Autumn is the best time to play hide-and-seek: it smudges the edges of the world. The space between the parenthesis of dawn and dusk is barely daylight, more a leaf-strewn, muddy puddle, a tree-bare, bonfire-smoke-poem. The distinction between object and background is confused. A boon to the hider,  but a nightmare for the seeker. 

We are in Ickworth, Suffolk playing  amongst the box hedgerows, standing statue-still behind the massive ancient oaks, yews and conifers, jumping out from hiding places amongst stands of sharp-edged butcher’s broom.

Hide-and-seek with an over-excited  three year old, a sleeping toddler suffering with conjunctivitis, sore throat and a stomach upset, and three adults- two of which are showing the first signs of sleep deprivation- could at any time of the year play out like a scene from Alice in Wonderland. In the half-light and fog of a November afternoon, visibility reduced to just beyond the hedgerows, with the trees of a Victorian-designed landscape park like an Amazonian cloudforest, dripping moisture from an earlier spell of rain, we are  experiencing something between Gorillas In The Mist and The Shining.

I am with people who have become as close as family to me- my godson and daughter and their parents. I am here as friend but also as the children’s Non-God Godfather. More properly I am Great Bear and Silent Heron Spirit Guide, a leave-over from an entanglement with druidry I never quite shook off.  In the Great Legend of Myself I intend them to reach adulthood, as I do my nieces and nephew, full of the joys and wonder of the natural world and free from the damaging influence of organised religion and the shadow of “sin”. Although when my ego is reigned in- easily done since “The Great Legend” is more a self-deprecating illusion than  a  psychological fortress repelling all comers- I am just aiming to be here for them. 

This beautiful family are suffering right now through an unlooked for and untimely darkness falling over them, a close family member diagnosed with cancer. In this case it is not to end well, and sooner rather than later. There is an unspoken wish that at least Christmas might still be a time where the family remains together for one last time. Their bravery and dignity in the face of this heartbreak is inspiring and I am glad if anything I can do helps them with their struggle. 

How do you travel through a landscape where a loved one is slowly dying, when you have no way of knowing when they might leave? Is today the last day, or do I have a week? Or maybe a few weeks? Death is inevitable, its timescale is not. To the uninitiated, it can be an event- Mr Rogers at down the road died last week- but to the travellers on the twilight road it’s a process of little losses and there can be no right pathway to travel. You cannot predict when you will be strong and clear, holding everything together for your kids, for your own sanity and when you will absolutely go to pieces at what to some might seem the very smallest of things. Even when your loved one breathes their last, that’s not the end of loss; it’s a permanent change, an adjustment to having loss live with you and become part of you. It may be easier to accept when a person has lived a full life and they succumb through old age, but there is nothing harder to accept than the death of someone before their time.  My own family are no strangers with our own tale of bereavement, my cousin having decided the Road and its Burden was not for him, and that the Last Homely House was a much better place to stay. I don’t think I really grasp that he has gone.

 No-one should feel bad or guilty about their experiences in this valley of shadow, it’s a road of learning, a rite of passage that can bring wisdom and depth to your soul even as it brings grief and learning. While the pathway may be well trodden this is the first time you find yourself on it- how can you know how it will be? Like a traveller to another continent with alien customs, you may have seen the brochures and spoken to people who have been, but experience is the true gift of the real to the individual- its never exactly the same again.

 Working the weave of sorrow and endings into the warp and weft of life,  excepting that it can be short and cruel and without sympathy isn’t to be taken lightly. Being able to absorb this truth and not live the rest of your life under the shadow is not a given; it takes time, patience and above all love and support from those around you. Perhaps that any of us can feel joy and wonder again once the Shadow comes to stay is one of the true miracles of life. But people do.

 We take it in turns to push the buggy and count, the others fleeing along the muddy path to find hiding places where they can disappear- not be invisible, but take advantage of the softening of all edges to blend their lines and corners into bark and hedge, earth and fog. Our young competitor, Little Bear (“no, I’m a Big Bear!”), not content with ducking behind a bush or tree, feels it necessary to set off in the footsteps of other Great Explorers into the undergrowth, disappearing in the mist much to the amusement of Mum and Dad. But he is soon back when we call, his young mind still not fully sure of the point of the game. Still, one can only guess at his motivations that drive this experience for him and the smile on his face and calls to hide again tell us it’s a just the best time in the world.

 Its impossible to imagine life without magical places like these. Ickworth is no wilderness, it bears the hallmarks of anthropogenic planning and management. But from the smallest urban park right up to true wilderness areas of our planet (are there any left I wonder, and do they stop being wilderness once we start to interact with them?), landscape could be the stage on which our life plays are performed. But as every good actor knows the stage and objects on it, and even the space between them, are as important to the story as actions and words- they are elements intrinsic to the shape of our reality. Landscape isn’t a backdrop to our life, as a species we have emerged from the landscape and as people we continue to do so. Animal minds behave like filters, constructing individual reality through interaction with the world around them, selecting out relevant lessons depending on their genes, life history and social situation, and a dose of good old fashioned blind chance. So the landscape we find ourselves in is not just made of a hill, a hedge and pond, but takes on a new interpretation through our interaction with it.

 “What we call a mountain is thus in fact a collaboration of the physical forms of the world with the imagination of humans. And the way people behave towards mountains has little or nothing to do with the objects of rock and ice themselves…….the mountains one gazes at, reads about, dreams of and desires are not the mountains one climbs”

 Robert Macfarlane, Mountains of The Mind1

 This dark afternoon, this moment when the mundane has given way to the monumental and our thoughts are turning towards the polarities of life, is softly interwoven into Ickworth’s grand landscape and for me at least, and perhaps my friends too, it will be difficult not to come back to those themes amongst the reverential oaks and yews. But what I haven’t yet decided is how much I bought with me and how much was inspired by the landscape. How would I have felt that afternoon if Little Bear had been hiding behind waste bins and in shop doorways in the high street? Somewhere between these two scenes there lies the unaccountable value of trees and the spaces between trees (which are the best places to hide), and of the natural world, in human life.

1Macfarlane, Robert (2003) Mountains of The Mind: A History of Fascination. Granta London. ISBN 1-86207-654-5

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