I went hunting with my father last weekend. It’s a bit bittersweet, I can remember when I used to beg him to slow down as he moved with purpose over the grey shale which makes up most of the woods in my part of the country. This year the reverse was true – he wanted to sit more than anything. He justified it by saying he hadn’t been out in three years and somehow his legs had forgotten the land. Although his beard was shorter than mine, it was easy to see the hint of moss in there. His body seemed to match the wooden logs. The act of hunting has become a ritual of remembrance, as he could not expect to chase the deer over the miles of broken ground. My father is one of the people who seems to have the blood of the woods in him.
The thought that this was a ritual in the woods was interesting. At one point I had written how going into the woods was itself a ritual. There’s all sorts of portals, literally and figuratively to get into the woods. I think this year was a bit different. My “civilized space” has shrank from going to an office to working remote. Some days I don’t even hear another soul except for my wife and children. The “work ritual” has blended with the “house ritual” and the “commute ritual” simply ceased to exist. The portals have moved from the front door of my house, to the car, to the office, and compressed themselves into rooms of the house. Even now blogging or writing correspondence to people, I am sitting in my ritual robes of casual clothes. Rituals seemed to have lost their portals, and have become places. Aethyrs. Temples. Even the grocery store has to be approached with caution, suitably prepared and duly armed.
To that end, being in the woods felt freeing, and welcoming. It was no longer a transgressive place to enter the back miles of the woods but rather it felt like coming home. Now the masks can come off and we can walk around and talk freely. The woods had become more natural than home. I can eat without having to look around for who is near. I can talk freely to the rocks, trees, animals, and my father. I don’t have to worry about what I touch.
To that end I got to thinking that maybe things are better out here. Even the bacteria and germs from drinking the water or inspecting a conspicuous piece of sedimentary rock are the beneficial type of bacteria. Things we grew up with. When I say that, I mean for millions of years, not just our fleeting youth. People purchase yogurt with “beneficial gut bacteria” in the store, simply because we don’t drink out of the milk bucket anymore. The same with COVID. If it’s designed by people, I’m inclined to hold people in contempt. If COVID is really the result of animal trafficking, then that is particularly awful as we have placed nature in an unnatural position. Nature is more than willing to hit back. As the old saying goes, “There has never been a deer that has died of old age”. That used to be the same for people. I think we’ve really done this to ourselves. Being home with family over the holidays is now transgressive. Being out in the woods feels more normal.
To that end I think there is a distinction to be made between being in the woods, and being, in the woods. I certainly believe that someone who is hiking can enjoy the woods. I believe that someone might look at the moon out their balcony near the sea and be taken by Her beauty. I also think that there’s a sense of “being” in the sense of participation that activities like primitive camping and hunting afford us. This seems to me to be distinctly different than traveling or Scouting. I have taken up leading a good portion of my son’s scout troop and I’m disappointed the scouts seem more interested in building camps than debris shelters. There’s a feeling of conquest there. Hiking is one thing, and it’s a good thing, but a hiker isn’t actively looking for food out in the wilds. I think hiking is more akin to tourism. Trying to get from A to B. I think some hikers do take time to notice the change of time in the woods. Maybe even notice how some parts of the woods are deeper than others, darker earlier. However there was never any real God of hiking, I think there’s a connection to be made to the God of Hunting. I think there’s even a more subtle God out there which would be the God of Nature itself.
Thinking of my father, sitting there on the log, the Green Man wanders into my thoughts. I think there’s three archetypes in the woods. Pan: who really represents livestock and the sexual nature of animals. Herne the Hunter, who really captures what Pan is not. Herne is an antagonist to what Pan is. They are the masculine, but opposed, side of the same coin, I think. Then there’s the Green Man, who represents the passing of time. The Green Man is a symbol from antiquity and wikipedia gives the topic an adequate but clinical treatment. Importantly, I think the symbol is best viewed through the lens of time. The man-as-nature motif goes back to the Egyptians, and I’m sure before that. Osiris was the green-faced-man and the God of grains, and of death and rebirth. Sounds pretty time-related to me.
The Green Man also stands as a Christian motif. The Green Man found his way onto churches and through the Christian era represented Christ resurrected. This in particular struck me as important because my father is a Christian, and I’m some sort of pagan platonist I suppose at this point in my life. At some point I had this Hellier-esque moment where I realized that this experience might actually be a sort of ritual – a Christian and a Pagan finding some religious unity in the symbolism presenting itself and in the common, shared experience. The passing of time, sitting in the woods, watching the sunset, was the experience to be had. That was the ritual.
On our way home he told me about his rituals with his dad. The ritual in the forest seemed to have taken him up too in the spirit of time. Dad’s rituals were firmly American rituals, and involved old cars and tourist traps in the backwoods of New England, and far too much caramel corn. He spoke of names I hadn’t heard since childhood and farms which didn’t exist anymore and people I only vaguely knew. He spoke of “buying his memories” – a 303 British SMLE which he purchased. Apparently he remembered all the good parts of chasing deer with it in his youth, and none of the bad parts like the thing arguably being the worse battle rifle ever made.
The lesson in the woods that day wasn’t about harvesting a deer, it was a visit from the immortal man of Nature. It was a statement of change. There’s seasons to everything, and Dad’s gone from his youth as Pan, through his middle ages as Herne, and finally gotten to his Green Man stage in his elder years. I’m definitely still in my Herne stage (and I’ve got the GPS logs to prove it), and my oldest son is approaching his Pan stage, Gods help all of us. I am, however, in love with the woods and the experience of life and what it affords to show me.