Saturday, May 19, 2007

Beneath the snake-haired oak

Bent on snatching an early-morning sanity building break, my companion and I slipped out of the still sleeping conference centre and headed for nearby Hinckley’s Wood (Long Ditton, Surrey). AS we picked our way carefully along the nettle fringed path skirting the wood behind the conference centre, I breathed deeply, letting go of tensions and anxieties. The loamy, damp, crushed foliage smell of an English wood in early summer filled my nostrils and I felt close to the earth and grateful.

In the distance, pre rush-hour traffic growled monotonously on the A road. Above our head, garden birds sang cheerfully amongst the trees. The neat cemetery beyond was quiet.

In a small clearing at the edge of the wood, overlooking the cemetery, a tall old oak stood. Her branches wound serpent-like, her canopy far-reaching and tangled. She looked like Medusa, my companion had observed. The earth at her feet was dry and flat. We pulled back the brambles and eased ourselves down, resting our backs against her rough trunk.

The traffic sounds receded and the birdsong grew clearer. I was moving slowly and carefully along a bramble-strewn grass following the old boar as he moved amongst the trees. It was soon after dawn but the woods were dark under the summer canopy. The white boar glimmered in the half-light.

I moved deeper into the woods, awkwardly shuffling after the now hurrying boar. I waded through knee-high nettles, constantly having to wrench my feet from the tenacious grasp of the brambles. It was hard work and my legs soon began to tire. Here the sweet-sour odour of crushed greenery was joined by the acrid smell of burnt wood. I wondered where there had been space to have a fire in this dense thicket.

The boar, light against the darkness stopped and turned as though waiting for me to catch up. Fearing I might lose him, I plunged forward following him as he pushed through a clump of shaggy pine trees into the clearing beyond.

The space was fringed by a mix of trees. In the centre stood the remains of a hut, burnt almost to the ground. Nothing stirred. The boar was nowhere to be seen.

Nervously I approached the ruins. The burnt wood smell was eye-wateringly strong here. I bent and touched the blackened stump that was the front wall, it was still warm. I stepped carefully over into the hut.

The ruin was complete. Furniture and fittings had melded into amorphous lumps of carbon. All was black and grey. A deep heaviness invaded my heart and I felt defeated and hopeless.

Then I saw it; a glimmer of gold in the corner, half hidden under something burnt beyond recognition. I knelt to touch it and saw it was a golden feather, perhaps five inches long. I withdrew my hand and just crouched gazing at it, marvelling at how it gleamed so brightly amongst so much dark ruin. And as I did so, into my mind came the image of the tall oak tree with the snake-hair. She was calling me.

I leaned back against the trunk. She held me and I felt her sway. I felt rather than saw her huge curling branches toss and shift as though she were nodding. I breathed deeply and noticed detachedly where my body finished and hers began. Beneath my bottom, I felt the earth flat and dependable supporting me.

At the edge of my hearing, something shifted, moved quietly, and breathed roughly, almost a snort. I turned my head towards the sound. It came now from the edge of the cemetery. I bowed towards it, knowing that the boar was there.

Behind me, the tree upon which I leaned, turned slightly and bent in stately acknowledgement of the boar. How beautiful the world is, I thought as, giving thanks for being part of it, for the beings and creatures of the wood, for the goddess as she came to me in all her many and varied forms, I got up to go. It was time to bring that love of life to the new day and my work in it once more.

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