I was looking at a fantastic bracket fungus growing on a fallen trunk.
“What is it?” I asked Mark, wondering if he knew it’s name.
Before he could reply, Melody answered, complete serious and with absolute authority, “It’s a fairy village.”
As I watch my children becoming familiar with the wood, I am even more certain about its benefits. The collective imagination of Peta, Melody and Amos is boundless; here in the trees, they seem to thrive. At the moment a fallen oak is a pair of boats, tied together. I don’t know exactly where they sail to, but three hours is not long enough for their voyage to be complete. There are definitely dragons in the wood – and witches (the Worst Witch¹ kind of Witches, not nasty ones). Sticks are very special – despite owning an entire woodland, Mark and I still have to referee fights over who has whose stick or wipe away tears after a particular stick has gone missing. But sticks can be friends, swords, flying brooms, magic staffs, boat hooks; the list seems to have no end. I am so relieved my children are able to play like this. It seems obvious to use a stick as a wand, a sword, a bow, but how many children do not have the opportunity to play these games anymore? How many children have swapped creative activity and outdoor living for computer generated worlds and sedentary indoor games? I am glad my children have not reached the lofty heights of primary school sophistication that glances scornfully at the outstretched wand and sneers, “It’s just a stick.”
And Joe, never one for the social games the others play, has found his place in the wood too. He fiddles constantly, but in the wood he can whittle, coppice, poke fires, storm off safely and come back pretending nothing has happened, check on the badgers. There are roles he naturally takes on, things he can organise, physical work that he can do and I can’t. He can see he is really contributing to the family project here and I can see he values himself for that. In his own way, he is displaying pride.
There is no doubt both Mark and I take so much away from each trip to the wood; over the last year and a half, I truly do not know where I would be without it. A few weeks ago, when I was watching the news, I saw a report about how the nation was becoming obese and about how things needed to change. Another report told about how cycling in the later years of life helps fitness, and has the additional benefit of boosting the immune system, reducing illness. And then there was a report about how public parks were likely to be sold off because councils need the money. It’s so hard to put a price on places for children to play, open spaces where people who struggle with noise and enclosure can feel less anxious. Who can calculate the monetary value of green areas that improve our mental health, outdoor space where people can be involved in activities that give them a sense of pride and where we can go to get the exercise our bodies are evolved to need?
I haven’t bothered to find the correct name for the bracket fungus yet. It is a reminder to me that the scientific or measurable facts are not the be all and end all. In the woods, I can believe in the fairy kingdom on the fallen trunk, just as I believe in the ability of the outdoors to enrich and improve our lives.
¹Jill Murphy The Worst Witch 1974