The girl, around eight years old, paused before entering. Although it was getting dark, her parents had allowed her to approach the forest along the path that came from her grandmother’s house, entering by the side with the oldest trees. It was like a wall of trees that reminded her of Fangorn Forest from the film that, after much pestering, her father reluctantly let her watch, believing it wasn’t suitable for children. After seeing it, Ana, which was the girl’s name, claimed it wasn’t that bad. However, the truth was that for weeks she had been waking up frightened, dreaming about some of the scenes. Naturally, she didn’t tell anyone, not wanting to be treated like a little girl.
The forest was surrounded by a long wooden fence protecting it from livestock, and in front of it was a small gate with a sign that read in large letters:
“No entry for humans, dogs, or cats.” And just below, another sign stated in smaller letters:
“If anyone has the patience, please teach the cat to read. He keeps sneaking in ;-)”.
Ana smiled, picturing someone attempting to teach a cat to read.
She opened the small gate and stepped over the threshold, pausing to take another look at the trees. She couldn’t find what she was searching for, so she pulled out the sheet of paper she had in her jeans pocket, looking at it still folded. Her grandmother had given it to her after tea, and as soon as she read it, she ran to tell her parents that she needed to visit the old forest.
“Don’t even think about it,” her mother replied without a second thought.
“Humans aren’t allowed in. It’s protected,” her father said, looking out at the forest from the lounge window.
“Look, Dad,” Ana responded, handing him the paper her grandmother had given her. He read it and replied, “Alright. You can go,” passing the paper to her mother who read it and remained silent.
Now, as she gazed at the folded paper, it seemed to her like a magical pass. She unfolded it and read it again. This is what it said:
FINDING YOUR POWER
- Before the hill in the west obscures the sun, you must go to Old Forest.
- After crossing the small gate, make sure to ask permission to enter from the Great Mother Oak. The true owner of the forest. (If you can’t see her, use The Force to search for her with your mind. It will come in handy later on.)
- Follow the path and every twenty steps do the following:
- Stop and close your eyes, listening to the sounds for more than thirty seconds.
- Open your eyes and in complete silence, see if you can spot any living being that isn’t plant-based.
- Touch the plants nearby. Do not harm or frighten them.
- Use the Force to find grandfather. Being from your family, it shouldn’t be difficult. But you must trust.
- When you find him, tell him the tea is ready.
Signed: Tom Bombadil
“All this just to tell grandad the tea’s ready. How odd,” thought Ana, already aware of who Tom Bombadil was and that he hadn’t really signed that. She observed the oaks for a while longer but saw nothing to indicate which was the Great Mother. She read the text again and decided to use what her grandfather called “The Force”. It had never worked for her, until a few weeks back when she was at a packed beach and couldn’t find her way back to where her parents were. She looked for them for a good while without luck, and nearly in distress, she closed her eyes and focused on them. Imagining their faces, their laughter, chatting, playing, and suddenly she felt as if her body was subtly being pulled in one direction. She began to walk in that direction and after a few minutes, she saw her parents in the distance, who hadn’t even realised she had gone astray. So now, she also closed her eyes and envisioned an Oak that was the mother of all the others. Just like at the beach, she felt something subtly tugging her. She opened her eyes and walked in that direction, following a small path she hadn’t noticed before. A bit further on, coming to a crossroads, she focused again, but this time with her eyes open. It worked again, and she took the path to the left and then she saw it.
It was enormous. Its branches seemed to want to embrace the entire forest. She approached, touched the trunk, and repeated the words her grandmother used when entering any forest.
“I ask for permission to enter your home, to walk and be, respecting all of your family.” And of her own addition she said, “And I promise not to scare any plants.” She knew that was easy because plants only get scared if you break, cut, or there’s fire, and she didn’t intend to do any of that.
Her grandad had also told her that it was a bad idea to approach with a chainsaw, especially oaks, since they have a good memory. He’d related that one day a poacher had come in to cut wood and the moment he turned on the chainsaw, the forest seemed to move. The man, bewildered, dropped the chainsaw to the ground and looked around. Suddenly, he saw an oak that seemed to be coming towards him. Startled, he stepped back, tripped, and fell onto the machine. Ana, knowing how dangerous chainsaws were, was frozen in place. Since her grandad said no more, curiosity got the better of her and she asked what had happened to the poacher. Her grandad paused before saying:
“The scream was horrendous. I could hear it from home even though I was blasting ‘Rollover Beethoven’ by the ELO. I turned off the music and stepped out into the garden just in time to hear the chainsaw gradually stopping, as if it couldn’t continue cutting. Sounded like it was grinding something…”
Ana turned pale. Her grandad looked at her and continued the story.
“I ran into the woods to see what had transpired. Close to the Great Mother, I found the man on the ground…”, Ana’s heart raced. “… He was shaking. He looked at me and said,
‘A tree took the chainsaw before I fell on it and threw it into the stream. It then took my hat and vanished.’
