by Unsettling Wonder
But there is no road through the woods.
I discovered the woods by our house just as the year was turning.
I’d seen them before, of course. In any stroll along the pavement past the art school towards the conference center, looking across the brackish water of the reservoir, the woods were obvious enough. And I knew, in a vaguely academic way, that people sometimes went for walks in those same woods.
They went to the temple on the mountaintop, any rate, and they went to sweep the tombs that dot the mountainside—little clearings in the trees, with white stones with scarlet characters, that unsettle unwary hikers. And they went to the warren of shrines and temples and soda stands on the far side of the reservoir. I’d been that way myself—on the road, of course, dodging the ever-present gravel trucks.
The truth is, I’m not sure how I found my way into the woods. No—that’s not entirely true. There’s a half-ruined staircase, mostly covered in vines, that leads off the main road around campus. It was just a matter of time, really, before I tempted fate and defied my age by trying to scramble up it. One day, I did that—on a whim, I suppose—and found that the ruined stair leads along the deserted boat launch to the road through the woods.
I’d forgotten how the air changes under the trees. There’s a deeper quiet in the woods—always—a colder, damper quiet. But it’s not the stillness of a lake in winter, that you have to hold your breath to hear, and that breaks, suddenly, with fluttering of a distant bird. In the woods here are constant, restless, rustling noises—a dozen-dozen kinds of leaves scuffling together or being scuffled, the heavy fluttering of unseen birds, the squeak of the trees leaning with the wind—that taken together become a profound silence.
Small wonder, really, that so many stories begin this way: a curious wanderer finds their way to the woods. Before the growl of distant machinery became the soundscape of our lives, everyone hearing a story must have known, deeply, just what the busy, alert silence of the woods sounded like. It is a silence that demands to be listened to—a silence that, like the words of the storyteller, must be taken note of, since any manner of fortune, fair or foul, might spring out of it.
Nowadays, we tend to consider the woods as a potent metaphor—a primal symbol—for the unconscious, the soul, the mind. Terri Windling, Jay Griffiths, and many others have argued eloquently and persuasively about the significance of this image, and of its importance for the mythic arts. Seen from this light, entering the woods indicates the start of a spiritual quest (however literally that phrase is taken), a rite of passage and purification that transform and uplift the individual. The woods are the gateway to other worlds, to spiritual transformation and revelation.
But as I stumped along the path in the scanty, Chinese forest and tried to hum a woodsy sort of Pooh-song to myself, I found myself wondering whether now, more than ever, we need the woods to be the real woods—not only a metaphor, however powerful and necessary that metaphor may be.
The woods were first, and always, a place—a real, restlessly silent place you could lose yourself in, like the desert or the sea. And as with the desert and the sea, the metaphors and the stories emerged as people struggled to live in it and by it, and felt the overwhelming presence of a place incomprehensibly vast, an alien place which somehow inexorably invited and nurtured the soul-weary pilgrim. It was more than a story—it was somewhere you could go, with sounds and smells and songs of its own.
In the woods by my apartment block, I can’t help but hear the thud and growl of construction. The slope across the reservoir is half stripped bare and gashed by the slow-crawling digger, for some new project or other. The path that leads to the temple leads first to a deep cutting—a bare gorge that has been mined for gravel. And the haze that hangs picturesquely in the trees, the sunlight slanting through, burns in the throat and grits on the tongue, blown from some industrial fug who knows how many miles away. Many of the trees, if you look closely, are riddled with disease, their leaves brown and splotched and mottled.
We need the woods—the metaphor and symbol of the woods, the mythology of the woods. But all stories begin in a real place—as breath and movement in a physical space—and soak up the colour and texture of that place. When the woods are gone, the metaphors lose their power, the stories cease speaking from the silence of the trees.
On one of my wanders through the woods, curiosity seized with the urge me to strike off the path, and see what lay at the top of the hillside. I found a likely spot between two boulders—the brown, prickly stone that’s everywhere in this part of China—and I scrambled up the steep slope, crouched and scuttling like a squirrel. I wondered, briefly, how I would manage to get down again, and almost turned back. But then, with a rush, I heaved myself over a ledge and into a flat, and open space, ringed with the tops of trees, their roots far below. It was a grave—the scarlet characters on the headstones faded, half-buried in leaves and fallen vines, greyed with smog—unswept and forgotten.