Friday, January 02, 2009

The Hollow Beech – near High Beech, Epping Forest

Wednesday December 31, 2008:

“Oh enough of all the fizzing and bubbling of mass celebrations (already)!” I say to no one in particular; I'm going to find a tree with whom to spend New Year’s Eve. So I march out to my Rowan tree to dream what I want into reality.

Something has felt not quite right about how I have often marked the turning of the calendar year. I’ve partied along with others, getting mindlessly drunk and sometimes getting up to no good as a result. I’ve more soberly held a space for my chosen family in which we review our year and make wishes for the new one. Often this has involved a quick dash into the cold at midnight to prance about, if ever so briefly, in the firework splattered night singing “the Internationale” and “tower of Strength”. I’ve sat naked and sweating, hip to hip with relative strangers in sweatlodges under the sparkling Dartmoor skies; and I’ve even spent a romantic new year in snowy Amsterdam, falling inappropriately and hopelessly in love.

But it is the quiet and contemplative if damp ritual I did in my garden last year which has sustained me most. During 2008 I danced with bouts of depression, marked the successes, the disastrous disappointments, the fitness breakthroughs and health challenges - all part of life’s journey. That walk with the old she wolf gave me the strength to face the impact of political change in London and it’s consequences upon my career in public life; for the unconditional compassion of the she wolf is always with me, no matter what.

This year I was drawn to the trees. And where better to go than the ancient forest of Epping?

It has not rained now for nearly a week. The night is cloudy; a sharp easterly is just beginning to turn. The ground beneath our feet is frozen hard. We pick our way cautiously down rutted paths, skirt rank bogs and the strewn and discarded trunks of what seemed to be carelessly felled trees. Beyond the forest, the distant rumble of the M25 weaves together with occasional pops and fizzes of the ubiquitous New Year fireworks. This is the rhythm track that our feet crunch a counterpoint to.

Somewhere round the back of the youth hostel, we find a steep path leading down into a clearing. A circle of trees, many spindly and leggy surround a magnificent round and hollow beech! She curves and folds, reveals and hides her chambers, standing stolidly, great roots reaching out spider-like, and queen of all she surveys.

Were we athletic enough, I dare say that all three of us will find space inside her – albeit rather snugly. But for two of us, our hips and knees do not contort appropriately to allow this. We send our youngest and bendiest in to burrow amongst the leaves. I lower myself gingerly into the curved lip of her great chamber and my other companion sinks neatly against her roots.

The world turns. The sounds of life external to this place recede and all is quiet. Behind my closed eyes, the edges of the circle dance. Their presence, a watching circle of evvorvescence, for they just can’t keep still. I can though – I am frozen as though deeply in sleep into stillness. I am one with the tree in which I sit.

There is a silvery light in the centre of the clearing. It dazzles and shimmers, grows opaque and then still. Great white horns rise up against the dark sky, a shadowed face contoured in silver gazes at me; his broad shoulders are draped in something dark which hides the rest of him against the darkness of the tuffety grass. I hold my breath, I can’t move, I can only stare.

He does not seem surprised to see me sat in my tree in the middle of the forest whilst the rest of the world parties. I get the impression that he somehow expects me to be here and approves. I feel his gaze upon me, interested, appreciative.

We are silent, yet we are connected for I know he sees into my heart and I feel like I can read his thoughts. Vaguely I wonder if I should be doing that when the thought pops into my head that I am always safe if I am with the trees. I settle back to feast my senses on this experience and feel totally at peace.

Behind me, my flexible companion sighs and shifts slightly. The other one is completely still, wrapped in something beyond her. I breathe in the stillness of the place as I gaze at the Lord of the woods, who is regarding me quietly.

A sudden scattering of pops and bangs, fizzes, squeaks and pyratecnic hoots break the peace. Something flutters agitatedly through the undergrowth, a bird perhaps? And he is gone. I am aware that the wind has changed, as it sharply brushes my cheek. The spell is broken.

“What would you do with your leap second?” I ask my two companions. “I will spend mine being still with a tree, a moment to treasure when life is tough.”

“Save it up and add it to the end of my life” says one … what the other one, the bendy one in the tree says is lost in her sleepy stillness.

All around us, the world is exploding. The wind carries the distant sound of music; snatches of sudden laughter mingle with shouts and the revving of an engine.

“I met a faerie” said the companion who had sat at the beech’s feet. She begins to describe her.

“I met Cernunnus” I said, “and he was amazing!”

“I feel like I’m about to be reborn, when I get out of this tree” says the bendy one, beginning to wriggle.

We climb severally from the tree and turn to thank her with respectful bows and pats of her lovely trunk before making our way carefully back to the bubbling party that is London.

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