The names of nature have always defeated me. I move through trees and I think: What is a copse anyway? What is a grove? What’s the difference between a spinney and a thicket and a stand of trees?
I realise I’m not even sure what a brook is. Or a vale. Or a knoll. That I’ve travelled through landscapes described by the book as a valley, without for the life of me being able to see what was valley-like about it. As for the likes of crag, tor and escarpment… forget it.
That day too, I was short on specifics. But it was surely a wood that we were in, a wood that the twins and Pippin and I had reached by driving down a winding stone track with a series of secluded car parks branching off it left and right, like alternating leaves on a climbing plant.
Each of those car parks is an intimate little enclosure of potholes and mudded gravel, not visible from the others, and each rarely contains more than a single car. So as the track winds further into the wood, and even though we were really only a few hundred yards from the main road, with the accumulation of trees – and of trees seen through trees – some of these spots start to feel very remote indeed.
Doggers and dog-walkers, these must be the only sorts of people who frequent a place like this. Doggers after dusk, no doubt, or perhaps before dawn. Dog-walkers in the day, like me and Pippin and the twins – my nieces. Yes, there I was, doing the ‘fun uncle’ thing.
Once your family starts to pity you for not having ‘found someone’ or managed to start a family, you’re duty-bound to look brave and positive and present fun uncle as a proud life-choice, a stoical reframing of what must be your secret loveless despair, rather as some people with cancer choose to reimagine their condition as a gift.
And this felt like the right thing to do, if only to spare my family’s feelings. Better to let them sigh quietly about my solitary sadness, marvel at my courage, than confront them with the terrible truth. It was great to be single! It was great to have no kids! Between lonely and alone there lies a whole universe of delicious nuance.
They all look harried and half-dead with the hassle of family. Me, I didn’t have to share my life with someone who’d come to despise me (or vice versa). I didn’t have to be shackled with a lifetime’s responsibility for people who looked at me successively – or perhaps simultaneously – as someone to take for granted, be embarrassed by, get as far away from as possible.
I had never been the broody type. The twins were fun, but I got to hand them back. My time was all my own. I got weekends off, and I was my own boss. I was the lucky one. But it wouldn’t do to point that out. After all, it would have called into question the life choices they had made. And so I kept a dutiful silence and meekly encouraged the misconceptions that were obviously so helpful to them.
Well, it doesn’t do to crow, does it?
The twins were maybe six or seven the first time we came here. Pippin was maybe two or three – my first dog, first in a series of non-chocolate Labs that were for me all me sources of pure friendship, of uncomplicated joy. I remember the four of us parked the car, crossed another wide track, one not for cars, and entered at random an area of woodland where the trees were less evenly distributed than elsewhere, where dense thickety bits gave way unpredictably to leafy clearings and the course of the path ahead was not easy to anticipate.
Densely overhung and implacably horizon-less, forests have always had the potential to unnerve as well as to delight me. The Blair Witch Project is, without doubt, the scariest film I have ever seen. Those kids are all at sea in a wilderness of trees. And you know they are never getting out of there alive.
Perhaps that’s why, whenever I walked through woods, and this goes right back to when I was a little boy, I always had to look out for something man-made. I always needed to find some evidence of something that didn’t pre-date me or my species. A sliver of silver sweet wrapper would do it. A milk crate. Even a dogger’s used condom. Anything, so long as it showed that human people had safely been and gone here before me.
If I could choose, though, my ideal discovery would have been an old, overgrown, rusted-up car.
To my adult as to my five-year-old self, there was no sight in the world so pregnant with poetry and poignancy as that of a lone saloon, stripped to its metal frame, sunk down onto its arches, paint and glass and upholstery long since dissipated, as slowly it subsides into the bosky embrace of root and tendril and lush green moss. With what quiet dignity does the once-fierce monster succumb to the relentless tide of growth! With what selfless wisdom does the shell of the giant yield to the universal cycle of change and renewal! A lesson, surely, to us all.
