Touchstones: the Forest

the_enchanted_woodI’ve been thinking a lot about story touchstones lately. Following on from my post on Sapsorrow’s Dress, here’s some thoughts on another one of my personal story touchstones… 

Enid Blyton’s Enchanted Wood was the first ever chapter book my mother read to me. I remember her sitting down on my bed with this book with a completely intriguing cover, with twisty trees hiding fairy houses, hedgehogs scurrying around between spotty toadstools, and a hovering golden-haired, silver-winged pixie. I remember the anticipation I shared with the three Faraway Tree children as they leaned out their bedroom windows in their new house, and listened to the trees with the mysterious dark green leaves talking together (wisha-wisha) in the wood they so desperately wanted to explore

loved that book.

I’m not sure if The Enchanted Wood is what started my fascination with forests, but it certainly helped shape them in my imagination as places where adventure and magic happens.

Forests are, of course, generally held to be a symbol of the unknown. People entering forests in stories are almost always entering a period of uncertainty and danger. You just have to look at a bunch of fairy tale staples – Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White or Beauty and the Beast. Stepping between the trees is usually an act of desperation or coercion – or foolishness.

And then there’s all the mythic stuff, such as Arthurian adventures like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, or the legendary Forest of Broceliande. The Forest is such a powerful storytelling symbol its use has carried right through from ancient times to the present day – take the great forests of Mirkwood and Lothlorien in The Lord of the Rings, the Forest Moon of Endor in Return of the Jedi or, of course, the Forbidden Forest in Harry Potter, just to name the three most iconic fictional worlds of modern times.

What I love about story forests is that often even the standard rules of danger and malevolence are suspended. They are genuinely ambivalent places. Forests are almost definitely full of hungry wolves and wicked witches and ogres who want to crack open your bones and suck out the marrow. But a forest could equally turn out to be a place of strange sanctuary, or hold an unexpected treasure in its green heart.

Obviously forests represent the wild and the untamed; they stand in stark contrast to other habitats like farms and cities, where the landscape has been subdued and converted to serve a specific (human) purpose. It’s not just the adventure and possibility of danger they represent, though, that makes my heart sing. It’s also the pervading sense of peace that you feel on entering a real-life forest. The different suite of sounds. The smells, the quality of the light, the sense of coming back to a simpler, more fundamental existence that entirely lacks the trappings of civilisation.

mcubbin_lostIf my story brain’s touchstone is a European, fairy tale forest, Australian forests are an IRL touchstone just as potent. My mother took my sister and I on plenty of camping holidays out in the bush as a kid, and I have particularly fond memories of camps without parents in my teenage years, through school, Girl Guides and the Duke of Edinburgh Award. In fact, I think the first time I ever spent a night away from home in the absence of anyone more than a year older than me was on a Duke of Ed camping trip in the Namadgi National Park when I was about 16.

There is nothing quite so magical as waking up to the peace of the early morning Australian bush, when the air is still a bit misty and the sunshine is so new it’s more silver than gold. At this time of day the sun is just beginning to warm up the eucalyptus leaves on the trees and scattered on the ground, and the evaporating dew carries the sharp, clean scent into the air. This feeling, of what it is to be in a eucalypt forest, is the one of the things I tried to capture in my story Adventure Socks in CSFG’s anthology The Never Never Land. The main character is 91-year-old George, who is stuck in a dreary old-age nursing home. His only remaining pleasure is his memories of his wife, and the time they spent living in the Snowy Mountains. (Then George meets Maisie, a new resident who shakes things up a bit.)

He lay in his bed with his mind lost in memories. Hiking through lonely, lovely stands of ghost gums with Rose. Listening to the pure, chiming voices of bellbirds filling the air. Surprising a flock of brilliant rosellas from a tree; or getting a shock themselves when they discovered they were walking amidst a mob of kangaroos resting out the midday heat, stock-still in the shade. The roos had been indistinguishable from the weathered stumps of trees until he and Rose got too close and the nearest ones startled and bounded away.

– “Adventure Socks”, The Never Never Land

(If you’ve never been to the Snowy Mountains in Australia, you should go. It really is some of the loveliest country in the world.) I haven’t written many stories based in Australian forests, though. I’m very conscious that my experience of them (and most of the stories I’ve grown up with about the Australian bush) are predicated on the dispossession of Australia’s first inhabitants, the Aboriginal people. For me, forests are ancient, primal places and the ancient stories of Australia’s forests are not mine to tell.

Just quickly scanning over my files of stories – published and unpublished – there are plenty that are set in or feature a forest. Forests play significant roles in two of my novel projects (so far), and plenty of my short stories. Pretty Jennie Greenteeth, for example, in Strange Little Girls. It’s got a forest and, like all good story forests, this forest isn’t a nice place. It has a nasty secret. I’m trying not to give too much away here, but looking at the metaphorical meaning of the forest that I’ve outlined above, it’s interesting that in order for my protagonist (a 10 year old girl) to resolve the particularly horrifying problem I confront her with, I send her into this forest.

Malevolent secrets. Strange sanctuary. Treasure of a sort. Hmm.

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