Thursday, October 5, 2017

To Lay Down in the Middle of the Forest When You’ve Lost Your Way

Earlier today a dear friend asked me about poems that have to do with the forest. And I remembered one I wrote a little over a year ago, part of my A Green Language poetry project (no longer up, but hopefully a printed book before too long!). 

It came to me almost entire in a single sitting one July morning last year, as if spoken by a kind and gentle old woman in a time when I very much needed such kind and gentle words. 

It seems we need words of gentleness now more than ever, so I share this with you here in the spirit of hope, and of another way which is not fighting, which is not part of the binary of good or evil, us or them, but something other, and older. 

To Lay Down in the Middle of the Forest When You’ve Lost Your Way

Never forget that it is all
the pilgrim’s path, that you are walking
a long, long way, that whatever
end you think you are seeking has
already changed its name, and is
not the end that’s seeking you.

On good days it will seem a romantic,
bright thing, this adventure, your boots
thick with mountain dust, a cane cut
from hazel in your hand, a rucksack full
of apples and oatcakes given to you by
someone who loves you on your back,
and on those good days you will think
the easy path goes on forever through
the open, that spring hills will always
be green and the kestrels always hovering
on amber wings.

Of course you know better:
that it’s only a spring stroll if you never
reach the forest, and no adventure at all.
It’s only a spring jaunt for wildflowers if you
don’t fall down on your knees and weep.
And nowhere is it spring forever.
You will find the pinewood inevitable.
The path will dissolve into a hundred paths,
each made by deer. There will be no waymarkers
and no stars. Your rucksack will feel empty,
and you will lose your hazel cane and
all the songs you ever learned
in the face of what scares you, in the face
of what is ugly in your own heart, in the face
of what is tearing the world to pieces.

Many will tell you to forge onward, to show courage,
to fight back, to look for signs on the duff, to not
stop moving for fear of cold, to not give in, to seek
the sunrise through the trees, to tell yourself
something stirring, something bright, to run away.
This is all well and good but most often the forest
isn’t done with you yet and fighting it is like netting
wind; all you will achieve is a tattered pair of boots,
an aching heart, a fresh strength of despair
and the sunrise no closer.

That’s just it, says the humus when you’ve
come at last to your knees.
Ah, say the pine needles when you begin to weep.
There, there, rest your head, as you cry out for help,
for guidance, for mercy, that the box opened long ago
might be closed, and as you lay down in the middle
of the pinewood in the depth of your sorrow,
whatever its name, the earth will swallow
you, and it, right up. Do not be afraid.
You are not dead yet.

All you must do is lay down just there
where you’ve lost the path, and
you will be taken into the heart of things
where three women tend an ancient pine tree
and a spring of hot water that bubbles up
from a vent in the earth. They will coo and fawn
over you like a little child, they will strip your
roadworn clothes, they will send you and all the
unwanted guests in your soul into the earth’s
hot water to be made beloved again.

After a long while, as long as it takes
(for they have been singing old lullabies
in a minor key and you may have been asleep)
they will help you out and dry you off
and rub you down and comb your hair
and braid it new and in that combing you will
hear a thousand blessings sung may you be
well may you be safe may your mind be gentle
may your way be bright may your thoughts go
gleaming may you measure your worth and
your days not by hours spent or money made
but by the quality of light in your soul and
how often you have asked yourself
what you might give away.

They will dress you in the dark skirts and aprons
and beads and leather slippers and long
embroidered vests of your ancestors and then
they will press a lantern in your hands and point
your way back up through roots and badger dens
to the surface again, to the forest where you lost your way.
Your rucksack will be full of strange new flatbreads,
a flask of mead, a pouch of tobacco,
a book of poems from very long ago.

You may still wander the forest a good deal
longer, but in a different manner, looking carefully at
the leaves of the many trees, trying to identify
birds by their songs, or where the bobcat walked.
You may gather the golden resin that falls
from the pines to ease your aches, or sit
quietly for long hours listening for the
voices inside the creaking limbs. You will have
stopped your striving, walked a hundred
figure eights without complaint, made a web of
your own footsteps, for once undesperate and slow.

And then all at once without warning you will
find the edge of it, a meadow beyond, and the
sun coming up. There it will be again, your path,
shining through the grass, gilt with dew, easy
as morning, unruined, unhurried, but just in time.

(c) Sylvia V. Linsteadt 2016


  1. so lovely!
    I needed to find my path again after too much heart ache for our nation to bear these last few months. Thanks for leading me out to the had been waiting right where you left it after all. You are such a talent. I always appreciate your voice though i seldom leave a note; Thank You Sylvia-Gleewoman- keeper of the indigo vat!

  2. "...they will send you and all the
    unwanted guests in your soul into the earth’s
    hot water to be made beloved again."

    that is a beautiful, warming is the whole thing.

    we very much need to find the way that is, as you said, older and other.

  3. Thank you for your healing words.