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NOTE: For a complete list of articles related to this chapter... Visit the Main Index FOR this section.
The Child in the Forest
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Posted: January 31st. 2010
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Father Herne, hear our feet and guard our way. We bring bright laughter and joy of the hunt. We seek the treasures of Your domain. Give us the gift of Your bounty and we give You the gift of our love. So mote it be!
Forests hold many attractions, especially for someone who loves all aspects of nature. Perhaps the enfolding trees trigger deep instincts. The ancestors saw the forest as a resource, providing food, shelter and materials, but also as a place of terror and mystery. I am also confident that the old people were fully capable of appreciating its beauty and grandeur. There has been art for millennia and to produce it, surely there has to have been that sensitivity.
Sacred groves still exist if you know where to look and with the benefit of education about the natural world, we can dispense with the fear whilst still keeping a sense of Mystery. I hope that this article will be a trigger to you. Maybe it will bring back a lost memory treasure or inspire you to visit some woodland and get in touch with that part of Self untouched by the distractions of the modern world. Let the Gods get in touch with you.
In the nineteen fifties, I had an enviable childhood in many ways. Our parents had little money but they tolerated our use of the greatest playground imaginable: the forest, and we lived literally on the edge of it. With the benefit of hindsight, I can now see the presence of the Gods in the trees and understand at last how they protected us while we ran wild.
I visualize the forest always as it was and not as it is now. I would never return for fear of disappointment and sorrow. This is an account of a typical day in and around the trees of Epping Forest in Essex, but seen through the minds eye as one might travel on the astral plane. The gods look on and remind us to come in humility and love. All the place names are real, but if you look for them now on the old familiar paths, you will be looking for an eternity unless the fairies guide you, and some of them can be tricky.
I go out through the wooden picket gate and turn right, up Baldwins Hill past someone’s mansion to Jackson’s Green. The deeply tufted grass, always richly coloured here, can turn your ankle if you’re not careful, so the path is best. Overhead, lofty horse chestnuts soar into the sky. The lower branches are scarred from being attacked in the autumn, making them release the conkers essential to games. The path is wide and often travelled past the crowded hollies and beech and oak trees. The deep leaf litter and decades of beech mast yields to your footsteps.
If you fall over during play, an unseen hand will keep you from harm.
The Keeper’s Green is ignored today. The tithe house intrudes above the high hawthorn hedge and is home to a friend. I bear off to the right and visit accustomed spots along the way to the Gravels, or The Lost Pond as it is also known.
In old times, lopping and coppicing was usual and the forest gave a living to many folk. Now, the privilege of gathering fallen branches is the only surviving tradition. A few crones pass by the hedge at the end of the front garden at the weekends. You never really see them, only the great bundles of sticks on their backs.
It is early summer and the beeches bear heavy canopies of brilliant new leaves. At my level I detect only a slight whispering as the breeze stirs the top-most branches. Soon I come to a gap in the overhead cover and glaring sunlight beats down onto a tightly packed grove of young saplings. From a little distance, it looks like a defiant hedge pig bracing its back against the sky. It is barely possible to squeeze amongst the stems and when I do, I find strange objects scattered on the almost bare ground. No leaf litter here, but pieces of thick metal lying rusting on the surface, indecipherable, mute.
Nearby there is some deer grass and early in the morning I have sometimes hidden in the bracken to witness the arrival of a ghostly herd of fallow deer. Their dark, liquid eyes watch constantly while mouths move on the choice crop. After a few minutes, dainty and skittish, they melt into the background and disappear.
I meander along until a thick patch of undergrowth grows up untidily before me. Here, there is a seemingly random collection of blackthorn, hawthorn, saplings and willow herb, the sign of disturbed ground. The thatch of plants hides a narrow, muddy path with barbed wire beyond. All is green but deceptive as some of this verdant wall is lying over the surface of a small, round pool.
No undines come here.
The wire is strung between rickety posts and this is the only pond so guarded. The duckweed is thick on the water and never disturbed until a stick is thrown in or I fail to catch the dog from launching herself into the magnetic water. When stirred, the Green Pond gives up a mighty stink and anything that goes in becomes caked in black slime to which the duckweed sticks heroically. Not much fun to be had here, so I negotiate the liquid mud of the path and return to the leaves.
Passing the hawthorn bushes, I nip off some new leaf buds to eat. Inexplicably, they are known as ‘bread and cheese’ but are sweetly tender. Now the forest takes on a different character and the ground slopes steeply to a narrow brook. Eventually, this and other small streams will run down to the reservoir about half a mile to the left. This is now Monk Wood and is supposed to have been a place where monks roamed saying their prayers. It is made up of gently curving banks overshadowed by enormous beeches. There is almost no leaf litter, only large hummocks of moss. Sandals and socks grow green in the stirred up spore dust.
Sometimes, I lie on my back and look upwards to the quaking highest branches, like thickly jewelled arms. The sun stabs through the lattice to form narrow, golden ladders and if I lie here long enough, the forest will encrust my form and take me to itself. Birds are often silent here, perhaps listening like me for the breath of the Goddess. The pillow-like moss is comforting but seething with life and moving on, I gently remove the visitors to my hair.
Off in another direction, I eventually reach the brow of a steep hill at the top of which is a pale glow. A circlet of elderly and graceful birches surrounds the water in The Lost Pond. The old gravel working is popular with children who come to dip for sticklebacks and tadpoles. The little fish are usually too crafty to be lured into a sixpenny net, but the tadpoles oblige and are trawled into jam jars in their hundreds.
Long-suffering mothers usually tip the sad looking blobs into a damp corner of the garden after they metamorphose into froglets. One side of the old gravel working slopes gently and is composed mostly of sand so this is a favourite spot for paddling. The clear, silky water is welcomed after the dusty heat of the trees. If you look closely, the pale stripes of sunlight on the bed of the pond ripple into smiles and silent laughter and the weed waves alluringly, its fingers beckoning you to a further step into the depths.
Be mindful of what dwells here.
Back down the hill, I follow the brook until it disappears into the reed beds at the head of the old reservoir. No wading is possible here and those that try must be pulled out of the sticky clay and deep, dark water. Huge, azure and emerald dragonflies course across the surface, dipping to catch their prey. Other flying beings hang thickly in the air and feed on my friends and I in late afternoon. The hillside to the left is dotted thickly with young oaks and bushes with The Green rising upwards to the Five Trees that stand like a huge coronet on the top.
I will sit for a while on the bench there, or play languidly in the natural sandpit nearby. Sometimes, I go with friends to gather under the Big Tree, an oak of massive girth, and we fight our childish fights. A drink at the granite water fountain next and I amble home for tea, Dick Barton on the radio and bed. In my adult dreams, I see the houses and road, but not the forest.
The God has placed a veil across it and perhaps only a child can go there again.
Notes: Epping Forest is a tiny remnant of a once great Royal forest just to the north of London. A ‘green’ is simply any grassy open space. A Keeper is like a forest ranger. Lopping was gathering the branches of trees for firewood, a so-called Commoner’s Right. The grove of saplings sprang up on the site of an aerial bomb burst during WW2. The Green Pond was a bomb crater - the Luftwaffe often dropped surplus loads on their way home.
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