Living in the Borderlands – a woodland story 

We live in a small village between two Yorkshire towns. Once it was a pit village serving the local colliery up the road. On a wall in our backroom is an old black and white photograph from the early part of the twentieth century showing men from the village pushing wheelbarrows full of coal down the dirt road past the house where we now live. It is a place with a history, a history that is constantly being remade. The colliery is now the National Coal Mining Museum and the village has become a place where many of the locals now pack the roads with their cars on the way to their work in one of the many towns and cities nearby. The village has become a place between other places, more prosperous in many ways but lacking a focus, a reason to be itself. It sits as a place between time, a borderland with a very strong sense of the past and an uncertain future, confused about and unable to define itself in the present moment. A place with plenty of stories but unable to tell the story of ‘now’. Racked with uncertain employment, resentful of those that are different, buying the Brexit myth in the hope that it will all feel better soon and a better story will emerge surging up out of the fog of social and political complexity.

Most days I too drive the few miles to my workspace in the nearby town; Wakefield is is also between places, sitting on the river Calder and next to the eastern ridge of the Pennine hills. It is a place between river and hill. A market town built on the wool trade, corn and coal coupled with its position as an inland port on a navigable river. Surrounded by “Tusky” (Rhubarb) fields and sitting south of the much larger city of Leeds that dominates the region physically, socially and economically.  The village and the town, both borderlands - places that sit between. 

Our village also sits between two woods, old woods: this land was part of the Manor that was given to one of William the Conqueror’s Earls in 1081 for his service in the Norman invasion of England, a brutal invasion that tore the land from the hands of the people who lived and worked it for hundreds of years. Land packaged up as a gift for service, an asset to be traded. Wood and forest becoming something to make money from. The City Records contain an entry for 1308 in which one ‘Robert Hood’ was obliged to make payment for wood he had gathered in the Earl’s Forest. So the entirely natural act of gathering wood to burn and cook with had already become a matter of finance and measurement. If this is a reference to the figure that became known as Robin Hood, his drive to oppose the forces of the landowners and politicians of his time is understandable and to be admired. His challenge is certainly one that resonates in my own life given the strange, darkening times in which I and those I love now live.

If you look closely, the woods also reveal more of the history shared with the village; old bell pits, limekilns and coke ovens – past times, all grown over and becoming part of the woodscape, no longer needed by the men and women whose boots once trod the flagged stone paths and roadways that survive today, suddenly appearing then disappearing, broken by time and the growth of trees, bushes and turf.

These woods are also marginal spaces. They sit at the edge of the village, bordered by newer housing as the village reaches outwards. A wood left alone apart from the occasional groups of community volunteers who battle with the vast swathes of Himalayan Balsam and maintain the paths, or the dog walkers and horse riders, the BMX riders, and the teenagers from the villages who come at night to drink beer and make fires to sit around. The woods are places to pass through, liminal spaces to enter and leave, full of a natural architecture and shape very different from the village. This is a place for adventure if you have the imagination for it; truly a space between place and time.

Sometimes magic colours this wood. Whether it is the result of a nurturing microclimate, human hands, or a late cut of the meadow, a small patch of wildflowers blooms in the late October sun; deep blue Cornflowers, Common Ragwort, Oxeye Daisies and Groundsel defiantly flicking colour at the steel cold blue sky as if it is still Midsummer. Other times of the year the dominant colour is creamy white on dark green as the wild garlic flecks the banks of the various becks running through the woods. In early spring the piercing white of Common Mouse-ear springs out of the verges of the paths, the tiny split leaves like mouse’s ears waving in the wind.

Walking in this wood, feeling something of the magic, calls the stories; and those that want to be told arrive. The story of Little Red Riding Hood that my five year old Grand-daughter and my wife and I tell each other; acting it out using the paths, the trees of our wood to be the paths and trees that Little Red Riding Hood, the Wolf and the Huntsman walk on and hide behind. One wood becomes another in an instant, a playing out of a magic that stretches back to the first storytellers. The Hansel and Gretel story is another told in this wood; an old story full of dark and light, told at various stopping points in suitable parts of the wood with the older audiences I work with. It too becomes part of the wood and the wood becomes part of it; a connection that flexes and adapts and so changes each time it is told. 

These woods are a place for story and the carrying and telling of those stories that arrive. These are the stories from the wood. It is no accident that many stories happen in the dark wood or forest, especially stories from Northern Europe. Wood and forest are built into our mythic imaginations because they have been ever present physically in our lives and the lives of our ancestors for many hundreds of years. The stories lope through the woods, hungry for connection and a fire and a listener. In the telling and sharing they roam and stray from the one path to make new ones in each retelling with each gathering in each wood.

