I am walking at Clay Hill Heath today. The car park is just off the A337 from Brockenhurst to Lyndhurst but not signposted from the road, so less susceptible to impulse visitors. That, in turn, gives the area an advantage of seclusion that it might not otherwise enjoy. I step through a small gate into Park Ground Inclosure, onto a lesser path, rough, with long grass invading well into foot-worn territory.
The air is heavy with the magic of the Forest and I stop for a moment to drink down the silence. The early morning sun is climbing the trees, flinging an iridescent golden light through interweaving branches, themselves heavy with midsummer leaves. Somewhere, far away, the birds are calling; but not here. Here is sacred space. Here is solitude and silence, where the air clear enough to see what lies within the light.
As my eyes fall to the ferns, the moss, the undulating path beneath my feet, I realise, that, of late, I have walked too much on managed paths.
That is fine sometimes. But by choosing an easy walk on maintained paths, you distance yourself from the energy of the Forest. Here, by contrast, is harder walking, more demanding, in a place where you are not distracted by the sound of your own footsteps on gravel, while you make a journey others have laid out for you. By choosing a route fewer walk and silencing your own noise, you hear more clearly what the Forest wants to say to you.
If you walk on managed paths, you will feel the Forest’s breath upon your face. But to feel the beat of its heart, you must take the rougher paths. Risk abandoning all known paths and step onto the Forest floor itself, and you begin to hear the whispers in its blood1. Gradually, your own respiration matches the pace of the Forest’s breathing. It becomes hard to tell where you end and the Forest begins, hard to distinguish which is your soul and which is the Forest’s, until the distinction becomes irrelevant.
I stoop to capture a ground beetle’s view of a foxglove. To the beetle, the foxglove towers high, waving in the wind and is impossibly beyond scaling. But when beetles learn to step out of themselves they become bigger than they knew was possible. Foxgloves become small. Treetops can be reached if beetles are willing to believe it possible. And should they so be willing, that which was unknown comes into view – if they want it to, of course, only if they want it to.
Small, big; weak, powerful; all is relative to the self – until, that is, we choose to step out of ourselves; until, we are ready to take a risk and become the Forest. When we understand we are not apart, we rise beyond the foxgloves and soar beyond the trees. We understand that the ground beetles can become kestrels. I am the ground beetle, gazing up at the soaring foxgloves, until I grow a little higher. Then, I look up at the trees, waving impossibly high, until I learn that if I want to, I can be a kestrel, soaring above the boughs that seem so far beyond my reach; when I am ready to grow wings, that is, only when I am ready. As I tread the rougher paths in search of the Forest’s heartbeat, listening for the whisper in her blood, the only question that remains, is, ‘Am I ready for wings?’
I see a gate and feel a little disappointment. I knew it was coming – the map told me so. I’m going to cross Beechen Lane, where early morning dog walkers and cyclists are passing up and down. I don’t resent them. I don’t mind that I will need to gift a smile or exchange a word. But they want the manicured paths and I want the Forest floor. Their journey is not my journey. Our exchange will not take long.
Crossing the path and entering Pondhead Inclosure, I reflect on the fact that this has not always been my way. There have been many instances on my journey, when I have been tempted onto prepared paths. It is a method of travel we are encouraged to employ for getting through life as quickly as possible, for attaining the goals others have convinced us are desirable. But consistently, I have found little joy in walking the ways that others have laid out before me. I am reluctant to espouse the idea of getting through life quickly. For, this is not how you connect with the energy. To do that, you must take the way that leads to source. You have to leave behind the well-trod ways of ease and conformity. You have to step out onto the unkempt Forest floor. You have been warned that danger lies in wait for those who step off the managed way; that you may trip and fall and there may be nobody there to save you. And yes, sometimes it will be so. But always the Forest is there and it is the Forest that lifts you up when you stumble. Always, it is the Forest that nurtures you. If you let fear dominate your journey and you keep to the managed routes, you will not see what the Forest is waiting to show you. For she is your home, your origin, and she plays the melodies to which your heart wants to dance. Only on the Forest floor will ground beetles learn to become kestrels.
I come to a fallen tree that blocks the path. And I understand now why this way is less favoured. It would be difficult to ride on horseback here and you certainly could not cycle this route. Most are dissuaded. Most turn back and walk the managed path. To pass the fallen tree you must step off the path, onto the Forest floor.
Eventually, I find myself back in the organised world. I looked down and see tarmac beneath my feet. By the side of the path, a plaque informs me that this is Pondhead Woodland, cared for by the award-winning Pondhead Conservation Trust. Their job is to manage the woodland, cutting back the Hazel coppice to ground level in order to promote regrowth and encourage the smaller wildlife. I take a moment to identify with the coppice that must cut back in order to regrow stronger. Silently, I thank volunteers who have put in the seven thousand hours of free labour, that enable me to walk on wildlife corridors.
I proceed through the silence until I arrive at a gate that proclaims ‘No entry. Hotel guests only.’ I am back in the land of mine and yours, barriers and turn-away-if-you can’t-pay segregation. I have no use for spas and formal dining rooms, gymnasia or fine wine. Such a price has long been well beyond my means. I retrace my steps and, in so doing, pass the stacked Hazelwood awaiting its journey to the kiln for transformation into charcoal. I am reminded that all must fulfil their purpose; all must, if you will, pay their way. But there are other ways of doing so than burning on barbecues to cremate fat-sodden burgers. Because here, near the stack, is a loveseat, fashioned out of the same coppice wood. I am heartened to be reminded that you can equally well pay your way by facilitating love.
The great Scots pines of last week’s journey are far away; those that will be used in the building of great edifices. Here, the wood is gentler, the trees smaller, though no less well-managed. The haven they create is hazy peace, where sunlight steals through shady bowers to rest on lazy pools, while the path grows narrower yet. Who can tell where it might lead? But there again, who would want to?
You are in the Forest with only the rabbits and foxes for guides. From choice, not compulsion you tread from rougher paths to Forest floor, where secrets are whispered on the wind and dryads illuminate your heart, like sunlight falling on silent pools. You are a ground beetle or a kestrel at choice, soaring above, dropping below. There is no segregation. The lines have blurred. The respiration is one. You are the Forest and she is you. And that will make all the difference2.