Sunday, May 27, 2012

At the edge of dark woods

A cuckoo is calling in the far wood. The morning birds are finding their voice; trill notes against a sky of perfect cerulean blue. The clarity of the air is so pure, this far north, that a pair of magpies seem like etchings of themselves, a vivid impression where the bird may once have been.
Around the veranda where I sit, azaleas and juniper merge into bilberries beneath the tall pines. The bilberries are bigger here than at home, their leaves soft large green ovals, the size of old pennies. A single rowan tree in flower seems garlanded for the day: creamy rosettes of blossom seeming so innocent, so naïve against the sombre viridian of the pines.
The view northwards through the bay is striped with the soft creases of wind, as though freshly raked for the morning, like the gravel in a zen garden. A single Swedish flag drifts heavy on its pole, testing the morning breeze.

After breakfast, we walk in the forest, noting the flowers which are coming into bloom in the dappled understory; wild strawberries and wood anemones, bog myrtle and a flower I cannot recognise, the Skogstjärnor or 'wood star'; Trientalis europaea. There is something contextually unsettling amongst these trees: the rich understory of native woodland beneath trees which we regard so often as non-native cash crops: spruce and pines. It feels like home, yet is not; is familiar and somehow strange.
We are discussing the subtle differentiation between 'woods' and 'forest' in English. I tell my Swedish friends that 'forest' has a different sense, somehow more scary, more unbidden than the tamer concept of 'woods'. In Swedish, there is no difference; only degrees of wildness, layers and layers of pine and spruce receding into the penetrating sun, the dry crispness of mosses beneath the feet, the scatters of cones like leavings from mischievous wood spirits.

For a short period in my life, I came to Sweden often, flying in at night into snow-bound airports, taking late express buses through the monochrome forests. On one such trip I walked to the edge of Katrineholm to get some fresh air after a day spent in a stifling conference hall. It was late November, a time when darkness settles around the margins of the town by three in the afternoon. I turned off the the road on which I was walking, onto a track which led through houses to where trees pressed hard against the limits of the town. A soft snow had begun to fall, soundlessly sifting on the pavements into a greyish sinter, like the settling of a fine ash at the end of the world. The sky was a sulphurous grey, the colour of a stain.
I imagined how it would be to follow the track further into the trees, to keep walking beyond the houses, into the darkening evening forest with the snow settling on my jacket, my hair, filling my footsteps behind me. It was a moment of fear and allure, of fascination for the sentient forest, a moment in which I could almost feel the trees breathing, their shelter welcoming yet dark, warmer than the falling snow, bigger than the small parcel of open land to which this town seemed only temporarily anchored. It is a fear that perhaps we all face down at times; the lure of the forest, the promise of the untamed wildness which hovers at the margins of our lives. 


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