In collaboration with Barnaby Festival, I’ve just completed the first stage of ‘Our Future is Ancient’. Since the winter solstice in December 2019, during each full moon cycle, I’ve left Manchester and journeyed into the forest before dawn, staying until after first light. When I began the work, I couldn’t have foreseen what an extraordinary year 2020 would be. At times, during lockdown, I yearned for the forest, seeing it as a place of sanctuary away from my urban life, […]
In December, on the winter solstice, 2019, I began work on a major project named ‘Our Future is Ancient’ which was commissioned by the Barnaby Festival. Each full moon, at dawn, until the follwing solstice in 2020, I would travel into Macclesfield Forest before dawn and record my experience amongst the trees in the dark, and emerging twilight. We all grew up with the fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel so, despite it being a place of sanctuary, I actually felt safer on the streets of Salford than amongst the dark of the forest. I couldn’t known, as I started, that I’d be working against the backdrop of a pandemic, creating one of the kost extraordinary 12 month periods of my life.
However, as the months went on, I grew to love being there in the darkness before daybreak, listening to the magical call of owls and other creatures, even feeling disappointment when the light arrived.
Lockdown changed our world and during the weeks of confinement, I began to crave the forest, desperate to savour its mysteries and the comfort of the natural world. The virus caused me to feel very differently about my own life, and creating work around such an ancient place felt very relevant in that moment.
I’m fascinated by the way trees communicate with each other underground, and I’ve learned so much about the deep time they occupy, hauling me from an ignorant, urban state. At the same time I became aware of my sub-conscious at work, processing the events of the past few months as we all survived the Covid-19 crisis. An idea merged, to meld the way trees might communicate with my own mind, and produce stories in response to this. The work resulted in a performance and a series of short films featuring visuals, sound, music and readings.
In December 2019, on the morning of the winter solstice, before first light, I find myself sitting in my car, near the beginning of a path which leads deep into Macclesfield Forest, listening to an owl call out its ghostly, alto cry, wondering how I might summon the courage to walk into the trees and the blackness beyond.
I am there to begin a project, for the Barnaby Festival, called Our Future is Ancient, and this is my first visit. I was to come to the forest before dawn during each full moon, until the following solstice in December 2020, and was yet to savour the ancient names for each moon, such as Wolf, Flower or Hunter’s, each linked to the landscape and the rhythm of life lived under this powerful lunar force.
I feel beyond my comfort zone, taken from my urban habitat and transposed into alien soil, a place beyond my comprehension. However, over the following twelve months, the forest will come to be a sanctuary, a place of calm, even redemption. And so this show is the story of visiting the forest in a year when people feared the very air they breathed.
It is a fresh year, and a full moon early in January. Hope for the coming months is still within our hearts. I am alone on the road, the engine of my car now stilled. I flick the headlights off, and am immediately immersed in a drenching darkness. It seems as if my eyes will never adjust. A wind curls around me, like a curious spectre. I look over my shoulder towards the distant urban plain, a mirage of jewelled lights under clouds the colour of tobacco. My city, so familiar to me, is now far away.
The full moon, each month, seems to bring a change in the weather. Days of sunshine are replaced with cloud that puts a screen around the lunar glow, almost as if the Earth is afraid of the power emanating from its one true satellite. A thickening mist falls around me as I arrive at the forest, and the drenching darkness thrills me. The trees appear as deep toned clumps of twisting shapes. I pause, and acknowledge the fears which, like seeds caught in the fibres of a sleeve, I’ve brought with me from home.
I carry fairy-tales with me from childhood, in which outcast people find themselves adrift in a hostile, sylvan world. We can all recall being awake in our childhood bedrooms, the lights turned out, when the wardrobe becomes a portal to another world, and the shadows cast by the outside streetlights become dancing goblins and devilish elves. I consider fear a compelling force. It is time to enter the forest.
With my visits in January, February and March, I am under the influence of Moon After Yule, Wolf Moon and Lenten Moon. I’ve had to look up these names, and the meanings behind them. Lenten, for instance, is derived from Germanic languages and means spring, and has also given name to the Christian Lent period, before the Easter celebrations.
As I cross the threshold of the forest, and make my way along strange routes, I am often unable to see the moon, blocked in behind by opaque vapours, only sensing its potent existence, and the imperceptible effect it has on the world around me.
I did once manage to watch the full moon rise, to the east of the forest, above a moor sprinkled with grazing sheep, appearing like the dome of a bald man’s skull, filling the sky with a developing glow that lit the the trees with shimmering grey. As our planet dipped further away, and the moon became ripe and full above the horizon, the silence of the late evening was broken by a cacophony of calls and bleating as cattle and birds seemed to greet this great moment with a frenzied decree.
In March, it felt as if there were a curse upon the land. A punctured tyre, broken weather and a fall, cutting myself, opening my body to new infection. I watch a barn owl swoop above me and around a skeletal tree, as if regarding me as a potential kill. I watched its steady wingbeat as it flew away, in search of prey that had no inkling it was soon to die.