‘So it was one of the younger ones,’ I replied. ‘They have a sense of humour. Had it been the Great Mother, by now your bits would be fertilising the forest.’ He got up, looking around fearfully. ‘If you want to get out of the forest, you’d best head through the younger section,’ I told him. ‘It’s safer for you.’ And off he ran.”
Ana knew her grandad’s tales always had a mix of fact and fiction, and sometimes it was hard to tell them apart, but they were meant to impart some wisdom. Unsure of the lesson, she asked, “What happened next?”
“Well, now I have a chainsaw to cut firewood,” he said, winking at her and touching his hat. “But I never take it into the forest. You never know what mood the Great Mother might be in,” he said with a serious look.
Now there, by herself, Ana turned and observed Old Forest and just in case added, “I don’t have a chainsaw!”
The part with the older trees was very beautiful but quite dense with ferns, shrubs, holly, and brambles, so she didn’t know where to start looking for her grandad. After a while, she realised there was a small path that led into the area with the younger trees, which were almost as tall as the Great Mother but much slimmer. At that moment, she remembered the second part of the instructions, so she took twenty steps, closed her eyes, and listened.
At first, there didn’t seem to be much difference between having her eyes open or closed, but suddenly a breeze came, and the forest sounded almost like the waves of the sea at the beach. Ana smiled and opened her eyes. She looked around and touched a fern beside her. It was cool, soft, and felt as if it liked being stroked, much like a tiny kitten. Ana pulled her hand back, half expecting the fern to arch its leaf wanting more, but nothing happened except a butterfly emerged from the fern, fluttered by her side and headed towards the Great Mother. “Non-plant life,” Ana thought.
She took another twenty steps, and to her right in the distance, she could see the circle of birches. Their white bark made them stand out amongst the other trees. She closed her eyes and listened. Every so often, she could hear thudding sounds throughout the forest, but what struck her most was when, with a breeze, the birches began to sing softly. They almost sounded like people, and it was a beautiful tune inviting her to dance. So, with her eyes closed, she danced to the rhythm of the song that seemed to be made by a distant choir. She knew it was the leaves moving, but she didn’t understand how they could make a sound with a rhythm that sounded like voices. The breeze stopped, and the song ceased, so she opened her eyes. Her dancing had brought her closer to one of the middle-aged oaks, so she hugged it as she had seen her grandmother do many times. Like all oaks, this one took a while to notice her presence, but when it did, Ana felt it greet her. “I feel you,” the oak communicated to her mind. “I feel you too,” Ana responded out loud, knowing that trees don’t perceive sounds like humans do, but she felt like saying it. She was happy.
She returned to the small path and used The Force to locate her grandad. He was to the right, towards the birches. Among the ferns, there seemed to be a pathway in that direction, so she took it. After twenty steps, she stopped and closed her eyes. For a moment, she could feel the sun on her skin with the mild warmth of dusk. She took a deep breath and realised she could smell the ferns and the wildflowers from the meadow in the birch circle beckoning her with their wild chorus. Ana opened her eyes, and right beside her saw a small holly bush. She stroked its leaves, and the tips scraped her skin without hurting. She observed it for a while and decided that one day she’d find out why holly trees are so fond of oaks.
She took another twenty steps and stopped beneath a young oak. Before her was the circular meadow surrounded by white birches. She closed her eyes and listened. The birch choir was silent, and she could hear bees in the meadow. In the distance, she again heard something thudding against the ground. She was about to open her eyes when she heard something hitting the oak’s leaves above her, and then something thudded against her shoulder. The shock made her let out a small scream, and she instantly opened her eyes looking for the culprit. On the ground was an acorn, and as she looked, another fell nearby making the same noise. She looked up and yelled at the oak, “Why did you startle me? I haven’t brought a chainsaw!” At that moment, a breeze returned, the birches sang, and amidst the choir, she could hear a faint giggle. Ana could accept the birches singing, but them laughing was a bit too strange. So, she searched for the source of the laughter but saw nothing apart from a bumblebee speeding towards the meadow.
She approached the circular meadow, slightly miffed with the forest that had laughed at her, but her irritation faded as she drew nearer. The grass reached her waist, filled with flowers of various hues, and teeming with bees, bumblebees, and butterflies. The Force told her that her grandfather was on the other side, so she ventured in, her hands outstretched, touching the tips of the spikes and flowers. Just when she thought the moment couldn’t be more perfect, a breeze rose, and she could hear the choir of birch trees surrounding her. She couldn’t resist and began twirling to the rhythm of the music, dancing through the meadow. As the rhythm slowed, she ran and leapt, hands spread wide, startling the occasional bee that buzzed angrily around her, suggesting she was being rather rude. “Sorry!” she shouted as she continued to jump and run, trying to cover the entire meadow. With the breeze, the birch trees sang, occasionally murmuring softly, “Anaaa”, “Anaaa”.
