Overhead, the rich song of a blackbird knits the branches together, adding a late-winter melody to the game. I’m kneeling on the woodland floor; the soil smells of the edges of spring, sub-surface frost crystals melting, the curl of new growth from bulbs just breaking the earth. The moisture seeps into the seams of my cord dungarees.
A call snaps me into action and I’m off, hurtling through the bare wood and remnants of autumn fungi along the edge of the river in Spinkie Den. We’re playing along the Amazon, explorers under chase, searching, hiding, ducking, log-leaping.
A hot, early summer’s day, lazy and still, rare in Scotland. The soil is rich-scented, a mix of heady wild garlic, earthworm and beetle-gleam. I dig my fingers in and inhale the handful of soil mixed with last night’s storm rain. The sun doesn’t reach this part of the wood at this time of year, the vegetation is too thick and thorny. I’ve stolen my mother’s secateurs to cut my way through to last year’s den. It’s cob-webbed and half fallen in under the weight of new bramble growth, but inside it still carries magic and story, and cradles last year’s most secret wishes at its heart.
As the leaves whirl to the ground, the fungi flourish overnight. The soil is clammy, clinging to my fingertips. The skeleton trees grow alien cities, fungal stairways that look tempting to climb. A spider keeps me company as I sit at the foot of one city-tree; none of my friends are allowed to play today. I turn this summer’s story foci over in my mind, think on friendships cemented, challenged, sometimes broken. I feel something begin to shift inside; a sudden, unfamiliar, tugging interest in one of my male friends, a flickering coming-of-age.
Now, when I can, I let my two daughters, age 10 and 7, roam in woodland, along beach, through field and under hedgerow, alone.
Am I not worried? I’m asked this, often. Yes, of course, they’re my children. Does my mind run full of negative possibility, disastrous outcome? Yes, sometimes, though perhaps not as often as it should.
I have to place a caveat here: we are lucky enough as a family to have a bolthole – a caravan near woodland in the heart of Scotland. The girls are given an invisible boundary in the woods that they are not allowed to cross, and I’m lucky enough to have an intensely responsible older child who keeps the younger one right, when needs be. This invisible map grows as the girls grow – last year it extended to the edges of ‘the clearing’, this year it stretches up the hill to one wall and is bounded on the other by the river. The girls are not allowed beside the river alone, not yet.
The girls’ play in the woods is akin to mine was as a child; they give me a bird report on their return; they build dens (also known as ‘twigloos’), open shops, build fairy beds, create trails, open doors, step in and out of their own unique, and sometimes conflicting, imaginations. They solve problems, work out differences, focus in. They hide treasures and harbour secrets, which are shielded with intensity and determination if I do dare to venture into their space. I want them to have these secrets, I don’t need to know them all (although, of course, I’m happy to be introduced to them through whispers and sworn oaths and passwords, should I be allowed ‘in’).
I’m hoping my girls grow to recognise the subtleties of season shifts, the emotions of the natural world, the dangers and elations, and the smell of soil, moss, flower, fruit, sand, shell, rock and bark on their fingertips.
I’m hoping they come to see the woods and other natural places as sanctuaries, as places to relax, refresh, reinvigorate. I’m hoping I give them a kind of natural shield that can help them fight depression and stress in later life.
So yes, sometimes I wonder, I worry, when they disappear for hours. But most of the time I’m reassured. And the regret I would feel at not giving them this small piece of freedom and trust would far outweigh any worries I have now.
Because then there is a rustle in the undergrowth;
A bird flicking leaves
In the hunt for insects.
Because then there is the call of an owl
A ghost-like mirage
Gliding on the dusk.
Because then the stillness of the woods
Takes me back to my childhood
Amid evening dens and bramble leaves.
Because then I wonder
What it would have been like
To kiss you
After eating wild strawberries
At the foot of the trees.