[NOTE: I belong to a writing group designed for self-expression. The moderator assigns fifteen-minute essays (stories, poems, whatnot) based on pictures, grab bags of images, words, concepts, almost anything. Each member of the group writes for the regulated amount of time and then we read aloud. Occasionally, on this blog, I will publish some of the essays I have written in that group in a new category. This is one of them, slightly modified.]
“A forest which has never felt an axe.” A time before history began. Imagine a land filled with the green of growing, with the rustle and creep of living. A land with no horizon, only trees for up and water for across. A place where you cannot hear your own footsteps. There are many such on our beautiful planet, from tropical rain forests to jungles to temperate rain forests to hardwood forests to pine forests in all our mountains to perhaps the most beautiful of all, the redwood and sequoia groves on the west coast of the North American continent. But, let’s face it, humans really don’t feel comfortable in forests.
We did not start in such a place, we human beings, but in a wider, less lush world. When we first came upon forests, in Africa and later in Europe, Asia and America, we found them uncanny. We have always preferred spaces where we can see what’s coming at us. In all the tales, the forest is a most frightening place, where the very trees, more alive than those in pastoral settings, can capture you and you’ll never be seen again. Look what happened to Hansel & Gretel and Little Red Riding Hood or what almost happened to Frodo‘s friends in Pangorn. To our species, just getting started, a forest was not a refuge, but a trap.
But the forest can be sanctuary. If it’s harder to see your enemies in a forest, it’s also harder for them to see you. Snow White found safety in a forest. And so did the Celts. Long, long ago, the Celtic tribes moved with their cattle and their looms and combs and swirling artistic designs, their ability to mine and market tin and salt, west and north from the Great Steppes into and over the heavily forested Alps. Once over that barrier, they found a forest so primeval it seemed black instead of green, a forest anchored by oaks growing for hundreds of years, a forest so solid with growth that the occasional light-filled glade must have felt like a special benison from the gods, a forest in which the flow and pool of water was so astonishing–and so necessary–that each spring and pool soon became inhabited by its own goddess.
The Celts built a beautiful and sometimes terrible culture in the forests of Europe and the British Isles, in those primeval wooded places. They hacked at the fringes for firewood and charcoal and space for houses and fields, but they worshipped the true untouched forest, feeling at home, at peace and filled with grace within its sheltering branches.
Their culture remained supreme in Europe until the Romans. The Greeks traded with them and warded them off, finding their religion barbaric, although they discovered the Celts’ priests–the druids–wise and cruel and crafty. Best to keep them on the other side of Parnassus, after all. But the Roman legions cut down the sacred oaks, walled and roofed over the sacred pools, renamed the gods and goddesses and so tamed them, even Cernan of the forest and Brigidda of the waters, suppressed the druids and the human sacrifice which had kept those woods so dark over thousands of years, and rammed through their stone roads to open up the forests to trade. The intricate culture of the Celts never recovered–and neither did the forests.
But it is that Europe, that England, I long to see, the wooded land before the Romans, the sacred groves and pools, the interesting, productive, artistic, cultured and deadly people who, almost unique among the world’s tribes, loved the forests. There are some pockets of forest left, just as there are still Celts among us, but mostly the black forests covering huge square miles of land are gone in Europe and England, cut down to build ships and palisades and houses, to clear fields for crops, and to burn as fuel.
Apart from the Celts, we humans have always found forests frightening and prefer them once they have felt the axe.