It was the mythologist Joseph Campbell who first identified what has come to be called ‘The Hero’s Journey’, the single narrative or “monomyth” that, he argued, underpins all stories in all traditions and cultures. The wood or forest is a key part of this universal metaphor: the hero has to enter the “dark wood” and suffer the trials and tests in order to achieve the elixir, grail or prize that s/he then must take back to the everyday world. This suffering is often compounded by the shape-shifters, tricksters and downright evil forces s/he encounters on the Journey.

We all have experience of the Hero’s Journey reflected in our own lives – some of us sadly never find a way out of the Dark Wood and “perish” in our quest, eventually leading Eliot’s ‘lives of quiet desperation’ or raging in the darkness, lashing out at anything new or misunderstood. Make no mistake; the wood is a dangerous place. Things are often not what they seem; the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood pretends to be concerned for her but wants to eat her and her Grandmother, the witch in Hansel and Gretel lives in a house made of sweetmeats and bread, she welcomes Little Brother and Little Sister with good food to eat but quickly imprisons Hansel, attempting to fatten him up to eat and setting his sister to skivvy for her. That which attracts us is not necessarily that which nurtures us. A bit like the Fly Agaric toadstools that appear in late summer around the Birch trees in our wood; they look as if they have appeared out of the pages of a fairy tale but contain poison in their heart.

The old stories are full of shape-shifters and trickster figures that appear as one thing, often human, but are something else entirely. Often these figures appear as positive influencers and helpers only to be revealed as dangerous and destructive. Sometimes it is the other way round and the apparently poor, the simple woodsman, the overworked step-daughter or the mysterious, initially threatening, stranger turn out to be forces for good. This ambivalence extends to the trees themselves. The Elder tree is a good example; in myth and folklore it is both feared and revered, sometimes driving out evil, sometimes causing sickness, dreams of death and indeed death itself. In contrast, the Oak, present in our own wood, is sacred. It is ‘the mother tree’; if you cut one down you do so at your own peril. It is a nurturing tree. When times were hard acorns were eaten not just by animals but by people, dried, ground and turned into flour for baking.

Why all this ambivalence associated with the wood? Walk in a wood at dusk or on days when the cloud presses in, compacting the light to darker, greyer shades and you will see. As I walk in the wood at these times trees begin to look like human figures, their shapes more twisted and convoluted. What hides in the shadows, in the undergrowth? Is that movement of the wind or is it an animal moving towards me? The older, more primal parts of brain and neurology unpack the thousands of years of genetic conditioning and spark up new fearful thoughts. 

As marginal, liminal spaces, the forests and woods are also a place for “outlaws”; people who live physically and in thinking outside the law, the established way of doing things, the way of the village or town. In the tenth century these outlaws were men and women escaping the brutality of the Norman scorched-earth destruction of Anglo-Saxon communities, especially up here in Yorkshire, Lancashire and the North East. The forests and woods became their homes from which they hunted for food, cut wood for fires and began to harass the invading occupation forces. Their resistance placed them outside Norman law. They became the rebels, battling an arbitrary and corrupt law, fighting for a way of life that they felt was just and right. These people were the antecedents of the Robin Hood stories that began to appear in the ballads and stories of the fourteenth centuries, stories of the wood and forest that are still walking with us today but that we seem to have lost connection to. It is a kind of collective amnesia that we have fallen into, creating a space that can be colonised by a different set of stories and narratives used to manipulate us. Stories told by forces of a new “underworld”, stories meant to manipulate us, making us into fodder to be consumed as part of a post-industrial fable that creates separateness and individuality whilst apparently creating connectivity and identity through social media. We live in a time in which the “shapeshifters” can and do flourish.

Forests and woods cannot be owned, despite the attempts of William and many of the Kings and Earls who followed him as well as the landowners today who try to fence off their asset to turn it into ‘private woodland’. Woods and forests are outside the law, they belong to place and place belongs to no one in particular even though some try to disregard this. In fact woods and forests are particularly vulnerable to the sometimes grasping hands of ‘private ownership’ and the exploitation that often follows. And yet, look at the woods around our village with their abandoned and overgrown bell-pits and limekilns; as the years turn the woods have reasserted their green and vital power to take back and take over. As a pair of Buzzards wheel overhead calling to each other I am left with a sense of a different energy, separate from and in the end untouched by our scurrying over its surface. These woods live on a different timeline from the people who lived and worked in them. They, like the stories, are of time rather than in time in the way the village and town are.

The wood between, the village between, the town between......borderlands are not comfortable places to be sometimes. ‘Space between’ implies passage, travel, uncertainty. The wood or forest are not the place for cheerful certainty, they are places where the unexpected happens, for good or for evil. They are the spaces the hero has to go through to be taken apart by what happens to her/him and by the shapeshifters and tricksters s/he meets. They are the ‘outlaw’ spaces.

