Reading In The Dark : Gossip From The Forest

I’m a woman who has her heart in two parts. Half of my heart is given away to the ice of the High Arctic, to the vast glaciers and imposing icebergs, to the singing aurora borealis and silent mountain peaks. The other half of my heart is given away to the forests of my homeland and Scandinavia. To the moss-clad rocks and dense pines, to the quiet streams and mists that stay put until the sun melts them alway. Both landscapes bring to me such joy, that at moments I’m so happy and excited I can hardly breathe. I’m as tied to these landscapes as I am to anything else in my life, and without them I become weak, I become sad, I become lonely.

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Sometimes, though, these landscapes are only available to me through literature. One book that has recently given to me that closeness to the forest I so desperately need is Gossip From The Forest by Sara Maitland. In this illuminating book, Maitland ventures into Britain’s forests in different seasons, uncovering their secrets and translating for us the gifts forests give. Though that’s not all…she also investigates the cultural link that exists between woodland and fairytales, adding a whole other beautiful depth to the book. However, it’s not all gleeful reading, as I’ll tell you later, though you can probably guess already that that isn’t the fault of the forest, but rather us frustrating fleshwalkers.

Each chapter in the book is titled by a month and a forest. In March, Maitland visits Airyolland Wood. In September she’s in The Forest Of Dean. In February she is in Knockman Wood. Each forest entry is followed by a re-telling of a classic fairytale. Among them, there’s Rapunzel, Thumbling and Dancing Shoes. Though my favourite of all would have to be Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf. It’s as perfect and utterly devastating a re-telling as I’ve ever read and even now, a week or so after I finished the book, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the story. That fairytale is one that’s never left me since I first heard it as a child, some thirty years ago. I was always more interested in the parts of the story that took place in the woods, where wolf could be shadow or shadow could be wolf.

Maitland held my attention always while I read Gossip From The Forest, though my attention was always that bit keener when she was talking about the weird or dark or fearful aspects of the forest.

“Somewhere I picked up some of that horror about forests. When I was writing A Book of Silence I discovered that I was avoiding forests and their silences because I was frightened. Startled, I took myself off to Glen Affric – one of the remaining fragments of ancient pine forest in Scotland – to challenge and examine my fear. I discovered that, in reality, it was not ‘fear’ that I experienced, but something rather stranger.”

There were moments in the book where I couldn’t help but feel a tad depressed, for example when Maitland talked about how, like forests, fairytales are also at risk.

“Padraic Colum has suggested that artificial lighting dealt them a mortal wound: when people could read and be productive after dark, something very fundamental changed, and there was no longer need or space for the oral tradition.”

And when she spoke about how we’re not only depriving children of the forest physically, but also depriving them of the very language of the forest, I felt nauseous. Maitland writes how, in 2008 a new edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary, designed for children between the ages of 7 and 9 decided that English primary school children had no need for the following words:

Catkin
Brook
Acorn
Buttercup
Blackberry
Conker
Holly
Ivy
Mistletoe

The words that replaced them include database, export, celebrity, committee and compulsory. I feel angry even tapping those words out and need to continue with telling you about another part of the book that gets my heart racing for all the right reasons. In Chapter 8 Maitland found herself wandering Caledonian forest…

“Caledonian forest is also woodland at its most frightening and forbidding. The terror of the wild feels closer here. In such woods it is never properly silent; old pine trees creak and moan even in quite gentle winds, and there are always rushing streams just out of sight, and a sense of chill in the air. With half an ear, I find myself listening for the wolf pack; for the brigands and the desperate clans cleared from their homes two hundred years ago; and for the malevolent wood spirits who may punish the unwary visitor savagely.”

If like me, you’re forever reaching one hand out for the forest to take, I suggest you look into getting your hands on a copy of this extremely special book.

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