a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
Hunting The Muse
Hunting forest spirits was not on my bucket list of experiences but after a journey to a druidic site in southwest England, I have come closer to believing in the old rhyming proverb which plainly states that “fairy folks be in the oaks.” According to A Dictionary of Faeries by Katherine Briggs, oakmen are a breed of wee folk who are guardians of animals. And I’m pretty sure I met one in Wistman’s Wood, a tiny copse of ancient dwarf oaks in Dartmoor National Park.
When is a tree not a tree? Artists, by their very trade, seem to have their muse’s consent to enter into the fantastical green world in order to see the shapes of our mundane world differently. Miyazaki has clearly seen inspirational wonders within the old-growth forests near his Tokyo home to take him beyond the veils of his own concrete metropolis. British writers J.R.R. Tolkien, T.H. White, and John Fowles, have all visited Wistman’s Wood to unlock their writer’s block. Fowles has written about this aspect of the national park in his beautiful picture book “The Tree.” Alan Lee, conceptual artist for the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, lives near Dartmoor and has fully interpreted his experiences for the big screen.
Dartmoor. Whenever I say the word, something inexplicable washes over me. I am transported to a truly other-worldly place and time.
Dartmoor. A druidic site known as Wiseman’s Wood was on our radar from the moment my husband and I stepped off the plane in Manchester. Ours was a research trip for a fantasy novel and, armed with an Ordnance Survey map of Dartmoor National Park, we too were following a muse.
Dartmoor. This intriguing survey map of a two-mile circumference of the park immediately threw off my sense of proportion. I began to read. Hut circles. Clapper bridge. Cattle grid. Long Tor. Cairn circle.
I was enchanted with the extraordinary detail of entries.
Houndtor. Great Hound Tor. Settlement. Crosses. Gratnar Farm. Yard. Cross. Hotel. Tinner’s Huts. Cuckoo Rock. Nun’s Cross Farm. Hanging Stone Hill. Shovel Down. Stone Rows. Mine. Round Pound. Chinkwell Tor. Child’s Tomb (yes, child’s tomb). Tinner’s Huts. Cairn. Cross. Cairn. Cattle grid. Littaford Tor.
And there it was, right in the middle of Dartmoor National Park. Wistman’s Wood.
Dartmoor. Wistman’s Wood. An ancient grove of dwarf oaks. No one really knows how they are still alive, clustered along the side of a hill in the bleakest of Arthur Conan Doyle landscapes. We took the footpath and followed the crude markings, a small yellow blotch on a few brown arrow-posts. The sky threatened. Probable rain. After awhile, the path disappeared and we looked around for another signpost. We had long tucked away the OS map. On the horizon we spied a dark patch of forest. We smiled at each other. We made it to the outer rim of trees and walked along the outside, not really ready to enter. Surely this tiny swatch of forest couldn’t be the place where Druids retreated to meditate while their bards serenaded them from the low surrounding hills. All this time, I had been picturing the standard majestic oaks. My husband whispered a reminder – “dwarf oaks” – and the old image dissolved into complete awe at the impossibility of the natural world. The clouds had momentarily parted and the sun appeared as we stepped inside the canopy.
Dartmoor. Wistman’s Wood. We were immediately silenced as if by a cathedral’s command for reverence. I gasped, frozen with wonder. I felt like a non-believing intruder. But how to shake this uncomfortable notion? We took a few steps, then stopped to look around. Dwarf oaks averaging only ten feet high. Moss-covered limbs, large and small, were knitted into each other with such random intricacy that they had created an ethereal canopy. Elsewhere, lichen-coated limbs bent until their weary elbows rested upon moss-covered boulders. They clung together in a mass huddle against relentless winds of the moors. Each step we took was softly padded but proved treacherous with slippery thick moss. No wonder the grazing animals stay away. At first glance, most trees looked dead until we noticed wisps of green leaves at the top. Bright green – new growth. There were a few other trees with white and pink blossoms like apple and cherry. But shades of green dominated – green moss and grayish green lichen against grey boulders. Nothing seemed to make sense. But I just kept walking and reminding myself that I have left the mundane world behind. My walking stick proved useful for within the distance of a cattle grid, we were struggling for purchase over huge moss-covered boulders, reaching out for a mossy limb to break our falls. I looked around to speak but I couldn’t. My husband was quiet too. I barely heard him say “I need to walk” just as I was about to tell him that I needed to sit. And here we parted.
How long had I been standing here? I felt immobilized yet stunned by its comfort. I felt my legs ache from climbing boulders and looked around for a place to sit that wasn’t round or moss-covered. Behind me, I saw large flat grey rock… a bench. I sat and began to take note of the forest proper. I peered through an endless array of fuzzy green trunks. My eyes were playing tricks on me. I looked up and couldn’t even see the smallest patch of sky through the dense canopy. Yet inside, the brightness was such a beautiful contrast that I didn’t want to leave. I took off my daypack and pulled out my notebook. I began to write about the confusion, the wonder, about this weighty green cloak that shields living animals from its otherwise destruction.
Dartmoor. Wistman’s Wood. I didn’t know how long I had been sitting there just staring ahead. This solitude beckoned me to reflect beyond the mundane to the greater purpose of this journey. It was why I had crossed an ocean. To come to this place and ask myself some questions. I was looking around but not really seeing. I was thinking about this writing life and whether I had what it took to carry on.
Was there a muse waiting for me?
I looked up. Suddenly, a shape leaped out at me. Or not so suddenly at all. How long had I been staring at this tree right in front of me without realizing its startling form. As a tree, its trunk was so misshapen but, as a familiar animal shape, there was no mistaking the fully formed head of a small horse. This was a tree but not a tree. Could this be an oakman of Wistman’s Wood? At once, I relaxed again. I took out my camera then put it back into my knapsack. I took in the benevolent green creature – with its moss-covered horse’s head – and it stared back at me shyly, with hunched shoulders and slightly bowed countenance. My heart pounding, I smiled back with the warmth of a kindred spirit. I took out my camera again and wrestled with the idea of capturing it forever. My hands were shaking as I vowed to never harm it by disclosing its existence. But how else could I share this wonderful creature? Who would believe me?
I put the camera away again and made a crude sketch of the green guardian with my pen, at once convinced that Tolkein himself had seen this very creature as one of his ubiquitous ents. I called mine mossy pony.
In “The Tree,” John Fowles wrote about trees from around the world and the book is laced with splendid photos. But I must praise him for not including a photo of Wistman’s Wood when he very briefly described these woods nearest his home. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then surely his short account should suffice. And I can only live in hope that these thousand words have provided a suitable picture until it’s your turn to find your animal-shaped muse in this magical forest.
Dartmoor. Wistman’s Wood. Eternal well of endurance and inspiration.
Arlene Stinchcombe is Canadian by birth. Her travel credentials include living in an English castle turret and a cave in southwestern Crete. Always mindful of her accommodation budget, she has slept outdoors near Scottish peat bogs and in a VW van with six others non-stop from Istanbul to Amsterdam. While exploring ancient druidic sites with her writer partner and husband, Brad Carson, she has learned to bake artisan bread with a local baker in Brittany and, thanks to a visit to Wistman’s Wood (this story), she is much closer to believing in magic. To her indelible joy, she has also taken local orphans on their first safari to Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania. Arlene has published in the Toronto Star’s Travel Section, Canada’s largest daily newspaper. Her most recent travel story can be found online at “Writer’s Haven.” She is currently busy writing a memoir of travel tales.