The Deep, Dark Woods

Illustration by Bert Dodson

Let’s say you’re a rational, educated person with an appreciation for nature’s ways. The summer you were 12, you went to Camp Hi-Dee-Ho, where you were introduced to the forest by learning the difference between compound and simple leaves, a distinction that is murky now. You particularly enjoyed the ghost stories that were told around the crackling campfire on moonless nights and the re-enactment of the story about the headless horseman, in which you played the horse. Back at the hut (called a hut though you suspected even then that honest-to-goodness huts don’t have flush toilets), you quickly picked up the art of short-sheeting but wrestled with the challenge of pretending to be a good sport when it happened to you.

Twenty-five years later you’re inspired to drive to Franconia Notch and climb one of the peaks. You need the exercise, and, being stuck in Boston, you haven’t seen more than two trees side by side in years. You yearn for an experience with nature. What’s to worry about, you ask yourself, as you leave your car in the sunny parking lot and start into the shadowy woods with your stout new Merrells and your collection of granola bars in assorted flavors?

What you don’t have is a flashlight or a compass or matches. Or a map. There are signs, aren’t there?

Deer sign, yes. Raccoon sign. Dog sign. And tasteful arrows set in unobtrusive places. But at a certain point in the afternoon, you decide it would be a lot easier to go around the steep part of the ridge instead of up and over it on the trail, and in the process you get turned around. What you remember as the landmark tree with the big bump on it seems to be in a different place and now has a weird vine hanging from it as well, a vine that almost looks like a noose. Surely you would remember that.

You walk a while, realizing it’s not so sunny anymore. The sky – what you can see of it through the tops of the trees – is overcast, and you have no idea in what direction you’re headed. So you go up, still sure you can connect with the trail again. And the people on it. There were a lot of cars in the parking lot, you reflect as you sit down to rest on a rock, nibbling at the Strawberry Crunch and watching little bits of wispy fog floating by. Where the heck did everybody go?

The scenario is not far-fetched. You don’t have to be a ninny to get lost in the woods. Change the weather, the time of day, the terrain, or your psychological state, and things start to look different. Major Tim Acerno, with New Hampshire’s Fish & Game law enforcement division, says it’s surprising his department isn’t called out more often on such missions, given the forest’s accessibility to the city and the number of people who visit it each year. In 2007, his department logged in 45 missing person missions; this year, the total is likely to match or exceed that.

The idea of being lost in the forest touches something ancient in our psyches, a cluster of buried memories and associations that runs through our dreams and exists, at best, as a low murmur in our consciousness. These are things that we know, even if we don’t know that we know. As heirs to the history of the human race, we carry them with us wherever we go, like it or not.

As children, we worried over Hansel and Gretel and those other fairy tale characters who are exiled to the forest or who wander through on an innocent errand only to encounter some manner of unbridled wickedness (the lucky ones, like Little Red Riding Hood, meet a hunter – hunters are generally resourceful and quick-thinking in these stories, unlike woodcutters, who, sad to say, are often weak thinkers.) It made sense back then to believe that a different reality might be at work in a place so different from the ordinary world run by parents with their tiresome efforts to civilize and tame their children. As adults we, too, acknowledge those different realities when we align good feelings with open, sunny, familiar terrain and let the bad feelings dwell in darkness.

The dichotomy is ancient and archetypal: day and night, sunlight and shadow, good and evil, field and forest, the civilized and the savage. We find it everywhere, in the world’s mythologies and its literature, in the history of religious beliefs, in common superstitions, in the many rituals and folk customs that have survived in various forms since the days when trees were worshipped and their anger feared.

There is a little orange booklet with the rather ominous title, You Alone in the Woods: The Lost Hunter’s Guide, that’s put out by Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife. Now in its third edition, it’s geared toward the intelligent, rational hunter, but even this practical tract, with its cheerful advice about staying put and maintaining “mental control,” ripples with an undercurrent of anxiety. “You have survived the first night,” it says, “and now you should put forth a strong effort to be as busy as possible. An idle mind can only work against you!” As if not quite sure such commonsense advice will do the trick, it goes on to remind the by now not-so-rational woodsman that “God helps those who help themselves,” and suggests, somewhat weakly, “Celebrate a little to see the morning light.”

People have always found the forest both fascinating and dangerous. It is a place for initiation, for testing our courage, our skills, our intuition. In literature, it is a place of adventure, like Robin Hood’s Sherwood Forest, where that merriest of bandits carried on his lawless exploits, thumbing his metaphorical nose at civilized society’s rules. If you take the longest way home today, you are still said to “go around Robin Hood’s barn.”

Trees ’R Us. They have limbs, they stand upon the earth reaching toward the sun, and although we know they are rooted to one spot, we also know that they can dance in the wind, that their leaves can tremble just as we humans sometimes tremble in fear, that they need food and water or they will die. Their symbolism is long, weighty, rich, and full of contradictions (like the firm belief that while oaks are the trees most likely to be struck by lightning, they are the best place to seek shelter in a storm.) The psychologist and philosopher Carl Jung believed that trees symbolize inner growth and the process of becoming conscious, the life force within us that struggles to continue growing upward despite the shenanigans of our conscious mind, with its trickery and self-deceptions and all the warping and leaning and infestations we experience as we make our shaky way toward a fully realized humanity.


When early man emerged out of the dense forest into the bright light of the grasslands and looked back, what did he feel toward his original environment? Attraction and fear, love and repulsion, says Roland Bechmann in Trees and Man: the Forest in the Middle Ages (translated from the French by Katharyn Dunham). In this fascinating book, the author explores the interrelations between man and forest, tracing many of our modern attitudes to the European Middle Ages, when the Christian church was trying to lessen the grip of paganism on the common people.

