Updated: Aug 23, 2021
There is something otherworldly about stepping into dense woodland in the height of summer. Like taking the wrong path at a crossroads, and accidentally stumbling into faerie.
After the distant horizons of the open countryside, it feels refreshingly intimate to be surrounded by trees that draw the eyes up to the canopy, or down to the undergrowth, or in close to the texture of the bark, but impede wide panoramas.
You can feel the change immediately: the edges of the woods forming a boundary between two very different worlds that exist side-by-side, and yet couldn’t be more different.
Passing the invisible but unmistakable boundary between wood and field is like stepping away from a busy marketplace into the tranquil hush of a cathedral. It is no surprise that churches and other large public buildings often look like forests, with tall columns supporting soaring canopies, and narrow corridors opening suddenly and gloriously onto broad clearings.
Nor is it a coincidence that I so frequently describe forests using architectural analogy: there are arches and tunnels, walls and windows, organic cathedrals buried here amongst the oak and elm and ash. Language helps us here: forests are places you walk in to, or step out of, something you enter and leave like you would a building, but not a hill or field or beach, which are just different textures we walk on. On a personal note, I also feel at home in a forest; another word that is usually reserved for buildings.
You can feel the change immediately: the edges of the woods forming a boundary between two very different worlds that exist side-by-side, and yet couldn’t be more different. There is the sudden hush, that feels somehow both soft and crisp: sounds seem muffled, dampened, muted at first, before you realise that you just need to listen differently. Forests are vast echo chambers: the distant cry of a deer can sound as though it is just behind you, while you are unable to pinpoint the rustling of a shrew in the undergrowth at your feet.
Light filters strangely through the canopy, leaving vast swathes of the forest in shadow, but highlighting small, crucial details that make you feel like you are walking through a Rembrandt. Between distant tree trunks, the sunlight is split, bent and reassembled as though through a prism.
Woodlands even feel different, the trees forming their own microclimate. It is almost always cooler inside forests: the leaves protecting you from the worst of the sun, and cooling breezes stirring the ivy and saplings between the boughs. On the hot day, the shade of trees is the ideal place to rest or spread the picnic blanket.
However, just occasionally, after days of continued hot weather, the trees eventually end up trapping the heat, forming a natural oven. During the recent heatwave here in the UK, having sought shelter from sun in a nearby patch of woodland, we were shocked to find ourselves roasting in the oppressive heat, and beat a hasty retreat back out into the open park that suddenly felt comparatively cool.