Tuesday, 23 January 2018

Of Woods and Wood Magic by Steve Gladwin

We have a lot of nice wood in our house, not only a nice carved oak unit for the TV to stand on and a lovely pine book case and desk, but a an alder memorial chest, a wedding mirror in intricate Celtic knot-work carved in lime and a hare mirror of elm complete with ears. These last three were all created by the same wonderful woodcarver, Peter Boyd in Snowdonia, who has carved many such wonders before and since. Years ago, when we held our second storytelling festival here in the Vyrnwy Valley, the alder chest had a companion, the ‘singing head’ chair, made by Peter from the same wood, in the African style. It has the head of Bran the Blessed and after Celia died, I gifted it to my great friend and bardic companion Andy. A year or so after Celia died, we reunited both of these beautiful alder pieces in our show ‘Bright Pretty Things’ at the village hall here in Meifod. It was nice to see them together, inspiring story once again as they were meant to do.

Even though I’ve been a druid pagan for over twenty years, I've never been the sort of person who talks to trees, or even rests my hand on their trunks to hear their gentle rhythm, and as more of a dasher through life with a head constantly over teeming, I'm perhaps unlikely to.

However I did once discover a grove in 2003, which led to my first children’s book and to an enduing relationship with my particular grove of seven. In fact it's still the name I use professionally. There, on a little hill above a sweet chestnut tree blasted by a winter storm, Celia and I discovered it, seven trees stuck into a mound like flourishing cocktail sticks on an upturned orange. There are four flourishing oaks, two great grey beeches and a little ash tucked away on the end behind one of the oaks like a sheltering child with its great dark father. The seven trees soon grew identities and archetypes in my mind; Child, Dark Lord, Warrior, Queen, (later Princess), Bard, Seeker and Mage. And from the depths of the greatest Welsh myths I drew names for them - Pwyll, Gwern, Efnisien, Branwen, Taliesin, Ceridwen and Merlin. If the trees didn’t exactly come to life for me, then they became sort of companions in the background of my inspiration, and I would visit them often to thank them. Still on certain anniversaries connected to Celia, I go to visit and read small sections of the book to her and them. They live for me still as they will I hope for the readers of The Seven, even if they are truly sleeping.

‘At which point, the door in the fifth tree swung open --- and Lucy Morgan stepped out.
She blinked in the darkness, the beautiful singing that had held her until now still spinning around in her mind. She had no idea of where she had been, or how lucky she was to escape.

The real Grove of Seven

So, with the publication of The Seven in 2014 I added my own tiny wood to the great world woods of children’s books. For as long as I can remember, there have been woods to explore in books. This means that even if we don’t decide to venture into them, to avoid their varied dangers and temptations, we can ask books to do it for them. If we wish to stay safe and snug at home in winter, we can rely on Mole and Ratty to be the ones to go into the wild wood in search of Mr Badger while avoiding the weasels, or if we’ve eaten so much we don’t want to budge we can still join Winnie the Pooh and friends on the more gentle adventures of childhood, where everything is always sorted out before tea, which invariably involves honey. If we want to become outlaws, in hiding from the wicked sheriff and his men, we can always venture into the Green Wood to feast and play with Robin and Marion, Little John and Friar Tuck. And of course, when we were little we could make sure we fitted all of this in in time for bed.

‘These woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep.
And miles to go before I sleep.’

Only Robert Frost knew what he was thinking about when he wrote those words, but it is as good a description as any of the magic, and yes the sheer anticipation of childhood. Of course the stories of childhood and of any time are full of desolate shores and turbulent waves, of hidden caves and treacherous mountains as well as deep woods and forests. In The Hobbit, Tolkien takes us on a tour of all of these and more besides, and so onward into The Lord of the Rings. But for all the goblin caves and mines of Moria, Desolation of Smaug and Paths of the Dead, it’s the ancient forests of Mirkwood and Fangorn which have always had the strongest and most dangerous pull for me. Woods and forests are full of scheming stoats and weasels, as well as aggressive giant spiders who don’t take kindly to name calling. Woods and forests have depth on every level, because we can either plunge into them at will to seek adventure, or become lost in them willingly in one giant dare. If we go off the beaten track we know to beware, but that doesn’t stop us going anyway.

I realise I am wandering about a bit here, but that’s what happens when you enter a wood, you start off with an idea of the path you want to take, and then – often quite willingly – get yourself side-tracked.

As children we came to rely on books and TV to lead us happily astray, knowing we could always pick up the journey in the next chapter or episode, safely leaving the cliff hanger until another time. I have no idea how children feel about this nowadays, about the idea and anticipation of re-entering an old wood, or finding a new one you don't know the rules of yet. I can’t be alone in my generation of sixties children remembering just how exciting it felt either to enter a new world through a classic BBC tea time serial, or to reach the end of an episode barely able to breathe, with the thought of the next episode- when we’d get to find out the answer - seeming to be an age away.

