Into the Woods

A significant portion of my childhood, it seems, was spent being driven by my long-suffering father, along winding country roads. We’d all pile into whichever Holden my Dad owned at that time – this was before the birth of the sixth child necessitated the purchase of a Nissan 8-seater van when I was in about grade 6 – and be ferried to and from church on Sundays, and to and from multiple relatives every weekend.

 

c1973 Cath Maria on bikes Wendouree

Exhibit a: one of my mother’s typically lopsidedly-framed photographs, myself and my sister in bottom right, & behind us, the Holden we owned at the time…I think this was a station wagon.

All I recall of those seemingly endless car rides now is that I used the enforced down time to stare out the window and daydream. According to my school reports in the very early years of school, I was a daydreamer – and my fantasies back then were generally inspired by the books I had encountered so far,  and featured me, starring as a character from a fairytale or childrens’ story, and the surrounding landscape as the setting for the story evolving in my head as we drove.  So naturally, when Dad drove past the plantations of pine trees around my local area, I used to wonder – was that an Enchanted Wood?

When I read the Enchanted Woods series, written by British author Enid Blyton, I distinctly remember longing to be one of the “gang” of Jo, Bessie and Fannie, the British kids who regularly had thrilling adventures in the woods that was a short walk from their back gate. I was jealous. Those lucky kids had an Enchanted Wood next to their home, full of endearing magical characters and with an ever-changing variety of magical lands that were accessible from the top of the Magic Faraway Tree – while next to our house was an unattractive, tracksuit-wearing family with an old, cranky corgi. Jo, Beth and Fannie would set out from their back gate with a parcel of sandwiches and a sense of excited anticipation, while I would set out my front gate with a squashed banana at the bottom of my school bag and mounting anxiety about the corgi that would inevitably run out to snap and bark at my heels as I hurried past. It didn’t seem fair.

So I used to keep a vigilant eye out on our road trips, for any forest that could potentially be an Enchanted Wood.

As it happened, we went into the bush quite a bit when I was young, because my father’s family owned some uncleared bush property (sadly now sold off) that we would go to with our cousins, for family barbecues. (No significant bush fires resulted from our bushland barbecues, I promise!) Despite, or perhaps because of, my familiarity with the bush, I never considered the Australian bush as I knew it, with its sprawling gum trees and native wildflowers, to be a contender for a possible Enchanted Wood.

Enchanted Wood

The terms woods, and forest, seem European and convey dark, dense foliage, with overgrowth and very little light coming through – very different to what we here in Australia call the bush. Due to the amount of sunlight in Australia – at all times of year – and the relative lack of density in the leaves of native Australian trees, even the direction in which the leaves of Eucalyptus trees hang, a lot of Australian bush tends to be airy, and allow a decent amount of light to filter through. Airiness and light do not create the right setting for the deep, dark hidden pockets, eerie sounds, watchful trees, and mysterious creatures that authors like Blyton, Tolkien and other European writers imagined residing in the depths of a dark European forest.*

Forests are ripe settings for magical stories, but I grew out of reading magical stories after my Enid Blyton years, and was never drawn to the fantasy genre as a teenager or Young Adult. It was not until I was in my thirties and had a child of my own, that I found myself lost in fictional forests again, when I finally read the Harry Potter series, The Hobbit, and The Lord of The Rings series. Reading those, I experienced the phenomenon that I’d felt as a child, of being so utterly absorbed in an imaginary world that it’s almost impossible, on ending the book, to come entirely back to banal reality. Despite their impossibility, the characters, events and settings linger and fill my thoughts for days afterwards, causing me to be not quite there. That’s because I have been transported to somewhere else – and more often than not, that place was a dark, mysterious forest.

*

When I was a kid, pine trees fitted the requirements for a magical forest in my imagination, (maybe that is because the plantations of pines around the area where I grew up were referred to as pine forests), so it was usually when we drove past a plantation of pines that I would strain to try and pick out the tallest, most mysterious-looking tree somewhere in the midst. (Logic told me it wouldn’t be right on the edges near the passing traffic). It was common for us to be driving home at night, and passing by a still, dark pine forest, I could easily convince myself that I had caught a glimpse of one of the beloved characters from the books. Sometimes I even thought I could hear the trees whispering to one another.

I guess all kids believe in magic for a while.

 

*

“Wisha-wisha-wisha”, said the trees loudly…

“Help the Faraway Tree dwellers!” the leaves whispered. “Help them!”

“But how can we?” whispered back the children eagerly. “Tell us!”

– The Enchanted Wood (Ch 22, The Army of Red Goblins) – Enid Blyton

*

They walked in single file. The entrance to the path was like a sort of arch leading to a gloomy tunnel made by two great trees that leant together, too old and strangled with ivy and hung with lichen to bear more than a few blackened leaves. The path itself was narrow and wound in and out among the trunks. Soon the light at the gate was like a little bright hole far behind, and the quiet was so deep that their feet seemed to thump along while all the trees leaned over them and listened.

– The Hobbit (Ch 8, Flies and Spiders) – J.R. Tolkien

*

*Note: some authors have set children’s fairytales in Australian bush settings, but perhaps as a result of the very different physical environment, they are tales for very young children and the psychological environment of those tales is very light. In the early part of the 20th Centure, English/Australian author May Gibbs famously created Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, two endearing little bush-creatures. Around the very same time, Norman Lindsay’s story for children, The Magic Pudding, was published. Although not set primarily in the bush, many characters in the story are natives of the Australian bush.

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5 Comments

  1. You have captured the essence of my childhood. I loved long car trips as they gave me the chance wander into my imagination. Perhaps our cars passed at some point, with you and I deep in our imaginary worlds.
    I longed for a walking, talking doll just like Beth (of was it Fanny?) got in one of the Lands. Sigh….

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
    • How funny – when thinking about the things I really envied in those stories, that walking, talking doll was the first thing that came to mind. I remember being utterly smitten with the idea of it. They had all the fun!

      That’s a lovely image, too, our cars, and perhaps cars holding other dreamy kids of our generation, passing one another while we were lost in other worlds.

      Liked by 1 person

      Reply
      • I have loved reading The Faraway Tree to kids I have taught. I hope that it has been a springboard for some imaginations. Blyton might not have been a Man Booker Prize winner, but she sure knew how to create a children’s fantasy world.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Children’s minds are open and malleable; children will believe as true whatever they are told. Later, experience of the world teaches them to put up barriers to credulity and to be more discriminating in what they accept as true. (Though, looking around at the amazingly stupid things that I see people believing in, many never reach that stage.)

    I think the ‘magic of childhood’ seems magical only in retrospect. As adults, we endow our memories of childhood with the aura of a golden lost paradise but at the time, all we believed in seemed true and real.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
    • It’s certainly true that overall, my childhood did not feel “magic”. The magic, really, was how my imagination was capable of going off and running, inspired by stories I’d read. I’d meant to make more of an overt point in the post, about the magic of imagination, but I kind of ran out of steam on that one.

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      Reply

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