For my latest university project, I explored the concept of forests and what people have to say about them. By creating a survey, I gathered a range of intimate stories that reveal just how important the forest habitat is to us all, for many different reasons.
Peaceful. Majestic. Timeless. Forests are a vast and highly diverse habitat with a different meaning for everyone, and provide the perfect opportunity to get time and space away from regular life. To find out just how significant forests can be, a recent survey was conducted, uncovering some varied and intimate stories.
“Forests remind me of home. While standing in any other habitat you surround yourself with nature, but the forest is the only one that swallows you.”
Despite our love for woodland, Britain and Ireland are some of the least wooded countries in Europe, even with the presence of approximately 13,000 ancient trees. Some of these have been standing for over a millennium. This, when compared to the human lifespan, seems an eternity.
“Woodland is a much-loved feature of the landscape,” writes Sophie Lake, author of ‘A Guide to the Wildlife Habitats of Britain and Ireland’, “Stepping inside an ancient wood can be a welcome escape from the monotony of the abrasive, urban environment.” For lots of us, forests are holders of secrets and memories, paving the way for personal reflection and relaxation that cannot always be achieved in the bustle and noise of our everyday existence. Forests enable us to lose ourselves, literally and figuratively.
We admire forests for their natural beauty. Most noticeable of all the seasons is undoubtedly autumn, when frost, crunching leaves and a flurry of excitement in preparation for winter really brings them alive. The forest is not just important for the survival of hundreds of forest-dwelling species but also for ourselves. We are nemophilists – that is, we have a deep fondness for forests and woodland – and have childhood stories to tell of long days spent climbing trees, collecting conkers or watching birds.
“I went on aimless walks as a child – my mum and I used to collect pretty sticks and stones. I’ve always been surrounded by forests and even if I wasn’t in them physically, their presence was always there.”
Forests are a place of play, where children dream up kingdoms and magical lands. There is an undeniable magic to forests that we first discover during childhood, but this stays long into adulthood whether or not we care to admit it. We ask ourselves what exactly it is about a forest that makes us shed our deep-set cynicism and embrace childlike wonder again. Perhaps it is the seclusion that the trees provide that prompts a split from the real world and allows our minds to wander, creating a barricade that shields us from reality. There is also the enchanting way that many wild, forested places muffle our connection to technology, rendering our phones useless. We are cut off from the outside world so we must embrace wilderness, and that is when we realise what we’ve been missing.
“I was convinced I was Mowgli and went running off – ducking to make sure I wasn’t seen by any creatures that might be lurking in the woods. I wanted to stay there forever.”
As children we see and savour so much more, with no limits to our imagination. The rumble in the bushes is a prowling tiger, so we pick up a stick and have a sword. By spending time in the forest as adults, we see nature with fresh eyes. Senses that have been dulled by noise and brightness are now reinvigorated to appreciate new marvels – the sound of birdsong, the smell of conifers, the sight of leaves coated in frozen, silver crystals. It is not until we return to a forest that we remember what a surreal place it is, full to bursting with secrets.
After a recent trip to Kidland Forest in the Northumberland National Park, with over five thousand acres to explore, all these feelings came flooding back to me. The forest was silent; listening while others threw sounds into the air. An abandoned tyre swing creaked, a tawny owl called, but the trees stayed hushed. Each one has survived bleak winters, dry summers and overseen a thousand births and deaths. Seeing such colossal larch trees stretching into the sky put into perspective how powerful and significant the forest landscape is.
“A favourite memory of mine is an enormous old oak that I used to play on. Its limbs went on forever – the sheer size was incredible and it’s amazing to think of the memories it might have held.”
Our love for forests must surely be from the respect we hold for these vast, natural structures that have been standing for centuries while generations have come and gone. These unmoving, unspeaking elephants with trunks of bark and thick, deep-set roots have a majesty that is easy to overlook. They begin life as a seed we can hide in our hands, but will eventually, and inevitably, dwarf adults and children alike.
“Spring is fresh and green, summer is full of birdsong, autumn brings the golden colours and in winter it is a stark place, with all the tree branches exposed scratching lines across the sky.”
Forests in November are patchwork blankets of green, orange and brown, where the trees shine like fiery beacons. It is autumn at its finest: an explosion of colour with just the right amount of chill in the air. Arranged in rows like ornately dressed soldiers, trees stand in silence, the sort of hush that comes just before something long-anticipated. The sun shines in slanted shards, illuminating certain branches and leaving others in chilled shadows. The forest is a drug – beautifully addictive. Its costumes are always changing throughout the year. This season: orange is well and truly in.
The forest is particularly wonderful because it never dies. Whatever the season, there is something happening. Come September, the temperatures drop and the rain persists, but new life is always arriving. Leaves fall and curl up into dry husks, but from amongst them sprout fungi, mushrooms of every colour that decorate and cloak the tree roots like nature’s Persian rug. Soon the nights will be cold enough to freeze, and come morning when the weak sunlight breaks through, millions of miniscule ice sculptures cling to every surface, each one unique. The forest is a menagerie of sights, smells and sounds; even with the wind and rain, the last few months of the year bring breathtaking beauty.
“Every Christmas morning my mum and I have breakfast in the forest. The whole place is frozen and beautiful. I remember how big it was and that I’d never see all of it. That just made what I did see more special.”
Christmas is undoubtedly a time of magic, and forests can be the perfect place for festive celebrations. Businesses are using this to their advantage and hosting holidays in wood cabins and yurts deep in picturesque forest locations; with ever advancing technology it is becoming even easier to find the perfect wild spot. If done sustainably, encouraging a greater participation in the forest can only be beneficial. Being surrounded by the winter chill with perhaps a sprinkling of snow is idyllic – the presence of such an enchanted habitat accentuates the beauty of winter.
“It is the ability to put to one side the complexities of modern life and modern living and to escape into a world seemingly untouched by the industrial intervention of man.”
Forests are vast, varied and can accommodate everyone. They offer the freedom to forget the modern world for a while and spend time in true wilderness. Walking through a forest feels like stepping back in time, where nothing is artificial. The forest is vast, yet its size and range never seem ominous. Barren and haunting depictions of woodland always resurface around Halloween, painting a rather commercial picture of a scary place, but a forest in autumn and winter is as enchanting as one in midsummer, perhaps with even more wonder.
“I think forests are irreplaceable and I need to go there regularly to remind myself of what’s important.”
Many people surveyed for this feature revealed that they spend time in forests for meditation, thinking and to enhance creativity. The fact that being surrounded by trees encourages this self-care is truly humbling. In our otherwise hectic existence, minds preoccupied with material wealth, a brief moment spent surrounded by peaceful, green silence allows us to step back and put all of these worries into perspective. And that is worth more than anything money can buy.