Werifisteria [Wurife’strea] is an Old English word that means ‘to wander longing through woods in search of mystery’. It’s the kind of word that doesn’t have a modern equivalent because it is something that we ‘Moderns’ have forgotten, or haven’t the time for these days.
The search for mystery is something that is rapidly dying off in our modern world of digital immediacy. Six-tenths of man’s knowledge is squirreled away on Google, which is by no means a bad thing, but with it, the magic of the process of discovery, the search, and the journey, has suffered at the hands convenience.
Now, I don’t want to belittle the advances of the digital age; it has put the world in our pocket, as well as allowing us to explore, build and create in ways previously unimaginable. But sometimes I miss that intangible feeling of anticipation when I enter a library; part of the fun is the physical search – all of your senses play a part. It’s a very human thing, the hunt and the forage is something we are physically built to do. Now you just tap or speak and there it is. Don’t get me wrong, convenience is much needed in the right place and I love the ease of the ‘digital-flit’ and where it can take you, but in some ways I still find it lacking.
Woods are without doubt important to us for many obvious reasons, but we have to remember they have also been around a long before us and probably long after us too. Our experience of them is hard rooted into our DNA. I for one always feel when I enter a wood that I ‘know it’ and I am at home there. Woods are one of the places that give us the opportunity to explore both physically and mentally, you can get back in touch with your roots in a timeless and spiritual way.
Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood explores this entwined relationship in a very powerful and imaginative way. The idea that primeval woodlands give birth to our heroes when we need them most is a great metaphor for how much we owe these ancient places for our very existence. It’s about the threshold between knowing and feeling and surrendering yourself to the irrational. As Brian Aldiss puts it: ‘Mythago Wood is about the shadowy, the ungraspable. In a way, no explanation is possible; it is dream time stuff, although probed continually by the rational minds of the [main characters] the Huxleys’.
Our stories and mythology may have started out in the savannas of Africa, but the woods helped nourish and nurture them as we evolved and ensured they have remained integral to who and what we have become. After all, our stories are really important to us too. In his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind Dr.Yuval Noah Harari argues that our stories and our belief in them are what helped us evolve into the successful ape we are, by enabling us to collaborate in ways other apes couldn’t. If you’ve got time to listen to his podcast he gives you an entertaining summary of his ideas.
There are a number of Ancient Woodlands in the UK whose hearts are still there. I took these photos during a recent trip to Sherwood Forest; I was astounded by the way some of the ancient oaks have defied time – 800 years in the case of the Major Oak [above]. There was animation in the way the trees twisted and turned towards the sky that is exactly how I pictured the Ents from LOTR.