blog: afraid of the forest

Jun 5, 2021

By: Dafne Holtland

When I was little, we spent every holiday in nature. My brothers and I hardly brought any toys and had no tv, internet, phone or laptop. According to my mother we were never bored. In Sweden, where we went wild camping in Summer, my brothers and I made little dams of stone and boats of hay, until the ice cold water had made our feet cramp. We went fishing in the lake next to our tent and built lookout huts to spot wild animals. 

I waited every night for it to come off the wall

In wintertime we always went to the hiker’s cabin of a forester named Jozef, somewhere in the middle of the Czech Republic. During daytime we would endlessly follow tracks in the snow made by deer, lynxes and wild boars, and we built an igloo where we had picnics inside. After a long day outside in the cold, the five of us sat around the fireplace in the hut. We played games or sang songs, and afterwards we got a ‘sleeping drink’: hot milk with anise, of which my mother said it was impossible to stay awake after drinking it. It worked on my brothers, but not on me. Above the squeaking bed in the attic, where I slept all by myself, hung the stuffed head of a huge wild boar. Forester Jozef had told us, filled with pride, that he’d shot the animal himself. In the dark I could see the shimmering moonlight reflected in the glass eyes Jozef had put inside the empty sockets. Sometimes it seemed as if the animal looked down upon me, as if I were an intruder. Ofcourse I knew the animal wasn’t alive anymore, but still I waited every night for it to come off the wall. With the blanket pulled high up to my chin, I listened to the sound of the howling wolves coming out of the forest, and looked forward to the next morning where we’d have porridge all together around the fireplace. 

In the soft glow of a lantern I saw a man standing behind me, checking me out from head to toe.

When I was fifteen, my best friend threw a party. She only lived ten minutes away from my house, but I had to bike along a dark piece of forest to get there. My parents always told me to never bike alone in the dark. Now and then there were girls that got assaulted in our city. Not so long ago there was a girl that got dragged off her bicycle and taken into the forest. Anyway, my friend always biked to me in the dark all by herself, so this little ride should be fine. Besides, I was almost grown up. Halfway, the railway barriers closed and I had to wait for the rattling train to go by. In the soft glow of a lantern I saw a man standing behind me, checking me out from head to toe. My heart started to drum faster and my throat got so dry I couldn’t swallow anymore. After what seemed to be an eternity, the barriers opened up and I rushed away. This was where the path besides the forest started. I cycled so fast I could’ve beaten Tadej Pogačar on Mount Ventoux. At the end of the path I turned right, left and left again. There he was all of a sudden, in front of me, out of the blue. He must had taken another route. Just when I thought I was going to be raped, the man hopped off his bike and parked in front of a house with fishing gnomes in the front yard. A sweet lady friendly waved to him from behind the window and he smiled back at her.

Three years ago I bought a little cabin in Veluwe National Park (with some savings and mostly a loan from my dad), at the corner of a small holiday resort. The resort is surrounded by endless forests and heather and I longed to vary my city life with being in refreshing nature. I bought the chalet from Bertus and Meinarda, a couple that due to their age wasn’t able to maintain it anymore. Bertus (shy eyes, hunched shoulders and a big grey moustache) couldn’t wait to devote his last years on earth entirely to his model trains. Meinarda (big floral dress, rich bosom and curlers hair) admitted several times that she found the sale quite difficult. The chalet was filled with so many beautiful memories and she’d really made it into her piece of art. (The interior was decorated with purple ‘I love London’ wallpaper and every corner of the house carried plastic flower garlands. She left all the household effects to me, she happily told me.) 

I had to turn 32 to dare to be alone in a forest

The environment over there is really amazing. The forest, fresh air and bird sounds are like a shower that wash away all my stress as soon as I arrive. Last week Frank and I were there and I already want to go back again. The last day of our stay, a real summer day, we were jogging together in the forest until all of a sudden I was out of breath. I told him to move forward until I realized, gasping with hands on knees, that I was all by myself now. Alone. In a forest. Suddenly every tree hid a potential rapist. Characters from all the Scandinavian crime series I’d binged emerged between the ferns. Although my longs had failed I wanted to run after Frank but I stopped myself from doing it. I stepped off the trail, onto the springy moss between the high trees. I closed my eyes and breathed in and out deeply. I heard the blood whizzing in my ears, a woodpecker, a mavis. The longer I stood there, the more soothing sounds I heard. I stood there until I wasn’t afraid anymore. I laughed. Apparently I had to turn 32 to dare to be alone in a forest. The whole way back I walked at a gentle pace. I thought about how much space the fear had taken up inside me. How I automatically never walk in the woods or a park by myself when it’s dark, it was just never an option in my head. All my life I avoid certain routes when it’s dark. It was so self-evident, I didn’t even realize it. To be alone in the forest appeared to be a revelation, ecstatic, and I wasn’t even looking for it. I already look forward to everything I wasn’t looking for.                     

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