Den 3

Part One

[The sound of wind in the trees and a screeching bird. The wind in the trees pans from left to right, swirling around.]

The den, my burrow of holly, ivy, soft earth and oak mutates as lockdown and shielding are paused. Its power and purpose dissolves, and its boundaries become ragged as people get nearer and I move further away.

[Rustle of someone walking through dry leaves, and a train in the distance.]

The den feels the change, so we let each other be, and I roam the parks and the cemeteries like everybody else.

Collectively we trample through woods, circling while the trees look on, bemused. Heavy usage spawns new desire paths, rat runs scored by overlapping trudges.

Paths get wider, muddier, more slippery, so new diversions grow like parentheses around the sides. Routes mapping out our repetitive movements left as evidence.

We walk, joining autumn to winter.

[Sound of feet on gravel and a bird cawing in the distance.]

Dens appear everywhere. Handsome dens, practical dens, broken furniture nestled in the corners, half open to the elements. Teenage enclaves, half-shelters, huddles. Beer cans and cartons of cranberry juice, vodka bottles, tissues. Blue masks caught in root mesh.

In the summer after dark the wood transformed – parties in outside rooms, no one to pick up the rubbish, just party and move on. The dens aren’t made for play now, they’re made for socialising.

But I don’t want to party, I want to disappear.

[The sound of bass-heavy music and the sound of the wind shaking the leaves in the trees pans from left to right and back.]

Storms uproot trees and whip up the leaves; the wood shakes and settles anew – it is unfamiliar. Patterns and trails are constantly in flux; my old routes don’t look the same. I get lost; it is my fault, my attention has waned.

[The sound of raindrops falling through leaves.]

In winter the trees are reduced to lines. Bare branches mean transparency, so sound and vision travels. It is not as dense and secretive as in the spring. With less coverage I feel alienated, hunted and haunted. It is time to revisit the den.

Avoiding people, I avoid weekends. I visit the wood after it rains, the sun sparkling through the leaves, whispering encouragement:

“Everything in the world has changed, apart from you.”

Slow down and listen to the trees.

Tune back in.

I am branch, I am bird, I am leaf.

I am winter, I am summer, I am autumn, I am spring.

[The sound of traffic far away and birds singing.]


Part Two

In the summer I took someone to see the den.

Climbing up the hill, I quickly spotted a dark green plastic camping mattress and some empty cans, not inside the den, but in a pocket nestling at the right of the entrance.

They had not entered, but respectfully stayed just outside. I withdrew, recognising that I could not go near, that for the time being it was someone else’s, someone with more need than me.

If I take you to the den, can you see it? I use the den as language, a portal to be able to feel my feelings. Translator, motif, protector and enabler. I don’t own the den, but somehow I think it owns me.

Back in lockdown, I am once more a shielder, but with less guidance. “You’re in it on your own now.”

The mattress has gone; it went a while ago. The approach to the den looks bare. Some foliage has been cleared around the site, replaced with dirty plastic bouquet wrappers and used wet wipes.

I walk around the back of the den, towards the fox hole, where it is thick with holly, lively in the winter, and there, at the reverse of the oak tree, is the mattress! They have pushed their way further inside, into the very back of the den, making their own extension, their body searching out a deeper cavity, the need for safety as a ‘hidden’ far more than mine.

The mattress is sodden, and brown leaves fill the creases in the material; it hasn’t been used in a while. It is a thing of beauty, sunk down low in the hollow of the holly bush – although a crawl space, it looks safe and inviting. I am not unnerved; instead I feel a thrill that my den is secluded enough to conceal and shelter another.

[Heavy rain falls in the wood and slowly eases off. A bee buzzes by and the birds are chirping.]


Part Three

In the wood you are everything and you are nothing. I am accepted here, as are all rejects, outsiders, miscreants and defectives. It provides refuge to the ones who do not know what else to do.

And so, with our backs against the corner, brushing up against thin twigs with new leaves, we withdraw. Tuning in our ears as we close our eyes, we seek nooks and crannies, spaces open and closed at the same time. Branch-work becoming second skin. The space grows around us as an extension of our presence, cocooned, away from man and city.

Only the creatures easily pass through: the robin, persistently inspecting; the fox, its own den a few metres away down the hill; the bees, breezily sailing through before nose-diving into their own holes in the earth. Quivering and industrious while we rest and observe.

[A bird caws, panning from left to right; traffic can be heard in the distance.]

Entangled in the wood, my limbs become branches, my hands the shoots. My feet as roots hear you approach. I shall now take you inside. The den is yours as much as mine. I will show you how it feels.

Your eyes are closed. I take your hand and we step over the pile of logs, heading deeper into the woodland, and I gently guide you in. I pull back the branch diagonally obstructing the entrance and part several vines of ivy. I tell you to dip your head slightly. You must carefully lift one foot and then the other to step over the branch threshold on the floor.

The ivy falls back dutifully, partly concealing us from behind. Once inside, you can stand up, but temper your movement, or pricks from holly sprigs will scratch your sides.

I drop your hand and move to the far side of the den. Now you must feel alone. With one or two steps the ground will gently dip and your feet will disturb piles of old dry leaves. If you reach out your right arm you will feel the ancient, creviced trunk of an old oak tree. Run your hand down to the base and touch the exposed roots – they form a cradle.

