"Zurrumurru -- whisper, in the Basque language -- hush!" writes Jay Griffiths in Kith, her excellent investigation of childhood past and present. "Step from the ordinary noise of the tilled fields or the busy streets into the quiet of the woods. Step across the boundary and the trespass of story will begin. The forest takes a deep breath and through its whispering leaves an incipient adventure unfurls. The quest. In the lull -- not the drowsy lull of a lullaby but the sotto voce of a woodland clearing, scented with story as it is with with wild garlic -- this is the moment of beginning, the pause on the threshold before the journey. So many tales begin here, hard by a great forest....
"Children go to the woods when they need to think about their own stories in their own lives. Tom Sawyer, upset after a quarrel, 'entered a dense wood, picked his pathless way to the center of it, and sat down on a mossy spot under a spreading oak,' with that instinct children have about thinking under -- or in -- oak trees.
"American author Howard Thurman describes a 'unique relationship' he had with an oak tree as a child: 'I could reach down in the quiet places of my spirit, take out my bruises and my joys, unfold them and talk about them. I could talk aloud to the oak tree and knew I was understood.'
"In his often unhappy childhood, the poet John Burnside would spend hours in the woods looking for angels. There, 'another life began...when the perfect moment came, it would take hold of your spirit.' "As a child, Jean Liedloff found a glade and walked 'as though into a magical or holy place, to the center.' There she lay with her cheek on moss. 'It is here,' she thought. 'I felt I had discovered the missing center of things, the key to rightness itself.'
"Children need the woods for their spirits to thrive. A woodland gives children a trustworthy tranquility; it 'calms' the mind, in John Clare's term. Like many children, Clare had an emotional attachment to certain trees. 'We felt thy kind protection like a friend,' he wrote to an elm which was later felled for the Enclosures, in which act, he writes, 'our friendship was betrayed.' A friend of mine was asked, together with his classmates, to plant a tree each in the schoolyard, and although he did not love the school, the tree was like a friend and he tended it for two years. Suddenly, without warning, the school ripped out the trees and tarmacked over the ground for a car park. He was upset, bitterly betrayed.
"Tagore, as a child, befriended a banyan tree, his eyes drawn to the shadow-play in its aerial roots coiling and stretching in green leaf-light which played on the child's imagination: 'It seemed as if into this mysterious region...some old-world dreamland had escaped the divine vigilance and lingered on.' Tagore's friendship with the tree endured. He kept a tryst with the tree all his life, writing to it when he was an adult. Children trust the trees which they befriend and find in trees something as solid, as enduring, as rooted as truth. Trees stand for the deep truths of the psyche which language knows. The words 'tree,' 'endure,' 'tryst,' 'trust,' and 'truth' are all related, sharing a common root in Indo-European languages.
"Many spiritual traditions have long known that trees are good to thing with. The Buddha meditated under a tree and there are many cultural versions of the 'tree of knowledge.' Children have instinctively gone to the woods to reflect, to mull things over, yet so many children today are denied that solid witness of trees which children attest helps them psychologically.
"So common is a child's love for trees, so common a memory in later life, so common the friendship, the consolation and the calm, that its absence is shocking. In the nineties, at a woodland project for children in London, forty children aged seven and eight arrived one morning for a visit. Only two out of the forty had ever been to a woodland before. There should be a word for this lack -- a woodless child, as one speaks of a fatherless child, a homeless or a friendless child. They may live too far from a woodland to get there easily, they may be literally fenced out in woodland privatization, they may be scared off by bogus bogeyman tales, they may worry they wouldn't know what to do without artificial toys and, so often, they don't have the time, those long aerial afternoons of coiling hours and stretching days which, like Tagore's banyan tree, escape the benign vigilance of parents and linger on.
"Whatever the reason, an unwooded childhood is bleak. This, to me, is another part of an answer to the riddle of the childhood today. Children are being given medication for the sorrows of the psyche in greatly increasing numbers and yet at the same time they are denied the soul medicine which has always cared for children's spirits: the woods.
"When utilitarian capitalism looks at the forests, it sees the raw material of timber. But there are raw materials of the child's soul, including reverie, magic, time, transformation, destiny and identity, and the greenwood is a dreamwood for the mind at play. In T.H. White's novel The Sword in the Stone the child King Arthur is educated by Athene (wisdom) into the time of the forest and he dreams the thoughts and conversations of trees. The raw material of time grows here as the Wild Wood of the British imagination grew at the end of the Ice Age. It is ancient and long gone yet it is evergreen in memory. In the forests there is an abeyance of clock-time, a freedom outside time. Elsewhere in the lucky literature of childhood, wood is the raw material of magic, so the wardrobe through which the children reach Narnia is made from wood from an apple tree which itself grew out of an apple pip from Narnia."
"T.H. White's Arthur is sent to the forest to seek his identity; many children find woodlands the right place to go to talk to themselves, to dream themselves into a different being, to effect their changeling masquerades away from the eyes of adults. For under the gaze of others, a child can be forced to hold one form, to keep a single identity, but in woodshade and tree-shadow, a child's spirit can stretch, alter and change; it is always easier to change yourself in the dark."
"In the forest, the child. In the child, the forest. Dwelling well within themselves, children can right wrong turns, can find the clarity of a clearing in the woods. Breath deeply enough the scents of pine, mushroom, moss and beech mast and they will stay with you: listen to the forest attentively enough in childhood and the blackbird will still be singing seventy years on.
"To be 'grounded' and 'well rooted,' to be able to 'stand firm' or 'stand one's ground' and also to 'branch out' and to be as resilient as the willow's lovely sprung strength: terms of psychological health can seem like descriptions of trees. (The word 'resilient' is related to the Latin word for willow, salix.) The woods are the place for the unfolding of mind in a child, like a fiddlehead fern unfolding in the spring, a green mind sprung with resilience, curiosity and story."
The poem in the picture captions comes from A Timbered Choir by Wendell Berry. Related posts: "Wild Children," "Tales of the Forest," "The Dark Forest," "In the Forest of Stories, " and "The Gift of Wonder."