So swish swish swish we went, that first time, me and Pippin and the twins, kicking up the dead leaves of autumn. Every so often we’d come across a pile of sawn logs or a teepee-like structure of stripped branches, evidence of forestry management perhaps, or a Scout trip to the woods. I remembered a few of those from my youth, and tried to describe the scene to my nieces: toasting dough on sticks, making secret woodland signs with twigs, draping fern leaves over flimsy shelters, revelling in the legitimate use of knives, singing fireside songs about woodpeckers and Green grow the rushes O!
On we ambled through the vaulted echo-chamber of the trees, singing and swishing and shouting, unthinkingly happy in that way that perhaps only woodland and seaside can truly make one.
And then we found it.
The first thing we saw was a motionless pool of gloopy bright-green water and then, right next to it, we saw another. The two pools were separated by a short strip of raised land which, we realised getting closer, was actually a kind of natural causeway. For the two sections of water were in fact one: about 30 yards further on, they ran around and joined together to make a natural moat; the little causeway was thus like a permanently lowered earthen drawbridge to a secluded wooded island.
Pippin and the twins ran straight across, and I followed more cautiously. We were all drawn by the shape of the place, by the weird appearance of something so specific and well-formed in among all the unbounded, sprawling expanse of woodland. I think we all sensed an atmosphere, too – an obscure feeling of mystery and vigilance and eternity was how it seemed to me – though we never discussed it, then or later.
But as we looked around, we started to find things.
The twins came across a log with a row of feathers stuck into it. I found a little finger-puppet of a fox that had been hung halfway up a tree; lower down, little silver coins and medals had been banged sideways into the trunk.
Then we saw that certain bushes in among all the others had been decorated with bright ties of ribbon or tinsel, colourfully singled out for a purpose which was obscure to us.
Exploring in earnest now, we found that in lots of places the ground was littered with silver confetti stars, tiny cowrie shells, or shiny little garden-centre gemstones.
As we moved over our island, exclaiming with a sort of suspicious delight at every new man-made discovery, we came at last to a big oak that was like a giant dream-catcher, it had so many things hanging off it – silver bracelets and charms, strings of crystals, little cloth animals, fairy figurines, ethnic beads. It was surrounded by a screen of holly and bush, forming a natural enclave with room inside for three logs, which had been arranged in a rough circle.
It felt as if we had reached the centre of things, for here the decorations and offerings were at their most profuse: little Buddhas and plastic angels, toy cars, and lollipops, posies of wildflowers and corn dollies tied with red ribbon. A Russian Orthodox icon had been tacked to the tree trunk, whose grooves were stuffed with folded-up pieces of paper that I assumed were prayers or spells. There were lots of burnt-out nightlights here too, and evidence of a fire.
Higher up, I found a ‘Prayer Book’ tucked into a nook of the tree, a brightly coloured exercise book whose cover invited people to record their own petitions. But though some had obviously done so, the writing in the book had become unintelligible with too much rain and moisture, and the only bit that could be read clearly now was a grumpy message in thick black crayon, presumably addressed to the provider of the Prayer Book, warning people not to start fires. ‘Real pagans hate people like you!’ concluded the note, which was signed by someone called ‘THOR’.
The twins, still then just about in their fairy-and-princess phase, loved the place at once. They liked shiny, glittery things, and they liked woods. Here was a place where you could explore one and find the other, apparently in endless supply. Pippin liked the place too, and happily ran all over and around it again and again as if trying to possess all the manifold delights of his new kingdom at once.
The twins quickly dubbed the place ‘The Crystal Wood’, and whenever they came over to stay at mine after that, they’d beg to go walking there again. Sometimes we’d bring their parents, or mine, or some other combination of family and friends. I liked the place too, but somehow no else we brought here seemed to quite get the attraction.
Actually, the moat wasn’t natural, as it turned out. We’d not noticed it the first time but the island sat within a modest fenced enclosure, at one corner of which we eventually came across an information board. It explained that this was, in fact, a well-preserved ancient monument known as Arthos Moat, a rural moated smallholding of which there was once thousands dotted around the English countryside.
Dating from perhaps the 12th or 13th century, the site would probably have consisted of a modest thatched villa, a few outbuildings, some animals and a vegetable garden. The moat would have provided a defence, but perhaps also sanitation, a stock of fish, and even an element of ornamentation. It wasn’t a castle or a manor house, but it wasn’t bad either. In short, here in this outpost of smug suburban north London, we were looking at a detached medieval des res.