Trees, whose life span is several times that of men, were widely treated in pre-Christian Europe with the same respect as the elders among men. Several generations might live in the shade of the same venerable tree, almost as if it were eternal, says Bechmann. Tradition often recalled the circumstances of its planting and all the events throughout the centuries occurring around it that it had witnessed. Its function as a witness is still important in historical accounts, regional stories, and local legends. The fact that a tree does in fact have a memory of the events occurring around it seems almost poignant given that it is a story it can reveal only after it is cut.

Farming, to the early Christian church, was considered a pious activity engaged in by reliable people who were submissive to the authorities, unlike the uncivilized forest people, the charcoal burners and poachers and woodcutters who knew the primitive ways of the woods and revered its secrets. For the people of the towns, the forest – with its traps for the innocent and hiding places for outlaws – was felt to be a dangerous place. The clearings were productive, useful, policed, taxable land.

To the medieval Church, the forest was a pagan playground, the haunt of evil-minded magicians, witches, and criminals who continued to survive outside its influence. Its best defense, the Church Fathers discovered, was to establish parallel liturgical events and feasts that would satisfy people’s need to continue their ancient traditions such as the May Day rites that celebrated the greening of the earth and the arrival of the season of plenty. Some of our favorite holidays from the Christian calendar (think Christmas and Easter) are in part based on the delicate tweaking of these outlawed pagan practices. Whatever woodland beings the Church couldn’t replace and make respectable, it turned into devils and demons to be exorcised.

When the Europeans came to this country, they brought their attitudes along. As we know, the English Puritans continued to persecute the people they suspected of being inhabited by these demons. Encountering the native people, so suspiciously at ease in the forest, so wholly pagan in their beliefs, the newcomers saw no problem with claiming the land that the natives were wasting by not cultivating. Farming, mowing, tending, pruning, and cutting means owning. How else to explain America’s love affair with lawn mowers?

In 1821, Timothy Dwight, an early president of Yale, wrote a lengthy work called Travels in New England and New York in which he attempts to define a distinctly New England landscape transformed by agriculture and thus rescued from those savages too lazy to reap God’s bounty by applying themselves to the cultivation of the soil. It’s a view that is as foreign and distasteful to us now as the life of the woodland “aborigines” once seemed to Timothy Dwight, but it became, nonetheless, a fixed idea in our history with a long-lasting influence on the way our culture sees wildness.

In folk and fairy tales, the forest is almost always a place of transformation, and transformation is always difficult, as anyone who remembers adolescence knows. In the stories collected by the Brothers Grimm, the forest is a place where the characters get lost and where they are challenged to find their way, a kind of Outward Bound for the soul. “Since ancient times,” writes psychoanalyst Bruno Bettleheim, “the near impenetrable forest in which we get lost has symbolized the dark, hidden, near-impenetrable world of our unconscious.” In The Uses of Enchantment, Bettleheim defends the value of fairy tales for children, explaining that since “civilized” rules don’t apply in the forest, it offers the freedom to make moral choices for oneself. Once we leave the nest of family, our major challenge is to find our own way to become ourselves, which is what many of these fairy tales are about.

And then there are the Two Travelers, a shoemaker and a tailor who must go to the forest to learn their life lessons. “Mountains and valleys never meet,” this tale begins, “but people often do, especially the good and the bad.” The tailor in this story is a handsome little fellow, always happy and in good spirits. The shoemaker, on the other hand, is a surly pessimist, begrudging and suspicious, and not, as it turns out, shy about putting out the merry little tailor’s eyes and leaving him for dead in the forest underneath a gallows festooned with sinners. (The tailor recovers, as a sunny person’s spirits always do. The shoemaker, alas, is exiled from the kingdom.)

In Shadow and Evil in Fairytales, Marie-Louise von Franz, a student of Jung’s who has written extensively on the psychological meaning of fairy tales, suggests that this story has to do with what both types, the pessimist and optimist, need to learn. The sunny tailor represents a certain kind of naïve attitude in individuals and, collectively, within the Christian world; the shoemaker represents the opposite attitude, the dark, melancholy temperament of the unforgiving Calvinist and Puritan witch-hunter. In other words, he is the sunny character’s shadow, which von Franz defines as the officially despised part of a person’s psyche.

We have a great attraction to that dark part. As Bruno Bettleheim says, evil is not without its attractions. It is certainly easier to stomach if we move it out of our ordinary, daily lives and put it in the dark woods—which we like to visit occasionally as long as we can get out again.

In The Way of the Animal Powers, Joseph Campbell writes about the similarities of mythologies from all over the world. In comparing the meaning of the forest in the culture of the Yahgan people of Tierra del Fuego to its meaning in the Celtic epics of the British Isles, he talks about similar heroes on similar rides through forests who allow themselves “to be led into the pursuit of some visionary beast and find themselves inside the fairy hills, engaged in adventures of a timeless, dreamlike surreality.” The forest, he says, speaks to deeper centers than do city streets. “The excitement of the imagination that a forest fastness can awaken may become an irresistible fascination, leading in the end to a transformed life.”

Will our carefree hiker lost on the mountain be changed by his night in the deep, dark woods? Maybe. Will he return to his daily life with a new perspective, knowing himself to be resourceful and courageous? Maybe. Will he have a really really good story to tell? You bet.


Mary Hays is a fiction writer with a degree in medieval studies and a lifelong passion for fairy tales and all things Grimm. Her novel, Learning to Drive, can be found on the web at Anchor Books.


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