At the end of March last year, just before the full moon in April, an Egg Moon, we enter lockdown. The world is placed into a distorting hibernation, an ill-fitting chrysalis. It is an event that none of us have before experienced, and are unlikely to again. We are aghast and delighted at the changes we see. The freshened air and quiet streets, nature comes into our urban spaces, with reports of deer wandering our roads, and crowds of birds perching around our rooftops, like fascinated children who’ve shinned up a wall for a better view of the circus.
The withering city, and its decaying structures, void of people, prompts thoughts of visiting the forest to overwhelm my thinking. I begin to resent the city, seeing the forest as a place to escape from humans, with their infecting breath. But to travel there, under restrictions, makes me a fugitive.
The forest, physically distanced from the city, becomes, for me, a place of comfort, a sphere of wonder and miracle cures. I love to take away my mask and breathe the twilight air, relishing this variant of isolation. Underfoot the snap, crackle and fracture of nuts, leaves and twigs floods me with joy, and I desire to clamber over fallen trees and march along squelching paths, to become doused in confusing magic, and once again be a child at the feet of a wise, caring grandparent.
In April, I sit at the base of a tree, after first light, and listen to the birdsong as the delicious, early sun washes me over. I wish, in that moment that I could stay there all day, forever even, surrounded by this cleansing world. I watch a pheasant, so still on the end of a branch, I think it’s a sculpture. I clap my hands and it flutters noisily upwards, emitting harsh admonishment at my behaviour.
I decide I have to return home, and reluctantly go back to my car. As I drive away, I notice a policeman taking note of registration plates, to deem who should be there and who will be fined.
It seemed so extraordinary, that I, resting by myself, in the middle of a forest at dawn, could be considered such a thing of danger, engaged in an unlawful act. I had become an outlaw.
There is a forest wisdom, a co-operative system, where trees grow into one another, talk with one another, connected by threads, an underground network of pulsing fungi transmitting messages between beech, oak and sycamore. They emit a frequency akin to the key of A. I feel this ancient place to be a keeper of souls, energised by moonlight.
In Spring I hold the branch of an ancient Sycamore and a freakish, disturbing zephyr whirrs over my shoulder, raising my hackles, bringing with it the scent of a damp pantry. In May the savage grunts of rutting stags, and the soft call of the duplicitous cuckoo drift up the inclines to mingle with gently swaying bluebells.
I feel joyously lost, removed from my urban self, returned to a primal world of self-protecting rituals. I relish the touch of rough bark, the stroking of moss, soft as a short haired dog, and even the invasion of blood purifying insects across my skin. I feel a curious compulsion, rising like rage, to capture the killing virus and consume it, like a sin eater, to engulf myself with fever and be done with it.
In June, as I am leaving the woods after sunrise, I encounter a young couple, perhaps on their way to one of the rave parties now blighting the woods with fires and litter. The man asks me if I’m a murderer.
In the summer, the restrictions are eased, and we become more free to travel and mix with our own species again. At the start of our confinement, we clapped for nurses, and the world seemed awash with kindness, and a thrilling sense of change, almost of evolution, we believed that a more compassionate version of ourselves could, and would, emerge.
I was considering this during the Hay Moon, whilst resting in the dark on the northern slopes of the forest, listening to an owl issue its alarm call, a constant kew wit, kew wit. It is following me throughout my night time walk, whilst I stumble amongst ranks of rigid pines, that sway gently in the breeze, checking perhaps that my torch and unholy disturbance is not a threat to its young.
Compassion seems to play little part in the ongoing existence of life in the forest. A vole, for instance, knows it can be eaten, and lives accordingly. The virus perhaps affects humans in the same way. Certainly, despite, or perhaps because of, a return to relative normality, I sense anxieties chomping through me like mites consuming the core of a diseased tree. I hope the forest canopy is able to absorb my tensions, as if they were CO2.
My anxiety is further raised when seeing fires in the distance, that seem to be extinguished when I turn out my flashlight. It is only after clicking the light on and off several times that it occurs to me that I am being watched by several deer, and their eyes are glowing orange in the reflection of my beam of light. We are all either prey or predator.
On entering the woods at night, I feel very alone. Pine cones fall upon my head as if thrown by defenders on a castle wall, aiming to repel invaders. Also, the dark distorts distance, and time appears to flow at a different pace. I come across a piece of land clogged with perished trees, piled like bodies shot where they stood, a deranged mess. Tangled brambles and bracken are woven around the sinking copse.
I pick my way through, feeling, as I chase beads of golden sun across the deformed remains, like a looter on a battlefield. A bold wren sings nearby as a bolt of sunshine fires through the trees above and, in this glorious moment, another barn owl flies into the beam, licked silver by the early morning rays, a bomber caught in a searchlight, steady and measured towards its destination. I want to chase it, to soar alongside it, to ask if it has visited me before, to know if it was the same bird that had seen me as the moon rose.
