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The Enchantment of Woods

THE tellers of folk tales and children's stories know about woods: A wood is somewhere you get lost and then have a surprising encounter. You might meet a frog, stumble on a badger's house, come face to face with a witch who is really a pumpkin, or run into huge spiders or any number of dwarfs. Such a mid-wood encounter might even change the course of your life.

Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood, Mole and Ratty (in ``The Wind in the Willows''), not to mention several generations of Hobbits, have all found woods catalytic in one way or another.

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Such fictional woods - which at their most horrific are dark and endless - tend to invest real woods with something of their enchanting atmosphere.

Lately, I have been taking the dog for his morning walk down into the nearest woodland park. In among the haphazard cathedral-naves of endless tree trunks, I have kept hearing, in the back of my mind, the cadence of familiar words: ``Whose woods these are I think I know.... Whose woods these are....''

They are, in fact, the property of Glasgow City Council, though previously of the Stirling Maxwell family, whose 18th- century mansion still stands in its one-time domain. The city today takes care of the estate for public recreation.

Although the woodland here is hardly expansive, and the sound of traffic is audible even in its thickest center, I have several times felt so surrounded by the hundreds of beeches, pines, oaks, and birches that I have wondered if I could find the way out.

Hardly dramatic, but a strange stir nevertheless, it is as if I might be a character in some primitive narrative.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,

But I have promises to keep....

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Robert Frost's lines tap at the memory like a woodpecker, and immediately I visualize his almost noiseless, snowy winter wood. His apparently simple words are potent beyond themselves, infiltrated by all woods, instilled with all wood-feelings.

What's underfoot seems to me to be the essential thing about a wood, although its muffling quiet contributes to its character. And some woods certainly have a sense of profound time about them: Walking through these places is walking through history.

In Britain, there are woods with coppicing records going back to the 13th century. Take Felsamhall Wood in Suffolk, for example. I plan to visit these ancient woods someday. Apparently, they are peculiarly rich in flowering plant life.

And if there is one thing in a wood that turns it into factual enchantment, it is the emergence of its flowers when spring returns. Autumn has stifled them in leaf-fall so close and deep that all potential growing seems interred forever. Then winter chemistry turns this blanket dank and fermenting.

YET in the force and haste of spring - and it is in the Vermont woods above all that this seems most poignant - the white violets, blue hepatica, the trilliums, bloodroot, fiddlehead ferns, the ghostly Indian pipes, and finally the orchids, shove and elbow their way up into the newly-warm air.

In European woods, the flora is very different: We have primroses, snowdrops, wild narcissi, wild blue hyacinths (``bluebells'') - but the vital millefleur tapestry underfoot, breaking through leaf-death, is, in principle, the same.

It is one of nature's most repetitively startling encounters, this year-in, year-out in the soft green shade of the wood.

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