Looked at in a certain light, tree branches resemble bones. When women are swiped from the streets by violent men they often end up in the woods, and lately, walking my dog through my local coppiced glades, I can’t stop thinking about this.
The idea of woodland representing both sanctuary and danger goes back to every fairy tale that ever was. The complex notion of a place that provides sanctuary for you, the walker, but also a hiding place for a predator is the paradox at the heart of many a cautionary story. In An Illustrated Encyclopaedia Of Traditional Symbols, J.C. Cooper writes, ‘Entering the Dark Forest or the Enchanted Forest is a threshold symbol: the soul entering the perils of the unknown; the realm of death; the secrets of nature, or the spiritual world which man must penetrate to find the meaning.’ There is no end to the symbolism of entering a wood and dangers therein, but what of tangible, non-symbolic dangers? What of being followed in the woods, or chased, or dragged to lonesome nature spots where the hedges have grown tall and only locals know where the pathways lead?
It is the turn of March towards April, my favourite time of year. On my daily walk I see a scattering of wood anemones, celandines, white violets, and snowdrops, but I can’t focus on spring flowers. I am thinking of the recently murdered Sarah Everard whose body –as far as we know from press reports – was found in a bag in woodland near Ashford, Kent.
My path through these woods is as familiar to me as my children’s faces. I am normally happy here, stretching my spine, letting the tension fall away for a while. There is much research now into the benefits of being amongst trees: it is linked to increased ‘amygdala integrity’ and a reduction of stress. There are studies on trees and cardiovascular health, immune health, and mental health. There are studies to test whether time spent in trees makes us more trusting, generous, open (it would seem it does) and growing evidence to suggest green spaces reduce crime. I feel it, most days. I am of this place and it’s my home, but today I am antsy, shifting. I can’t get out of my head and into my body and I can’t stop looking over my shoulder.
Back in the house, I click on google maps. In the days before the 33-year old’s body was found, headlines ran Police Search Woodland and What Do We Know About Abandoned Kent Site? I zoom in on the disused, derelict golf course called ‘Great Chart Leisure’, ten minutes east of Ashford, around thirty miles to the east of Deal. Nearby paths, Bear’s Lane and Fridd Lane, look like the kinds of places I like to walk. I discover that the leisure site was closed in 2019 and is a regular fly tipping spot.
I have always been interested in what happens when humans retreat and nature reclaims: blocked up tunnels, old cement works, disused sewage sites, shut-up garages, alleyways, and lanes. It is fascinating to watch the creep that occurs when humans clear out, the ivy, rodents, birds, and foxes and to wander in the peculiar melancholy of once-inhabited ghostly zones. But now I wonder if it is possible, by which I mean safe, for me to enter these abandoned places? A young woman is kidnapped in the city and ends up hidden under leaves and branches in no-man’s-land, like all the Stephen King films I’ve ever watched. But it’s not a sinister fairy tale, it’s a full-blown nightmare. It’s not a story. It’s real.
I am in the woods again on ‘my’ path, in ‘my patch’ of the South Downs. I walk fast and hold my breath when I notice another person in the distance. These scratchy bits of scrubland, the in-between of urban sprawls and nature proper, feel gender-divided and hyper ghettoised. I make my way down a slippy bank, lose my footing, and instinctively reach out to catch a branch but it’s hawthorn and I am spiked. The trees look different today, I am less at home and I wonder: if you are the most violent and physically powerful person at large in the woods are you at home in that environment? Or are you at war with everything?
I walk to reclaim my normal relationship with this space, but I can’t help it, like many others I am ‘triggered’ by the story in the news. Mercifully few incidents have happened to me whilst walking alone amongst trees, but they were real. Only now I see that I’ve suppressed them in order to be able to continue to access these sites.
As a fourteen-year-old, roaming the Downs behind Eastbourne I was followed in the woods for a considerable time by a sole male wearing a balaclava. I’ll never know his intentions because I ducked through a hidden path and slipped into the edge of an estate where I burst into tears on a lady at a bus stop.
Ten years later, a man wearing territorial army gear stalked me through woods, forcing me to run as fast as I could back to the car park where I told other dog walkers who were kind and helpful.
Deep in the woody bit of Victoria Park in London I was knocked off my bike, attacked, and mugged by five young men in the middle of the afternoon, shielded from other people by a circle of trees. I had the imprint of a trainer on the side of my cheek for over week.
Most recently, about six months ago, a lone man – again in army-green combat gear – threatened to set his dog on me and my dog for unknown reasons and only paused in doing so when two other men, also in some kind of hunting or stalking outfits, emerged from the trees and I got away from them all as quickly as I could.
A couple of years ago I was walking in the woods in Cissbury Ring near Worthing, singing to myself, cheerful about having found a really good stick. An elderly couple stopped me and said, ‘Doesn’t it feel dangerous walking here alone?’ I smiled. ‘I think it’s probably more dangerous in Worthing on a Friday night,’ I replied, and we all laughed. I moved confidently on. Back then, if the shadows in the trees flickered and looked eerie, I rather liked it. I liked the isolation, the immersion, and the privacy.
Nature doesn’t care if bones and skin decomposing in the folds of its soil have been laid respectfully or are the result of a terrible, murderous incident. Woodlands hold all sorts of secrets and stigma can resonate in the landscape for periods of living memory. The back of the park where a girl was once raped, and no one walks there now. The woods that no locals will go near. There are glades, banks and patches of land that have always given me shivers and I think, as I pass, what echoes are imprinted in this place? What have these old trees seen?
The next day is grey and gloomy, the mist low. I pause. Should I walk amongst the sad trees and down the empty lane? Or better to stick to pavements today? How different beautiful nature spots can look with a shift in the light. I feel rage that my sense of belonging is dislodged and then an impotent frustration at the fact that a person, if he wanted, could grab my wrist and there would be nothing I, nor the trees, could do about it.
Where does that leave me and my feeling about the woods? I force myself to walk my usual path, despite a new nervousness. I don’t want to develop a phobia. I don’t want to reduce my landscape and shrink to concrete places. These lanes are as much mine as anyone’s. I walk a path that leads to Roger’s Farm on the edge of Findon. A lone male comes towards me and as he approaches my dog, trusting and silly, wags at him. The man smiles, I nod, we walk on. The tree branches, still leafless and skeletal, shift and creak. I let out a quiet breath and keep walking.
Suzanne Joinson is a writer and academic. Read her previous diary entries for The Clearing, Running for the Trees , Hortus Conclusus during a Pandemic and Corvid Tales on Covid Days. She has published two novels with Bloomsbury, A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar and The Photographer’s Wife. Her writing appears widely and she and writes regularly for The New York Times. She lectures in creative writing at the University of Chichester. Read more about Suzanne on her website.
Illustrations by the author.