Collectively we have entered a borderland space, a between-times in which our world is experiencing a dark wood that appears to stretch to the horizon and beyond. A dark wood in which the wolves of nationalism hunt in packs searching for vulnerable prey; the easy targets and easy excuses we hear from Trump’s America and in our own Brexit limbo. This forest is empty of the stories and narratives that connect us back to our deeper soul, to our natural ground, to our understanding that we are all connected. When we lose our stories we lose this common ground, that which holds us and grounds us in a sense of the whole. When this disappears we fall into a waking sleep unable or unwilling to find the magic apple that will revive us, rather we follow others to the stagnant waterholes from which we drink wholeheartedly but which provide no real quenching of our thirst. Like salt water, it makes us want to drink more and so the self-defeating cycle continues. We are in desperate need of the ‘outlaws’, the mavericks who can break out and populate this space in a different way to bring us back together.

The way out of the forest, the light that guides us is already present. As others have pointed out, it’s not necessarily that we need to create new stories. The stories we need have been with us for thousands of years, told by the storytellers to their audiences in tents, huts, round the fire, on the mountains, in family homes – anywhere people came together. In the flickering of the firelight, children dozing on parents’ laps, the storyteller would stamp her staff, clap her hands and start to speak. Her audience would lean forward to listen and the teller would weave the story that reflected the audience back to themselves casting new light into the darkness and confusion of human being.

A story perhaps like this one; an old, old story from Kazakhstan, but such a story for our time.........

“There was a young man, on his way to the city with a bag full of gold to buy seeds so his village could plant a garden for the poor. On his journey he encounters a camel train, part of which is carrying many rare and exotic birds in cages destined for the Shah’s table. The young man persuades the camel train owner to let him buy the birds, paying for them with his bag of gold. Then he opens all the cages and lets the birds fly free, those that are unable to because they are sick, he nurses back to health.

Then the young man turned back toward his village. His heart felt so warm from this thing that he had done. But as he came closer and closer to his village he realized just what he had done. He had spent the gold ... the money that was to buy seeds. Now there would be no garden for the poor. The money had not been his to spend. When he reached the spot where the garden would have been, he sat down and wept.

One small bird listens to him as he laments what he has done and flies off soon to return with hundreds of birds. "Don’t cry," say the birds. "You saved us. Now let us help you. We can’t return the gold you spent. But we can help you with your dream for a garden." And so they do and through a variety of means, including a bit of natural magic, the garden grows quickly into a rich and fruitful space including trees with golden apples to be eaten not looked at and hoarded.

It will come as no surprise that this beautiful garden came to the attention of the rich landlords. They jumped onto their horses and galloped to the spot. They assumed that such a rich garden should belong to them. But when they galloped up they saw that a fence of stone had risen around the garden. There was an iron gate with seven locks. And when the rich men arrived, the iron gate swung shut. And the seven locks locked themselves. So the rich landlords were unable to enter, they weren’t even able to touch the apples hanging over the wall.

After a while the poor began to arrive. They had to walk to reach the garden, so it took them some time to get there. But when they came stumbling toward the gate the locks clicked open. And the iron gates swung wide. The poor walked into the garden. All day they strolled cool paths and rested on green lawns. 

In the evening they went back to their homes refreshed. But some had no homes to go to. These homeless folk lingered in the garden. And then another wondrous thing happened. As darkness fell the gates of the garden swung closed again. And the seven locks fell into place, clicking shut. And all inside were protected for the night.” 

If ever there was a time for the storyteller who can connect us with the old stories, it is now. We need to inhabit them anew to help us wake up and look at ourselves, our communities, our world with new understanding and a new conscious awareness. This is not a backward movement, some nostalgic musing on older, better times. We need to make them ours again, make them for now, the times in which we live in; an age in which we are entering ecological collapse, political and social melt-down and all the forces that accompany these. We need to let the stories get inside us and walk around just as we get inside them and go on our own walkabouts to return with the fruits of our journeying; coming back into our lives with open hands and with the empathy and compassion for ourselves and the planet.

If we don’t, we will never find our way out of the dark forest and in that dark vacuum the stories of many of the politicians, financial directors, nationalists, racists and bigots will be the only ones told and heard. Remember, in the old stories sometimes some people never get out of the dark forest to return home; they perish, often violently. We are on that path now. We can choose to have either more of the same which will end badly or have the courage to step into the dark forest and begin to pick out the pathways shown by the light of these old stories; a light that shows us who we are and at the same time will keep the wolves at bay and perhaps, in the end, show us how to tame them if not banish them from the kingdom. 

In another old story, this time from Norway, the hero travels through the borderlands between village, town and forest. He comes to a split in the road from which there are three possible paths each with a signpost. The sign for the first path reads ‘he who travels this road will return safely’, the sign for the second reads ‘he who travels this road may or may not return’ whilst the third and final signpost reads ‘he who travels this road will never return’. The hero takes the third path; he has to because it is the only path from which growth, development and change can come. The message is clear; we need to do the same. 

David Taylor

April 2017