But that information, as I say, came later. And in truth, it never really counted for much with us.
The odd thing was I never knew where The Crystal Wood actually was, never worked out which of the secluded car parks was the best one to reach it from, never seized on any landmarks that would shortcut our way to this mystical glade. (Was it technically a glade though? There’s another term I wasn’t sure about.) Part of the pleasure of a visit was the way in which we – or so often, in later years, me alone – always contrived to happen upon it.
The walk would start off in a promising but indeterminate direction, and eventually – sometimes after five minutes, sometimes after 45 – the information sign or the bright green water would, at last, come into view, and we’d cross the footbridge into our otherworldly realm once more. One time, when there was deep snow on the ground, it took us two hours to find the place.
Sometimes I wondered if this was a place that appeared not on maps but only in dreams.
I wasn’t a very spiritual or cosmic person, but I did sort of believing that intense emotion can leave an atmosphere on a place. I’d been in churches and shrines where the atmosphere of devotion was palpable, and as a teacher, I’d often been struck by the negative noisiness, if you will, the implicit anarchy, of an empty classroom.
The Crystal Wood – I never got used to its real name – had a real atmosphere to it too. Whenever I stepped onto the island I felt somehow that I was being watched, that the woods around me had yielded up a secret and were jealous of my discovery. Yet at the same time, I came to think that the place was just for me, not least because it was a long time before I saw anyone else there. And oddly, I don’t think I ever even wondered who had left all the crystals and ribbons and flowers.
I remember vividly the shock of seeing someone else here for the first time. I was standing on the island when I saw a group of three lads with a big dog, strolling along one edge of the fenced enclosure over the other side of the water. They were chatting and laughing loudly, in Polish I think, and swigging cans of lager. They were quite careless of their surroundings, and apart from my own sense of offence at their intrusion, I remember feeling almost afraid for them, as if they could at any moment unleash the powers of holy retaliation for their wanton trespassing. But they wandered blithely past and on into the woodland beyond. It was almost as if the island was not there for all to see.
Other times after that I saw people who were like us, I suppose, tourists staring at all the New Age trinketry and trying to work out the meaning of it all. Perhaps they were drawn here by the contents of a flyer we found one time, which claimed that Arthos Moat was really Arthur’s Mount, and below the ground, still unexcavated, lay the original seat of Camelot?
Sometimes we’d get to the Crystal Wood and find that all the paraphernalia of worship and celebration had been cleared out. Someone told me once there’d been a rave up here, and the police had had to move in with their dogs. But gradually, the crystals and the ribbons and the feathers would always start to return once more, just as any other natural growth responds to pruning with renewed vigour.
I was talking about all this with my next-door neighbour’s daughter, who claimed to have ‘links with the local pagan community’. I don’t know if she did, but with her dolphin tattoo and streaky pink hair, she certainly looked the part. She said: ‘There’s some dark shit goes on up there.’ For some reason, I didn’t think to press her on this, perhaps because my attention wandered off at that point, and the lazy hard drive that is my mind ended up just filing the whole conversation in the folder marked ‘dogging’.
One time, when the foliage on the island had been significantly cut back, we found a printed notice addressed to the forest park rangers: ‘Please stop over-cutting the natural undergrowth of the island. You’ve made it into a bald mess. Why not do something useful like tidy up the fallen tree and make seats from the trunk??!’
The rangers had scribbled their response above and below and around this message, in big black-biro allcaps: YOU CLEARLY KNOW NOTHING OF WOODLAND MANAGEMENT! WE LEAVE DEAD TREES AS THEY PROVIDE A VITAL ROLE IN THE ECOSYSTEM. RHODEDENDRON AND BRAMBLES DO NOT! – AN ECOLOGIST!!!
Underneath these two messages, a third had been written, a message which, in its infinite patience and compassion, tried to move beyond the squabble of egos to the underlying truth that could unite us all. It simply said: Please respect the forest chapel.
Of course. This was a forest chapel. That was the name for it.
