Last night (or day for me) my Granny passed away in her sleep at the age of almost 99. I’ve been feeling waves of loss and grief today, but also have been writing and finding old stories. There is one I wrote to her for her birthday in 2011 . She said “This story takes me back in time, a long way back when we had ” Nature Walks” from School on Friday afternoons — later as a “grown up” I also liked to escape to secret places preferably in woods, maybe that is why you and I have this affinity with Trees – ( Some thing in the Genes! } It is difficult in these days of cultivation to find a moss covered clearing with its ” soft to the touch” feeling – its hidden toadstools – and sometimes a fallen branch to sit on – when you are old memory is like a favourite book, to be opened and savoured at special times – This ” Non Birthday” has been one of those times for me – made extra special by your story.”
The woman stood still on the woodland road, looking around for other people who might be out walking dogs or talking noisily on their mobile phones. The time of day made it unlikely – it was gone half nine at night, and most people had reached their destination – whether it was out socialising in noisy bars or slumped in their living room sofa, engulfed by over-soft cushions and lethargy. It was irrationally important to her that no-one saw her disappear off the road as she entered the hidden clearing.
There was no one to be seen, and she sighed with relief, her breath misting in the air. Though the emerging snow drops promised spring was coming, the night still held a hint of winter’s chill. She didn’t mind the cold. This small patch of land was becoming her sanctuary, as long as there were no people to spoil the illusion of being far away from the noise of the City.
In truth, she lived near the City in a commuter belt town, and the artificial lights and motorway traffic still intruded on the edge of her awareness however imperceptibly. Her sanctuary, her escape, had been found recently, when in a fit of frustration and weariness she had stormed up the hill by her house. Right by the town centre, this hill was a favourite for dog walkers and loud teenagers. Whilst a river walk was normally chosen for it’s soothing flow and flat pathways, today she wanted the hill – it’s steep hard road providing a challenge for her leg muscles, something to push against and exert herself on. She was so busy concentrating on her power walk she didn’t notice that she had passed the turning for the public foot path, and instead was further along the hill top road and more deeply immersed in trees. The missed foot path led walkers out on to a meadow, high up and falling down steeply to the houses below. With open skies and far-flung views, it was the obvious choice for walks or gentle contemplation. The woman had often enjoyed sitting in the meadow, imagining the air was cleaner, appreciating the distance between her and the City, the sense of being above the masses.
The road she found herself on was very different, and less frequented by walkers or even cars. A small countryside-style lane, it used to connect to a village until an main road dissected it, rendering it a useless road to no-where. Trees clustered around and arched over the road on either side as it passed through what was now a copse. She noticed the ancient trees, large oaks and beech, that echoed the memory of a once much large forest. Bushy growth, brambles and ferns lined the edge of the road, with a few small animal tracks being the only easy inroads (or should that be off-roads?) into the wooded areas. At least for most of the road – where the woman had stopped there was a slightly larger gap, big enough for a person to pass through, if they stooped a little and moved some ivy out the way. Before she had thought about what she was doing, the woman had passed through the gap and found herself in a small but clearly defined space amongst the trees. The ground was moss covered with a few patches of grass, and aside from the alarmed sounds of disturbed birds it felt quiet and peaceful. On this initial visit, the woman had circled the space, looking up at the gap of sky, looking down to see any tell tale signs of human activity – empty beer cans or faded crisp packets. There had been none. Something in her body softened, and something in her mind became focused and sharp — this was a place to return to, in the silence of night, when the moon was full or thereabouts to provide sufficient light to see. This was a place for, to find some peace and be still. Just then she heard the sound of racous teenagers walking down the road, approaching the entrance to “her” clearing – they were laughing and bustling boys with a few giggling girls, and she feared for a moment they would come in and shatter her dream. Luckily, they walked on past, oblivious, destination unknown but presumably somewhere that smoking, drinking (and who knows what else) would go unnoticed.
It took sometime for their noise to fade, but the woman felt edgy now, a little unsafe and protective of this clearing — so she left, carefully, and promised herself another visit on a later date. The full moon wasn’t so far away. She put a note in her diary and prayed for a clear night.
