“You’re doing a Wood Fast?” asked my brother, “do you mean Wood Fest?” referring to the numerous summer festivals I have recently covered for the media.
“Nope, a Wood Fast. I’m going to spend 3 days in a remote wood without my mobile phone, or anything like that and without food.”
“To see if I can, of course. Oh and can you feed the pigs for me please.”
And two days later I am bouncing my 4×4 up a stony dirt track toward the ridge of a local mountain. As I reach the top, I can see my chosen woodland covering the valley walls below. It looks incredibly dense and a little daunting. Yogi, the terrier-ist is getting excited in anticipation of one of our mammoth walks; little does she know. Little do I know actually; what am I doing?
The first challenge soon arises. If you intend to camp in woodland, on a mountain slope, remember that ‘slope’ is the operative word. Slope and tent don’t make comfortable bedfellows. I eventually find a little piece of level-ish land and pitch my loaned, state of the art, soopah doopah techy tent that promises to be erected in 1 minute. Ten minutes later I am still looking for the instructions which are obviously not included in the loan.
The Cave Tent from Heimplanet is a revolutionary, technical, wizard of a tent. Its outer skeletal tubes simply inflate, erecting the tent within er, minutes (cough cough) and it looks very futuristic nestled in the age old copse of silver birch. Some little time later I have set up camp; home for the next three days. I sit and wonder what to do next. I have no watch and have no idea what the time is, not that it matters much, I don’t have to be anywhere.
“Let’s have a recce,” I suggest to Yogi who doesn’t disagree, and so we set off down to the bottom of the valley to a beautiful little stream. I build a small dam to allow a pool to fill for Yogi to swim, or at least, wallow in. She enjoys cooling off in the clear water and then finds it necessary to roll in fox shit to complete the bathing ritual. That’s not going to be a good look (or smell) in a small tent. She has a second, enforced, bath though still emerges a light shade of green and still smelling of fox. Deep joys of the countryside.
Just two weeks ago I was recceing Edinburgh. I was in the City to run the NVA Speed of Light in anticipation of running up and down Arthur’s Seat through the night with 200 other runners all dressed in LED light suits. Although the mountainous terrain was similar, the recce was so very different. In Edinburgh I had weaved through crowded streets lined with restaurants, cafes, gift shops and street entertainers. Here I just weaved through gorse and bracken being entertained by birdsong and baa-ing.
Back at the tent the wind has picked up unexpectedly and is cold and annoying. Accepting that I am no Ray Mears I gloomily consider the fact that I have probably pitched the tent in a natural wind tunnel, the windiest place in the whole valley probably. How can wind blow though trees so strongly? It feels like the trees are whispering and gossiping about their intruder, the imposter. Their Chinese whispers roll down through the valley. I wonder if they are telling me to go home. I feel displaced and disheartened. What am I doing? If I’m going to take three days off work, surely I should be spending them in my own garden or doing something slightly more constructive than hanging out alone in a remote wood. I feel alone and lonely. I wonder what everyone else is doing and conclude they are all having a better time than me. It’s going to be a long three days. Maybe I should just go home.
I decide to do some Tai Chi and Shiva Nata. Inspired and impressed by my self motivation, Yogi and I go for another walk to collect firewood. As I admire my pile of rather superb firewood, my elevated mood is soon dashed as I realise it’s too windy for a fire. ‘Bloody Hell!’ I curse the wind. Probably not a good idea to be swearing at Nature, I think. I am after all at her mercy for a few days. I apologise. I reason that wind is just the language of the trees; I hear a dear wise friend at my shoulder, reminding me that trees wouldn’t be hostile. Maybe the wind is simply blowing away the old negative energy, cleansing me as a condition of my stay. I like that idea, I’ll stick with that.
It’s getting dark so I decide just to cwtch up behind a big old beech tree with my drum and little thumb piano. Owls screech up in the canopy and I can hear the snapping of twigs as something/s lumber through the woods behind me. I watch a shadowy fox-shape leap into the woods, silhouetted briefly against the skyline. He is about 10 yards away. I’m sure he will avoid me. Yogi is curled up at my feet either asleep or pretending to be. To my amazement the fox is heading directly toward me. He is lit up in the shaft of moon-light, his amber eyes meet mine for what seems an age. It feels strangely like a welcome. Then he simply lopes on past, underwhelmed with our encounter. Yogi lifts her head, gives him a head start and makes much fuss about chasing him off , honouring her terrier heritage.
Part of my reason for the Wood Fast is to try to invoke Tree Spirits. I sigh, a terrier rampaging after a fox through the woods isn’t really conducive to spirits showing themselves I’m sure. David ‘Goff’ Eveleigh has shared with me, his experience of meeting tree spirits whilst at a Baka Camp and Howard Marks also told me of the time he saw exactly the same ‘light forms’ on a beach in Jamaica, (where they are called Duppies). Neither David or Howard were stoned or drunk at the time (for the record).
I start drumming again and notice tiny little lights on the opposite bank. I immediately assume they’re torches then remember where I am; there are no paths over there and the lights are more of a glow than an actual light; they are very small and random. Are they spirits? I have no idea. I think they are but I expected more excitement, more ‘showtime’ but that’s my head getting involved; on a heart level I know they are elemental spirits, I know they are just playing, as they would any night. Shut up, Head!