[The sound of leaves falling down through the bushes and strong birdsong.]

Crouch down and sit with your back at the base of the tree. Stretch out on the earth and now, in place, you can open your eyes.

Looking up, you see a channel to the sky. Behind you, you see the mattress, to your left, the entrance and the graveyard, and to the right, clusters of barbed holly leading to the fox hole. Surrounding you is a circle of carefully arranged twigs jutting out from the base of the tree.

You look slowly from left to right, up above and behind, but I am not there. You are alone.

Please use your eyes and ears for anyone approaching: sink further down into the soil – they will not see you and you will not be disturbed.

[Birdsong transitions into mechanical sweeping and clunking sounds.]


Part Four

Trees understand crip time. My kin, I want to slow down to your rate. Human time is too fast for me. I choose you. My imprint is slight, but you have spoken to me and I receive your messages.

I feel your age, your slow patience, the flexibility of your strength, from root through rings through fluttering leaves; renew, rot, renew.

I am full of toxins, so full of toxins and poisons from treatments that my body is wilting. The den has been my witness: it notes my chemicals, my hormones, my changing cells. My subtle transpirations enter the atmosphere, sift in and around, and in the smallest sigh are welcomed into the trees.

[Bees buzzing all around, making a tuneful song.]

It is strange and alarming to not realise quite how fragile you really are. When given the vaccine, instead of opening up my world to a safer and more ‘normal’ life, my body panicked and overwhelmed, fizzed and folded inward.

Ancient viruses were reactivated, and I was left half a person, more limited than before, the fatigue of a different quality: longer, weightier, but more precarious and unpredictable.

[The crackle of footsteps on dry twigs, which sounds like a crackling fire.]

I pivot to tree time, slowed down, limbs wading through slurry-like air. Rest – but the ‘right’ rest – being the majority of my daily experience.

[Fast and light electronic sounds tapping and fizzing.]

My cells are studied in great detail and immune dysfunction is determined. I microdose cytokines, hormones, growth factors, nucleic acids.

The den doesn’t need me there, but it accepts me. It is not indifferent, and with repetitive visits we become companions, allies. We breathe each other in and we breathe each other out, with mouth, skin and leaves; our leaky membranes mingle.

The den does not mind that I am diseased and dysfunctional; it gladly offers me what it can, and in gratitude I offer it all that I can.

[Sound of light rain falling through trees and an electronic sounding fizz and bubbling.]

I perform my own protocol, deeply inhaling phytoncides. I am intoxicated by petrichor and geosmin after the rain. I dose bacteria from the soil. I offer my cells and my expelled breath and in return I absorb change.

[The electronic fizzing and bubbling continues.]

Like a plant, I embody fortitude. Hope and optimism are ductile. A ceaseless thread with indefatigable tensile strength. “I don’t know how you do it,” to which I answer, “I have no choice.”

Like the tree, the soil, the fungi, we press on, reaching towards an uncertain future, bending, adapting, and slowly, slowly, persisting.

[Soft wind in the trees and the sound of a woodpecker, a pigeon and other birdsong transitioning to a deep crackling and bubbling sound.]


Part Five

My cells have been gathering here, slowly over time at each visit. I have been introducing myself to the den and it now knows me in biochemical detail. A witness to my microbial makeup.

To become still, rooted, means to see in greater detail. It wasn’t the wood calling me, it was this humble spot, the earth and its horizons.

Soil has memory, a body; it is fragile. It holds our secrets and transforms them.

I am the earth and the earth is me.

I probe my fingers down into the damp earth, rustling through the dry leaves. I pick up a handful and cup it to my face. I breathe in its hospitality, the microbes, the decay. I whisper, “Make me feel better,” and it answers, “Come here.”

I dig a small hole in the earthy dip and I place my face over it to inhale more fully. I taste it and it fizzes in my mouth. I close my eyes. “Come here,” it says, and I push my face further in. I am up to my ears now, and the soil begins to dull my hearing. I use my hands, gripping the sides of the hole to reach in, further propelling myself inside. “Come here.”

I am the earth and the earth is me.

[A whine of a train in the far distance. The crackling and bubbling sounds are deeper and more textured, yet more subdued.]

I am the underneath. It is cool in here. I am the rot and the shit of dirt. I become both saproxylic, and a detritivore. I am intern, guided by earth and its fungi. I feast on rotten wood; I assist; I am useful. I breathe through holes made by earthworms, probing through, casting out. I navigate threads of hyphae. I am loaded, busy, purposeful. I am blended; I am humus, and I join its memory.

I matter as matter, localised, manageable.

Growth and decay will disguise my traces over time and I will disappear, absorbed into roots, soon to become leaves. I will drop to the ground, litter and decay, breath and heat, feeding root to leaf to ground again, an unbroken, relentless cycle. The poisons in my body neutralised, the soil my benevolent healer. Finally I am recognised; finally I make sense. I balance my debt, a fertile offering. I have assimilated, and the den passes on.

[Clear, beautiful birdsong.]

I am the den and the den is me.

[There are green shoots; there will always be green shoots.]