Forests and the Art of Metaphor

Forest at Twilight, Gustave Doré

And into the forest I go, to lose my mind and find my soul. ― John Muir

I recently saw an image of a tangled forest and thought, “Wow, that feels like the inside of my head.” Then I started to think about that.

The forest is a rich and venerable metaphor for the unconscious, a wild realm where the sun and moon cast shadows indiscernible from the shapes to which they belong; where sound travels strangely and without reference; where creatures can be of this world or the other. Storytellers figured this out a very long time ago, and psychology took it from there, recognizing the nature of forests in the human psyche, complete with predators, hungry roots and vines, mist, vanishing paths, will ‘o the wisps, terror and awe.

Silvery Trees by F.T. McKinstry

The fantasy genre, one step away from fairy tales, if that, is the singular province of the dense, hoary wood. Having written fantasy in one form or another for the better part of my life (and I’m not young), I don’t think I’ve ever written a story without a forest in it somewhere, filled with whispers, prowling things, assassins, spies, fugitives, hidden temples, witches, immortal predators, goblins, phooka, draugr and the like. The forest symbolizes the infinite and inscrutable realm of the unknown, assuming one is brave — or daft — enough to venture in. Of course, there’s always a price to pay for such heroics. But who listens? Fairy tale protagonists are notoriously foolish — as are we all, innocent one moment and facing the monstrous forces of the soul the next.

The rule of thumb is, one finds in the wood what one brings there.

Just the wind…

Psychologically speaking, everyone knows the spooky forest. You can’t be human and not know this. When your life falls apart, when trauma or grief plows into you and shatters your general sense of who, where, or what you are, when you lose your bearings in the unsettling twilight of change, it’s like being lost in an old dark forest, the domain of shadows, tricksters and things that don’t have your best interests in mind. Unnerving enough by day but unthinkable at night, the forest will convince you that there’s no way out. It is a living, breathing being in which you are a tiny thing.

The spooky forest metaphor happens at the collective level, too. Let’s take 2020. For whatever reason — and there’s a fucking Halloween bag full of theories about that — this year was a perfect storm of unfortunate events all tangled up together for the seeming purpose of bringing out the worst in humanity — and I mean all of it, whatever side you’re on. It feels like a bleak, old haunted forest where everyone is lost, confused, and thoroughly pissed off, darting and stumbling around screaming and pumping rounds into anything that moves. Like all fairy tale forests, this one has no gate, no path, only shadows and mirrors. And the only way out is to face down both within ourselves. Put another way:

If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is in you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you. – Gospel of Thomas

The Fairy Pool, ca. 1850 by Narcisse Virgile Diaz de la Peña

It’s not all gloom and doom, of course. If you’re clever, curious, brave and respectful (rude fairy tale protagonists always get their comeuppance), you might befriend an owl or a fox who knows all paths, or be helped by an old witch who decides the trolls don’t need a snack today, or you might step into a golden ray of sun that finds its way through the canopy to give you hope.

Whatever you do, don’t go waving around an axe or a torch. Because, you know, Fangorn.

© F.T. McKinstry 2020. All Rights Reserved.

Why Me Lord

My childhood was a war zone. I’m a poster child for a highly sensitive person (HSP – yeah, there’s a freaking acronym for that now) packing emotional trauma. Now I’m a seasoned veteran with a collection of scars I have names for. But hey, I’ve found my calling in the wasteland, and I write the sort of books that saved my life and mind when I was a kid.

As with any calling, we all reach a point sometimes when it all goes to hell and our calling becomes the stupidest fucking idea we ever had. Well, I’d been in that for a few days and at some point, I hit the bottom. Until yesterday.

It was a quintessential New England summer day, hot, smelling of grass and flowers, with catkins blowing in the air like snow. I went out for a ride with my husband. He’s a dark, miserable bastard too, but we understand each other. We got hot fudge sundaes and took them to a graveyard, parked in the shade and listened to Kris Kristofferson while my man gave me a tour of the graves where some of his kin and friends of the family were buried, complete with sordid details. It was a good day. And old Kris brought me back to a place I had almost forgotten.

Graveyard

At the tender age of seven, when things were bad but before they got a lot worse, my parents sent me to a summer camp called the J Bar J Ranch. It was right out on the highway outside of Houston, Texas. I learned how to ride horses, find my way to the haunted shack in the woods, and never to put my hand into a cluster of pears on a pear tree because hornets live there. In the mess hall, there was a juke box. And two songs on that juke box got into my heart and stayed with me to this day.

“Why Me Lord” by Kris Kristofferson. Feel free to replace the whole Lord Jesus thing with whatever you turn to when your world gets bleak, and you’ll get this baby in context. It’s the sort of song you put on repeat, sit with your head in your hands and sob like a drunk in a gutter on your last sorry dime.

 
“Nights in White Satin” by The Moody Blues. This song blew my mind like a portal to the Otherworld. I don’t know what it is about it, but when I hear it, my heart opens and everything changes. Or, I sob like a drunk in a gutter on my last sorry dime–but at least the moon and the stars are out.

 
Aside from writing, music is my therapy. I have a collection of playlists containing all manner of rough, dreary, pissed off, head banging music I listen to when I need to vent and go through the darkness to find the light again. And, because consciousness loves contrast, as my old therapist used to say, I also have playlists where the light shines, and I’ll close here with one of these, some background music for my calling–that is, when it’s not looking like the biggest cosmic scam ever.

 
It’s good to hit the bottom sometimes.

© F.T. McKinstry 2017. All Rights Reserved.