I recently did something that I’ve always dreamt about doing; I rented a little cabin in a forest and hunkered down for a month of uninterrupted writing. As a city girl, I’ve always been attracted to the idea of wilderness and isolation. My favourite stories involve characters on the periphery of the civilised world, in remote and secluded spaces, as in Graham Joyce’s The Silent Land, Stephen King’s The Shining and Adam Nevill’s The Ritual. There are stories that I love because the characters embrace, whether through choice or not, living the simple life, the life governed solely by survival, as in Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood, Charles Frazier’s Thirteen Moons and Stephen King’s The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon. It wasn’t as if I wanted especially to swing an axe to cut my own firewood (though the image holds some appeal) or to hunt for my dinner (again, is it wrong that I’d like to know how to do this?) but there was something incredibly exciting about going ‘off grid’, about disappearing into the trees and seeing how I fared.
Not being someone who particularly embraces the modern (I infinitely prefer letter writing to social networking, riding a bike to taking a car, etc) this transition perhaps wasn’t all that dramatic. My cabin was in the Scottish highlands, in part of the Abernethy forest. I chose this area because it contained vestiges of ancient woodland, remnants from another time when the boreal forest had covered most of Europe, filled with wolf packs and wild boar. Back then, the idea of the wildwood that’s so alluring to writers of the genre now, was actually a reality. It was my aim during this month of solitude not only to pen a masterpiece (a little bit of pressure isn’t a bad thing) but to find these pockets of the past. It didn’t take long to find the pockets – the masterpiece is another story.
I covered a lot of ground. Armed with an array of Ordnance Survey maps, I worked my way through dozens of forests, woodlands and copses, soon realising that they all had distinctly different atmospheres. Some felt safe and inviting, some grand and imposing, whereas others were distinctly unwelcoming. I tried to rationalise these feelings. The time of day, the weather, the abundance or lack of light through the canopies, the density or uniformity of the trees – all had an impact on my perception. There was one wood in particular that seemed to enclose around me, tripping me up and entangling me with brambles and ferns. I was bruised and scratched when I emerged and I did not want to go back.
The woodland as a foreboding place is so ingrained in our literature that it’s hard to escape this representation. The fairytales of Grimm and Perrault present the forest as preparatory ground for adulthood, a place of danger, where wolves and witches plan to devour you. In modern literature and film, forests still harbour monsters, whether figurative or fantastical and sometimes the forest itself is made animate, as in the once-censored and terrifying scene of The Evil Dead. As Sara Maitland considers in her book Gossip from the Forest we cannot escape these literary and cultural antecedents, that when we return to such places we take a whole lot of cultural baggage with us. The forest exists for us now as a projection or echo of such stories. As readers, the landscape of literature will always shape and influence our real encounters with the world.
Perhaps that is why writers crave wild and isolated spaces. They are sounding boards, reservoirs for their own narratives and the narratives that have come before. I realised afterwards that I was following a well-worn track; that many literary figures had needed isolation and wilderness in order to write. I was among the many who sought lonely spaces, such as Wilkie Collins, Ann Radcliffe and H.G. Wells. George Orwell’s search for remoteness is perhaps the most extreme; relocating to the northernmost point of the Scottish island Jura, he lived in a stone-cottage where he farmed the land, reared livestock and lived the dream of self- sufficiency while he wrote Nineteen-Eighty-Four. But it came at a cost. The harshness of the weather and the dampness of the island resulted in him contracting tuberculosis, which he died from two years after finishing his work.
Maybe Orwell needed the loneliness, the sense of utter self-reliance, to write about such enormous concepts as autonomy and free will in the novel. For many writers there is a reciprocal relationship between the subject matter, the landscape of their story and the actual world they inhabit. Perhaps that is why there is such a lot of urban horror at the moment, with writers choosing the cityscapes that surround them as the backdrops of their stories. It is also why I sought the wildwood for my own story. That though I have experienced such places in books, I didn’t really know what it would feel like, and therefore how to write about, being tucked away in a little cabin in a deep dark forest.
As for my writing, I didn’t finish the masterpiece but I wrote a great deal and regularly, and I had a lot of ideas, some of which I hope are good. The most pleasing thing was that I made space in my mind to think. Cycling three miles through ancient woodland to my local loch, sitting on a log on the shore and staring out at the flat water became the highlight of my day. My neighbours were red squirrels and I’d write with my quaint stable door open so that I could see their acrobatic show through the trees. Some days I wrote outside, surveying the forest and once listening to the distant roar of a stag. As for cabin fever, I wasn’t quite as cut off from the world as I’d have you believe. I could make calls and send texts, but I had to walk a considerable distance from the cabin to get signal. And at nighttime, in the middle of a forest, with only the stars as my guide, it was actually very scary. In fact, it sounds like the beginning of a horror story….
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