I’ve got a woodland painting up on Etsy at the moment, so I thought I’d talk a little bit about woods.
I love woods but I also find them deeply spooky. Even in the middle of the day, a sunlit forest can still be a little unnerving. And it’s not just me that thinks so; our mythology seems to have mixed feelings about woods too.
Woods are where people in fairy tales get lost, where wolves lurk beside the path to grandmother’s house, where witches skulk in their decrepit cabins, where the fair folk hold their captivating courts and where goblins keep their council. Yet woods are also refuges; outlaw places away from society’s concerns — just ask Robin Hood and his merry pals, Christopher Robin in his Hundred Acres, the elves of Lothlórien or old Tom Bombadil.
Indeed, teddy bears hold their picnics there, but even so, you better go in disguise. So why this ambiguity?
Well, I can only speak for myself, but many of the reasons why I love them are also the reasons why I find them spooky. It’s not easy to articulate, but I’ll give it a go:
• They are not human places – we are creatures of towns, of roads, of rolling hills and open countryside. Woods do not belong to us, even when we plant them and manage them, and even when there are roads and buildings cutting through them. In a wood, you’re always trespassing, and you don’t have to wander far before the silent trees swallow up the signs of civilization. Woods seem to stand apart from the world. Which brings me to a related point:
• They’re quiet. Almost too quiet. Oh, there’s bird-song, and rustling leaves, but where are the cars, the radios, the ring-tones? Where is the ever-present hubbub of human voice, the endless churning rumble of daily life? Trees eat sound, kill noise. You can be thirty feet from a road and it will be as quiet as the grave. In fact the only time woods aren’t eerily quiet is when:
• They’re loud. Have you ever been in the woods on a windy day, or during a storm? The trees creak and moan, branches thrashing, crashing together, twigs snapping. There’s the occasional crack, like a gunshot, like a splintering bone, as part of a tree is torn loose. And the leaves! It doesn’t seem right that something can whisper and shout at the same time, but that’s what happens. A deafening roar of swirling white noise; an ocean of sound. You don’t have to be overly imaginative to hear the hiss of hidden voices in that susurrus clamour, especially in the woods at night when:
• They’re dark. Really dark. Obviously, places without streetlights (i.e. most woods, except for that one place in Narnia) are dark at night, but woods take it one step further. Open country at night will be dark, but you can manage: there’s not much to trip over, and, once your eyes adjust, a little moonlight or starlight is all you need. Not so with woods: they cover the moon with their fingers and wrap themselves in a blankness of darkness. Previously clear paths now snare and trip with roots and undergrowth, and every bush and shadow hides lion and tigers and bears (oh my!). In fact, even in daylight, woods can be dark: oh sure, the dappled sunlight is very pretty, but then the sun goes behind a cloud and suddenly gloom hangs like cobwebs from the branches.
So, in short, woods are scary because they’re wild, uncivilized places, and woods are awesome because they’re wild, uncivilized places.
And –dragging myself back to the actual subject of this blog– it’s this strange ambiguity that inspired the painting with which I started this post.
From a distance it’s a mellow autumnal scene; the warm red and bronze of fallen leaves blankets the ground and a soft mist winds around the bare trees. But look more closely: the trees are a cold grey-green and corpse-like hue, stark and jagged as daggers, clawing at the ground, looming, advancing.
I’m not completely sure how well it worked, of course, but hopefully I’ve captured a little of the lovely/spooky feeling of a walk in the woods.
We’d love to know how you feel about woods, whether you’re a fan or a‑fraid. Let us know in the comments section.
Item: Misty Autumn Woods
Dimensions: 18 by 14 inches (36 by 45.75 centimeters)
Materials: Acrylic paint on cotton canvas, gallery wrapped
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