And how many of our woodland adventures took place in winter? I’m one of those people who love snow and, because neither Rosie nor I drive, can truly appreciate it. But I’m sure it has a great deal to do with badger’s snug, safe house in The Wind in the Willows, the beaver’s den in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, or the wolves running in The Box of Delights. Snow and woods! What could be a better combination?

And miles to go before I sleep

Of course as children our knowledge of wood and its various properties is necessarily limited. We might scrub around in it, use it to knock up approximate things in woodwork, or rely on other people to use it to keep us warm, but unless we were brought up by people who truly understand it, we don’t know our oak from our elbow. But long before people came to rely on its various properties in classic children’s literature, this classic old English rhyme provided us with a few clues.

Oak logs will warm you well
That are old and dry
Logs of pine will sweetly smell
But the sparks will fly
Birchs long will burn too fast
Chestnut scarce at all sir
Hawthorn logs are good to last
That are cut well in the fall sir

Surely you will find
There's no compare with the hard wood logs
That's cut in the winter time

Holly logs will burn like wax
You could burn them green
Elm logs burn like smouldering flax
With no flame to be seen
Beech logs for winter time
Yew logs as well sir
Green elder logs it is a crime
For any man to sell sir

Surely you will find
There's no compare with the hard wood logs
That's cut in the winter time

Pear logs and apple logs
They will scent your room
And cherry logs across the dogs
They smell like flowers of broom
But ash logs smooth and grey
Buy them green or old, sir
And buy up all that come your way
They're worth their weight in gold sir

That great modern bard Robin Williamson has a wonderful arrangement of this on his album ‘A Glint at the Kindling’, if you want to check it out, but it’s worthwhile having a copy of this most practical of rhymes on hand anyway.

Of course children, unless they are like Peter Pan, grow up. Perhaps if they are truly skilled in the love of wood, they turn their attention to making a living from carving it into beautiful things, like Peter Boyd, or like the wood carver who creates the mandolin in the wonderful song ‘Wood’ by Telling The Bees.

The minstrel takes the instrument and plays –aha
His only job to try and make it sing.
He practices the art of it for days – aha
But this beautiful thing
it gives him to sing
And he sings, How wonderful is wood, is wood -

But in the meantime, however young we might be at heart, and even if we don't have a handy wood or forest nearby, we can find our deep places wonderfully evoked, described and above all kept alive in so many books, and above all - in our minds, where such things will always be.

Yet if you enter the woods
Of a summer evening late
When the night-air cools on the trout-ringed ponds
Where the otter whistles his mate
My thanks to the following for providing the inspiration.
Stopping by Woods - Robert Frost
The Way Through the Woods - Rudyard Kipling
The Woodcutter's Song - Old English. Sung by Robin Williamson on his album A Glint at the Kindling. Released in 2005 on Gott Discs with 5 Extra Tracks (The Five Bardic Mysteries)
Wood by Telling the Bees from the album Untie the Wind.
Sadly Telling the Bees have recently split up, but you can find them all over youtube and on their own site.
The Seven - Steve Gladwin - inspiration from the Grove of Seven.
Peter Boyd - You can find many of Peter's wonderful creations on his Peter Boyd Wood Sculptor site.

Finally a bit of fun. I had planned to write this blog about indecision,because I had at least three ideas which I didn't use. I may well use one or more of them in the future, but in the meantime here is a short quiz on what might have been. If you get more than half, help yourself to a biscuit from the nearest tin or its diet friendly equivalent.

The Missing Blogs Quiz

*The Box of Delight was written by John Masefield, but what is his most well known poem?

*The actor Sir Robert Stephens, who played the villain Abner Brown in the BBC TV adaptation of 1984, also played Aragorn in the BBC radio adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, but can you remember who played Sam?

*In Dr Michael Ward's Narnia Code theory, which planet does The Silver Chair represent.

*Which actor voices Aslan throughout the four BBC adaptations of the eighties.

*In the Paddington books, what is the nationality of Paddington's great friend and fellow immigrant, Mr Gruber.

*What is the name of the great cinema organist who Paddington helps out in the story 'Paddington goes to the Cinema?

There you go. You'll find the answers below. And if you fancy a post Christmas treat, the BBC Narnia are available from Amazon seller s for a ridiculous price. Go on now!

Steve Gladwin - 'Grove of Seven' and 'The Year in Mind'
Writer, Performer and Teacher
Author of 'The Seven' and 'The Raven's Call'

Answers to the Missing Blogs Quiz

a. Sea Fever. b. It was Bill Nighy (as William Nighy). c. The Moon. d. Ronald Pickup. e. Hungarian. e. Mr Reginald Grove in 'Paddington Helps Out'.




Ann Turnbull said...

Lovely post, Steve - thanks. I've printed the wood burning rhyme to keep.

Penny Dolan said...

What a glory of wood and words and stories and ideas. Thanks for taking us a little way on your own path through the trees.

Steve Gladwin said...

Thanks, Penny. Glad you enjoyed it. Ann, I think it's lovely to have something which is both rhythmic and practical.