We live in a small village between two Yorkshire towns. Once it was a pit village serving the local colliery up the road. On a wall in our backroom is an old black and white photograph from the early part of the twentieth century showing men from the village pushing wheelbarrows full of coal down the dirt road past the house where we now live. It is a place with history, a history that is constantly being remade. The colliery is now the National Coal Mining Museum and the village has become a place where locals pack the roads with their cars on their way to work in the towns and cities nearby. The village has become a place between other places, more prosperous in many ways but lacking a focus, a reason to be itself. It sits as a place between time, a borderland with a very strong sense of the past and an uncertain future, confused about and unable to define itself in the present moment. A place with plenty of stories but unable to tell the story of ‘now’. Racked with uncertain employment, resentful of those who are different, buying the Brexit myth in the hope that it will all feel better soon and a better story will emerge.
Most days I too drive the few miles to my workspace in the nearby town. Wakefield is also between places, sitting on the river Calder and next to the eastern ridge of the Pennine hills, a place between river and hill. A market town built on the wool trade, corn and coal coupled with its position as an inland port on a navigable river. Surrounded by ‘tusky’ (rhubarb) fields and sitting south of the much larger city of Leeds that dominates the region physically, socially and economically. The village and the town, both borderlands – places that sit between.
Our village also sits between two old woods; this land was part of the manor given to one of William the Conqueror’s earls in 1081 for his service in the Norman invasion of England, a brutal invasion that tore the land from the hands of the people who had lived and worked it for hundreds of years. Land packaged up as a gift for service, an asset to be traded. Wood and forest becoming something to make money from.
If you look closely, the woods also reveal the history shared with the village: old bell pits, lime kilns and coke ovens – past times, all grown over and becoming part of the woodscape, no longer needed by the men and women whose boots once trod the flagged stone paths and roadways that survive today, suddenly appearing then disappearing, broken by time and the growth of trees, bushes and turf.
These woods are also marginal spaces. They sit at the edge of the village, bordered by newer housing as the village reaches outwards. A wood left alone apart from the occasional groups of community volunteers who battle with the vast swathes of Himalayan balsam and maintain the paths, or the dog walkers and horse riders, the BMX riders, and the teenagers from the villages who come at night to drink beer and make fires to sit around. The woods are places to pass through, liminal spaces to enter and leave, full of a natural architecture very different from the village. This is a place for adventure if you have the imagination for it; truly a space between place and time.
Sometimes magic colours this wood. Whether it is the result of a nurturing microclimate, human hands, or a late cut of the meadow, a small patch of wildflowers blooms in the late October sun; deep blue cornflowers, common ragwort, oxeye daisies and groundsel defiantly flicking colour at the steel cold blue sky as if it is still midsummer. Other times of the year the dominant colour is creamy white on dark green as the wild garlic flecks the banks of the various becks running through the woods. In early spring the piercing white of common mouse-ear springs out of the verges of the paths, the tiny split leaves like mouse’s ears waving in the wind.
Walking in this wood summons stories; and those that want to be told arrive. The story of Little Red Riding Hood that my five-year-old granddaughter and my wife and I tell each other, acting it out using the paths and trees of our wood as the paths and trees that Little Red Riding Hood, the wolf and the huntsman walk on and hide behind. One wood becomes another in an instant, a playing out of a magic that stretches back to the first storytellers. The Hansel and Gretel story is another told in this wood; an old story full of dark and light, told at various stopping points in suitable parts of the wood with the older audiences I work with. It too becomes part of the wood and the wood becomes part of it, a connection that flexes and adapts and so changes each time it is told.
It is no accident that many stories happen in a dark wood or forest, especially stories from Northern Europe. Woods and forests are built into our mythic imaginations because they have been physically present in our lives and the lives of our ancestors for many hundreds of years. The stories lope through the woods, hungry for connection, a fire and a listener.
As I make my own loping way through the woods there is a flickering of sunlight through the darkness of the trees and their leaves; light to dark and back again. In much the same way light and dark flicker through the woods and forests of our stories and folklore; they are ambivalent places, places where living and dying, good and evil, are always present and you are never sure what to expect round the next corner or who might appear from behind the next tree. The wood is rarely a comfortable space.
This ambivalence, the darker side of the wood, was identified by the mythologist Joseph Campbell who mapped what has come to be called the Hero’s Journey. This is the single narrative or ‘monomyth’ that, he argued, underpins all stories in all traditions and cultures. The wood is a key part of this universal metaphor: the hero has to enter the ‘dark wood’ and suffer the trials and tests in order to achieve the elixir, grail or prize that she or he then must take back to the everyday world. This suffering is often compounded by the shapeshifters, tricksters and downright evil forces she or he encounters on the Journey. This light and dark, this ambiguity and uncertainty, is a space the hero must go through in order to reach a new understanding about her or himself and the world; the journey cannot be avoided. This is another kind of borderland; woods turned into places of confusion and paradox where change can be a positive experience but only sometimes, and always accompanied by pain and struggle. In these woods it is often hard to really know the difference between good and bad, light and dark.