Her prayer came true, for on her return the sky was clear and the moonlight fell soft and cold, edging the world in silver. Satisfied that no-one was there to watch her, she again stooped a little and moved the ivy , and made her way the short distance through the bush to get to the clearing. Before entering though, she stood at the edge, and breathed in the scent of moss and leaves and freshness. The moon was almost overhead, and lit up the clearing floor like a gentle lamp. She found herself taking off her shoes and socks, and walking out gingerly onto the wet moss, enjoying the sensation between her toes even as her feet started to numb. Yet this feeling too was welcomed – perhaps purely because it was different to the usual sense of confinement and distance that came from wearing thick soled shoes. Now the cold ground made the vulnerability of her soft feet clear – and at the same time she enjoyed how they moulded themselves to the uneven surface, felt connected to the earth in a very literal sense. Slowly, looking down at her feet, she began to circle around the edge of the clearing. Overwhelmed by the changes in texture, the ranges of sensation available, she became entirely absorbed. The cool hardness of the earth, the slight springyness to the moss, the crunch of last year’s leaves – all this became a conversation in feeling between herself and the woodland, occasional sparks of pain from sharp stones or sticks providing the punctuation. Again, she sighed deeply, contentedly. The City life felt far away now, a dream that her body was stirring awake from. A sudden impulse arose from deep within her, and she followed it. Quickly, before her mind had time to object, she stripped off all her clothes and hung them over a low branch. Completely naked now, the chill of the evening brushed against her skin but didn’t seem to penetrate deep. From somewhere within, a warmth had arisen and was perfusing her entire body with a gentle heat that kept the cold night at bay.
She wondered at the source of it, for a briefest moment, before her mind was captured once again by the beauty and sensation of the world around her. The trees that held tight to the clearing edge emmanated a sense of permenance and awareness, like silent guardians, watchful and protective. The woman touched one lightly, exploring the roughness and texture of the bark, feeling it vividly under her fingertips. This was no dead wood – she imagined the life waters flowing up to the branches, the sap returning to provide new growth for spring, and for a few seconds fancied she could feel this, palpably, through her hands. She smiled and stroked the tree affectionately, like an old friend, and then laughed quietly to herself at her actions. To be standing naked, making friends with a tree – this was a long way from the bustle of underground trains and the rush of coffee shops.
She turned from the tree, and went back to the centre of the clearing. The moon still seemed directly over head – had any time passed at all? The woods around her seemed quiet, so she sat down slowly, not wanting to disturb the peace. From there, she lay down on to her back, letting her long hair mix with moss and leaves, her heels sink slightly into some softer earth. The length of her bare back felt held by the earth below her, it was an incredible sensation and it seemed as though every tiny muscle clinging tight to her spine finally let go. Her head was heavy as she looked up and saw the points of stars. Closing her eyes, the woman imagined herself sinking into earth, washed in the moonlight – the whole experience felt as if she had stepped into a bath. All the affairs of the day, the week, the year…all the people and the noise and the human chaos, seemed drawn out of her, cleansed somehow just by the act of being out here, surrounded again by nature.
Why does this feel so good? So familiar? The woman wondered. To her surprise, some memories arose in her almost immediatly. Back when she had been a little girl, there had been regular visits out to the countryside to see her Grandmother. She recalled gentle walks along narrow lanes, holding her grandmother’s hand and asking the names of the flowers and plants. Her grandmother had known so many of them! The same for the wild birds. As a little girl she was deeply impressed, and also felt that for this ‘grown up’ at least, the natural world was something important. Something to make time to go out and meet, to learn about, to touch and smell. With her grandmother, mud was ok – this was the countryside after all. The woman recalled a sense of freedom and excitement every time she had been able to spend a week or so away from school, away from town and city, and be out in the countryside with her grandmother, watching cows and exploring the woodlands. Rolling down hills and dropping sticks in rivers and then following where they went.
She smiled, and slowly, almost languorously, stretched out her arms and legs and then rolled left and right over the ground. Twigs snapped beneath her, earth and leaves stuck to her body – she giggled like a child from a moment of pure joy and silliness. Starting to feel the cold at last, she stood up finally, and brushed vaguely at the bits of woodland on her.
As she put back on her clothes, the woman felt happier than she had for ages. Not just for coming out to the woods, but recalling her childhood joy of being outside, and for what her grandmother had encouraged in her. To be reminded that there is so much more to life than her hectic work schedule, the commuting in and out of the City, the squash of people and all the concerns that went with them. That making time to be, just be, outside and part of the larger picture of life, was something that had always soothed and reassured her. Tonight’s return to nature was a return to herself. Perhaps next time she wouldn’t need to take all her clothes off!