The woman in the woods

It’s March now, and all across the central belt of Scotland, Spring greenery is emerging to carpet the woodlands. It’s time for getting out and about, for shedding the winter’s hibernation. Especially given the unseasonable warming of the anthropocene.

Since my last blog post, I’ve been investigating movements to redress the climate emergency. I had been to a couple of meetings, a couple of lectures, when my daughter sent me a link to a gathering taking place in the village of my birth.  

This seemed such an unlikely coincidence that it couldn’t be ignored. 

In my herbal journaling I have lately been drawn to rose (Rosa canina/ x damascena/ gallica) to ease the grief that is menopause. It seems the rose has had other ideas; drawing out and healing the wounds of sharp thorns, old stock coming to bud again. And now here was an invitation to return to more calcareous soil, to the red rose county.

My earliest childhood friend — a first love of sorts  — was a girl named Sonja Cullum. What mattered initially was that she was as tall as me, and a worthy opponent in playground high-jump. What didn’t matter was that she came from a recently settled gypsy family, who spoke Romansh at home. From breakfast to teatime we were inseparable. We didn’t need much language, or much of anyone else. We played high-jump, yes, and cat’s cradle, skittle ball. We exchanged all manner of skipping games. But mostly we wandered in the great outdoors. She knew so much about plants and flowers, and used them in ways that we didn’t in my house. Still now, the sight or scent of a dog rose (Rosa canina) takes me straight back to her.

But it turned out that Sonja’s background did matter. When we were about nine years old, we were called in front of her father. This was a huge deal. We were allowed into the front room, accompanied by her brothers and mother. Her father sat behind what seemed a huge table, her brothers and mother stood, as did we. Her father explained to me that I would no longer be allowed to associate with Sonja, that she was now of an age when she would no longer be allowed out without a chaperone (I had to ask my Mum about that one), and she would no longer be attending school. I was then shown the door.

That was it. 

I never saw Sonja again. 

I was devastated. I think I probably still am.

A year or so later, I heard the whole family had returned to Switzerland, to be with their community.

But as a child I had no narrative that explained this. I didn’t understand, and no one helped me to. I concluded there must be something gravely wrong with me, and I was very lonely without her. 

I cast around for new friends. Most of the kids in the village hung out in a pack, wandering through the woods and fields and along the riverbank. I thought this might feel the same as wandering with Sonja, so I joined them.

It wasn’t the same.

One day, down on the riverbank, waist-high in stickyweed (Galium aparine), the pack turned on me. I hadn’t taken care to notice that the other girls had gone home, I had thought I was just with friends. The boys seized me, held me down and lifted my top, laughing at my budding breasts. 

I was horrified, embarrassed, ashamed, powerless and indignant.  And confused when the boys just carried on afterwards as if nothing had happened. So that’s what I did too, my face stinging with tears and shame. This was probably also my fault, I reasoned— at least for not knowing the codes of behaviour the other girls knew.

And now here I am, standing on this same riverbank. When I set off from my Dad’s house to walk down the village this morning, he joked “Mind you don’t turn left, or you’ll head down Memory Lane”. In fact it’s cathartic being here as a part of such a radical gathering; a ‘tribe’ as marginalized as Sonja’s, seeking different ways to live and be. These people are trying to create equal, inclusive spaces, to dismantle the hierarchy and patriarchy that brought such an abrupt end to my childhood friendship, to reimagine futures where gender might not be a weapon. 

I find I am not only able to walk the riverbank, but to walk up past the lane by the orchard, and the tumbled-down wall that leads in to the woods. The woods where, after feeding me drugs at my friend’s 18th birthday celebration, then gallantly offering to help me home, one of the village boys dragged me, raped me and left me. A punishment for not ‘giving out’ like the other girls did.

When I regained consciousness, I made my own way home. In the morning I hoped it had all been some weird dream, but it took a long time to pick the twigs from my hair. I don’t think I’ve been alone in a wood since, and even with company I have grappled every time with that icy fear in my gut. A honeymoon picnic amongst swaying poplars in Tuscany was a particular trial, when it should have been a joy.

Back in Scotland, I haven’t been able to rally a friend to come with me to walk in the woods, to identify the plants and consolidate what I’m learning on my herbology course. So on Saturday I went alone.

It was only an urban wood — heavily managed and used, and not ‘real’ to my eye— but perhaps a good place to start. 

The foraging was a disaster; my ID skills so weak that I gathered samples from plants and trees that are medicinally useless, and walked straight past those that I should have been gathering. Yet I stayed on my own in the woods for an hour or so, and I didn’t panic. I even went back the next day. Then I cut my finger so badly that it will take months to recover, and again all for nought herbally-speaking.

But I know I’ll go back now, and perhaps one day I’ll get the herbology right, too. Baby steps. 

This feels like redemption, like reclamation, like recovery, like renewal, like a second Spring. 

Oh, and one thing Sonja taught me about Rosa canina: it’s called the dog rose because its roots can be used to cleanse the infection and recover the wounding of a wild dog’s bite.