Stand in a forest, no strangers near you, and you can feel as secure as ever you might, locked in the house. Or a bunker, if you have one. The trees stand too. Their tops may sway in the breeze, but that is all far above. Down here, on the woodland floor, leaves lie decomposing, ants and beetles shuffle mostly out of sight, moss unfurls, and old sticks idle for years until finally they crumble or are kicked away.
Hear the guttural trill of a wren, or a robin’s jubilance. Maybe catch a glimpse, but they fly on. Maybe walk a little further or stay put for a while. Follow the path or go off-track. There are many possible routes but all meander — really, there is just the time you spend in the woods and then, eventually and grudgingly, the time when you have to leave again.
When visiting forest parks and woodlands became permissable after the first lockdown, my wife and I came up with a plan to spend time in as many of them as we could. We went at weekends and on odd mornings or afternoons when work was pointless or the weather too good to resist going out.
We went to the glen five minutes’ drive away. To the lonely and weird pine plantation among the Antrim hills. To the waterfall raging vociferously thanks to a week of rain.
Or to the lough-side clump of native trees where you can linger in the shade of downward-drooping branches and look out across glassy water, as if this were your camp and you kept half an eye on the entire world from this spot, without ever needing to go elsewhere.
But we did have to leave. Again and again—taking with us the determination to come back. As months passed, we watched leaves discolour and crinkle, then pile up along the paths. Colours faded, winter came. Recently, we’ve seen gigantic trees, some three times taller than our house, encased entirely in snow and ice. Static, unbothered. Rooted.
“Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here…”
We used to live in London. No car. Regular trips to the country would have been much harder at a time like this. And I am acutely aware that access to forests and woodlands is an enormous privilege. I wish everyone could have it.
I hope that, in the years to come, there are many more sprawling nature reserves so that we can all spread out in them without eroding the fantastic possibility of solitude in such places.
I should say, the last 10 months have been brutal. We’ve not “sailed through” or anything like it because of the countryside. It has felt like a time to hunker down, a time to mend and be quiet. There is a time for everything. The woods have helped us. We are grateful.
Traditionally in fairy tales, the woods are where it all goes wrong. Where the undoing is done — they are home to witches, wolves, demons and shapeshifters. But sometimes the woods restore balance. Birnam Wood, for instance. They are a place to regroup; where strength restores and plans foment.
In the UK and Ireland, and much of Europe, woodlands are vestiges. Scattered fragments, the thinnest slivers, of something regal that once was. But their diminutiveness gives them power. They are treasured, albeit not by everyone.
Even if you haven’t looked to woodlands, perhaps you have a different place that serves a similar function. The cosiest spot in the house. A beach where the weather is never the same. Your garden. Or the lane where you take the dog for a walk and slow your pace now and again, to look at ivy, or a tree shimmering in the rain.
It’s just, for me, woods are the richest well.
I love to climb mountains, to see the view from the top. But mountaintops are not where I want to be most of the time, at present. Instead: down in the woods. The gully or glen. A squirrel darting to its drey. A statuesque heron at the river, waiting — forever seeming just to wait.
If it sounds like hiding, it is, in a way. But hiding is not as passive as you might think. In the woods — fight, flight, freeze — you can do all three, at the same time, in your mind. And sometimes that’s the very best you could hope to do while the world turns on its axis.
The woods may not always be the safest place. Some woods, to be sure, are very dangerous indeed. But there are no bears or wolves in the woods of Ireland. Not anymore. They are just temples of trees — ash, oak, birch and pine. Some are ecological disasters. Others, precious reservoirs of native life. But woods they all are.
And I feel there is no better place, right now, to be.
There are more pictures from my woodland visits on my Instagram account, Secret Woods of Ireland.