, soft with moss, and cracked open my flask of tea. From above came a rhythmic swooshing, as of a hefty stick being wielded as a weapon, cutting the air: an incoming raven, announcing his presence with a deep, hearty cronk.
Can you tell I love being in the woods? They offer me a great sense of peace, and I find myself slowing down, wandering in search of something - yet nothing. Woodlands hold their secrets tightly, but are willing to share if we just take our time to look and listen. They are a place of solace and mystery.
Within the tradition of stories, notably children’s literature, readers are more likely to be warned of the dangers awaiting them if they stray off the path and head into the woods, than encouraged to seek out their solitude. It starts as early as pre-school with Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel and any number of fairy tales. (Even my recollection of the teddy bears’ picnic has sinister undertones: If you go down to the woods today, you’re in for a big surprise…)
Cautionary tales are rooted in oral storytelling, with our ancestors gathered around a fire. And in days of old, people would have had reason to fear the woods.
Predatory animals; the risk of getting lost and separated; rival clans.
Falling acorns. (Silly Chicken Licken.)
This natural caution has become so entrenched in the human psyche that it continued to influence modern children’s literature. Examples include -
The thick woods of Oz (so creepily portrayed in the classic MGM movie):
There was no way of going around it, for it seemed to extend to the right and left as far as they could see; and, besides, they did not dare change the direction of their journey for fear of getting lost. So they looked for the place where it would be easier to get into the forest… just as [the Scarecrow] came under the first branches they bent down and twined around him, and the next minute he was raised from the ground and flung headlong among his fellow travellers.
- The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum
Little Wolf’s experience of Frettnin Forest:
The fox was right. This IS the shockingest, dismalest darkest part of the forest… Talk about spooky. So overgrown, with eyes and croaks and squeaks everywhere! Good thing I have got my torch…
- Little Wolf’s Book of Badness by Ian Whybrow
Mole’s disorientation in the Wild Wood:
The pattering increased till it sounded like sudden hail on the dry-leaf carpet spread around him. The whole wood seemed running now, running hard, hunting, chasing, closing in round something or - somebody? In panic, he began to run too, aimlessly, he knew not whither. He ran up against things, he fell over things and into things, he darted under things and dodged round things. At last he took refuge in the deep dark hollow of an old beech tree, which offered shelter, concealment - perhaps even safety, but who could tell?… And as he lay there panting and trembling, and listened to the whistlings and the patterings outside, he knew it at last, in all its fullness, that dread thing which other little dwellers in field and hedgerow had encountered here, and known as their darkest moment - the thing which the Rat had vainly tried to shield him from - the Terror of the Wild Wood!
- The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
A few years ago, Noah and I got lost in an unfamiliar woodland - Duncliffe Wood - at dusk. As the gloom deepened, I trotted faster, anxious to find our way out. Night fell - and we were lost. We eventually managed to pick our way to the edge of the woods, found a remote farmhouse, and were pointed in the direction of the car park. Grahame’s description of the panicky Mole - who’s rising fear is palpable - suddenly became all too real.
The examples above are from stories I love (Little Wolf’s Book of Badness is just about My Favourite Book To Read Aloud). But I wonder - how much do such cautionary tales, set in woodlands and forests, breed fear and mistrust; warning kids away from - rather than enticing them into - their leafy embraces?
For a more positive portrayal of woodland, I recommend Simon James’s celebratory picture book, The Wild Woods (Walker Books 1993).
The story is dedicated to Plymbridge Woods in Devon - and you can tell from James’ evocative art that this is a wood that he knows and loves.
It features Grandad and Jess, who is led astray by an enticingly cute squirrel - with her poor, old grandad in hot pursuit! (For some reason, whenever I read it I aloud I give them Yorkshire accents.)
“But Jess, come back!” shouted Grandad. “You can’t keep a squirrel. Where’s he going to sleep?”
Part of its appeal to me is that it reflects my childhood experience of woodland walks, while reminding me of when our boys were young. (Jane and I had a mantra when it came to squirrels - if you catch it you can keep it!)
“Hurry up, Grandad!” said Jess. “Come and see. I think I’ve found a waterfall.”
What follows is a silent spread, with no words - a device used by James to allow us to pause - just as his characters do - and stare out across the raging river with its waterfall (Grandad leans against a tree, mopping his brow and looking exhausted!). James’ use of expressive watercolour is perfect for capturing the fluidity and movement of the scene. As with his other illustration, it reveals great skill with the medium, which looks deceptively easy but which is, in fact, a swine to master.
“I love being in the wild,” Jess said. “Can we come back tomorrow?”
You should always leave a woodland with the feeling that you have been ‘in the wild’ - just as Jess and her grandad did.
A visit to a sanitised wood, with waymarks and toilets and passers-by, will still hold secret things of beauty. But I am always left feeling cheated. And as James’ The Wild Wood exemplifies, books about woodlands and forests don’t have to be full of suspense and drama. They can be nothing but a glorious celebration.
I hope I get to create such a book someday.
With thanks to Simon James for granting permission to use his work
Visit Simon James Books to see more
Good to Read
Positive portrayals of woods
Toot and Puddle - Let It Snow by Holly Hobbie (Little Brown 2007)
The Wild Woods by Simon James (Walker Books 1993)
Time to Say Goodnight by Sally Lloyd-Jones, ill. by Jane Chapman (HarperCollins 2006)
Down in the Woods at Sleepytime by Carole Lexa Schaefer, ill. By Vanessa Cabban (Walker Books 2000)
Danny Champion of the World by Roald Dahl
Winne-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne, ill. by E.H.Shepherd
Calvin and Hobbes (various titles) by Bill Watterson