~ from cats, dogs and nature to the flowering of body, mind and spirit ~

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Forests and Silence

I won’t make this post too long, or I’ll try not to (please know that I could have gone on much longer than I did! LOL). Though I’d love to have the time to do so. However, my focus is simply to share rather than to convince. What’s it all about? Books, of course!

Specifically, two books that I’ve had to forcibly pull myself away from at night in order to get decent sleep and away from during the day so that I could be somewhat productive. Oh sure, I could have read them start to finish without interruption, but these are the types of books I like to ponder, muse over, re-read sections or paragraphs, and thoroughly relish the insights and nuances. Plus, I really do have obligations -- family, creativity, spirituality -- that are also a priority. But, even if I could have read the books in one sitting, I doubt I would have; I happen to enjoy anticipation and savoring a special treat.

Now, to understand my compulsion to read these particular books, one must also know that I have nearly two hundred unread books on my shelves, books waiting patiently for their turn, books that I told myself I simply “had to have right now” but became distracted too easily by the next one to strike my fancy. Anyone else experience this? 

The author is Sara Maitland and the books are From the Forest (2012) and A Book of Silence (2008). The first one I read -- From the Forest -- was recommended to me by a friend who lives in London. I was no more than twenty or so pages into it before I ordered A Book of Silence. Interestingly, although Maitland has been publishing novels and short-stories since 1978, and is apparently well-known for them in the UK, my introduction to her has been through her recent non-fiction. 

Enough backstory! Yes? Yes. (select the 'read more' link below)

My friend recommended From the Forest: A Search for the Hidden Roots of Our Fairy Tales because she knew of my intention to travel to Scotland and my curiosity about the forests there. I learned a lot I didn’t know, that’s for darned sure! I had no idea what a difference extensive land management -- in terms of both time and control -- could make upon woods and forests. 

Following are a few of my favorite comments; maybe they will spark your interest!

“Landscape informs the collective imagination as much as or more than it forms the individual psyche and its imagination, but this dimension is not something to which we always pay enough attention.”

Because my genetic composition is primarily German, English, Scottish, and Dutch (with some Native American dabbled in here and there since, after all, we’ve been here many generations), I found the following particularly resonant.

“In Britain we often like to see ourselves as Sea People ... We tend to obscure the fact that, essentially, most of us are predominantly Germanic ... We share deep roots and cultural similarities with the people of northern Europe ... I tend to use the word ‘Teutonic’, a wider, less nationalised term ... At our deep Teutonic roots we are forest people, and our stories and social networks are forest born.”

In one of the twelve forests Maitland visited and wrote about in relation to fairy stories, she said: 

“This is a forest which is the way it is and where it is in order to replicate the pleasures and playfulness of lost forests, lost childhood.”

She speaks of the effects that humans have had upon the woods and the landscape: 

“But just as the stories change and grow and draw strength both from their ancient roots and from new influences and aspirations, so there is a deep energy in woods ... corroded and corrupted if you like, but biding its time, lying in wait, sneaking back whenever it gets the chance.”

Maitland speaks of the different types of energy or aura that the various woods have: 

“One of the things that has always drawn me to fairy stories is their sense of secrecy. ... Like the stories, the forests guard their secrets and hide their treasures; I believe the stories took the particular themes they did because their original tellers were living in the forests.”

At the end of each chapter on a particular forest, Maitland provides a re-telling of a fairy story (my personal favorite is the one about Hansel and Gretel). Maitland says that: 

“The magic in fairy stories is ordinary, ubiquitous and unearned, like the magic of the woods themselves.”

One curious conflict that I had while reading the book is that Maitland’s perception of forests and woods in general is quite different than mine. Maybe it is because I’m American and she’s British, maybe it’s due to the wilderness forests I vacationed in as a child many, many times with my parents, but I have never been afraid of being in the forest ... and the woods instilled fear in Maitland. I often hiked the Rocky Mountains, and the Green Mountains and White Mountains of the Northeast, usually just me and my dog, and I felt perfectly safe, at ease, and at home in them. I found that emotional difference and perspective interesting.

