‘Let me bring you songs from the wood/To make you feel much better than you could know
Dust you down from tip to toe/Show you how the garden grows
Hold you steady as you go
…………………Let me bring you love from the field/poppies red and roses filled with summer rain
To heal the wound and still the pain/that threatens again and again…………………Songs from the Wood/Make you feel much, much better’……..

Jethro Tull struck the right chord in 1977 with their album ‘Songs from the Wood’ – as so often with Ian Anderson lyrics, he knew how to hit the nail right on the head. We all went down to the woods from the Totem Pole today (9.11.10) and everyone was in disguise, not for a picnic but for an introduction to Forest School principles (http://www.forestschools.com/). We didn’t go alone either, our guide and instructor Mark Whelan divided the day into two clearly defined sessions; the morning spent indoors, the afternoon spent in the great outdoors engaged with forest skills and activities.

The morning began with a presentation of photographs illustrating children at play – in groups and as individuals where imagination and invention was a key and natural ingredient. Risk and danger was an integral element of play in past times but the over riding message was the sense of enjoyment and fun of being outside. The expressions of joy on the faces of individuals frozen in time was unmistakable. Comparisons were made with our own childhood as we were asked to list our personal memories of play; climbing trees, hide and seek, ball games, swimming in rivers, exploring and playing in the street being common to all. Generations of youngsters have enjoyed similar experiences and what was learned through play was character building and life enhancing – through developing friendships, teamwork, respect for safety through practical involvement – all a natural part of growing up.

The first activity Mark introduced after asking us to collect five sticks was to bind them together with a piece of string by means of a clove hitch. Simple maybe, but very awkward when trying to work with two arthritic thumbs. We completed the task and then manipulated it into a five point star – Mark quickly found out he was in for a very tough day!

The afternoon was spent in a woodland environment. Mark suggested that we divide ourselves into three groups; for shelter building, clearing and preparing an area for a fire and collecting kindling and wood for it. Safe boundaries were then identified to N, S, E and W of the Base Camp and playing out a Hide & Seek game not only brought out the inner child in us, it reiterated and reminded the group of ‘go’ and ‘no go’ areas. In my mind I recalled a short essay by Laurie Lee, ‘Eight Year Old World’ which was included in his book ‘I Can’t Stay Long’. Imaginations can run riot in places like this. We weren’t exactly singing in the rain, but calling out responses to ‘1-2-3 Where are You?’ in our individual and unique dulcet tones was pretty darn close.

The longer we spent outdoors, the more Ray Mears-like Mark became. Despite the wind and downpour, he demonstrated fire lighting efficiently and successfully – even rubbing two boy scouts together wouldn’t have created a spark in those conditions. Employing the outdoor environment as a classroom is second nature for Mark, his passion and interest for his subject was certainly infectious and illustrated how important it is to keep a contact with our natural world. There is a danger that the city based and increasingly indoor lifestyle of young people could lose touch with it completely. Todays activities were of particular interest to me, as a landscape painter my work embraces the sensations associated with being en plein air. However it doesn’t stop there, I believe that walking the landscape has helped heal me and because of this, many compositions contain symbols and subliminal messages. There’s a lot of me in there. Much more than merely ‘the view’.

Nature is available for exploration seven days a week, free of charge and age is no barrier to enjoyment – the only requirement is to be dressed appropriately for the conditions. To hear the wind whistling and singing in the tree canopy we all experienced Songs from the Wood that afternoon, whether they were related to Jethro Tull or not. Spending a few hours with nature for company was refreshment for the soul, and reminded us that there’s a treasure trove outdoors waiting to be explored, far preferable than another afternoon spent indoors with central heating in a stuffy room. As far as we were concerned, despite the rain, walking in the fresh air on a carpet of autumn leaves and spending a few hours with nature for company was, in the words of Tom Hanks in ‘Sleepless in Seattle’…………………like magic!