It was Laddie, Pippin’s successor, who found the photo first. I was with the twins again, late teenagers now but nostalgists at heart, who had returned with me for a trip down Memory Lane to the Crystal Wood of their childhood.
It was a picture of a woman in a long white dress whose long braided auburn hair was set off by an intricate headband of feathers and flowers. She was obviously a bride, and to a cynic, the setting of her wedding looked like either a prog-rock Avalon or an early Hammer Horror. Alongside the photo, there was a single orchid in a vase, and a large white candle, burned halfway down, beautiful in its waxen lop-sidedness.
Tucked into the back of the photo there was a letter. I said we should leave it be, but the twins had no such qualms. The girls pulled out a single parchment-like sheet, and I cringed to myself as they began to read out loud, not quite sarcastically.
It was a letter from Jeff, to his Amanda. But Jeff knew that others would read his letter, and so it was addressed not just to her but to all of us. Amanda was the woman in the picture and she was the love of his life. She had died an untimely death, the details of which were not specified. Jeff missed her so much that he’d struggled to find any point to life since. But at last, he had found comfort in the beliefs they shared, in the knowledge that she was one with the Spirit now and that in blessing this place and all the Earth, he blessed the place where still she moved.
I live for the day, Jeff prayed in conclusion, when we will swim together again in the great Ocean of Universal Love…
I think I remember another time when I came alone – completely alone, I mean, for I must have been between dogs at the time. It must have been later than usual too because though I arrived in daylight, I was suddenly aware that the light was failing. I remember the woods quickly became unusually still, and the rustling of the wind came to my ears as a sinister whispering. Dusky shapes in the middle distance started to lose their definition. Was that a tree or a figure watching me? Was that a bush or a wild animal, or something else?
The squat trunk on the island looked suddenly like an altar. That tree with the ribbons looked like a figure with a flowing cape. And then there was a figure, a woman judging by her size. She wore something dark and shapeless with a hood, and I watched as, oblivious to me, she began to arrange a pile of long straight sticks I had noticed earlier, a big stack of sharpened stakes that someone had lashed together with rope for no good reason I could fathom. When she looked up at me, at last, she seemed to look straight through me. And yet I saw no face.
Things stopped being things and started to look like symbols, portents. Was that circular shape on the ground a trick of the undergrowth, or was it a dead fox surrounded by an artful circle of bluebells? The trees were all eyes now. I thought: I do not belong here. And yet I was almost calm to think that I might never leave this place again.
Here I swim now too, but not in water, perhaps not even in time. Here the I of my old self-mulches down, composting in the great hummus of Spirit. Over in the car park, I picture my old Mazda sunken and overgrown, giving itself up like me to the perpetual tide of absorption and becoming.
I always thought that when you crossed the causeway for the last time you became all-seeing. I know now that people can’t see me, though some of them sense me, the sensitive ones. But I don’t really know any more about the secrets of the island’s silence. I only know that I’m here forever and the woods go on forever, and we all go on forever. And it’s not good and it’s not bad because it just is.
Did I see my nieces here once again, middle-aged themselves now, with a dog I don’t recognise and a bunch of flowers for me? Perhaps. It’s hard to tell, for my eyes are no longer mine to see. Or not only mine. Or not for seeing.
One of these days I came upon this place by accident, and another of these days I never left again. Something of me found something of everything here, and I came back again and again until the place and I became one. The dissolution of the individual leaves a trace, a single vantage point over the many, and mine is here.
That feeling I first had when I came to this place – I am nothing but that feeling now. I’m not everywhere. I must run out eventually. But I’m not somewhere either. I have no need of the names of nature now, I who am but a tiny ripple in a stagnant pool, a murmur in the leaves, a shape in a tree that looks like a face.
– Dan Brotzel
Dan Brotzel was runner-up in the Flash500 short story competition 2017 and has been shortlisted in numerous short story competitions, including Sunderland University / Waterstones, Wimbledon BookFest, Fish and Retreat West. He’s also twice made the shortlist of the To Hull and Back comic-writing prize. His first novel, #unforgivable, is currently under consideration. His agent is Geraldine Nichol. @brotzel_fiction