Ana stopped. She knew someone was calling her, but it didn’t sound like her grandfather, nor did it seem to come from the white-barked trees. Standing near one of the birches on the meadow’s edge, she heard rustling behind it. Peering past the fringe of birches, she spotted what looked like a bush, but with an eye atop it, watching her. “Ana,” it whispered as it began to rise, appearing to be a being of branches and ferns with a single eye on its head. Ana’s heart raced, fearing it was an ojáncano – creatures from which nothing good could be expected. But just as she was about to scream in terror, she noticed the eye wore Harry Potter-style glasses, and as a fern leaf shifted, she saw a second eye. “Grandad!” she exclaimed.
“Sssssh,” her grandfather replied. “Come here and don’t make so much noise.”
Drawing closer, she realised he was atop a half-metre high platform draped with an old green sheet laden with twigs and ferns, using it as a cloak. “I thought you were an ojáncano and I got scared,” she admitted.
“What’s ‘Little House on the Prairie’?”
“You’d better ask your grandmother. She watched the whole thing.”
Noticing his old camera on a tripod beneath the cloak, which also served as the central pillar for a sort of camouflaged tent, Ana decided to change the subject. “Who were you trying to snap with the camera?”
“I’ve seen a fox family around this time several times. I hoped to photograph them; I think it’s a mother with two young ones,” he replied. “But I reckon with all our noise, they’re hiding, waiting for us to leave.”
Recalling the paper in her pocket, Ana remarked, “Tom Bombadil says it’s tea time.” Her grandad smiled, kissing her forehead.
“You’ve done brilliantly, Ana. You found me. Can you sense where your grandmother is?”
Closing her eyes, she felt a gentle pull and pointed towards the right side of the meadow. “She’s over there with mum, dad, and Andrés.”
Proudly, her grandfather said, “I’m chuffed with you. But we’re not done. The next lesson will be spotting things out of place.”
On the meadow’s opposite side, a mother fox watched Ana bark at a bush, which then barked back. Suddenly, it shed its leaves, revealing the old man that occasionally observed them. They then retrieved some glowing sticks and walked towards the Great Mother. She watched them until they disappeared from view, then told her pups they could play in the meadow.
“Grandad, why Tom Bombadil?” asked Ana as they neared the small gate.
“He’s my alter ego,” he replied.
Just as Ana was about to ask what that meant, they crossed the gate, and she saw the signs, sparking a different question.
“Do you think a cat can learn to read?”
“Not written words,” he responded with a smile. “But symbols, quite likely. Cats can be clever. Ever heard about Sheila?”
Dedicated to a girl not yet born.
From the future, Ana sends this message to the readers of her story:
My name is Ana and I have inherited the care of the Old Forest. The Great Mother has told me that she is tired and her branches weigh heavily on her, and that I should use her last acorns to make oak bombs that give baby oaks a better chance to grow. So I’ve already started, but since you’re in the past, if you make some bombs and the little oak survives, I’ll already know it as a young teenager. So, here’s the recipe for how to make oak bombs:
In October, go to the nearest oak tree and collect its acorns. But not all of them are suitable. When you pick them up, give them a little squeeze with your fingers, and if you feel it gives way, better leave it. The acorn should feel solid to the touch. Next, at home, make the bomb. You will need 5 parts compost and 2 or 3 parts clay. Gradually mix with water until you have a mouldable paste that doesn’t break. Take a handful and encase an acorn with about a centimetre of bomb paste and shape it into a ball. Repeat the process with the rest of the acorns. If you have any left over, it’s best to return them close to where you picked them up. Let the oak bombs dry in the sun. When they are dry, store them in the refrigerator until late autumn or winter. Then you can throw them in places where you want oaks to grow. The ball protects the acorn from animals and insects, and when spring approaches and the baby awakens, it breaks the ball, which in turn serves as a nutrient for the beginning of its life. Most oaks die in the acorn stage, so this way you give the little one a very good chance of survival. Lastly, it’s important to throw the oak bombs close to their mother and never in places that are used for sowing or in eucalyptus or pine plantations. Because when they harvest the timber, they will kill the young oaks. Also, don’t throw it too far from where it was born. Thank you very much! Future generations of children and oaks are grateful.
And let’s see if when you hug a tree you manage to get it to talk to you. Just so you know, it’s not easy.
A slow hug,
PS: If an acorn falls in a forest but there is no one or nothing to hear it, does it make a sound? I discussed this question with my grandfather for days. So much so that my grandmother banned us from talking about it during meals. It turned out to be a Zen meditation where the important thing is to think about the question and not to find an answer, so we’ve done it right. But I say it does make a sound and my grandfather says it doesn’t…
I’d like to thank Loreto Alonso-Alegre for the initial readings, and Dolores Póliz and Alberto Ahumada for their editing and review of the text.
In this section you can add comments about this story or invite me to a coffee.
Will you buy me a coffee?
Your opinions are very important to me and they help me to keep writing.