As they slowly fade and disappear I realise how cold I am. Yogi and I wander back to the Cave slipping and sliding on the loose twigs and leaves. I’m cold and tired and the wind is still howling through the trees and tugging at the tent. I’m too cold to sleep. It’s an uncomfortable first night.
The next day brings the most beautiful blue sky. It’s early. The sun is still sleepy as it peeps over the ridge. I am the only thing stirring. The sheep are still asleep, Velcro-ed to the green baize on the opposite side of the valley, like fuzzy felt animals. The wind has dropped. I do my Shiva Nata and Tai Chi standing on a big rocky outcrop, it feels good. I muse how nice it would be to sit with a cup of coffee and watch the world awake. Not that I actually want a coffee, it would just be nice to sit with one. It’s habitual. I am surprised to realise I’m not at all hungry, it’s well over 24 hours since I’ve eaten, though I have drunk coconut water and bottled water. I reassure myself that I actually ate enough the week before my fast, to keep a small army marching for three days; though I’m not sure it works that way.
I still feel a little displaced; unsettled and unsure of my motives. The day shuffles by. I explore some more, meditate, sit and think and sometimes just sit. Down in the valley is a marshy clearing of grass and reeds.
Down in the valley is a marshy clearing of grass and reeds. I decide to go and build a wooden heart from old branches fallen in the woods. The bark-less limbs are a beautiful ghostly white and although in various states of decay are still heavy and cumbersome. I persevere and eventually complete my wooden outline. Yogi and I clamber back up the hill to view our masterpiece. Damn! It’s not as visible as I’d hoped. We trek back down and I use stones from the stream to enhance the wooden frame. It’s laborious but fulfilling. It’s my ‘thank you’ to the valley for having me.
I feel more connected now. As I focused on my sculpture and daylight has slipped into dusk. Back at the tent, I make a fire-pit; it is beautifully still and dusk seems to be lasting forever. Sitting at the fire with Yogi curled up next to me and all is well with the World. I am warm, peaceful and relaxed. I give my thanks to Grandfather Sky and Mother Earth and watch my gratitude be lifted skywards in the curling smoke of the camp fire.
Day three and I’m up and about early again after another uncomfortable, cold damp night. It feels as though the day has been chosen randomly from a box of September days but has yet to be unwrapped. It’s so still, so peaceful. I feel very much a part of it all. Very connected, very much at home. It feels familiar, normal even. How quickly we adapt to our surroundings. As the sun rises so do the birds, they are so very close and seem to have accepted my presence with good cheer as they chatter away in the canopies. I realise I still don’t feel hungry and decide it is probably because I haven’t been exposed to the sights and smells of food. It’s shocking to realise how much we are bombarded with messages to eat. Of all the things that would be beneficial to be reminded of to do, surely eating isn’t one of them?
Once again, I use the day to meditate, to do Tai Chi and Shiva Nate and to sit and think and sometimes just sit. It is another beautiful day with clear blue skies. I give thanks for the gift of such wonderful weather and fall asleep in the bracken. I awake with a start and sit up suddenly, not sure what has woken me. Yogi is sitting a few feet away watching the world go by, all seems well so why the unease? Then I notice it. To my left, about 8 ft away soaking up the sun, just as I had been. A snake. An adder. The v shapes on its head prominent in the sun. The black zig zags along it’s back standing out against the silvery skin. Stifling the urge to leap up and run as fast as I can in the opposite direction, I just make a move to stand up slowly; adders are obviously lighter sleepers than I am and immediately detecting my movements it slithers away … in the opposite direction. It obviously had as little desire to engage with me as I had with it. I refuse to give it any more thought. There’s no need.
Yogi and I go for another walk; we walk and sit and walk a bit more and sit a bit longer. The valley is incredibly still; we watch the birds below, Yogi chases squirrels and getting increasingly frustrated as they leap up the trees and chatter down at her angrily. I watch a big fox trotting through the bracken on the opposite bank oblivious that he is being watched and wonder if he was the ‘welcoming committee’. An owl screeches from our woods. Obviously not wearing a watch either, I smile, it’s still daylight. I feel humbled to be part of this landscape, of this incredible secret life.
As the sun starts to fall, I decide that another cold and damp night is not necessary. I give thanks to the woods, to the valley, to the skies, to the earth and to the Universe. I thank Nature and the spirits for taking care of me, for sharing their space, for their teachings and for their embrace. I pack up the Cave and trek back to the truck. The wind starts to pick up, rustling through the trees, whispering, waving but this time it seems to be saying a fond farewell and wishing me well.
Synchronicity is a wonderful thing; when I got home the first thing I ate, intuitively, was a homemade pea soup; talking to a friend the next day, he told me about a Tribe which always eat pea soup to break their fast after Ramadan.
Sunday evening and I am enjoying the wonderful spectacle that is the closing ceremony of the Paralympic Games. As I admire their over-riding theme of a heart shape in the centre of the stadium, I fondly recall my own ‘gratitude heart’ nestled in the basin of the valley.