We all have experience of the Hero’s Journey reflected in our own lives – some of us sadly never find a way out of the dark wood and ‘perish’ in our quest, eventually leading Eliot’s ‘lives of quiet desperation’ or raging in the darkness, lashing out at anything new or misunderstood. Make no mistake, this wood is a dangerous place. Things are often not what they seem; the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood pretends to be concerned for her but wants to eat her and her grandmother, the witch in Hansel and Gretel lives in a house made of sweetmeats and bread, she welcomes Little Brother and Little Sister with good food to eat but quickly imprisons Hansel, attempting to fatten him up to eat and setting his sister to skivvy for her. That which attracts us is not necessarily that which nurtures us. A bit like the fly agaric toadstools that appear in late summer around the birch trees in our wood; they look as if they have appeared out of the pages of a fairytale but contain poison in their hearts.
The old stories are full of shapeshifters and trickster figures that appear as one thing, often human, but are something else entirely. Often these figures appear as positive influencers and helpers only to be revealed as dangerous and destructive. Sometimes it is the other way round and the apparently poor, the simple woodsman, the overworked step-daughter or the mysterious, initially threatening stranger turn out to be forces for good. This ambivalence extends to the trees themselves. The elder tree is a good example; in myth and folklore it is both feared and revered, sometimes driving out evil, sometimes causing sickness, dreams of death and indeed death itself. In contrast the oak, present in our own wood, is sacred. It is ‘the mother tree’, a nurturing tree; if you cut one down you do so at your peril. When times were hard acorns were eaten not just by animals but by people, dried, ground and turned into flour for baking.
Why all this uncertainty associated with woods? Walk in a wood at dusk or on days when the cloud presses in, compacting the light to darker, greyer shades, and you will see. At these times trees begin to look like human figures, their shapes twisted and convoluted. What hides in the shadows, in the undergrowth? Is that the movement of the wind or is it an animal moving towards me? The older, more primal parts of brain and neurology unpack thousands of years of genetic conditioning and spark up new, fearful thoughts.
As marginal, liminal spaces, forests and woods are also a place for ‘outlaws’; people who live physically and in thinking outside the law, the established way of doing things, the way of the village or town. In the tenth century these outlaws were men and women escaping the brutality of the Norman scorched-earth destruction of Anglo-Saxon communities, especially up here in Yorkshire, Lancashire and the North East. The forests and woods became their homes from which they hunted for food, cut wood for fires and harassed the invading occupation forces. Their resistance placed them outside Norman law. They became the rebels battling an arbitrary and corrupt law, fighting for a way of life that they felt was just and right. These people were the antecedents of the Robin Hood stories that began to appear in the ballads and stories of the fourteenth centuries, stories of the wood that are still walking with us today but that we seem to have lost connection to. It is a kind of collective amnesia that we have fallen into, creating a space that can be colonised by a different set of stories. Stories told by forces of a new ‘underworld’, stories meant to manipulate us, making us into fodder to be consumed as part of a post-industrial fable that creates separateness and individuality while apparently nurturing connectivity and identity through social media. We live in a time in which the ‘shapeshifters’ can and do flourish.
Our world is experiencing a dark wood that appears to stretch to the horizon and beyond. A dark wood in which there are no maps, because we have created a forest empty of the stories that connect us back to our deeper soul, to our natural ground, to our understanding that we are all connected. When we lose our stories we lose this common ground, that which holds us and grounds us in a sense of the whole. We fall into a kind of waking sleep, unable or unwilling to find the magic apple to revive us; rather we follow others to stagnant waterholes that provide no real quenching of our thirst. We see the results of this cycle in climate change, the pollution of large tracts of the land we have exploited for so long and in the impact on ourselves and our fragile sense of community and connection. We are in desperate need of the ‘outlaws’, the mavericks who can break out and populate this space in a different way to bring us back together.
And yet this wood is exactly where we need to be; we have to go to the borderlands, enter the liminal spaces.The changes we need to make won’t happen in the village, the place of comfort, certainty and belonging. We have to be in the wood.
An important part of this process is to look at this dark wood as the place in which we have to craft the stories that have been missing and missed for so long. As others have pointed out, it’s not necessarily that we need to create new stories. The stories we need have been with us for thousands of years, told by the storytellers to their audiences in tents, huts, round the fire, on the mountains, in family homes – anywhere people came together. In the flickering of the firelight, children dozing on parents’ laps, the storyteller would stamp her staff, clap her hands and start to speak. Her audience would lean forward to listen and the teller would weave the story that reflected the audience back to themselves casting new insight into the darkness and confusion of being human.
If ever there was a time for the storyteller to connect us with the old stories, it is now. We need to quieten down to listen. If we don’t, we will never find our way out of our current dark wood and in that vacuum the stories of the politicians, financial directors, nationalists, racists and bigots will be the only ones told. Remember, in the old stories sometimes people never get out of the dark wood to return home; they perish, often violently. We are on that path now. We can either choose to have more of the same or to have the courage to step into the wood and pick out the pathways shown by the light of these old stories; a light that shows us who we are and keeps the wolves at bay.
In an old story from Norway, a hero travels through the borderlands between village, town and forest. He comes to a split in the road from which there are three possible paths, each with a signpost. The sign for the first path reads ‘he who travels this road will return safely’, the sign for the second reads ‘he who travels this road may or may not return’ while the third and final signpost reads ‘he who travels this road will never return’. The hero takes the third path because it is the only path from which growth, development and change can come. We need to do the same. We can’t stay in the village, holding onto what we know, repeating the same destructive patterns. We need to step onto this different path and find a new way.