I hope the preceding is enough to wet your appetite so that you will get a copy of From the Forest and enjoy it as much as I did. If you made it this far, are you at least curious enough now to follow me into A Book of Silence?

While these two books are quite different in many ways, they both address the effects that land has upon us. If I had one suggestion it would be that you read them in the order that they were written, not because it’s necessary -- I read them in the reverse -- but simply because I would have if I’d known. For what it’s worth.

While From the Forest is about woods and fairy tales, A Book of Silence is very much a catalyst toward personal reflection. Or it was for me. Plus, it feels very much like a memoir, and the author someone with whom I could easily become friends. After all, I highly value silence and solitude, often fantasizing about escaping to a secret place in the woods.

This book has a lovely flow to it; the journey was enjoyable and often even meditative allowing for natural pauses to emerge. Maitland is a writer whose prose I appreciate for both elegance, intelligence, and simplicity, if you can imagine those together. 

Of course, our individual understandings of what silence is comes into the book and a need for personal definition arises. 

“I thought a lot about whether it was the constant background nature of these sounds or the fact that they were natural rather than human-made noises that meant they did not disrupt my personal sense of silence.”

Have you ever stopped to consider what “silence” means to you? I hadn’t in detail, though as I read this book I became more aware of the noises around me and which ones disturbed me more or less.

I was introduced to new terminology (just as I had been in From the Forest) such as the Scottish word “outwith,” meaning something more like "beyond" rather than just "outside," and “accidie,” referring to a peculiar state of mind experienced by recluses.

Also, have you ever wondered how and why various landscapes may have influenced religion and the God/dess or Gods/Goddesses of them? Maitland talks about this, too, and much of her conclusion makes sense. The topic of silence and the pursuit of it is, of course, a spiritual seeker’s path as well. For instance, Maitland says:

“But the God who creates everything from nothing by speaking is a desert God. The silence of the desert has a horror to it, as well as, born of the horror, a deep and joyful beauty. The desert is vast, cruel and very silent. Perhaps there is a inevitable attraction to a God who speaks -- to creation through sound.”

I found the above comment particularly intriguing since for the past three years I’ve been living in a desert!

Maitland goes on to discuss society, relationships, individuality. She says at one point that: 

“Incessant noise covers up the thinness of relationships as well as making silence appear dangerous and threatening. The nervous chatter that is produced to cover over even brief periods of silence within a group is one manifestation of this.”

Maitland focuses mostly upon Christian mystics and hermits, probably because that is her own spiritual path. Are reading and writing considered silent paths? I found this comment fascinating: 

“What dispels [Augustine’s] doubts, is silent reading, which infuses the light of knowledge ‘directly into the heart.’”

It is easy to see in A Book of Silence the progression the author made later into From the Forest when she writes, upon being in a forest seeking silence, that:

“It was very silent, too. I knew, sitting there, that I had been right to be scared. This was primal landscape and full of silent shadows of menace, the menace of being lost, magical-mad like Merlin, swallowed up into something wilder, bigger and infinitely more ancient than myself.”

I adore how Maitland tracks her own ten-year journey, sharing her process as she lives in various locations.

“In Weardale I was a silence novice, studying the practice and history and theory of silence.”

As I write this post, I realize that many of the pages I’ve tagged cannot be easily excerpted for they would be so far out of context that I would have to write at length on each of them. Thus, I will have to conclude and hope that these brief bits have entertained and inspired. I encourage you to read some full excerpts of these books on amazon.com!

I will say that there were a few places in these books where I personally stumbled, such as how Maitland seems to refer to only Freudian psychology (yuck!) whereas I love and resonate with much of Jungian psychology -- an approach that is far more supportive of the topics of these books, IMHO. 

If you got this far -- all the way to the end -- I applaud and thank you. 

And I trust that this post honors Sara Maitland’s work to which I’m deeply appreciative for the many insights she inspired in me.


Thank you for stopping by. With open heart, I welcome your thoughts however you wish to share them, whether via personal email or as a comment here. ~ Bright Blessings ~

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