This green cathedral is at Jacks Hill, Epping Forest. It was October 2020, the last time it was safe to go walking in the woods. The Covid beast has been at large and we’ve all been advised to stay at home. But deep in the forest, away from the crowds, is perhaps the safest place to be. I’m writing this in late March, the sun is shining outside and I am missing the trees.
So let’s go back again. But it’s another season. A backwards step from spring to autumn. The leaves are turning rusty, just as we’re expecting their welcome return. The forest can be a topsy-turvy disorienting sort of place
Epping Forest is full of paths and tracks and most of them don’t go anywhere. They meander round holly bushes, cut back on themselves, cross other paths endlessly, cross themselves, follow and don’t follow the contours of the land as they see fit. They seem designed not to take you to a destination at all, but instead, in a kind of self-extinguishing folly, to get you lost.
Will Ashon: Strange Labyrinth
When a man in a forest thinks he is going in a straight line, in reality he is going in a circle. I did my best to go in a circle, hoping to go in a straight line.
Samuel Beckett: Molloy
Trapped between M25 and M11, Epping Forest is a motorway island with overambitious planting. There are paths marked out for riders, paths for hikers, but I’ve never walked any distance without getting lost; expecting to emerge in Loughton, finding myself returned to Theydon Bois. Don’t ask me how it works. The spirit of the primeval forest is still present and it abhors trippers, map fetishists. Step away from the road by a few yards and the road is cancelled. It disappears. This ridge between the rivers Lea and Roding is a very public secret. Plenty of Londoners have been conceived here, in cars, on tartan rugs; plenty have died. Epping Forest is an unlicensed extension of the cemeteries that cluster around Waltham Abbey.
Iain Sinclair: London Orbital
A piecrust fungus might be read as a map of the forest if you’re practised in its magic and you’ve learned how to navigate its invisible directions. Or else maybe just simply follow the ways of the shape-shifting trees. Wherever.
A hornbeam socket is a good touchstone.
We skirted around the edge of the Deer Sanctuary, then Birch Hall, Genesis Slade, Wormleyton Pits, Four Wantz, Ambresbury Banks and Long Running.
The nameless is the origin of heaven and earth;
Naming is the mother of the ten thousand things.
Lao Tse: Tao Te Ching
The practice of shinrin-yoku is based on walking through the forest at a gentle pace for two hours or more. Keeping your phone switched off allows time to soak up the environment around you and come into the here and now. The phrase shikan shouyou means “nothing but wandering along”, something we rarely get a chance to do, but which is very beneficial.
Focus on your feet as they come into contact with the ground. Sense how every muscle in your body works together as you take one step followed by another. Which muscles engage as you lift up one foot from the ground in order to take another step? Which part of your feet touches the ground first? How do your arms synchronize with your legs?
How do you feel as you walk? Are there any aches and pains or sore areas? Imagine yourself breathing into these areas and imagine the pain easing away.
How do you feel emotionally? Are you feeling happy or do you have anxious thoughts going around your busy mind? Become an observer of your thoughts. Acknowledge them and allow them to move on as you settle into the rhythm of walking.
See how quietly you can walk, so that you can notice as many of the details around you as possible.
Yoshifumi Miyazaki: Walking in the Woods
Notice the oak tree at Jacks Hill and take it with you.
The Tree Inside