A couple of days before I turned 34 this year, the better half and I took a wander around Hibbit's Wood in Halstock - a place we love to find varying fungi, listen to birdsong and an amazing place to get field recordings. It's like magic; you open a gate into a beautiful meadow of wildflower, butterflies and, occasionally, dog poop - it's almost a metaphor for life! Crossing the meadow, a smaller gate is almost hidden, nestled into the hedge line and a gateway to the mystic. Immediately crossing from the light to the dark of the woods, you'll traverse a rotting bridge with a dried stream beneath and a choice of paths opens up in front of you. The deeper you go, the quieter the birdsong and, at first, you strain to listen. It's easy to focus on what's not there, to have control over what you want to hear and forget about the other sounds: the rustle of wind in the treetops above, distant from the forest floor where twigs snap underfoot and the occasional deer scampers through saplings afar.
A long circuitous route is the obvious path, but the best secrets are found away from it. What sounds like a buzz of flies is in fact a power station and following this sound leads us to discover yet more. Life cannot help but flourish, whether that's on Earth in general or within this tiny patch of our planet. As Sara rightly says, there is something incredible about the life cycle of a fungus, that only pops up, perhaps even for a few hours. We find ourselves the blessed two to see that one fungus that no one else has, or will have, seen.
There are metaphors everywhere, narrated by the birds and the breeze, stories told and untold that can only best be translated using imperfect human ears to take a guess at what they sing.
There are several works that spring to mind as I ponder on this; the first being Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night's Dream - a tale of fairies, "magic and frivolity in the ethereal world Shakespeare created" (Alsop, 2014). Mendelssohn composed the overture at the tender age of 17, before composing the rest of the incidental music for an 1843 production of the play.
It's from this that the famous Wedding March comes, that still traditionally accompanies the new husband and wife following their marriage - a tradition that began with Princess Victoria, daughter of Queen Victoria, in 1858. It's a piece that I've had the privilege to play innumerable times over the last fifteen years and weddings are still the greatest thrill to play as an organist. I highly recommend the arrangement by Jonathan Scott (2021) played on the organ of St Leonard's, Middleton. It conjures up that feeling of the wedding feast, that joyous celebration of love and there's something about the joy of meeting couples a few months before their big day to talk music. I'll admit to my fondness of asking the groom directly if he's feeling nervous, excited or terrified! I'll be talking plenty about the influence of church music - and the spaces and places they belong - on myself and those people around me in the next few posts, but for now, back to Hibbit's Woods.
When I look at all of these trees around me, I'm reminded of Bruce Springsteen's 2016 autobiography Born to Run in which he talks about this amazing copper beech tree (memories for myself here of the one in prep school) at the end of his drive, a staple of his life growing up and on returning home many years later found that it had been cut down (Chapter 79). He reflects on the memory of the tree and that looking at the space, he can still imagine it there, a visual representation of a phantom pain, perhaps - something that Hideo Kojima explores so effectively in Metal Gear Solid V (Green, 2017) with powerful reflections on the trauma of loss. In Springsteen's case, he was able to accept it and settle his feelings but it was still a shock and one cannot help think of what one might feel should Hibbit's Woods be lost? How might we feel returning here fifty years on as Springsteen did to find it gone? How differently might we feel about this as we do about the loss of rainforests around the world? Would it be more traumatic for us given our personal connection with the place?
As he nears his conclusion, Springsteen finds himself returning to God and his memories of peering through the doors of the church on the corner of his road when wedding and baptisms or funerals are taking place. He brings himself back to the Lord's Prayer and recites it to himself, but with a different slant on it this time, in the context of this loss. The contrast is clear, the church for him is the constant and the tree not. Baroness Young (2017) of the Woodlands Trust holds that, "Woodlands are the cathedrals of our natural world" and there is an excellent book by Bruce Stanley (2020) on developing spirituality through nature, whether that's from a faith perspective or a secular one. Take this further and visit Britain's Tree Cathedral in Milton Keynes (Campbell, 2017), pictured here:
...or New Zealand's Tree Church, here:
For the moment, Hibbit's Woods is as constant on the macro scale as its mycelial life is on the micro. It's a place that we know where to look for a connection, as Robert Macfarlane so succinctly puts it in his book The Old Ways (2012). And so we find ourselves brought round full circle to fungus and the circle of life. Did you know there's such thing as a mycelial coffin, made from mushroom fibre (Henley, 2020)? It's an eco-friendly way of burial and returning one's body to be part of nature! Perhaps one day I shall be interred in Hibbit's Woods in one of these, but for now, perhaps I'll settle for someday bringing an orchestra into the Woods and performing Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night's Dream. The work ends using the opening chords of the overture, again, bringing us full circle: ever-constant.
Alsop, M. (2014). Marin Alsop's Guide to Mendelssohn's 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'. NPR Music. https://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2014/05/23/315246245/marin-alsops-guide-to-mendelssohns-a-midsummer-nights-dream?t=1647201284386 [accessed 13 March 2022]
Campbell, S. (2017). Inside Britain's magnificent Tree Cathedral – and five more arboreal structures. The Telegraph. 5 Dec 2017
Green, A. M. (2017). Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, Trauma, and History in Metal Gear Solid V. Cham: Springer International Publishing AG
Henley, J. (2020). First funeral held using ‘living coffin’ made of mushroom fibre. The Guardian. 15 Sept 2020
Macfarlane, R. (2012). The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot. London: Penguin
Scott, J. (2021). Mendelssohn - Wedding March - A Midsummer Night's Dream - Organ Solo. scottbrothersduo https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UxUsmAL2HO0 [accessed 13 March 2022]
Springsteen, B. (2014). Born to Run. New York: Simon and Schuster
Stanley, B. (2020). Forest Church: A Field Guide to a Spiritual Connection with Nature. Vestal, NY: Harding House Publishing
Young, B. S. (2017). The Planner. RTPI 3(15)