visiting THE WOOD WIZARD
an essay by David Lewis.
On a cold December afternoon, the dog pulls me up to the forest on the hills around the small town. It is popular in the summer months, but on the sharp edge of winter, the forest is largely deserted. Somewhere up here is the invisible border between England and Wales, which we will cross many times this afternoon. Walking into the trees, we could be crossing it now.
Everywhere there is evidence of the forest’s past lives - abandoned vehicles, iron quarry drums, the skeletons of motorcycles. Strangest of all are the giant concrete footings, grey and silent alongside the road. But this is still a working forest. Periodically whole areas are closed as if for secret manoeuvres and giant logging tractors move in, half-insect, almost military, with gripping pincers and steel claws. The forest floor is churned beneath their studded wheels, leaving trenches like deep parallel scars. At night we can see strong headlights through the trees, but the heavy machines are soon gone. The scars fill with water and soften into the forest landscape, to be defined in the autumn by drifts of golden larch needles.
The smaller forest trails are always changing, because this is a landscape maintained by an invisible community of walkers. Many people have given the forest places many names - the Owl Path, Sam’s Wood, Maggie’s Dark Path. Shared mythologies of place make a landscape accessible. The dog runs onto Gog and Magog’s Path, named after two unofficial sculptures of trunk sections piled like crude totem poles, silent and eerie in the trees until they disappeared in a carnage of muddy logging. On the quieter paths ‘patterans’ appear, messages to other walkers in the unspoken language of leaves and stones, the sculptural equivalent of naming the landscape. Gog and Magog disappeared, but within days the path was (unofficially) reopened and small stone piles appeared on the tree stumps.
The path takes us to the beech trees that define the high points of the forest. They are thick with green light all summer and bright bronze in the autumn, yet few people come this far into the forest and there are no patterans here. It is cold enough now to see my breath. We are walking to Radagast’s House, named after Tolkien’s benevolent wood wizard. His ‘house’ is a collapsed 1940s shed, a jagged twist of rotting wood and decaying corrugated iron, but I have always enriched solitary walks with stories, taking emotional ownership, and this is another gesture of creative possession. There are many ways of ‘owning’ a landscape.
The light begins to thicken beneath the trees. I always intend to turn back at Radagast’s House, but as usual, I climb up through Sam’s Wood to the open hilltop. The official highest point is a mile away, marked by the stones of old fires, but this has an astonishing view of hills and woodland. I lose track of time here; I cannot see a house, a car, a road, even a field. Am I in England or in Wales? I can hear nothing but the wind in the trees.
Lamps are lit in an invisible farmhouse two miles away down the valley, and the dog tires of my inactivity. It is an hour back through the dark forest, but she shares my pleasure in nocturnal wood-walking. Beneath the owls’ branches, we hear the forest sighing and breathing, and may possibly see the deer, before the lights of the town glimmer through the trees. She turns for the path, and I follow.