After our long hot summer which seemed to have lasted an eternity ~ a few months away from our confinement in the house, glued to the news, bored, convivial ~ the first cold snap of autumn descends into the valley and I go out to converse with the forest. This is never with an intention; I always find my way as I walk ~ just like I do as I set out to write.
Deep in the wood, the ground is clammy after the first blush of snow and my feet are cold, I feel the chill rising slowly up into my bones. Out in the field I catch a murmur of goldfinches, tinkling and twittering; content to move from thistlehead to thistlehead in their newly formed flock, flush with fresh youngsters from this year’s fledgling count. The field is also alive with alpine swift and crag martins, tracking low over the last of the summer’s insects; back and forwards they scan the meadow in quarter lines – making sure that not an inch of the field is missed. They flitter like daytime bats along the tree line and I manage to catch their delicate colouring: browns and buffs tinged with steel grey, as they come towards me in my binocular scope and flip around to retrace their flight yet again.
Above me, I hear the scratchings of a black squirrel, devoid of ear tufts, finding and feeling out its territory – it has a sure-footedness about it and is eager to connect with me. I understand it is learning the ways of trees, sinking itself deeper minute by minute into the essential parts of the forest; every path along every trunk and branch already familiar to him. A woodpecker alarms and I swing round towards his call, peering down onto the valley floor to spy walkers approaching along the path to pass by without much attention. The scratches of the squirrel moving down the bark start up again, as the danger wanes. I am happy to know now that after half an hour standing still upon the damp earth in the middle of the woods, I am no longer the source of errant alarm calls.
Smoke comes gently to my nostrils from the ghost-trail of a cigarette. Hunters are passing through this part of the wood; still far off but obviously walking upwind of me, perhaps two or three miles off and fading. They will be scanning the woods for tracks of their quarry ~ deer, boar and maybe the occasional hare or two. At this time of year, I do not hide myself in the underbrush. Camouflage is a dangerous habit to adopt right now. When hunters let off a few rounds, their bullets can ricochet off trees and rocks and kill hidden things. And they are not as astute as they make out; they can walk straight past me even when I am half-hidden, completely unaware of my presence. Some hunters are lads without much experience with guns. It is far better to stand out bright and upright in a clearing than hide. If I am quiet enough in this posture, wildlife tends to carry on around me and if I am obvious enough, hunters will tend to take up their positions further along the valley, leaving me in peace.
This is what I do most days, bar torrential rain and snow storms ~ in all seasons ~ without fail. It gives my internal compass, which swings around endlessly throughout my day, a chance to reset itself to North. I hold the forest in my palm and realign. When the forest has settled around me, birds start to go about their business above my head, squirrels come out of their hiding places and larger animals ~ if I am lucky ~ are glimpsed or even just felt in passing as they continue on their rounds. I have spent many hours here connecting with the deer herd as they go through their annual ritual of the rut, which is taking place right now from harvest to hunter’s moon. I am aware of the various stags that have ruled this forest; I have written poetry about them and recorded their bellows. I have also used their roars to replace my scattered energy, to focus my gaze into the depths of the forest and to reconnect with the sense of wildness inside me.
Now, today, as I stand here, I feel the stag’s shattered body not far off; he is on his knees, lying low in wait for the last great push into the night, as the moon continues to wane and his antlers slowly droop. He is still on the alert for pretenders to the throne however, and even though his energy is ragged, with very little left in his body to fight with, he is still defending his harem to the death. I turn to where I know the stag must be, legs tucked under his body, perhaps bloody, tattered and hurting, and I bend both ears in his direction to try and catch his faint roar as it comes down to bounce off the trunks of the trees in the gully where I am standing. For the moment there is silence and I can rest standing in my position, stock still.
And then it comes, drawn out from far up in the woods, curdling, spectre-like, anguished yet bittersweet.
I have known for a long time that deer have their own culture and the stag is nobility. He is a prince of the Royal Line and I see him as deified; the Sun-King lying on his throne of flattened brambles. In turn, I become one of his subjects, inspired to kneel in his presence, bending my paltry capped head in awe of a god yet to be dethroned. Perhaps he is still an underling himself, the first season he has been on the throne, maybe there are many years left in his reign or maybe he is a pretender or even a regent. I bow my head low in honour and gratitude for everything he has done to secure the safety of his herd and the forest for the upcoming year.
