I’m in the New Forest in the south of England. The new Forest is a charmingly deceptive name, though. It is an ancient woodland delineated on the man-made map a thousand years ago and at that time declared ‘new’, and formed after the retreat of the last ice age some thirty thousand years ago. It is an old forest, indeed, and it’s bliss.
In a forest such as this, there is a wonderful feeling of catharsis, a peace in the midst of wild things. The Japanese knew of this and coined a phrase in the 1980’s prompting the health benefits of people spending time in forest.
Many call this ‘tree bathe-ing’, the Japanese call it ‘shirin-yoku’ (meaning ‘taking in the forest atmosphere’) and its benefits are felt just by being in a forest. It is said it helps to reduce blood pressure, stress, improves mood, accelerates ailment recovery, increases energy levels and intuition, increases happiness etc. Truly, there is something here, something beyond what just can be seen.
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
I’m in this ancient forest, suitably attired for my hike, or perhaps a saunter is a better word for it, in waterproofs with layers underneath and well-worn hiking boots on my feet. I am in my preferred environment. I’ve been walking for two hours now, and it’s raining, it’s wet and it’s muddy underfoot, and cold. I love it. I haven’t seen another soul in two hours. I’m alone.
Alone? That’s not entirely true. Sporadically a bird flies overhead in this dark, dense woodland. Most of the trees a bare, leafless except for the pine trees. Occasionally, an animal scurries away in the nearby undergrowth. Adders are very common in this area and care should be taken. I’m careful. The trees are far from lifeless. They’re sleeping. Deep roots are dreaming. And new shoots push up through the semi-decomposed duff layer here and there. Spring is returning.
Alone? No. There is animal life here, tree and plant life, microbial life and much more. Some talk of life as consisting of animal life, plant (and tree) life, fungi, protist life (that is, any multi-called organism not included in the previous three), archaea life (single-called organisms) and bacteria. These all form what is known as the Five Kingdoms of life. How can I be alone with all that going on around me? But there’s more.
‘If we opened our minds to enjoyment, we might find tranquil pleasures spread about us on every side. We might live with the angels that visit us on every sunbeam, and sit with the fairies who wait on every flower.’ Samuel Smiles
Alone? No. These are ancient woods and you can feel something more here. A presence or presences can be felt. Benevolent. Yes.
Perhaps it is Dryads (tree spirits); Salamanders (fire-beings seen in flames eg candle flame, and, some would say in everything that has the potential to burn); the Fae or pixies (nature’s carers); or Water nymphs, energetic beings, found in and by lakes (but why not in a wet and damp forest like the one I’m in, or present in your faucet.) Yes, maybe water nymphs are closer to you, in your home, than you imagined at first.
Maybe there are Sylphs here. Yes, there are. Sylphs are said to be seen in light clouds or low-level mist, and indeed some would say they are the light clouds and low-level mist that we sometimes see. Here, in this forest the occasional wisp of mist can be seen moving between trees as a light breeze directs them.
Dryads, Salamanders, the Fae, Water nymphs, and Sylphs are here, and all these, sometimes collectively known as Elementals, are known by some as the Five Magical Realms.
Alone? No. I am in an ancient forest teeming with life, visible and invisible, ‘mundane’ and ‘spiritual’, known and unknown, silent and loud, jere and yet of the Other. And maybe, there are angels here; maybe the ancestors, too.
‘…since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses…’ Hebrews 12.1b, The Book
And then, I stop. And in this ancient forest, surrounded by Life itself, there at the base of a tree stump I ‘plant’ a small rainforest jasper stone (as I have done in two other location through the U.K.) and say a few words of peace over it; peace for the land, peace for all life, peace for this country’s government of people as it ‘doth err’. Remaining in silence I am aware of the presences around me. Presences? oh yes, and the Presence is here, known as the Friend, the Companion, the Happy One, the Wild Holy One.
We are never alone. Never alone, for we ‘swim’ through Life itself and Life pervades our very Being in an eternal dance of mutuality.
And, then I move. It’s still raining, it’s still wet and it’s still muddy underfoot, and it is still cold. Oh yes, and I still love it, but it’s time to walk back on my two hour journey to leave this wonderful place. But, what is here ‘travels’ with me, and oh yes, it “travels’ with you, too, for we are never alone.
‘Listen. Are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?’ Mary Oliver