The traveller, weary on the road, finds relief by entering the unexpected wood. It is a dream landscape that appears by magic, out of nowhere.
Walking across the moor, taking the long way home, the road winds and twists. It rises and falls. The traveller is weary, in a state of altered consciousness. The brain of the sojourner is receptive to other worlds, and sees the door with the unconscious mind. The portal is not locked.
The forest is enchanted, dappled with impossible light, golden and alive. The trees are alive with birds. They sing in a chorus that outperforms the nightingale. The trees shiver and the light is bright. Finches, wrens, robins, flycatchers, warblers, redpolls, thrushes, there are feathered spirits on every branch.
There are birds which sing of another land, a mystical place in the Mabinogion. Rhiannon’s birds. These three marvellous birds could wake the dead and lull the living to sleep. These creatures, like the forest are remote and near simultaneously. The birds of Rhiannon sing, and all the songs they had ever heard were harsh compared to these. The warriors had to gaze far out to see to catch sight of the birds, yet their song was as clear as if the birds were with them. These birds are mythological relatives of the woodland singers, suspending time with music. They move the present into another space, removing the listener from mundane urgencies.
Elizabeth Goudge, the writer who won the Carnegie Medal in 1946 for ‘The Little White Horse’ tells how the forest appears at night-time on Dartmoor, a moor teaming with ghosts and otherworldly presences. It does not grow over night, like, for example, the fairy tale forest that takes over London in Doctor Who episode ‘In the Forest of the Night’. She describes a fully fledged world into which the traveller wanders accidentally.
It is important in her tales, like good ghost story that the forest is elusive. The traveller cannot remember exactly the way to find this wood. However hard the traveller looks, the wood can never be found again. It cannot be written down and can appear on no map. The wood is itself a glimpse of heaven, of paradise that is experienced only once and then is gone forever, incompatible with life in the day-to-day reality. This reflects the very sense of wonderment itself, the wide-eyed experience of seeing something for the first time which excites the neurons and flashes in pleasure inside the brain, making the lucky person feel incredibly alive. Then, like Wordsworth’s daffodils the magic trees flash on the inward eye in the bliss of solitude, during the walker’s later contemplation.
The forest appears to help those lost on the moors when the mist comes down. It is a benign alternative to stories of the ‘pixie-led’ when the mischievous spirits appear and lead the travellers astray. The pixies or piskies take travellers off the beaten track into an unfamiliar, uncanny world, causing the traveller to vanish on the moor. Turn your coat, or at least your pocket, inside out to break the spell.
I stumbled into a land of tree song, once, unexpectedly. It was a real forest in Suffolk. A place of unexplained lights and mysterious spacecraft. Bright stars, fireballs, stories of visitors from other worlds. Rendlesham Forest is the place to see and hear things beyond the ordinary. A trail commemorates the sightings of these unidentified flying objects though later the supposed landing marks from the aircraft were identified as rabbit diggings. My otherworldly experience did not come from other planets.
But there are strange noisemakers, flying from branch to branch, from tree to tree. Our threatened birdlife. The realm of bird song in our woods is under threat. Nightingales, woodpeckers, wood thrushes, willow warblers, spotted flycatchers, bullfinches, marsh tits. The Woodland Trust say that roughly one in four of the UK’s threatened bird species are found in wooded areas.
And a forest can be taken away, just as mysteriously. The Great Storm of 1987 happened overnight. I awoke in the morning to walk among fallen trees, the great oaks ripped up at their roots. Parts of woodland near Woodbridge were completely flattened. But it is an ill wind that blows no good, and the clearings in the forest area allowed two threatened birds who thrive in such landscape to make a return. The UK-rare woodlark and nightjar. The woodlark’s song is transformed into words and word-song by the religious poet Gerald Manley Hopkins, ‘Teevo cheevo cheevio chee’. Whereas the nightjar, a nocturnal summer visitor back on the increase calls to us from a time when they were more plentiful. They song creates a portal back into the past. Listening to these calls in the forest produces a peculiar sensation, a strange machine like vibration, it is the cry of ghosts. It can be compared to a treadle showing machine or a spinning wheel, churring and cricketing. The poet John Clare described it in a letter as a ‘trembling sort of crooing noise.’ To hear these birds return gives us a glimpse through to other times. They tantalise. Our senses must be heightened. We stop still and listen, wait for the pause in the traffic.
It is this sense that brings our mysterious forests to us. The strange peace. The heightened listening. The awareness that is dampened down in our everyday, mundane workplace. Uninterrupted by the trivia of office conversation. We re-become our ancient selves. But beware, the seductive world of the alternative landscape. Fairyland will break your heart. Those who are taken and returned to ordinary life, will always be seeking its charm, looking out of the window, day-dreaming, unsatisfied. The temporary forest ruins those who continue to seek its illusion, dissatisfied with unpleasant visceral reality.
To listen to bird recordings, visit the website XENO-CANTO, which invites submissions by enthusiasts to share bird sounds from around the world.