Entering the Forests of our Imagination

It was after ten o’clock at night, and I was returning to my cabin nestled amid the redwood trees at a retreat center in the hills above Santa Cruz. I had been teaching a class on writing called “The Root Voice,” and I was ready for sleep. But the air was warm, the stars brilliant, and, with everyone in bed, the night tranquil. I turned away from my cabin and walked deeper into the woods.

Above me, the wind in the treetops filled the sky with the ocean’s roar. Beneath my feet, the Earth spun black as the heavens, so that the trees seemed to grow out of the sky and the ground simultaneously. Blackness wrapped around me and the damp earth, with its mix of sharp pine and dank scent. I heard the snap of branches, the crackle of dry pine needles; imagined eyes lighting up the forest like starlight. An owl screeched, beak and talon tearing into the night. Everything soft in me trembled.

I could have headed back to the safety of my cabin there and then, but like a child enthralled by a scary fairytale I was pulled toward the enchanted world of the dark forest. I was five years old again, listening to my father weave yarns of witches, dark woods, and decaying castles. I sought out the scary places back then in Grimm’s fairy tales, read late at night by flashlight, inviting ghosts, goblins, and giants to follow me into my dreams. And I sought the scary places again that night as the moonless forest enfolded me.

When I was a little girl I often played in Holland Park in London. Not the wild woods, exactly, but with enough leafy chestnut trees and sinister-seeming corners to infuse me with excitement. Darkness is dangerous. But it also holds wonder and magic. It brings us closer to the ultimate mystery of things. Immersed in darkness, our imaginative powers grow. We conjure the light with clay, claw, and pen.

If you have ever dared to brave the depths of your creativity, you know the power of darkness––know the world is a mystical and mercurial place. In the forest you glimpse a flash of feathers in the boughs, a paw print in the dirt, and you are graced. But you are also stalked. Something out there is seeking you too. It will only reveal itself if the moment is right.

Entering the woods, you are as much the hunted as the hunter. Lines of poetry pursue you; ideas and images track you. Beneath the shadowy trunks of trees, visions unfurl. A fallen log becomes a bear; a snake’s camouflage disappears her back into the forest; a hummingbird is there … is gone.

Did you see it? Was it real?

The wisdom you seek here can be experienced but never possessed. Wild, ancient, primal, it moves through the shadows. The presence of such mystery and immensity is overwhelming. You may have to fight the urge to break the tension by running away. But if you remain, at least for a while, things will happen. In this uncertain world, creativity flourishes.

We may seek straight paths and the straightforward approach, but it is a Universe both circular and shrouded that shapes us. Physicists tell us that dark matter and dark energy comprise 95 percent of the Universe. With all our technologies, all our instruments, we have observed less than 5 percent of the cosmos. What scientists have measured, we sense with our souls. Entering the forest, we know we are bound by darkness, born into mystery.

The light of modern consciousness burns brightly, but the Earth was never meant to be bare of trees, nor our souls fully exposed to the light of reason. We are meant to include some element of uncharted terrain in our makeup. A clear-cut area becomes drier and less fertile with time, just as we, too, are diminished by a modern mind-set that wants to elevate rational thought and industry at the expense of vision and spirit.

Mystery is wild. All forests hold an element of danger. What you run into can be menacing, even deadly. A wild creature can kill you. You can set out and become dangerously lost. But if you take the mystery out of life, you squeeze out your capacity to marvel. Avoiding risk, you bypass magic.

As I walked that night in the redwood forest on the hills above Santa Cruz, I knew mountain lions roamed close by. The staff at the retreat center had told me it was dangerous to walk alone after twilight. I peered into the gloaming forest, perceived shadows prowling in the underbrush, felt the hair on my neck rising. So when something moved in the trees, I was certain what it was. I screamed.

What emerged that night in the forest wasn’t the fierce and predatory creature of my imagination, but rather a tiny white moth, luminous, coming toward me on wings both delicate and strong.

Imagination flitters through us like this—always surprising, always wondrous. And we search for it in the darkness.

Excerpted from Reclaiming the Wild Soul: How Earth’s Landscapes Restore Us to Wholeness. For more from Mary, check out her upcoming course The Wild Scribe.

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Mary Reynolds Thompson is an international teacher, facilitator of poetry and journal therapy, and core faculty for the Therapeutic Writing Institute in Colorado. She is the author of several books, including the award-winning Reclaiming the Wild Soul: How Earth’s Landscapes Restore Us to Wholeness. She has successfully run many online courses and is experienced in holding the space.

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