When it comes to wild animals, presence is everything. Wilderness is pure beingness ~ appearing as stag but at the same time emerging as forest, goldfinch, squirrel ~ and it is this ambiguity that is so difficult to pin down. The way he can play hide-and-seek with me; never seeming to stay constant, yet as a benevolent ruler, he is always omnipotent. Tame animals have lost the ability to shift like this, captivity sets them into a particular way of being and they concern themselves with more human–orientated things. I have to remind myself that I too am domestic: sedentary, fixed, inward-looking and separated. The wild ones are completely interconnected with everything around them; they have the ability to become the snowflakes that fall onto their warm pelts and melt, they are the moonlight that slips in between the trees and casts their shadow onto the forest floor.
I find words completely insufficient to describe all this; I think that is why I favour poetry when it comes to materia anima. When you feel this forest mentality, when you spend time in it and with it, you know it in a way that cannot be explained with human language. It is hard to capture wild animals’ essences. They flicker with nuance. One has to sidle in with the greatest respect and caution. When we move away from the thinking mind that tells us we are separate, better; we can touch Forest. An hour spent in its company gives us more information than a lifetime spent indoors.
As a writer I also become a hunter, I track my word quarry along the trail but have to give into the fact that it is impossible to completely describe these relational complexities; no capture, translation or simplification can bring the forest to its knees, only clear-cut can do that. However, after I have spent prolonged periods in the woods, I do manage to trap something. It is often small and delicate and it clammers inside me until I can take a piece of paper out and start to write. I collect these pieces and keep them safe; they are all like hidden and beloved animals to me.
Inside the house, life is man-made. Things are fixed in place. They are always ‘as they are’. We can hold onto their forms and recognise them, capture their essences easily. Outside is forever-changing. The movement of life and death is always present. Birds are eaten by beasts, plants are eaten by birds, insects live off the blood of mammals, fungi are nourished by tree root-systems, bloom as fruiting bodies and are eaten by animals again. It is always in flux. The stag may reign for decades or be defeated in a season. This mutability breeds aliveness and unlike talking with domestic animals, wild conversations echo this flux; one must track their Will-o’-the-Wispness with such focus and dedication and also, one must allow oneself to give up.
The stag’s thoughts are complex and sweetly simple. I feel his otherness. He beguiles me and he knows he is doing it. He does not speak directly to me; truly wild animals will think very carefully before they enter into conversation with a human. He uses a proxy ~ the trees themselves, these other beings in which he is completely enmeshed. It is not easy to ascertain facts from him. I can only sense something. Once I have a hold on his signal however, he comes to me intact. The words I write now only serve to break him down into pieces again, one thing humans are very adept at doing, but I sense he is resigned to his fate, as all kings must eventually be. Facing death over and over again during this last month, there is a glorious ‘acceptance’ about him and a world-weary knowing that moves into everything he touches. He is holographic, he is All; he enters me completely as a fierce yet gentle warrior, triumphantly pinned to the Cross, aware that any moment could spell his own sacrifice for another fresher and younger stag. I stand and take him in slowly and entirely.
Going out for a romp through a forest will leave you with next-to-nothing. The landscape never yields to anyone who treats it like something to be accomplished. If you dive into the woods like a domestic dog ~ erratic, erstwhile and purpose-less, you will come away with only human-centric impressions. Standing still and waiting (even if that takes all day) means letting the forest enter you under its own terms; individual trees will send out tendrils to check you out, cautiously caressing you with their feelers reading your skin and heartbeat, assessing your thoughts. In this way, they help you to become less human, more animal, encouraging you to solidify your own trunk, put your own roots down and start to sense the reality of the place through your own pores. Give the wild your complete attention and after a while, perhaps a long time, a two-way connection can be forged, you will hear The Song and your world will all at once become less mechanistic and more animistic. And when you finally turn and say goodbye, although the leaving-taking will undoubtedly be long and drawn out, it will feel like you have been talking with a beloved for hours into the night, not noticing the time or how the dawn is slowly creeping through the curtains. You feel the intimacy, yet you cannot remember a single word that was said; the energy of it remains so vital and brilliant, yet you cannot remember which one of you did most of the talking and like lovers, you yearn to meet again, even if for a few stolen moments.
The stag moves to a crescendo of moaning as I slowly turn to go. Exhausted now, he has maybe a week’s worth of rutting left. I thank him and creep away. My day beckons me back to the house; I have emails to answer, calls to make, writing to do. I assure the forest that I will be with it when I lie down in bed this evening and my attention can at last diffuse outwards again. It is then the stag will be out of his day bed, hyper-alert, protecting his hinds from all usurpers to the throne who dare to get too close, oblivious to the late summer bats flitting around his flanks. He will enter into his true yet ragged magnificence, as if these daytime roars came as just the briefest of respites. Strutting amongst his harem for the last time this year, purple robe trailing behind him in the night-dew, I will celebrate his victory with him, mourn for the end of summer and settle into the cold dark days of winter stretching before me, as the stag moves off into a deeper part of the wood.