I slump to the ground, breathing deeply, gulping in the pure air around me. I sense the transition within my soul, the virus a catalyst for remarkable mutation within me, and in our all our lives. Around the world there is so much protest against continuing injustice. I consider that I ought to visit the forest without any recording devices, to simply experience being engulfed by trees, to listen intensely to the song birds, and sniff the rich aura around me, and to be my animal self, the part of me so lost in my urban life. My mind prepares for change.
By October, the Harvest Moon, I am unbalanced by transition, and unsure of where I am going, or why, and so I search somewhere alien to me, unexplored, slipping and falling up a steep bank, muddied by incessant rain, equipment hindering my advance. My nostrils scrape the moss as I fall, becoming filled with a delicious, earthy scent, triggering a desire to burrow deeper, to hide away from the recent reimposition of restrictions.
My search for equilibrium later provokes my partner to escort me, and we arrive at a ruined hut by an old sycamore, whose branches bend up into the sky like an elephant’s trunk when calling its herd. Perhaps this is the heart of the forest.
There is absolute quiet in this moment. This part of the forest still feels inhabited, I sense ghosts, and I later discover that families had lived there, in a farm called Parting Gap, at a time when there were few trees, teaching me that the word forest is nothing to do with the amount of trees growing there, but a term developed in law, by medieval kings, to control the land and exclude local people, with death for trespass a sentence sometimes dispensed.
As the first note chimes from the crystal bowl my partner has brought along, a flittering breeze rifles through the canopy, and the hidden moon emerges from the clouds, like a queen curiously coming to her palace balcony to observe the commotion below. As the mellowing sound ceases, so the moon becomes once again cocooned in grey mist. It felt as if we’d connected with forces much bigger than us.
I feel euphoric, my subconscious conjoined with the beating roots beneath my boots, like I’d truly understood the forest for the first time. I go to lie down on the gnarled roots of the sycamore, that are mixed with discarded rocks from the farmhouse that once stood nearby. I close my eyes, and imagine joining the vast underground network of fungus and hyphae that spreads for miles under the soil, connecting this tree with others, relaying messages of warning, receiving and providing nutrition and wisdom, helping it survive for centuries.
It is time to move on. In early December, the Moon Before Yule, I stand on a hill overlooking the forest, watching distant cars in the darkening dusk, their tail lights swirling and curling back and forth, reminding me of a hive. The moon is up, resplendent in the darkening, late afternoon sky, guiding my gaze towards a gate post on which sits a tawny owl, indifferent to my presence.
Sheep standing nearby shiver in the cold air, and a Raven passes overhead, issuing its unearthly conking call. I’d read that they help with the distribution of seeds, picking them up and dropping them in places which will improve their own habitat. I thought back to my nana, who used to say “Always be kind to crows, for they remember your face” and wished the huge, black bird good health as it flew.
Perhaps I’d been collected, like a seed, and dropped here in this forest. I will never again, in my lifetime, experience a year like this, and maybe I needed to be dropped into a changed environment to learn, to grow any wisdom I might have had, to consider new ways of surviving and being with the community in which I exist, amongst other people.
A rush of air disturbs my thoughts, and the owl flies away on the uplifting current, it’s short body and large wings reminding me of a giant moth as it flaps towards the lunar light. I take one last, deep breath, and get back into my car, I’m readying myself for my own journey, my return to the flaming lights of the distant city.
What did I learn in my year of visits to the forest? I didn’t know before I began the project that forests were created to serve the needs of the rich, and that the word refers to forest law, established under William the Conqueror, the rules set to preserve the lands for noblemen to hunt deer and other beasts, with only a few lucky peasants allowed to gather firewood, and their pigs to feed amongst the trees. I wonder if attitudes to land and equality are any better now?
The word ‘forest’ comes from the Latin, fortis, meaning outside, and this is where the notion of the outlaw comes from, that the forest is somewhere outside of our urban lives. This relationship with the forest has been with us for centuries, millennia even, through Greek myths and and the dark tales of the Brothers Grimm, and we shall perhaps always believe forests are a place of magic, and unexplained occurrences.
I also began to pay more attention to the moon, and its cycle. So deeply influenced was I by popular culture rather than the actual science, where the moon is always in the sky at night, I hadn’t, throughout my life, noticed the reality, that it rises fifty minutes later each day, through wax and wane, not setting sometimes until late into the morning.
My relationship with the moon became more intimate as I tried, during its gibbous phase, to be more aware of my own behaviours, and those of people around me, of weather patterns and actions of birds, becoming deeply in awe of our ancient ancestors, such as Copernicus, or Galileo, and the millions of humans never known, who spent their lives patiently studying the heavens above.
Perhaps the greatest knowledge I gained was about myself, to acknowledge how fear and anxieties govern my life. Within the forest I found answers as to how I might live more simply, more in touch with the nature around me, and to connect to the community in which I live. Trees flourish when working in harmony, and, cliché though it is, so do we.